5 steps to become a better speaker in the new year


5 Steps to be a Better Speaker

Happy New Year! Last month’s newsletter was about how to keep your speaking voice healthy through the holiday season. Following that seasonal trend, here are five easy steps to help you become a better public speaker in 2016.

  1. Commit to giving more speeches than last year. The best way to become a better public speaker is…to give more speeches. You can’t simply read a book or watch a video (though they can be helpful and I’m working on both!); the only way to improve your public speaking skills is to speak in public. For 2016, think about all the places where you can seek out speaking opportunities; facilitate a meeting at work, moderate a panel at a conference, or give a speech in your house of worship. Opportunities are out there if you search for them. Simply commit to giving at least one more speech than last year.
  1. Create a realistic practice routine.We all know we should practice more, but how can you create a realistic practice routine that you can keep to? Think about what you need before a speech: you need time to ask The 3 Questions (Who is your audience? What is your goal? Why you?); you need time to brainstorm speech ideas; you need time to polish the speech; and you need time to practice the speech. Create a simple practice routine that you can keep to before every speech. When you book a speaking engagement, book prep time into your calendar as well.
  1. Enlist two practice buddies. It’s hard to practice by ourselves, though there are several effective methods such as practicing in front of a mirror. In 2016, find two friends, family members, or colleagues who are willing to help you practice your upcoming speeches. It will only take about 30 minutes of their time: run through the speech with them (standing up when you do so) and ask for their feedback on both content and delivery. What are your strengths? Where can you improve? This type of practice is the BEST way to prepare and gives you much more confidence. If your speech includes Q+A, then ask your practice buddies to ask you difficult questions in advance.
  1. Debrief every speaking situation. We learn from every single speaking situation, whether it goes well or not. After every speech, start a new document and write down: What went well? What didn’t? What will you change for next time? Create a series of short action items to help you make progress. If your speech was videotaped, watch that speech and critique yourself, though I admit it’s hard to watch ourselves on camera! Debriefing helps you improve after every speech.
  1. Join Toastmasters. One of the most effective, least expensive, and safest ways to learn public speaking is to join a club like Toastmasters, where you can practice your public speaking skills together with a group of like-minded people. There are literally thousands of clubs around the world where people come together either weekly or bimonthly, creating a safe, non-judgmental learning environment. If you are part of a large company, see if there’s a corporate club that meets in your building. Otherwise, look for a community club near your home or office. Visit Toastmasters International to find a club.

In 2016, use the sense of potential and renewal that comes with the new year to invest in yourself as a public speaker. By following these 5 steps, you will gain greater confidence, greater skill, and great ability to speak with power and authenticity.


How to keep your voice healthy through the holidays


How to keep your voice healthy

December is a great time of year for holiday parties and dinners. That can make it a rough time of year for your voice.

Opera singers know that the foods we eat and the way we treat our body affect our singing voice: we avoid certain foods (dairy) and liquids (coffee or alcohol), we get plenty of rest, and we even speak and laugh in certain ways.

It’s the same thing with our speaking voice.

Think about the most recent holiday party you attended: you were probably shouting to be heard above the music while drinking a tasty but strong alcoholic drink that was drying out your throat. If you were throwing the party, maybe you even stood on a chair and shouted a few words of welcome to the noisy crowd.

Here are some tips to keeping your voice healthy and strong through the holidays:

Stay hydrated. Drinking coffee or alcohol doesn’t count as both of those drinks can dry out your vocal chords. Start and finish the day with a tall glass of water or a warm cup of herbal tea with honey, and drink water throughout the day.

Limit your time at noisy parties. Sometimes those office parties are unavoidable – but that doesn’t mean you need to stay there the whole time. If you can, arrive early before it gets too noisy and leave well before it ends. In my experience, networking is easiest early on in an event, when people are fresh and more approachable.

