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3 Things that Keep Good Speakers from Being Great

If you’re a speaker, or would like to be, chances are you watch other speakers with a very keen eye.

Maybe you scrutinize the bio. Watch the way they carry themselves on stage. Maybe you judge them based on how relatable they are, or how useful their content is. 

And if we’re being honest, you may wonder how we measure up. Could I do that just as well as she is? Could I be maybe even better? Why aren’t I up there, by the way?

I thought the same thing myself, every time I was at an event. Sometimes I was blown away by the speaker. But most of the time, not.

As my own speaking career grows, I have had the opportunity to see and work with even more speakers. And I see the same mistakes over and over again that hold good speakers back from being great.

1 | They underestimate the power of story.

Nothing compels and connects like story. Meaning: narrative examples of other humans. Versus, say, statistics.

If you’re about to get up in front of a group of people, realize, they’re going to pay closer attention to stories, and care more about them than pie chart. Never sacrifice story to put in more information, because stories are what help us digest and interpret information. A bar graph with 12 pt font is the death knell of attention.  

2| They think their topic is interesting (or boring).

Ah! A common mistake that everyone makes. There IS no such thing as a boring or interesting topic.

It’s true.

You can make anything interesting, and anything boring. It’s all in the positioning and articulation of the talk. BUT. If you think your topic is too boring—or already interesting—you’re not doing the work to make it compelling. I’ve seen one person make Excel spreadsheets look like fun, and another make sex toys look like a snooze. 

==> Want to do this yourself? Click here to learn about Tapped to Speak LIVE, the two-day event that helps you craft your TED-worthy talk. 

3| They assume the audience is on the same page.

They are not. Assume the audience has zero context for what you’re saying—even if they’re in your industry.

That doesn’t mean you patronize or talk down to them. But it does mean provide enough context that we can follow you, because we’re really not. In fact—sorry—what were you just saying?

Assume we’re intelligent but are walking in cold (because we are), and we’re also very distracted. If someone stops following you, what you’re saying, or what you mean, they don’t listen harder. They tune out. 

A great talk isn’t one that’s delivered by a sales consultant or a bigger personality than you. It’s one that’s both universal…and uniquely yours. 

This means that as long as you have a very clearly articulated and relevant point and do the work to make it matter to your audience, trust me, you’re doing more than most. Some people stroll on stage and pop open a can of spam. And everyone knows it.

I can’t say it enough: Your stories, your insights, your ideas—not cliche, not motivational mumbo-jumbo—has the power to change the way someone sees their work, their job, even their lives. Make it count.

 

Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE, a transformational, two-day in-person workshop event, where you’ll learn to develop your TED-worthy talk. Space is limited! Learn more here.

 

3 Questions to Ask Before You Do Your Next Talk

There’s nothing like getting tapped to speak at an event or conference—it’s not only nice to be asked, but it speaks volumes about what people think of you: That you have something of value to share with their community, and they want it.

That said, there are three questions I ask myself before I accept, let alone begin to prepare, for a talk. And it isn’t, “When, where, and what should I wear?”

Nope. They’re questions that most people don’t ask before they dive in, and I believe you should to set yourself up for success. I like to ask the organizer these questions so I get a handle on who I’m speaking with, but also, I use it to generate my own questions and shape my content and approach accordingly.

(This is part of a live webinar I did recently called “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk” and I’m happy to share it with you because attendees found it so useful.)

1. Why are they there? 

There are lots of reasons people take a seat at an event. And they’re worth considering:

They paid to be there. If they paid their own money to attend an event, they want something in return, and expect something, right? What investment are they making—are you speaking at a business seminar or an event that’s more lifestyle focused? Are they there to rally together and change the world? Or is this meeting or community more focused on trying to maintain the status quo?

They paid a lot to be there. Then there’s the next level up—I’m talking not $50, or even $500 to be there, but like $5,000 or maybe more. We’re talking fundraisers, high-profile events. Now, if someone is donating that much money to be part of an event, it’s not because they expect, say $10,000 worth of content.

As Seth Godin says, when people pay to be somewhere like that, they’re saying to themselves and each other, “people like us do things like this.” Think about how what you’re about to tell them affects or touches their vision of the world, and their role in it. Especially if they’re there for a big cause, a pioneering effort, or perhaps something less grand but no less expensive.

They have to be there or else. Perhaps the group of people you’ll address have to be there because it’s their job, their managers mandating it, or it’s part of their own training and required.

