Extreme meeting report

The National Speakers Association of Northern California March Meeting

Saturday’s meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association was one of the most valuable and informative meetings I have attended in the last five years. There were three of my Cisco communications colleagues in the room, all furiously taking notes. If we collectively implement just 10% of the tips and tricks shared by the two speakers, executive communications at our company might never be the same again.

Sticky Content – How to use Extreme Platform, Interactive, and Visual Techniques to be Massively Memorable, with Brian Walter, CSP

Brian WalterBrian is a “corporate humorist” with a unique blend of communications expertise. Over a 25+ year career, he’s been an advertising director, marketing & sales director, radio & TV commercial producer, copywriter, communications manager, presentation coach, video producer, management trainer, consultant and professional speaker. He’s even a Guinness Book of World Records holder for producing the world’s shortest TV commercial. Brian has earned the elite Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) from the National Speakers Association, and is a member of Meeting Professionals International.

Brian’s business is called Extreme Meetings. He provides customized “infotainment” to make meetings memorable. Brian has presented to audiences ranging from 7 to 7,000. His clients have included Starbucks, Microsoft, Costco, Pepsico, AAA, Payless, Verizon Wireless, several banks that are no longer in existence, the Social Security Administration, a regional office of the IRS…and a dairy company best known for awesome chocolate milk.

Brian shared a humongous list of tips tricks and tested techniques for engaging audiences and taking your speech from ordinary to extraordinary.

E-Ticket Ride Moments

Back in the day, Disneyland famously offered top-priced E-ticket rides.

E-Ticket Ride

These were the Matterhorn, the Pirates of the Caribbean – the best in the Park, the ones you told your friends about the next day. They were the exciting rides, the ones where something happened. For your speech to have impact, it must either be perfect (difficult to achieve time in and time out), or it must have built-in production values which guarantee the audience will remember what you said. In other words, it must have a few E-Ticket moments (but not too many to be overwhelming). These are the moments when the presentation goes beyond the facts and figures, the basic information, the data that make up most corporate content. Instead look for interaction; movement; unique visuals; music; costumes; video; sound effects; SFX; risk; props; volume; placement; and spectacle.

Carefully craft those memorable moments that would be included in a movie trailer about your presentation. Ask yourself, would a trailer advertising your speech feature your talking head all the time (nah!), or would it feature the moments when things happen – when you bring the guy on stage; throw something into the audience; show a video or even risk wheeling in a pallet of dollar bills to illustrate a sales goal that has been achieved?

People want content, but they want sizzle too. Brian suggests there’s a false dichotomy between the two. He offers a blend he calls “contizzle”.

How to give your speech impact

Make it:

Gettable: Most presentations are larded with too much information. Give them the data but make sure they also get the point in a memorable way. You want that “Scooby Doo” moment, when the audience tilt their heads and think “Woo-Hoo”.

Emotional: Hook into their feelings. People’s decisions are based on emotion. Understand they are not looking for two more bullet points before they will be convinced about your argument. You need your idea to go “verbally viral”, to be an idea that can be shared. Imagine what they might say to their significant other when they return home from your meeting. They’re not going to mention the fifth bullet point on the fourth slide, are they, Mr. or Ms. Exec-Comms Manager? No, they’ll summarize it in one to two sentences, sentences about what hit them at an emotional level. So why not sweat the detail on that, with as much energy and attention as you do on making sure every speed and feed is included.

Actionable: offer them a realistic next step to take after the talk ends.

Bottom line: Brian offered two ways to make a talk stick. Firstly through engaging in extreme interaction with the audience; secondly by creating mini brands for the content (as he does with the following branded techniques).

Extreme Audience Interaction

In the richest and most expansive part of his presentation, Brian offered a range of ways in which you can ask for volunteers from a live audience to participate in your talk. All avoid the whining, begging, pleading tone, that some presenters are forced to adopt with a reluctant audience, as their credibility leaks from the soles of their shoes into the floor of the podium.

My one regret is that few of these techniques are applicable to the increasingly popular world of virtual meetings. It’s a shame that some companies have lost sight of the value of that aspect of the rich tapestry of human experience that allows for these opportunities for emotional connection between the presenter and the audience; tolerating meetings where every presenter is reduced to the two-dimensional window in the remote viewer’s computer screen. What price flesh and blood and human emotion in a virtual world?

Asking for Volunteers – the Brian Walter Way

The first rule is do not ever, ever, ever embarrass people. Protect their dignity. But this doesn’t mean being boringly politically correct. It’s interesting to your audience the extent you allow your volunteers to seem to be at risk.

