Reimagining Conferences

At a time when the COVD-19 novel coronavirus is causing conferences around the world to be canceled or postponed, it’s more important than ever to take a long hard look at the fundamental ways that large gatherings for professional purposes are structured.

For too long, organizers have tried to cram a full schedule of keynotes, panel discussions, and mixers onto schedules. While these may look good on paper, they leave everyone dazed, unable to absorb a tsunami of data or to remember much of what they’ve heard when they get back home.

Writing in Forbes, Lital Moram challenges conventional wisdom about the organization of typical conferences. Technology has long-promised audiences new access to content and a backchannel for peer-to-peer communication in the face of the person on the podium.

She offers five suggestions for a timely reimagining of the way conferences are structured.

Less is More

Rather than larding the agenda with every minute filled, recognize people need time to discuss what they’ve heard. Downtime is valuable.

But wait, there’s more. Why not do away with an agenda altogether?

I was introduced to Open Space Technology 14 years ago at an NSA Northern California meeting. However, none of the major tech companies I worked for dared to embrace anything as radical.

Make your Speakers Accessible

Requesting that speakers schedule meeting time after they present gives audience members who feel uncomfortable asking questions in front of the whole audience a chance to discuss their issues one-on-one.

This is complemented by the social media backchannel, which has gone from a fringe activity to mainstream in many meetings. Moram provides an update in her next recommendation:

Don’t Shy Away from Technology

Beyond sharing tweets, there are a whole host of ways to engage audiences via their mobile phones. Savvy speakers are well aware of this, and can now employ a host of audience response software for instant polls.

Work Toward Relevance

Moram cautions against the threat of death by PowerPoint and the curse of the specialist:

Identify your keynote speaker’s expertise and then continue to build on their message by orchestrating workshops and breakout sessions that apply new insights they’ve shared as it relates to real-world pressing issues faced by your participants.

There are proven methods to help subject matter experts overcome the limits of their deep knowledge of one specific area.

Cultivate Learning by Doing

The most radical proposal in this excellent review is the acknowledgment that people learn by doing:

… the heart of the conference should focus on learning by doing — through moderated workshops, breakout sessions and interactive experiences where you get to apply new knowledge in action. Research shows that experiential learning is learning that sticks.

Problem-solving that involves your attendees personally is something they’ll remember 20 years later.

Taking it to the Next Step: Coach your Speakers

It’s refreshing to see that Forbes carries this article. While “Disrupting” meetings might have awkward historical connotations, her heart is in the right place.

Beyond the five suggestions listed, there’s no shortage of ideas conference organizers can review with each speaker, so that they are aligned to the goal if helping audience members remember what they say:

How to Get the most from your Next Conference

Sooner or later COVID-19 will cease to be the challenge to meetings that it is today. When you are once again able to attend your next conference, before you grab your name-badge and head over for nibbles and drinks, check out these useful tips for attendees. (Be sure to scroll down and read the resources listed in the comments section.)

National Speakers Association, Northern California, January Chapter Meeting

Dan Thurmon HeadshotOver 60 members and guests of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association gathered in Lafayette last Saturday to hear NSA National President Dan Thurmon, CSP, CPAE, who presented a talk titled “Doing what it Takes: How to Differentiate & Deliver in Today’s Competitive Marketplace”.

Dan is an author, entrepreneur, workplace performance expert, fitness advocate, acrobat, unicyclist, and more. He’s delivered over 2,500 presentations on six continents in all 50 states and 33 countries, traveling over two million miles and completing…wait for it… over ten thousand backflips on stage!

Off Balance On Purpose

Dan believes we’ll never achieve “perfect balance.” Instead of chasing this impossible dream, we should learn to embrace uncertainty and initiate positive changes that lead to personal and professional growth.

His 2013 TedX talk (155,000 views and counting…) highlights the precarious nature of balance and illustrates his thesis that it’s best to live life “off balance on purpose” complete with handstands, back-flips and juggling:

Dan requested a number of times that no-one post video of his presentation, since video can’t do justice to the full impact of seeing him live. However, I assume he’s OK with the TedX video, and it’s fascinating for those who were in the room last Saturday to see how his content has evolved over the last five years.

Putting the Professionalism into Speaking

Dan first appeared in front of audiences at a young age, while still in grade school he performed at local Renaissance Faires. Now 50, he says that all professional speaking requires is “everything you’ve got”. He certainly delivered all he’s got while on stage.

The five balls he keeps in the air (literally!) include the work we do, our relationships, health, spiritual life and personal passions and interests. He pulled no punches when it came to the dynamic tension between doing what it takes to achieve success as a freelance speaker and the balance with relationships and family. He counsels that we should not compromise by focusing too much on one area at the expense of others. There’s a price to be paid for speakers who are on the road when kids sports games and celebrations are happening.

All speakers deliver three talks each time they are onstage:

  • The one they planned to give
  • The one they gave
  • The one they think about while driving home.

Storytelling Insights

Dan shared the structure of the stories he tells onstage. His template details the hero’s journey as:

  • Once upon a time… (setting the stage for the awakening)
  • And every day… (establishing “normal life” as the point of departure)
  • Until the day… (the inciting incident)
  • Because of that… (on several different levels)
  • Until finally… (the resolution)
  • Ever since that day…

This is a great framework, one that shares some of the elements of Michael Hauge’s 10 Essential Elements of a Great Story, but is a simpler model for many of us to build our stories with.


