Speak to spark change

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I was a guest lecturer in a class on campus today. I spoke about how to make effective presentations. A presentation about presentations. So meta.

I get excited talking to groups about effective presentations. So few people seem to relish the opportunity to speak publicly. Yet it’s such a worthwhile way to force yourself to think more clearly about a subject and to spark the possibility for action and new perspectives in others.

The JFK quote above is audacious. And it’s a worthwhile challenge to consider whenever you have to stand before fellow humans. If your aim in speaking is not to cause some sort of change, then what’s the point?

How many times, though, have you sat through a lecture, a meeting, a sermon, or a class and left feeling that your time and attention had been wasted?

But if even one person can be affected by what you have to say with a changed perspective or a new possibility awakened or the impetus to take action, mission accomplished.

Talk with, not at


Note to self:

Even if it’s a speech, talk with, not at. It’s a stance, a tone, a shift in perspective that can make an audience of hundreds feel like the speaker is with them, connecting directly and personally.

Ask questions. Move. Make eye contact. Feel what they are feeling. Be with the audience.

And how much more important this is in dialogue, with your friend, a colleague, your boss, your spouse, your child. Talk with, not at.

“Look up. Wake up. Show up.”

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I gave the keynote this morning at a regional science fair. As I was getting ready today I told my wife that I had low expectations because the majority of students in the audience were middle-school students. Maybe I’m just remembering my own awkward middle school years, but I had it in my head that 13-year-olds were probably not going to be the most engaged audience at 9 a.m. on a Friday with a dude their father’s age talking to them.

Boy, was I wrong. Maybe it’s because they’re all extra bright science fair winners, but they were as locked in and as attentive as the college students I typically speak to. Fortunately, I walked onto stage thinking I needed to bring extra energy to brace myself for a potentially tough crowd. Instead, they were an easy crowd, but the extra energy I started with was a bonus and carried through the entirety of the 45 minutes I was on stage.

Right before going on stage for a talk I visualize connecting deeply with the audience and see them in my imagination enjoying the encounter. Whether the audience got much out of my talk or not today, I left satisfied that I had given them all I had. And I walked away physically tired* yet mentally energized about polishing this talk for the next few gigs I have coming up in the month ahead.

Here’s a PDF of my slides, and below is the “light table” view I was working on in Keynote. I treat my slides more like a souvenir of the talk. They won’t make much sense if you weren’t in the room for the presentation, and that’s the way it should be.

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*If you don’t feel tired, like “I need to sit down” tired, after giving a presentation, you probably didn’t put enough energy into it. 


Showing my work: Connecting a new team to the mission

We just selected nineteen college students to join our work team, and I’m getting ready for their first training session on Sunday. We always begin with a big picture focus. I feel strongly that Why comes before How. If you want a sense of purpose and a clear mission for everyone on your team (and you do), then begin with the big picture and hone in, as precisely as you can, on what’s the point, why you do what you do.

It seems every organization has a mission statement, but if you’re in an organization, do you know what yours is? Most are filled with P.R. jargon that seems far removed from the reality of your work. If you can’t clearly state your team’s purpose in a sentence or two, there is a lack of focus and clarity at the top.

So, when we bring on new team members we begin with an examination of our primary purpose as an organization. And it’s healthy for us to revisit this each year with returning staff as well and keep reminding ourselves of the big picture and the compelling reasons why we do what we do.

I’m working on slides for this weekend’s kickoff meeting for the new staff. I’m showing my work in progress here to remind myself that I can’t just repeat what I’ve done before. I’ve been tweaking the design and in the process rethinking the ideas and the flow. And it’s so worthwhile to take something you think you’ve got down and take a fresh look at it and be willing to discard and edit and redo. Every organization could benefit from regular revivals and periodic rethinks of just why you do what you do.

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The truth about art

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. –Pablo Picasso

Jason Silva keeps making good stuff. I appreciate his effusive expressiveness. He’s got charisma, and I love how he’s using video to convey in short bursts his passion for ideas and feelings that awaken possibility and shine a light on what could be.

This Paradox of Art video is a good reminder of the value of art and the power of effective art to communicate truth beyond its own form.

I remember as a teenager being frustrated reading poetry in high school English class.

“What does it mean?” “I don’t get it.” “What’s the point?”

I was trying to read poetry as if it were prose. I grew to understand that art could point to something far from its explicit expression. As I grew in my own depth, the beauty of art began to reveal itself to me.

