Author Archives: Rob Norris

Movement when speaking

Speaker at a business convention and presentations. The audience on the large number of people. The announcer with a microphone in his handsIf you read my last post, you’ve probably concluded it’s better to move during your talk than to stand still. So how do you move effectively?

Public speaking coaches are largely united on this point: move only  for a reason. Don’t just pace back and forth like a caged tiger. Some feel that’s a captivating display of energy. It’s actually an irritant that will distract people from your message.

When you move, then, have a purpose in mind. Here are a few good ones:

  1. You’re about to make a point. Take a couple of steps toward the audience to get their attention and signal that something’s coming.
  2. You’ve made your point. Take a step or two back to signal that the point’s been made and you’re about to change gears.
  3. You’re transitioning. Take a step or two to the side so your physical position signals a change in your talk. This is a great opportunity to address a new segment of the audience, too.
  4. You’re illustrating some action you are describing: “Slowly, I turned.” When words and action combine, they become more memorable.

Here are a couple of fine points:

  1. When you step to the side, lead with the foot closest to your destination. As a young speaker I failed to do that and looked so awkward people thought I was going to collapse.
  2. Don’t cross the slide projector’s beam on your way from here to there. Yeah, Steve Jobs crossed the beam, but he was Steve Jobs and could get away with it.

Here’s a final thought:

Don’t choreograph your moves. Be yourself. People want to see the real you. Your motion, when you are yourself, shows your confidence.

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To move or not to move

Man standing on a podium under spotlights, paralyzed by speech anxiety, EPS 8 vector illustration, no transparenciesShould you plant yourself behind the lectern when you speak in public? Or should you roam the stage at will?

It depends. It depends on what fits the occasion, what equipment you’re offered, and your own style of speaking. Even so, there are some extremes best avoided.

The first extreme is to just stand there behind the lectern. Lecterns are meant to hold a written speech, which is why good speakers tend to avoid them. Good speakers are not likely to read a written speech. They speak directly to their audience. Their eyes are up and active. They engage listeners with those eyes and with the sound of their voice. If they need notes, the notes are minimal—just enough to remind them of their major points and perhaps an important detail or two they want to make sure of.  That can easily be handled with a couple of 3 x 5 cards to be viewed at a glance. Good speakers know a lectern will chain them in place and may even make them look defensive, hiding behind a castle wall.

Then again, they may have little choice. If the sound system is a single microphone attached to the lectern, then they may just have to speak from the lectern. Even then, though, they can engage the audience by addressing first this person over here, and then that one up there, in a pattern that eventually includes the whole audience.

So check out your venue in advance. See how it’s set up and how the sound system works. If you are free to move around the stage, that’s your best bet. But even then, there are pitfalls to avoid. Stay tuned for our next post.

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Think with your eyes

Human eyes“Information only becomes valuable when it is understood, not just when it’s made available.”

–Stephen Few


Good decisions are not based on data. They are based on understanding the data.

This is not exactly news. Read this quote from Graphic Methods For Presenting Facts, by Willard Brinton:

Millions of dollars yearly are spent in the collection of data, with the fond expectation that the data will automatically cause the correction of the conditions studied. Though accurate data and real facts are valuable, when it comes to getting results the manner of presentation is ordinarily more important than the facts themselves . . . . As the cathedral is to its foundation so is an effective presentation of facts to the data.

Brinton’s book was published in 1914. So people had problems presenting data then. They have the same problems today. As Brinton pointed out, people who study the data and reach a conclusion may think they’re done; that answer will be evident.  In fact, half of their task still lies ahead of them—convincing others that their answer is the right one.

Part of the problem is that with so much data and so many computer applications out there equipped to produce bad graphics, the graphic landscape is actually worse today than it was 104 years ago. Graphics can flash and dazzle with a few easy keystrokes; but unless they get an audience to understand what is happening and why, they fail.

Part of the secret is thinking with your eyes, and getting others to think with theirs. What best shows the relationship between this and that? How can that be shown simply and honestly?

This task is especially important when you’re presenting “up” to corporate superiors or to the board of directors. Someone up there may resist the unexpected, resort to some irrelevant past experience as a guide, leap to the wrong conclusion, and carry the day—all because the presenter failed to present the facts effectively.

Good graphics matter because they connect good data with good decisions.

