Guest Posting: 102 Common English Idioms

Michelle Tran is an ESL English teacher. Her Basic English Speaking website lists common English phrases, expressions, basic grammar and more. This list of 102 common English idioms with meaning and examples is reprinted here with her express permission.

102 Common English Idioms with Meaning and Examples, by Michelle Tran

Say you’re in a conversation with your native American friends. Sometimes, during the conversation, you ask yourself, “What the heck is going on?” Even though you are translating every single word to your mother tongue, you have no idea what your friends are talking about.

Well, you know what?

The reason you find it hard to understand native speakers is because they usually use idioms in their daily communication.

What is an idiom?

It’s “a group of words whose meaning is different from the meaning of every single word.” For example, “a piece of cake” doesn’t literally mean a sweet; instead, it means “easy.” How interesting!

Why idioms?

The fact that you know 3,000 English words doesn’t mean you can understand every single idiom. That’s to say knowing single words will not help you interpret the meaning of the entire phrase. What you can do is put serious effort into it.

What’s more, if you master English idioms, you will sound like a native speaker. Idiomatic expressions which make conversations sound more natural are commonly used by native speakers every day.

In this lesson series, we will introduce you to 102 common English idioms. Each is written with an idiom definition, 3 idiom examples, and audio recordings. That way, you will know what the idiom means and how to use it in a conversation.

It’s time to say goodbye to boring textbooks and start learning something really useful for your English communication.

Idioms about Money and Finance

A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned
Beyond One’s Means
Someone’s Bread And Butter
Cut One’s Losses
Dutch Treat/ Go Dutch
Money Talks
Bring Home The Bacon
At All Costs
To Earn A Living
Money Doesn’t Grow On Trees
Pour Money Down The Drain
Born With A Silver Spoon In Your Mouth

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Idioms about Love

Love At First Sight
Match Made In Heaven
To Have A Crush On Someone
To Love With All Your Heart And Soul
To Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve
To Fall Head Over Heels In Love
To Tie The Knot
To Be The Apple Of My Eye

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Idioms about Happiness and Sadness

On Cloud Nine
To Make Your Day
Not The End Of The World
Feeling Blue/To Have The Blues
Face Like A Wet Weekend
Get A (Real) Kick Out Of Something
On Top Of The World
In Seventh Heaven
Over The Moon
Having A Whale Of A Time
Let One’s Hair Down

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Idioms about Health

Ill At Ease
Breathe One’s Last
Catch A Cold
Fall Ill
At Death’s Door
Nothing But Skin And Bones
Safe And Sound
Get A Black Eye
Recharge One’s Batteries
Under The Weather
You Are What You Eat.
As Pale As A Ghost

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Idioms about Travel

Off The Beaten Track
To Make Your Way Back
Hustle And Bustle
To Live Out Of A Suitcase
Travel Broadens The Mind
Hit The Road
Break The Journey
Have/ Get/ Give Someone Itchy Feet
A Thirst For Adventure

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Idioms about Work

Get Your Feet Under The Table
Go The Extra Mile
Put Your Feet Up
Be In Someone’s Good (Or Bad) Books
Give Someone The Sack
To Call It A Day
Work Like A Dog
All In A Day’s Work
Work Your Fingers To The Bone

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Idioms about Friendship

Lend Your Money. Lose Your Friend
A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed
To See Eye To Eye With Someone
To Get On Like A House On Fire
To Know Someone Inside Out
To Speak The Same Language

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Idioms about Dreams

Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
Daydream About Someone Or Something
In (One’s) Dreams
A Dream Come True
To Keep Someone’s Feet On The Ground
To Bring Someone Back Down To Earth
Broken Dreams

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Idioms about Time

Nine-To-Five Job
At The Eleventh Hour
Like Clockwork
Time Flies
Better Late Than Never
In The Long Run
Beat The Clock
Make Up For Lost Time

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Idioms about Decisions

Take It Or Leave It
Sit On The Fence
To Take A Back Seat
A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush
My Way Or The Highway
Weigh The Pros And Cons

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Other idioms

To Sleep On It
Know Someone Like The Back Of Your Hand
As Easy As Pie/ A Piece Of Cake
Take It Easy
To Get The Ball Rolling
Twenty-Four/Seven (24/7)
Once And For All
To Make The Best Of
Day In And Day Out (Day After Day, For Longer Periods Of Time, Year In And Year Out, Year After Year)
To Keep One’s Word
To Give (Someone) A Hand
To Be In (Someone’s) Shoes
None Of Your Business

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TuneIn Radio: A great platform for podcasts

TuneIn Radio

TuneIn is a popular app available for iOS and Android devices. It allows anyone to listen to radio stations from around the world. With over 50 million monthly active users, TuneIn lets people listen to the world’s sports, news, talk, and music from wherever they are. TuneIn has over 100,000 radio stations and more than four million on-demand podcasts streaming from every continent.

