The camera and Brett Kavanaugh

The fight over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was the ugliest confirmation process for an American Supreme Court Justice that I have seen. I’m not American, but I am a lawyer, and I thought it was a sad indictment on how politicized the American legal system has become. A thoughtful, independent judiciary is a cornerstone of any healthy democracy.

If you followed the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, you are undoubtedly aware of the allegations of sexual assault that were brought against Kavanaugh by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and others. In response to those allegations, the FBI was ordered to carry out an investigation that was extremely limited in scope and time. When, predictably, it found no evidence to corroborate the allegations, Kavanaugh was confirmed as the newest Supreme Court Justice by a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate.

I watched the testimony of both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford and in my opinion, the latter was the more credible of the two. Quite simply, I believed her. Having said that, I also acknowledge that, from a legal standpoint, there was not enough evidence before the Senate Judiciary Committee to prove, to the requisite standard, that Kavanaugh was guilty of the crime he was alleged to have committed.

Embed from Getty Images

Nonetheless, I believe that his demeanour during the hearings was sufficient to disqualify him from a seat on the Supreme Court. I found many of his answers to questions from the Senators to be evasive, disrespectful or both. Further, his opening statement was full of vitriol that included outright attacks on certain members of the government. Yes, Kavanaugh was under tremendous pressure, but that is when you see a person’s true character. And when it comes to character, a country has to hold its judges to the highest standards.

Now, although this blog does venture into politics from time to time, that is not its purpose. The focus is on public speaking. So how does the Kavanaugh nomination fit? It has to do with the vote against his nomination by North Dakota Democratic Senator, Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp was one of only three Democratic Senators who voted to confirm Donald Trump’s previous Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. And she was initially inclined to vote the same way on Kavanaugh. Even when Blasey Ford brought forth her allegations, Heitkamp was concerned but still inclined to give Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt.

Nevertheless, she watched the special hearing during which both Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford testified. After the hearing ended, Heitkamp changed her mind and decided to vote against Kavanaugh. Here is an excerpt from a CNN article that provides part of the rationale for Heitcamp’s decision:

Senator Heidi Heitkamp

She watched Ford’s testimony. And then she watched Kavanaugh’s. And then she watched Kavanaugh’s again, but this time, with the sound off.

“It’s something I do,” she said, “We communicate not only with words, but with our body language and demeanor.”

“I saw somebody who was very angry, who was very nervous, and I saw rage that a lot of people said, ‘Well of course you’re going to see rage; he’s being falsely accused,’ but it is at all times you’re to acquit yourself with a demeanor that’s becoming of the court,” Heitkamp said.

I found it interesting that after watching and listening to Kavanaugh’s testimony, Heitkamp watched it again but without the sound. 

When you watch a video without sound, you have no choice but to focus on the visual. If you watch the video of a speech or presentation without the sound, you have to focus on things like the speaker’s facial expressions, gestures and movements.

Clients often ask me whether they should practice their speeches in front of a mirror. I tell them no, because you end up trying to watch yourself when you should be focused on your message and the audience, and it feels unnatural. It’s much better to film yourself and then watch the video.

If you want to get the maximum benefit from video, you should use it three ways:

1. Play the video but don’t watch it. Just listen. You will have to focus on your voice and things such as pace, rhythm, pauses, clarity, emphasis, intonation and articulation.

2.  Play the video and turn the volume off. Just watch. You will have to focus on your body language. Where are you looking? How are you standing and moving? What are you doing with your hands?

3.  Watch the video with sound to get the complete picture.

It’s not easy to watch yourself on video—I still cringe whenever I watch myself—but it is a great way to get unvarnished feedback.

Clearly, when deciding whether to appoint someone to the Supreme Court, you have to do a lot more than watch a video without the sound. There are a myriad of complex considerations that one has to take into account, including the candidate’s judicial record. But temperament and personality are also considerations and those qualities are transmitted through voice and body language.

In the same way, your audience will form an impression about you and your message based on content and structure, but also by how you hold yourself on stage. Your facial expressions, your gestures and your movements all communicate something to the audience. To see what they saw, have a look at the video.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 294) – Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) American Author, Politician, Scientist, Inventor

“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

— Benjamin Franklin

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Don’t make the same mistake as Donald Trump

You’d be forgiven if, after reading the title of this post, you asked, “Which one?”

Don’t worry, we’re going to leave politics and policies aside, so that narrows it down, at least somewhat.

Instead, I want to discuss a mistake that the President made during his address to the United Nations on 25 September 2018. This might come as a surprise, but many speakers make the same mistake, particularly when they are making a sales pitch.

Only 40 seconds into his speech, Trump said, “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. America’s … [laughter from audience] … so true … [more laughter].”

As the laughter spread throughout the General Assembly Chamber, he paused a moment and then admitted, “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK.”

Readers of my blog and social media platforms know that I am no fan of the President and that I disagree with the majority of his policies and positions. Nevertheless, I have also acknowledged the potent simplicity of his speaking style, particularly when it comes to connecting with his base.

And, as my stand-up comedian friend Mel Kelly noted in a recent conversation I had with him, Trump did respond well to the unexpected reaction by “calling the room”, a technique used by comedians to acknowledge when a joke doesn’t work. So he did win the audience back, at least for a few moments.

But all that aside, Trump made a gaffe when he started his speech by boasting of his accomplishments. Not only did he come across (yet again) as self-centred, many in the room would not consider his accomplishments to be worthy of praise.

