Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Speaking Lesson from Elmo

Listen to this NPR interview with Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo:

About six minutes into the interview, Terry Gross asks Elmo what he has to do to remain invisible, especially when kids come into the studio.

He responds:

"They really don't look at me when they see Elmo. They run to Elmo because it's a friend of
theirs that they've been talking to and communicating with and singing with for so many years. We've found that the delusion is not broken by seeing us puppeteers. They see the characters in front of them. ... I get humbled by it all the time. The things that they tell Elmo, the expression on their face when they see their friend."

As a puppeteer, Clash connects with his audience by making himself invisible - by being someone Elmo. On one hand, making yourself invisible is the opposite of what you need to do as a speaker. You need to reveal yourself in order to connect to the audience.

On the other hand, there is a powerful speaking lesson here. By removing himself from the picture, Clash is able to be fully generous and present with his audience.

As a speaker, self-consciousness inhibits presence. When we are too aware of ourselves, we fail to be fully present with the audience - and we get nervous.

By focusing on the audience - by being generous - we are able to give the audience the full gift of our presence.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Be Generous

This is a great time of year to talk about generosity - one of the most powerful qualities a speaker can possess.

How do you feel when someone tries to sell you something?

At best, you may feel compelled to buy it.
At worst, you may feel manipulated, annoyed, and even violated.
But you almost never feel a true sense of connection with the seller.

Now, how do you feel when someone gives you a gift?

At worst, you may feel disappointed not to have gotten something better.
At best, you feel terrific.
And almost always, you feel grateful.

From the Green Room: Speak with generosity. Remember you are giving the audience a gift - not making a sales pitch. This subtle change in attitude makes can make enormous difference in how you approach your audience - and in how you are received.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Even to an Audience of One: Speaking Lesson from the Muppets

It happens to the best of us.

You prepare a super presentation - and no one shows up. Wait it gets worse. If absolutely nobody showed, you could at least call it a day and go home.

But one person comes. And you have no choice but to stay and give the presentation.

It happened to the Muppets.

In the 2011 movie, the Muppets have to put on the show of their lives - and only one person shows up to watch - Hobo Joe.

So what do they do?

They perform as if there were millions watching. And what happens? Eventually, millions tune in.

From the Green Room: Aim to be at your best every time you get up to speak - even if only one person shows up. You never know where that can lead.

Nancy Duarte - The Shape a Great Presentation

Listen to this inspiring TED talk given by Nancy Duarte, author of slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations:

Duarte explains that great presentations share the same basic shape - a movement between what is and what could be. She analyzes Steve Jobs' iPhone launch keynote and MLK's I Have a Dream peech - and demonstrates how - in very different ways - both speeches share that up-down shape.

While I find her analysis fascinating, what interested me even more was her ultimate takeaway: This is the shape of overcoming obstacles. By moving back and forth from what is to what could be, the speaker enables the audience to move past the resistance of the present reality - and into the possibilities for the future.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Speaking Lesson from Apple

Last night, I got a message on my iPhone asking me to download recent updates.

I get messages like these from Firefox all the time. Rarely do I pay attention.

But the one from Apple got my attention. Why?

Unlike Firefox, Apple told me specifically what the updates would do. In simple, concrete language, I learned which problems the updates would fix and how they would make my phone better.

So often speakers make the mistake of jumping into the substance without first explaining what they're there to do in the first place. The result? People lose attention.

From the Green Room: Early in your presentation, tell your audience what you're there to do - and how it will impact them. If you communicate clearly where you're taking them, your audience will be more likely to stay with you.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Be the Host - Not the Guest

This Thanksgiving, will you be a guest or a host?

A good guest shows due gratitude and appreciation to the host. But as a guest, you have much less power.

A host manages the entire experience for the guests. And a good host ensures that the guests feel welcomed, satisfied, and content.
If the evening is a success, it is the host who takes credit.

