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.

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.


Hackschooling: 13-year-old explains how he’s remixing his education

This kid is so impressive as he tells his story about hacking his education:

What great poise and stage presence from someone so young. And I admire what he and his family are doing by choosing an unconventional approach to education. I know so little about alternatives to conventional schools, but seeing stories like this one makes me want to explore how best to educate my own kids rather than just defaulting to what almost everyone else does.

via Unschoolery

Stand and deliver then sit and rest

I spoke to a group of college students tonight. My message: “Be a college superhero”

It’s a version of a talk I’ve done several times to various student groups, sharing wisdom I’ve learned from the many amazing students I’ve known over my twenty-one years working in higher education.

Tonight’s audience was a delight, very attentive, engaged, and encouraging. They did their part to make the experience more of a dialogue than a monologue. And I was tired at the end of my 30 minutes.

If I’m not exhausted at the end of a presentation, I know I have not given enough energy to the audience. I read that Tom Peters, the prolific business speaker, said that if you don’t need to take a seat after a speech you have let the audience down.

An effective speech is the transfer of emotion from the speaker to the audience. When you stand before fellow human beings, raise your energy level and give them all you have. Otherwise, why even show up?


King’s dream and the magic of the moment

“Tell them about the dream, Martin!” That’s what the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, sitting up front after having just sung a couple of songs, said to Martin Luther King, Jr. as he paused briefly in the midst of the most famous speech of the past century.

Dr. King had come to the Lincoln Memorial on this day fifty years ago with a carefully prepared speech. “I have a dream” was not in the speech that he had on the paper in front of him. He had used the dream metaphor in previous speeches and sermons that year. But he was allotted only five minutes on the program this day, so he was trying to keep it short.

But Ms. Jackson’s exhortation and the dynamic of the moment, the 100,000 people gathered at Mr. Lincoln’s feet in urgent, desperate anticipation, emboldened Dr. King to go off script in the best possible way.

He connected with that audience and that moment, and his words still connect today. But if he had stuck to the prepared remarks, we would not have this gift that came from that moment.

He wasn’t “winging it”. He was improvising, using ideas and words he had used before, but mixing them on the spot and drawing them from the creative well he had cultivated throughout his work.

King was not talking at the audience. He was with them. And he could create in the moment and work with what the audience was giving and what they needed.

Remarkable leaders, speakers, and performers respond to the moment and in the moment. We should be so well prepared, so immersed in our material, that we can improvise and surprise ourselves and make something amazing that will go far beyond what we have even dreamed.


“The thrill of discovery”

“If you really want to communicate something, even if it’s just an emotion or an attitude, let alone an idea, the least effective and least enjoyable way is directly. It only goes in about half an inch. But if you can get people to the point where they have to think a moment what it is you’re getting at, and then discover it … the thrill of discovery goes right through the heart.” -Stanley Kubrick*

This has me puzzling and reflecting on moments of insight in my own life. Do we want knowledge handed to us? Yes, actually. But does it take that way? How well does it stick?

Figuring something out for yourself has got to be stickier than just being handed an idea. A well structured story or movie can you have trying to guess the twist and then surprise you with an insight or a plot turn you hadn’t considered. We all love an “aha” moment, that “thrill of discovery” that changes a perspective or opinion, that could change your life.

This probably is an obvious communication strategy to great teachers and novelists and filmmakers. But the rest of us should consider how we can prompt discovery in our communication efforts.

I’m imagining now how I can be more intentional about building discovery into my presentations and even into conversations with my kids. Have your audience do their own thinking. Make them earn the transformation. This requires more thought, more planning. Instead of the old speech prescription – “Tell them what you’re going to tell. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” – appreciate the audience’s intelligence and help lead them on a journey where they have to arrive at an insight on their own. Give them a chance for an “aha” moment that just might change everything.


*Kubrick’s wisdom keeps popping up in things I’m reading. Clearly, I need to catch up on his films.