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Pitching for a chance

Rise of the restTen entrepreneurs, 10 pitches, $100,000 for the best one.  And there were some good ones.

Rise of the Rest with Steve Case is a nationwide effort to encourage entrepreneurs in startup “ecosystems”—emerging markets where high-growth companies can start and scale.  On Oct. 12, Indianapolis was in the spotlight. When You Leave The Room joined some 300 spectators to watch the contestants perform.

Here’s what we saw that was great:

  • Some well-rehearsed speakers who presented smoothly and convincingly
  • Proof positive that “it takes a whole lot of practice to sound spontaneous”
  • Some very simple graphics that made it easy for the audience to understand the concepts
  • One very effective use of an emotional appeal
  • Expert uses of humor to convey messages and build rapport with the audience
  • A video included in one presentation – which actually included audio that could be heard. Hooray!
  • Easy completions within the four-minute time limit by nine out of the ten presenters

Next post: what we heard and saw that was not so great.

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Phoning it in

woman speaker consulting cell phoneHow handy. You have a phone, much more compact than a piece of paper, and much smarter. With this, you can scroll through page after page of notes as you talk, never having to shuffle through cards or paper and never getting anything out of order.

But there’s a big problem with that technique: the audience will hate it. They came to hear you speak, not to watch you read. You squint, you scroll, and you let everyone know how poorly you prepared. Whenever you focus your attention on anything but your audience, you lose a measure of their respect. When they see you looking down at a smart phone, it’s even worse.

Though only about 10 years old, smart phone technology is notorious for cutting its users off from reality. We harshly criticize drivers who consult a phone while behind the wheel. We disparage people who take a phone call during a dinner date. We demand everyone silence their phones in class or when viewing a play. We have been conditioned to despise the sight of anyone gazing at a phone when they are supposed to be looking at us.

I recently saw a speaker do that very thing, using a smart phone as reference for his talk. It was off-putting and did not help his talk in the least.

This is not to say that you can’t prepare a script. As a speaker, you should plan, make your case, plot your stories, and craft language that appeals to the senses. But once you have done that, you should practice it until you no longer need the script.

When you deliver a talk, have nothing on hand other than your talking points, written on 3 x 5 cards that can be drawn discretely from your pocket, briefly glanced at, and put aside as you do what you came to do: make eye contact and speak to those you came to persuade.

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Overcoming “um”

Um3Most of the time, you don’t even know you’re doing it. You’re in front of an audience and you’re concerned with the next thing you’re going to say. That’s when you shovel in a filler word. You say “um” or “uh” or “so” or some other filler, just as we do in casual conversation. But when you’re speaking to an audience, filler words detract from your talk—they’re uninformative, repetitive, and, before long, irritating.

Psychologists say that we use fillers because we don’t like awkward silences. At some level we’re trying to reassure listeners that we’re sailing toward the next idea and will be there in just a moment.

Practiced speakers don’t do this. They know their subject so well that they step nimbly from idea to idea without hesitation. But even a practiced speaker can get caught on the shoals of “um” if she sails into unknown waters. If you go off subject, you lose your confidence and resort to filler words that betray the fact you’re groping your way along.

How do you get rid of the fillers? It’s not easy. Speaking coaches say this is one of the hardest bad habits to eradicate. But there are techniques that lead you in the right direction:

  • Record yourself. You’ll hear yourself using “um” and other fillers just as the audience does–not as you do, when your mind is elsewhere. This will make you aware of the habit and conscious of the need to overcome it.
  • You may know your subject cold, but have you rehearsed how you will express it? The need to use a filler word feels greatest when you’re grasping for a thought. Don’t grasp. Know what you’re going to say and you’ll feel less pressure to resort to a filler.
  • Inhale when you’ve finished a point. You can’t say “um” when you’re inhaling. Then go directly to your transition: “Now we should move on to . . . .” or “A third point has to do with . . .”
  • Just say nothing. Silence is your ally. It impresses the audience with the importance of what you’ve just said. As one successful speaking coach observed, when you stop talking, they start listening.
  • Make eye contact. You’re less likely to resort to a filler if you’re looking someone in the eye.