So how do you put people in a risky situation in front of their peers, and have their permission to embarrass them in a way that will allow everyone else in the audience to feel that vicarious thrill that comes with watching a colleague twist in the wind, out on a limb, wondering if they will make it or fake it?

Here’s how.

  • Bribe them. Offer $20 for someone to come up on stage (or $50 for senior management) and you’ve got instant permission to ask them to do or say anything that might make them look the fool, because they want you to show them the money. Believe Brian when he says that this works every time. Can’t afford the money if you want a lot of interaction? Simple. Offer Starbucks gift cards for a “mystery amount” (they won’t know they’re only worth $5 until long after you’ve left the auditorium).
  • Set them up. Acknowledge that this will be an embarrassing situation on stage and ask for everyone’s permission to play along. Again, this works.
  • Volunteer ball. Toss a small ball into the audience. Whoever catches it can either be the volunteer, or more likely gets to choose the person to their left or right. Brian spent time explaining how this simple act engages the whole audience on both sides of the aisle emotionally – from those who are immediately relieved the ball is not coming over to their side of the room; to those in the rows immediately before and behind the person who catches it and have that moment of anxiety that it might hit them; to the delight on the face of the guy or gal who gets to point the finger at their colleague who will now go up on stage.
  • Choose the pointer. Whoever you point to in the audience to volunteer is given a reprieve. They get to choose the person who must step up. This is especially effective when you have chosen somebody who emphatically shakes their head that they will not volunteer. Congratulations! You now tell me who should come up on stage. Watch the emotion on their face change instantly.

Putting more action in interaction

Each one of these interaction techniques was worth the price of admission for the day. Each showcased Brian’s real expertise at creating extreme meetings. While he freely admits he does not own these techniques, and we can borrow them for our own events, it’s a rare presenter who would have the skill to successfully implement them the first time they were tried with an audience. But, hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  • Be a poser. Ask questions. So, what is this? Who said that? No matter what the response your answer is You are right. For example, rather than playing it the way the boring SME would, show the audience this graphic:

    Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

    and simply ask So what is that?

    Someone in the audience will probably venture that it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or perhaps Pavlov’s hierarchy of needs. No matter what, congratulate them, affirm that it is Maslow’s, and move on. You’ve just rewarded somebody in the audience emotionally, making them a partner in the transfer of information in a far more effective way than the typical engineering product manager would. Use the same technique to ask people to guess percentages or numbers. Encourage the audience to shout out numbers and correct them as they over- or under-shoot.

  • Be a big poser. Don’t be afraid to ask hard or obscure questions. If you want someone to guess where Starbucks got its name from, begin by asking are there any English majors in the room? Someone might guess that the name comes from Moby Dick. If not, you can start giving hints until the audience realizes what you’re asking for.
  • One-on-ones. Here’s an opportunity to move into the audience to create dramatic energy. Don’t just randomly wander into an audience like some are known to do. Be intentional. Approach someone to ask a question, elicit a response, engage them in a conversation. This breaks the rules most presenters adhere to. Make that one person your new BFF. They become the go-to person for the rest of your presentation. Everyone will be rooting for you as you shine the glow of attention on them in front of the audience.
  • Shout outs. Have a group shout out responses to questions you pose. Don’t be afraid of a little chaos and more noise in the auditorium that most presenters tolerate. It’s all good emotional connection.
  • Two truths and a lie. This was the golden nugget of the whole day. Rather than trying to explain the technique take a look at this YouTube video from last summer’s National Speakers Association convention where Brian used it on stage in front of an audience of 2000 to get extreme meeting interaction. It’s an 8 minute video, filmed on a Flip camera, but stay with it, it’s worth every moment:

  • Fluffy, fluffy, deep. Here’s how to humanize a senior executive with three questions. The trick is to give the executive a long list of potential questions beforehand and have them choose the three they would like to answer (give them the chance to fill in the blank, none will). Two of the three questions will be “fluffy” (warm, fuzzy ones) and one will be “deep”. For example: What is your secret guilty pleasure? What actor would you like to play you in real life? What species is your family pet? These allow the audience to see the warm fuzzy side of the executive. Follow with a single deep question: What does it take for someone to get recognition and promotion in the company today? If you could change one sales goal this quarter, what would that be? Realize that it’s easier to segue into the profound emotion from the warm fuzzy feeling that it is to land on it cold.
  • Speed Interviewing. Ask people to form groups of three and give them just 45 seconds to come up with the answer to a question or suggestion. It’s a ridiculously short amount of time in which to accomplish the task. Yet it creates instant energy as people rush to get the group to hear what they have to say. It will send the energy of the room through the roof.
  • Instant Actors. Here’s your chance to bring people on stage from the audience for a cameo appearance. Print out dialogue for them to read in large font ahead of time on cards, highlighting the text for each person. You now have permission to use humor and go way over the top, since people are playing characters from their world, rather than speaking their own beliefs. If you don’t want to use real people, Brian has had success with sock puppets. I’m currently a big fan of creating cartoons that convey content which would otherwise be difficult for the audience to handle.
  • Point-Counterpoint. A time-tested of speaking truth to power since the glory days of the 1970s:

