Speakers Rehab


"Can you give me a good joke to tell during my presentation tomorrow?" I was asked once at an internal sales conference in 2000 by Ellen, an executive at my company.

I had just given the presentation of my life to 800 fellow Yahoo! employees, including senior management. Ellen, not a natural born speaker, wanted to have the same success-and she hoped it was as simple as securing a funny piece of content to go with her massive PowerPoint slide show.

I knew on the spot that a joke wasn’t the solution, and worse, I had no idea of how to help her improve her presentation skills in one day. Up until then, I was getting by with enthusiasm and visual aids. I knew that wasn’t sustainable. Over the next few years, I became a student of public speaking and read dozens of books on the subject. In 2003, one of those books changed my speaking life-and finally gave me some practical tools to help others improve their speeches as well.

That book was Working the Room by Nick Morgan. After studying some of the greatest speakers of all time, Morgan realized they all had one thing in common: a belief that "the only reason to give a speech is to change the world."

I eventually hired the author’s firm (Public Words Inc.) to help me with my growing professional speaking career. Public Words helps companies improve internal speakers for important presentations and also works with professional speakers such as myself. During the last five years, I’ve learned a great deal on how to give a presentation that moves an audience to action.

Face it: Most non-professional speakers are bad. Really bad. But many meeting professionals have to include them on event agendas because of their status and expectations. Usually, there isn’t much time to rehab a bad internal speaker, so some simple rules of thumb could come in handy.

1. Make each speech tell a single archetypal story. Both Morgan and author and film producer Clive Barker agree that there are a fixed number of basic stories that are told and retold over time. We are used to hearing these, and that’s why they work in changing our perspective and actions. Those stories include love, revenge, strangers-in-a-strange-land, coming of age, hero journeys and burning platforms. While speakers like to tell little stories, they must tie them to an overarching story that the audience can relate to. So, figure out which of these stories the speaker is trying to tell, then create an outline and select data and anecdotes to support it.

2. Reduce the visuals (crutches). If a speaker needs an outline, put one together on paper with magic marker and tape it to the floor in front of him or her-just like a band has a set list instead of overhead slides that announce each song. I suggest cutting PowerPoint presentations down to less than six slides (hopefully, all illustrative images and NO quotes).

3. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Encourage speakers to run through the speech with staff before leaving for events. Schedule time for speakers to give the full presentation at the venues to instill confidence and free up their minds during the presentation, allowing them to connect with the audience and watch how they react to material.

4. Require at least three specific calls to action. A "go-do-this" point is the best possible takeaway a talk can offer its audience. To outline a problem or provide a case study may be interesting, but it will not change the world. Calls to action need to be specific, doable and measurable. I suggest that the first two calls to action are tactical and the final one strategic. After-event communications should summarize the internal speaker’s calls to action and progress that’s been made in adopting them.

5. Review the tapes-full circle. All events should, whenever possible, be videotaped. Even if you use an inexpensive camera, tape the speaker AND the audience every time. Morgan’s newest book, Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, argues that the non-verbal message is more important than the verbal message, yet most speakers are not aware of their postures, gestures or movements. Show speakers what they are doing wrong on tape, and they’ll change.

6. View (or have the speaker view) the tape you’ve made of your audience. Movie producers have used this technique for decades to assess how audiences react to plot lines, stories and actors. By watching the audience, as you listen to the speaker, you’ll drill down to the points that worked, bounced off the audience or didn’t work at all.

How hard is it to rehab a bad internal speaker? Not hard with good advice, persistence and positive feedback. Besides, if you help one of your executives improve his or her game on stage, they’ll see you as a value-added leader in the company, which can be good for your career (and your events).

TIM SANDERS, one of the top-rated speakers on the lecture circuit, is author of Saving the World at Work: What Companies and Individuals Can Do to Go Beyond Making a Profit to Making a Difference (Doubleday, September 2008). Check out his Web site at www.savingtheworld.net.