SIMS WYETH Executive Speech Coach for Healthcare, Financial Services, & Consulting. We provide executive coaching, strategic advice, and messaging services to companies and individuals who want to be clear, memorable, and compelling.
A few days ago I got yanked out of my routine. JURY DUTY! Up early, navigating through a driving rain to Newark, New Jersey in bumper-kissing traffic.
Idling in line, as my fellow jurors picked parking slots, I crept up the spiral path of the Court’s garage until I popped out into roof top parking and found a slot far from the stairs leading down to the court, as a thundering downpour welcomed us to the Essex County Courthouse.
Luckily I had my rain jacket. I flipped up the hood, and ran in the direction everyone else was running. My legs took most of the moisture, even though I held my briefcase bumping in front of me.
I triggered the security alarm at the gate. Got wanded. My cell phone was in my hip pocket, wallet in the back, stuffed with credit cards.
Up the stairs to the juror holding pens. Like cattle in a stockyard. Checked in. Got my parking ticket validated. Sent to stockyard A.
146 people were sitting cheek to jowl, most on their cells. Waiting. A video came on featuring the chief judge of the district acknowledging that jury duty is a disruption, an inconvenience, but worth it.
Why? Because even though jury duty is a pain in the ass, there are people all over the world who would kill for a chance to be judged by their peers.
Take Mugabe, Kabila, Saddam Hussein, (to name only a few), in many countries, people are jailed and/or killed because they dared to speak truth to a tinpot tyrant.
The video over, a small man with a big voice stormed into the room. “Good morning jurors.” We mumbled and grumbled.
“Let’s try that again. Good morning jurors.”
“Good morning,” we said, with more intention.
And then off he went on a well-traveled routine educating us on the in’s and out’s of juroring. He came on like a drill sergeant and left like an elementary school principal.
He knew how many people were in the room. He had a list of one hundred and forty-six American citizens. And I made an observation–all different kinds of inconvenienced American citizens.
I sat all morning, never being called to duty. It was comfortable. I was in the computer lounge, with free and strong wifi and coffee, sending out proposals and notes to the office.
I was struck by the diversity in the lounge, and in the three huge holding pens that were differentiated by the TV channel that blared from the walls. We had a choice. It was either HGTV, ESPN, or CNN.
Occasionally I would stop work and read one of my books on my new Kindle Fire. I’m currently interested in pre-fab houses, in case I ever retire.
Those of us in the computer lounge kept to ourselves. It was like the quiet car on NJ Transit. Occasionally someone’s cell phone would erupt in jangling song, only to be rapidly squelched.
I felt like a piece of meat sometimes. Or like a goldfish in a big tank, that every once in a while someone dips a little net into, and pulls out a generic specimen of Carassius auratus-– common goldfish: me.
I wait to hear my name called. They spew torrents of names through the speakers, lists that go on for 10 minutes. So many people, so many names–most of them unpronounceable to the brave court officers at the front desk reading them out awkwardly, apologetically.
My name, Wyeth, was called once. The struggling court officer called me Weeth. In two long days, I never got even close to a jury.
I got bored and frustrated. Sitting all day is bad for your health. I took my sweater on and off, and ate my lunch, an almond butter sandwich and a honey-crisp apple.
I struggled to take the long view. Why was I here? I’m not much of a political scientist, but I wonder why we are forced to go to jury duty, but we’re not forced to vote. In Australia, you get fined when you don’t vote.
Jury duty is no doubt a pain in the ass. It’s messy. Except you can’t have a democracy without an active, engaged and educated populace.
The tiny sacrifices and inconveniences that tens of millions of people make and endure every day in every county in the nation is the force that keeps the system going.
I complained about going weeks before I had to go. But there was a little seed in me that made me stop complaining.
I got up early. I drove in the rain and traffic. I sat long hours waiting to be called, partially because I’d be fined if I didn’t comply, but mostly because somewhere in my lizard brain I knew the scales of justice might end up in my hands.
And many of us, perhaps the newest Americans among us, were there without complaining, because they were familiar with the alternative.
How can a good presenter get better? That’s something that lots of people would like to know.
How Can A Good Presenter Get Better? - YouTube
I believe that we stand on the shoulders of people who came before us.
So, one of the golden rules of public speaking–at least in my mind–is to cheat and steal whenever possible.
Of course, I’m not being literal about that, and I’m not talking about plagiarism.
For a good presenter to get better, I’m talking about finding a hero or a mentor to revere or to emulate. Then, take what you can from them and and make it your own.
T.S. Eliot said that the minor poet borrows, but the great poet steals.
Beethoven built on Mozart.
Picasso stole from African masks and Bob Dylan stands on the shoulders of Woody Guthrie.
