Toastmaster Magazine: Learning to Write for Others

I’m pleased to have an article in the current January edition of Toastmaster Magazine. With the editors kind permission, here’s the text of Learning to Write for Others for you to download and read. I discuss the ways the Toastmaster Competent Communicator program helped me become a better speechwriter.

Unfortunately the typo in the first sentence slipped by the proofreaders: it should read “are a great first step”, not “is a great first step”. But hey, it’s only in a publication sent to over 300,000 Toastmasters worldwide… :-)

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Meeting Report: Success Secrets for Small Businesses

Rick GilbertPast NSA Northern California Chapter President Rick Gilbert presented ‘Mind-Blowing Success Secrets for Small Businesses’ at the Saturday Chapter meeting.

Back in the 1980’s Rick quit his job in Silicon Valley to found Power Speaking, an organization that delivers transformational workshops and executive coaching to turn people into world-class speakers.

His 2014 guest posting in this blog outlines many of the successful techniques he shares with middle managers who want to learn avoid common pitfalls when presenting to the C-Suite.

Rick shared the lessons he learned over the past 30 years, building his company from the proverbial Rolodex in the bedroom in 1985 to a company with 35 employees and a world-wide footprint. He found that much of the standard small business advice was not helpful. Such bromides as “winners never quit,” or “work/life balance,” or “have a positive mental attitude” are, Rick claims, mostly useless nonsense.

His uncommon strategies to help build a successful small business include:

  • There’s no such thing as ‘work/life balance’ and women who want to be successful business owners will need a supportive partner and plenty of help.
  • Avoid the wrath of the IRS and State Tax authorities and make everyone you hire a part-time employee rather than a contractor.
  • Think more like a a jazz musician than a classical musician and be willing to improvise.
  • Understand your strengths and weaknesses and build partnerships to compensate. Rick developed an idea that in the speaking business people are either a ‘Greek’ or a ‘Roman’. Those who are Greeks care about passion and poetry while the Romans are all about power and money. Greeks need to partner with a solid Roman to succeed.
  • Kill PowerPoint. Rick recommended Whiteboard Selling: Empowering Sales Through Visuals, by Corey Sommers as a more effective approach.
  • Being a quitter and a pessimist is good for business. Rick substuties ‘Insanity’ for ‘Success’ in Winston Churchill’s statement that “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Know when to quit.
  • Every small business owner should be slow to hire additional staff and quick to fire those who don’t work out.
  • It’s essential to take calculated risks to succeed. He quotes Orville Wright who, in 1910, took his 82-year-old father on his first and only flight. As Orville gained elevation, his excited father cried out, “Higher, Orville, higher!” Taking no risk is the biggest risk of all.

If you’d like to read more of Rick’s wit & wisdom I highly recommend checking out the social commentary and writing on his blog. After all, it’s not often an NSA member happened to be in Golden Gate Park one day in 1966 to take an incredible series of black & white pictures of the legendary Janis Joplin:

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Meeting Report: Systems for Professional Speakers

Ruby Newell-Legner Colorado-based customer satisfaction expert Ruby Newell-Legner, CSP — the current President of the National Speakers Association — was the featured presenter at Saturday’s NSA Northern California Chapter meeting.

Ruby shared many of the tips and tricks she has learned while building her speaking business in the sports, leisure and entertainment industries.

As an award-winning, customer satisfaction expert who speaks professionally, Ruby is well known for being a “Fan Experience Evangelist.” Whether focusing on internal or external customer service, she works with organizations to build better relationships: from front-line employees to customers, between co-workers and their peers, and from managers to the employees they supervise. Her blue-ribbon client list include 28 professional sports teams. She trained the staff for Super Bowl 41, the 2008 US Open and the 2010 Olympics.

Niche Marketing

Ruby became a celebrity in her niche market and built a thriving business through referrals. The importance of owning a niche is well-known in the speaking business. Ruby highlighted how presenting at industry association meetings enabled her to get in front of the people who could hire her. She expressly believes in ‘paying it forward’ and making sure the meeting planner looks good, no matter what it takes.

In her market, the football teams and stadiums that like her work are happy to refer her to baseball and hockey organizations who in no way compete with them. She adds value to each group by sharing best practices between industries.

