Don't Blame PowerPoint


What’s the difference between watching a PowerPoint presentation and undergoing a root canal? One is forced upon us, causes excruciating pain, and often requires lengthy recovery time. The other is a dental procedure. 

But I’ve got news for you: It’s not PowerPoint, it’s you. I know these are painful words to hear, but the time has come to stop the buck-passing and take some responsibility. I think we can all agree that the majority of slide presentations (and this includes PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, GoogleDocs, Sliderocket, GoAnimate, Slidesnack . . .) are a screaming bore. In many cases the presenter seems to be struggling as much as the audience to endure the whole ordeal. So what’s the problem?

I submit that the slides are not being used as they were intended. They are acting as a roadblock to communication, rather than the vehicle. The fact that most decks don’t work is no secret. Regularly, my clients will say to me things like: “I know this slide is too busy, but” or “I know this looks terrible, but,” or “I never speak to this part but it has to be on the slide.” Drives me nuts. After a little digging, the problem is usually caused by the same handful of culprits:

  1. “We’re stuck with this template/style/way of designing slides”
  2. “We always modify from previous presentations”
  3. “The board/my boss/the company/the CXO only wants to see (insert number) slides”
  4. “I don’t want to have too many/few slides”
  5. “This company is formal/conservative/old-fashioned/dull so I can’t be creative with the presentation/this is what they’re used to”

Well, this is all just bunk and here’s why: All of these (and other) defenses for a bad presentation are arbitrary and meaningless when we consider why we are presenting in the first place. Let’s knock them down one-by-one:

  1. If the template is poor it should be changed. If it’s not or is truly unchangeable, we need to find a way to be effective within the boundaries presented.
  2. Well, knock it off. Modifying a bad presentation saves time on the front end and wreaks havoc from that point on. It’s like repeatedly cooking from a lousy recipe and expecting the resulting meal to magically taste better than the last time.
  3. - and -
  4. Why? Where did this magic number come from? If two slides work better than one, do we ignore this and stick with one? Do we think that it’s worse to move through two well-planned slides than to slog through one overcrowded one during which time we completely lose our audience? (I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t.) Is it the time it takes to click the little remote button to move from one slide to the next? Well that’s just silly. The reality is that we should plan for as many or as few slides as we need to accomplish the goal we set for the presentation in keeping within the allotted time. That’s it. And, let’s not forget, there needs to be a goal.
  5. Formal does not equal boring. Formal does not mean we abandon why we are speaking on the subject. Formal does not mean that our time and the time of our listeners is not valuable and deserving of respect. It is possible to be both creative and formal.

There is another defense of poor slides that I would like to address on its own and it goes a little something like this: “The deck is the handout that everyone gets before/during/after the presentation.” It mustn’t be. It’s nice to think of a deck performing double duty in this way, but attempting this shortcut insures that one or the other (or very often both) versions will fail in their role. 

The function of a handout is to give a meeting attendee something to look at prior to or after a presentation. It provides details, sources, appendices, and so forth. It is written to be read, to serve as a reference, and to support what was learned in the presentation. 

A slide deck is visual reinforcement of key points that a presenter is offering to an audience with the intention of moving that group, through live communication, to a desired action. The deck also serves as a prompt for the speaker for the order of the material, the pacing of the delivery, and the emphasis on key points and ideas.

When these two distinctly different functions, that of the slide deck and of the handout, are joined together into one “document” (technically, PowerPoint slides were never designed to be used as a document) the speaker is often stuck reading each slide aloud and often word-for-word. We are all capable of reading a document on our own, so it cannot be argued that we need to occupy our valuable time listening to someone read slides aloud to us. What’s the goal in that, anyway? When I pose this question to my clients, the response is invariably either 1) they were told to present it so they are complying with the request/demand, or 2) the goal is to “let them know that . . .” If the reason you’ve called me away from my work and other demands to a conference room or auditorium is to let me know something, I’d prefer you just send me an email. I’d rather show up for a more compelling reason than that. Identifying the “why” in the presentation is critical and  will be the topic for another article and a different time. For now, suffice it to say that the success of a presentation – and the degree of your confidence giving it - depends on it emanating from a solid, provocative purpose

The bottom line is this: slides are there to help us deliver a message that drives the listener to action. And contrary to popular opinion, The slides don’t do anything we don’t tell them to do. PowerPoint is not the enemy but merely a visual (and sometimes audio) tool that we can employ to support our thoughtfully prepared message. 

I’m not a big fan of hard rules, but it’s safe to say that poorly designed slides – ones heavy with bullets and text, covered with confusing graphics comparing multiple sets of data that require a lot of time and concentration on the part of the audience to decipher – are not recommended. It’s also important to restrain ourselves when it comes to overly “creative” animations – these often subtract rather than add to the value of a message (and are a regular complaint by those viewing the dizzying properties of many Prezi creations – see "Prezi Sickness," and "Prezilepsy.")