So, I urge anyone who wants to get better at anything–but this is particularly about public speaking–to borrow from from a hero, from a mentor, or from somebody that you revere.
In conclusion, I would say beg, borrow, cheat, and steal until–through trial and error–you make it your own.
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Talk about the power of public speaking! With one little speech Oprah is now a possible candidate for the highest office in the land.
How did she do it?
Well, she first built a room and decorated it so that we could look into it.
She started with specificity. The time: 1964. The place: a linoleum floor in her mother’s house in Milwaukee.
The situation: watching Anne Bancroft give Sidney Poitier the Oscar at the 36th Academy Awards.
We know Oprah is telling the truth because of the specificity–1964, Bancroft, the 36th Academy Awards.
It’s cinematic. A little girl on a linoleum floor. Sidney Poitier’s white tie and black skin. The optics are fantastic.
And then her mother coming in the door exhausted from cleaning other people’s houses.
Paint a scene
Oprah has painted a scene–cinematic, specific, concrete, and familiar. We can identify with it. Nothing is abstract. It’s all American.
I see a black and white TV, a green linoleum floor, a little girl with her legs curled up, alone, waiting for her mother to come home.
Oprah has transported us to a different–yet oh so familiar–time and place.
She connects herself with Poitier and all the little girls watching the awards ceremony in their living rooms, perhaps on a couch, perhaps curled up on a floor.
She thanks the people who helped her. Good manners are inherently persuasive.
She honors the press, trumping those who trade in alternative facts.
She is proud of the women who have endured abuse, who have told their personal stories–who have become the story.
Broaden the canvas
And then she begins to broaden the canvas, begins to sound like an orator:
They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories, and they work in restaurants, and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They are athletes in the Olympics, and they are soldiers in the military.
No wonder people are saying she should run for president. She reminds me of Hubert Humphrey, and many other presidents, who have enjoyed painting miniature images of different kinds of everyday Americans in their speeches. She tells the horrible story of Recy Taylor, who, lived too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men.
For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.
And now I can hear her closing in for the kill, for the ring shout. Two more times she called,
Their time is up. Their time is up.
This is a powerful rhetorical device. It gives courage to the audience since it is a positive forward-looking statement, implying that the movement will not peter out.
It is a dire warning to those who are in the dog house, and those who just don’t get it.
It allows an audience to discharge its emotions. It becomes a kind of bumper sticker, a slogan. In fact, that night many sported lapel pins that proclaimed, “Time’s Up.”
Inspiration and storytelling
Suffice it to say, at this point in the speech, we are now in the land of lofty rhetoric– inspiration, storytelling, and preaching. She even gets into the foul underbelly of our lives…how we behave,
…how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome.
Listen to that last word, overcome. We are in the echo chamber of the powerful, emotionally-charged civil rights movement…feminist movement… gay rights movement.
I have to say that I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man speak about such personal, emotional, messy things in such a forum. This is a female talking–a “mother” who nurtures not only our bodies but our well-being. This is a strong woman with a capacity for empathy, one acquainted with the darker side of life , who speaks not only from her heart but from her guts.
Cadences from history
And then, slowly, I begin to hear the cadences of Martin Luther King, and the imagery of a new day dawning
And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again.
Can you hear Dr. King at the close of his dream speech?
When we allow freedom to ring… we will speed up that day…when all God’s children…will join hands and sing, “Free at last, free at last, Great God a-mighty we are free at last.”
Oprah’s final peroration is not up to Dr. King’s transcendent eloquence, but it is a good facsimile.
And she chose a good speaker to emulate. To paraphrase a line from T.S. Eliot, “The minor speaker borrows but the great speaker steals.”
Oprah may not be ready for a run at the White House, but she touched a nerve with her sweeping rhetoric, and borrowed wisely from the soaring words of Martin Luther King.
Cherish people who are eccentric. They see things differently.
Kurt Vonnegut authored several books that transfixed the reading public from 1959 to the posthumous publication of his last work in 2013, including The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Jailbird, and many others.
Here he is on video demonstrating his theory of the shape of stories. He originally developed the theory for his thesis as a student at the University of Chicago. They rejected it, but it is still alive and well:
Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories - YouTube
Mr. Vonnegut died in 2007, but if you’ve ever been told to make your presentations more story-like but couldn’t figure out how to do it, give me a call. I’ll send you something that will help you, thanks to Mr. Vonnegut.
A flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.
Of course it is exhausting–having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn’t meant to be reasonable.
Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the universe.
True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
Enjoy the little things in life–for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.
We are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.
We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.
I urge you to please notice when you are happy and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.
If you are willing to do something that might not work, you’re closer to being an artist.
The practice of art isn’t to make a living. It’s to make your soul grow.