So what is the connection with sales pitches? Fortunately, most people are not nearly as self-centred as Trump. However, when they pitch to potential clients, many of them make the same mistake that Trump made at the UN:

They begin by talking about themselves and their companies.

This is putting the cart before the horse. I’m not saying that you or your company or your successes or your ideas aren’t important. They are. But the people in the audience, and the problems with which they are struggling, are more important.

So if you are pitching a product or service to a potential client, start with them. Show them that you understand their problems and then work your way to how you can help. And if you want to talk about your company’s reputation and successes as a way to boost your ethos, you can do so towards the end of the presentation.

In their seminal book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath write:

The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about.

It will come as no surprise that one reliable way of making people care is by invoking self-interest.

So whenever you are pitching a product or service, start with the audience and their problems. Make sure that they understand that you understand them. Then they will care. And when they care, the chances are greater that your sales pitch will be a success and that you’ll leave smiling.

Like Donald Trump.

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5 Books for Public Speakers

PG LogoI am one of the co-founders of Presentation Guru, a digital magazine for public speaking professionalsThis post is part of a series designed to share the great content on Presentation Guru with the Manner of Speaking community.


Today, there are hundreds of books about public speaking and presentation skills. While the best way to become a better speaker is to speak in front of a live audience, we can also learn from the experiences and insights about which others have written.

I have several such books on my shelf. In a post for Presentation Guru, I selected five to share with readers. Each of the five approaches the topic of public speaking from a different angle and thus it is my hope that everyone will find at least one book of interest.

To find out which five books I have recommended, please click this link and head over to Presentation Guru. While you are there, check out some of the great posts that others have written.

Happy reading!

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22 tips for effective video presentations

These days, an increasing number of presentations are delivered, not from a stage, but in front of a computer screen. The audience is live but dispersed across offices and cities or even countries and time zones.

Presentations via videoconference on platforms such as Skype and Zoom are now a normal part of work and will only increase in popularity. They are cheap, relatively simple to set up, and save people time and travel expenses. While they are not bug-free, the quality of videoconferences has improved significantly in recent years.


However, when it comes to presentations, these advantages come at a cost. Because they are not in the same room, presenters face an increased challenge to engage with their audiences. They are usually limited in their movements and the audience can only see the presenter’s face or upper body. Indeed, sometimes, audiences only hear the presenter’s voice while slides are shown on screen.

Furthermore, even if there are 50 people listening to a presentation, there is a good chance that each one of those 50 people will be behind his or her own computer at home or at work or in a coffee shop or on public transportation. Not only do speakers have to compete with the distractions found in these locations, the fact that people are not together in one place means much less energy for the audience.

And so, speakers need to up their game. Seth Godin recently wrote a post in which he offered eight tips for videoconferences. While those tips are directed at people who are having a conversation or meeting, they also apply for presentations, especially where the speaker can be seen.

Seth’s eight tips are immediately below. They are followed by an additional 14 tips from me.

Seth’s Tips

1.  Sit close to the screen. Your face should fill most of it.

2.  Use an external microphone or headset.

3.  When you’re not talking, hit mute.

4.  Don’t eat during the meeting.

5.  When you’re on mute during an audio call, you can do whatever you want. But when you’re on mute on a video call, you need to act like you’re truly engaged. Nod your head. Focus on the screen. Don’t get up and feed your dog.

6.  Don’t sit with the window behind you. A little effort on lighting goes a very long way.

7.  When you’re talking, spend some time looking at the camera, not the screen. You’ll appear more earnest and honest this way.

8.  When you’re talking, go slow. No one is going to steal your slot.

Additional Tips

9.  Send an agenda to the audience members beforehand that contains the following information: (a) date and time (and your time zone if presenting to people around the world) of the presentation; (b) clear instructions how to connect; (c) outline of the topics to be discussed; and (d) any pre-reading material.

10.  Test the platform beforehand, especially if you are going to show slides. For major presentations, consider having a tech person help with the broadcast.

11.  Choose a quiet room, put your cell phone on mute and take whatever steps necessary to ensure that you will not be disturbed.

12. Be aware of what is behind you. Make sure there is nothing distracting in the background.

13.  If feasible, stand up when you present. Place your computer on a bookshelf so that it is eye level. Standing up opens the diaphragm and allows you to breathe more deeply than if you are slouched over your computer. It also helps you feel more energetic which will be transmitted through your voice.

14.  If you stand up and your audience cannot see you, it is OK to move about if that helps with your delivery. Just be mindful of not moving too far from the microphone if you are not wearing a headset.

15.  If you have to sit, sit on the front half of the chair bottom and keep your feet flat on the floor. This will help your breathing and will keep you anchored in front of the screen.

16.  If people will be able to see you, dress appropriately. At least as far down as they will be able to see! Solid colours are best; fine patterns might “flicker” on the screen. Avoid any jewelry that clinks.

17.  Make sure that your hair is neat and that your face is not shiny. Get some camera-friendly makeup — for men and women — if necessary.

18.  Warm up your voice beforehand just as you would for any presentation.

19.  Have a glass of water within reach. It should be still water and room temperature.

20.  Make sure that your gestures don’t extend beyond your audience’s field of vision.

21.  If you use slides, you should be the one who advances them. Ideally, you should use a remote; however, if you use the keyboard, press the key gently to avoid a noisy clicking sound.

22.  Unless you are delivering bad news, smile!

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