    Get your corporate actors to man up to this and you’ll be surprised how far even the most conservative audience will let you go with your content. Memorable won’t even begin to describe what they’ll be talking about around the water cooler the next morning.

Mini Brands

The key to a memorable talk is, as Brian has demonstrated with the mini branded interaction techniques above, to have snappy titles for all of the key concepts in your talk. This boosts retention and connects with people emotionally. Name your key points with phrases like “verbal ping-pong” instead of “the elevator pitch”. Take the time to develop a logo or icon for each and your talk will be more memorable. Brian has had success with:

  • Fact or crap. Senior leaders quickly pick up on the keyword and have no problem calling something crap during the rest of the meeting. Okay, so it’s politically incorrect, but a proven and more memorable brand name than “fact or fiction”. No one will be standing up on the podium saying something is fiction, fiction, fiction the way they will use the four letter alternative. This is the power of a memorable brand versus the inanely bland.
  • Do you pass the smile test? Are people in your team more likely to smile when you are coming into the room or when you are going out of it?
  • Introduce mini brands like this in your talk and listen as other presenters and the audience latch onto them during the rest of the conference.

To net it out, the goal of a good presentation is not to end up with a bleedingly obvious “Bad Dragon” story. That’s where the executive, engineer or subject matter expert stands up and tells people what the problem is; how their solution will make it better and help slay the Dragon; and how the organization will live happily ever after. The unfortunate reality is, that describes the vast majority of what passes for corporate communications in the Fortune 500 these days.

Build in some of Brian’s “contizzle” tricks; tell a good story with real obstacles to overcome; make sure there’s at least four or five memorable moments, and the audience will remember your message the next day and perhaps even the day after that.

What I Learned From Winning 29 Emmys That Speakers Need to Know, with Bill Stainton

Bill StaintonPlanning an event isn’t rocket science. It’s harder. You have to be the master of 1,001 details—everything from negotiating the hotel room block to deciding on the typeface for the program. After so much planning and effort, the last thing you need is a speaker who makes your attendees yawn, shrug their shoulders, and think, “Hmmm—I guess it’s going to be another one of those meetings.” A speaker like that can kill your event before it even gets off the ground.

What if, instead, you could get the attendees to think, “This is fantastic! This is hilarious! I’m so glad I’m here!” That’s certainly the reaction from the NSA/NC crowd to Bill’s afternoon presentation. Bill is a true showman who lived up to the name of his company: Ovation Speaking.

Bill paid his show biz dues. He spent fifteen years in front of the cameras of the top-rated local comedy TV show in the country—Seattle’s legendary Almost Live!—so he knows how to entertain an audience.

Unlike Brian, there was not as much for me to capture for the extreme meeting report. It was as much the way he delivered his material as what he delivered. The most memorable part of the afternoon for me was when he showed a video of his onstage riff at a past NSA Convention satirizing the conference theme. Take a look, it’s priceless:

Bill advises that all talks should be treated as a “show” and in that sense you have to think through three separate approaches: the producer who deals with the structure of the presentation; the writer who creates the content; and the performer who delivers it.

How to produce an effective presentation

Producers are responsible for the event details. They are in charge of driving the bus, the audience are the passengers. You have to have, as Brian indicated, a series of E-ticket moments built into the talk to keep the audience’s attention. Bill called them “bathroom blockers” – the times in a movie when you really have to go pee, but the action on the screen is so compelling you can’t leave the theater. You’ve got to think of what you can bring to the game to make your next presentation so compelling that people are blocked from going to the bathroom.

Bill shared the classic magicians advice: start with your second-best trick, end with your best trick, and put the rest of the content in the middle. Jay Leno, who Bill has worked with, always chose his ending joke first. The reason? Audiences always remember the last thing you say.