Dan ThurmonI was thrilled to see Dan’s portable storyboard. His use of colored Post-It’s to map the topics of a talk has strong echo’s of Nancy Duarte’s guidance in Resonate. The beauty of Dan’s board is that it’s completely portable. The savvy speaker can switch elements of the speech on the way to the auditorium. This is a powerful tool for speechwriters and public speakers.

I’d recommend checking out Dan’s blog for brief 2-3 minute videos where he shares insights in how to live “off-balance on purpose”. These are professionally edited…by his son! The most recent (Jan 15) is delivered in a snowstorm in Golden, Colorado. His YouTube channel has over 50 of these snappy ‘Weekly Coaching’ videos.

NSA National President

Dan became the President of the National Speakers Association this year. This video from the Greater Los Angeles Chapter was filmed last June and previews his presidency:

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.

Meeting Report: Nancy Duarte discusses presentation excellence with Silicon Valley Speechwriters

Nancy Duarte was the guest speaker at Monday’s meeting of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable. Duarte is the well-known author of slide:ology and Resonate and the founder and CEO of Duarte, Inc.

Slideology Nancy acknowledged the important role writing her books has had on the growth of her business. A few years ago, while searching for presentation blogs, she came across Garr Reynolds Presentation Zen blog. Garr encouraged her to write a book that covered “everything he left on the table” with his own draft of Presentation Zen. The result was slide:ology. She is grateful that Garr encouraged her to write her first book, since it was instrumental in helping refocus her agency on presentation-specific work.

Garr and Nancy are still good friends and she hosted him at a recent lunchtime talk about presentations at the Silicon Valley headquarters of her company.

Resonate Nancy’s second book, Resonate, was in many ways the prequel to her first. She acknowledges that writing slide:ology made the phone ring for slides, while Resonate made the phone ring for content. She sees a trend with some of her clients where she is being asked to help develop creative content and conversations that don’t need slides. She sometimes arms clients with graphics they can draw on a whiteboard while presenting.

How to work with clients

The concepts in Resonate are one model among many her company uses. When they engage with clients they first host an interactive discovery workshop. They probe for the “one big idea” that the client wishes to communicate. This can be a painful process for some clients, who might not have given their big idea any thought and might, in fact, discover they lack the focus they need to have before they present. The next step for the Duarte team is to break down and rebuild the clients’ idea, wrap it in a story and concepts and then re-propose back to the client what they think they should say. At this stage they use slide maps which match the stages of the presentation to the best supporting images, data or pictures. Once this is approved, the presentation is story-boarded.

Nancy’s advice for speechwriters who have “difficult” clients–who are not be fully invested in the need to prepare for a presentation–is to pick a high stakes presentation to request complete client involvement. Avoid getting caught up in small skirmishes. The higher the stakes, the more involvement an executive should see they need to have. That is the time to pitch the ideas on why it needs to be done right. Speechwriters need to understand most clients are not masters of the spoken word. We are the experts in storytelling who live and breathe this world. It’s advisable to give clients time to acclimate to our ways of thinking.


A Sparkline is an analysis tool Nancy introduced in Resonate that represents a presentation. She jokes that, no, Martin Luther King did not use a Sparkline to plan his “I Have a Dream” speech since she was only two-years old at the time! Indeed, a Sparkline is not something to use in preparing a speech, but in analyzing why a successful speech works.

“If you were to align on the left everything that is what is, and align on the right everything what could be, and you’ve crafted it and you know it’s right, it ends up following the form on its own. It’s a pattern that is persuasive.”

TED Talk

she gives some compelling examples OF Sparklines in her TED talk that has been seen over a million people:

Such eloquence does not come easily. Nancy mentioned that she put over 30 hours rehearsal time into her 18-minute TED talk. The TED format forces people to be concise and has, she believes, changed the presentation industry. It’s the new gold standard and audiences now know what a good presentation looks like. Audiences have low tolerance for lack of presentation and TED has played a part in that.

Among the women speakers Nancy admires are:

What’s Next?

Nancy revealed she has a new book coming in October. She also plans to release a free multimedia version of Resonate. Her team are also developing tools that allow audiences will tap into a second screen for detailed information on a presentation.

If you are interested in attending future virtual meetings of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable, open to anyone, regardless of location, please sign up on our Meetup page and you’ll be notified.

6 Tips for Getting a Communications Job in Silicon Valley

Rene SeigelThe convocation speaker at the May 23, 2013 San Jose State University graduation ceremony for Communications, Journalism and PR students was René Shimada Siegel, the President and Founder of High Tech Connect.

Rene shared six tips on getting a job in communications and PR in Silicon Valley.

Here’s the video and transcript of her speech.

Good evening, fellow Spartans, family, friends, and faculty.

I am so honored to be here today with your family and friends–all your loved ones–to witness this extraordinary moment in your life. This is indeed a tremendous milestone, and you should be extremely proud.

Twenty-six years ago, I sat where you are now sitting–a proud Spartan with a Public Relations degree. Equally excited and terrified about my future.

And now I’m the owner of a multi-million-dollar consulting company. Over the years, I’ve found 4,271 projects and jobs for journalism, PR, advertising, and marketing professionals. I counted. I found my calling: helping people do their best work while still having the time and flexibility to pursue their personal passions.

But all of this almost didn’t happen.

You see, I applied to San Jose State as a Chemical Engineering major. I didn’t know anyone in that field–and had no idea what a Chemical Engineer did. But of course my Asian parents approved.

To be honest, I was an insecure geek. Who did what others expected me to do. I was headed for a lifetime developing, designing, coding and whatever the hell else the good people with engineering degrees do.

