In a recent post, Dumping Data, we looked at how a deluge of facts and figures, without a corresponding assertion of what the information means, can leave an audience feeling empty and confused, with no clue what they are supposed to take away from it.

In thinking about that post, and reading the comments that many of you added, I’ve realized that there is more to it than that. It’s not enough to just tell your audience what it all means, either. In fact, that can also work against you.

Call it critical thinking, pride or just plain contrarian stubbornness; when we push an audience to do, think, feel or believe something, their natural reaction is generally to push back. They will search for the errors in our data, the faults in our logic or the flaws in our argument.

To get around that resistance, rather than presenting our conclusions, our recommendations or our suggestions as if they’ve come down from the hand of God, we need to take the audience by the hand and lead them to our conclusions, step by step, so they can experience the epiphany of understanding on their own.

While I was pondering this, I happened to read a fascinating article in The Atlantic magazine. The Writing Revolution, by Peg Tyre, described the incredible success of a writing program at a notoriously bad high school on Staten Island.

Despite the complete failure of many earlier curriculum reform attempts, educators at New Dorp High School were able to achieve dramatic improvements in the writing abilities, and overall scholastic performance, of formerly underachieving students.

The breakthrough occurred when teachers realized that most of their students’ writing was lacking one specific feature; complex sentences. Students were writing a series of discrete thoughts or facts, but not linking the thoughts in a chain that indicated the relationships between them.

And that’s what many adults do when they dump data on the audience in a speech or presentation.

It’s the words between the facts, the conjunctions, which construct the overall meaning. A happened so B happened, even though C was done, therefore D will be necessary, if we want to achieve E. That’s what the facts mean.

And that’s the chain of events that the audience needs to experience through the presentation; not just that you and God (or the CEO) are recommending E. If they are going to buy into E, support E, explain E to their customers and defend it to their colleagues, they need to understand the entire sequence of facts and events, as if they had come up with the idea themselves.

Clear speaking comes from clear writing, and clear writing comes from clear thinking. When the students of New Dorp High School were taught to understand and use conjunctions they began to think and express themselves in more complex and sophisticated ways.

When speakers and presenters learn to use conjunctions to connect their facts, their thoughts and their conclusions; and to lead their audience by the hand through that thorny thicket, it allows them to inform, to persuade and to motivate through the shared experience of discovery.

Data dumps leave your audience confused. Commands and exhortations trigger resistance.  A shared journey brings them in as partners.


Can We Trust You?

by R. L. Howser on November 18, 2012 · 0 comments

It’s the fundamental question that every audience asks when they look at a speaker.

Actually, it’s two questions. The first is can we trust you to know what you’re talking about? The second is can we trust you to be honest with us.

When I work with students or clients, I emphasize the importance of presenting themselves with an air of confidence. I work with them on standing tall and straight, quieting and opening their body language and gestures and keeping the shoulders soft and relaxed. That’s the image of a speaker that is comfortable and confident in what he or she is saying; a speaker whose competence the audience feels it can trust.

But that is only half of the story. A recent study reported in the New York Times, Who’s Trustworthy? A Robot Can Help Teach Us, made me realize that our audience is judging more than our own level of confidence. They are also looking for signs of dishonesty.

Researchers from Northeastern University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell, using a simple game theory experiment, discovered that we do judge the trustworthiness of others based on visual clues.

No surprise there. Everyone knows that liars have shifty eyes, right?

In fact, the researchers found four specific gestures that your audience will see as signs of dishonesty, especially when combined:

  1. Leaning away
  2. Crossing your arms in front of you
  3. Clutching or rubbing your hands together
  4. Touching yourself on the face, chest or abdomen

Doesn’t that sound like the image of every nervous speaker you’ve ever seen; perhaps the image of you at times?

These are all common reactions to the emotional stress of public speaking, but the evidence shows that your audience reads them, not simply as stress reactions, nor even as a lack of self-confidence, but as signs of dishonesty.

Effective speaking is about more than just the words you say. The way you present yourself is as important as the way you present your subject matter. You need to learn not only to project confidence in yourself, but to quiet the signals that kill your credibility.

It’s tough enough to get your point across persuasively to an audience who trusts you. Why make it any harder than it needs to be?


