How to speak with more confidence and less fear (review)

public speakingThis review first ran in the June 15th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Your Guide to Public Speaking: Build Your Confidence, Find Your Voice and Inspire Your Audience

By Amanda Hennessey

Adams Media


You have five minutes to prepare an impromptu talk on a topic you’ve just been assigned.

You’ll then give your talk without notes, a script or PowerPoint slides.

Welcome to the Christopher Leadership Course in Effective Speaking.

I wandered way outside my comfort zone to wrestle with my fear of public speaking. If this been our first assignment, I would’ve bolted for the door or sweated it out and seized up when I took the floor.

But this was week six and we’d received great coaching and votes of confidence from our volunteer instructors. We had a fool-proof four-step formula to structure our talks*. And we’d put in our reps thanks to lots of solo and group warm-ups and practice presentations.

You won’t find my impromptu talk in the annals of the world’s greatest speeches. But I survived and inflicted minimal pain and suffering on my classmates.

And then I was blown away. I was voluntold to go first so I heard everyone’s impromptu talk. I’ve worked with many senior leaders over the years. I can count on one hand the number of executives who could speak with the same authenticity, confidence and enthusiasm as my classmates. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it goes a long way in making us much more effective speakers.

Not enough of us get that opportunity, says Amanda Hennessey, founder of Boston Public Speaking and author of Your Guide to Public Speaking.

“No matter what you are asked to present or who’s asking you to speak, you want to be able to engage the task with confidence and enthusiasm,” says Hennessey. “If you’ve never received any kind of training on how to approach public speaking or how to dynamically share your message with an audience, you’re not alone.”

Public speaking is about conveying your thoughts to a group. “If the phrase public speaking freaks you out, then substitute the phrases sharing ideas or having a conversation or think of it like talking with people – authentically, from the heart, soul and brain – for a specific purpose.”

While you’re the one at the front of the room, it’s not actually about you. You aren’t the star of the show. It’s all about your audience. What’s at stake for them? What do they have to gain or lose based on what you have to say? Serving your audience, rather than receiving their praise and admiration, should be your sole focus. It’s the best way to keep your fear and anxiety in check, says Hennessey.

“When you step back and think deeply about why you are speaking to a group about a particular topic, you will be less stressed if you do not make it all about you, your status, your image, and your reputation. If you get fired up about the impact you can make, your passion will be your fuel.

“Rather than trying to get something from your audience, be concerned with creating a compelling experience for them. After all, you are there to give a talk or presentation, not to get one. Be generous as you give.”

To give a great and generous talk, think about who it’s for and why you’re giving it. Define the problem and the solution for your audience and figure out how best to explain both using stories, examples, ideas, facts and figures. And then decide what you want your audience to do. What’s your call to action?

Hennessey offers confidence-building tools to make you a more effective speaker. You’ll learn what to do with your hands, how to stand, breath, strip out vocal tics, prepare and rehearse and a whole lot more.

If you’re like the majority of us who’d rather receive than give a eulogy, read Hennessey’s book and then face your fears by registering for the Christopher Leadership Course in Effective Speaking. You’ll be in good hands and practicing before the most supportive audience you’ll ever get to talk with.

Here’s a four-step fool-proof structure for your next presentation:

  1. Lead off with an attention-grabbing opening statement.
  2. State the point of your talk and deliver your main message.
  3. Provide 3-4 examples and proof points that reinforce your main message.
  4. Close by reiterating your main message and leaving the audience with a call to action.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. 

Five ways to tell better stories that win hearts, change minds & get results

storytellingThis review first ran in the April 14th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results

By Rob Biesenbach

Eastlawn Media


A father and son are on vacation.

They’re walking on the beach when they find hundreds of stranded starfish baking in the sun.

The boy picks up a starfish and puts it back in the ocean.

The dad tells his son there are too many starfish to save. “We’ll be here forever,” says the dad.

“Relax dad,” says the boy. “I’m just saving one starfish so CEOs and motivational speakers can repeat this story over and over again whenever they need to drive home the point about how one person can make a difference. Now let’s go have breakfast.”

