During the week, I sat down with Conor for a free-flowing discussion about a whole host of subjects. The result is the 52-minute video below. In it, Conor and I cover a wide range of subjects such as:
Why you should distill your message into a single sentence
Why practice and preparation are essential
Pauses and why you need to get comfortable with them
The difference between a dialogue and a speech
Eliminating habits that reduce your power and convey weakness
Why you should video yourself and three ways to use the video
How to ask for, and get comfortable with, feedback
Learning from negative experiences
Pain and pleasure: the two great motivators
Why the bathroom mirror is a powerful tool
Speaking with, or without notes
Why speakers should think of themselves as sculptors
Going beyond your comfort zone
Being a bigger version of you on stage
A growth mindset for speakers
Accepting that not everyone will like you
There should be something in that list for everyone.
We also touch on swans, icebergs, Beethoven, Game of Thrones and the Toronto Maple Leafs. And if you watch carefully, you will even see me have a memory lapse and forget my train of thought — it happens — but don’t expect me to tell you where in the video. You have to find it!
I encourage you to visit Conor’s YouTube Channel. He has dozens of informative videos on a wide range of topics related to leadership, personal development and public speaking.
There is a lot to learn about public speaking. The fact that I have been writing this blog for 10 years is testament to that. And no matter how much you learn, no matter how good you become, you will never reach perfection because there is always room for improvement.
But there is one thing that you can do that will result in a giant leap forward in your public speaking. If you do this one thing, you will be more engaging and natural on stage. You will have a better connection with your audience and make a bigger impact. And the irony is that you do this one thing all the time.
Stop thinking about yourself
As you go about your day, you only spend a small amount of time thinking about yourself. For example, when you are looking in the mirror and shaving or putting on makeup. (Even then, I am often thinking about something else, which explains the razor nicks on my neck.)
Most of the time, we are focused on the things we are doing or the people with whom we interact during meetings or meals. We’re not thinking about ourselves, we’re thinking about them. And consequently, we are natural; we are ourselves.
Yet when we get on stage, the lens swings 180 degrees in the other direction and we become acutely self-aware. And that’s when things start to be uncomfortable. Let’s take a common, concrete example.
“Where do I put my hands when I am speaking in public?”
I get this question all the time. I understand the question but it always makes me chuckle inwardly.
I’m convinced that there are two times in life when people don’t know what to do with their hands. The first is when they arrive at a cocktail party.
The next time you go to a cocktail party, notice what people who are empty-handed do when they are speaking to another person, especially if they have just met that person. They fidget. They clasp and release their hands, or put them in their pockets or behind their backs, only to move them again a few seconds later. And then the waiter comes with a tray full of drinks and people reach for them like a drowning man reaches for a life buoy.
It’s the same when it comes to public speaking. As soon as people get up on stage, it’s almost as if they’ve discovered their hands for the first time. They don’t know where to put them. They’re like alien appendages that have just sprouted.
But you carry your hands around with you 24 hours a day. You don’t walk down the hall of your office flailing your hands about, wondering what to do with them. Because you are not thinking about them.
When you go on stage to deliver a speech or presentation, you should not be thinking about yourself, your hands, your hair, your clothes, what people are thinking of you. You need to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about the audience. Because it’s not about you. It’s about the audience. I have made this point over and over and over again.
When you focus on your audience and connect with them, you will be so much more natural and everything will go a lot smoother.
Of course, as with most things, it takes practice. But with time and effort, you can shift the focus of your attention from yourself to your audience. When you reach this stage in your progress, look back and marvel at the giant leap forward that you have taken in your public speaking.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) 26th President of the United States
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Your title slide occupies prime real estate in your slide deck. It is the gateway to your presentation. You can either spend time thinking how to use it to maximum advantage or miss an opportunity to grab you audience’s attention from the start.