I was also away from home from the first time and did what any Asian-American engineering major with low self-esteem does: I let my dorm friends talk me into entering a beauty pageant. Okay, the politically correct term is now “scholarship program”. It was after a few beers, and I thought, why the hell not?

A few months later–and now stone cold sober–I was in the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Queen Pageant, onstage, dancing in a kimono. Thank goodness, no swimsuit competition. And, to the surprise of everyone including my grandma, who reminded me I had “no talent,” I won!

Suddenly, I went from all-nighters in the grungy computer lab to being an ambassador a twinset and tiara, representing the Bay Area Japanese-American community. I rode cable cars and floats and waved to crowds. I met politicians and business executives, entrepreneurs and celebrities. And I thought, this is a heck of a lot more exciting that organic chemistry. And along the way I also worked with a lot of marketing and publicity people.

So when I returned to San Jose State for my second year, I shocked my family again and changed my major to PR. And yes, I was a starving student again. I waitressed and sprayed perfume on people just to pay for college. I was just as scared as you are today.

But after I graduated, I held six jobs in eight years. And with each job I learned a heck of a lot and met people who led me to the next opportunity. These same people later begged me to start my own company.

And so tonight instead of telling you something abstract and lofty, like “follow your dreams”, I want to share my practical tips for landing a job–and having a great career. Something you can use. I’ve coached professional communicators for two decades, I’ve seen these strategies work again, and again, literally thousands times. My hope is one of these tips may change your life.

Just do it

Here’s my first one—just do it.

In my senior seminar class we had to write a cover letter and resume for a job, in any communications field, just find a job description. We had to make sure we knew how to do it. I’m sure they still make you do that now, right? I found a marketing coordinator job description for a small company with a weird name. The description said they wanted three to five years of experience. I only had done a summer internship so far – but turning in my class assignment, I got my 15 points, then, I sent the cover letter and resume to the company. Believe it or not, they hired me part-time while I was still in school my senior year — and I started full-time as soon as I graduated.

Here’s my tip. Just do it. Apply for everything. It costs nothing, and yet I was the only one of my peers who did that.

As former President Jimmy Carter says: “Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”

Remember: Job descriptions are wish lists. And companies love people who are willing to put themselves out there. Sometimes all it takes is just a tiny extra step. Just do it.

Seize opportunities

Tip number two, seize opportunities.

Two years ago I was asked to speak here at the San Jose State Leadership Conference. I made a special offer to everyone who was there that day. If the students gave me their name, email and major, I would match them with a mentor from my personal network, for free.

One hundred students gave me their info and over the next several weeks, my team helped me match students with working professionals who had similar career interests or majors. Nurses, pilots, engineers, writers, scientists, government officials.

One hundred students received an email with contact information for a professional who generously offered to help propel their career forward. We told the students, they were responsible for initiating the contact. So how many do you think out of 100, actually followed up with the mentors?


Zero out of 100.

Everyone wanted the golden ticket, but nobody bothered to unwrap the Wonka bar. How many golden tickets do you think you’ll get in your lifetime?

I know. Professionals can be intimidating. You may not know what to say. You’re busy with classes and work. But you never know when one person may know another person whose neighbor’s daughter needs someone just like you. If you want success, you need to seize every opportunity.

When opportunity knocks, answer the frickin’ door!

Be creative

Tip number three, be creative.

My son Adam was born with more courage and creativity than anyone I know. He’s attending college in Los Angeles and wants to get into the entertainment industry of course — along with thousands of other people.

Freshman year he had to listen to a guest speaker for a class and this woman was a producer in Hollywood. After class, he walked and talked with her and found out they had both worked at Baskin-Robbins – and, more importantly, they shared the same favorite flavor: Peanut Butter & Chocolate.

The producer promised to connect him with her friend who owned a talent agency for dancers and choreographers in Hollywood, but when Adam didn’t hear anything, he emailed and called, twice. Finally, she made the email introduction and he got the unpaid internship at the dance agency.

Now, get this.

After his first week at the internship, Adam bought a Styrofoam ice chest, took a taxi cab, because he didn’t have a car, went to Baskin-Robbins, loaded the ice chest with pints of Peanut Butter & Chocolate, and he delivered it to the producer’s office with a hand-written thank you note.

Would that make an impression on you? How much did it cost? $50.

By the way, Adam’s unpaid internship is now paid and the agency sent him to work in their Broadway New York office for the summer. He’s just finished his junior year; they’ve already offered him a full-time job as talent agent when he graduates a year from now.

All it takes is a tiny bit of extra creativity to stand out. Perhaps it’s not something they teach over in the Engineering building, but you guys are Communications majors. Be creative. Be unique. Exceed expectations. That’s how you build a professional brand.

Network harder

Tip number four, network harder.

In my experience it’s not just the hard work you do, it’s the net-work that counts. Building a professional network takes work.

Your formal education may have ended, but your career depends less on what you know than who you know. Don’t just connect with people you already know on Social Media. Get your butt to IABC and PRSA and all the other professional organizations where people like me are looking for outgoing, polished young talent.

And if you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, whip one up this weekend.

In the business world, this is the first place I go to creep on you. Facebook is second. Clean ‘em up guys, you are in the professional world now. You don’t exist if you are not on LinkedIn. A resume goes to one person at a time, but your LinkedIn profile is accessible to millions of potential employers.

Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn of MGM was asked how he got so successful. And he said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Sweat the small stuff

Tip number five, sweat the small stuff.

You are professional communicators. There is no excuse for sloppy grammar or typos. You should be fanatical about accuracy and integrity in everything you write, shoot or post.