I don’t have to get stuck to the words in a poem. Those words should send me to an understanding or insight or emotion that I otherwise wouldn’t experience were it handed to me directly.

And when I try to express myself, I need to remember to embrace the freedom offered by metaphor and mystery. I don’t have to serve it up straight and cold and direct. In fact, allowing and encouraging the audience to ponder and search and discover is preferable. As Kubrick said, giving your audience “the thrill of discovery” will allow your art to connect even more deeply than if your truth was just handed over.

Of course, art is infection, as Tolstoy explained. So, don’t make your work so impenetrable that it has no effect.

And all of us are artists, we all can create and offer something of value. Get busy creating and trying to express your truths as artfully as you can.

Presenters: Prepare for AV to fail

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I did a talk to a student group last night and the AV didn’t work. It was in the main classroom building on campus where I’ve never had any AV problems before.* I had just created a new version of this presentation earlier in the day and hadn’t taken the time to rehearse, so when I didn’t have the slides to guide me I was a bit lost. But I winged it and jumped in with enthusiasm. I knew my stories and points well. I wasn’t solid on the new structure and flow, though. It was an audience eager to engage and smile, so they were very forgiving of my somewhat disorganized delivery.

A presentation is not about the slides, of course. It’s about the interaction, the connection between the presenter and the audience. And seeing an audience like last night’s was so encouraging. It makes me want to make the effort to be the kind of audience member who gives presenters engaged attention and smiling eyes.

About halfway through last night, one of my brilliant friends in attendance (Thanks, Sheryar!) got a version of my slides to work, so I shuffled through the deck and made them fit where I was in my talk.

This experience reminded me to walk into every presentation with the assumption the AV won’t work and to be prepared to go without any visuals at all. I let this audience down by not being ready to give my best no matter what happened with the AV.

Here is a PDF of the slides that I didn’t get to fully use. Next time, I’ll be ready to roll with or without them.


*I present using Keynote on an iPad mini connected by a VGA adapter to the projector. My remote control to advance the slides is Keynote on an iPhone. Usually, connecting the iPad to a VGA input works perfectly. Not this time.

Showing my work: FAB 4

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Showing my work helps remind me what a rewardingly messy process creation is. An audience typically only sees the well honed final creation, but it’s worthwhile to share openly the process that creates the product. I take heart when I see an artist show the rough drafts and discarded wrong steps.

I’m remixing a presentation for tonight. I’m speaking to a group of college freshmen and sharing wisdom I’ve learned from a career working with campus superstars. I’ve got a handful of ideas and stories I rely on for these kinds of talks, but this morning I decided to scrap a version of the talk I’ve used recently and rethink the structure and design.

I turned my chair around, away from the computer, and took some markers to the jumbo scratch pad on my desk. I mapped out the most important ideas and rearranged the flow before turning back around and designing the slides in Keynote.

It helps to change tools and switch from digital to analog to jump start a fresh approach. And it’s worthwhile to take something you’ve got down pat and jumble it up and start over. New possibilities appear that otherwise would have been hidden behind old, safe patterns.




Hero Quest

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I’m tweaking the slides for a presentation I’m giving tonight to a group of business students. This is my “HeroQuest” talk.

If I had to tweet the purpose of this talk, it would be this:

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I want these college students to walk away tonight with new possibilities for the future and knowing it is in their power to craft a remarkable and meaningful life, a life worth talking about.

I welcome these speaking invitations. Preparing a talk for a group compels me to think in ways I wouldn’t otherwise have to. And the best way to understand truth or beauty or what it means to live a good life is to try to express it. Even if my talk tonight connects with no one in the audience, it’s been worthwhile to think through these ideas and try to understand them myself.


The elevator pitch, the tweet, and clarity of purpose

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Can you pitch your idea or make your point in the length of an elevator ride? That’s been a long-standing and effective thought experiment to help determine if you’ve thought clearly enough about your plan and can articulate it simply and quickly.

So, if you’re working on a speech or a business idea or a movie script or trying to start a movement to change the world, consider the elevator test.

Imagine you’re giving a talk at a conference. A fellow attendee gets on the elevator with you and sees the “Presenter” ribbon on your name badge. He lets you know he’s tempted to escape the conference during your session and go play golf or take a nap and asks what he would miss from your talk. What would be your response? What will your talk accomplish that would be of value to this wayward golfer? What will offer him enough value to make him delay his escape and stay for your presentation?