Building a solid deck takes some time and a lot of strategy, but it gets easier the more you do it. It’s time well spent because you are preparing for the final presentation of your message even as you build it. Later, you can also recycle elements that work well for you, as opposed to modifying a bad presentation again and again. 

Need help? You are not alone. Like most skills, this is something that must be learned and, in the early stages, can be more than a little nerve-wracking. An experienced speech coach can be extremely valuable in helping you to develop these strategies, practice your delivery and grow the skills and confidence you need in order to make your next presentation a real winner. And you’re in luck. I just happen to know a great one.


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Confident Communication (or - They're Just Not That Into You)



Finally, you surrender to exhaustion, feeling yourself sink into the support of your bed, when thoughts of your upcoming performance review jolt you back to consciousness. You’ve lost the last three nights of sleep imagining the evaluation over and over. You’ve silently mouthed the words of your defense on the train. This display has been met with strange stares by the other commuters.

For many of us, the mere thought of certain types of communication—or communication with certain people—can ratchet up our stress levels to “11.” Sometimes the stakes are high (income may be determined, an opportunity granted or denied, a proposal accepted); sometimes, on closer examination, they are not so significant. Regardless, we worry.

Do genetics determine our comfort in communicating? Parental modeling? A high gluten diet? I would be willing to accept that these factors and more may contribute to how we approach our interactions but, as a speech and communication coach, I’m most interested in what we can do about it.

For starters, here’s some good news:

1. People are inherently self-involved
2. You cannot trust your instincts

OK, sometimes you can and should trust your instincts. And people being self-involved may sometimes be bad news. But hear me out. What often dominates our thoughts as we anticipate challenging conversations, meetings, presentations or conflict situations, is ourselves. Our worst case scenarios generally involve how we will be perceived. When we see ourselves as the most important element, our fight or flight instincts prepare us to BOLT at the first sign of danger. What are your instincts telling you?

“They’ll discover I’m not good enough.” “They’ll think I’m an idiot.” “I’ll screw it up.” “They’ll say ‘no.’” “They’ll regret giving me this job.”

But what if your instincts are wrong? What if nobody really cares that much about you? Well, then the path is clear for you to have more confident communication! Let’s face it, to humiliate another requires energy, focus and time; three things most people have in short supply. Besides, these concerns are all about you, and they’re just not that into you.

What are they into? Their wants, their success, avoiding their own humiliation. How might things change simply by framing your message with that awareness in mind? What if you approached the conversation or meeting as an opportunity to provide assistance, devise a solution, or appeal to their knowledge and expertise? How does this change the dynamic? I’ll tell you how: it takes you off the hook and makes you more confident. When we are offering to attend to another’s need, we are at our best and are more likely to be heard. We aren’t groveling for approval, we are seeking to be of assistance—we are Solution Masters.

How might your experience change if you:

* Approach a job interview as someone trying to help an individual fill a spot with the best candidate?

* Lead a meeting as an ambassador of information offered in a way listeners will find useful?

* Prepare for conflict as someone committed to finding an amicable solution?

* Deliver a disappointing result as a chance to plumb the expertise of another or to offer your ideas to take another crack at it?

—and, using the initial example

* View a performance review as an opportunity to better understand what is working and what is not, from the reviewer’s point of view, and to offer suggestions for resolution of the issues? In this case, if solution ideas don’t come, ask the reviewer what, in his or her opinion, might help address the challenges. Together, you can create a plan of action.

This new approach takes creativity and planning, but it flips the interaction on its proverbial ear. It allows for your best, most confident self to shine through. You become the hero of the story. Crazy, you say? Preposterous? Try it—see what happens. (Side benefit: your thoughts will have better structure and shape because you’ve devised a strategy—not only for getting what you want from the situation, but also for bringing out your best by giving others what they need—a better use of your time than losing sleep from anxiety.)

Make notes—don’t leave it to chance—and test your thoughts against the question, “How can I frame this to be in my listener’s interest?” When possible, bring those notes with you, so you don’t have to rely on memory. Depending on the circumstances, you may acknowledge the notes upfront saying something like, “This is a very important topic. I want to be sure I don’t leave anything of value out, so I’ll be referring to some notes I’ve made. . .” Could any reasonable person knock you for that? Do we care what an unreasonable person knocks us for?

My message is simple: Don’t trust your instincts. Treat everyone like a supreme narcissist! Or, here's the less cynical version: A great first step to confident communication is to stare down your fear-based instincts and choose generosity in your approach instead, framing your message with the needs and interests of your listener front and center.

