Three Lessons from the Island of Corfu

I recently returned from a lovely – and much needed – vacation in Corfu, Greece. Stunning scenery, beautiful weather, delicious food and, most importantly, some of the nicest people you will meet anywhere.

As public speaking is never far from my mind, I am always on the lookout for inspiration from unique sources. Corfu did not disappoint

A Lesson from a Dinner Reservation

A reservation at a restaurant in Corfu

One evening, we had an excellent meal at a highly recommended restaurant in the village of Benitses: Oi Oraies Benitses. Because of its popularity, we were advised to make a reservation.

I called the restaurant using Skype on my computer. The connection wasn’t great and there was the linguistic challenge of an English-Greek conversation. So when it came to giving my name, instead of trying to spell out “Zimmer,” I said to make the reservation for “John from Canada”. “Oh, John from Canada!” came the response. When we arrived, we were directed to our table on which sat the card above.

The Lesson for Public Speakers

Make it easy for your audience to understand your message. Depending on the sophistication of the audience with the topic, you might have to explain certain concepts or terminology. Using metaphors, putting things in context and telling stories can also make it easier for them to understand.

And if you use slides, remember that your audience should be able to understand each slide quickly. Don’t bury important information in a sea of words and other details. It’s not an Easter egg hunt!

A Lesson from a Greek Salad

A Greek Salad in Corfu

I don’t usually post pictures of my meals or drinks on social media. I did so a few times several years ago until it occurred to me: Unless I am sharing a recipe or some insight about the food, nobody cares what I am eating!

However, I had a Greek Salad every day while I was in Corfu and toward the end of our vacation, I realized that it offers a powerful insight. The Greek Salad – known as a Choriatiki (“village”) Salad in Greek – is one of the culinary cornerstones of Greek cuisine. Not once was I tired of eating it.

What’s so special about a Greek Salad? After all, it’s just tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, olives and feta cheese. (Sometimes, people will add green peppers or oregano or croutons as you can see in the image above.) And the salad is typically served undressed; it is up to the diner to decide how much vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper to add. And therein lies the beauty of the Greek Salad: a few simple, fresh ingredients.

The Lesson for Public Speakers

One of my favourite quotes comes from Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

When clients come to me for help with a big speech or presentation on which they have been working, I would say that majority of my work involves cutting content instead of adding it. More often than not, speakers try to convey too much information when it would be much better to say less and say it well.

Remember that the next time you have a speech or presentation. Resist the temptation to talk about everything under the sun. Instead, focus on what is essential and make sure that each element that you incorporate in your talk is top quality. Leave everything else out. Your audience will appreciate it and remember it.

A Lesson from Two Kittens

Kittens in Corfu, Greece.

While vacationing on Corfu, I had two companions for every breakfast and in the evenings: a ginger male and his tricoloured sister. Of course, they hung around because they wanted scraps from the table (which I gladly fed them) but I like to think that by the end of our vacation we were friends.

The two cats had quite different personalities. The male would eat from your hand and would play if you waved a long-stemmed weed in front of him. But if you tried to pet him, he would jump back. And if you picked him up, he would squirm vigorously to get away.

The female was much more receptive to being petted. And you could pick her up without a problem; she would happily stay in your arms. When it came to chasing the weeds, she would occasionally do so but without much apparent interest. (She preferred wrestling with her brother.)

The Lesson for Public Speakers

Two cats with two different personalities, but equally adorable. They reminded me that when it comes to public speaking, no two speakers are the same. You might be flamboyant or reserved; calm or energetic; systematic or impassioned. Perhaps some combination of different traits.

Whatever your style, there is room for you. Remember that. Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” So be yourself because that is how you will connect with your audience.

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  1. Well said John – and it sounds like a lovely trip! (At the moment, here in Aus, the idea of overseas travel is still rather foreign to us – if you forgive the pun.)

    The tip that resonated most with me was the first: “Make it easy for your audience to understand your message.” I’m all for that!

    If using slides, one of the best ways to help people understand is to make the content appear gradually (as soon as each aspect’s mentioned), so it’s clear which part of it’s being discussed.

    And metaphors certainly help to get the message across, as you say. Recently a friend of mine posted a video about speaking on Zoom etc, where he said “We need to lower the price of paying attention.” Love that!

    1. Thanks, Craig. I love that line at the end of your comment and will gladly use it!

      Good luck with the battle against Covid. I know that Australia, or much of it, has been forced back into lockdown. With strong anti-vaccine movements in many countries and the inability / unwillingness of the developed world to do more to help developing countries vaccinate, I feel that we are still in the opening chapters of this pandemic. I hope that I am wrong.

  2. One point. As a part-time night school teacher I realized that the art of teaching includes a span of relatable of human experience and knowing the subject ‘at-hand’ very well… then presenting the material to the adult class at hand, sitting in front/around me. Remarkably each audience, like a class, is different… even the same group on a different day can be very different! I also understood the hard lesson that Einstein explained… “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” –Albert Einstein

    1. Thanks, WK. Great comment. I use Einstein’s quote a lot, albeit in slightly different wording: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

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National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

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General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

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CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

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Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

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Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

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Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International