I still see Public Relations job titles with typos. Try spelling “public” without the “L.” Not so nice.

And guess what, girls and boys, spellcheck is not going to help you with that one.

So if you want to be regarded as professional, reliable and educated take the time to read and re-read everything.

There’s no place like home

My sixth and final tip is a bonus tip, there’s no place like home.

Toto, we are not in Kansas, and that’s a good thing.

We are here in San Jose, California – the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s one of the most prosperous and exciting regions of the world. Hundreds of incredible companies are within a 10-mile radius of this campus. You could be graduating from Lower Mediocre College or Nowhere State. You are lucky. There’s no place like this on earth. People are dying to come here and get jobs. So think to yourself: Do you want to travel for free and do creative, challenging things? Would you like to make the world a better place? Do you want a stable career that pays well? Parents, do YOU want your child to have a stable career that pays well?

Then don’t be intimidated by Silicon Valley and technology.

You are communicators. You’ve been trained to write and speak and think so that great ideas are heard and shared. The most innovative new product or technology invented by engineers here in the Valley won’t change the world if nobody knows about them. You are the amplifiers. Your job is to make sure the world hears about things that are important and valuable.

There are hundreds of companies that need great communicators. Right here. Right now. There are sexy companies like Google, Twitter, Apple and Zynga. But there are hundreds, thousands of other companies. Those have less competition for jobs and you’ll have more to do.

I’ll also promise you that you’ll never have to learn advanced math or pick up a programming language to be a successful communicator in Silicon Valley! Don’t be intimidated.

So there you have it, my six tips. Give them a try. I think you’ll be amazed at what comes your way.

Remember, there’s no carefully crafted career plan for any of us. It’s yours to create.

You have the same foundation I had 26 years ago. You have a great world-class education, practical experience from internships and a wealth of Spartan connections. You’re also entering the market at a time when Forbes lists San Jose and San Francisco as two of the best big cities for jobs in 2013. And employers plan to hire 13% more grads this year than last, including public relations, communications and marketing majors.

Yes, competition will always be fierce and employers will always be picky.

It’s okay to be scared. I’m still scared every day. That’s how I know I’m still learning and growing. Deep down, I’m still the insecure girl who never dreamed of being a beauty queen. Or president of my own company. Or a convocation speaker at San Jose State.

I’ve found my passion for connecting and empowering people in their work and life. I get to do it with people I love and laugh with, every single day. And I had to create that from nothing. There was no template. If I can do it, you can do it too.

Just be a tiny bit braver tomorrow than you are today. In work, and in life.

Congratulations everyone. Go get ‘em!

The CEO’s Challenge: overcoming barriers to authentic communication

Authenticity is one the hallmarks of a successful presentation. Audiences can sense when a presenter is not delivering a message that is congruent with their beliefs. This is an emotional as much as an intellectual challenge, and one that many CEO’s are destined to fail. The reason, according to Anthony Goodman, writing in Monday’s Financial Times, is that many chief executives are prisoners of their environment. Quoting Professor Roger Martin who writes in Fixing The Game:

“Institutional investors, equity analysts, investment bankers, hedge funds and the financial press have emerged as central figures in the CEO’s community … a community rife with transactional relationships, exploitation and distrust.”

Martin believes that executives pander to these constituencies, leading them to make decisions that often do not deliver long-term value to the organizations they lead and deliver communications that lack authenticity.

When you hear a CEO present at a conference, you see one person. What you don’t see is the phalanx of communications staff, from the heads of Public Relations to the speechwriter, PowerPoint design team and event staff who had a hand in creating and revising the content that they deliver.

It’s a rare chief executive who has the time and attention on the speech to ensure that, as well as being an accurate communication about the institutional programs and objectives, it is also something that sounds totally authentic when they deliver it.

Audience’s remember those CEO’s who do take the time to embody their speeches as authentic communications of who they are. The rest, they forget.

Guest Posting: How to become a Keynote Speaker, by Patrick Schwerdtfeger

Patrick Schwerdtfeger is the author of Marketing Shortcuts for the Self-Employed and Webify Your Business – Internet Marketing Secrets for the Self-Employed. He is a regular speaker for Bloomberg TV. He has spoken about Modern Entrepreneurship, Online Branding and the Social Media Revolution at conferences and business events around the world.

This article was first published in his own blog. It is an honest, first-hand report on the steps to take to become a professional speaker.

How to become a Keynote Speaker

by Patrick Schwerdtfeger

I earn about 80% of my income from speaking fees and the remainder from book sales. I haven’t done any coaching or consulting in almost two years. My speaking career has taken me to every major city in this country as well as destinations in Canada, Mexico, Aruba, Sweden, Finland and India. I absolutely love what I do.

A lot of people ask me about the speaking business so in this post, I will describe the path I’ve chosen and the things I’m doing to push my career forward.

First, it’s important to understand that there are two very different categories in the speaking business: platform and keynote. Read Platform Speakers versus Keynote Speakers for more information. This post focuses exclusively on keynote.

Second, speaking engagements tend to fall into one of three different strata: the free circuit, the cheap circuit and the pro circuit. Read 3 Levels in the Speaking Business for more information. Becoming a keynote speaker implies that you’re getting paid to speak.

Saturate Your Market

Darren Lacroix (the Toastmasters 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking) frequently cites “stage time” as being critical to success in the speaking business. Bottom line; the more you practice, the better you get. I agree 100% and recommend you start with the free circuit in your local community to refine your message and fine-tune your delivery.