Titles slides often contain such details as the date of the presentation, the name and location of the event, the logo of the speaker’s company, contact details and more. In fact, it is not unusual to see a title slide like the example below or some variation of it.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong, per se, with having a title slide like this. It conveys important information about what is to come. But it is bland and all too common.
Moreover, this slide is often projected on the screen before the speaker takes the stage. The speaker is then introduced and proceeds to say something along the lines of the following:
Good morning / afternoon. My name is [name on the slide]. I am the [speaker’s title on the slide] at [company whose logo is on the slide]. I am very happy to be at [name of the event on the slide]. Today I am going to talk to you about [title on the slide and perhaps some variation of the subtitle].
In other words, the speaker starts by telling the audience things that they already know because they have already read the title slide. Not a great way to begin. In fact, by beginning this way, many speakers waste one of the most important parts of their presentations, the opening.
Psychologists talk about the learning principles of primacy and recency. People tend to remember the first thing they hear and the last thing. So the openings (and closings) of your presentation are important. You don’t want to waste them.
Below are three ideas for you to consider with regard to title slides. They might seem unconventional – and to the extent that most presenters don’t follow them, they are – but whenever I have seen them used, the results have always been impactful.
IDEA NO. 1 – YOU DON’T ALWAYS NEED A TITLE SLIDE
There is no rule that you need a title slide for every presentation that you make. This is especially so if there is an agenda for the event that clearly states your name and the subject of your talk.
Instead, make your first slide black. The audience won’t even know it’s a slide: they’ll just see a black screen.
When you are introduced, walk on stage and begin speaking while the screen is black. The audience will be 100% focused on you because there is nothing on the screen to distract them. At the appropriate point, transition to your first substantive slide and continue the talk.
When participants in my corporate trainings try this approach, the feedback from their peers is overwhelmingly positive. The audience feels more connected with the speaker and a solid foundation has been laid for the rest of the talk.
Notwithstanding the above, if you distribute copies of your slides after the presentation, I recommend that you do include a title slide so that people have the name of your presentation, your personal details, the date of the presentation, etc. There is no rule that says that the copies you distribute have to be exactly the same as what you showed on the screen.
IDEA NO. 2 – START TALKING AND TRANSITION INTO THE TITLE SLIDE
This idea is a variation on Idea No. 1.
As above, you begin your talk with a black slide. You open, for example, by telling an interesting fact or making a bold statement or telling a story. Of course, whatever you say, it should be related to your talk.
Once you have completed your opening comments and have grabbed your audience’s attention, you click into the title slide and tell them where you are going to take them.
This type of opening reminds me of the opening to a James Bond movie. If you have never seen a Bond movie, they usually open with a riveting scene involving high drama: a high speed car chase; skiing down a mountain; jumping out of a plane; or some other adrenalin-pumping activity. Once the scene is over, things calm down and we find out what the plotline of the film will be.
The good news is that you do not have to be James Bond on stage. (Though if you are, I will buy a ticket.) But you can use the technique of a powerful opening and transition into the title slide to achieve a similar effect.
IDEA NO. 3 – START WITH A SUBSTANTIVE SLIDE AND CLICK INTO THE TITLE SLIDE
This idea is a variation on Idea No. 2. However, instead of a black slide, you begin your talk with a substantive slide on the screen and then transition to the title slide.
I once worked with a young start-up company that had created an incredible device to help people who have been injured regain the use of their legs. CNN had featured their device as part of an exposé examining the incredible technological breakthroughs in this field. I was helping them with their pitch.
They began with the usual, title slide and explained who they were and what they did. They then transitioned to their second slide, which was an amazing full screen image, and they told the amazing story behind it.
During the feedback discussion, I said, “Let’s try something. Let’s start with the image and put the title slide second.” I then reversed the two slides in the PowerPoint. “OK,” I told them, “go right into the story and then click to the title slide and tell me who you are and what you do.”