Dumping Data

by R. L. Howser on October 6, 2012 · 11 comments

I sat through yet another data dump the other day; twenty mind-numbing minutes of facts, figures and charts. At the end of the presentation, I not only remembered no details of any importance, but I had no clue what I was supposed to learn from it

And yet, the speaker seemed to be quite pleased with himself. He had successfully covered his material with no major errors. He even commented that he was happy to see that no one had any questions.

Neither I, nor I suspect anyone else there, had any questions because we had no idea what his point was.

I’m tempted to say he had failed as a speaker, except that I have a hunch he succeeded completely at his true goal, which was to avoid saying anything at all for which he could be held accountable.

That seems to be the goal of a lot of speakers.

Of course, some speakers simply have nothing to say. They don’t know enough to take a stand. They were told to present the data, so they present the data for their betters to interpret, casting the bones before the elders.

More often though, I think they present the data because that is generally uncontroversial. Opinions, recommendations and conclusions can sometimes ruffle a few feathers, so they err on the side of caution; presenting the known, the established, the unquestionable.

By simply dumping all of the data on the audience, they avoid the responsibility of making decisions; decisions about what is relevant, decisions about what is significant and decisions about what it all means.

They avoid the only good reason to listen to them at all.


Why We Came To You

by R. L. Howser on September 24, 2012 · 5 comments

The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.
– Voltaire

Everyone flocks to listen to the expert speak.

The more impressive your credentials or title, the longer your training or experience, the more hours you have devoted to learning the arcane details of your craft or mulling the implications of the most esoteric research in your field, the more we want to learn from you; the master, the guru, the expert – and that’s the trap.

For implicit in that is the assumption that we want to know everything you know. Why else would we ask you to speak?

But whether your expertise is in industrial production management, behavioral economics or flower arranging, it’s impossible to fit everything you know into a one-day seminar, let alone a fifteen-minute presentation to the Rotary Club.

Voltaire was talking about telling a boring story, but it holds equally true for giving a boring, confusing or incomprehensible presentation. Trying to cram in everything just ensures that we will get nothing out of it.

We come to hear you not for the breadth of your knowledge, but for the quality of judgment that your knowledge, your experience and your training has given you.

Because you are the expert, you know enough to separate the essential from the irrelevant, the fundamental from the fashionable and the profound from the trivial. That’s why we come to you.

You can boil it down and distill the very essence of what we need to know, so start with that end in mind. What’s the one thing we need to hear, to understand and to remember? Work backwards from that, building the supporting scaffolding of logic, principle and fact that your time allows.

If you don’t think you’ll have more than enough time to pull that off, then reduce your ambitions until you do. You have the good judgment to make that decision. You’re the expert. You know what you can leave out.

That’s why we come to you.


Have you ever considered how much presentations have in common with television commercials?

Both pitch ideas and attempt to change what the audience thinks, feels or does. Both struggle to cut through the clamor of competing pitches and grab the undivided attention of the audience. Both battle, often in vain, to leave a mark and not be swept from memory by the next pitch to come along.

If you watch television regularly, you undoubtedly see hundreds of commercials a week.

How many of those do you remember?  Any?  Probably not.

But every once in a while, a commercial comes along that smashes through the clutter and become not only memorable, but part of the cultural, social and political landscape.

The Nielsen ratings have long been the standard measure of popularity for American broadcast television programs. Since the beginning of television, the company has measured every aspect of what Americans watch and why.  An analysis of a recent Nielsen survey of television advertising uncovered some very interesting facts that are equally relevant to speakers.

The analysis found that there are five common characteristics of TV ads that connect with viewers.

  1. Humor
  2. Relatable characters and situations
  3. A simple, upbeat storyline
  4. Dialogue
  5. Emotional resonance

This isn’t news to the people who conceive, design and make the commercials. Ad agencies and marketing consultants spend billions of dollars to study audience reactions and test advertising approaches. Their careers and fortunes depend on changing the behavior and attitudes of television viewers.

As speakers, we can borrow those same insights to make our own speeches just as powerful, just as resonant, just as effective at persuading others and affecting change as a classic television commercial.

It is important that there be a fundamental logic to your message – selling snake oil is tough – but effective persuasion is about so much more than logic or good sense. It’s about creating the emotional, as well as logical, conditions that will allow your audience to buy into your message.

Start with a logical message; one that it is in our own self-interest to hear and heed. Then tell us a story that demonstrates the point; something we can relate to our own lives. Take us into the story with dialogue and humor. Let us experience the event and react emotionally to what happens.