Efficient Systems

Ruby has developed systems to improve her efficiency. Working with her virtual assistant she uses a 37-step checklist to coordinate each and every booking. This ranges from checking all the logistics are handled to customizing presentation material and printing two copies of the specific introduction she wants the person introducing her onstage to read: in large font with key points in red.

She has systematized referral gathering by the creative use of evaluation forms. These evaluations go far beyond the standard ‘smile sheets’. The feedback she collects from the audience includes a list of what each person learned from her presentation. She asks audience members to check-mark programs they would like her to present in the future. She asks for testimonial quotes. She adds value by sharing this data from the audience with the meeting planner — showing what parts of the program resonated and what the audience wants her to do at their next meeting. Assumptive marketing at its best! The audience members who check the box to learn more get a follow-up call.

By being herself, developing niche market expertise and delivering value to her clients Ruby has built a great speaking business.

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Avoiding Misquotations

Quote YouNothing spices up a speech better than an apt quotation. Someone else’s words help to reinforce your ideas, boost your credibility and demonstrate your learning. However, delivering a misquotation quickly undermines your credibility and can make you appear foolish. We live in a time when the audiences can instantly fact-check a speech on their always-on, internet-enabled mobile devices. So it pays to double-check each quotation. And it’s very easy to misquote famous people. In many cases, well-known quotes were never uttered.

Writing in today’s Financial Times, John Kay lists a series of misquotes that, while common currency, are not accurate. For example:

  • “Play it again, Sam” — was never spoken by Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, in Casablanca.
  • “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more champagne” — were not British economist John Maynard Keynes’ dying words (he said this at a Cambridge University event while in rude health).
  • There is no evidence that Oscar Wilde ever said “Youth is wasted on the young.”
  • Winston Churchill never said “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Nor did he say “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

There is, however, a valuable resource at Quote Investigator which examines the validity of famous quotes.

Unfortunately it groups quotes by speaker, not by topic. This means it’s not as useful as sites like Brainyquote and Wikiquote for finding a quote on a specific topic. But it’s well worth checking into the origins of any quotation you do plan to use on Quote Investigator, or just browsing for inspiration.

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Speechwriting in Ancient Rome (II)

CiceroRe-reading the wonderful historical novel on the life of Cicero by author Robert Harris – Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome that I last enjoyed back in 2010 I was struck by this quote on the effort Cicero expended when he was preparing a speech (p. 83):

No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often — usually an hour or two after midnight — there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness, and hiding at home seems the only realistic options. And then, somehow, just as panic and humiliation beckon, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory.

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Slow Train Coming

Writing in the Weekend FT, Matthew Engel highlights the benefits of modern railway systems and notes that the UK and US both have their unique limitations.

The British invented the railways and spread them across the world. I grew up in the rail town of Crewe, which was always considered something of a joke, as depicted in the 19th Century music hall song Oh! Mr. Porter

Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham
And they’re taking me on to Crewe,
Send me back to London, as quickly as you can,
Oh! Mr Porter, what a silly girl I am.

Many in Britain have had the experience of changing trains on Crewe Station. A select few call the town of 60,000 their home. It’s been in decline since the locomotive works closed and Rolls-Royce motors moved (although luxury Bentley’s are still manufactured there).

High Speed Network planned

However, plans are afoot to change the whole basis of a Victorian rail network trying to compete with French TGV’s and Japanese and Chinese bullet trains.

Engel notes it is facing an uphill struggle:

HS2, the planned multibillion pound, 170mph high-speed line from London to the north that is the government’s pet project, is almost universally derided. The concept is indeed flawed — it offers too few useful connections with existing lines — but on all current projections it is essential, not for its extra speed but for the extra capacity to deal with record numbers of passengers.

The local Crewe newspaper recently announced that a £5bn HS2 “super hub” station will be built in Crewe. It’s slated to open in 2027 and will help deliver more than 120,000 new jobs and see over 100,000 new homes built across the region. Anyone wanting to enjoy the bucolic Cheshire countryside would be advised to do so while it remains.

Crewe HS2 Station

Good Morning, America, How Are You?

