Q: What do I do when I get nervous?
A: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
A friend of mine gave a speech yesterday. “I’m nervous,” she told me.
My response? “Good. That means you’re alive.”
Really, folks, everybody gets nervous.
That speech you’re so nervous about giving, I bet you were nervous about writing it, too. But you survived the writing and you will survive the reading. The key to both is:
Don’t pathologize it.
Being nervous is just part of the process. Like making sure you put the page numbers at the top of each page. Like printing out two copies of the draft, so you’re sure to remember one. Like tapping the pages on the lectern to make sure they’re all lined up neatly before you speak. It’s a process.
I guarantee that every speaker—no matter how experienced—feels butterflies. But the pros just say, “Hey, butterflies. How ya doin’?” Breathe, maybe strike a power pose in the bathroom. Stand up straight and walk onstage with a smile. Maybe the butterflies will flutter after you. But once you hear the first applause or laughter, you’ll relax into it.
Q; How do I integrate slides in my speeches?
A: Do you really have to? Really?
I have nothing against slides—if they add value to a speech. But most speakers ask for slides because:
everyone else uses them
they need a reminder of what they’re talking about
they want to believe it’s a TED Talk
holding the clicky thing gives them something to do with their hands.
Look, none of these are capital offenses. But they’re not particularly good reasons, either.
Because everyone else uses them?
But the majority of “everyone else” uses them badly. Still, if you’ve sat through dozens of presentations with eye-chart slides, you think that’s the way to give a professional presentation.
You load up each slide with as much information as it can handle. If your audience can read the tiny type at all, they’ll have taken in the information in a minute flat. But they have to sit there listening to you read it to them for the next five or 10.
Is this a good use of anyone’s time? Will they be a) grateful for the information? Or just b) grateful that you’ve stopped talking?
How have you felt sitting through one of those presentations? So why would you inflict it on anyone else?
Integrate slides to add value to the presentation
There’s only one reason to use slides—and if you pay close attention to the mainstage TED Talks, you’ll see that’s how they use slides: to add value to what you’re saying.
If you’re talking about rocket science, you don’t need a picture of a rocket ship: everyone in your audience could pick a rocket ship out of a lineup. Showing them a photograph of one only diverts their attention away from you. And in my book, that’s the biggest mistake a speaker can make.
“…the first question to ask yourself is whether you need [slides]. It’s a striking fact that at least a third of TED’s most viewed talks make no use of slides whatsoever.”
One-third—sling that fact at the next person who tells you you need to use slides “because TED.”
Also, Anderson says if your presentation is well-written, you don’t need gimmicks. Okay, he didn’t exactly say that. He said:
“…if the core of your talk is intensely personal, or if you have other devices for livening up your talk—like humor or vivid stories—then you may do better to forget the visuals and just focus on speaking personally to the audience.”
I added the emphasis there. Of course.
But if you still feel you need visual aids, integrate slides into your presentation. Or as Anderson says:
“there needs to be a compelling fit between what you tell and what you show.”
“…limit each slide to a single core idea.”
The bottom line:
“When you think about it, it’s fairly simple. The main purpose of visuals can’t be communicate words; your mouth is perfectly good at doing that. It’s to share things your mouth can’t do so well: photographs, video, animations, key data.”
Integrate slides into your script
Today’s question came from one of my readers on LinkedIn. All the poor man wanted to know, I think, was how to integrate slides into the text he gives his client.
Removing Confederate statues has become a pretext for white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity, most memorably in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of weeks ago. New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the situation more clearly and with more moral authority than many better-known politicians.
Every other week, I do a deep analysis of a piece of writing for the people subscribed to my Weekly What series—a yearlong, self-directed writing program that I’ve offered in connection with my Writing Unbound course. Here are some excerpts from my analysis.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu tells a powerful story
Mayor Landrieu begins with two things I usually caution against: a thank you and a list. As for the thank you, at least it’s brief. But the list is not. And I’m okay with that. The Civil War is usually seen as a black- vs.-white thing or North vs. South. But in New Orleans, nothing is ever that simple. So I love that the Mayor began by naming all the tribes and nations whose people shaped the history of this remarkably polyglot city. Then he continued:
But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.
He faces the “other truths” head on. And notice the details in the description; he doesn’t let his listeners off the hook by glossing over the horrors of slavery. But he also doesn’t indict Louisiana alone—“America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched.” I winced when I got to that last word.
So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth….