In 2008, I spoke at 47 Rotary Clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area and didn’t get paid for any of them. In 2009, I spoke at 127 events (!!) and got paid for six of them, all in the cheap circuit. In 2010, I spoke at 68 events and got paid for 21, split evenly between cheap circuit and pro circuit. And in 2011, I will probably do 60 or 70 events and will get paid for 35 or 40 of them.

Let’s look at travel. In 2008, I traveled for two events (Vancouver and San Diego). In 2009, I traveled for four events (Sweden, Aruba, Phoenix and Chicago). In 2010, I traveled for 20 events (including India, Finland, Calgary, Vancouver and more than a dozen domestic destinations). And in 2011, I have been to every major city in the country as well as destinations in Mexico, Canada and one coming up in Portugal.

This is a process! On the one hand, it has gone slowly. But on the other, it has gone extremely quickly. But the point is that I have “walked the path” and encourage you to do the same. So far, I have four years invested.

Getting Started

Looking back now, those days in 2008 when I was driving from one Rotary Club to another were dreadful. But at the time, it was exciting. Yes, I was broke (seriously, I was living on roots and berries!) but I didn’t mind. It was all new territory for me and I felt like I was making progress.

How did I book all these Rotary Clubs? I used the club locator function on their website to compile a listing of 194 clubs in the Bay Area and Sacramento. Once compiled, I spent two days making phone calls and sending out emails. I created a 1-page PDF file for my programs and emailed it off to the Program Director of each club. The PDF file had the following elements:

  • Program Title
  • Program Description
  • Personal Biography
  • Personal Head Shot
  • Contact Information

When I first started, my program was entitled “Driving Internet Traffic” but many of the Rotary Clubs rejected that topic because it was too business oriented. Rotary International is a non-profit community organization. Even though they function as business networking groups, they focus a lot on charitable causes and community development. As such, my topic wasn’t a good match.

During the afternoon of my first day of outreach, I developed a second program that would better fit the community-oriented mission of the Rotary organization. And to this day, it was the worst title I have ever crafted for any reason. It was awful. And it took me almost a full year to realize how bad it truly was. The program I developed that day was called:

“Touching a Younger Audience”

So bad. Embarrassing. But anyway, the point is that I only invested two days for outbound calling and emailing. Now, to be clear, I didn’t have all 47 events booked by the end of the second day, but my outbound efforts were done at that point. There was a bunch of back-and-forth with different clubs and some didn’t get confirmed for weeks, but my job was done. All I had to do was follow up. You can obviously do the same thing. Here’s the key:

  • Think of an awesome juicy sexy title.
  • Write a captivating and enticing description.

Rotary Clubs are easy to get into because they meet weekly and are always looking for speakers, but they’re not the only ones. Kiwanis Clubs and Lions Clubs are in the same boat and these days, you can find dozens of local Meetup Groups that would also make great opportunities. Finally, I suggest checking with your local Chamber of Commerce. Not only do they hold events themselves, but they usually know about a lot of other events too.

Climbing the Ladder

Obviously, the objective is to rise above the free circuit and start earning speaking fees. Over and above all the outbound marketing I’ve done, the #1 thing that has helped my career move forward it positive word-of-mouth advertising. If your speech is insightful and impactful, people will pass your name along.

This is critical for success. That’s why I recommend saturating your local market first. As Darren Lacroix says, stage time, stage time, stage time. Practice makes perfect. Someone once asked Tony Robbins how to become a great speaker. He said, “give the same speech 1,000 times and you’ll be good at it.” Your career will not advance if your speech isn’t insightful and impactful.

Anyway, assuming you’ve crafted a powerful keynote, people will pass your name along. The interesting thing is that referrals from free circuit gigs are generally for more free gigs. Referrals from cheap circuit gigs are usually for more cheap circuit gigs and referrals from pro circuit gigs are usually for more pro circuit gigs. They are like parallel worlds. They seem to function independently of each other.

The easiest way to start pushing referrals higher up the ladder is to start telling people what your speaking fee is. When I first started referencing a speaking fee, I said it was $2,500. Later, it increased to $5,000 and then to $10,000. Anyway, as soon as you mention a speaking fee, the free circuit people start to think differently about you and your services as a speaker.

Referencing a speaking fee does not mean you can’t do events for less money or even for free. As I mentioned above, I still do free events today, when I have a hole in my calendar or if I want an opportunity to address a particular audience. The point is that you need to muster the courage to request a speaking fee before anyone proactively offers it to you.

The big events (with big budgets) usually book 6 or 8 months in advance. Generally speaking, as I get closer to a particular date, I will accept lower-paying opportunities. For example, I will no longer book any free events more than 45 days in advance. Beyond that, there’s still a reasonable chance that a paid opportunity will turn up. But within 45 days of the date, if I still have an opening in my calendar, I will book free events that contribute to my career objectives.

If a particular organization asks me to speak for free or for a low fee, I will give them a date when I will confirm my participation. At that point, if they need to finalize their schedule, they will raise the fee to a point where I will confirm immediately. Otherwise, they will have my tentative acceptance but will also know that something else may come up, requiring me to back out of their event. For me, this approach has worked well.

Essential Marketing Collateral

As described in this post, most of the pro circuit opportunities are booked through speaker’s bureaus and agents, but don’t go knocking on their door too quickly. You only have one chance to make a good first impression and if you screw it up, it’s really hard to go back a second time. Trust me.