Blue In The Face




Have you ever noticed how great babies are at breathing? Babies are a brilliant example of unrestricted behavior in general (my friend’s newborn was famous for punctuating a particularly quiet or sentimental moment with a trumpet sound of what her husband affectionately called “wet wind”. Now that’s unrestricted.) Born without associations or the need for emotional contrivance, they are perfect machines; they take in pure experience and offer up pure response. And when they need air, they breathe. Simple as that.

As any sleep deprived new parent can tell you, shortly after they’re born, babies can effortlessly sustain hair-raising notes that even Ethyl Merman would envy. Later, when they learn to talk, their voices are clear and high and the sound comes out in seemingly endless streams of “why?” and “how come?”

But it’s not long before things begin to get complicated. In fact, right around the time we begin to identify ourselves as separate from others we become, in the truest sense of the word, “self-conscious.” Often we tamper with our natural impulses in order to be liked, to get attention, to get what we want. We begin to muck up what nature so cleverly designed for us. And when we hit puberty? Fuggedaboudit.

We adapt in all manner of unconscious and unhealthy ways to these changes. Strange as it may seem, our breathing is often altered inadvertently (or maybe even advertently? Consider the breathy/sexy voice that helped to make Marilyn Monroe famous. Her vocal style was no accident…)

This pattern may strike you as abstract, or you may think it doesn’t apply to you. Well, it isn’t and it does. Like most things, it’s just a matter of degree. Here’s an example:
Me: I see your shirt is tucked into your trousers. Would you mind lifting up your sweater so I can see your midsection a little bit?
You: Oh, Uh…Ok…
Me: Now, relax your stomach and your ribcage.
You: (straining) What do you mean—gasp!—they are relaxed!
Me: Just let your stomach go soft and your ribcage sink down.
You: (red faced) Right. I’m totally—gasp!—relaxed!
We in the industrialized world often begin the day with a ritual of sucking in our stomachs and we don’t stop until we’re unconscious in bed. It’s the old military “Chest Out, Stomach In!” posture that we strike—not unlike a tropical bird displaying his plumage—to minimize our midsection, attract what we want and to show the world we mean business.

In addition to sucking in our bellies, we often get in the habit of restricting or even holding our breath. Many of my clients experience challenges as a result of shallow breathing (which actually fools the brain into a state of panic). When they go into “formal speaking mode” they immediately change their breathing to be shallower than their natural state and suddenly there is just not enough air to be had. Just before their first word, their shoulders lift (a clear indication they are not breathing deeply) and their eyes bug out ever so slightly. It’s a sight to behold!

I’ve also encountered those who clearly run out of breath when they speak but keep right on talking, stubbornly, until they reach the end of the sentence (causing a good deal of huffing and gasping). It’s a race to the finish for each thought. They speak as if they are desperate to win that race or follow some serious rule that apparently states that you may not breathe until you hit a question mark, an exclamation point or a period. It’s as if breathing is a sign of weakness.
Me: What’s wrong with pausing for a breath at a comma?
You: I couldn’t do that. That’s just what they’re expecting me to do!
So, strange as it may seem, it is often necessary for us to re-learn how to breathe as adults. I use numerous exercises with my clientsboth in-person and through recordings for their own useand urge them to practice between sessions and beyond. What’s nice is that the process is enjoyable and the benefits are immediate, far reaching and long lasting.

Breathing well makes the experience of speaking in front of people far less stressful. It reprograms the nervous system to be open and supportive of what we’re trying to accomplish, rather than to sabotage and restrict our oxygen intake. When breath is slower and fuller, the heart calms down and we have a greater feeling of wellbeing. Good breathing also leads to vocal improvements, such as the production of a clearer sound and a greater ease and success with projection.

So let’s all just take a moment to let that gut hang outcoach’s orders!and take in a big, full breath.


Secret #10: Repeat After Me: "I Don't Know."