“An inaccurate recitation of our past”
Later, he demolishes the argument about historical necessity:
To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.
And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.
And Mayor Landrieu ends by confronting the charge that removing Confederate monuments “erases history.”
We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals.
If you’d like to read my full analysis, click the green button. It’s a very fine speech. Thank you, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, for your leadership on this issue.
The Nobel Prize in literature last year went to Bob Dylan. An unconventional choice by any measure. Prize-winners give a speech when they pick up their awards. Dylan, unconventionally, sent singer Patti Smith in his place, to sing one of his songs.
Extraordinary. I’m sure it is. It may be the first Nobel Prize speech delivered like a cabaret show, with a solo pianist noodling away. In the world of cabaret, musicians most often “noodle” to distract the audience from a singer’s vapid or over-extended between-songs patter.
Not that I’m calling Dylan’s speech vapid; that’s for you to judge. But as for over-extended, would anyone expect less of the man who pioneered the six-minute-long single? A six-minute-long single that was voted the #1 song of the 20th century. The entire 20th century. Now that’s extraordinary.
Most of the eloquence of Dylan’s speech derives from the three great works of literature he summarizes—at length. The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. He starts with Melville’s opus, the précis of which consumes nearly half of the 27 minutes of his speech. After—spoiler alert—Ahab goes down to his watery grave and Ishmael survives by floating on a coffin, Dylan concludes:
“That theme, and all that it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”
And that’s it.
That’s it. And he’s on to the next book report.
Not even Bob Dylan understands why he won the Nobel
I suppose this was Dylan’s way of tying his work to “real” literature, the literature that resonated most with him when he was growing up. He says as much in the opening of the speech:
“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you.”
Except he didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t a speech so much as a word antipasto. He laid out the ingredients for a feast and invited each listener to assemble the speech he or she wanted.
Bob Dylan is an extraordinary poet. He knows his way around a metaphor as well as anyone—as well, perhaps, as the poet whose name he incorporated in his stage name, Dylan Thomas. He could have taken this occasion to speak about the importance of lyrics, the ability of lyrics set to music to catalyze change. He could have done a lot. Instead, he offered us book reports. (I wish he’d just hired a good speechwriter.)
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I didn’t have time to watch Jim Comey’s testimony live yesterday: I had to prep for the writing class I lead on Thursdays. And after that, I had to dive back into The Project That Ate My Week™, whose deadline looms tomorrow. (I’ll make it; I always do.)
It’s certainly not the most important thing the former FBI Director said. It won’t be a central feature of the future analyses written about this key turning point in American history. If there’s a future in which to write histories.
But it may just be the “stickiest”—most memorable—sentence to emerge from his testimony:
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
Why “Lordy” matters
Think about all the ways Comey could have phrased that response:
“I certainly hope there are tapes.”
“I would welcome the release of those tapes, should they exist.”
Those are plausible examples of bureaucrat-ese. And boring as hell. Or as we can imagine Comey might say, “as heck.”
But “Lordy” takes the information out of the hearing room and puts it out in the real world. I was going to say “on the street” but that street would be somewhere in Mayberry. And that’s part of what makes it sticky. It’s somehow not of our world, so our brains hang onto it a little longer than they would a more familiar word. We turn it over, examine it from all angles. And in examining the unfamiliar word, we also hang onto the rest of the sentence: “I hope there are tapes.”
Of course, Comey was talking about the tapes that Tr*mp claimed to have of their private conversations. But when we get to thinking about those tapes, we can’t help but be reminded of those other tapes, the more salacious tapes the Russians are rumored to have. The more we think about tapes in connection with that man in the White House, the worse it is for him. And “Lordy”—lordy, lordy, we can’t let go of that word. And the tapes that follow it.
Straight from the heart
“Lordy” did not come from a lawyer or a communications consultant. It’s a colloquialism—informal language; it’s just the way people talk. Straight from the heart.
If you want people to listen to you, a communications consultant can help. But if you want people to remember you, speak straight from the heart. (And—shhh!—a great communications consultant can help there too.)
A well-placed colloquialism can have a lasting impact.
Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.
Authenticity: some people love it, some people hate it. I’m in the former camp. I’m always pushing my clients for personal anecdotes to anchor the business points they want to make. It surprises them at first, my insistence on finding out about what they do when they kick off their business shoes. But once the feedback starts coming in—the emails from people in far-flung corners of the business, saying how much they connected with the story du jour—then they’re hooked. They see it’s not just meaningless blabber; it’s world-changing authenticity.