So they did, and they were almost jumping up and down with excitement over how much better it was. Now, they began with a compelling story that hooked you from the outset. After their story was completed, they clicked into the title slide and said, “We are [Company X] and our passion is to help people like [the person in the story].”
I have had the same experience with other clients. I don’t do much; just swap two slides. But little changes can make a big impact.
So there you have it. Three ideas to consider when it comes to title slides; three ideas that can give the opening of your next presentation a shot in the arm.
Christopher Vogler – American Film Executive, Screenwriter and Author
“As the polarized nature of magnetic fields can be used to generate electrical energy, polarity in a story seems to be an engine that generates tension and movement in the characters and a stirring of emotions in the audience.”
On 3 June 2017, professional rock climber Alex Honnold accomplished something that few people thought could be done. He climbed the 3,000-foot granite wall of Yosemite Park’s famous El Capitan, the vertical wall in the photo above.
Without ropes or any other safety apparatus. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
This achievement has been celebrated as one of the most difficult, one of the most dangerous athletic feats ever. By “free soloing” El Captain in 3 hours and 56 minutes, Honnold has forever placed himself in the Pantheon of rock climbers. What he accomplished was truly epic.
To give you just a taste of what it was like, watch this two-minute trailer of the documentary Free Solo which is about Honnold’s climb.
Catch your breath. I’ll wait.
In April 2018, Honnold spoke at the TED Conference in Vancouver to share his insights about the climb. There are valuable lessons from his exploit for public speakers.
After all, when we are on stage in front of an audience, we are also performing without a safety net. True, there is no risk of us plunging hundreds of metres to our death—although I have seen people fall off the stage and injure themselves—but metaphorically, we are alone in our efforts to scale the wall of our speech and ensure that we reach our goal of having an impact on the audience.
LESSON 1 – PUT YOUR FEAR INTO PERSPECTIVE
Honnold’s free solo climb up El Capitan was the culmination of a ten-year dream. The reason it took him that long to attempt the climb? He was afraid.
[I]n the video I’m over 2,500 feet off the ground. Seems scary? Yeah, it is, which is why I spent so many years dreaming about soloing El Cap and not actually doing it. But on the day that that video was taken, it didn’t feel scary at all. It felt as comfortable and natural as a walk in the park, which is what most folks were doing in Yosemite that day. Today I’d like to talk about how I was able to feel so comfortable and how I overcame my fear.
The idea of standing up in front of an audience and speaking is a scary prospect for many people. And you know what? It’s natural. But you have to put things into perspective and learn to harness the nervous energy and channel it in a way that is constructive.
In a great post on Presentation Guru, Jim Harvey gives some excellentadvice that every nervous speaker should hear. I encourage you to read the post, particularly if speaking in public makes you nervous, but in essence, Jim’s advice is as follows:
Nobody cares if you make a mistake unless you make them care.
Nobody is going to die so keep your perspective.
Get over yourself and focus on the audience.
This might seem like tough love—and it is—but it’s also true.
And think about this advice from the perspective of Alex Honnold as clung to the side of a cliff, hundreds of metres above the ground.
A lot of people would care if he made a mistake.
Death was a real possibility.
He had to get over himself and focus 100% on climbing that wall.
So fear and nerves are normal when it comes to public speaking, but you have to learn to deal with them.
LESSON 2 – TO BECOME A BETTER SPEAKER, STRETCH YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Over the years, Honnold constantly challenged himself to climb in different environments. What began as indoor climbing turned into outdoor climbing where he followed the paths of other climbers. But eventually, Honnold began to yearn for something different.
After nearly a decade of climbing mostly indoors, I made the transition to the outdoors and gradually started free soloing. I built up my comfort over time and slowly took on bigger and more challenging walls. And there have been many free soloists before me, so I had plenty of inspiration to draw from. But by 2008, I’d repeated most of their previous solos in Yosemite and was starting to imagine breaking into new terrain.