From the Green Room: W
hen you speak, be the host - not the guest. Rather than begin your speech by thanking the audience for inviting you, begin by welcoming them to an experience.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Leave Room for Improv

Watch this hilarious Ted talk from this week - Charlie Shodd: The Shared Experience of Absurdity:

The absurd scenes created here were funny only because of the people involved who had no idea what was going on.

Speakers tend to practice as a way to avoid the unexpected. But while preparation is absolutely essential, it is sometimes those unexpected moments in a presentation that make the most impact.

From the Green Room: Know your core message. But don't memorize your speech. Leave room for a little improv!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Don't Suffer

What happened to Rick Perry in last night's debate is a speaker's nightmare - a brain freeze followed by 43 agonizing stammering seconds.

If this gaffe brings him down, it won't be because he forgot the name of the Department of Energy. It will be because of his response.

Rather than moving on with confidence and ease, Perry suffered - and the audience suffered with him.

From the Green Room: Face it - You will mess up. What matters is how you bounce back. Never suffer. Emotions are contagious and your audience will suffer as well. Keep your confidence. Keep your cool. And move on.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Step away from the Podium

Podiums create distance between you and the audience. They make it difficult to connect.

In this week's NYT, Michael Shear and Ashley Parker describe how Mitt Romney's speaking got much better once he stepped away from the lecturn:

Mitt Romney crammed for the Republican presidential debates four years ago, he went all out: The campaign built a stage with four lecterns and used senior staff as stand-ins for his rivals, John McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani...

This month, when Mr. Romney prepared for his seventh debate of the 2012 campaign, at Dartmouth College, there were no lecterns. No one playing Rick Perry or Herman Cain...Mr. Romney and a few aides simply sat around a small table at the Hanover Inn in New Hampshire and batted around topics in the news.

The result was markedly different. Four years ago, Mr. Romney responded to a debate question about the Iraq war by lapsing into consultant-speak. “The question is kind of a non sequitur, if you will, and what I mean by that — or a null set,” he said.

At a recent debate, he gave short snappy answers — “nice try!” — as he delivered another in a string of largely successful debate performances.

From the Green Room: Whenever possible, step away from the podium. This is one of the easiest ways to improve your speaking. By removing this physical barrier, you are more likely to speak naturally and succinctly - and to speak directly to your audience.

And even if you need to speak with a lectern, take a lesson from Romney and practice without the podium.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Harness the Power of Stillness

Last week in Vegas, Jock Elliott earned the title of 2011 World Champion of Public Speaking in a contest sponsored by Toastmasters International. Here is his remarkable speech, "Just So Lucky":

This week's New York Times Magazine featured a piece about the contest in which Elliott reflects on what made him stand out:

By the time it was Elliott’s turn, he felt good about his odds of winning... While the other speeches relied on props and histrionics, Elliott’s was much quieter. “I was very conscious that the style of it, the physical stillness and vocal quietness, would be at variance with the others, and that would either work for or against me.”

From the Green Room: So often, speakers try to get attention by moving around a lot and by making as much noise as possible.

Instead, try to harness the power of stillness when you speak. Pause. Lower your voice when you make your most important point (of course, audibly!) Keep your head still.

It is in the stillness that people are fully able to absorb the impact of your message.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Power of the Prop

Listen to this wonderful panel from this Wednesday's Kojo Nnandi Show on NPR:

Kojo interviews Sharon Gruber, nutrition consultant Bread for the City, a Washington organization that provides food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services to the poor.

About 8 minutes in Sharon was asked to speak about a gleaning program at Bread, where local farmers donate leftover fresh produce to be given to low income residents.

Rather than just talking about the gleaned food, Sharon brought it in! She spoke about the beautiful radishes, the whole bags of basil, the squash and ears of corn. The listeners heard the sound of the farm fresh produce tumbling on the table.

Even though we couldn't actually see the produce, Sharon's brilliant use of a prop helped us concretize and remember her message much more than words could ever do.