I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.
Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.
Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”
The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.
I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.
Consider the complications: the drill of assembling our ideas, putting them in order, finding that, nope, they’re out of order, rearranging them, developing slides, exhausting our eyes as we create clever little graphics, only to find that they are way too busy, or not interesting enough, or the headlines need fixing. Or, worse yet, deciding not to use slides.
And then the attempts to get the whole damn thing up on it’s hind legs. How will we rehearse? Will we write a script or just use bullet points? Should we invite the boss to our rehearsal or just a trusted colleague? Will we rehearse at all? Maybe we think we know our content so well that we can step to the front of the room and wing it. We’ll need good luck if we go that route.
Rehearsal introduces us to everything we might forget to say. We worry about going blank, having a meltdown. Those of us who have never been actors or singers or dancers or musicians–which is probably most of us– are not familiar with the rigors of rehearsing. It can feel like we are walking abroad in our underwear. Especially if the material is new, the audience is important, and the stakes are high.
So let’s just say most of us do not radiate happiness when we step in front of a crowd. The burden is heavy. We are the engine that must pull the long train of thought. We are likely to be grim with responsibility and pressure.
And then there is Dr. Elizabeth Frates, (Fray-tees) whose presentation at Harvard Medical School, called Managing Your Energy to Thrive, is a playground–a jungle gym–of health and happiness.
She engages, gambols, and hula hoops her way through her serious and substantive talk on Lifestyle Medicine.
Furthermore, you will be hard pressed to find any academic so free of throat-clearing and ponderous pronouncements. In fact, she should have a TedTalk and her own TV show. She is smart, funny, and literally at play in the fields of her expertise, which are numerous, and include lifestyle medicine, exercise, nutrition, stress resiliency, Physiatry, Motivational Interviewing, health coaching, and a host of other similar practices.
And P.S., she is a client of mine. About eight years ago she called me because she simply wanted to get better and more comfortable as a presenter. We worked together for a day and a half, and look what happened–she’s on fire.
Dr. Frates is the founder of Wellness Synergy, and has developed evidence-based programs that enable people to reach their optimal wellness.
Who would have thought that vegetables, exercise, and moderation in all things could be so healthily, so happily presented?
I can’t overemphasize the importance of capturing and holding attention. As a public speaker, it’s the first place you can fail to be understood, remembered, and believed.
Sims Wyeth - Capturing and Holding Attention - YouTube
Holding attention is very important in a presentation. Otherwise people won’t listen to what you say or hear what you say. That means you will also fail to persuade them to take the action you need them to take.
I think inside the mind of all your audience members, they are thinking that this presentation is probably going to be boring. That’s the bad news.
You may be a great business speaker, but no one will notice if you don’t start with a powerful, intriguing opening sentence.
After all, smokers don’t like matches that fail to light with the first strike, and listeners don’t like speakers who fail to get to the point and say something interesting.
Let’s say you want to talk about cyber security. Well, it’s not a good idea to say, “I’d like to take a few minutes to say a few words about a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart. And, I hope it will be near and dear to your heart when I finally get around to talking about it. And, that is the subject of cyber security.”
Rather, you should say something like, “When you lose your data, you will lose money. You will waste lots of time, and you will probably lose your mind to boot.”
Here’s another tip: at the beginning, don’t say, “Hi there! Thanks for having me!”
The six people who spoke before you have already said that. Your listeners have heard it six times.
Capturing and holding attention is an art, but one that’s easy to master. When you begin, you’ve simply got to say something unpredictable–don’t be ho-hum!
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When I ask people to name a memorable speech, they seem to have a brain hiccup. The most common response is to talk about the most recent speech they’ve experienced.
If I had to answer the question at this moment I’d say I remember the talk Richard Brodhead gave at the Convocation of the Class of 2006 at Yale University.
Brodhead was Dean of Yale College at the time. He has since become President of Duke University.
His convocation address was a memorable speech delivered in Woolsey Hall to the Freshmen and their parents. He built his talk around two powerful images in the parents’ generation–the space program and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
He brought to mind the images of NASA’s space crafts blasting up from Florida through the earth’s atmosphere, the release of the booster rockets when the fuel was spent, and then the spacecraft–flung into orbit.
“Parents,” he said, looking out into the audience, “Your job is over. You have raised your child. It is time for you to drop away, and let them travel where they may,”–or words to that effect.
Under certain circumstances, I might not enjoy being compared to an empty fuel tank, condemned to being space debris. But I was proud of my daughter, and of my role in helping her arrive at a new frontier.
Dean Brodhead then went on to tell the story of Maya Lin, the Yale undergraduate who won the commission to design the Vietnam War Memorial.
