“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.




Titanic Agenda 2How would you like to go to a movie, let’s say, “Titanic”, and have the movie open with this screen.

It would be a bit of a spoiler, wouldn’t it? Yet that’s the way most business presentations, especially internal corporate presentations, seem to begin.

When I work with corporate executives on their presentations, they almost always insist they need an agenda slide to show their audience exactly what issues are going to be covered, in order to keep everyone’s attention, and yet,……… James Cameron seemed to have no trouble keeping everyone’s attention in Titanic.

OblivionIn a sense, the executives are right. In a poorly structured and written presentation, the agenda is necessary to help the audience make sense of what they are hearing, just as a really bad movie, (I’m looking at you, Tom Cruise)  could use an agenda slide to make sense of the story.

A great movie, on the other hand, never leaves you confused or lost. You know what’s happening. Even a mystery, should be mysterious clearly. You may not know who the killer is, but at least you know where you are in the story.

That’s how a good presentation should be too.

The opener should grab their attention and prepare them for the message you are going to present to them.

The introduction should lay out the change you are going to lead the audience through. How they will benefit from this change should be unambiguously stated. The message they are to remember should be presented to them in a short, clear and memorable form.

The body should flow naturally from the message to the arguments, examples and stories that will explain and support it, with concrete examples, specific data and iron-clad logic.

The conclusion should return to that message, driving home its meaning, its relevance and its importance; planting that one crystal clear point deep in the minds of the audience.

If you do that, your audience will know where you are going. They will understand how each part of the presentation relates to the whole. They’ll know what to expect.

Your presentation will carry your audience towards your destination smoothly, powerfully, irresistibly, like the great ocean liner herself.

Just watch out for icebergs.


It’s easier to rattle off jargon and keep communication emotionally neutral. But the easiest doesn’t always mean the best.
– Nancy Duarte, in “Resonate

ResonateI stumbled across this quote, when I was reading Nancy Duarte’s book, “Resonate“, for the third or fourth time, and it resonated with me because of a conversation I had, just the other day, with a Japanese IT engineer.

He wanted his company to make a radical change from a proprietary operating system in its products to the international, open standard system that virtually all of its competitors had adopted.

When I suggested a few ways he could make and support his claim, he said that, while interesting, that was just not the way it was done in a Japanese corporation. He said it was safer and easier just to present slides loaded with the data and let the audience come to their own conclusions, rather than to make a clear and bold claim, even though that was what he thought his co-workers really needed to shake them out of their denial and inertia.

I’m sure he’s right – it is easier and safer not to take a stand – but is there any other area of business in which the easier and safer way is the best way?

It’s easier and safer to sit in your office and wait for people to call than to go out and beat the bushes for business. It’s easier and safer to make a “me too” product or provide a “me too” service than to stake out a unique niche in the market. It’s easier and safer to hire the person with the best resume and educational qualifications than to dive deeper and find employees who share your values, goals and visions.

Does anyone think those are the best ways to build a successful business?

It’s not easy or safe to stake out a position you believe in, build a persuasive case and present it with the passion, conviction and confidence to make change happen.

But that’s what leaders do.



The ability to read an audience, while you are speaking, and to adjust your content or style of delivery on the fly, is generally considered to be a very high level skill for a speaker.

Just trying to remember what you are supposed to say, and reminding yourself to keep your hands out of your pockets and not say, “Ummmm”, is tough enough for most of us. Who has the mental capacity to adjust to the audience, too?

Sure, a professional speaker who has spent hundreds of hours of stage, and knows their material inside and out, might be able to pull it off. Maybe one of those freaks of nature that actually gets a thrill out of being the center of attention could do it.

But isn’t that setting the bar a bit too high for us average people who find ourselves fumbling through a presentation at work or a toast at a banquet?


Reading the reactions of others and adjusting our own behavior is not a magical skill or a masterful technique. It is something each and every one of us does every day of our own lives.

It is what you do, when you are having a great day and you run into your friend who seems distressed about something. It is what you do, when you toss out a lighthearted comment at work and are rewarded with stern looks and furrowed brows. It is what you do, when you are feeling down, but your friend tells you some exciting and wonderful news.

You adjust your own behavior to reflect what you see in others; in their expressions and in their body language.

