Great way to express gratitude—a pro tip for speakers

one way to express gratitudeIf 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.”

And I discussed the importance of creating a sense of mystery when you tell a story. Chris Anderson, in his book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, talks about the power of framing your speech like a “detective story.”

Step 3—the surprise

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:

  1. Express gratitude
  2. Highlight an important aspect of my Smith experience
  3. 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.


Shape your stories to make them memorable—discover how in my hands-on editing workshop. Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch.

Hello False Start, my old friend: transparency in editing

edit out the false startI’d been planning to focus on editing in my class this week, so when I got an email with a classic writing error, I thanked the universe and pasted the copy onto a slide. The writer had made a false start: the first paragraph bore no relation to the headline or to the actual point of the post.

Many writers fall into the false start. Sometimes it’s unconscious throat-clearing before launching into the main subject. Other times the writer may (also unconsciously) have something to get off her chest before she can continue with her real subject. That was the problem with the email, and my writers saw it immediately when I presented it in class.

On occasion, the false start happens because writers cannot pass up opportunities to talk about themselves. I once came across a blog post whose first paragraph ended with the sentence:

“But I digress.”

The occasional digression can be entertaining. But if you find yourself apologizing for a digression in your first paragraph, that’s a pretty good sign you’ve made a false start.

I knew that. But I did it anyway.

False Start, true story

Yes, the second example of false start I offered my writers came from this very blog. I figured, to paraphrase the Bible, that I can’t criticize the mote in another writer’s work while ignoring the beam in my own. (And because I always like to give proper credit, hat-tip to Matthew…or his ghostwriter.)

I didn’t have to scroll too far through the blog archives to find a false start. My post from April 1st, “It’s all about story at Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference,” contained a doozy. I should have started right in to praise the fascinating presentations I’d heard. But instead I used three of the first four sentences to praise my own. And then tried to justify hijacking my own blog post by adding, “But I digress.”

The post also had a pretty poor excuse for a conclusion, and I outed that to my writers as well. The last paragraph focuses on authenticity—which is an element of storytelling, certainly. But to fulfill the promise of the headline, the conclusion needed to focus on the bigger picture.

The second-to-last paragraph does that very well. So why did I add more? I was drunk on Demon SEO, and 15 words short of the magic number: 300. So I added 80 irrelevant words.

Now, that may be an acceptable choice for some people—the kind of people who just shovel words onto the interwebs in the hope that Lady Google will smile on them. But I’m not a word-shoveler; I’m a writer. I owe it to my readers and myself to deliver pieces written with integrity.

Nobody’s perfect—that’s why we edit

Which is not to say that you can expect perfect writing from me every time you click on a post. Nobody can deliver that. Our job as writers is just to do the best we can. Write every day and over time (I believe) your worst work will get a little less-bad, and your best work will shine.

If you want to do a deep dive on all the problems I found in my post, download the edited document here.

And if you’re interested in joining me for an editing program I’m putting together, click here to get on the list.

“YOU’RE a professional?” Unconscious bias, it’s still here

Bella Abzug, a true professional
Bella Abzug, Library of Congress

The inimitable Bella Abzug always wore a hat. Not because her head was cold, or because she wanted to be ready if the Royal Family asked her to tea. No, Abzug—a lawyer, activist, and politician who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the U.S. Congress for six years in the 1970s—wore a hat because it marked her as a professional. Back when most of the women in the workforce were secretaries, that was an important distinction.

The 1970s—nearly half a century ago. Women comprise a significantly larger percentage of the professional workforce. Yet people still make assumptions about what we can and cannot do, based on how we look.

Tessa Ann Taylor, Senior Software Engineer at The New York Times, says she still encounters people who seem mystified by the fact that she can be female and an engineer.

Speaking at last week’s Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference, Taylor said that people—okay, male people—have literally asked her “How are you a software engineer?”

Bella Abzug understood this mentality. She once said that while men have been told to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” for women it was “talk softly and carry a lipstick.” That may have been a guaranteed laugh line, but Abzug’s journal entries are less jocular:

“I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.”

Taylor may not be trying to “knock the crap” out of the corporate power structure, but she does do a lot of training to help people recognize the Unconscious Biases That Will Not Die. Or at least That Haven’t Died Yet.

Women of color in professional leadership

On the final day of the conference, I attended a workshop called “Leadership as Disruption: Women of Color and their Allies Moving Beyond the Boundaries,” led by Aziza Jones, MSW. Jones challenged us to identify strategies to support and increase opportunities for women of color to lead. And also to identify ways in which we can support them as allies.

The bottom line for all of this work: Be willing to have difficult conversations. The more we can share our reality—and understand our privilege, for those of us who have it in this crazy world—the more we’ll be able to connect with others. Whether those others are women of a different race, or the clueless men who ask questions like “How are you an engineer?”

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker

Talk. Connect. Use your power—for yourself and for each other. It’s time for us to change the world, don’t you think?


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

It’s all about story at Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference

It was a full day of speechifying at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference yesterday: I listened to five and gave one. Most of the presentations were good; a couple were downright excellent. Mine was standing room only, and punctuated by a sustained round of spontaneous applause. But I digress.

The theme of the conference is “Pushing Boundaries,” but the throughline running through all of the talks I saw was storytelling. Regular readers will know this warms my heart.

Stories are the saline solution of the word world. They can transport any kind of information straight to our hearts. Okay, that’s an icky metaphor. Sorry.

My point is whether you’re delivering inspirational advice, like the 23-year-old marathon swimmer who spoke at lunch, or helping people see how they can effect diversity and inclusion in their organizations, or dismantling the patriarchy with a laugh and a smile (you’ll hear more about that speech once I’ve processed it a little longer)—the medium for all of these messages was storytelling.

Even introverts can tell stories, as the impressive Tori Murden McClure ably demonstrated. I blogged about her gripping memoir seven years ago. And look at what I called the post: The Power of a Story.

As I said in that ancient blog post,

“Whether it’s something that has happened to you or a story with a good moral that you’ve plucked from history or literature , the story has to have a tangible effect on you—the speaker—if it’s going to have an impact on your audience.”

I said pretty much the same thing today (it’s nice to know I’m intellectually consistent). And all of the speakers whose presentations I most enjoyed put that advice into action.

When you speak, your audience gives you their attention. Well, okay, you have to earn it. But if you want to make a good speech—and why in the world are you up there talking if you don’t?—you owe them something more than a bunch of words. You owe them a piece of yourself, a real connection, a window (however wide you care to open it) into what makes you tick and what might in fact make them tick.