I’ve built a preliminary TuneIn playlist that includes current episodes of the Iain Anderson Show from BBC Radio Scotland, Late Junction from BBC Radio 3, and A Way with Words from NPR. In the future I expect to browse for music programs to add from Australia, Thailand and Ireland. Any suggestions?

Podcasting on TuneIn

While my Professionally Speaking podcast is available on iTunes in the U.S., I don’t believe this is case outside of America. So I was pleased to discover that TuneIn allows anyone with a podcast feed to upload their material so that it is carried on this platform with a global reach. I’ve now added Professionally Speaking to TuneIn.

If you have a podcast that you’d like featured on TuneIn simply fill in this form.

Professional Speaking Association

Professional Speaking Association
In a couple of weeks time I’ll be in the UK visiting family and I’ve been invited to address the North West Region of the Professional Speaking Association (PSA) which is the UK equivalent of the National Speakers Association.

Since I grew up in North West England, this is a return to my roots.

On Wednesday November 12th I’ll be delivering an afternoon Masterclass on podcasting and video tools speakers can use to promote a speaking business. In the evening I’ll be giving a presentation on magnifying the impact of a speech before, during and after the event using social media.

With that in mind, the Twitter hashtag for the event is #psanwnov.

Here’s the resource page for the presentations. I make no claim for the authenticity of my north of England accent at the end of the preview video. After all, I’ve not lived there for 40 years.

Toastmasters International goes … international

Toastmasters Kuala Lumpur
For the first time in its 90-year history, Toastmasters is holding its International Convention outside of North America at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in Malaysia, Aug. 20-23.

The featured presenters include Robin Sieger the former Head of Development at BBC Television who will deliver the keynote presentation during the Opening Ceremonies on Wednesday, Aug. 20. A former television executive and comedy writer, Sieger is the author of Natural Born Winners and a motivational speaker from Scotland who speaks about innovation to Fortune 100 companies around the world.

Astro Malaysia Holdings’ CEO Rohana Rozhan will be honored as the recipient of the nonprofit organization’s 2014 Golden Gavel award. The prestigious award is presented annually to an individual distinguished in the fields of communication and leadership. Rohana joins an illustrious list of Golden Gavel honorees, including Walter Cronkite, Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra, Anthony Robbins and Zig Ziglar.

Other presenters include:

Jana Barnhill, Accredited Speaker and Toastmasters 2008-2009 International President from Lubbock, Texas. She is a five-time winner of the District 44 International Speech Contest, and has placed second and third in the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking.

Mark Brown, 1995 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking. Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Mark now lives in the U.S., in Lizelle, Georgia. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and delivers more than 200 presentations per year.

Douglas Kruger, Author, motivational speaker and presentation skills coach based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He delivers motivational presentations and training seminars for large organizations, including Old Mutual, Caltex and Vodacom.

Lance Miller, 2005 World Champion of Public Speaking. A resident of Glendale, California, he is a former executive for Nestle and Anheuser-Busch. Miller engages his audience with a unique mix of talent and life experience that bring his messages to life.

Florian Mueck, A speaker, coach and author based in Barcelona, Spain, who speaks three languages (English, German and Spanish). In 2010, he gave a talk for TEDxBarcelona titled Europe: How to Unleash a Common Spirit.

Rory Vaden, Entrepreneur, consultant and author from Nashville, Tennessee who speaks to audiences about how to say no to things that don’t matter, and yes to things that do. At age 23, he placed second in the 2007 World Championship of Public Speaking.


Here’s more than you ever needed to know about what differentiates England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland from Great Britain and why vestiges of the British Empire are alive and well in isolated parts of the world like the Falklands.

Explained brilliantly by C.G.P. Grey.

Watch the video and be informed!

Advice to Silicon Valley Speechwriters: Don’t screw up

Silicon ValleyColumnist Andrew Hill, writing in today’s Financial Times, warns executives in Silicon Valley that they could become the next public enemies, facing a PR backlash similar to that suffered by bankers.