Many people speak to the same kind of audience over and over, and thus become comfortable speaking in that situation. It could be the same people, such as work colleagues, but it could also be the size of the audience or location of the talk or the subject matter.
In 2017, I wrote a post calledThe Public Speaking Fear Gridin which I created a simple 2X2 grid based on audience size and how well the speaker knows the audience. It has always fascinated me how some people love to speak in certain “quadrants” on the grid but detest speaking in others.
Some people only want to speak to people whom they know; others prefer speaking to strangers. Some like a small audience where they see everyone up close; others would much rather have a big group of people in front of them so they don’t have to focus on any one person.
The challenge that I set speakers in that post is to seek out speaking opportunities in those “quadrants” that make you uncomfortable. Like Alex Honnold, you need to break into new terrain.
LESSON 3 – PREPARATION IS THE FOUNDATION OF GOOD PUBLIC SPEAKING
It took Honnold years of practice in order to become one of the best climbers in the world. He has spent countless hours climbing, stretching, practising and occasionally falling (with a rope). He even did roped climbs on El Capitan with a friend to collect loose rocks in a backpack so that his free solo ascent path would be clear!
Honnold’s preparation for his ascent of El Capitan did not take a few weeks or months; it took years.
3,000 feet of climbing represents thousands of distinct hand and foot movements, which is a lot to remember. Many of the moves I knew through sheer repetition. I’d climbed El Cap maybe 50 times over the previous decade with a rope. But … my preferred method of rehearsing the moves [was] to rappel down the face with over a thousand feet of rope to spend the day practicing by myself. Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorize them. I had to make sure that they were so deeply ingrained within me that there was no possibility of error. I didn’t want to be up on the wall wondering if I was going the right way or using the best holds.
Fifty times! Honnold climbed that wall 50 times with a rope—and spent many more times starting from the top and practising different sections of the climb—before he made his free solo attempt. That’s preparation!
And there were subtler, more focused degrees of his preparation. For example, for the most difficult part of the climb, known as the Boulder Problem, Honnold had to make karate kick with his left leg to reach the toehold. To make sure that he was flexible enough, he did nightly stretching for a year.
The crux culminated in a karate kick with my left foot over to the inside of an adjacent corner, a manoeuvre that required a high degree of precision and flexibility, enough so that I’d been doing a nightly stretching routine for a full year ahead of time to make sure that I could comfortably make the reach with my leg.
Sun-Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and author ofThe Art of War, said that all battles are won before they are fought. It’s all inthe preparation.
When it comes to presentations, how much preparation do you put in? Do you start working on the presentation weeks in advance or are you banging out PowerPoint slides at 11:00 pm the night before? Have you thought about your message and why it is relevant for your audience? Have you structured your presentation with an opening that hooks your audience, a structure that presents your ideas in a coherent manner, and a conclusion that nicely wraps things up?
And what about all those logistical things like computers and cables and batteries and such? Have you remembered them all? (If you find you often forget things,this checklistthat I created will help.)
Alex Honnold could not have done his amazing climb without rigorous preparation. We don’t have to prepare for years for our presentations. Nevertheless, if we want to be successful, we need to prepare sufficiently. Our audiences deserve nothing less.
LESSON 4 – VISUALIZATION CAN HELP YOUR PERFORMANCE ON THE DAY
Visualization is a powerful technique that many athletes use to reach peak performance. Many elite athletes work with sports psychologists to help them visualize themselves the perfect match or perfect race. If you watch downhill skiing, you will often see athletes with their eyes closed, swaying back and forth as they do the perfect run in their minds.
Visualization was a key component of Honnold’s preparation for his climb.
[S]taying calm and performing at your best when you know that any mistake could mean death, requires a certain kind of mindset. I worked to cultivate that mindset through visualization, which basically just means imagining the entire experience of soloing the wall. Partially, that was to help me remember all the holds, but mostly visualization was about feeling the texture of each hold in my hand and imagining the sensation of my leg reaching out and placing my foot just so. I’d imagine it all like a choreographed dance thousands of feet up.