From the Green Room: Use a prop - one prop - and use it well. It is a powerful way to make your message stick.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How to Slow Down

Most people think they speak too quickly - especially in front of a group.

So how can you learn to slow down?

The answer? By believing in the importance of your message.

If you truly have something you need to share with your particular audience, you'll naturally do everything you can to make sure each person can understand you.

So often, we speak too quickly because we don't want to waste other people's time. We want to get through the material as fast possible, so that the audience can move on with their day.

From the Green Room: If you prepare a clear, concise, and relevant message for your audience - you will naturally slow down so they can fully receive it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Broadway or in the Board Room - Just Have Fun

I love this piece by Patrick Healy in Monday's NYT:

Hopefuls Sing Out From Afar as Broadway Scouts Go Online

James Lapine, who is also directing the “Annie” revival, said that videos can sometimes help him notice talent that he might not otherwise see at live auditions.

“Actors, especially young actors, can be very nervous when they’re performing live in front of us,” he said. “Video auditions can reveal a level of focus, concentration and confidence.

The piece features a few of the best video auditions. My favorite was Julia Tan. Why? In addition to being quite talented, she has fun - and thus is fun to watch. I hope she makes it!

From the Green Room: Never underestimate the power of having fun during a presentation. Having fun is contagious. If you have fun, the audience will as well.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fois Gras and The Power of Storytelling

Listen to this fascinating food parable told by Chef Dan Barber on (2008):

From the Green Room: Great speakers tell great stories.

For an excellent book on how to tell and use stories, read The Story Factor, by Annette Simmons.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Oklahoma! - Breaking Down the Fourth Wall

The "fourth" wall in theater refers to the imaginary wall between the audience and the action on stage.

One of the most thrilling aspects of Arena Stage's revival of Oklahoma! was the way performers broke down the fourth wall. The small theater in the round combined with the actors' incredible energy made the audience feel like they were part of the action.

Here are some highlights:

One of my favorite moments happened during the dancing in "Farmer and Cowman," I almost had to restrain myself from jumping on stage! I wondered if others felt the same way - and even if this had ever happened!

It was one of the most exciting musical numbers I have ever seen.

From the Green Room: Every time you speak, you have an opportunity to tear down the fourth wall and connect directly to your audience.

Here are three ways to do it:

1. Make your audience essential. Develop your content in such a way that your presentation would be impossible to deliver - without the particular audience you are speaking to.

2. Begin you presentation by asking the audience to do something. (answer a question, raise their hand, stand up, etc.)

3. Move to connect. Step away from the podium and move directly towards the people you are speaking to.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How to End: Speaking Lessons from Neil Patrick Harris

Which part of your presentation will people remember most?

The beginning and the end, of course.

Which part do we spend the most time on? That's right, the middle.

And which part do we spend the least time on? Sadly, the end.

In the 2011 Tony Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris reminds us of the power of a great ending:

From the Green Room: When you speak, don't skimp on your ending. Save your best for last.

Don't Rely on Your Speaking GPS

Last week, I got lost driving through a neighborhood in DC I actually knew pretty well.

The problem?

I relied too much on my GPS.

Rather than trust my instincts, I chose to follow exclusively on the advice of my GPS - and as a result, kept getting turned around.

Relying on my GPS prevented me from being able to look around and think,
"I've been here before. I know where I'm going, and I can figure out how to get there." I got lost because I was unable be be fully present in the moment.

From the Green Room: When you speak, turn off your GPS and get in the moment. Don't depend on your script. How?

1. Take the time beforehand to figure out your core message.
2. Based on this message, map out a clear outline.
3. Practice, practice, practice.

Then, when you get up to speak, you can move away from your script and be fully present. When the unexpected happens, you can return to your core message - and you won't get lost.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Power of the Smile

Watch this fascinating talk on by Ron Gutman, entitled "The Hidden Power of the Smile:"

Gutman explains,

It's very difficult to frown when looking at someone who smiles. You ask why? Because is evolutionarily contagious and suppresses the control we usually have over our facial muscles.