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How not to moderate

The Showman interviewer with blank. Young elegant man holding microphone against white background.Showman concept.If you ever moderate a panel, here’s a list of things you don’t want to do:

  1. Mispronounce everything—names, titles, awards, everything. Why should you be ready?
  2. Introduce everyone in one fell swoop. The audience will never associate your introduction with the panelist you’ve introduced and will easily forget what each brings to the party.
  3. Spend the first 20 minutes reading the introductions. The tedium! Everyone will stop listening and forget who is who before the panelists begin to speak. Really, don’t even look up.
  4. Dominate everything. Make it about you, not the experts.
  5. Yet, step back during the Q&A. Forget bringing a steady hand to the proceedings, fielding questions and assigning them to the one best qualified to answer. Let ‘em fend for themselves.

One of us recently attended a panel discussion moderated in just that way. It was a disaster. Take a note from Toastmasters. Rory Vaden, second-place winner of the 2007 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, once compared the roles of speaker vs. moderator: “When you are the speaker, the spotlight is on you. When you are the moderator, you become the spotlight operator. It’s your job to make the panelists look good and you should fade away into the background.”

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Breaking your own rule

Screen with pale imageIt’s hard when you’re caught violating the same rule that you’ve been teaching your own clients for years—especially when that rule originally grew out of your own, hard experience.

It happened to us last week. We always say it’s a good idea to check out the venue before a presentation, using the very equipment you’ll be using that day. If you don’t, you may find that the lights can’t be controlled, the projector may run bright, the sun may be in everyone’s eyes, and the sound system may squeal uncontrollably.

But this time . . . well, the room was booked solid. There was no getting in there before the very morning of our presentation, and we never got around to an actual run-through.

It was only during the presentation that we found how bright the venue’s projector ran. Every slide was washed out. The slide you see above, for example, was supposed to show how pastel colors are a poor choice for charts and graphs because they don’t provide enough visual contrast.  When that slide came up, the bars in the graph weren’t even visible—just a few random numbers floating in space, illustrating nothing.

The good news is that we explained what should have been up on the screen and the audience was okay with that. The better news is that we’ve just confirmed our own rule. Do a run-through before you present. If you don’t do that—and have the means to deal with it—you’re asking for trouble.

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“Now, I know you can’t read this”

Close-up of face of mature Caucasian businessman wearing shirt and tie and eyeglasses, looking at camera and squinting. Eyesight and optics conceptHow infuriating! You came for a presentation—but up on the screen are charts and words so small they cannot be read. You can’t find any meaning. And, just to rub it in, the speaker offhandedly tells you he knows you can’t read them.

What was he thinking? Obviously, nothing about the audience.

It’s an old complaint which, when you think about it, raises a reasonable question: how big should you make your font size? You don’t want to be “that guy,” the one who disrespects his audience with poorly designed slides. So suppose you’ve gotten religion and know better than to confront your audience with a wall of text or a long list of bullets. How do you display words correctly? You will probably emphasize images over words, of course. But when a slide does call for the written word (and sometimes it will) . . . how big should you make the letters?

For years, my rule of thumb was to use nothing below 22 points. I reasoned that if I needed to make the text any smaller than that, I was asking too much of the slide and should begin another one.

But Guy Kawasaki, the American marketing specialist, author, and Silicon Valley venture capitalist, recently suggested a more flexible rule you can make your own. It’s yours with three easy steps:

  1. Find or figure out in advance the age of the oldest person in your audience (after all, eyesight tends to deteriorate with the years)
  2. Divide that age by 2
  3. Use no font size below that number

Brilliant. This simple rule does several things. First, it makes you learn more about your audience. Second, it makes you mindful of their visual acuity. Third, it causes you to be thoughtful about the number of words you may place on a slide. And finally, it causes you to think anew about how words and images work together to engage your audience.

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What’s in a live presentation?

Row of businesspeople with question marks signs in front of their facesWe work with a lot of clients who make the final cut. They make it to that last stage, where a live presentation is required before new business makes its decision to award a contract. Generally, our clients want to structure such presentations around their qualifications. They focus on their experience, expertise, and knowledge base. They want to make a fact-based impression on their hard-headed audience.


Don’t bother with that. If the panel was not already impressed with your experience, expertise, and knowledge base, you wouldn’t be there.

No one invites you to make a live presentation to walk them through things they’ve already learned from your proposal. They invite you to see whether you’d be good to work with.

Is the chemistry there? Are you on the same wavelength? Will there be mutual understanding? Can you trust each other? Would you want to work with that team for the next several years?

Face-to-face is where you leave the hard facts behind and talk about yourself—your history, your philosophy, and your values. What star do you steer by? What stories bear this out? How good are you on your feet, responding to questions? What are you like, really?