As with any speaking technique, practice makes you better. Go to war against the “um,” and don’t give up. Chances are that you will be victorious.

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Stories make it memorable

storytelling-around-the-campfireThrough most of human history, we told each other stories. Stories set standards of behavior, warned us against danger, comforted us, gave us hope, and generally contributed to our tribal wisdom.

Then, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, business schools came into being. Those who attended business schools learned about the value of hard, quantitative data. They were taught that data provided the only reliable path to success, that all good business decisions were based on data.

Now, that was not a bad thing, for we need data to find our way to the truth of the matter. The problem was that in this world devoted exclusively to data, storytelling fell by the wayside. Any student who included a story in a paper was advised that this was less than professional. Storytelling may have had its point around the campfire, but it had no place in a presentation to the board. Business decisions had to be hard-headed.

But listen: storytelling has been rediscovered. About 1990, academic articles began appearing that pointed out how effective a story could be when it came to motivating an audience, driving home an important point, and reaching a decision.

Today if you Google “business storytelling” you’ll see a series of articles with titles like, “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool” (Harvard Business Review), “Storytelling: The New Strategic Imperative of Business” (Forbes), and “From Bedtime to the Boardroom: Why Storytelling Matters in Business” (Entrepreneur).

Those who have studied the neurology of storytelling say that when we hear or see data, we light up only that part of the brain devoted to language processing. When we hear a story, though, we light up every part of the brain that involves us in the story—imagined sights, sounds, emotions . . . everything. That’s why we remember stories long after we would have forgotten the simple data points. Jennifer Aaker, professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, estimates that your data becomes 22 times more memorable if it’s embedded in a story. Thus, business has come around to storytelling. It’s memorable and it motivates.

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Crafting the Message Triangle

triangle-blue-equilateralIf you read the last post, you know about the power of three. Did you know you can use it to craft your entire presentation?

Many presenters struggle when they create their content. If they’re describing a study or project they’ve completed, for example, they may feel that they have to describe each step along the way. That gets tedious for the audience. It calls for more information than they can absorb. And there’s no need for it; your audience wants to be satisfied your effort was credible and understand its outcome, no more. Unless you are delivering a technical presentation, the rest is detail, and it is best left to a written report or an appendix.

So when you sit down to put your presentation together, ask yourself what three things you want your audience to remember when you’ve finished. That’s all they will take out of the room anyway. So what are the three most important things?

Now sketch a large equilateral triangle on a piece of paper and write one key point on each side of that triangle. Maybe your points are, 1. Our research was exhaustive; 2. The proposed solution has been used successfully by leaders in the industry; 3. Payback may be expected within three years.

Now, flesh those key points out with talking points. Under “exhaustive research,” you may note the industry standard for research, the number of sources you consulted, the credibility of those sources, and the number of work hours devoted to the task. Then perform a similar exercise with the other points.

When you’ve done this, you’ve finished the heavy lifting. Whenever you need to substantiate one of your key points, you can just reach up and take a talking point off the shelf.

And remember, repetition is your friend. That doesn’t mean saying the same thing five times in a row; it means coming back to your key points as you go along, like a singer comes back to a refrain in a song. Often, your talking points can accomplish that task, reminding listeners of a key point without actually using the same words over and over again.

There are several elements to good content, but this is one of the most basic: have three key points and keep coming back to them.  That will make your presentation memorable.

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The Power of 3

Three FingersHave you ever noticed how many things come in threes? There are three blind mice, three little pigs, three Musketeers, and three Stooges. Donald Duck has three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Goldilocks meets three bears. King Lear has three daughters. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts. Children learn to stop, drop and roll. They learn their ABCs.

