“The title dictates the architecture of the song.
– Broadway lyricist, Sammy Cahn

Drawing by CSondi

I talk a lot about the importance of your message. If you don’t know what you want your audience to remember – if you can’t sum it up in one clear, memorable sentence  -  they won’t be able to remember it either. You might as well not even have bothered them.

But if you have created that crisp, catchy, memorable statement that perfectly encapsulates your strongest pitch or argument, you are more than half way home. You do, however, still have work to do.

Your message might be the most important part of the speech, but if you want your audience to buy in, you still have to build the supporting structure of logic and evidence they need to justify your claims in their minds. They need that, if they are going to accept the validity of your message and to act on it.

Sammy Cahn was a Broadway lyricist, four-time Academy Award winner and the writer of such classic songs as “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”. In an interview on NPR, he made the comment that “The title dictates the architecture of the song.” What he meant, I think, is that the title sets the theme, the tone and, to a certain extent, the structural scheme of rhythm and rhyme.

I’m no songwriter, and I may be the worst singer in the world, but I feel the same way, not about the title of a speech or presentation, but about the message.

Your message dictates the architecture of your speech or presentation.

Your message tells you the tone you need to set in the opening of your speech. If your message to a group of breast cancer survivors is, “You are still strong and beautiful”, you wouldn’t open with a joke about bald women. The tone doesn’t suit the message.

Your message tells you how to structure the body of the speech. If your message is that “Most aid to foreign countries is wasted,” then you need to marshal the evidence to justify that claim. You need you need to tell us how much money goes to foreign aid, how much is wasted and what the results of the aid are.

Your message tells you which stories are likely to further your point, and which will just confuse it. If your message is “Our training can boost your sales conversions”, you wouldn’t tell a story about the time you forgot to send in a sales order and nearly got fired, no matter how funny it is. You would tell a story about a client who went from nearly being fired to being named Salesman of the Year, after taking your training course.

Your message dictates the title of your presentation, your call to action and even how you write the introduction the Master of Ceremonies reads. It dictates everything you do.

Your entire speech or presentation is designed to deliver the one simple, memorable message that you think gives you the best chance accomplish your purpose.

Of course that’s assuming you know what the purpose of your speech is. You’ve already figured that out, haven’t you?


Someone asked me the other day, “What is the hardest part of teaching?”

My initial reaction was that it’s managing, grading and recording the students’ assignments and tests. It’s not my strongest suit, but I do try to be careful, because a trivial error can cause major problems for both student and teacher. It’s not really hard though. It just takes an obnoxious amount of time and attention.

Care and feeding of the administration is certainly one of the most annoying parts of the job. But as long as I show up for class every day, turn in my paperwork on time and cause no more trouble than necessary, the university administrators generally leave me alone.

Maybe it’s curriculum design, I thought. The selection, sequencing and depth of the material taught can have a huge impact on the students’ understanding and retention. After 23 years in the classroom, I think I do a good job of it, but it is something I will never master. There is always some new wrinkle or approach to consider. In fact, it is one of the more interesting and enjoyable parts of the job.

Classroom management can be a challenge. Dealing with a difficult student can drain the life out of the teacher and the class and, in some teaching situations, it can be a major issue. And yet, I’m lucky enough to teach in several of Tokyo’s top universities. Almost all of my students are good students and nice people.

Dealing with the diversity of learning styles in the classroom? As long as I provide a good mix of methods and modes of engaging with and understanding the material, I think the issue is overblown.

In the end, I find myself left with only one possible conclusion. The most difficult part of teaching is simply being more interesting than whatever else is rattling around my teenage students’ brains.

It’s being able to grab and hold the students’ attention, engage their interest and motivate their study efforts – to make a 60-90 minute lesson fly by – while planting concepts, relationships and structures in their heads that will frame their thoughts and shape their actions, both now and in the future. That is what separates great teachers from average ones.

In the end, it turns out, being a great teacher is a lot like being a great speaker.