I won’t purport to know what every group of required attendees thinks when they walk in a room, but that’s why it’s worth asking. Is this an event that’s highly anticipated, or deeply dreaded? Do they have high expectations or the lowest of low? This is how to gauge your own approach. Often I’ve found people who file in with zero expectations are sometimes the easiest to delight.

2. Why did they pick you?

The people who hired you or invited you to speak have their own goals and objectives, and they’re not necessarily the same thing. Do you know why that is? (And it’s not just cuz you’re awesome, even though you are.) I once spoke at an event of full-time employees in the HR business, and I was told, “We want you to motivate them enough to love their jobs, but not to leave.” Good to know.

Ok, so, do they want you to inspire the people there to be empowered and to create positive change? Or do they want you to inspire…compliance? There is no good or bad here, by the way.

We operate under the assumption that they want what’s best for the attendees and the organization. But what that is something they take the lead on, not you. So ask, and listen closely. Maybe they want you to wake them up—or perhaps, calm them down in the wake of organizational or industry unrest. Good to know.

3. Why are you there? 

I mean, aside from because they asked. Maybe they’re paying you good money to be there, and that’s great. But no matter what you speak about, chances are, you don’t do it for the money; you’re there because you want to exert some kind of positive influence, some change or fresh perspective or compelling information that can change the way they think and live.

So it’s important to be clear on your own intentions. Maybe it is a good gig and you do it every year, end of story. You have some contacts there and you like to keep them up.

But maybe this speaking event presents another, larger or longer-tail opportunity, in which you make inroads to do more work with them or to get a foot in the door in their industry.

Perhaps it’s an event in your own industry, and speaking there gives you a bit more clout and attention, and that’s a real plus. All great reasons! Just be clear when you’re going in. Because the way you approach a talk to people whose business you know is quite different from when you’re an outsider. Both have great advantages, if you know how to use them.

Bottom line, be honest with yourself about what is expected of you here, and also what YOU want to get out of it. The purpose and mission that drive your talk may not change, but the way in which you deliver it does, group to group. And the more mindful of that you are, the more powerful and effective you will be—and the more opportunities will come your way.

Want to learn how to create a stand out signature talk that gets you booked, again and again? Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE, my two-day, transformational, live event happening April 4&5 in Boston. Click here to learn more!

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4 Ways to Get Laughs on Stage (even if you’re not that funny)

Of all the people you’ve seen get up in front of a room to speak, how many do you really remember?

Very few. And chances are the ones who made an impact probably made you laugh, too.

Solid content gets a nod.

But funny gets rave reviews.

Funny gets asked to speak again. And again.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to be a standup comic to get laughs. Or a joke writer. Or a ham.

Quite frankly, you don’t even have to think of yourself as funny.

Some people may are particularly gifted, sure. But other, I’d say most, great speakers get laughs because they work at it; they learn to use humor as a tool. And when you see it that way, you can learn to use it like anything else.

I interviewed evolutionary psychologist and humor researcher Gil Greengross, PhD, for a piece I wrote for Women’s Health magazine. And he explained that humor is not usually something made up by one person and consumed by another; it’s how humans relate. It’s something we participate in together.

“Humor is a fundamentally social phenomenon,” says Greengross. When you share laughter and humor with other people, you build up trust and camaradie with others.

He told me about this study, led by neuroscientist Robert Provine and published in the International Journal of Behavioural Biology, which found that in 99 percent of the cases observed, laughter functioned more as punctuation at the end of statements, in response to mundane statements, and nothing that would be deemed funny outside that context.

Aha!

That means humor isn’t always mass produced by pros—it’s made by hand, in the moment. If you’ve ever tried and failed to explain to someone why something was funny, after the fact, then you know this is true. “Guess you had to be there,” you say. Indeed.

This is great— because it means that you, too, can get great, real laughs in your talk, too.

Think your subject matter is too serious for laughs? Think again. A speaker who deftly handles a difficult or serious topic can actually earn big laughs—because in so doing, he gives the audience the much-needed chance to relieve tension.

So how can you get more laughs on stage? Here are some techniques I’ve used, observed, and put into practice for myself and others I’ve coached.

 

1| Don’t try to be funny. (Be honest instead.)  

You know who gets the most pained pity laughs ever? The person who is trying too hard. Please promise me you won’t do this. Instead, try being just blatantly honest. I know it works because I do it all the time.