You immediately adjust your tone in sympathy with the distressed friend. You adopt a more serious and professional persona to match the prevailing mood of the business situation. You try to lighten your own attitude, in order to share in your friend’s happiness. You are responding to what you read in others every time you interact. That’s what it means to be a social being.

So what we are really talking about here is not some magical skill possessed by professional speakers, but simply the quality of paying attention to the people you are talking to – not speaking at – but talking to.

Focus out on the audience. Look into their eyes. Watch their faces. Pay attention to their posture and gestures.

You already know how to read the physical language. You know what the signs mean. You know what impatience, disagreement, confusion and enthusiasm look like. And you know how to adjust what you say in response.

It’s not magic or mastery. You do it every day.


Can you imagine a carpenter beginning a construction project by carefully painting the face of each piece of lumber?

It wouldn’t make much sense, would it? He would have to foresee how every piece would be used, where every cut would be and how every single piece would fit together. It might be an interesting challenge for a bored master craftsman, but it would hardly be an efficient or effective way of working for the average journeyman carpenter.

So why does almost every presenter I work with seem to begin their planning and writing with how they are going to open their presentation?

Sure, the opening of your presentation is important. It is the first thing the audience will hear. It has to catch their attention, establish a rapport and prepare them for the message you are going to be presenting. But that doesn’t mean it is the first thing you should write

The paint is the first thing you see when you visit a new house, but it is one of the last things that the builder applies.

You can’t plan or write an effective opening until you know exactly what you are opening. You need to know what the message is that you are trying to deliver, what kind of change you are going to lead the audience through on the way to that message and how you are going to convincingly explain and support that message.

You need to know which of the many stories, statistics or arguments available to you are going to be used in the body of your presentation. You need to know what the overall tone of your presentation is going to be.

Otherwise, like a carpenter trying to adjust the structure of a house to accommodate the painted lumber available to him, you’ll end up trying to adjust the tone, flow and structure of your presentation to match your opening, or worse, trying to hammer together mismatched parts.

Define your message, craft your argument and marshal your supporting evidence. Tack it all together, THEN start thinking about your opening. It may be the first thing your audience will hear, but it should be one of the last things you write.

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My father had a theory about lawn care. He figured, if the directions called for one bag of fertilizer for a yard the size of ours, then five bags would be five times as good. It sounded reasonable to a six-year old, but the result was that our yard often looked like the back end of a mangy dog; brown, ragged and covered with bald spots.

That “More is always better” attitude seems to be the belief of a lot of speakers too. They describe 15 amazing product features, 12 reasons to choose them over their competitors and 8 support plan options.

The deluge of information blasts the audience, leaving them paralyzed. It’s what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls “The Paradox of Choice”; the more options we have, the harder it is to choose and the less confident we are in the choice we made.

Your audience doesn’t want you to dump all of their choices back in their own laps, any more than a reader wants a novelist to offer a choice of story endings or a restaurant diner wants the chef to consult with them on which ingredients he will use in their meal.

As a speaker, it is not your job to throw everything you’ve got at the audience, but rather to select the arguments and examples that give you the best possible chance of achieving your objectives.

You do that by knowing specifically what you are trying to achieve in giving this particular of the speech or presentation, who in your audience can make that happen and how you are going to persuade them to do what you want.

You distill all of that information down into a single, clear and simple message; one that you think gives you the best possible chance to achieve your objective. And with that, you’re more than halfway towards a strong and persuasive presentation.

Of course, you still need to structure your outline, write your script, create your PowerPoint and deliver your presentation. But those are just details.

Your message tells you what you need to include. It also tells you which four bags of fertilizer you’d best leave out


Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi!
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

What’s the best way to reach the widest possible audience with your words?

Most speakers seem to assume that casting a wider net will increase their catch. They speak in generalities and abstractions so the audience can take the ideas and apply them to their own specific cases.

They speak of committed monogamous relationships, instead of telling us a tale of two lovers. They describe methods of maximizing production efficiency, instead of telling us specifically how we can work smarter. They announce the necessity of off-shoring certain administrative management tasks, instead telling us who, exactly, is going to be let go.

Sometimes, of course, they are using euphemisms to avoid taking responsibility for saying what they really mean. Sometimes, their purpose is to cover their own asses, but trotting out every possible argument or forecast.