Congratulations! You did your homework, organized your thoughts, clarified your point of view and figured out what it was the group at the meeting needed to hear. You rehearsed out loud, took constructive criticism and made adjustments. You practiced relaxing, increased your confidence and nailed your part of that important meeting! At the very end, as you triumphantly sipped your water, the Senior VP of Marketing asked you that one-in-a-million question you were not prepared to field. When you regained consciousness you wondered,
You: What happened?
Me: Looks like you let an unexpected question throw you. It threw you on the floor, actually.
You: I should have known that answer! How could I have been so stupid?
Me: It isn’t a question of ‘stupid.’ You were well prepared. You can’t know the answer to everything. What you just experienced was a very important lesson!
You: What I just experienced was a swan dive into industrial carpeting. I still have the pattern on my forehead!
Me: There is an old Russian proverb that goes like this, ‘There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.’
You: Where I come from we have a saying, too. (makes hostile gesture)
Listen, I’m not advocating that anyone be unprepared. Developing a solid understanding of the material is a basic and essential part of speaking with authority and confidence. What I am saying is that it is unrealistic to believe that we can know everything. I know a guy who acts like he does, and I tell you, he’s a terrible bore. (Actually, I’ve met many more than one person like this—you know the kind—the authority on everything.) The truth is, you can’t know it all and no one expects you to. The people I admire most and who are considered the experts in their respective fields are, without exception, quick to say when they don’t know something. They have become well-respected as a result of their curiosity and their understanding that there is always more worth knowing.
It’s sort of like the menus at diners.
You: Uh-Oh…
Me: Bear with me.
A typical diner menu has about seven laminated pages of itemspasta, chops, “fresh” fish, burritos, burgers, buffalo wings, matzo ball soup, Chinese chicken salad, spinach pie, beef stroganoffyou get the idea. All I can think when I look at those menus is, they can’t possibly be good at all of this. I’ll get the tuna melt. A fine restaurant, however, offers a one-page menu with only a few selections that represent the items the restaurant considers specialties. Know-it-all people are a lot like diner menus. They know a little about a lot of things, but rarely know any of them well.

Worse than panicking is trying to fake it. I can’t think about this without reliving the horror of the 2007 Miss South Carolina moment—a worst-case scenario. I don’t expect any of us would come out with a sentence like, “I believe that our education, like, such as the Africa and the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. …” It, of course, goes on but I can’t.

There is a graceful way to deal with questions to which you don’t have the answers and to respond with your integrity intact. (Who will remember anything else about Miss SC?)

When you don’t have the answer, say so. Why not be generous, and commend the asker for the quality of the question? If applicable, ask that person to clarify what they’re asking. At that point—you crafty devil—the attention leaves you and turns to the questioner, where it belongs. Let them know you’re intrigued by the question, that you’ll look into it and get back to them quickly (and be sure you do). Then, ask if there are more questions and jump right back on track. Doesn’t that sound better than winging it? People generally know when you’re faking and that can destroy the credibility of all you said before (making you look more like a diner menu than the plat du jour).

Besides, no matter how carefully you attempt to prepare for all possible questions, there will be that one that just never made it on the radar. It’s best not to kick yourself in these situations. Instead, do your best to be prepared and expect that someone may come up with something you haven’t thought of. You can actually plan for it and rehearse responses. A person who stays composed and shows interest in the question he or she is posed gets my vote of confidence.

By now, you’re probably noticing that these secrets are, in one way or another, about giving ourselves a break and quieting the interference that detracts from our chances at doing a job we can be proud of. They’re not a list of things to do, but a way of thinking that sets us off in a better direction.

“He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.” —Voltaire

Secret #9: Be Human


Do me a favor: Bring water with you when you speak. I don’t know why, but people seem to think that it’s a personal failure that the moisture in their mouth isn’t sufficient to support a lengthy discussion without re-hydration. Don’t we have enough to feel bad about without adding thirst? The fact is: It’s nearly impossible to concentrate on listening to someone suffering with cottonmouth, and the speaker is hopelessly distracted by it, as well.

Why should we interpret a basic biological (and predictable) need as a source of shame? It’s like being embarrassed about breathing. It’s one of those silly things that we think without…well, thinking. It begins when our mouth gets dry, our tongue gets pasty and our lips begin sticking to our teeth. There are two options:
A) Client (inner monologue): This is terrible! I couldn’t moisten a stamp for all the gold in Fort Knox! Everyone is looking at me try to lick my lips but my tongue feels like a rice cake. It’s not just dry, it’s a chamois! Now, I’m making weird clicking sounds like I’m speaking that African Bush dialect! Oh, great. I’m starting to sweat and tremble. My heart is racing! Oh, GOD! I’m having a stroke!
—or
B) Client (inner monologue): My mouth feels a little dry. (sips water and continues)
It’s easy to see which option to choose. (B!) So let’s put this to bed. Drink water—as much as you need—when speaking.

You may be happy to know that this section isn’t just about dry mouth. It’s about understanding that we are people and that’s OK. When we attend our basic human needs, giving ourselves the best shot at meaningful communication, everyone wins.

Most of what can happen while speaking is predictable—verbal stumble, cough, burp, stomach gurgle—you get the idea. Instead of panicking, we can silently recognize, “My stomach just made a really strange noise,” say out loud, “Excuse me,” and simply carry on. If we keep from becoming frazzled and get back on track, the whole thing will likely be forgotten. Let’s agree to give these episodes exactly as much attention—and not one bit more—than they deserve.

If you’re thirsty, drink some water. If you need glasses, pause to put them on. Think ahead and use the restroom before you have to speak.

Seems reasonable, so what’s the problem? I would posit, if posit I may, that the difficulty comes in when we eschew our humanity in the interest of achieving an unattainable ideal.