You Decide

by R. L. Howser on March 21, 2014 · 0 comments

It’s that time of year again and as I get ready for my annual assault on the Toastmasters International Speech Contest, I find myself thinking a lot about last year’s winner.

Naoki Tamura 2013Unfortunately, it wasn’t me. My friend, Naoki Tamura, was the 2013 Toastmasters Japan Champion of Public Speaking. His speech, titled “You Decide”, was not only good enough to win the championship contest, it also taught me several important lessons about how to construct and deliver a powerful and memorable message.

A Toastmasters speech is far too often, in Shakespeare’s words, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Though the “idiot” part may be debatable, the tale tends to be an entertaining, emotional and histrionic performance, full of sound and fury.

In fact, so skilled are some of the speakers at delivering that performance, that the content sometimes gets short shrift. The same tired truisms of “Be yourself”, “Don’t give up” and “Appreciate your loved ones” are recycled, ad nauseam, through the lens of each speaker’s unique experiences.

They are truisms because they are true, but the result is that watching a Toastmasters’ speech contest can be like judging an angel food cake baking contest. There may be subtle differences in the skill of the baker and the quality of the product, but after a while the cakes all start to taste the same.

That’s why Toastmaster Tamura’s speech stood out so clearly. His journey as a young executive – from being a follower who asks permission, to becoming a leader who makes decisions – was something I had never heard anyone else speak of.

It was his story, but it was about more than his own narrow experience. His story mirrored one of the most fundamental and profound transitions that we pass through in life; the coming of age, when a dependent child becomes an independent adult. It is a transition that we all pass through, in many forms and to different degrees of success in our lives.

Whether it’s an artist learning to have faith in her unique vision, a new father discovering that he can trust his parenting instincts or a businesswoman finding her own particular management style, the transformation from follower to leader, from novice to master or from subordinate to boss is a fundamental change that forever alters how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Tamura took this rich, complex and universal experience of transformation and boiled it all down to two simple words; “You decide.”

With those two words to guide him, he wrote a lean, tight script packed with humor, vivid language and subtle emotion and he delivered it with his usual confidence and style. His skill as a speaker would have meant nothing though, if he hadn’t been using it to deliver a profound, powerful and original message.

It’s a formula for effective speaking in almost any context. Take a new idea, boil it down to its absolute essence and deliver that it with clarity, concision and conviction.

Of course, that’s easy to say, not so easy to do.


There’s a problem that bedevils every writer that I know and it is particularly true of speech writers. We have a tendency to fall in love with our words.

9965831784_e6c31b10ecOnce we spend the time crafting them and we see them on the paper or on the screen, they become the only way of saying what we are trying to get across.

We’ll go back and tinker with them; polish the grammar, toy with the punctuation or agonize over word choices, but what we rarely do is question whether the approach we took was the best one.

Much as a mother falls in love with her child, and can’t even imagine having any child but this one, once our words are born in front of us, the major choices of tone, structure and style become, in our minds, the only possible choices.

Sometimes that’s good. It’s far too easy to outsmart ourselves with pointless embellishment or complication. Very often our first instincts are our best ones.

But not always.

Sometimes, it’s just not working and the best thing you can do is toss the whole thing out and start over. Try a radically different tone or a completely different analogy. Strip it down or tart it up. Flip your structure upside down.

Sometimes it’s not enough to just change the bathwater. You’ve got to toss out the baby, or at least set it to the side, and make a new one.

That’s the most enjoyable part of the process anyway.


It’s better to burn out than to fade away.
– Neil Young
Burning out are much better than it fades away gradually.
– Japanese T-shirt

There are always many different ways to put your thoughts into words. You can make different word choices, use different grammatical structures or change the order in which you present your ideas.

Other than the obvious grammatical errors in the latter version, the two quotes above both make the same basic point. But I suspect you would agree that Neil Young phrased the point much more clearly, succinctly and powerfully than did the maker of the T-shirt.

Quite often, our words come out of us in a jumble. We may think we know what we think, but somehow what comes out of our mouths is not as clear as it seemed in our minds.