Listen more than you speak. Speaking at a noisy event can really hurt your throat, whether you’re at a bar, restaurant, or the office. Take this opportunity to be more inquisitive than talkative and you’ll have the added benefit of building stronger relationships with your clients and colleagues.

Use a microphone. If you’re speaking to a group of more than 20 people, always use a microphone. It makes it easier for people to hear you and easier for you to speak.

Breathe deeply and speak “on the breath.” The holidays can be a stressful time, whether you celebrate them or not. Use deep breathing to find your calm and stay centered, and speak “on the breath” to support your voice so you can project clearly. To learn how to do that, see “Breathing is the Key to Persuasive Public Speaking,” an article I wrote in the Harvard Business Review a few months ago.

If you’re sick, stop talking. One of the most damaging things you can do is speak on a sore throat. Not only does it physically hurt, but it can lead to long-term damage to your vocal chords. If you’re losing your voice due to sickness, then stop speaking completely for 24 hours. Complete silence does wonders to your voice.

Exercise and stretch. Exercise and movement improve your posture and warm up your body, including your voice. On the day of a big speech, I make sure to exercise in the morning and it gets my blood pumping, my energy up, and my body ready to be on stage.

Get plenty of rest. The amount of sleep you get determines how your voice sounds. Think about waking up early after a long night out and answering a ringing phone. Your voice probably croaked, “Hello?” Now think about speaking to customers that way. Getting a good night’s sleep will help you feel rested and your body and voice feel strong.

December can be an exciting and chaotic time; make time to keep yourself physically and vocally healthy, and you’ll make the most of the season.


How to present with a group

How to present with a group

How to present with a group

I recently judged a case competition at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, where I’m an adjunct professor. The competition was part of the residency program of the school’s Online Master of Science in Finance, a fantastic program that gives finance professionals the skills they need to become industry leaders.

Watching 15 different groups present the exact same case was a great study in effective group presentations. And the timing was perfect; my colleague Christine Clapp of Spoken with Authority had just written an article for The Toastmaster magazine on the same topic – read that article for more information on developing (as well as presenting) your group presentation.

Here are some of my takeaways which are just as relevant in the corporate boardroom as they are in the classroom.

1. Open with energy: You dictate the energy in the room within the first 10 seconds, so make sure that the first person to open the presentation has high energy and connects with the audience. This same person should close the presentation with that same energy, creating a well-rounded presentation and setting up the stage for next steps.

2. Practice your transitions: When you’re presenting as a group, how you transition from one person to the next is really important. The best presenters introduced their colleagues by saying, “And now Steve is going to talk about our recommendations.” Then, Steve would say “Thanks, Jennifer. So Jennifer walked us through the points to keep in mind. Now I will…” which gave a nice flow to the presentation and kept up momentum from one speaker to the next.

3. Always be on: Even when you’re not presenting, you are still “on stage” so to speak. If you’re standing off to the side, be attentive and stay focused on the person speaking or on the audience – not on your phone or tablet. Make sure you’re also not standing in the light of the projector. Every moment in the room, you are representing the group.

4. Avoid group fillers: I’ve noticed that people in the same office tend to use the same filler words, such as: sort ofkind of, right? – passing around filler words in what one colleague calls “linguistic contagion.” Avoid picking up those words from your colleagues and remember to pause and breathe instead.

5. Speak to the audience, not to the slides: When presenting material developed by a group, we tend to defer to the slides over the audience. Sometimes it’s because only one person on the team developed the slides at the last minute. Whatever the reason, make sure that your focus is squarely on the audience. You can have a printout of the slides in front of you or a confidence monitor – but remember that you need to make a compelling case to the people in front of you, not to the slides behind you.

6. Don’t just show the numbers, talk about what they mean: At one of my workshops in New York, a participant from a major bank mentioned the importance of interpreting the numbers, not just listing them. She said, “I don’t just show the numbers, I tell the client why those numbers are important and what they mean for the client.” Make your presentation personal to the audience by talking about the WHAT and also the WHY.