Always think about what the salespeople at the bureau (or the agents) need in order to do their job. More than anything else, they need a good demo video. I highly recommend making a good demo video before you approach any bureaus. Here is an example of an excellent demo video. Here are the four things you’ll need to enter the pro circuit:

  1. A good 3 to 5-minute demo video.
  2. Some great photos of you speaking.
  3. A printed one-sheet with your programs.
  4. A professional speaking-oriented website.

Ideally, get a three-camera shoot for the video: one on either side of the room and one behind you. That way, you can get two angles of you speaking as well as one of your back and the audience in front of you. That third angle will also allow you to get some close-up shots of audience members laughing or taking notes. For the two cameras facing you, make sure to get some close-up footage to show the expressions on your face. It shows your authenticity.

In terms of audio, I recommend a two-track recording: one lavaliere microphone on you and a second microphone to capture audience laughter. Audience reaction is extremely important. That’s what conference planners are buying. They’re buying an impact for their attendees. If the audience doesn’t react (i.e., laugh), you haven’t done your job and nobody will ever hire you. You want to make sure you capture that laughter on the video, so make sure you have a microphone on the audience. In your three- to five-minute video, you should be telling a powerful story with a strong message and at least two or three laugh lines.

When you record your video, you want to be in a big impressive room. Here’s what to look for:

  1. An audience of 200+ people.
  2. A raised stage.
  3. An impressive stage backdrop.
  4. Dimmed audience lighting.

You should be able to get everything you need at a single event. If you don’t have a big event booked, find a way to get 200+ people in a room. Make sure it’s an impressive room and then bring in a professional photographer and a videography crew. It’ll cost you some money but you can get the photos and demo video done all at one time, not to mention video testimonials from attendees. Remember, a good demo video is the single most important thing you’ll need.

Other Helpful Tips

Empty chairs kill events. The tighter the seating configuration, the stronger the audience reaction. So theatre style seating is much better than big round tables. And you’re always better to have too few chairs than too many.

Remember, for your programs, make sure you get a juicy sexy title and a tantalizing description. Program Directors make their selections based on your program title and description, along with your kick-ass demo video.

If you have been featured on any recognizable media outlets, get those logos onto your website and your one-sheets. If you have spoken to any large corporations, add those logos. They build immediate credibility.

If you have been interviewed on TV, add clips to your demo video. Again, here is an excellent example of an awesome demo video. Watch it. His entire introduction is done with a compilation of TV clips. Brilliant.

I hope this post helps you chart a course for your evolution as a speaker.

NSA Influence ’11 Convention – 50 Key Take Aways

20 members of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association met on Saturday to debrief on the #nsa11 National Convention held July 30 – August 2 in Anaheim and share their key take-aways. We have held these meetings for a number of years, with the understanding that since only 12% of people act on what they learn conferences, the more key take-aways we can capture, the more likely we are to implement what we heard. Here’s my notes on the discussion.