As I practiced the moves, my visualization turned to the emotional component of a potential solo. Basically, what if I got up there and it was too scary? What if I was too tired? What if I couldn’t quite make the kick? I had to consider every possibility while I was safely on the ground, so that when the time came and I was actually making the moves without a rope, there was no room for doubt to creep in. Doubt is the precursor to fear, and I knew that I couldn’t experience my perfect moment if I was afraid. I had to visualize and rehearse enough to remove all doubt.
Whenever I have a big speech or presentation, I always spend time visualizing myself giving a great talk. I see myself on stage, going through my material topic by topic. I imagine the audience giving me their full attention and a positive reaction.
If I have access to the speaking venue, I will visit it several weeks before the event. I will walk the stage and stand in various locations on it. I’ll sit in seats around the room and note the lighting, the sounds, the smells, the colour of the walls. All of this makes the visualization more real. And when the visualization is more real, the impact on the day is greater.
What if you don’t have access to the speaking beforehand? For example, what do you do if you have to fly to the event? You can usually find images of the venue online. If you are working with an organizer, ask them to send you photos from different angles. Any images are better than nothing.
For example, several years ago, I spoke at an event in Lisbon, Portugal. The conference organizers had helpfully put up images of the speaking area on their website. Below are some examples.
From these images, I learned several things: the stage was wider than it was deep; the auditorium was large, seating around 500 or so people; the seats rose to the back like in a movie theatre.
I visualized myself speaking on that stage over and over. When the day came for me to actually present andI walked into the room for the first time, it felt like I had been there before. I recognized several things and it all felt familiar. And that made me feel that much more comfortable when I walked on stage.
When you have a big speech or presentation, spend a bit of time visualizing yourself doing a great job. You might be surprised at how beneficial this exercise is.
LESSON 5 – DON’T RUSH YOUR CONCLUSION
This lesson is not so much from Honnold’s climb as it is from his TED Talk. At 11:25 of the video, he describes the final two hundred metres of his ascent.
With 600 feet to go, I felt like the mountain was offering me a victory lap. I climbed with a smooth precision and enjoyed the sounds of the birds swooping around the cliff. It all felt like a celebration. And then I reached the summit after three hours and 56 minutes of glorious climbing. It was the climb that I wanted, and it felt like mastery.
It’s a wonderful description and you can imagine how much Honnold must have relished the moment. Yet the conclusion to his TED Talk felt rushed. And when it was over, Honnold made a quick exit without even enjoying the standing ovation he received.
I suspect that he rushed because he was reaching the 12-minute limit for his talk. Nevertheless, it’s a good example of protecting your conclusions and making you have enough time to slow down and leave the audience with a message to take away. And please don’t rush off the stage, especially when the audience is applauding. If you do, you are depriving people of the ability to thank you. So stay put and enjoy the applause.
Alex Honnold is a remarkable young man and his feat is truly one for the ages. But even if we never attempt a free solo of El Capitan, we can apply some of the lessons that he learned to our own speeches and presentations.
The next time you climb the steps to get on stage, think of it has your personal El Capitan.
I do not consider myself to be a Trekkie, but I was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was the second Star Trek series and the only one that I watched from beginning to end. The main reason was the brilliant performance by Patrick Stewart, the brilliant English actor.
Stewart played Jean-Luc Picard, the Captain of the USS Enterprise. Courageous, eloquent and a great communicator, Stewart’s character was also a man of culture, a man of humility and someone who wasn’t afraid to seek the advice of others — and heed it. If only more real-life leaders were like him!
I recently came across the video below in which Stewart sat down with his fellow actor and good friend, Ian McKellen to answer questions from fans. One of the questions for Stewart caught my attention: “Did your Shakespearean training help you?”
Stewart said that his Shakespearean training helped him for Star Trek in two ways: one vocal and one physical. The physical is also good advice for public speakers.