If you can’t come up with a short simple statement of your intended purpose and one that offers something of value to the prospective audience member, you need to go back to the beginning and rethink just why it is you’re doing this presentation. Or starting a business. Or writing a screenplay. Or starting a movement.

Or, instead of an elevator pitch, my 21st-century, connected friends, consider the challenge of tweeting, in 140 characters or less, your purpose, your mission, your goal. Can you say in just a few words, within the constraints of a tweet, what you hope to accomplish? If not, get busy asking “Why?” and hone and sharpen your thinking to come up with as clear and simple a statement as you can.

Here, for example, in tweet form (and exactly 140 characters thanks to the added hashtag and a stray space, because I’m just OCD enough), is my aim for a talk I’m giving this week to a couple of college classes:
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So many companies and organizations have some committee created mission statement that is either unknown and ignored or is so unwieldy as to be meaningless. What if your mission statement was tweetable and so direct and clear that everyone in the organization knew it and connected with it?

Imagine tweeting your own life’s purpose or the values and goals of your family. Not that you need to actually get on Twitter and post these things, but the effort to zero in on a crystal clear statement on the key “Why’s” in your life potentially can lead you to unparalleled clarity and action.

Talk with, not at

Even when standing before an audience, no matter the size, make it feel like a conversation. Talk with people, not at them. Ask questions. Even rhetorical questions feel conversational without actually needing a response. Make eye contact. Connect and respond to the vibe of the room.

And in interpersonal communication, master the nuance of listening with the intent to understand. Probe and question and clarify. See if you can articulate the other’s perspective effectively. When they get that you get them, they will then be open to getting you.

The best conversationalists I know don’t actually impress with what they say. It’s what they ask and how they listen that makes them shine and makes me value their presence.

Conversations aren’t contests. They are about connection and understanding and shared meaning. Talk with others, not at them.

SpeechCraft: Showing my work

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I’m speaking in a couple of college classes this week about presentation excellence. It’s a favorite topic, but it’s also especially challenging when the audience is expecting excellence by virtue of the topic alone. If you’re giving a talk about how to give talks, you better be good.

I’ve tweaked my slides on this over time. The screenshot above is of my final “light table” view when I shipped off the presentation to the grad student who will load my slides tomorrow.

I was asked to send a Powerpoint version for use in the class. I haven’t used Powerpoint actively in years. When I converted my Keynote to Powerpoint today, I had to go back and clean up format and animation errors due to the conversion. And I was reminded how poor an app Powerpoint is compared to Keynote. Powerpoint just seems like a mess. The design looks amateurish and cluttered. It certainly made me appreciate just how much I enjoy working in Keynote which is simple and clean yet filled with thoughtful, smart touches like its grid system and gorgeous animations.

I rarely say “No” to an invitation to speak. Having a speaking gig out there forces me to engage my creative mind on the search for what to say and how to say it. Few things lead me to regular flow states like getting immersed in preparation to stand in front of an audience. Even if the audience gets nothing from me, I certainly have grown a little from my attempt to engage with them.

Hear, forget. See, remember. Do, understand.

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If you want something to stick, you’ve got to take action. Thinking about it or learning about it probably won’t be enough to make meaningful change. Doing something, though, could make all the difference.

Listening to a lecture on cooking won’t make you a chef. Watching the Food Network won’t either. But, crack some eggs and add some heat and you’ll at least be taking the first step on the path.

Choose the active over the passive. Action can make magic happen.

And if you’re trying to teach people or spark some kind of change with a presentation, know that what you say will only go in so deep. What you show them will matter more, and what you get them to do or figure out for themselves could lead to true understanding.

Talk like a human being

Especially when speaking to an audience it’s tempting to try to put on an authoritative voice, to speak like someone you’ve seen on TV or in a movie. That approach usually comes across as canned or forced and often robotic and soullessly flat.

Just be who you really are. Speak like a human, not like some imagined notion of what someone speaking publicly should sound like.

Picture yourself in the audience. Don’t you appreciate a speaker who seems comfortable and authentic and even a little vulnerable? You don’t have to be perfect or fake being perfect. Talk about what you care about and what is true for you and connect with the audience with passion and compassion. Tell stories because that’s what humans do.