There is no logic to wanting to be “perfect,” yet I am often confronted with highly intelligent clients who proudly admit, “I’m just a perfectionist—I’m never satisfied.” No wonder they’re frustrated—this standard dooms them to failure! Really, if there were such a thing as perfection in human behavior, athletes would stop when they reached that perfect point, and that would be it. No need to improve techniques, try harder, or attempt to break records. But there is no such point, so striving for perfection in this scenario is like entering a race that has no rules and no finish line. You can’t win.
You: There she goes again with the metaphors. Next she’ll be talking about cooking!
Why is it a chef continues to revamp a menu? Is it to approach “perfection” or to grow and evolve and discover new flavors and textures?

Maybe human perfection is an oxymoron because, if possible, it would be boring? Or maybe we’re all perfectly unique, with boundless possibilities? Maybe I’ve been watching too much Oprah? Regardless, we’re human and human performance is not measured by standards of perfection. Period.

I’m happy to report that perfection isn’t interesting anyway—at least watching people trying to attain it isn’t. “Perfectionists” spend most of their time either beating themselves up or turning their unreasonable judgment on others. If this sounds like you, do yourself and everyone around you a favor and knock it off.

Secret #8: Find the Hook


The type of hook I’m introducing here has two barbs—it’s the thing that gets us interested in what we’re saying while also answering the listener’s question, “What’s in it for me?” Sometimes, if the first barb works, the second one snares the listener automatically—but don’t count on it! I have often been present when a speaker is highly engaged in his or her subject and I, the listener, am decidedly not.

At a recent cocktail party, a woman I barely knew cornered me and began a blow-by-blow of every agonizing step of her day. She was animated and interested in the subject, herself, ignorant that I was evaluating my chances at survival if I took a leap out of the nearby window. (It wasn’t a total loss. I did learn that even a “really good pooper” like her miniature schnauzer, Marty, can have an off day…) No quantity of Pinot Noir could make the story interesting to me—trust me, I tested this theory.

When the hook works for the speaker but not for the listener, rethinking is necessary.
Studying both the audience and the subject is the best way I’ve discovered to find a hook. Start with the basic purpose of the presentation and then take a closer look. Ask, “Why is this important to the listener?” “Why are they there?” “What do they stand to gain?” Advanced research is also a great way to get a good hook in deeper.

In Secret #5, I used my experience as a seminar presenter as an example of how to offer ideas as an act of generosity. I’ll admit it was a struggle for me to hook into that topic, notary law, in the beginning. But I realized these people needed me desperately (whether they knew it or not) to: a) solve an immediate problem (statutory requirement/exam preparation); or b) a larger, more long-term one (understanding the legal and administrative requirements and stay out of jail!).

The hook: I was sparing these people some serious trouble while giving them the information they needed to succeed. Thinking about that hook brought the presentation to life and gave me something to do with it all the way along. (My angle was conspiratorial—I was one of them and could save them from pitfalls I’d seen others experience.) I had a clear goal, the hook.

The hook is the promise we make to the listener and we must do our best to deliver on it.
As we prepare, we check, “Will this hook my listeners?” Our words then are not simply recitation, but part of an active process of set up and delivery. If my goal above was to arm my listeners with helpful tools and essential knowledge, I had something by which to measure my success each step of the way. I kept the hook (and angle) in mind as I spoke, and observed my listeners to make sure I hit my mark. If I wasn’t succeeding, I knew my material well enough to adjust on the spot.
Client: This is hard work!
Me: Yes, it is!
Client: You say that like it’s a good thing. I was hoping that it would be more like…
Me: A magic pill?
Client: Yes! That’s it! A pill! Have one? It’s OK with me if it’s not FDA approved.
Me: A major obstacle to doing this well is the bogus notion that it should be effortless. It’s isn’t. It takes energy. But it’s really rewarding!
Client: I see what you mean—It only looks easy when it’s done right. I get it. …Now about that pill 
Once we realize that effective communicating takes energy, we stop shaming ourselves when it isn’t easy and get to work. OK, there are some people who do all of this effortlessly and well. There are people in every discipline for whom that can be said. But there are more people out there who are successful in their efforts as a result of hard work, and who enjoy those successes with great pride.

Here’s the bonus: When we offer that hook to the listener, we are engaged and focused when we speak. When we are engaged and focused, what we are not, is fearful and distracted. They are mutually exclusive states of being. I love how that works.

Secret #7: What's the Angle?




The angle we take on a subject is what makes it interesting to us. It's the point of view, or the perspective we offer to help shape our message and give it dimension. A well developed angle makes what we say more specific and compelling. It's the difference between, “Real estate sales are increasing,” and, “As panic over the economic crisis wanes, people again turn to real estate,” or “Cruising: A popular vacation option,” and, “Cruising: Strap on the Feedbag and Get Your Nap On!” (Maybe not that…)


We are inclined toward a point of view when we speak, so an angle may be apparent from the start. If not, we can ask ourselves, “Why am I the right person to talk about this?”