The rail network in the US is quite different. As generations of hobos and Matthew Engel have noted:

..the 140,000 miles of railroad are synonymous with freight trains, which still play a major part in the US economy. Indeed, outside the Amtrak-owned Boswash corridor, the freight companies own the tracks: if there is a question of priority, it’s the passengers who are likely to get shunted into a siding. (This is almost exactly the opposite to the UK, where freight traffic has always been marginal and is now in decline yet again, because of the closure of coal-fired power stations, the withdrawal of biomass subsidies, and the collapse of the domestic steel industry.)

Plans to launch high-speed trains between LA and San Francisco and cities a similar distance apart in Texas and the North East, are, like Britain’s HS2 plans, being measured in decades, not years.

All of this is in stark contrast to the rail network in China where over 10,000 miles of track serves over 2.5 million riders.The 800+ mile journey from Beijing to Shanghai takes just 5 hours.

Engel concludes:

A successful public transport system is a national benefit. William Gladstone understood this in Victorian times; Japan, China and most of western Europe accept it explicitly. For much of the world, the past 40 years have indeed been the second age of the train. British politicians get the point implicitly but execute policy furtively and cack-handedly; only American Republicans are visceral and obstructive deniers.

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Guest posting: A Speechwriters Wish List, by Boe Workman

Wish List ImageAt a recent conference for senior speechwriters, Boe Workman the Director of CEO Communications at the AARP shared a one page ‘wish list’ for speechwriters to use when developing a presentation for their client. Boe said he keeps this list pinned to his notice board and refers to it whenever he starts a new project. Click here to download the one-page version for your own notice baord. Boe can be reached at This list is posted here with Boe’s express permission. Photo Credit: ladydanio via Compfight cc

A Speechwriters’ Wish List: (Questions Every Speechwriter Should Ask)

Situational Variables

  1. Why was the speaker asked to speak to this group at this time?
  2. What does the speaker/organization hope to achieve by this speech?
  3. What does the organization being addressed hope to achieve by this speech?
  4. What is the relationship between the speaker and the organization being addressed?
  5. What is the relationship between our organization and the organization being addressed?
  6. What is the organization’s interest in the topic?
  7. What is the occasion for the speech?
  8. What is the physical layout of the room and podium?
  9. If the occasion is a dinner or banquet, will the speaker speak from a head table, a separate lectern, or neither?
  10. If the occasion is a conference or a panel, where is the speaker positioned? Who else is on the panel? What other topics, issues, organizations, or viewpoints will be represented?
  11. If the occasion is an internal speech, will other members of the organization be on the program?
  12. Are all visual (or audio) materials in proper working order?

Audience Variables

  1. Who is the primary audience? Is it the people in the room? The news media? The television or satellite audience? People who will read about the speech in the newspaper or another publication? Social Media? A third party?
  2. What is the size and composition of the audience?
  3. What is the audience’s attitude toward the topic?
  4. Is the audience well-informed about the topic?
  5. What is the audience’s attitude toward the organization and speaker?
  6. What do the speaker and our organization have in common with the audience?
  7. Do you know enough about the audience to adapt your approach to the topic to fit their attitudes and frame of reference?
  8. Do you know enough about the audience to adapt the language of the speech to their educational and knowledge level?
  9. Do you know enough about the audience to guide your choice of supporting materials?
  10. Will audience members be live tweeting from the event?

Message Variables

  1. Is the purpose of the message clearly defined and understood by the speaker and the audience?
  2. Does the message have a clear introduction, body, and conclusion?
  3. Is the message designed for the audience?
  4. Does the message promote identification between the audience and the topic?
  5. Does the message promote identification between the audience and the speaker?
  6. Do the ideas and evidence in the message withstand the scrutiny of reasonable individuals?
  7. Does the message employ an appropriate style and use of language?
  8. Does the message follow an organizational pattern suitable to the audience, occasion, topic, and speaker?
  9. Is the message reinforced with appropriate visual material and/or handouts (if applicable)?
  10. Is the message organized to meet the time and programmatic constraints of the event?
  11. Does the message incorporate the appropriate blend of logical, emotional, and ethical appeals?