From the Green Room: When you speak, your emotions are contagious. If you suffer during your presentation, your audience will suffer with you. But if you smile and your audience will smile in return - and instantly feel more positively towards you.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Drop the "The"

I love this scene from the Social Network:

Sean Parker gives Mark Zuckerberg a critical piece of advice:

Drop the "The." Just Facebook. It's cleaner.

This tiny change made all the difference.

From the Green Room: When you speak, be ruthless about eliminating words that muddle your language and distract from your point.

Keep your language clean and direct.

Make each word count.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Lessons about Stage Fright from the Kentucky Derby Announcer

This year, Tom Durkin, who has called the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown horse races on network TV has decided not to renew his contract on NBC Sports. Why?

Stress and performance anxiety.

Listen to this interview from last Wednesday's All Things Considered on NPR:

When Melissa Block asks Durkin why he quit, he answers:

"For three months a year, I'd be walking around with this pit in my stomach...the stress leads to bad health... I tried everything I could to treat it with hypnosis which I've been doing for 20 years."

The interviewer then brings up the 2009 Kentucky Derby, where a horse comes out of nowhere and wins. She asks whether that was one of his nightmare scenarios.

Turns out, Durkin's nightmares are not the kind that actually happen in real life. He explains:

"I have crazy nightmares. Most of the time, I can't get to the announcer's booth or someone has spray painted my binoculars and I can't see through...One time in my subconscious mind I was calling the Kentucky Derby and a Norwegian cruise liner came down the stretch and I couldn't see the horses! Those are big ships, too. Can't see many horses behind them."

I wonder what would have happened if one of these things had actually happened during a race, and Durkin lived to tell the tale. If someone had actually spray painted his binoculars (or freighted a cruise ship onto the track), perhaps it would take some of the anxiety out.

Perhaps it is the possibility and not the reality of this type of nightmare that makes it so scary and anxiety-producing.

From the Green Room: The next time something unexpected trips you up during a presentation, be grateful. That is one more stressful situation you no longer have to be afraid of!

From the

Saturday, April 30, 2011

3 Things I Learned from Ric Elias

Here are three speaking lessons from Ric Elias' speech:

1. Begin and end with power. Elias begins and ends brilliantly by asking us to imagine a life-altering experience.

2. Use concrete detail to reinforce your message. Seat 1D. Smoke filled the airplane. Prepare for impact. Elias' speech is filled with memorable, vivid, and relevant detail.

3. Make each word count.

P.S. Notice I mentioned three lessons. Why? People remember things in threes more than any other number. Elias also masterfully uses the Rule of Three.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ric Elias: 3 things I Learned While My Plane Crashed

On every level, this is truly a remarkable speech:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Speak to Move, Not to Inform

In this TED video, Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, discusses his revolutionary approach to education:

Khan advocates flipping the traditional classroom model. How? Lectures happen at home, and homework happens at school.

At the Khan Academy, students first watch educational videos in order to learn the material at home at their own pace. The "homework" part happens the next day - in the classroom with the teacher there to help.

Khan points out that what is so remarkable about this approach is that technology is actually being used to humanize the experience of learning.

Khan's talk reminded me of the problem with speaking to a group in order to simply give them information. It is far more effective instead to speak to an audience in order to move them.

After all, people remember much more how they felt when they hear a speech, rather than the information they learned. Perhaps this is because people learn as distinct individuals, but they feel things as human beings.

From the Green Room: Speak to move, not to inform. Remember that the power of a live presentation can be fully actualized only when there is an emotional connection between the speaker and the audience.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How to Feed Your PowerPoint Addiction

Who knew there were smartphone apps designed to help people give better presentations?