We all know that telling stories is better than inflicting death by PowerPoint on an audience. We’re hardwired for storytelling.

But don’t be lazy and recycle whatever comes up when you Google search “stories to inspire an audience.”

Skip the often-told starfish story and instead follow Rob Biesenbach’s advice for telling more compelling tales.

“A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle,” says Biesenbach.

To tell a great story that sticks with your audience, ask yourself five questions:

Is the character in your story real and relatable? We don’t care about processes and programs, says Biesenbach. We care about people. “Your character is the heart of the story. Bring your stories down to the human level. If a problem exists it must surely affect actual people.” Tell us about someone like us who’s in a similar situation and facing the same kind of challenge. Share a personal story or introduce us to one of your customers, clients, patients or students.

Is there sufficient conflict? If there’s no conflict, there’s no drama driving the narrative of your story. “Conflict arises from the tension between the character’s goal and the challenge facing her.”

Are the stakes high enough? Go big with the challenge. “For a story to work, there has to be something important at stake – a serious problem that cries out for action.”

Is there clear cause and effect? Tightly link the chain of events in your story. “Causality is more meaningful to us than mere coincidence.”

And is there an emotional core at the heart of your story? “Emotion fuels stories,” says Biesenbach. “When your audience feels something, they are more likely to do something.”

Once you’ve checked off these boxes, structure your story in three parts.

In the beginning, introduce us to your character.

In the middle of your story, set out your character’s challenge.

At the end of your story, bring things to a resolution.

“Think of your story as a Hollywood blockbuster. In the end, the enemy is vanquished, the boy gets the girl, justice is served. There’s a reason these movies are so popular: they give audiences what they want – a satisfactory conclusion.

“Your story should not be in the style of indie or art house cinema, where the characters don’t really change and problems go unresolved. The indie film may be truer to everyday life, but it’s not particularly satisfying for general audiences.”

Biesenbach’s written a practical guide to help anyone become a better, more focused storyteller. The stronger your stories, the better your odds of winning hearts, changing minds and getting results.

“Our stories help define who we are and what we stand for. They set us apart in a noisy, competitive world. And they help ensure we’re remembered. Don’t be intimated. Storytelling isn’t reserved for artists and poets and folksy cowboys huddled around the campfire.”

@jayrobb tells stories as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Steal the Show From Speeches to Job Interviews to Deal-Closing Pitches by Michael Port

steal the showThis review first ran in the Feb. 1 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Steal the Show: How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation For All The Performances in Your Life

By Michael Port

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Here are 11 surefire ways to lose your audience and blow your next presentation.

With a grimace and in a monotone, tell us how happy you are to be here.

Lead off with a well-worn joke or tell us, in exacting detail, about the hilarious and adorable thing that happened this morning with your kids, spouse or the family dog.

Skip the cheap laughs and instead start by quoting Webster’s. Put the definition up on the screen. Pull out all the stops by waving around an actual dictionary .

Confess that you’re a lousy public speaker and apologize for being forced to talk about a topic that’s beyond boring.

Tell us you’re dead tired because you spent last night slapping together this presentation.

Confuse PowerPoint slides with cue cards. Turn your back on us to read your slides bullet by bullet, word for word.

Apologize in advance for showing us charts and graphs that we can’t read and won’t understand.

Lose your cool when your slides skip ahead, your mic cuts out, the video doesn’t play or the projector dies. Rip into tech support and the intern who put together your presentation.

Instead of focusing on one big idea, tell us everything so we remember nothing and leave your talk having no clue what you want from us.

Blow through your allotted time to speak because you’re the most important person on the agenda and in the room.

Be genuinely surprised when your PowerPoint slides end. Close with “I guess that’s it, thanks for coming out and have yourself a great day.”

Along with losing your audience, your sub-par presentation skills can get you permanently cast in a supporting rather than starring role in your organization.

Great presenters avoid these pitfalls by mastering their material. They treat their talk like a performance. They don’t wing it and hope for the best.  Instead, they log serious hours in rehearsal.