Maya Lin had arrived at Yale with plans to study zoology, but had by accident of circumstance taken a sculpture class for fun.
She had also walked through the doors of Woolsey Hall for four years, where the names of Yale graduates who had died in service to the country are carved into the wall.
But the final happy accident was Maya Lin lingering over dinner in the Commons dining room and idly sculpting a mound of mashed potatoes. She was dreaming about entering the contest and winning the commission.
And so, to wrap up his talk, Dean Brodhead suggested we stay out of our childrens’ way. Let them blast off into orbit, change majors, and linger over dinner.
Better to wander where your heart takes you, then slavishly follow the demands of an anxious parent.
Learning and inspiration come from accident and circumstance as much as they come from planning and dogged persistence.
The power of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial can be traced to a so-called gut course, a plate of mashed potatoes, and a wall with the names of fallen soldiers carved into it, passed on the way to dinner.
I had a client years ago in pharma who would start his advisory board presentation by saying, “I am an equal opportunity abuser. And I’m going to call on you on any topic at any time, so heads up!”
As a great facilitator, he had a really dominating presence in the room. But, facilitating for others can be pretty tricky.
First, you’ve got to be a host. Also, you’ve got to be a lion tamer. Last, you’ve got to be a diplomat.
Plus, you’ve got to be a badger in order to search out the real attitudes and opinions that the doctors who are sitting around the table have. You see, they have these attitudes and opinions, but they aren’t usually willing to divulge them right away.
Having seen many great facilitators, I would say that the first thing they have is a calm assertiveness. They keep the room balanced, and everything is going smoothly.
However, they also have the ability to play the panel like an orchestra. They can tease one person, but they can also pull the serious people into the discussion. They bring in the quiet people and get them to talk–in fact, they are usually very good at doing that.
In addition, there is one thing that I love the most about a great facilitator. They are actually curious. It’s not fake curiosity–it’s really, truly, vivid curiosity. I guess endless curiosity is what I’m getting at.
I think that’s one of the most beautiful traits that a human being can have. The trait of being endlessly curious, and it works well in an advisory board.
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I just spent a few days with several scientific presenters from the pharmaceutical industry. Their company wanted them to be more persuasive when presenting their research to internal business decision makers.
To prepare for the assignment, I conducted a series of interviews to determine what the scientific presenters thought they needed to be more persuasive, and what the decision makers thought they needed. The two groups had very different points of view, and they were both right.
The scientists top concerns were in the area of delivery. Some presenters with foreign accents were concerned about their voice, some said that they needed to get to the point sooner, others faulted their bosses for not paying attention, and still others said it was their own responsibility to capture attention.
The bosses on the decision-making panel said that the scientific presenters tended to think that their data was the presentation. The bosses wanted the data interpreted. They wanted to know what the researchers thought about the data, and what the company should do given the results.
My sense is that the scientists were feeling uncomfortable speaking to their seniors. Perhaps they had been scolded in the past. And they were also afraid to promote themselves. They did not want to appear to be selling their projects to senior management: they thought it was unprofessional.
The bosses were tired of being dragged through endless PowerPoint slides when all they really wanted to know was, “Should we continue to invest in this research project or not? And why?”
The benefits of being a good public speaker aren’t always obvious.
Benefits of Being a Good Public Speaker - YouTube
When you get an MBA, you have increased your value considerably in the work force.
But if you not only get an MBA, but then discipline yourself to become a highly effective communicator–a highly effective speaker–you’re increasing your value probably another 50%.
Why? Because it is incredibly powerful to have somebody who is both highly knowledgeable on the hard side and really effective on the soft side.
Most people would say that communication is a soft skill. Nevertheless, it’s a soft skill masquerading as a hard corporate asset.
That’s because in any business environment, if you have the ability to present well, you’re worth your weight in gold! Moreover, these good public speakers are the people who rise through the ranks to become really good leaders.
In my experience, it’s because that’s the definition of a really good leader. Someone who is smart on one side–the facts, data, and knowledge base essential for a particular business. However, he or she is also smart on the other side–communicating, managing people, and collaborating.
This combination is rare, but you can attain it if you work at it.
Here are some tips to help:
First, I think the best way to become for people to become good public speakers is to hire a coach (and I’m not just saying that because I am a coach).
Hiring a coach is the best way to have an ally who will push you through the resistance. When you are trying to get better at anything, you need to push through to get to the next level.
Second, use your own stories in your public speaking. When you use your stories, you bring the audience into you–you draw them in.
Third, I recommend that you get away from Power Point. Get away from scripts and just have notes. It’s true that you’ve got to have an organization for your talks. However, it’s more important to be present with the audience. If your eyes are down or you’re looking at Power Points, you’re not going to be present–you’re not going to connect.
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