I happen to think that people who are tagged as “so funny” are often just more honest than the next person. They say things other people would filter out. Fact is, I am a speaker who also happens to perform stand-up comedy—but doing stand-up didn’t teach me to be funny; it gave me a forum and format for what I already knew got laughs: Say things other people wouldn’t. I’ve been doing that forever.

This, by the way, is why a little self-deprecation goes a long way to winning over an audience.

When you make a comment or joke at your own expense, you’re showing the audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously; that you’re no different from them.

Because you’re going to appear high status on a stage, taking yourself down a peg or two makes you more relatable as a person. As opposed to an insufferable blowhard.

For instance: I joke in my TEDx talk (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) about how I was so down at one point early in my career that I spent every night sitting around in my underwear watching Seinfeld reruns. That got a laugh. Because the fact is, we have all done this. I still do it.


2| Go for specific over general, every time.
Note that in the above example, I didn’t say I sat around and watched TV. That would not have gotten a laugh. The laugh comes from the details: you can picture the person slumped there, staring blankly at the TV while Kramer comes crashing into Jerry’s apartment. It works because you can see it.


If you say in your talk that you were in such a bad mood and binged on junk food, that’s not going to get the laugh. But you know what will? When you admit that you started hurling unflattering epithets at the Verizon customer service agent while knee deep in a bag of Ding Dongs.

The funny is in the granular. Always. We laugh because that’s where we see ourselves most clearly. Don’t just say a thing: Fill in the rest of the picture and include the details that give the scene weight, color, and dimension.

 

3| Use pop culture references—carefully.
What makes pop culture references work is because, again, it lends specificity. It puts us in a place in time—a specific time, one we all shared and remember and perhaps are nostalgic for. It can get a laugh because it allows us to remember it and we feel included by it.


My rule is this: Know what purpose that reference serves. Is it a cutting commentary on something happening in our culture? Is it a great comparison to show how far we’ve come or how far we’ve stayed the same perhaps?

If you’re doing a talk that will be recorded and shared (say, a TEDx talk), you don’t want to make a reference to something or be too dependent on an example that’s exclusive or fleeting because then the talk has a more limited shelf life.

To make a pop culture reference that isn’t lost on half the crowd or meaningless six months from now, use one that has stood the test of time, meaning, is old enough that people will remember. The more mainstream the better, usually.

This is why a reference to Duran Duran is going to get more laughs from an adult audience than Drake. (Then again, it depends).  People love to be reminded of where they came from, their shared history, things they can laugh at now. Making just the right cultural reference, be it to older songs or movies, foods or fashions, or something we all used to be into but are embarrassed about now? That’ll get a laugh. Again, consider the crowd and what purpose that reference serves.

 

4| Take a hard left turn.

I said you don’t have to be a comic to be funny, but it does help to take a tip from the pros. I had the chance to study under comic Jim David, a very successful standup who has performed for decades. And he says that comedy isn’t a talent or a gift. He said joke writing is a mathematical equation, and anyone can learn it.

Jokes are, he said, simply a series of hard left turns. You make the audience think you’re going one way and then you make a hard left; it throws them off, and quite often, will make them laugh.

You see this technique lots of places, by anyone trying to entertain and engage someone else—so you see it in comedy sure but also compelling narratives and great advertising, novels, horror movies, you name it. It requires that you know what someone anticipates or assumes, and then–surprise!–go in a different direction.

Think about what your audience anticipates, and then, hang a left when they least expect it. When done right, your audience will be surprised and delighted to be along with you for the ride, and they’ll remember you long afterward, too.

 

Want to learn how to crush it on stage? Join me at Tapped to Speak LIVE, my transformational, live, two-day event, April 4&5 in Boston. Click here to learn more.

The #1 Way to Get Clear on Your Messaging

Say what you will about holidays (Hallmark and otherwise)—they give us an occasion for doing a thing (exchanging gifts, drinking green beer, singing, etc).

If you want something done, you don’t have to wait for a holiday, but you do have to give yourself the occasion for doing it.

Things like: Writing a book. Launching a podcast. Giving a TEDx talk. You can do these things…or not. You can relaunch your website. Or not. Unless you’re under pressure to do a thing, it’s hard to get motivated to do it.

I know of no better way to be accountable to your goals and figure out what exactly you’re trying to do than to speak about it in public.

Promise a group of people you’ll show up in a room and talk to them.