In lieu of a naturally occurring angle, understanding the needs of the listener will guide us to a good choice. For example, if giving a talk to seniors about unique events in their city, I might present from the angle that people often underestimate their abilities. I might divide activities into groups from more energetic to the relaxing. Same information—the events haven’t changednow organized around a clear point of view.
You: I have to present the national quarterly earnings for Aunt May’s Bundt Cake. I’ve got a great idea! I’ll use this angle: We could have doubled our profitsinstead of flat-lining like we didif Warren hadn’t pushed for that asinine cross-promotion with the anti-fungal cream. Good, right?
Me: Wait, cake and athlete’s foot? You’re saying those things don’t go together? Assuming you’re right, you may do well to choose a more diplomatic angleor you'll make an enemy out of Warren.
How provocative we want to be is another choice we have to make. Generally, the situation will tell us. The angle may be bold, unconventional, or a subtle shading. Even with a Dragnet (“just the facts”) report, there still may be room to angle.

Here’s a great example of how this works: My human biology professor’s lectures were so interesting due, in part, to his unique angle: What happens when things go wrong? He talked about his study of rare maladies in India. He spoke about the people and their conditions with respect, drawing a clear line between observation and judgment. He made it interesting by using this angle to show why the systems are so important to healthy development. It was standing room only for a required science class in a lecture hall that seats hundreds. Clearly, I wasn't alone in my appreciation of Dr. Swan's unique angle.

Conversely, I remember precisely nothing my astronomy professor said. (I had anticipated astronomy to be more interesting than biology.) He spoke with a flat affect, avoided anything that might suggest relevance, offered no insight, nothing that might suggest he was interested. There was no angle to his speaking and, as a result, not much teaching going on at all. He was uninvolved, uninspired and completely uninteresting. But other than that, a great guy.

The angle can have the power to make listeners rethink their assumptions on a subject. The angle and the hook (next secret) are interdependent and work together to make communication dynamic. They’re also both related to fishing, but that’s not important right now.

Secret #6: Rehearsal Required



Ever wish you had a time machine that could take you back to the moment you completely botched something for a do-over? You know that gnawing sensation caused by regret over a lost or blown opportunity. You can’t stop replaying what happened, and worse, how it should have gone. Sometimes these situations are unavoidable but those that are avoidable are particularly nagging.

Here is where rehearsal can save us—it’s an opportunity to try things out beforehand and recognize the potential quagmires before we step into them. When we rehearse, we find out just where the problems occur and we can account for them.

A great performance is one in which the work is already done. Who wants to watch actors grappling with the script after the curtain goes up? Likewise, it’s a huge mistake to work out your speech while you’re giving it. Rehearsal is the time to work it out.

Make the most of rehearsal. If you’re going to be standing, stand while you rehearse. If you’ll have a microphone, hold something similar and keep it a consistent distance from your mouth. Visual aids? Rehearse with them. Practice your speech well during rehearsal and it will feel more natural and familiar in the presentation. Enlist the help of people you trust (and/or a video camera). Their feedback can be very useful and their presence will more authentically mimic the real thing. Don’t get frustrated if things aren’t working! This is precisely when you want to know what doesn’t work because you can fix it.
If you get a basket you’ll win three free throws, a box of biscuits, a box of mixed biscuits and a biscuit mixer. Fix the biscuits—I’ll make a proper cup of coffee in a proper copper coffee pot. (I wrote this, but Ed edited it.)
Take a look at the paragraph above. Look it over twice. I’ll wait. Now, read it again—out loud.
You would never know how tricky that paragraph is to say by reading it silently. Rehearse out loud. If you come upon words that trip you up, change them. You are the God of your presentation—if it doesn’t work for you, it has to go. If you cannot change it (a direct quote, someone’s name), go over that section repeatedly, slowly, until you have a better command of it.

While rehearsing aloud, you may find a need for a transitional thought to help the flow, or come across redundancies to cut. Not enough breath? Shorten the sentences. Mark where you need to breathe. There is no limit to what you might find in the course of rehearsal that, in improving, will make your efforts more successful.

Rehearsing out loud is no guarantee that nothing at all will go wrong, but if something does, you will be better prepared to deal with it. What comes from a productive rehearsal process is not only a better product, but in making improvements, we feel better about it, and that increases our confidence. I’d call that a win-win-win.

Secret #5: Communication is a Gift



It is my sincere belief that communication, at its best, is an act of generosity.