Speaker Variables

  1. What do I know about the speaker’s delivery style including: phrasing, tempo, words or phrases the speaker likes to use or avoid?
  2. Is the speaker comfortable with appropriate technical jargon?
  3. Does the speaker favor some rhetorical devices over others (i.e., metaphors, oxymorons, rhetorical questions)?
  4. Does the speaker prefer some types of evidence over others (i.e., statistics, analogies, expert opinion, examples)?
  5. Does the speaker’s style lend itself to humor? If so, what type — jokes, humorous story or anecdote, one-liners, etc.?
  6. Is the speaker comfortable using gestures and visual aids?
  7. Does the speaker have favorite authors, stories, or subjects he or she likes to use for quotations or for relating ideas?
  8. Is the message one the speaker feels strongly about personally?
  9. Is the speaker an acknowledged expert on the topic, and what is the depth of that knowledge?
  10. Will the speaker be responsible for a question and answer session after the speech?

Do you have any additional ‘wish list’ items you check before you start work on a speech? Share them in the comments section below.

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Movie Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsFor anyone who has worked in the speechwriting, executive communications or PR business and supported an executive who has presented at a major event, much about the new movie Steve Jobs will seem very familiar.

No matter how truthful a portrait it is of the man (played by Michael Fassbender) who founded Apple — debate rages among those who worked with him — it is an accurate account of life behind the scenes on the day of a product launch presentation. Actually, we are given a backstage pass to three events: the launches of the Mac in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1998 and the iMac in 1998.

Poetic license

At each event it is marketing VP Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet) who attempts to keep the tech guru focused on the product launch. His attention is continually distracted by a series of visitors to the green room, from angry and frustrated co-workers (chief among them Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and CEO John Scully) to angry and frustrated family members (chief among them his daughter Lisa and her mother Chrisann).

This is extreme poetic license. No executive could tolerate such emotionally charged conversations moments before stepping in front of an audience. Indeed, for the real story on the focus Jobs brought to his presentations, and the intensity of the preparation, read Carmine Gallo’s excellent analysis of The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs.

Familiar Details

Familiar details about life behind the scenes at a major event include:

  • The chaos of cables, monitors and cluttered hallways the audience never sees from the front of the house.
  • The auditorium before the doors open, with a random scattering of people watching the final rehearsal.
  • Swarms of black-clad, production people on headphones trying to keep everything on schedule.
  • The fruit baskets and cans of soda in the green room.
  • Techies frantically trying to get the demo to work.
  • The script outline spread on the floor, undergoing last minute edits.

The movie captures these universal aspects of the world of executive communications.


What is unique to Jobs and Apple was the evangelical fervor of the launches with enthusiastic audiences behaving more like those at a rock concert than the introduction of a new computer (one of which, in a memorable line, is accused of “looking like Judy Jetsons’ Easy-Bake oven”).

It also conveys quirky aspects of Jobs personality, such as using yoga poses to relax before going on stage; insisting the graphics person show him 39 images of a shark before selecting the specific one that he wants on the slide; and needing, over the fire marshals express prohibition, the exit signs in the auditorium blacked-out for a demo.

The movie is of the time and place that birthed Apple and revitalized Silicon Valley. We see flashbacks of Jobs and Woz arguing about the future in their Cupertino garage. The influences on Jobs — from the Bob Dylan soundtrack to knowing references to dropping acid and glorious images of the Golden Gate Bridge — are intertwined with the theme of reconciliation with his estranged daughter.

Much has been written about how confrontational Jobs was, and this film certainly highlights the difficult aspects of his personality. While not too many executive communications professionals have the challenge, or privilege, of working with as mercurial character as Steve Jobs, I believe all will enjoy this inside look backstage before the presentation starts.

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Meeting Report: The wit and wisdom of speechwriter Hal Gordon

Hal GordonOn Thursday September 17, 2015 the Silicon Valley Speechwriters welcomed Hal Gordon as our guest on a conference call.