And have the courage to uncork some emotion as you stand before your fellow humans. We all are leaning in, at least on the inside if not physically, hoping you will awaken something wonderful in us.

Style + substance


Form AND function. Both should be remarkable. Quality content can get lost in poor delivery. Details matter. Presentation matters.

I love how Apple cares as much about the package design as they do about the hardware and software engineering of their products.

Tweaking the details of a design often leads to new insights in the content for me. And if I care enough about the content, I want to present it as beautifully as I can.

Diana Nyad’s audacious pursuit

I’m spending this weekend at the lake with my family. It’s a final summer getaway before my girls begin the school year on Monday.

Being on, around, or in water is good for my soul. Yours, too. There’s even a popular new book, Blue Mind, that explores the science behind why water makes us happier.

As I was swimming in the open water of the lake this morning, I thought of Diana Nyad, the great distance swimmer who recently, and finally after four failed attempts, conquered the daunting 100+-mile swim from Cuba to Florida.

She decided to revive her swimming career only after turning 60 and then put herself through as difficult a physical and mental challenge as you can imagine. She swam through shark infested waters and nearly died from horrific box jellyfish stings on a failed attempt, and then gave it yet another try.

She’s done a couple of dynamic TED Talks that tell the story of this seemingly foolhardy quest. Here’s the most recent, after achieving her goal:

Her previous TED Talk is inspiring as well.

Nyad has an ebullient, charismatic stage presence. She lights up the room. Her enthusiasm for her daring approach to life is infectious.

What will you do with your one wild, and precious life?


Drew Dudley and “lollipop moments”

Life can turn in a moment. A seemingly small gesture, an act of simple kindness, can make a big difference. In a world of people busy distracting themselves, being present and attentive and kind has become a superpower. You can be a hero for others just by paying attention and caring.

I was reminded of Drew Dudley’s excellent TED Talk today and sent it to my student staff. It’s a call to be excellent in the little things that make up what he calls “everyday leadership”, to be kind and present and to acknowledge those who have made a difference for you. Awaken possibilities where you can and pay forward the kindness you have received. Consider the “lollipop moment” that inspired Dudley’s talk:

Dudley is a terrific speaker with a simple, yet powerful message. It doesn’t take much to be a transformational leader. No titles or degrees are required. No need to seek permission. Just look for opportunities, no matter how small, to be helpful and to be kind.

And what if you thanked those who created lollipop moments for you?

Consider picking one day each week to find someone to thank – Thankful Thursday, maybe. Call or write a note or send a text, whatever works for you. Think of a teacher or former colleague or an old friend or family member. Even a random acquaintance who might not know you personally or even remember your shared moment would appreciate being thanked.

“We celebrate birthdays where all you have to do is not die for 365 days, and yet we let people who have made our lives better walk around without knowing it.”

–Drew Dudley

And just thanking someone for a possibly forgotten lollipop moment might create a new lollipop moment given back to the original giver. You can change the world – which really just means changing a person’s world – simply by creating meaningful moments, moments of kindness and hope and courage.


Keep it simple, make it clear

A story from Ken Segall’s book, Insanely Simple, about his experience as part of the advertising team working with Apple:

At one agency meeting with Steve Jobs, we were reviewing the content of a proposed iMac commercial when a debate arose about how much we should say in the commercial. The creative team was arguing that it would work best if the entire spot was devoted to describing the one key feature of this particular iMac. Steve, however, had it in his head that there were four or five really important things to say. It seemed to him that all of those copy points would fit comfortably in a thirty-second spot.
After debating the issue for a few minutes, it didn’t look like Steve was going to budge. That’s when a little voice started to make itself heard inside the head of Lee Clow, leader of the Chiat team. He decided this would be a good time to give Steve a live demonstration.
Lee tore five sheets of paper off of his notepad (yes, notepad—Lee was laptop-resistant at the time) and crumpled them into five balls. Once the crumpling was complete, he started his performance.
“Here, Steve, catch,” said Lee, as he tossed a single ball of paper across the table. Steve caught it, no problem, and tossed it back.
“That’s a good ad,” said Lee.
“Now catch this,” he said, as he threw all five paper balls in Steve’s direction. Steve didn’t catch a single one, and they bounced onto the table and floor.
“That’s a bad ad,” said Lee.
I hadn’t seen that one before, so I rather enjoyed it. And it was pretty convincing proof: The more things you ask people to focus on, the fewer they’ll remember. Lee’s argument was that if we want to give people a good reason to check out an iMac, we should pick the most compelling feature and present it in the most compelling way.