Too late, we spot the inconsistencies, ambiguities and unnecessary complications that have everyone around us scratching their heads in puzzlement, or worse, misunderstanding our intentions.

Of course, we can always double back and explain what we meant to say, clear up the confusion and correct the misinterpretations, but that’s never as good as saying it well in the first place.

I’m not a proponent of writing and memorizing you speech, unless it is less than a minute or two. I’ve successfully memorized speeches of up to ten minutes, but I’ve paid a price for such precision. I might have delivered my speech exactly as I intended, but always at the cost of the spontaneity and authenticity that would have forged a stronger rapport with my audience.

It’s not worth it.

I do, however, strongly recommend that you write out your speech, especially the key points and phrases that you want your audience to remember and act on. Play with the grammar. Toy with the vocabulary. Switch up the order or twist the structure around.

Find that perfect phrase that says exactly what you want them to hear and tuck it away in your mental pocket, so when the time is right you know exactly what to say for maximum effect.

Burning out are much better than it fades away gradually, but who’s going to remember that?



“If you want to be a successful speaker”, the experts say, “you’ve got to write a book.” As with most questionable advice, this pernicious bit of conventional wisdom is based in the truth.

It’s true that successful celebrity writers are always in demand as speakers and that they command high fees. Some best-selling writers even make more money from their speaking than they do from their writing.

It’s also true that, with the advent of ebook readers and print on demand (POD) presses, it has never been easier to write, publish and market a book. Social media platforms have made it possible for anyone to build a virtual tribe of followers. Amazon and Apple will handle your fulfillment and billing for you.

It’s a golden age of self-publishing………, and there are a lot of bad public speaking books out there.

Honestly, it’s not so much that they are bad, as that they are pointless. The majority of the speakers writing books are new to the field. They might have some natural talent as a speaker, but most of what they know they learned from other speakers.

As I read their books, all I can think of is, “That’s a Craig Valentine phrase”, “They stole that from Brian Tracy” or “That’s a Zig Ziglar story”. The rest is usually generic advice that we could get from any airline in-flight magazine, such as “be yourself”, “make eye contact” and “speak clearly”.

As marketing pieces, such books might seem impressive, if we overlook the often spotty editing and poor book and cover design, but it would be nice if the author had offered some original insights or ideas.

Otherwise, they’re just big business cards.


The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean.
– Robert Louis Stevenson

That’s the difficulty of public speaking too.

It’s easy, with a bit of practice, to stand up in front of a crowd and yammer on for an hour. I’ve done it many times. For people born with the gift, it’s not even that difficult to be witty, entertaining and interesting, while they are up there.

What’s hard is to walk off the stage, or sit back in your chair at the conference table, feeling that you not only said what you wanted to say, but that you said what needed to be said to get the job done.

It takes planning to think through how to best make your case; to sort through the different approaches you could take and the effect each will have on your audience.

It takes preparation to create visuals or handouts that will effectively support the words you are saying, without distracting the audience or undercutting your message.

It takes foresight to anticipate any objections or troubling questions they might have and keep the information you will need on hand to address them.

It takes presence of mind to pay attention to the reactions of the audience and adjust on the fly to what you read in their expressions and body language.

Many speakers seem to be satisfied with just having finished speaking with no major gaffes, but I hope that’s not enough for you.

The difficulty of public speaking is not to say something, but to say what you mean.


Compass - smallBefore the invention of the compass, ancient mariners knew to use the sun and the North Star to chart their course across oceans. They were reliable and constant allies.

But when storm clouds blanketed the sky, and those guides were most needed, the sailors were at the mercy of the winds and the waves, with no point of reference beyond their own dead reckoning. It’s not surprising that many lost their way.

Speechwriters can lose their way too. It’s easy enough to be blown off course by a long-winded story, a joke that falls flat or a confusing example, but at least it’s clear what the problem is. You can see what you need to fix.