It works for McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Nike.

It can work just as well for you.


I’m Back Again.

by R. L. Howser on August 28, 2012 · 0 comments

I’m back from the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking and, once again, it was a maddening, exhilarating, enlightening and amazing experience.  I didn’t get the result I’d hoped from the contest, but I gave the speech that was in me to give.

It was a tough speech for me – about the last conversation I ever had with my father. There have been times in this long process when I’ve barely kept my composure long enough to get through my seven minutes.

That, in itself, has been part of my evolution as a speaker. After years of giving clever speeches, I’m digging deeper. I’m exploring who I am and what has made me this way.

It has been an uncomfortably emotional journey at times, but it’s a journey worth taking; for me, and, I hope, for my audience. There is a beauty and a power in simple emotional truth that can move an audience to laughter or to tears and leave a mark that cleverness never will. In fact, had I been in the World Championship of Emotional Exposure, I might very well have brought home the big trophy, but I wasn’t.

I was in the World Championship of Public Speaking. The speaker who won the championship, Ryan Avery of Portland, reminded me of that as he brought together all of the elements of a great speech; emotion, honesty, skill, joy and audience rapport in a truly magical and moving experience.

He reminded me that there is still so much for me to learn; skills to develop, ideas to plumb, personal journeys to take, but for this year, it is over.

It’s time to shift gears and focus on other aspects of life and career that I have been neglecting, ………….. although I have this one idea for a speech next year.


As I prepare to leave, in a few hours, for the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in Orlando, Florida, I am struck by both the enormity of the challenge before me and the incredible opportunity it represents.

I’ve been there before, competing two years ago, in Palm Desert, California. I know the level of competition I will be facing. Of the 270,000 Toastmasters in the world, only 81 remain in contention for the title. Each is a champion already.

I have already put in hundreds of hours of thinking, writing, practicing and rewriting in preparation for my seven minutes on stage, and I’m sure the other competitors have all been working just as hard as I have. You would think I would have every aspect of my speech locked down at this late stage of the game, but I find that I am still learning.

The sheer variety of responses I have received in the feedback from my practice audiences continues to amaze me. For as much as I would like to think that I am in control of the experience I am presenting through my speech, the reality is that every member in the audience interprets what I say through their own set of filters, experiences and biases. I have no more control over that than I have over the weather.

Much as a thunderstorm can spoil a picnic or nourish a parched cornfield, that variety of response can be a bane or a blessing. I can’t control precisely what someone will make of my words.

All I can do is provide them with a rich and evocative experience. That is within my control.

Under the guidance of two excellent coaches, Rich Hopkins and Drian Von Golden, I am learning subtleties of structure and voice that can make my message more accessible and powerful and discovering how to speak from the audience’s perspective, rather than my own.

I’m learning about aspects of movement and gesture that can add emphasis to the words I say, ways to use expression and reaction to reinforce or undercut the meaning of my words and subtleties of vocal rhythm and emphasis that can crystalize my literal meaning or insinuate the unsaid.

Every time I achieve some level of competency, a new aspect of my incompetence reveals itself. I could spend another month studying, editing, practicing and polishing, but I still wouldn’t be perfect.

But ready or not, it’s time to go.


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by R. L. Howser on July 30, 2012 · 9 comments

Before I began this blog in January of 2010, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to keep it up. How many things could I possibly have to say about speaking and presentation?

So I spent a few weeks thinking and wrote up 20-30 ideas. It seemed as if every idea I explored quickly led me to several other similar thoughts or variations on the theme, and in no time at all, I had dozens more potential ideas for posts in my brainstorming file.

Now, at my one hundredth post, instead of running out of ideas, I find myself with a 40-page, and growing, document on my hard drive of nothing but blog post brainstorms; from chunks of several paragraphs down to, in a few cases, a single word.  It seems there is far more to talk about than I had thought.

At first, I intended to focus almost exclusively on the idea of charisma and attention; how to grab, and keep, the attention of others and how to use that attention to communicate at the deepest, most profound and most effective level. I’m not sure what it says about me, but that’s what I find most puzzling, interesting and exciting about speaking.

Along the way, through the process of writing, I have made many other fascinating discoveries – fascinating to me, at least. You may beg to differ.