  1. Ken Dychtwald began his presentation by peppering us with key questions to draw us in on a personal level. These rapid-fire questions were a brilliant way to open a speech.
  2. Dychtwald’s break-out session on the last day shared valuable rules to grow your speaking business:
    1. Use world-class promotional materials.
    2. Know the value of adding products like books, DVDs and seminar systems to your offerings.
    3. Understand the value of good PR and media coverage. Being featured in a magazine is priceless. Testimonials from a high-level person are worth their weight in gold.
  3. Dychtwald also shared his fees (he’s not an NSA member so I guess he could do this):
    1. $50k for a talk on the West Coast.
    2. $62K elsewhere in the USA.
    3. $90K out of the country.
    Want to know what you should charge? Talk to bureaus and meeting planners about other speakers in your area with the same level of expertise.
  4. The conference gave me a chance to stop comparing myself to people with 25 years experience in the industry. I let myself off the hook and realized I am now beginning to build my career to a point where I can be as spectacular as they are.
  5. Terry Sjodin listed the reasons why people buy: time, money, security, fun and ease-of-use. Build your presentation around those and they’ll buy from you.
  6. Sjodin explained the importance of having a courtroom style presentation. Start with an opening argument that lists the 10 most persuasive arguments or reasons they should work with you. Then give proof as evidence for that in the form of statistics and stories. Close with a compelling argument that meets the needs of your client. Then use the same arguments to create your brochures and website that are part of your brand.
  7. Julie Morgenstern encouraged us to own our niche by researching the books and articles others are writing on your topic, see what’s missing and then address that. Speak to what’s not being said, then develop a unique point of view. Become the expert.
  8. Morgenstern recommended we go to physical watering holes to meet CEOs to drum up business.
  9. Glenna Salsbury said “No one can get ahead of you, only you can be you. So let go of who you should be, to be who you are.”
  10. After 27 years in NSA, this conference made me realize that the world has changed. So I went to the conference to embrace and learn and have a great time, which I did. The best part was seeing all my old friends grandchildren’s pictures on the iPhone! I learned from Glenna that “if someone else can give your presentation, then you are not telling your story.” On the other hand, to be a little contrarian, there are people who tell our stories … and we must sue them!
  11. I learned that I need to go deep in my area and own it.
  12. This was my first conference and it was a learning and discovery process. I have just realized that people get paid for public speaking, now I realize they also get paid for coaching and consulting. One valuable tip I heard from somebody in the corridor was to ask potential clients “what’s keeping you up at night?”. Listen for things that are in your area of expertise then tell them “I just happen to have the program that can solve those problems.”
  13. Concepts from speeches I heard that encouraged me:
    1. Content is overrated.
    2. Give the audience an experience.
    3. What do I have to offer that they can’t get from everybody else?
    4. Think big, start small.
    5. Delivery doesn’t have to be perfect to work.
  14. Lessons learned:
    1. Be brief, clear and concise when messaging in today’s market.
    2. Be persuasive, creative and authentic.
    3. Be there to help people navigate the path to successful and healthy longevity.
  15. Suggestions I plan to implement:
    1. Use humor in my stories.
    2. Use social media especially YouTube.
  16. Kyle Maynard taught me that it’s important to get people to feel and then hone your story so the message is heard on different levels.
  17. When I saw the keynote speaker lose her way in the speech on the main stage it reminded me of the importance of being able to just keep talking. This speaker ran into trouble because she memorized the speech and her actions. It was an unfortunate example of somebody who might be able to coach, but she can’t speak. Even professional speakers can benefit from attending Toastmasters regularly which trains against this very thing.
  18. Ford Saeks encouraged us to break down what we do into speaking, coaching, products and know what percentage of revenue is generated from each.
  19. Ford Saeks: “Common sense is a superpower.”
  20. Larry Winget encouraged us to take a stand to establish credibility and show our expertise and share our opinion and frame of reference. It seems that some speakers at NSA are jealous of Larry. Certainly working with a Speakers Bureau was one of the secrets to him moving from $7,500 speeches up to the $30,000 level.
  21. The biggest take away was that I should own my position on the web and especially make use of YouTube videos for viral marketing. It’s the second largest search engine that is now owned by Google.
  22. This was by far the best NSA meeting I attended. I am encouraged to make my keynote more personal for the audience and use the term “we” more often. This is a shift from me just telling a story to thinking of things from the audience’s point of view. It was reinforced by Larry Winget who said we should give audiences an experience.
  23. This was my first NSA conference in 15 years, and people asked me what it changed. Back then during the breaks, instead of reaching for their smart phones, people used to rush for the payphones!
  24. Authenticity from the platform was key. This was my first conference and I found people were for the most part authentic and welcoming.
  25. Speakers need to be in tune with the younger generation and not live on speeches they’ve been giving for the last 10 years. If you do that, you’re finished. We have to give the younger generation context that shows we know what’s going on.
  26. Follow Patricia Fripp on Twitter (@PFripp) for excellent tips. Example: “Public speaking: Your stories will be more memorable when you tell them using more dialogue.”
  27. It resonated for me when Kyle spoke about how he experienced hate and that Larry Winget gets death threats. I wonder how many others are afraid of speaking on minds and do what is politically correct out of fear? It’s so easy to be influenced by a lone audience member who takes pride in “being offended”. I don’t think we should let that intimidate us. The conference gave me the strength to be myself.
  28. When I saw those excellent speakers on the main stage I thought that “One day I wanna be like them.” Just like young musicians listen to top bands to fuel their dreams, listening to top speakers at the conference fueled my dream.
  29. People’s perception of your presentation style, business cards, social media presence and website should all be congruent. Just because a certain perception works for one group doesn’t mean you can adopt it.
  30. A million-dollar speakers’ secret: Get into large corporations; leverage yourself; never leave.
  31. Jeffrey Gitomer said don’t just lead by example, set the standard. Go an inch wide and a mile deep. Push the envelope and set the standard and you are no longer derivative. That’s where the gold is. It doesn’t happen overnight, but now I’ve got something to shoot for.
  32. Jeffrey Gitomer told us to write every day. He said writing is wealth. If you’re not a writer, you’re not a speaker.
  33. Brian Tracy said we cannot achieve unless we “resolve to pay the price”. That resonated with me. It takes a lot of work and a lot of practice. So beware of NSA members who glom onto and prey on the new speaker. Anyone who promises to shorten the route to success should be treated with the utmost suspicion. I really would like national to do something to alert us to these people.
  34. I enjoyed the fact that Randy Gage who was so controversial in his own keynote a few years ago was the chair of this conference. He put on a confrontational conference and it was the better for it.
  35. The chapter leadership session was great with a good depth of knowledge being shared. People should know about which is a great resource. Likewise if you Google ‘softconference nsa’ you will find a link to the recordings of past conferences.
  36. Speaking can be a lonely business and the value for the conference for me was the interesting conversations I held throughout. It’s the people you meet at the bar, in the lobby and at the health club who make these conferences worthwhile.
  37. NSA members should not be dismissive of people who are newbies and might not have the initials CSP after their name. You never know who a new person at the conference is and what their background is.
  38. The buddy program for VIPs was a real winner. I’ve never been embraced by an organization and the individuals in it to the extent I have at this NSA conference.
  39. The humor session with Mark Mayfield helped me understand that adults remember very little of our talks and humor makes them more memorable.
  40. Seeing Fripp’s computer die at the Cavett Institute was a valuable lesson in how to handle equipment failure. She’s a real pro and did not let the lack of PowerPoint phase her.
  41. My blog was clogged before the conference but now I understand I can be a curator and an interpreter of information.
  42. Simon Mainwaring from Australia spoke about social media and storytelling. He had three lessons:
    1. Get the right mindset.
    2. Be a chief celebrant and don’t try to be a celebrity. The former has enthusiasm and engagement around the topic.
    3. Get Fan Action versus fan acquisition.
    4. Always have “How-manship” vs. “Show-manship”. Always show how.
  43. I loved the Monday night music jam session in the lobby. Sitting in and playing with strangers was great. Who knew that Max Dixon played such a great keyboard?
  44. Karpowitz said “The audience pays you for what you’ve survived, all your experiences in life .”
  45. Lisa Sasevich shared valuable information on how to go from a free-speech to monetizing it. She showed us how to sell from the platform without appearing to. Give a free speech but structure it in such a way that they buy into the transformation offered by your system. Give them a whole piece of your program and then reference the rest of it. She is a classic information marketer. Like Ford Saeks who also has a price point for everyone in the audience. She also handled a power outage with her projector very well.
  46. Lisa Jimenez said that “boldness gets rewarded.”
  47. Les Brown: “courage is the willingness to act in spite of fear”.
  48. Lou Heckler: “always ask who is speaking before you.” In fact it’s best practice to arrive a day earlier to conference so that you can listen to presentations preceding yours and do callbacks to them. Meeting planners respect speakers who arrive early.
  49. Lois Creamer spoke at the Consultants PEG and recommended setting up committees of people who can review and comment on your blog.
  50. Brendan Burchard stimulated me to think differently about social media. I have already written 52 tweets to send out on a weekly basis for the next year.