Hal was a speechwriter for the Reagan White House and later wrote for Gen. Colin Powell. Since 2005, Hal has provided executive speech writing for top executives of Shell Oil, Royal Dutch Shell, CenterPoint Energy, GE Aero Energy, UPS, Sim-Tex LP, cPanel and the Greater Houston Partnership. He’s also lectured on speechwriting for NASA, Texas A&M University, the National Association of Government Communicators, more than half a dozen national speechwriter conferences and the U.K. Speechwriter’s Guild.

Hal was a speechwriter in the Reagan White House, where he wrote for Counselor to the President Edwin Meese, OMB director James C. Miller, and other top domestic advisors to the President.

Hal has a web site——and blogs for Follow him on Twitter @paidpen.

Shield of ParadeIn a wide-ranging conversation Hal discusses working at the White House and his views on the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates (including Donald Trump who he satirizes in this version of a Trump speech to Evangelicals). He comments on the debt Winston Churchill owes to Irish-American statesman William Bourke Cockran and the importance of Churchill’s essay on Scaffolding of Rhetoric.
Hal reminds speechwriters to always be on the look out for material, which he illustrates by telling how he used the Shield of Parade which he admired on a visit to the British Museum in a later speech.

To hear edited highlights of the call, click on the podcast icon below.

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5 Patterns of Popular TED Talks

TED TalksEver wondered why some TED talk recordings on YouTube gather a respectable few hundred thousand views while other go viral and attract many millions? Is there a difference in content, facts and figures or information shared that is more compelling and pertinent to a wider audience? Does one speaker have more name recognition than another? Or perhaps look more attractive, sleeker, sexier, and authoritative?

Now, thanks to research conducted by the good folks at Science of People we have strong evidence why some talks are more popular than others.

After an extensive review of TED talks they found that there are five key patterns that speakers delivering popular talks exhibit. These findings are a great set of suggestions for any speaker who would like to be well-received by an audience:

1. It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Many subject matter experts won’t like to hear this, but it’s more about what you do onstage than what you say. The report states:

We rate someone’s charisma, credibility and intelligence based on nonverbal signals. This is surprising–we want people to focus on our words, but this experiment is no different from previous research. Studies have found that 60 to 93% of our communication is nonverbal. Over and over again we find that how we say something is more important than what we say. The question then becomes, how do we say something well? Read on to find out which nonverbal signals were most important.

The proof of this? People liked the speakers just as much with sound as on mute!

2. The More Hand Gestures, the More Successful the Talk

Step DancersThere was a direct correlation between the number of views on a TED talk and the number of hand gestures. Our hands are a nonverbal way to show and build trust. Studies have found that when we see someone’s hands, we have an easier time trusting them. This begs the question whether speakers with an Italian heritage are inherently more trustworthy than, say, Irish step dancers.

3. Vocal Variety Increases Charisma

Donald TrumpEvery Toastmaster who completes their CTM certification learns the importance of vocal variety. The more vocal variety of a TED speaker, the more views their video had. Speakers who told stories, ad libbed and even yelled at the audience captivated the audience’s imagination and attention. Those who obviously memorized their lines and read from scripts lacked memorability. Currently, there seems to be one Republican presidential candidate who is trumping the rest in terms of ad libs, yelling and overall vocal variety.

4. Smiling Makes You Look Smarter

President ObamaContrary to the belief that smiling in a business setting signifies low status behavior, and serious topics require you deliver the speech with a grimace, the researchers found that the longer a TED speaker smiled, the higher their perceived intelligence ratings were. Those who smiled were rated as higher in intelligence than those who smiled less.

5. First Impressions Count

And when they say ‘first impressions’ they mean first!

The researchers found that the audience had already made a decision about the entire talk in the first seven (7) seconds. Typically this happens before any words are exchanged. While the opening lines of a talk are important, a speaker must think about how they take the stage, how they acknowledge the audience and how they deliver their first line. Stumbling onto the stage and mumbling thanks for inviting you won’t cut it.

The research measured favorability (as shown by the number of video views) on a number of other criteria. None were as important as the five listed above, but are interesting:

  • People in casual clothing typically rated lower than people in business or business casual.
  • Women who wore business clothing got higher ratings compared to men in business clothing.
  • Speakers in darker colors got higher ratings than those in lighter colors.

This is a fascinating and important study, check it out!

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