He sees warning signs in the recent attacks on Apple, Google and Amazon for their tax strategies; for questions about the growing economic and income inequality in northern California; and activist worries about ill-protected privacy, dirt-cheap labour and the energy efficiency of data centers.

He quotes a recent article by Silicon Valley native George Parker, who grew up in the area in the late 1970’s when a home in Palo Alto cost $125,000, in contrast to the scene today when:

There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-per-cent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing. After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.

Nevertheless, Hill notes, the public trust in, and love of, technology is much higher than that of banks. If executives can resist the temptation to take the users for granted, share some of the wealth, and “stay clean” in terms of communications they will be able to placate public opinion.

The advice to those who write the speeches of tech execs is to

…adopt a new slogan, borrowed from Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s declaration to fans of Tumblr, the blogging platform her company has just bought: “We promise not to screw it up.”

Cross Cultural Communication: Wolters Kluwer

Wolters Kluwer is a 175-year-old Dutch company who provide professionals with necessary information in the fields of legal, business, tax, accounting, finance, audit, risk, compliance, and healthcare. They have customers around the world and recently exhibited at the Beijing International Book Fair.

Understanding the value of subtitles

To complement their booth Wolters Kluwer commissioned a brief video which highlights the value of exploration, innovation and creativity for the world of digital information. Featuring a balanced mix of Mandarin and English speakers the video uses subtitles to bridge the language divide for different groups of viewers. This is a simple and straightforward way for companies to communicate across cultures.

Here’s the English-language subtitles and the same video with Chinese-language subtitles. Notice that the video has been framed to allow space for subtitles.

English-language version

Chinese-language version

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.

Guest Posting: The Global Crisis is Deadly, Dangerous – and it can be Overcome

Dennis Bumstead was General Manager of, and is now an adviser to, the Global Cooperation Project. He is an adviser to new initiatives, Four Years Go and the Green Tea Party, and a seed group member of his local Transitions Town initiative in Lake County, California. After teaching, at M.I.T., and at London and Antioch Universities; consulting to Fortune 500 corporations and working for The World Bank, for the past decade he has been recovering, by, amongst other things, working in the non-profit world – since 2006 with the Global Cooperation Project, promoting the ideas in Not-Two Is Peace by Adi Da.

The Global Crisis is Deadly, Dangerous – and it can be Overcome
by Dennis Bumstead, PhD

“The future is either going to be catastrophic disaster, or it is going to be the turnabout moment in human history, in which humankind will step out of its dark ages of “tribalism” into a new mode of human cooperative order.” Adi Da, Not-Two Is Peace, The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order.

While there are many encouraging grass roots efforts to change the monstrous trundling to destruction of the old global order, (take Avaaz, for just one), as yet there is still no widespread, really full consideration of our seriously threatening situation. Nothing seems to address the global totality of the escalating crises we are in.

Even thoughtful economist critics, such as Krugman, Stiglitz, Roubini and Sachs, who indicate that proposed economic solutions are not enough, confine most of their proposals to the economic and political sub-sectors of the total system.

We need change which is economic and political, but also social, and cultural, and psychological and spiritual. Truly transformative change.

The dire situation in the Third World

For those in the Third World, the escalating global crisis comes on top of system-endemic depredations of poverty, malnutrition and environmental degradation. Some two billion people are trying to survive on just two dollars a day. They also suffer the effects of the many wars which are conducted, sponsored or ignored (and always armed) by the so-called “developed” nations. Globally, we are making the absurd decision to let a third of humanity starve, if wars or preventable diseases don’t get them first. This is the great civilization, which we tell each other and our kids in school, has been “evolving” magnificently since the Renaissance!

The establishment global institutions, the corporate / governmental / military and “security” apparatus, the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, and big media obviously do useful and even many well intentioned things. But essentially they sustain the status quo, and its accruing benefits to the “developed” nations, and principally to the 2% who own and run these institutions. There is far more reporting on the “shape” of the recession (flat, double dip, etc.) than on the daily fact that under present rules of the game, the recession is a death sentence for millions of people in the Third World. These are people who would not need to die if the global system were managed for the benefit of all, instead of for the few.

Al Gore has been a sustained and effective communicative voice for environmental change. But that is only part of the problem and environmental challenges are not soluble without radical change in other arenas. Many alternative writers and activists like Hazel Henderson and David Korten likewise address critical sub-sets of the issues. Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest suggested some years ago that there is a mostly invisible movement already tackling many of the issues. That is encouraging. But most of us who have been part of that world for years or even decades know how frustrating and difficult it is to move on to the level of change needed.