How many hours? Professional speaker and consultant Michael Port once linvested 400 hours over five months preparing for a single keynote.

“When you prepare for a pitch, meeting, speech or negotiation, the goal is to know your material so well that you are free to be in the moment,” says Port, author of Steal the Show. “It’s hard to allow yourself to improvise if you don’t know your material right down to the core. If you aren’t well-rehearsed, you’ve stacked the odds against giving the performance you want to give.”

How you prepare is as important as how much time you spend practicing. Port recommends a seven-step rehearsal process that draws on his experience as a professional actor.

  • Start with a table read to hear how your script sounds and to find the rhythm and feel of your talk.
  • Map your content. Mark up the words you’ll emphasize. Know when to pause, speed up and slow down your presentation.
  • Block your talk so you know how, when and where to move around the stage or room. You don’t want to wander, pace back and forth or stay stuck behind the lectern.
  • Improvise and rework the parts of your presentation that fall flat. Look for memorable ways to interact with your audience.
  • Hold an invited rehearsal with a colleague who can offer constructive feedback.
  • Hold an open rehearsal to preview your talk with a larger group who are in your target audience.
  • And finally, do a dress and tech rehearsal. Wear the clothes and shoes you’re presenting in and build a good rapport with the audiovisual crew.

“If you think you’re going to rise to the occasion, don’t bet on it,” says Port. “If you think you’re going to somehow be inspired to come up with the right material during the speech without hours of preparation, think again.”

Practice won’t make you perfect but it will make you a far better presenter who avoids all-too-common pitfalls.  Port helps you think like a performer and shows what it takes to own the room and steal the show.  So quit procrastinating and start rehearsing.




Review: Communicate to Influence – How to Inspire Your Audience to Action by Ben and Kelly Decker

Communicate_To_Influence_Book_for_BlogThis review first ran in the Aug. 31 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Communicate to Influence: How to Inspire Your Audience to Action

By Ben Decker and Kelly Decker

McGraw Hill


Inform, entertain, direct or inspire.

These are your options every time you stand and deliver. Choose wisely.

Too many of us aim no higher than informing an audience. We deliver the audio version of memos and reports. That’s a waste of time for us and a wasted opportunity for you.

Entertaining gets you a laugh and not much else.

Directing only works when we’re in a crisis and need to take corrective action ASAP. Playing the dad or mom card any other time gets you disengaged employees who only do what they’re told with maximum supervision.

Inspiration is what we crave and what you should aim to deliver whenever you’re speaking. Inspire us and we’ll follow you because we want to and not because we have to.

“There’s an endless deluge of data, facts and figures,” say Ben and Kelly Decker, authors of Communicate to Influence and consultants in business communications. “We’re inundated with all of that, and we’re seeking more. Trust is down, our attention is spread thin and we’re thirsting for inspiration all around us. Urge us to be part of something. Challenge us to believe in something. Motivate us to act.”

So why do so many speeches, presentations and talks motivate us only to stare at the screens on our digital pacifiers and will away the minutes?

The Deckers say we fall victim to five lies of public speaking.

  • We believe that if we say the words, people will get it.
  • We fool ourselves into thinking that when we’re on, we’re great.
  • Instead of preparing, we think we can we just wing it
  • We believe that we’re pretty good at public speaking and our colleagues, like the subjects in the Emperor’s New Clothes, give us false reassurance.
  • And we stick with the tried and true ways of communicating, which explains why no meeting’s complete without a PowerPoint deck and all talks are delivered behind a lectern from a script.

The Deckers have come up with a communications roadmap to move you from informing to influencing and inspiring.

Always start with your audience. It’s all about them and never about you. Know what they want to hear. Tell them how they’ll benefit and make the world a better place. “Your audience members want to be moved. In order to reach them, we need to get to know them and design our message to directly meet their interests, wants and needs.”

Make an emotional connection with your audience. We don’t care what you know until we know that you care. “It’s not our competence but our warmth, humility, genuineness and generosity that people pick up on first when they are evaluating us,” according to the Deckers. Fail that test and we’ll tune you out.