In this week's "Killer Apps" on, Farhad Manjoo shows us a few:

I was disappointed to see that the main app featured enables further dependency on PowerPoint. The app actually lets you download your PowerPoint presentation right onto your phone.

What a brilliant way to merge two addictions - PowerPoint and Smartphones!

Could someone design a public speaking app that teaches speakers to get away from the screen - and connect with the people in the audience?

But perhaps this is a lesson that's better given in person.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Speaking Advice from SNL

In this week's New Yorker, Tina Fey recounts nine "Lessons from Late Night" - what she learned from working with Lorne Michaels.

Lesson #7 is "Never cut to a closed door." Tina writes:

Lorne said this once in exasperation...the director had cut to a door a moment too soon, before the actor entered, and in that moment Lorne felt we had "lost the audience"...Lorne would have preferred that the camera cut follow the sound of the actor knocking on the door. Which is to say that the sketch should lead the cutting pattern, which is to say that content should dictate style.

From the Green Room: Let your message and your content dictate your speaking style. Most delivery problems stem from a lack of clarity about the content. If you are 100 percent clear on what you are trying to say, your delivery will flow much more naturally and the your audience will stay engaged.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Anne Hathaway and James Franco: What Not to Do

Clearly, Anne Hathaway and James Franco bombed as hosts of this years' Academy Awards.

Their downfall can be summed up in one word:


From the moment they stepped on stage, Hathaway and Franco lowered their status. They managed to appear even younger and sillier than they actually are. Franco acted as though the evening were a joke, and Hathaway acted like a star-struck teenager. Both did not act hosts, but rather like annoying kids taking over a grown-up party. And as a result, they lowered the status of the entire event.

Another word for the host of an event is "Master of Ceremonies." The key word here is "master." The MC's job is not just to keep things moving, but to do so masterfully - with a sense of authority and grace, thus elevating the event.

This was painfully highlighted when Hathaway and Franco introduced Billy Crystal who then
"introduced" Bob Hope. For a brief moment, we were reminded of what a host is actually supposed to do.

From the Green Room: The next time you MC an event, be masterful. Remember, you are the host - not the guest, and your job is to elevate - not to ingratiate. Rather than lavish praise upon the other speakers and the audience, (which many of us are tempted to do), aim to bring a sense of dignity, respect, and elegance to the affair.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Colin Firth: How to Make the Universal Unique

Could there have been a duller set of speeches than the ones at this year's Academy Awards? How many times must we witness the same old "incredulous" reaction of the winners?

Last year, Sandra Bullock stood out from the crowd. This year, it was Best Actor Winner, Colin Firth. He managed to communicate the giddy joy of the moment without sounding like a tired cliche:

From the Green Room: The speeches we remember the most are the ones which express universal truth in a voice that is both distinct and authentic.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Speaking Lesson from Gabrielle Giffords

I find Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' recovery process inspirational, particularly as a speech trainer.

How does a person begin to recover from such traumatic brain damage? How does a person relearn the ability to speak?

According to a recent NYT piece by Marc Lacey and James C. McKinley Jr., one way is through singing:

With a group of friends and family members acting as a backup chorus, Ms. Giffords has been mouthing the lyrics to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” And as a surprise for her husband, who is celebrating his birthday this month, a longtime friend who has been helping her through her rehabilitation videotaped her mouthing the words to “Happy Birthday to You...”

According to Dr. David Langer, an associate professor of neurosurgery, the use of singing... is a standard technique to help restore speech in people with brain injuries.

This reminds me of an earlier post, in which I quoted speaking advice from Roger Love, one of the foremost vocal coaches in the world:

Try practicing singing your speech.

Love explains:

"When you do (sing your speech), you'll find yourself discovering interesting ways to emphasize words, you'll hear them a different way, and you'll begin to hear the real message shining through...Singing gives you new perspective on your material because it's one of the only times both sides of your brain -- the creative, imaginative side and the orderly, logical side -- operate together. When you practice by singing a few phrases, then going back to speak them, you tap into the power of your whole brain...and you can't help but express yourself in a way that feels whole. You might even surprise yourself. Your delivery feels fresh and people can't help but listen to you."