See what Stewart said in the video below. It should start at the relevant time but if not, skip ahead to 8:47.
There you have it. Stewart said that he was the one person who knew what to do with his hands, which was nothing. In other words, he was comfortable leaving them at his sides as you can see him do in this clip from Star Trek, a screen shot of which is below.
Clients often ask me what they should do with their hands when they speak in public. Why not let gravity do some of the work and leave them by your sides? No, not for your entire speech or presentation, but from time to time. It’s the most natural position for your hands. And it’s better than putting them in your pockets or behind your back or holding them together in front of you.
Pico Iyer is a renowned essayist and novelist who is best known for his travel writing. He has been to some of the most far-flung places on the planet and his writings have appeared in leading newspapers, magazines and literary journals.
In the TED Talk below, Iyer discusses a theme that some might find counterintuitive coming from a famous travel writer: the importance of going nowhere, doing nothing and just being still.
Iyer’s gentle approach belies a powerful truth. Technology is making things move faster and faster. It is thus increasingly important for our well-being to slow down and just be still.
The same holds true when we speak to an audience.
I have frequently written about the importance of slowing down and pausing when we speak, such as here and here. And one of my favourite quotes from Mark Twain is all about the power of the pause. In his talk, Iyer delves into this theme:
Like many in Silicon Valley, [Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine] tries really hard to observe what they call an Internet Sabbath, whereby for 24 or 48 hours every week they go completely offline in order to gather the sense of direction and proportion they’ll need when they go online again. The one thing perhaps that technology hasn’t always given us is a sense of how to make the wisest use of technology.
And when you speak of the Sabbath, look at the Ten Commandments. There’s only one word there for which the adjective “holy” is used, and that’s the Sabbath. I pick up the Jewish holy book of the Torah; its longest chapter is on the Sabbath. And we all know that it’s really one of our greatest luxuries, the empty space. In many a piece of music, it’s the pause or the rest that gives the piece its beauty and its shape. And I know that I as a writer will often try to include a lot of empty space on the page so that the reader can complete my thoughts and sentences and so that her imagination has room to breathe.
The last part of the last sentence — “… so that her imagination has room to breathe” — is fundamental to public speaking. When a speaker pauses, audience members can reflect on what she has just said; they can find the relevance of the speaker’s remarks in their own lives. That is how you get your message across, because it is always about the audience.
Keep Pico Iyer in mind the next time you have a speech or presentation. As he says in his concluding remarks,
[I]n an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.
Naomi Osaka of Japan won the 2019 Australian Open in dramatic fashion. She beat the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitová 7-6 (7-2) 5-7 6-4 to become the first woman since 2001 to follow her debut Grand Slam win with another one.
Even after squandering three match points to lose the second set, Osaka fought back in the third to claim the title.
Her acceptance speech at the awards ceremony was delightful. When called to the microphone, Osaka began with a timid “Hello” which elicited good-natured laughter from the audience. She then said, “Sorry, public speaking isn’t really my strong side, um, so I … I just hope I can get through this.”
And she did get through it. She was gracious to Kvitova, appreciative toward the fans, grateful to the Australian Open organization and thankful to her team.
Osaka was clearly nervous and it would be easy to point out all the public speaking mistakes that she made. It would also be churlish to do so. Nobody cares that she was nervous or that she had lots of filler words or that she forgot part of her speech. Indeed, when Osaka said, “I read notes before this but I still forgot the rest of what I’m supposed to say,” she endeared herself to the crowd even more.
There is a lesson in Osaka’s speech for public speakers of any level. If your words are sincere and you just be yourself, people will overlook most any public speaking misstep. And even if they don’t, a bad speech will not define you.
Osaka is only 21. She will be a tennis powerhouse for years to come. She will undoubtedly have other opportunities to give speeches after winning tournaments. I think that her speaking skills, like her tennis skills, will just get better. Let’s see what she says next time.