Which is one very obvious reason why you should never, ever, end with Q&A.

Find ways to build in an element of predictable unpredictability. You want to keep the audience guessing when something strange will happen next, but don’t do it in a predictable way. Avoid predictability to make sure those lean forward moments catch them by surprise.

A keynote speech should open with a five-minute microcosm of what the entire presentation will cover. This gives the audience an idea of how things are going to be set up. Take the time to decide what elements, themes, and flavors you will include in your first five minutes.

Writing the speech

Speechwriters, according to Bill, need to keep these main intentions front and center:

  • Clarity. Make sure there are no unintended questions left hanging in the air by statements that confuse or bewilder the listener. This includes the use of acronyms and industry terms that the audience might not fully understand. Control the audiences focus during the speech. Avoid the error of going from A to C without going through B.
  • Use precise words and concise phrases. Jerry Seinfeld, who Bill has worked with, claimed that a good day’s work is taking an eight word phrase down to five words. Go through your speech and making sure that all of your words have energy. For example, Mark Twain liked to illustrate the right choice of words as being the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. As most speechwriters know, there is power in alliteration, rhyming, and cognitive dissonance. NSA member Max Dixon talks about the coaching relationship he has with clients as a ruthless sanctuary, which is a great example of cognitive dissonance.
  • Sprinkle smartness in your speech. It’s really okay to have some things that might be ahead of the classic 8th Grade reading level of the average member of the American public. You need just enough smartness to grab their interest, but don’t overdo it. Remember the average American audience really does have an 8th Grade reading level.

When writing, follow the advice of James Thurber, “Don’t get it right, just get it written”. Then edit.

Delivering the speech

Once speakers are on the podium they need to be larger than life. Like the band in Spinal Tap you need to be a 10 in real life but an 11 on the stage. Understand:

  • The art of the pause is knowing how to skip a beat and add an infinitesimal pause before the punchline, but then once you’ve delivered the zinger, silently count to three, or if that makes you uncomfortable take a sip of water from a glass on the lectern, and wait for the audience to react. Often it will be a couple of seconds after you deliver the line that the chuckles start. Likewise, when you have delivered an important point in your content, do the same pause. Think for a moment about how we often pause video recordings. Build the same pauses into your live delivery to allow the audience to realize what you’ve just said and to process how it applies to their situation. Subject matter experts and comedians alike succeed or fail by their mastery of the art of the pause.
  • Commit to the bit. This is as straightforward as defining, in your own words, what the segment of the presentation means and giving it all your energy. Even for the necessarily rushed material that had to be created under deadline.
  • Four quick specific techniques. These were masterful suggestions.
    1. Don’t move on the punchline.
    2. Things that happen in the past should be indicated to the audience’s left. Those that happened today center stage, and those that happen tomorrow to the right.
    3. Play to the cheap seats first which means address the back of the room and the balconies at the opening of your talk.
    4. When you start to bomb, slow down. This is the only way to rescue a disaster.
  • The performer’s secret weapon: Rehearsal. Very few speakers do this right. It’s not just do a quick run through or repetition of your content. Deliberately practice and look for ways to improve. Review the speech for material you need to add or delete, for where you need to add pauses. Tip: Make an audio recording of a speech and send it to people of equivalent background to the audience to see if they get the message.

Bill concluded with the quote of the day:

Improve, to the extent that yesterday’s audience is cheated by today’s performance.

7 Comments so far
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This is amazingly wonderful! Thanks so much for putting this together for those of us who could not make the meeting (and those who did, I imagine!). This list will be helpful for a while to come….. Ilene

I’m training for a first degree black belt in the Korean martial art discipline of Tang Soo Do and was unable to attend Brian and Bill’s presentations. Ian, I’m so glad you always report, in such detail, about the NSA/NC meetings. Reading your work was almost like being there! Thank you.


I’ll trade you my meeting reports for protection from physically aggressive audience members any time! Good to know we have a Past-President or two who can step in if needs be… 🙂


Ian, fantastic write up for the event. You demonstrate your speech writing capabilities well on this site. The only thing that could have capped off such a wonderful presentation on Saturday is this great write up.


Fabulous summary, Ian, and sooo much easier to track than my scribbled notes! I’ll be reviewing these highlights often.

Thanks so much for taking the time to write this up – great content, Ian.

Some great suggestions for demonstrations, props and quizzes: 8 Ways to Captivate and Engage Your Audience by Darlene Price, the president and cofounder of Well Said!, Inc., a training and consulting company specializing in high-impact presentations and effective communication.

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