Strengthen your emotional connection by telling stories and using humour, analogies, quotes, pictures and visuals.

Exude humble confidence. Be authentic. Realize that the experience you create while communicating matters more than the words you’re saying.

Focus on communicating just one big idea. “What is the one point you want your audience members to take away? You have to pick one thing to say. Really. One and only one.” Tell us everything and we’ll remember nothing.

And don’t forget to tell us what we can do. Don’t leave us guessing. Serve up a combination of general and concrete action steps. “You must be able to point them toward a path of action. Give them a vision for the future – whether it’s in the next hour or the next year – with a couple of steps they can take to make something happen.”

The roadmap set out by the Deckers requires you to do your homework before you stand and deliver in a banquet hall, board room or on the shop floor. If you’re a leader, you have a responsibility to do better than just inform, entertain or direct us.

“People around you want to be part of something bigger – they’re thirsting for inspiration and begging to be moved. It’s time to answer that call.”

Review: Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED – The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds

Talk like TED

This review first ran in the Sept. 29 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds

By Carmine Gallo

St. Martin’s Press


When giving a presentation or a speech, what you leave out is as important as what you keep in.

Resist the urge to talk for an hour and walk us through 1,600 words on 40 PowerPoint slides.  We can only absorb so much. Tell us everything and we’ll remember nothing.

Author and communications coach Carmine Gallo tells CEOs and business professionals to stick to the Goldilocks zone when they stand and deliver. Don’t talk for too long or too short.  A talk of 18 minutes is just right to inform, inspire and persuade your audience.

That’s the magic number for TED Talks, the technology, entertainment and design presentations made by the world’s leading innovators and thinkers and watched more than a billion times online.

“Long, convoluted, and meandering presentations are dull; a sure-fire way to lose your audience,” warns Gallo. “The 18-minute rule isn’t simply a good exercise to learn discipline. It’s critical to avoid overloading your audience. Constrained presentations require more creativity.”

Consider that President Kennedy’s inaugural speech clocked in at 1,355 words and 15 minutes while his “go to the moon” speech was just shy of 18 minutes.

In studying more than 500 TED Talks and talking with all-star presenters, neuroscientists, psychologists and communications experts, Gallo has identified eight other public-speaking secrets:

Unleash the master within.  “Dig deep to identify your unique and meaningful connection to your presentation style. Passion leads to mastery and your presentation is nothing without it.”

Master the art of storytelling. Don’t bury us in facts, stats and charts that no one can read. “Tell stories to reach people’s hearts and minds. You simply cannot persuade through logic alone.”

Have a conversation. Practice your content until you can deliver it as though you’re having a conversation with a friend. “If your voice, gestures and body language are incongruent with your words, your listeners will distrust your message. It’s the equivalent of having a Ferrari (a magnificent story) without knowing how to drive (delivery).”

Teach us something new. Our brains crave novelty. “An unfamiliar, unusual or unexpected element in a presentation intrigues the audience, jolts them out of their preconceived notions and quickly gives them a new way of looking at the world.”

Deliver jaw-dropping moments. Do or say something unexpected and emotionally charged that’ll leave us talking about your talk.

Lighten up. Just like we crave novelty, our brains love humour. Give us something to smile about. But please skip the badly delivered, unfunny and off-colour jokes. You’re not a stand-up comedian.

Paint a mental picture with multisensory experiences. “Deliver presentations with components that touch more than one of the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.” And if you’re using PowerPoint, put one word or an image on a handful of slides.

Stay in your lane. Never try to be something or someone you’re not. Most of us can spot a phoney and you’ll lose our trust.  Leave your own mark and you’ll make a lasting impression.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to 20 people in a boardroom or 1,000 people in an auditorium. Know that most of us have watched at least one TED Talk and we’re measuring you against speakers whose presentations have been watched millions of times.

So skip these secrets at your peril. “The next time you deliver a presentation, you’ll be compared to TED speakers,” says Gallo. “Your audience will be aware that there’s a fresh, bold style of delivering information; a style that lifts their spirits, fills their souls, and inspires them to think differently about their world and their roles in it.”

