Focus Out

by R. L. Howser on July 3, 2012 · 2 comments

A while back, in “The Magic of Focus”, I wrote about watching how a simple shift in focus had utterly transformed a speaker.  When the speaker focused inward on herself, on her nervousness and her memorized material, she was tense and rigid, as if her body was fighting her. But when she shifted the focus out on to her audience, her body began to cooperate, helping her communicate her story, and she blossomed.

It is something I have since noticed in many other speakers, but just recently, while watching another friend speak, I witnessed a related effect, not in the speaker, but in the response of the audience.

My friend is a skilled stage performer and actor and I was admiring the easy grace of his movements and gestures. Unlike so many speakers who seem to wilt before an audience, he seemed to revel in the attention, as if every eye on him charged him with energy.

He was telling a story about two funny characters, acting it out in a dynamic physical and vocal style and making intimate eye contact with the audience. He was clearly having a good time and he was radiating that joy, so it puzzled me to realize that neither I, nor apparently the rest of the audience, was feeling it.

Powerful emotions are generally infectious. When someone radiates emotion a sympathetic response can transmit that emotion to others. It’s how an angry demagogue can stir up a murderous rage in a crowd and why we can find ourselves laughing at something with a crowd of people, even if we didn’t hear the joke.

So I was puzzled. My friend was clearly having a great time on stage, yet his performance left me feeling flat?

Suddenly, I realized that was the problem – He was performing. Even though his attention seemed to be directed outward, his primary focus was on himself, as if to say, “Look at me. Listen to me.” It was show time and he required nothing of us but our passive attention, so that’s what we gave him.

The best speakers I know actively engage the minds of the audience. They draw the audience in by triggering their own thoughts, memories and emotions. “Look at you.” they say, “Look at your problems, your plans and dreams, your fears and feelings.”

That simple shift of focus can not only transform a speaker, it can transform an audience as well. It transforms a performance into a conversation. The speaker may be the only one speaking, but rather than passively observing, the audience actively participates in their own minds.

It’s the conclusions they reach, the memories they recall, the emotions they feel that will stick in their minds and affect their beliefs, their opinions and their actions long after you have shut up and gone away.

A simple shift of focus, from “Look at me” to “Look at you”, can transform your presentation from a show to a powerful force for change.


Two years ago, I competed, to no great distinction, in the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in Palm Desert, California. I gave the most polished performance of my life, but among the top Toastmasters speakers in the world, I was average, at best.

I simply didn’t know how powerful a speaker could be.

I told a story about an experience that had forever changed me; one that taught me I was stronger and more capable than I had ever thought and that fear was just a feeling. It wasn’t real.

At the time, I was still laboring under the illusion that a good speech was simply a great story with a logically compelling message, as if my words could simply transfer my own revelation to the audience for their benefit.

But that’s not how it works. Second hand revelations just don’t have much impact. The top speakers in the competition were doing something altogether different than I was.

They weren’t telling me about an event. They were recreating the event for me, so I could experience it for myself.

They weren‘t telling me how the event had affected them. They were triggering the same emotions, the same revelations, the same effects in me.

They weren’t telling me what I should or shouldn’t do. They were taking me on a journey into their own life experience, a journey that taught me, or reminded me of, important universal life lessons.

It wasn’t the words of the speech that mattered, so much as the effect those words had on me.

For the first time, I saw that a speech could do more than communicate an idea. It could reach out and touch the audience, touch me, so deeply that it became unforgettable.

For the past two years, I have been struggling to apply the lessons of that incredible experience. It’s so easy to fall back on my old ways of speaking, but I know I can do better than that. I know I need to be better than that.

Because once again, this summer, I will travel to the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, this time in Orlando, Florida. I will go with the best two speeches I have ever written, but this time, I know how good I have to be. I know how powerful a speech can be; how powerful it has to be to compete with the best. I know what I need to do to compete at that level.

Now comes the hard part.