Often though, I think they speak in generalities out of a well-meaning, but misguided, fear that the more specific they are, the more of their audience they will exclude.

They’re afraid if they speak of one specific industry, those in other industries won’t find it relevant. They’re afraid if they outline one specific problem, some who don’t suffer from that will tune them out. They’re afraid that describing a limited and specific situation won’t interest the vast majority of the audience, who may not have experienced that situation and probably never will.

In fact, the opposite is true. The more specific and concrete you are with your words and examples, the more relatable your message will be to your audience.

A single case study will often illuminate the solution to a problem better than reams of business school theories. A single personal story is often more convincing than the most logical and well-supported, but abstract, argument. A single clear example will often stick better in your audience’s minds than a dozen that cover every possible permutation of the issue.

The specifics of the case are generally not the point of what you are saying. It is the more general principles and practices that those specifics illustrate that are the message of your speech or presentation. The more specific and concrete your examples are, the better your audience will understand, relate to and remember that message.

Of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t saying that freedom should only ring from Colorado’s Rockies or California’s slopes. He wasn’t saying that freedom should only ring from Stone Mountain or Lookout Mountain. He wasn’t saying that freedom should only ring from the hills and molehills of Mississippi, or even just from the mountains.

He was using those specific locations, each with its own historic and cultural overtones, to say that freedom should ring everywhere.

The message is universal, but it’s the specifics that make it concrete and relatable.


A perfection of means and confusion of aims seems to be our main problem.
– Albert Einstein

That seems to the main problem with a lot of public speaking training as well.

There is no shortage of books, CDs or DVDs on presentation that will show you how to deepen your voice, improve your body language, calm your nerves, increase your eye contact, tighten your structure, sharpen your writing or simplify your PowerPoint.

There is advice on what to wear, where to stand, when to pause, how to gesture and who to look at.

There are coaches, trainers and gurus of every stripe and persuasion, all willing to help you manage your image, heighten your charisma and project your authority, for a modest fee, of course.

But few people seem to have much to say about the aim of your presentation. It’s almost as if that is too obvious.

And yet, while most of the speakers I see could use some coaching on how they present themselves and their material, the most obvious failing of the vast majority of them is a confusion of aims. They simply don’t seem to have given much thought to why they are speaking or what they are trying to achieve.

It’s as if they were going on a trip and ended up packing a goose down coat, a swim suit, a tuxedo and a pair of hiking boots. A little thought to their intended destination would have clarified what they needed to take and what they didn’t.

A little thought about where you are going – the aim of your presentation – before you start writing or creating PowerPoint slides, will go a long way towards clarifying what you need to put in and what you ought to leave out.


I know a lot of Toastmasters who would like to be professional speakers. They are skilled and experienced, and may have done very well in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest. Yet many of them struggle to find opportunities to speak professionally, and struggle even more to find something relevant to say when they do get the opportunity.

In his great TED Talk on creativity, Sir Ken Robinson points out that universities seem to be designed primarily to create more university professors. Academics teach academic skills, rather than the skills that matter most in the business or professional worlds. It’s what they know.

That’s the problem for many Toastmasters, too. If you need someone to wow the audience at a Toastmasters conference, a Toastmaster is the way to go. They know how to construct logically powerful arguments, tell emotionally evocative stories and deliver them all with confidence, style and verve. That’s what they practice in Toastmasters. It’s what they know.

But being a great speaker doesn’t qualify anyone to be a professional speaker

Don’t get me wrong, I love Toastmasters. I think everyone should be a Toastmaster and learn how to present themselves and their ideas with confidence, clarity and conviction. Most of what I know about speaking is a result of my experience in Toastmasters clubs and contests.

But business doesn’t hire speakers to entertain them, except perhaps at the yearly Christmas party. And despite what many would have you believe, they don’t hire speakers to motivate them. Motivation can only come from within the corporate culture.

Businesses hire speakers to help them; to teach them skills, to adjust their attitudes and to change their behavior. They’re not interested in hiring great speakers. They want to hire experts who can speak well.

Communication and delivery skills are vital. You can’t teach anyone, if you don’t grab and hold their attention, structure your content for clarity and retention and deliver it in a confident and compelling manner, and Toastmasters is a great place to develop those skills.

Ultimately, however, your content – your knowledge, your judgment and your expertise – is what they are buying.

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