Book review: How Leaders Speak: Essential Rules for Engaging and Inspiring Others

How Leaders Speak: Essential Rules for Engaging and Inspiring Others

By Jim Gray

Dundurn Press


In this age of rapidly shrinking attention spans and constant distractions, how do you get an audience to sit through your speech and pay attention from start to finish?

Do you treat them like children and tell them to put away their Blackberries and iPhones?

Do you treat them like idiots and remind them to set their phones to vibrate and mute their Lady Gaga and Hockey Night in Canada ringtones?

Do you single out and publicly humiliate the first person you catch texting while you’re talking?

Good luck with that.

At best, your audience will ignore you.

At worst, they’ll turn against you. And there’s nothing like staring out at a sea of angry faces who would love nothing more than for you to stumble and screw up your speech and make a fool of yourself at the lectern.

So here’s a better idea for getting an audience to pay attention.

Don’t be boring.

Work hard to earn and hold your audience’s undivided attention. Have something to say and know how to say it. Make it all about them.

To prove the point, go to It’s website that archives lectures and presentations from the annual Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences. These conferences are the World Cup, Stanley Cup, World Series and Superbowl of public speaking.

Do a keyword search on creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson. Watch both of Robinson’s talks on the need to revolutionize education. Each speech runs about 16 minutes.

Odds are, you’ll temporarily lose your Crackberry addiction. You won’t steal a look at your email and won’t feel compelled to fire off a quick message while Robinson’s videos are playing. Instead, you’ll give Robinson your full and undivided attention. The stories he tells will connect at an emotional level.  You might even choke up. Maybe you’ll watch the videos again and you’ll definitely tell friends, family and coworkers to check them out. And Robinson’s key messages will stay with you.

Consider this your crash course in how to stand and deliver. Make these videos your benchmark and your gold standard for public speaking. Be like Sir Ken and your audience will love you for it. You’ll have us at hello.

“The ability to speak convincingly to others – to compel them – has to rank as one of the most important skills in business and life,” says Toronto-based author and communication skills coach Jim Gray.

“It’s the mark of a true leader. For many who aspire to leadership, it’s the one proficiency they lack. For many who occupy positions of leadership, it’s the one missing element that prevents them from fully realizing all that they can be.”

The good news is that you too can find that element. According to Gray, there are five keys to speaking like a leader.

Preparation. “Skilled presenters spend a great deal of time thinking about who their listeners are, what those listeners know and what they need to know in order to respond positively to the message being delivered.” Find that key insight or nugget of information that makes you a speaker with the answers.

Certainty. Realize that you have about 90 seconds to forge a connection and bond with your audience. “Maximize the odds that they’ll like and respect you. Start by speaking slowly.” It’s a surefire way to ease what Gray calls the ambient tension in the room, as the audience worries that you’ll tank and they’ll be subjected to seemingly endless minutes of awkward and painful discourse.

Passion. All great speakers have it. They speak it and the audience feels it. “You can have the best presentation ever crafted, but if you don’t have passion, you have nothing,” says Gray.

Engagement. Connect with your audience. Make your speech all about them. In any speech, “you” is the magic word. And if you want to really engage your audience, master the art of eye contact. 

And commitment. Start communicating with excellence in every situation, whether you’re in front of an audience of one or 100.  And become an expert at communicating across generations so you can connect with Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials who all see the world in slightly different ways.

Above all, avoid the cardinal sin of overspeaking. When you run over your allotted time, Gray says you’re telling the audience that you’re more important than them, so they should just sit back and listen to the genius that is you.  And it’s usually lousy speakers who overstay their welcome, clueless and insensitive to their disconnected audience.

“Overspeaking drains time, reputations and an audience’s patience,”says Gray. Avoid it at all costs.

And if you don’t think you can get your big idea across in under 16 minutes, watch Sir Ken Robinson again and give Gray’s book a thorough read.  You’ll speak and we’ll follow.

Jay Robb works and lives in Hamilton and blogs at