When I walk onstage, the audience wants to believe I possess real magical abilities. Similarly, when you get hired for a new job, you employer wants to believe you can deliver what you promised in the interview process. When you sell something, your new customer wants to believe that working with you and your company is the correct choice. It’s your job to fulfill that belief.
– Magician Steve Cohen, in “Win the Crowd”

That’s true of you as a speaker, too, and it’s a double-edged sword. The audience is on your side. They want you to come through and give them a persuasive pitch, an inspirational sermon or an informative lecture.

They want you to be good. If you aren’t, they’ve wasted their time. But they also have certain expectations, and they have a right to those expectations. They’re granting you their time and their attention to present your message for their consideration.

If you show them that you don’t appreciate their generosity, by showing up unprepared, by not putting their interests at least on par with your own or by giving them anything less than your best, they have the right to be disappointed, or worse. And once you’ve lost them, it’s almost impossible to get them back.

They may be asking you to slam dunk a basketball, but they’re giving you a step ladder to stand on. The least you can do is take care not to clank it off the rim.


What’d I Say?

by R. L. Howser on June 11, 2012 · 0 comments

It’s not a new idea that audiences will often remember a story that you told in a speech long after the have forgotten what the rest of the speech was about. Many speakers have had that experience.

What often surprises me is how often people take away entirely the wrong message from a speech they have just heard. Several years ago, in a Toastmasters contest, I gave a speech entitled, “The Key”. It was about how I had simplified my life to the point that I needed to carry only a single key, my apartment key, with me on a daily basis.

The message of the speech was that it could be incredibly liberating to eliminate unnecessary clutter from your life. Yet in the months and years that followed, I spoke to several people that had taken the exact opposite message. They thought I was saying that my life had become more impoverished by the thinning of my personal possessions.

I was stunned. I didn’t think I could have been any more clear. I had explicitly stated that it was a liberating experience for me and that I recommended that everyone take a closer look at how much pointless clutter they had accumulated in their homes and in their lives. But that’s not what they had heard.

There’s a school of thought in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) that that an utterance has no meaning except that taken by the listener.  If that’s true, then I guess I didn’t mean what I thought I said, whatever that means.


Writing is Hard

by R. L. Howser on May 20, 2012 · 0 comments

It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
-Albert Einstein

When I work with speakers who are writing speech or presentation scripts, they often lament their lack of writing skill. Surely, they think, if they were just better writers, it wouldn’t be such a painful process. I wish I could tell them that is true, but it isn’t.

Writing well is a talent and a skill, but it’s more than that. Sometimes, it’s just the stubborn willingness to keep wrestling with your text until you wear the bastard down.

On “Mythbusters”, the TV program in which two geeks set out to empirically test the validity of various myths, idioms, viral videos and urban legends, the hosts once decided to test various ways of maintaining a straight and steady course while walking blindfolded.

Left to their own devices, they were shocked to find how quickly they veered wildly off course, despite their best efforts to walk in a straight line.

Writing can feel a lot like that.  When I am hacking through the underbrush of sentence structure and word choice, it’s so easy to go off course. No matter how clear and straight my path feels, when I pause long enough to lift the blindfold and peek at the goal, I often find myself going in the completely wrong direction.

It’s depressing to realize how much of my own writing I have thrown away over the years, but that’s part of the process. So I backtrack and delete, and think hard again about what I am trying to say.

Usually, somewhere in all that wasted verbiage, I’ll find just a few lines that point in the right direction or hold a tiny kernel of the truth of what I am trying to say. It may not be much, but it’s something to build on.

So I take a fresh bearing on my goal, put my head down and stagger on, until the next time I look up to realize I have gone off course again. Each time the salvageable core of my words grows a bit larger, my path a little straighter, the goal a little clearer in my mind.

But it’s almost never easy. Like most things in life, talent and skill help, but stubborn determination and a willingness to work hard are what lead most often to success.