I had the privilege of seeing authenticity in action in a speech I gave for alumnae of my high school last week. The organizers described it as a “TED Talk-like event” (we’ll save the discussion of that overused description for another time). They encouraged me to talk about a transformative business experience. And then they called back to say they hoped I would also talk about my side gig as a cabaret singer. All in seven minutes, max. No problem.
So I talked about how I became a speechwriter by saying yes to an unexpected opportunity.
I talked about the importance of respecting your ideas, about how I almost swatted away the idea for my Cicero Award-winning speech because it presented itself as a distraction. I’ve written about that before.
And I talked about my start as a cabaret singer, that I’d had an idea for a lesbian cabaret show for about 15 years before I had the wherewithal to make it a reality. One legendary cabaret figure told me I was the first out lesbian cabaret singer in New York.
World-changing authenticity — just one story away
After the program, a woman—somewhere in her early 70s, very elegant, slightly stooped—came up to talk with me. I had to lean in to hear her. She asked me about the environment for gay students at the school today and I told her all the very encouraging things I’d heard and seen.
Speaking even more softly, she said, “I’m bisexual. And I’ve never been able to tell my classmates.” In full voice, she added: “But that ends today!”
I hadn’t expected my presentation would impact anyone that profoundly. I figured they’d be amused; I hoped they’d be entertained. I never thought of it as a speech about LGBT visibility. If you asked me what I hoped they’d take away from the speech, I would have answered:
“If you’re going to hire a speechwriter, make time to talk to your speechwriter. Your very own self. Don’t delegate it.”
But my authenticity connected powerfully with that woman. And encouraged her to become more authentic in her own life.
That’s a tremendous gift. That’s world-changing authenticity, at least in her world—and mine.
If you find yourself wondering “to be or not to be…authentic?”—I hope you’ll remember that elegant older woman. You never know whose life you can impact when you share even a small piece of yourself.
If I’ve given my regular readers the impression that I hate “thank yous,” I apologize. I love it when speakers express gratitude—just not at the beginning of a speech.
You never want to give your audience an excuse not to listen to you. And what says “I’m not talking to you right now” better than taking three minutes to lavish thanks on 0.01% of the people present. That’s why I tell my clients—and my writing students—to integrate their thank yous into the body of a speech. Find a way that they can add value to what you’re saying.
Here’s how I used the technique at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference last month.
Step 1—the set-up
I talked about how and why speakers shouldn’t open with a list of thank yous.
“When you get called on in a meeting, do you stand up and say, ‘I’d like to thank John for calling on me. And Josh for getting the bagels. And, Margie—great PowerPoint!’ Of course you don’t; you’d be laughed out of the room. People in a meeting want to hear your ideas. Your audience at a speech does too.”
Still, it’s appropriate to thank your hosts. And I said I would—when it would add value to my presentation.
Step 2—the recall
Maybe 10 minutes later, I reminded the audience that I promised to thank the college. After a beat, I said:
“No, I’m not going to do that yet. But you’re all waiting for it, right? That’s because I’ve created Mystery.”
Toward the end of my speech, I told a story about a meaningful experience I’d had at Smith, something profound I learned that’s served me well throughout my career. I showed a photo of the professor who taught me the lesson. He’s still teaching, all these years later, and his students and former students let out a small cheer.
“…And I would like to thank Smith for bringing me back here today so I could share this story with you.”
And the audience broke out into laughter and spontaneous applause.
As one woman told me the next day,
“We knew you were going to do it. You told us to expect it. But we never saw it coming.”
Express gratitude memorably
How did I get there?
Well, you can pretty much never go wrong when you use the Rule of Three: aim for a laugh on the third repetition of something. Could I have thanked Smith when I discussed thank yous the first time? Probably. I could definitely have done it the second time—but I enjoyed faking out the audience. I worried that by the third time the “thank you” would be as obvious as an 18-wheeler barreling down the highway. But apparently not.
Why not? How was I able to sneak the final set-up for my thank you into the speech? Because I embedded it in a story. And that story fit seamlessly into the body of my speech.
That’s what I mean by adding value with every element of your speech. By the time I got around to the obligatory thank you, it served three purposes:
Highlight an important aspect of my Smith experience
Demonstrate a speech technique
Your “thank you” might not accomplish all three of these things—I was fortunate to be speaking about how to give a great speech—but it can definitely do more than just express gratitude to specific people.
How can you use your gratitude to enhance your audience’s experience or their understanding of your material? It takes more thought up front, but your audience will remember—and appreciate—you for it.