It’s all the more insidious, when it’s an exciting story, a hilarious joke or a fascinating example that leads you astray. For all too often, the story is in there because it’s exciting. The joke is in there because it’s hilarious. The example is in there because it is fascinating. And none of them are there because they advance, illuminate or reinforce the point you are trying to make.

You may have the audience leaning forward in their seats, or clutching their sides in laughter, but you’re left with a vague sense that you are off course and not really getting your message across.

When that happens, go back to your compass; the simple, clear, one-sentence statement that sums up your entire speech or presentation.

Some call it a “foundational phrase”, a “statement of purpose” or an “axiom of assignation”, …………… OK, I made that last one up.

I simply call it your message. It’s the one point that you most want your audience to hear. It’s the one idea you want to plant in their minds. When they’ve forgotten everything else you said, it’s the one thing you want them to remember,

And it’s the only compass you’ll ever need to determine what you should put in your speech and what you need to cut out.

If that exciting story doesn’t demonstrate the validity of your message, cut it out. If that hilarious joke doesn’t also make the point you are trying to convey, cut it out. If that fascinating example doesn’t reinforce your purpose, cut it out.

The ancient mariners had to rely on intuition and hope to sail in stormy seas, but you have a compass – your message – to guide you.


“The world’s most captivating communicators ….. don’t just provide information; they convey meaning.
–Marta Kagan, in “7 Lessons from the World’s Most Captivating Presenters” at Hubspot

I have a long running debate with some professional colleagues about the value of the “information update” presentation.

Some of them swear by it; teaching it to their corporate clients’ employees, providing a format and structure and spending precious classroom time practicing it. They say that their clients specifically ask them to teach it, so their employees will be able to more effectively report on the progress they have made toward their assigned business goals.

I can’t really argue with that, but to me it’s kind of like hoping your son grows up to be a fast food fry cook. He’ll be gainfully employed, but hardly making the most of his opportunities and talents.

The information update is simply the lowest form of presentation. There is nothing really wrong with it, except that it is a gross waste of time, attention and opportunity.

If you have ten people in a meeting, and eight of them each gives an information update that takes about five minutes, by the time you get through the session, with the unavoidable wasted time between reports, you’ll have squandered nearly a collective full day’s work, for something that could have been accomplished in a fraction of the time with email.

And that’s something you want to teach people to do?

If you’re going to teach presentation, why not teach what presentation does best? Not just present the information, but tell us what it means.

Teach them how to present an effective argument, proposal or conclusion. Teach them how to use presentation to persuade, motivate or inspire. Teach them how to influence others through powerful storytelling. Teach them how to lay out a rock solid argument that anticipates and disarms objections. Teach them how to present themselves, their employers, their products and services effectively in conversational networking situations.

Teach them how to make the most of every opportunity to accomplish something useful with the time and attention they have been granted.

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Give them the Gold

by R. L. Howser on November 6, 2013 · 0 comments

Recently, I’ve been wrestling with a secret fantasy of walking away from everything I own to go gold mining in Alaska.

Golds Rush 2

It’s all because of the reality TV program, “Gold Rush”. The show follows a bunch of hapless greenhorns who are struggling through trial and error, mostly error, to strike it rich in the gold fields of the Klondike.

The miners know from their testing that there is gold in the ground, but to get at it, they need to dig out tons and tons of earth. They need to sort out the rocks, wash away the dirt and carefully separate the gold from the sand.

In the end, from each massive scoop of earth they recover a tiny amount of gold to take to the bank.

Unfortunately, in far too many presentations I see, it’s as if the speaker were a miner who hauled the tons of dirt directly in to town and dumped it all on the floor of the bank lobby. The bank president would surely refuse to have anything to do with it. He simply isn’t equipped to deal with it.

That’s what happens when a speaker dumps reams of data on the audience, whether verbally or through PowerPoint slides. The audience shuts down. They aren’t equipped to process so much raw data while sitting in a presentation.

It’s the miner’s job to refine the earth and present the banker with only the gold.

It’s the speaker’s job to refine the data and present the audience with only the most significant and relevant facts, trends and conclusions.

That’s the gold we want from you.