It never really gets easier either, because as you become more sure-footed, your goals and purposes invariably get more ambitious and once again you find yourself hacking through the brush.

But that’s OK. Keep your head down and keep hacking. In time, your path will emerge from the brambles, and as you clear and widen it, it will come to seem as if the course was obvious.

It was there all along, you just couldn’t see it through the brush.


Dig Deeper

by R. L. Howser on May 13, 2012 · 1 comment

We are deep in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest season here in Japan. Fortunately, I’m still alive and kicking, so Toastmasters style speeches have been on my mind a lot recently.

We Toastmasters are prone to the emotional, inspirational and motivational type of contest speeches. I’ve written and given so many variations on “Don’t give up”, “You can do it” and “Follow your dreams”, that I think I could write and deliver one in my sleep. In fact, I think I have a few times.

But while the subject matter may have gotten a bit stale for me, it’s been a very valuable process, because it has taught me a lot about the craft of structuring, writing and delivering a speech. I’ve become quite proficient at producing a certain type of clever, entertaining riff on a motivational topic.

It’s just not enough for me anymore. The skills I have developed are valuable, but I want to use them to move beyond being clever and funny, and start talking honestly about things that matter, not just to me, but to everyone.

In that state of mind, I happened to stumble across this clip of the comedian, Louis C. K., speaking at a memorial tribute to George Carlin, the 60’s, counter-culture comedian who managed the trick of staying interesting, relevant and popular long after the 60’s had faded away.

If you’re easily offended by strong language, you might want to give the video a pass, but Louis says something here that strikes me as highly relevant to my own journey.

At about the 5:28 mark, he was talking about his amazement that Carlin came up with a new hour of brilliant comedy every year, while he, Louis, kept recycling the same hour of jokes he had spent fifteen years building up.

When, in desperation over his stalled career, Louis threw out his entire act, he realized that, “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, when you throw those away, what do you have left? You can only dig deeper. Start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then you do those jokes and they’re gone, and you dig deeper. So then you start thinking about your fears and your nightmares.”

Louis took it a bit farther, for a laugh, but as I listened to him, it occurred to me that I had been doing the Toastmasters equivalent of speeches about airplanes and dogs; speeches about clever ideas. And the solution for me, as well, is to throw that all away and dig deeper.

So this year, my goal is to stop being clever and start being honest, start talking about who I am, what I feel, what scares or hurts me, what I want and where I’m going.  And it’s turning out to be a very scary proposition.

Talking about clever ideas has always given me a certain protective distance. The audience might not agree with what I say, but that’s OK. It’s not about me.  But when I honestly expose myself, and the audience doesn’t like it, it’s me they don’t like.

It’s terrifying to expose myself that way, not knowing how people are going to react. I feel emotionally naked on stage, but when I open myself up and the audience embraces me, it’s a communication that goes so far beyond a meeting of the minds. For the first time, I feel like I am really connecting with my audience, instead of just talking at them.

As uncomfortable as it can be, if I want to improve as a speaker, I’ve simply got to dig deeper.

{ 1 comment }

In my last post, Tell THE Story, perhaps I left the impression that telling a personal story or the larger story is an either/or proposition, but it occurs to me that good writers often find ways to do both. They use a personal story as a vehicle to bring the larger story into focus in a compelling and dramatic form.

The book and movie, Moneyball, is a good example of this. It’s the story of a change in the way statistics are used to evaluate the performance of baseball players. It’s not a very sexy subject, but the writer, Michael Lewis grounds it in the story of Oakland Athletics General Manager, Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team

Beane knew he couldn’t compete financially with the richest teams in the league that had many times more money to spend on player’s salaries.  He needed a new approach to evaluating talent that could find hidden value in the players he could afford. So he used the Sabermetrics statistical approach to find players that had been overlooked by the big boys, and in the process, changed the game of baseball.

As a story, it follows the classic structure of a plucky underdog struggling to overcome a more powerful enemy through guile and strategy. The only element missing is the final triumph, but that was missing from the Oakland A’s season that year, too.