That’ll motivate you. It’s like throwing a party so that you have a reason to clean your house.

When you have a date on the books to show up and speak, you’ll be under considerable pressure to deliver on that promise.

(And if you’re not sure how to get that date on the books, or what talk you’d even give, come to Tapped to Speak LIVE! This two-day live event teaches you how to tap your genius, craft a talk, and get on stage. Join us April 4&5 in Boston! 

And not just that—but knowing you’re going to speak on a thing forces you to get clear on your ideas, and those are the ideas that feed other, bigger projects, like books and courses.

You can use speaking to test out and explore ideas that you may want to pursue in a bigger way.

I do this for other people (as a brand messaging expert this IS what I do for a living). But I also do it for myself! I pitch ideas to speak on topics that I myself want to explore and form an opinion on.

And it works.

It helps me get a clearer sense on what it is I stand for, and what I think is most important to put out into the world.

I’ve done it for the TEDx talks I’ve given (this one and this one), but also for a range of other events and conferences.

Committing to speak on a topic gives you the occasion to form your insights.

This is why, if you’re trying to nail down your “thing,” your mission, your message, the thing you want to be known for, you’ve got to find occasions to speak.

Anywhere—networking groups, workshops, conferences, industry events. For the avid speaker, the crowning achievement is a TEDx talk. And fact is, each speaking effort improves on the last, and helps you get a clearer sense of what you’re trying to do and say.

Don’t wait to “figure out” what you’re trying to say, or assume you’ll do more speaking “later” when you know what you’re doing. No one really ever knows what they’re doing.

Start giving yourself real reasons to stand up and speak and you’ll be forced to get really clear on what’s most important, and get it out into the world in a powerful way.

 

Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE! It’s going to get you fired up and focused on your stand-out signature talk.  Learn more and reserve your spot at tappedtospeaklive.com.

 

 

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Why Questions Are a Crutch (So Stop Asking Them)

Don't ask.

Don’t ask.

I teach people how to speak in the media, on stage, and to each other with power and conviction. And there’s one crutch in particular I train people right out of: Asking questions. Want to make a stronger impression? Make a statement. Ideally, one that could be argued or flat-out disagreed with. That’s when you know you’re onto something.

Here’s why: Questions make the other person do the work you should be doing. Which is why they have their place in dialogue, to engage the other person directly. But I’m not talking about that kind of question. I’m talking about the rhetorical filler at the start of a talk, or the habitual “You know?” that attempts to win approval at every turn. I’m talking about the questions that keep you from making the stronger choice.

The way I see it, if you’ve got the stage, you should do most of the heavy lifting. The ability to be clear and direct is paramount; questions are a crutch. And you rely on them more than you think.

I saw this first hand in an improvisational acting class I took (one of many) at the Magnet Theater in Manhattan. (Improv, by the way, is excellent training for being in front of people, because you essentially walk out onto the stage with no clue what’s about to happen.) The instructor and Magnet cofounder Alex Marino gave us a challenge: Do our scenes without asking a single question.

I lasted less than 30 seconds.

It’s a lot harder than you realize. I was shocked at how bad I was at this.  “Questions are reflexive,” Alex said. “We use them to blunt statements and figure out what’s going on.” Which, in improv, is part of the problem: No one knows what the F is going on. That’s the game. But questions stall the scene and detract from the action. They soften and qualify and weaken. They rely on buy-in (“You know I mean?”, for example). When you rely on questions, you fail to create the scene—or anything interesting. Instead, you shift the burden to the other person (“Can YOU tell me what I’m doing up here?”)

It made me realize how often I use questions instead of statements in general, and how, in so doing, I compromise my own conviction. And so do you. It keeps improvisers and presenters and people in general from making something far more powerful: A choice.

(Want to listen instead? Be my guest.)

Women do this far more than men, by the way, because we’re raised to think that way: Be agreeable. Please people. Make nice. Asking questions is an outgrowth of that urge. It makes you tip-toe instead of stomp.

So whatever it is you’re doing, or trying to do more of, whether it’s TV, radio, web, seminars, or just growing as a professional in your industry and having people take you seriously, take a good look at where you’re relying on questions instead of making statements. Where you’re hedging and qualifying, instead of owning your shit. And where you’re leaning on your audience/user/reader to fill in the blanks instead of taking the lead.

You can’t afford to sacrifice directness and power when you’re building a brand. It’s what the strongest brands are made of. No questions asked.