(Roger Love, Set Your Voice Free, p178-9)

From the Green Room: Practice singing your speech. Singing opens up your voice and helps you tap into the essence of what you are trying to communicate.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

More Lessons from a Ukulele

Part of what makes Jake Shimabukuro's ukulele performance so remarkable is the element of surprise. We think of the ukulele as a simple, happy instrument - perfect for jamming a three- chord song on the beaches of Maui.

By choosing to play the multifaceted and complex Bohemian Rhapsody, we see this instrument in a new and unexpected light.

The same is true for your voice.

The human voice is an amazing instrument that has unlimited potential. The problem is that we tend to put our voices into a box. We speak with limited variation - in "three chords" - rather than push ourselves into new and unexpected vocal terrain.

I help my clients to exercise their voices in new ways so that they are capable of much more nuanced and complex ways of speaking.

A theater director once said to me, "Your voice is gift." How true. Challenge yourself to make the most of your voice, just as Jake Shimabukuro makes this most out of his ukulele.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lessons from a Ukulele

According to musician Jake Shimabukuro from his bio on this week's

"...The ukulele means more (to Jake) than grass skirts and loud shirts. He's on a mission to revolutionize our perception of the four-string, two-octave instrument."

In what is a very obvious example of "show, don't tell," Jake expresses his love for the ukulele not by talking about it, but by playing a stirring rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody:"

From the Green Room: Most of us don't something as clear as a musical instrument to show, rather than describe a message.

But we all can learn from Jake's TED presentation.

If you're trying to tell a group of employees how much they matter to the company, focused eye contact says more than words.

If you're trying to sell a new product, a physical demonstration is so much more memorable than a description.

And if you're delivering bad news, the tone of your voice can soften the blow the way no words can.

In whatever way you can, show, don't tell.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lesson from a Fifth Grader: Be Concrete

And now... the 2011 Winner of the Annual Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competition:
5th Grader Elijah English:

Each participant in the contest had to answer the following question: How will I carry forward the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr?

In addition to his remarkable speaking skills, I imagine that one of the reasons why Elijah's speech won first place was because he was able to give the audience a concrete answer to this abstract question about legacy.

Elijah's story of showing his report card to his dying grandfather painted a powerful picture of what it means to learn from those who came before us.

From the Green Room: Use concrete language to make your point. The audience always remembers concrete details over abstract messages.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lesson from a Fifth Grader on MLK Day

Watch this CBS interview with the 2010 winners of the Gardere MLK Jr. Oratory Competition:

When the interviewer asks Tamia what the victory means to her. She responds:

"It means that I worked really hard, and that I can achieve my dreams as long as I work hard."

Rodriguez asks, "How hard did you work?"

"Every night, every day, 24 hours, just straight on the line."

What inspires a child to work this hard at something? If I had to guess, I would imagine that key to her determination is a powerful faith in herself.

What better lesson to learn on MLK Day?

From the Green Room: There is simply no substitute for practice and hard work. But as you practice, do not lose sight of what ultimately will be the key to your success: your belief in yourself.

Here is Tamia's winning speech:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Be Generous

This is a great time of year to talk about generosity - one of the most powerful qualities a speaker can possess.

How do you feel when someone tries to sell you something?

At best, you may feel compelled to buy it.
At worst, you may feel manipulated, annoyed, and even violated.
But you almost never feel a true sense of connection with the seller.

Now, how do you feel when someone gives you a gift?

At worst, you may feel disappointed not to have gotten something better.
At best, you feel terrific.
And almost always, you feel grateful.

From the Green Room: Speak with generosity. Remember you are giving the audience a gift - not making a sales pitch. This subtle change in attitude makes can make enormous difference in how you approach your audience - and in how you are received.