Lewis invests us emotionally in the “Why” of the hero’s struggles, before he introduces the “How” of mathematics and statistics. Sabremetrics, which even dedicated baseball fans can find intimidatingly dense, simply becomes “the plan”.

We don’t need to understand every detail of the plan, just as we don’t need to understand the details of Danny Ocean’s plan to rob the casino, in Ocean’s 11 or the details of Luke Skywalker’s plan to blow up the Deathstar, in Star Wars.

Lewis is able to salt enough information into the narrative to give us the general idea of what Sabremetrics is – a way to mathematically evaluate the true contributions of players to their team’s success, allowing a savvy General Manager to find players that were undervalued and would be cheaper to sign or trade for.

But even as his characters are explaining the mathematical “How”, Lewis never forgets that the “Why” is the heart of the story.  It’s the heart of every story.

Why is the Euro collapsing? That’s the heart of the story.

Why is the Presidential campaign getting so nasty? That’s the heart of the story.

Why is the company facing bankruptcy, hiring new workers or closing its plant in China? That’s the heart of the story.

Every one of them is a story about people responding to pressures by making choices with far-reaching consequences.

That’s the “Why”. That’s the story.

The “How” is just the details.


Tell THE Story

by R. L. Howser on April 23, 2012 · 1 comment

It’s nothing new to say that stories are one of the most powerfully effective ways of communicating an idea. A well-told story tends to bypass many of the critical filters that we put up to block the onslaught of claims and sales pitches that assault us every day.

Tell me that your all-terrain vehicle can cross rivers and I’ll think, “Yeah, maybe”, but show me, or tell me about, a gritty, old cowboy crossing rivers on your vehicle to find a lost calf and I’ll readily accept it. After all, I experienced it happening through your story.

But I think we make a mistake when we limit ourselves to personal stories. While a story can be a powerful way to hook and hold your audience’s attention, sometimes a story is not THE story.

There are times when the story you need to tell is bigger than that. The experiences of one person can illustrate one aspect of the issue, but the very smallness of its view can’t help but obscure the larger picture.

The story of the search for a cure for AIDS is complex and technical. Personalizing the matter with the story of one desperately ill patient, holding on grimly in hope of a miracle, is a way of making the real stakes palpably clear, while bringing the massive crisis down to a human scale. It’s a compelling and important story, but is that THE story?

The real story is one of brilliant, but flawed, people battling an implacable foe. It’s a story of magnanimous cooperation and vicious, petty rivalry. It’s a story of foolish stubbornness and inspired genius, of dogged detective work and flashes of brilliant insight, of giddy hopes and crushing disappointments.

It’s a story with a grand cast of characters and the dramatic arc and sweep of a Wagnerian opera; a story that can be told with all of the same tools and techniques that Hollywood uses in blockbuster movies, like Titanic, E.T. and Armageddon.

You can use storytelling techniques to show how opposing forces with conflicting desires faced off in a rising drama that led to a dramatic resolution. You can use them to convey the grand sweep of the entire drama.

Even dry subjects like sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the financial crisis in Europe or political campaign finance reform can be explained and illuminated as stories. On the surface they seem like they are just about the numbers, but any good mathematician, accountant or engineer will tell you that there is a story within the numbers.

That’s the real story you should be telling.

{ 1 comment }

I have spent more than 20,000 hours speaking in front of high school and university classes. I’ve given more than a hundred speeches in Toastmasters; 30 of them high-pressure contest speeches.  I have spoken in English and I’ve spoken in Japanese – English is easier. I’ve spoken to industry association meetings and Christmas parties, young entrepreneurs and C-level executives.

And yesterday, I gave one of the most important and challenging speeches of my life.

I spoke at a wedding reception.

Wedding speeches are often rambling, boozy affairs, full of bad jokes and inappropriate stories, but not this one. This was the wedding of a former student, a young women I began teaching when she was ten years old. Over the nearly fifteen years since, I’ve taught her and her entire family at various times.