How to write a keynote speech – secrets of masterful presenters

National Speakers Association LogoI’ve just spent four intense days attending my 7th National Speakers Association (NSA) convention, held July 30 – August 2nd in Anaheim, California. Over 1,500 attendees heard from some of the world’s top world’s professional speakers in an event themed Influence ’11. Fellow NSA Northern California member Susan RoAne wrote on Facebook: “In my 27 years as a member of NSA, I have never been so awestruck/enamored by any of our events like I am about Influence 11.”

I agree.

This conference featured the best of the best — professional speakers who communicate their message with authenticity and passion. As happens when watching a professional in any field, they made what they do seem sooo easy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The one session that stood out for me was Nido Qubein‘s panel on Crafting a Killer Keynote. It featured four speakers who had presented earlier in the conference discussing “how the sausage was made” — masterful presenters sharing their secrets. We heard from:

  • Ken DychtwaldHow The Age Wave is Transforming Our Lives, Our World and Our Profession
  • Lou HecklerHow Do You Catch Success?
  • Kyle Maynard Passion for the Platform
  • Glenna SalsburyThe Essence of Presence … How to Harness the Authentic You

Here’s what they shared:

Crafting a speech with impact

Nido Qubein stated that great speakers ask themselves how their talk makes an audience feel, recognizing it’s not just what they say, but how they say it. Style is an important as substance. Nido reminded us that a fine diamond tossed on the floor inside a crumpled McDonald’s bag would be ignored; a semi-precious stone gift-wrapped with a bow is appreciated.

For a speech to have impact, it must:

  • Convey specific information that the audience finds useful
  • Use metaphor to convey meaning
  • Redefine reality and engender hope

Speak from the heart, not just the head

Glenna Salsbury’s 45 minute keynote speech included 25 stories, each making a point that the audience can apply in their own lives. She keeps a file of stories to consult when writing a new speech. Glenna also speaks from the heart and soul, not only the head. “Talking to the head of the audience won’t transform them. People don’t just want information.” A speaker needs to love each audience member individually, from the heart.

Communicate on multiple levels to involve an audience

Ken Dychtwald communicates on three levels:

  • At the level of the content of the talk
  • What the audience will think about the content
  • What he wants to alter in them, forever

When preparing a speech, Dychtwald is crystal-clear about the point he’s making. He triangulates this after each speech by asking audience members in private what they thought the talk was about, refining his message for the future if there’s any discrepancy between his goals and their perceptions. He’s focused on the audience’s reception of his transmission—always looking for creative ways to “get inside the heads” of the audience and move their perception.

His presentation style makes masterful use of the pause. This is one way he “tunes” the audience to a pace and rhythm that makes people receptive to his message. If speakers deliver a talk at a uniform pace and rhythm they “become invisible”. He believes that the more involved the audience is, the better. His talk, unusually for NSA, made extensive use of multi-media PowerPoint and video. He invests in creative design help to structure images and colors for maximum impact.

He acknowledges the difficulty of effective storytelling and takes theater workshop classes to improve his ability. A speech without stories is “terrible”.

Great speechwriters leave space for serendipity

Lou Heckler (gotta love that name for a person in public speaking!) “plays a character called Lou Heckler when I’m up on stage”. He speaks as if talking to one person: his wife of 30+ years.

Incredibly, Lou spent seven months working on his 45 minute keynote. He first thought of the theme of the catcher in a baseball game in December. By January he had ordered an LA Angels baseball outfit with his name on the back to wear when he presented. He used Google to locate relevant baseball quotes and by mid-June had the speech outline almost completed. At this point he deliberately left some “air” in the speech for anything that might occur closer to the event.

Sure enough, the Angels threw a no hitter for the first time in many years a few days before the speech and the pitcher, Ervin Santana, “…credited defensive specialist catcher Bobby Wilson — he and Wilson were on the same page, Santana said — and added that he was hitting his spots and staying ahead in the count.” Heckler was able to incorporate this late-breaking news about the importance of the catcher into his speech.

Wrapping up

Multiple speakers acknowledged importance of the conclusion to a speech. Dychtwald claimed he gets more accomplished in the last 60 seconds of a speech than in the first 30 minutes. “The audience are with me, everything I say hits home.”

Nido had the last word: “What’s so interesting about this convention is that we’ve heard from so many types of speakers.”

Look for recordings of the keynote sessions and breakouts from the conference, including the Nido Qubein panel, the keynotes delivered by each of the panelists and the Ken Dychtwald workshop on Lessons from 35 Years on the Front Lines: Maximizing Your Success as a Professional Speaker (from which some of the content above was taken) to be available here in the near future.

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.