I imagine that you have been taken by surprise by a speaker’s ability to bring a dry topic to life and make it interesting. So, what’s going on here? How is it that some people can make a subject, anticipated to be dull, riveting, where others choke the life out of one we expect to be interesting? In this section, I’ll talk about what I’ve found to be a very important aspect of it: Generosity.

You give a talk. You give a presentation. Generosity. When you approach communication as something that you’re giving to others, as opposed to something to which you are being subjected, interesting things start to happen.

Giving is an action that, to do well, requires strategy and thought - (what brings value to the listener, and how can I deliver it effectively?) – two things that, in the doing, leave little room for other energy-suckers like self-consciousness. The attention of the giver is fixed on their goal: giving something of value. Once connected in this way, other issues my clients struggle with - anxiety, problems with speed, pausing, pacing and intonation, as well as place holders (like “uhms”) - diminish automatically.

It is also far more interesting to listen to someone in the act of doing something, than it is just hearing them talk. Yes, when we speak we are talking, but to what end? If it is merely to say aloud words printed on a page, then the words can come out as flat as the page they are written on. When, however, the goal of each speaking opportunity is put in active terms and involves clear steps to achieve a benefit to the those listening, the speaking style naturally becomes more engaging to both the speaker and the listener. Actors use a related approach to keep their performances fresh and alive for each show.
You: Get real, Stephanie. Plays and films are written about entertaining things we all find interesting. I have to head a meeting on the “Decreasing Utilization of the Twist Tie!”
Me: Have you seen any of the “Deuce Bigalow” movies?
You: Very funny. If you need me, I’ll have my head in the oven…
Seriously, do not for a minute believe that every performance in a play or film is one the actor loves or feels passionate about giving at first. When in less-than-desirable projects, good actors must find ways to jump in and try to love it, if only for the duration of the run. If we look deeply enough, we can make our topic interesting to ourselves, and love it enough to convey it with generosity and benefit to our listener.
You: Two words: Twist ties!
Would it help you to know that for several years I toured the country giving six-hour presentations to (sometimes hostile) audiences about the statutory requirements and penalties associated with notary law? Take your time and re-read that last sentence. It was hard work trying to be generous with this material and make it meaningful to others. But I’ll tell you something: It was so gratifying to hear these bleary-eyed attendees say they were pleasantly surprised by what they'd learned, that those hours went by pretty quickly, and that they even enjoyed themselves. I’m serious. I have reviews to prove it. I did it. You can, too.

This secret is one of my favorites - it taps into the best part of ourselves. I find we are at their best when acting in a giving spirit. I know I am. We also find that we, as givers, actually enjoy the experience.

Secret #4: Criticism Doesn't Have To Hurt



Humans. What curious animals! We love praise and shrink from criticism. Yet, we doubt compliments while being quick to believe unflattering assessments. What other creature suspects what they want to believe and accepts fully what they fear? In the words of my esteemed psychology professor: it is uniquely mishugina.

The distrust we feel in positive feedback is often the result of our own insecurities; perhaps from unkind or unwanted criticism we received as children.* There also exist cultural norms that encourage disingenuous compliments, supporting greater faith in the negative.

But what if we listened to both—what others perceive we do well, and what needs work—with equal consideration? What if we welcomed it? Furthermore, what if we considered input only from those whom we believe have our betterment in mind?

Listen, I live in the same world you do. I know there are miserable people out there suffering with such deep insecurities that they routinely say things to be hurtful and to shake the confidence of others. If they can’t feel good about themselves, no one else should be able to either. They distinguish themselves by cutting down others or demonstrating their discriminating taste by hating everything. DO NOT listen to these people! Why would you? People like this are not a reliable source of information and do not have your welfare in mind. I strongly discourage clients from giving credence to the opinions of those they do not respect, trust or simply don’t like. Consider the source.

Another reason we shun criticism is that we think we don’t need it. Most of us have been talking most of our lives—who needs help with that? Well, spoken communication isn’t just talking. There’s a big difference between saying words and communicating thoughts, sharing ideas, offering persuasive arguments and conveying emotions - not everyone is great at it. Generally, the better those around us communicated as we were growing up, the better the skills we developed. We had very little control over that when young, so we’re not all on equal footing starting out. Luckily, it’s never too late to improve.

Warning: The ego can get a little bent out of shape, at first, at the thought that we don’t have everything wrapped up by now. Beware the suspicion that needing help is a sign we shouldn’t be attempting the task at all. On the contrary, it is because we need development in these areas that working on them is so important. The ego backs off after some good results and we can get back in touch with the unique satisfaction that comes from learning something new and developing strong proficiency and even expertise.

So, make positive use of criticism and try to be open: open to the compliments, the neutral observations, and the negative. Try to balance a mixture of feelings about how we are doing. Then we can appreciate both our strengths and weaknesses and work on the latter with purpose. When approached that way, that which was weak may become strong.