Keep it simple. I often struggle with a “kitchen sink” approach when I speak, wanting to throw in everything that might be useful. But what is most important and how can I make that stick? What do I need to cut so that I can give more attention to what matters most? Make it clear.

And consider how many people use Powerpoint and fill their slides with multiple points. Lots of points, no power. One point per slide is much more effective.

Kill the bullet points. Hone your idea to the essentials, and craft your message with simplicity and clarity.

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The near win

Reaching a goal can derail you. Accomplish it and then what? New goals, I suppose. But a life built around systems and process and thoughtful routines will bring more excellence and more consistent satisfaction than the ups and downs of goal-setting.

There’s something transcendent about striving, reaching for what you know may actually be unreachable. It keeps you hungry and sharp and makes you open to change and growth.

Success is an ending, and can leave you feeling lost on a regular basis. Mastery, though, is a pursuit. It’s a journey, not a destination.

I enjoyed this brief TED Talk by art historian Sarah Lewis, who champions the merits of the “near win”, of falling short, yet, or consequently, continuing to strive and improve and ending up further along than success would have propelled you.

Seeing this resurrects the desire in me to find some sideline activity that I can pursue in an attempt to achieve mastery. A hobby or craft or physical discipline that has no end other than a path of excellence.

By the way, I appreciated Lewis’s speaking style. Her stage presence is not effusive, not charismatic, and not quite conversational. But she’s quietly solid and impressively clear. It seems like it’s more of a spoken-word essay than a talk, but it works for her. This seems like who she is, and she clearly cares about what she’s saying and what she’s learned.

Seeing her on stage reminds me that there is no one best way for speakers to connect. Well, there is one way, and that is authenticity. That works for every speaker.

Offstage beat

The excellent public speaking coach and author, Nick Morgan, encourages speakers to do as actors do and master the offstage beat before beginning a presentation.

Actors are trained to get the emotion and perspective of their character fully in mind before walking on stage. If your character is angry in a scene, feel that emotion before you appear. If you’re supposed to be amused or confused or delighted or sad, find that state just before facing the audience. (Some actors have been known to inhabit their character’s personality for long periods off stage or throughout the filming of a movie. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a notable, maybe infamous, example.)

As someone who speaks regularly, I’ve sort of accidentally done this kind of mental preparation without being particularly intentional about it. However, since reading Morgan’s post, I have begun making a tiny ritual of capturing my offstage beat just before beginning a presentation. Before I go on I find a quiet place to be alone and put in mind just who I want to be when I begin my talk. I put my body in the posture I want to have and breathe deeply and smile and feel the emotion that is right for the occasion. I fill my mind with the happiest of thoughts and envision a deep connection with the audience. Then I can go on and hopefully begin with the energy and emotion I desire.

Doing this helps calm pre-talk jitters, too. If you’re focusing on the state you want to be in, it’s harder to dwell on your fears. Filling your mind with emotions you choose makes less room for unwanted anxiousness.

This is a good strategy for other situations as well. Before asking someone on a date or walking in to a job interview it would be wise to get yourself mentally and emotionally where you want to be.

I can even see myself doing this before working on a creative project or tackling a challenging task. What have my most productive flow states felt like, and what if I just acted like I was in such a state before sitting down at my computer? This would be the no-audience, no-stage offstage beat. 🙂

“All the world’s a stage”, right, so don’t feel there’s anything insincere about mastering your role in life’s grand play. Act like you are who you want to be, or need to be, and you just might become the character, the person you’ve only imagined yourself to be.


Stoic Optimism: Ryan Holiday’s TEDx Talk

Following up on my post last week about Ryan Holiday’s wise little book, The Obstacle is the Way, here’s Holiday’s recent TEDx talk on Stoic Optimism:

There are some good stories in this talk. I loved the anecdote about Edison’s factory burning down and the inventor summoning the family to come because they would never likely see such a spectacle of a fire ever again. Find the good even in the really, really bad.

Some quotations from the talk:

Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. –Shakespeare


There is good in everything if only we look for it. –Laura Ingalls Wilder


Objective judgment, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance – now at this very moment – of all external events. That’s all you need. –Marcus Aurelius