We seem to rely a lot on things that come in threes. We’ve been doing that for a long time. The Romans even used to have a saying, omne trium perfectum: all that is three is perfect.

There’s probably a reason they said so—items grouped in threes tend to stay with us. An attorney once observed that juries can remember as many as three points; if you give them more, they tend to forget them all.  If someone repeats a list of numbers to you, you’re more likely to remember them if you break them down by groups of three as you listen. Try to memorize them in one long sequence and you’ll probably fail.

Items grouped in threes are balanced.  They are ordered. They are simple. That’s why “three” has power. Speakers can use that power to good effect.

Try it. Tell your audience that there are three important things to remember about your subject and hold up three fingers to emphasize the number.  Then shift to one finger to indicate you’re about to describe the first one. If they’re taking notes, they’ll begin writing at that moment. They know three points are easy to nail. But if you tell your audience there are ten important things to remember while spreading all ten fingers out, you’ll get a much less enthusiastic response. There may still be some note takers, but there will be fewer of them and they will not be eager. We dread long lists. We like sets of three.

So consider fashioning your content around the number three. You’ll find your audience retains the three points your present long after your presentation is over.

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What About my Nerves?

A nervous young male holding papers to give a speech and appears to be sweating very bad from his nerves.No one has ever really nailed down the nature of stage fright. It can affect both beginners and veterans. It can put you a little on edge or it can debilitate you. In most cases, it can be handled. In some, it’s not so easy.

The term “stage fright” is said to have originated with Mark Twain, but examples of it go clear back to Moses, who needed his brother, Aaron, to speak for him. Even experienced performers including Lawrence Olivier, Olympia Dukakis, Mariah Carey and Adele have been troubled by it.

So what are we all so afraid of?

There are anthropologists who have suggested a theory. They think it may be about the eyes—all those eyes looking at us at the same time.  Down through human history, the theory goes, everyone looking at you at the same time generally has not been good news. It meant you were about to be hunted/eaten/accused/judged/sentenced. Stage fright prepares you to survive the threat your psyche tells you you’re facing, even though the audience is harmlessly sitting there. All we can see is the judgment we seem ready to undergo, and that can bring some speakers to their knees.

Most of us know the symptoms—the racing heart, the clammy hands, the dry mouth, the nausea . . . and the wish we were anywhere else but here. I don’t really believe people would choose death over public speaking, as so many surveys report, but I do believe stage fright can be a deal breaker.

To combat it, I can offer two tactics and one strategy.

Tactic one is to get all that excess adrenaline out of your system. It’s the adrenaline that’s making your hands shake and your voice quaver. Work it off. Go someplace no one can see you and run in place, do pushups off the basin, shadowbox. At least flex your muscles. You’ll find your hands and voice are steady again, which may help your confidence when you get up to speak.

Tactic two is not to scan the audience when you’re up there facing them. Every time you look at a new face you’ll evaluate how that person feels about you. That will fuel your anxiety. So pick out one, friendly face and talk to that person for awhile, just as though you were the only two in the room. When you’ve reached your point, stop and find someone else. Talk to that person for awhile. Keep doing this. You’re more likely to calm down if you do.

The strategy part is simple, but it may take awhile for you to perfect it. The idea is to look at the audience and think, “What do those people need from me? How can I help them?” When you stop worrying about what they think of you and begin worrying about your message, you’re thinking like a speaker. And that’s the best way to calm your nerves.

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Humor on the Podium

It’s hard to get a laugh; askBusiness audience laughing any comedian facing a paying audience.

So should you try for a laugh in your next presentation?

Well, the tired, old-school advice is to open with a joke to relax the audience and get them to like you. Then, the wisdom goes, they’ll be receptive to your message.

Well, humor does do all those things, it’s true. It does relax the audience. It does make them like you, and it does make them more receptive to what you have to say. It does all those things–if they’re actually amused by what you’ve said. If they’re not, you’ve just crippled your talk for nothing.