*What criticism means to us is deeply personal, and deserves individualized attention.

Secret #2: Fear Is Like Excitement & It Can Be Harnessed



Many professional speakers and performers claim to experience some version of stage-fright no matter how often they perform. You’re probably aware of the legendary pre-show jitters reported by Barbara Streisand, Sir Laurence Olivier and Carly Simon, but it may surprise you to learn that even Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud and Donny Osmond (even DONNY!) have reported significant anxiety prior to performing. You may be thinking:
You: That's just great, Stephanie. So now you're saying that even the pros can't bear performing. How the heck can I be expected to do it?
I'll opt for something less painful, like ripping out my fingernails.
Here's where that very powerful sensory capability - perception - comes in. We have a choice.

Although the physical sensations associated with anxiety really and truly feel like those that immediately precede a painful death, they are purely the product of the mind and, as such, can be manipulated. Additionally, many of the sensations we associate with fear and anxiety, are shared with an emotion that we actually enjoy: excitement.

Don't get me wrong; like Babs and Abe and Donny, I have experienced those scary feelings. In my case, the darkness manifests as a tiny, loud-mouthed critic who sits behind me hissing 1) “who do you think you are;” or 2) “you’re not good enough;” or 3) “you will blow it so badly that your failure will be a favorite topic at cocktail parties for years to come.” (This critic looks a lot like Helen Gurley Brown, but that's not important.)

Despite this nay-sayer, I strive to interpret those feelings as excitement, directing my perception toward whatever offers the greatest opportunity. Why am I listening to a critic whose opinion I don't respect anyway?!?

Another thing to try as the fight-or-flight responses kick in is to talk to yourself (you may want to do this silently to avoid the possibility of being involuntarily institutionalized). You can tell yourself:
I am not dying.
This is a prehistorically programmed and misdirected autonomic nervous response reserved for real emergencies (like running from a charging woolly mammoth.)
1, 2, 3... (Counting out breaths - one of many relaxation techniques I use with clients.)
Hmm...My throat’s dry. I should bring some water.
Hmm...My palms are damp. I'll have to bring a tissue.
I AM NOT DYING.
"Talk yourself down" when fear threatens to derail you. The goal is to learn to live with the symptoms and lighten their effect through practicing these and other techniques. How you think about yourself has a lot to do with how easily you take to these changes. If you’ve decided that being a professional and being a human are mutually exclusive, your road will likely be longer.

In this way you may find that public (or other) speaking is not as miserable and frightening as you first thought. And it's no woolly mammoth.

UPDATE Sept. 2013: Finally, science has caught up with my theory (from 2009)



Thank you, Kelly McGonigal

Secret #1: People Want You To Be Interesting



It's true, we live in a competitive society and the intentions of others don't always include our best interest. Despite this reality, most people - and certainly the people we should be most concerned with - want you to be interesting.

It's a popular misconception that others want to see you fail.

Think about it: If you have to stop what you're doing in the middle of a busy week to attend a presentation, or a meeting or even just to take a telephone call, it will feel like less of a disruption if the information you are given is interesting and beneficial to you. Conversely, as a speaker, presenter or even disembodied voice on the end of the line, it is important to know that, at the most basic level, the listener is hoping for the best. For all intents and purposes, they are on your side.

Using this perspective - which is not just a positive mantra but an accurate assumption - has two very important and positive side-effects: it boosts confidence and helps you infuse your message with real value.

As you think about what you want to say, consider how your message may be of value to the listener and present from that angle. Working backwards from the desired effect helps to keep the message concise, meaningful and targeted to the listener.

To view the listener as a critic and an adversary is to mire yourself in emotional quicksand. It encourages a belief in the listener that their time is being taken, rather than the notion that the speaker is giving their time in the interest of offering the listener something they want.

Welcome


Thank you for reading my 10 Secrets for Great Communication. I have created this in response to a number of requests for a shorter, pocket-sized version of my previous blog. This material is being expanded into a book to be published in the near future. Be sure to check back for updates on this over the next few months.
For more information about me and the services I offer, feel free to visit my website. Also, please be sure to sign up to receive my free report, "7 Crimes Against Communication" using the form to the right.
Below is the list of the 10 Secrets. Follow along each week for the most recent installment of the expanded (yet abridged!) versions of each:
  1. People Want You To Be Interesting
  2. Fear Is Like Excitement & Can Be Harnessed
  3. Relaxation Is A Skill
  4. Criticism Doesn't Have To Hurt
  5. Communication Is A Gift
  6. Rehearsal Required
  7. What's The Angle?
  8. Find The Hook
  9. Be Human
  10. Repeat After Me: "I Don't Know"
I hope you find this blog useful, share it with colleagues and anyone else you think may benefit, and offer any feedback that you care to share.