7. Speak in a conversational tone: When presenting with a team, I’ve noticed people have a tendency to either speak too formally (full of jargon) or too casually (“Hey guys”). Find a natural tone that sounds both professional to the audience and natural to you. Use clear words and real-world examples, especially if you can include a personal example, such as, “If you’re from California like me, then you’ll know…”

8. Leave time for Q+A: We all know that speeches with slides take longer than speeches without, especially in a group. Remember to give yourself plenty of time to prepare and always run through the full presentation as a group with slides to time yourself. The best presentations keep to time and leave time for substantive Q+A.

9. Have a clear ask: The best presenters have a clear call to action, request, or recommendation for the audience. You can either state it up front or use it as your conclusion (ideally both) but always make sure it’s clear and clearly supported by your substance. The more specific you are in your “ask,” the easier you make it for the audience to say “yes.”

So the next time you have to present with a group, keep these ideas in mind. If you implement them successfully, you will give a powerful and momentum-building presentation that spurs your audience to take action.

3 ways to practice your next speech

3 ways to practice your next speech.

3 Ways to Practice your Next Speech

How much time do you spend writing a speech? I would guess that your answer is somewhere between a few hours and a few days.

But how much time do you spend practicing the speech? I bet the answer is much less.

The practice phase is the most important phase of speech preparation. Practice is what makes the difference between a “good enough” speech and a transformational speech.

Let’s look at 3 different ways you can practice your next speech:

1. In front of a mirror. I practice every single speech several times in front of a mirror. This lets me try out different hand gestures and other types of body language. Try this: stand in front of a mirror and imagine an audience which you can only see through the mirror. Make eye contact with everyone; watch your body language, watch your face, practice your smile, and become comfortable moving around while speaking. You can hold your notes in your hand if you need to. This is an easy and repeatable way to practice before any speech; you can easily start and stop and figure out what techniques look and feel most natural.

2. In front of a camera. For really important speeches, I record myself on my iPad and then analyze the video. Try this: set your iPad on a tripod mount or on top of a filing cabinet and record yourself giving the speech. Unless you’re preparing for an on-camera interview, don’t look only at the camera lens, rather look around the room, imagining each piece of furniture to be a different person. Make eye contact with three points in front of you: left, center, and middle, as if you were speaking to a crowded room. After recording the speech, play the video back a few times. Yes, it’s OK to cringe when you see yourself on camera, we all do from time to time. But then, watch the speech as if you were an audience-member. What do you like? Watch with the sound off to analyze your body language. Do you smile? Then, turn up the volume, close your eyes, and listen to the sound of your voice. How well do you enunciate every word? Is your tone of voice expressive and conversational?

3. In your mind. The night before a speech, I visualize the entire experience. Try this: sit comfortably in a chair or lay in bed and close your eyes. Breathe deeply and visualize the room you’ll be speaking in. Visualize the introduction and the applause as you walk on stage. Then speak the entire speech in your mind and hear the applause as you take your seat. Most importantly, imagine the speech going well. We remember visualizations as if they were actual memories (which is why sometimes you can’t remember if something actually happened or if it was a dream), so the act of visualizing the entire speech makes you feel like you’ve already given the speech once successfully.

There are many other ways to practice and we’ll get to them in subsequent newsletters. In the meantime, remember to leave yourself just as much time to practice the speech as you do to write the speech.

Using the three techniques mentioned above, you’ll feel much more prepared, more confident, and more relaxed as you take the stage. You’ll spend less time focused on your nerves and more time focused on your message.

How to speak off the cuff

Sometimes giving a speech is the easy part.

You write the speech at your own pace, you give the speech in front of an audience, and you’re done. As former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”

But what happens when you have to speak at a moment’s notice, or when you need to answer questions in front of an audience?