The problem is that not many jokes are sure-fire. If you tell a joke and they don’t laugh—what then? Do you swallow and go on? Laugh and act as though they loved it? Either way you look pathetic.

Humor has to be real to work. And in the context of a talk, the most reliable humor is based on something that actually happened to you. Self-deprecating stories—where the joke was on you—tend to go over best of all. If that story is also an example of some point you want to make in your talk, that’s even better. Then you have an easy out. If no one laughs, you can just smoothly bridge to the point the story was meant to illustrate.

There’s a ton of advice out there on how to tell a joke well, but unless you’re a comedian with several audiences on which to try your material, I’d stick with this simple rule: laugh at yourself.

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Avoid this Route to Failure

HiRes-minThere is a swift route to failure in presentational speaking. It’s called not knowing your audience.

Before you begin even begin writing, you need to gather some intelligence about your listeners, for they are the key to everything.

It works like this: your audience is now at point A. When your talk is over, you want it to be at point B. Clearly, your strategy must be to take listeners from A to B.

So where’s point A? Until you know that, you can’t begin.

What do you know about your audience generally? The people attending your talk will all be individuals, of course, but they probably have some similarities. Do they all work at the same place? Are they are about the same age, or do they follow the same cause? Maybe they live in the same neighborhood or belong to the same organization. Find out what they have in common so you understand them and relate to them better.

Obviously, what really unites them is the fact that they’ve never heard your talk. That’s why you now need to find how much they know about your subject.

It’s not uncommon to find that knowledge is mixed. If you’re there to talk about global climate change, for example, you may find that some follow the subject closely, while others have been listening to the debate with only half an ear. If so, you may need to bring the laggards up to speed before you hit your main points. Tell the audience that’s what you’re doing so those already in the know don’t lose patience.

Another great advantage to knowing your audience is that you may learn in advance who the decision makers are. Then it’s just a step to learning how they make decisions. Do they respond well to facts? Are they all about the money? Are there causes close to their heart? You may find four or five decision makers in the same meeting, each of whom needs a special approach. Learn that approach and you’re halfway home.

Now, how do they feel about your subject? Is your subject controversial or politically charged?  Is your audience likely to be open to your position? If they’re on your side, it’s often safe to begin with the conclusion you reached and then cite the evidence behind it. If there’s controversy, it may be better to lay out the evidence before revealing your conclusion.

When you prepare a talk, there’s a lot of homework to be done. Your subject aside, the most crucial piece is knowing your audience—not so you can pander to them, but so you can treat them intelligently and with the respect they deserve.

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Where to begin . . .

Blank canvasSo you need to prepare a presentation. If you’re like most people, you probably feel like an art student standing in front of a huge, blank canvas, hesitant to make the first brushstroke.

Well, here’s the trick: you don’t begin with brushstrokes. That comes later. You start by determining something much more basic.

You start by sitting down and thinking what it is you want to accomplish. What difference do you want to make?  What do you want to be true after your presentation that was not true before you delivered it?

That forms your objective, and it’s worth considering with care because your objective forms the foundation of everything that will follow. Hash it out until you’re satisfied. And when you finally are, chances are that the answer will fall into one of three buckets:

I want the audience to become aware of something

I want the audience to accept something

I want the audience to do something

You’ll find that you more or less have to take it in that order. If your audience never heard of the issue, you’ll have to make them aware of it before they will accept it. And until they accept it, they’re not likely to get up and do something about it.

Yes, it’s possible to accomplish all three in the same presentation, but only if it’s a pretty compelling issue. Don’t overreach. Do what seems reasonable in the time you are allotted and save the rest for another time.

So planning your talk doesn’t begin with animated slides any more than a painting begins with paint on canvas. Both begin with a subject.

What’s your subject? What’s your presentation about? Once you know what you want to accomplish, you’ll have walked a mile in the right direction.

[Next post: knowing your audience]
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