I get it. Many clients hate “wasting their time” in rehearsal—standing in an empty room for an hour, saying the things they will later say in a full room.
Here’s my tough-love response: If you don’t want to rehearse, don’t accept the gig. But if you have accepted the gig, if you’re going to stand up in front of a roomful of people and ask for their attention, you owe it to them—and to your reputation—to be prepared.
Think about it: How would you feel if one of your direct reports made an unrehearsed presentation to the Board of Directors? Would you think well of him? “Gee, what a great guy. And clearly so busy with his real work to bother with preparation. Impressive.”
I think not.
I expect you’d be embarrassed that one of your people showed up unprepared. You might even feel that he didn’t respect you or value the Board’s time. (And you’d be right.) Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be that guy when comp time rolls around.
You hate having to sit through an unprepared speaker’s performance. That—not rehearsal—is the true waste of your time.
So why would you even think about inflicting that pain on someone else?
“UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian created the 7-38-55 rule. That is, only 7 percent of a message is based on the words while 38 percent comes from the tone of voice and 55 percent from the speaker’s body language and face.”
Translation: Audiences have many ways to spot a bullsh*tter. So don’t be one.
Oliver Sacks told a story in one of his books—maybe The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, though I don’t have access to check it right now—of some neurology patients watching a televised speech by then-president Ronald Reagan. The sound was turned off, so they could not hear what the president was talking about. But although it was a serious subject, they were laughing their heads off. They registered his insincerity just by looking at him.
A later Republican president remains barely comprehensible when you listen to him speak, but completely indecipherable—and more than a little nutty—when you read the transcripts. In his case, his facial expressions and demeanor work in his advantage. Audiences somehow see him as more substantive than readers do.
People think speeches of speeches as a bunch of words. And words are important. But (and it pains me to write this), words may not be the most important element of a speech. Tone of voice, the expressions on your face, your comfort onstage—these convey your confidence in your message.
So do you need rehearsal? Only if you want people to believe you and your message.
And if you don’t want people to believe you, then—again—why did you accept the gig to begin with?
Actor and producer Sean Hayes got an award last week. Nothing newsworthy about that; he’s got a mantel full of them from his work on the groundbreaking sitcom Will & Grace. Last week’s award came from the nonprofit Outfest, which runs film festivals and otherwise promotes the work of LGBT artists.
Outfest’s award banquet doubles as a major fund-raiser for the organization; having famous names on the invitation drives ticket sales. Hayes could easily have just walked the red carpet with his husband, accepted his award with a few jokes—he’s a gifted comedian, after all—and gone home. No muss, no fuss. And he’d probably even get a swag bag.
Hayes could have turned this into a pro forma event, in other words. But instead he got real. And that is a beautiful gift to give your audience. So listen up, people.
“…in recognition of his exemplary career as a stage, film, television, and recording artist and for his longtime, passionate support of the LGBT community. As one of this generation’s most visible and beloved LGBT performers, he has played a key role in the community’s progress and empowerment.”
Christopher Racster, Outfest’s executive director, said:
“Sean Hayes [sic] portrayal of Jack on NBC’s Will & Grace took the stereotypical gay sissy and made him human, lovable, flawed and real.”
Lovely words. And true. But Hayes recognized that his audience—at least some of them—knew that there was more to it than that. Because while Hayes was busy racking up awards for playing this “stereotypical gay sissy” he was living as what one might call the “stereotypical closeted actor.”
No one would have faulted Sean Hayes for ignoring the closeted elephant in the room. That was a long time ago; he’s been openly gay for years now. And it was a gala, for goodness sake. People were there to have fun and hang out, not to settle nearly two-decade-old scores. (Will & Grace premiered in 1998.)
But Hayes has apparently grown into a man of great integrity. He approached the occasion humbly, saying that when he thinks of a Trailblazer Award winner,
“I…think of someone who has forged ahead of the pack and cleared a path for the rest of us. I feared that I may not be deserving of such an honor.”
Because while his character on Will & Grace may have been “lovable and flawed,” Hayes thinks that any description of himself
“…should have led with ‘flawed’ because at the time I was a young, closeted actor having his first taste of a little success. And unfortunately in my mind, my lucky break was inextricably tied to me thinking I had to stay in the closet to keep moving forward.”
He accepts responsibility for his actions simply and powerfully:
“Looking back at my choice to stay silent, I’m ashamed and embarrassed.”