A full alternative: The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order

In Not-Two Is Peace Adi Da addresses the issues comprehensively.

The book spells out:

  • what the problems are
  • why the existing global system cannot and will not continue
  • that it will be determined, by our understandings and actions, “in the next handful of years” whether catastrophe or regeneration ensues
  • a proposal for the formation of a Global Cooperative Forum, functioning on the basis of “prior unity” and managing the globe for the benefit of all instead of the few.

(The book does not spell out a detailed action program. That must come from intelligent, creative and necessarily cooperative response and action.)

Adi Da points out that the world’s political economy simply cannot continue, built as it is on a model of growth for the developed and depletion for the “developing”. The system as is simply unsustainable, as more and more nation-”tribes” try to get in on the so-called “good life”.

These ideas make sense to “early adopters” – those who are already have noticed that attempting to reinstall the status quo is not working and who are already exploring and engaging real alternatives.

The book is fundamentally very clear. But its offers plenty of challenges to us all – because it calls for change we all fear is impossible and it addresses the way-deep conventions of global life that we all carry into the fray.

“Something new must emerge”

Adi Da spoke and wrote about these issues all his life. Beginning with a speech on prejudice and tolerance that he gave in high school in the 1950s, in various books, and summarily in Not-Two Is Peace. He spoke about the seriousness and urgency of the global situation on the last day of his earthly life, November 27, 2008. What he said was recorded and appears as the last chapter in the current edition of Not-Two Is Peace. These are the last paragraphs :

Civilization is in crisis. The human world altogether is in crisis. The notions of security, longevity, freedom from need, and enjoyment of life are showing themselves to be illusions–very tentative, and able to be enjoyed by only a relative few. And the relative few who enjoy such life-conditions do so at the expense of others–and, in fact, on the basis of the suffering and exploitation of others.

Something new must emerge. That something new is not going to emerge from the pattern of nation-states, or even from the gathering of nation-states (in the form of the United Nations). That something new can only emerge from everybody-all-at-once–the power of humankind as a totality.

Humankind as a totality must relinquish the old civilization. It must accept that the old civilization is dead, the old civilization is gone, useless, non-productive. The old civilization can no longer provide security, longevity, freedom from need, and life-enjoyment for people. Less and less can the old civilization do anything useful at all. The old civilization is now profoundly degraded, and will only get worse with time.

A new mode of social contract must emerge–a mode of social contract not founded on egoity. There must now be an egoless mode of social contract–based on cooperation, tolerance, and universal participation and accountability. Such is the nature of the necessary global cooperative order.

In order for such a global cooperative order to come into being, there must be a core institution based on the universal participation and accountability of everybody-all-at-once. I call that core institution the Global Cooperative Forum. The Global Cooperative Forum is the necessary transformative movement on Earth. (pp307-8)


We have some time – a few years – and we need to act, boldly. Immediate global catastrophe (as predicted frequently in the blogosphere) is not likely – in the short term. For just “a handful of years”, we will see continuing economic recession together with “moderate or localized disasters” (oil spills, local wars etc.) not in the least moderate for those directly affected, of course, but not yet the complete local and global catastrophe. For now, since the South American economic crisis of ’97 and on other occasions including the global crisis of ’08, the powers-that-be have demonstrated some significant, if last minute, capacity to prevent total global meltdown and sustain some functionality, in the interests of …. the illusory status quo.

Of course, it’s true that “in the long run, we are all dead” as Mr Keynes famously said, (and as Buddhists and other wise traditions have been saying for 2,500 years or so), but if the Global Cooperative Forum, as proposed in Not-Two Is Peace, is launched within a few years, significant improvements in global functionality can be made including some, like climate management, which will take an extended time for effective reversal of damaged systems.

There are thousands of large and small efforts underway, all working for global change. Efforts like Transition Towns, to give just one example. Many of them are collected together on Hawken’s Wiser Earth site. These efforts can come into effective cooperation through a Global Cooperative Forum. No utopias are to be expected, but there are much better ways than business as usual! If we take such cooperative action the planet can reach a state of equanimity so all of us can begin to live truly human lives.

What better to do with the next couple of years?

Not-Two Is Peace: The Ordinary People’s Way of Global Cooperative Order, by Adi Da can be read on-line at

Video: What can wrong in executive communications: Common mistakes and how to avoid them

Edited highlights from the 1-hour presentation I gave at the Ragan Corporate Communicators Conference, held May 4-7 at the General Motors HQ, Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI.

The speech outline, slides and resources I refer to are available on the presentation home page.