Impromptu speaking, otherwise known as extemporaneous speaking or speaking “off the cuff,” happens all the time: someone asks you to present during a meeting, a prospect asks you a series of difficult questions, or a conference audience starts to push back during your prepared presentation.

Luckily, there’s an easy formula you can use when speaking off the cuff. I learned this from Toastmasters International and have used it with bankers in New York, lawyers in DC, graduate students in Boston, and nonprofit leaders around the world.

It’s called the “PREP” Formula and it has four parts:

  1. Point
  2. Reason
  3. Example
  4. Point

Here’s an explanation:

  1. Start by answering the question, “I believe that…”
  2. Then give an explanation: “And the reason I believe that is…”
  3. Provide an example that supports your position: “For example, just last week…”
  4. Conclude by summarizing your point, “And that is why I believe that…”

Notice you only get one main point, not three or five. That’s because, in the moment, you don’t have time to think up three different points, and the more you talk, the more you go off topic. Choosing one main point keeps your message focused and relevant.

I like to use a transitional phrase before diving into the PREP Formula, something like: I’m glad you brought that up or that’s a great question. It gives you time to think of your one point. These phrases are sometimes referred to as “bridging” if you are trying to redirect the question to talk about a different topic.

Let’s try using the PREP Formula with an easy question:

  • The Question: How do you feel about living in a big city?

The PREP Answer

  • Transitional Phrase: Thank you, that’s a great question.
  • Point: I love living in a big city.
  • Reason: And the reason is because you can walk everywhere instead of having to get into your car and drive every day.
  • Example: For example, I was able to sell my car and spend more time outdoors because my office is a 30-minute walk from my apartment.
  • Point: And that is why I love living in a big city.

Now have a colleague ask you a work-related question and try to answer using the PREP Formula. Once you pick it up, you’ll find it an easy, efficient, and effective way of answering a question.

So the next time you have to speak “off the cuff,” take a deep breath, smile, think of one main point you’d like to say, and use the PREP Formula. The more prepared you feel for impromptu speaking, the more confident and natural you’ll feel in your overall speaking skills.

6 ways to connect with your audience: lessons from President Obama

6 Ways to Connect with Your AudienceLast week, US President Barack Obama spoke at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, after the terrible shooting at the Emanuel AME Church. You may not have time to sit and watch a 30-minute speech at your computer, but you can open it up on your smart phone and simply listen to it while you go about your day, as I did.

Two of President Obama’s eulogies – last week’s speech and the speech at the memorial for victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing – in my opinion are two of his best speeches. Let’s look at last week’s speech.

When I watch a speech, I like to ask myself WHY I like it and WHAT I can learn from it. In last week’s speech, what struck me most was the way the president connected with the audience through building them up instead of himself. There’s a lot we can learn for our own speeches, whether they are eulogies, conference room presentations, or keynote speeches.