“So when it comes to nights like tonight and honors like this, I’m consumed with what I didn’t do. I know I should have come out sooner and I’m sorry for that. Especially when I think about the possibility that I might have made a difference in someone’s life. I would probably be able to sleep a lot better than I do if I had acted sooner.”
This is a beautiful apology. Heartfelt and simple. And real. Hayes talks about the impact he might have had if he’d spoken out. And he talks about the impact his choice to stay closeted has had on him.
Authentic apology, Sean Hayes-style
That’s the reason I wanted to write about this speech. Not to help my corporate readers write mea culpas about coming out of the closet. Although if you’re in there and feeling claustrophobic, think of coming out as a fabulous opportunity to network with Tim Cook.
No, I wanted to write about this speech because we all need to apologize sometimes. And too many of us–especially public figures like business executives and politicians—just suck at it. Sorry for the technical term there, but it’s true.
Public figures “apologize” by using weasel words, vague constructions, conditional verbs: “Mistakes were made.” A vague apology is no apology. Step up and take responsibility.
Whether you’re apologizing to a colleague for cutting her off in a meeting, or to your employees for a poor business decision, Sean Hayes’s speech offers a great model:
Acknowledge the mistake simply and clearly
Acknowledge how your actions or decisions have impacted the people you’re talking to
Only after you have thoroughly accomplished step #2, talk about the personal impact this event has had on you.
Step #3 there is tricky. This apology is not all about you—it’s about the people you hurt, or the organization you harmed. The organization which, presumably, hires people to work in it—everything points back to the human element.
But you’re human, too. Remind your audience of that and they’re much more likely to sympathize with your situation.
When is the right time to apologize? Sean Hayes showed us that it’s never too late for an authentic apology. As he said in his speech:
“We learn our lessons only when we’re ready. Hopefully life is …as much about what we do after we learn those lessons.”
Thank you, Sean Hayes. You may not have set the perfect example for gay kids 20 years ago, but you offered a stellar example of an authentic apology this week.
We most often find political candidates making points blatantly at political rallies or debates. But telling stories allows a speaker to make points much more subtly and powerfully.
The night after the final debate found the two major party presidential candidates sharing a stage once more. The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, an annual fund-raiser for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s children’s programs is a roast, of sorts, but with a really spiffy audience: the dress code is white tie and tails, except for the clergy, who break out their finest robes. The emcee, Alfred E. Smith IV, told Trump that even though the man next to him—Cardinal Timothy Dolan—was wearing a robe, he should remember he wasn’t in a locker room.
The politicians who speak—and in a presidential election year, it’s always the two presidential candidates—usually engage in gentle partisan ribbing. But of course, behavioral norms disappear when Trump takes the stage.
He started out with self-aggrandizing humor (comparing himself to “a carpenter’s son” the Catholics hold in high regard) and rapidly devolved into thinly veiled ad hominem (ad feminem?) attacks on Clinton as he veered closer to the points he makes in his stump speech. He got booed—so loudly and so often that even Fox News had to notice. And, honestly, he deserved every second of it.
Clinton landed some good jokes and then took a more political turn, as well. She talked about the discrimination Al Smith faced as the first Catholic to run for president. She talked about the many immigrants—Catholic and otherwise—who make great contributions to this country. And she talked about the Christian values that she, a Methodist, shares with the Catholic Church.
In another venue, Clinton might have contrasted her positions with Trump’s. She might have said, “Smith faced the same kind of discrimination Trump wants us to apply to Muslims.” She might have said, “Many of your parents were immigrants; Trump wants to keep people like them out of the country.” She might have said—well, just about anything about how Trump’s life and actions contradict just about everything Christianity stands for.
But she didn’t. She didn’t need to.
Making points with the perfect story
Clinton’s classy approach wasn’t the only thing I loved about her Alfred E. Smith Dinner performance. I also loved the story safari aspect.
Another politician might have just name-checked Al Smith and moved on. After all, the guy’s been dead for more than 70 years; it’s not like he’d notice.
But Clinton and her speechwriters found the perfect stories—true stories—to build the back half of her speech around. That allowed her to connect with her audience by honoring the person they named their fund-raiser after. And to showcase the issues she cares about and her fundamental human decency. (Amazing that that’s a distinguishing characteristic in this election. Remember when it was table stakes?)
True stories are always the best, richest sources of material. They’re not always easy to find. But half the fun of the hunt lies in finally bagging the prize. Congratulations to Clinton and her speechwriters.