I’ve learned from comedians, magicians and veterinarians. I’ve taken important lessons from newspaper ads, elevator panels and roller coasters.  I’ve studied great communicators from the worlds of business, politics and academia, as well as geeks on webcams.

I’ve struggled to make sense of everything I have read, heard and thought, everything I have learned from skilled professional speakers and nervous beginners. I’ve tried to break it all down to its simplest components and concepts, so I can write about it, put it to use in my own speaking and teach it to my students and clients.

Some readers have been with me from the beginning, some have just recently arrived and others have dropped in along the way. I thank you all for your support, encouragement and interest.

I feel as if I am just beginning this journey.


One of my most fundamental beliefs about presentations and speeches is that we need to seize the audience’s attention in the opening few seconds of a presentation, when their anticipation and focus are at their peak.

One of the easiest and most reliable ways to do that is to surprise or shock them. A counterintuitive fact, contrarian opinion or unexpected action or statement will instantly engage your audience’s minds, because it clashes with their understanding of the world.

But if you do use shock or surprise to get the attention of your audience, you’d better move quickly to solidify that attention, because the effect tends to fade almost as quickly as it came on, especially if the surprise or shock is based on something relatively trivial or irrelevant to your overall message.

An often more powerful method is to intrigue. A rhetorical question posed for the audience to ponder, a statement that raises a host of loaded issues or an irreverent quote, ……….followed by a long pause, will draw the audience in by triggering their own thoughts on the issue. Once you’ve got them thinking about it, they are engaged and ready to hear what you have to say.

Instead of peaking quickly and then beginning to fade, as a shock or surprise does, intrigue starts slowly and builds over time. The longer you build it up, the more powerful it becomes.

Steve Jobs used intrigue brilliantly when he introduced the first iPhone, as I wrote about in A Master Class from Steve Jobs.

The first words out of his mouth were, “This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years.” He then paused and let the words hang out there for a few seconds until the audience was fairly quivering in excitement.

He continued to build the mystery, touting the still unnamed product as a game changer on par with the Macintosh computer and the iPod. He used every trick in the book to whip the audience into a lather of anticipation.

By the time he finally unveiled the iPhone, the audience had already long since bought in to the idea that the new product was the most amazing electronic gadget since the digital watch.

You don’t have to be introducing a ground-breaking new product to use intrigue in this way. Any time you are presenting information that your audience doesn’t yet know, whether it’s the quarterly sales figures or the name of the new VP of Finance, tease them a bit. Drop a few hints. Make them wait. By the time you finally reveal the information, they’ll be primed for it. You’ll have their absolute attention.

Shock and surprise are certainly effective, time-tested ways to grab the attention of an audience, but sometimes you can create more long-term impact with a tease than with a punch in the face.


Show and Tell

by R. L. Howser on July 14, 2012 · 3 comments

Do you remember the first presentation you ever gave?

I’ll bet for many of you it was the same as mine. It was “Show and Tell” in kindergarten. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, the concept is simple. Bring something interesting from home, show it to your classmates and tell them about it.

Presentation doesn’t get much more basic than that. There was no outline, no script and no PowerPoint. There was no success or a failure attached to the outcome. It was simply an opportunity to share something interesting with your friends.

The family junk drawer was generally full of offbeat treasures that could safely be sent off in the care of a six-year old, so the children brought an envelope with an exotic foreign stamp, an oddly shaped piece of wood or an unusual kitchen tool. We would stand up in front of the class, show the item to our classmates and the facts, stories, rumors and totally unfounded speculations would flow.

It was actually remarkably good training in effective presentation skills. It’s too bad that, by the time we reach working age, most of those skills have been forgotten or suppressed.

As adults, business presentations all too often become ornate productions, laced with jargon, buzzwords and reams of detailed data, but designed primarily to give the appearance of useful communication, rather than to take a position, make a prediction or suggest a course of action. God forbid, we should say anything that could come back to bite us in the ass.

The totally unfounded speculation is the same, although in the corporate world it requires several PowerPoint slides with complex graphs and spreadsheets to give it a veneer of respectability.

We would be wise to go back to the spirit of Show and Tell. Show your audience something interesting or important and tell them, in simple and clear words, what it is. Use facts and stories, rumors and even totally unfounded speculation to help them understand what it means and why it matters.

Presentation doesn’t get much better than that.