Don’t squander your time making a data-based case that’s already been made. Move on to what counts now.  Tell them what they need to hear, not what you want to tell them.

Yes, hard data got you into the room. Hard data point the way to the truth. But hard data alone won’t sell them on you, for we often make our actual decisions on emotional factors, not logical ones. People follow their hearts and then cite the evidence that leads them where they want to go. Use the precious time you have in front of an audience to show yourself in your true light. That’s why you’re really up there—to show them that you’re the team they most want to work with.

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A toast!

side view of champagne glass in male hand isolated on white backgroundWhat if you have to give a toast at a company gathering this month? How do you do it right?

One of our partners remembers a toast delivered by her CEO back in the day. He talked about all the success his agency had had during the past year, but finished every sentence with, “ . . . but that isn’t good enough.”

He thought he was encouraging people to hit a higher bar in the coming year. But when people’s best (and largely successful) efforts are dismissed, they do not feel warm or encouraged. His toast had the opposite effect. There’s nothing like making everyone feel inadequate.

Don’t do that.

Instead, remember that sentiment is the thing. Don’t try humor; humor is overrated. Instead, do kindness. In the beginning, the middle, and the end.

No notes.

But what if I don’t know what to say? 

Of course you know what to say.  You know these people professionally better than anyone else.  Just look at them and tell them how you feel about their work.

What about making a point?

No one is looking for a point.  They’re looking to be touched.  Get your audience to like themselves (and you) more than they did before you started speaking.

To do this right, pretend you are talking to someone in a bar.  What would you say to that person about your people at work?  Figure that out (mostly leave out anything negative) and there’s your toast.

Follow this technique:

  1. Stand up.
  2. Hold your glass chest high. Keep it there during the entire toast. Arm fatigue serves as a great, natural toast timer.
  3. Remain still, in one place, until you’ve finished talking. Then raise your glass and drink.
  4. Prepare to hear that you did a great job. Because you did.
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Apologizing like you mean it

smiling careless bearded businessman refusing accusation, acting like an hypocrite, coward or irresponsible for corporate faults, isolated, white backgroundThere have been a lot of revelations lately (most of them out of Hollywood), and they’ve led to a number of apologies on the part of the offenders. You’ve probably heard most of them. Do you believe any of them?

Here’s the problem: people are not always sure whether you’re apologizing because you’re sorry for the act or because you’ve been caught. One clue is in how you apologize.

In 2009, David Letterman, a married man, broke the news that he’d had an affair with a member of his staff, a matter over which someone had tried to blackmail him. He said, “When something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it. And at that point, there’s only two things that can happen: either you’re going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you’re going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed. So let me tell you, folks, I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

This struck most listeners as a sincere and realistic statement. It did not include a denial, a claim of memory loss, or an attempted diversion. It did not seem studied or self-serving, just regretful and honest. There are not very many today who think about this transgression when they think about Letterman.

Some more recent apologetic statements begin well (“These stories are true”) but then run aground on the rocks of self-aggrandizement. When an apology is about the experience of the one who is apologizing, people tend to get exasperated.

Here’s a tip: it’s not about you. Don’t make it about you.

When Paula Deen infamously made three ineffective apologies in a row about racist language she once used, she failed because she seemed to be struggling to say that it wasn’t really an offense, or shouldn’t have been taken as one, and that the experience had really taken a toll on her. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended,” she seemed to be saying. Not, “I’m sorry I did that.”

A good apology needs to be swift, be sincere, and include an element of repentance. It needs to be real. If you’re apologizing  for the sake of appearance, crafting words calculated to ward off attack, people will probably see that. But if you’re apologizing because you mean it, that’s what will come across.

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Left or right?

Indy ChamberWe don’t often get questions that stump us, but we got one today at the Indy Chamber of Commerce. It came from an engineer. After we finished our program on improving business presentations, he asked:  “On a PowerPoint slide that includes graphics and text, which side do the graphics go on—left or right?”

We found ourselves blinking. I generally place my text on the left and graphics on the right, but I’ve never thought why. I promised to go find the tribal wisdom on this subject.

I did not find much, but those who have looked at the question give this answer: it depends.

If your graphic acts as a descriptive summary (not just a filler image) then give it the place of honor on the top/left, where most people in the West begin their scan. But if your graphic is illustrative (like a metaphor) then place it at the right/bottom.

Substantively important things go left, where people look first. Clarification and emphasis go right, where people look last.

Of course, you’re free just to show the graphic and let the words come out of your mouth. And that may be the best of both worlds.

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