  1. Speak about your audience, not about yourself. If you’ve ever been to one of my workshops, you’ll remember that the first question we ask in public speaking is always, “Who is my audience?” The President demonstrated this by avoiding the words “I” or “me” throughout the speech, unless he was joking about his own age. The rest of the time, the President focused on the audience: their reverend and the other community members they lost, their church and their faith, their local leaders, and their state. When you write a speech, how can you focus on the audience instead of yourself?
  2. Bring in everybody, not just those present. Although the President spoke directly to those present, he made the speech about more than the people in the room, which is important if you belong to another faith (for instance, I’m Jewish and still felt the speech spoke to me). He made it about all of us as a country when he said, “Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country,” and it earned him a standing ovation. How can you make your speech or presentation more inclusive so that those outside your “group” will relate and feel included?
  3. Use quotes and stories your audience can relate to. The President opened his eulogy by quoting the Bible, which was appropriate for both the audience and the context of the speech. His subsequent statements and vivid stories spoke directly to the beliefs, the history, the experiences, and the faith of his audience. His statement, “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways” led to another standing ovation. When you give a presentation, what quotes and stories can you use to re-enforce beliefs, experiences, or authority figures your audience respects, and how can you build momentum leading to those statements, making sure you pause and let them sink in?
  4. Repeat themes which are powerful to your audience. Once the President chose a theme the audience strongly related to (the power of God’s grace) and quoted a beloved spiritual (“Amazing Grace”), he kept coming back to that theme again and again with plays on words such as, “For too long, we’ve been blind…perhaps we see that now…” For your next speech, what theme can you choose which the audience can relate to? Take key words from that theme and pepper them into your speech.
  5. Provide a call to action. Having built this powerful connection with his audience, the President used it as a springboard, “But I don’t think God wants us to stop there,” and he went on to list causes (education, poverty) requiring further action. Although the President did not give specifics, he gave a number of causes to which the audience could connect. When you give a speech, what call to action can you create for your audience, providing an outlet for their built-up energy?
  6. Show your vulnerability. The most striking moment of the speech was when the President started singing “Amazing Grace.” He didn’t introduce it, he didn’t say “now, please rise and join me in singing…” he simply paused for a very long time, creating suspense, then softly and imperfectly started to sing. That soft song evoked a powerful response from the audience; everyone jumped to their feet and began singing along. Where you can you show vulnerability in your speech in a way that matches the mood of the audience and invites them to join you?

We often think that, as the speaker, we are the focus of any speech or presentation. However, if we want to inspire our audience, the audience should be the main focus. Regardless of your political persuasion or profession, you can apply these lessons in your next speech or presentation. The more you build up your audience, the more you will connect with them and inspire them.

How to be clear and concise in a speech

How to be clear and concise in your speech

How to be clear and concise in your speech

At nearly every single workshop, someone asks me, “how do I get to the point?” or, “how can I be concise while speaking in public?”

If you’re speaking to an audience with a limited attention span or in a crisis situation where your audience is dealing with numerous challenges simultaneously, you need to be brief and to the point. Unfortunately, the ones who know the most about an issue are usually the ones who say too much about it.

Start with the end in mind: If someone leaving your speech or presentation ran into a colleague in the elevator who asked, “what was Allison’s speech about?” or, “what does Allison want us to do?” – what would the answer be? That is your main message; keep it in your mind like a mantra to ensure that everything you say in the speech supports that main message.

Ask the “3 Questions” before every speech:

  • Who is my audience? In this case, how much do they already know about your subject and why is it important/urgent/relevant to them?
  • What is my goal? Your main message above should address this.
  • Why me? Why is this subject important/urgent/relevant to you?

Write an outline of the speech: What information do you need in order to support (but not distract from) the main message? Organize the information into broad themes or arguments.

Write out the speech word-for-word: Get everything out of your head and onto paper or computer. Write your main message at the top of your speech or bullet points, so you see it again and again. It will remind you to stay focused.

(This is crucial) Analyze and trim the speech: Michelangelo once said about his sculptures that he could look at a block of marble and see the statue within, then he trimmed away what was holding it back. Our speeches are blocks of marble with a powerful message within: look critically at your speech and decide “what doesn’t belong?” Physically start crossing things out that hold your speech back so that your main message and arguments are clearly visible.

Read, practice, rest (repeat): The key here is iteration. You can’t write everything down the day of the speech and expect it to be exactly what you want to say (though yes, sometimes it can happen). The process of going over a speech draft multiple times over a period of days helps you look at it with fresh eyes each time, further cutting out what doesn’t belong. This is a muscle you build over time.

What about speaking concisely in a meeting, without time to prepare remarks in advance? Take a moment to jot down your one main point before you speak and think of one anecdote or reason supporting your point. Then, speak up with that one point and one anecdote, resisting the urge to restate it another way. Pause and breathe when you are done and wait for a response to your intervention.

We are always dealing with an audience’s limited attention span; our challenge is to get to the essence of what we want to say and then say it confidently, clearly, and authentically.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said,

“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”