I’ve watched Eri-chan grow from a cute little girl to a beautiful, charming young woman, fluent in Japanese and English, and now living in Shanghai, China and studying Chinese.

I’m so proud of her and I wanted my speech to reflect that, so I took it as seriously as a major contest speech, mixing Japanese and English for the sake of the guests who wouldn’t understand one or the other.

When I stepped up to the microphone, in front of more than 200 guests, in the luxurious ballroom at Chinzan-so, I knew how to give a speech that expressed my feelings clearly, powerfully and honestly.

As I sat at my table waiting for my turn to speak, I was extremely nervous. And yet, because of my Toastmasters training I knew that was normal, so I didn’t allow it to paralyze me. I turned that energy into power and focus.

I am far from fluent in Japanese, but because of the opportunities I’ve had to speak in Japanese at my bilingual Toastmasters club, I knew that I could pull it off, and I did; by all accounts, flawlessly.

My feelings about Eri-chan were complex and emotional, yet through Toastmasters I have learned to take a complex issue, find the central narrative line and then use it to weave story and fact together. I knew to structure my entire message around a simple and repeated theme; that we were there to celebrate this young couple.

My emotions nearly overtook me as I looked at this radiant young woman, no longer a girl, stunning in her white wedding gown, but Toastmasters has taught me how to keep my composure, not by suppressing my feelings, but by expressing them.

In Toastmasters, I have learned to project my voice and enunciate my words. I’ve learned to use vocal tone, intonation and pause to emphasize and define my meaning. I’ve learned to stand tall and stay calm. Through speech after speech, it has become as natural as breathing.

So when I stepped up to the microphone, I didn’t have to think about any of it. I could focus on my feelings for this beautiful, young bride. I could speak from my heart, knowing that I had the skills to convey my thoughts and feelings to the audience.

And for that, I celebrate Toastmasters.


As an English presentation and speech consultant, living and working in Japan, the majority of my clients are either local hires working in multi-national firms that are having trouble presenting in the international corporate environment, or they work in domestic Japanese businesses that want to expand into the global market and need to be able to do sales and marketing presentations that are up to international standards.

In either case, I’m generally called in after a disastrous experience. I’ve heard horror stories of audience members having loud conversations, falling asleep or walking out in the middle of a presentation. One bewildered executive even told me of being cut off and dismissed in mid-sentence by an ill-tempered American businessman.

That used to puzzle me. While I understand that it is more difficult to present in a language that is not your native tongue, such negative reactions are extreme even by American standards. The presentations couldn’t possibly have been THAT bad, could they? These same executives were very experienced at presenting in their own language.

The answer came to me from a student of mine. I teach an online, presentation skills class at a famous, internet-based MBA program here in Japan. The students watch video lectures, post videos of their own presentations and then interact with me and each other through an online forum.

My students are mostly working executives, in their thirties and forties, at large, multi-national firms. They have many years of experience in both the domestic Japanese and global workforce.

When I asked them, as part of a discussion exercise, to describe a typical Japanese sales presentation, one woman’s answer both shocked and amused me.

Question:        How are most Japanese business presentations organized?

Answer:          Most of presentations are organized something like this:

1) Introduction: 15min  

This part is the most important for the presenter because they have to introduce their company’s long, long history.

2) Body: 20min

Suddenly they talk about a product which they want to sell today. Unfortunately they don’t raise any problems or present solutions; they just announce their commercial slogan.

3) Conclusion: 1min

They just tell audience the telephone number or URLs to contact them.

4) Extra: 10min

There are no questions from the audience, but they want to exchange business cards.

At first, I was sure she was joking, but none of the other students disputed her answer, and when I showed it to some friends who work in Japanese companies, every one of them said that, while a bit exaggerated perhaps, it was not that far off the mark.

I think I’m beginning to understand the source of the problem.