Have you ever been browsing in a retail store only to be accosted by an assistant eager to engage you and your wallet? In this situation, how do you normally react?

“Thanks - I’m just browsing.”

“I’m okay, really.”

“Please leave me alone.”

The last line is too rude for most to say out loud, but that doesn’t mean you never thought it. Our first reaction to sellers is usually to push them away. Interestingly, this is not because we would never consider buying anything. After all, why browse in a shop if the idea of buying is abhorrent to you? Which begs the question: what’s really going on, and how can we as sales people avoid the inevitable shut-down?

In this first of a two-part series on sales and persuasion, I will share three tips with you that will help you in your endeavours to persuade your audience to think, feel and do what you want them to…

Six weeks ago, I received a call from a Broadband provider and the conversation went something like this:

Caller: “Hello. I’m calling from Acme Broadband Services. Because you are a valued mobile phone customer I can offer you a package deal with broadband.”

Me: “I already have broadband, thanks a million.”

Caller: “Okay, but with our package you can save 30% on your cost.”

Me: “I’m in the middle of a contract at the moment.”

Caller: “How much are you paying for your current service?”

Me: “Look, I’m really happy with the service I have now. I don’t want to change.”

I’ve shortened the conversation (it went around in circles for a few minutes before they finally set me free) but you get the idea. The problem with this kind of sales approach is that it’s very clear that the seller has no interest in understanding or listening to me. And they are obviously reading from a script! It’s also clear that I’m merely one number on a massive list. How does it feel to be a statistic? Not very inspiring, eh?

If you want to persuade, the first thing to do is listen. It is amazing how many speakers don’t have a clue how to listen, but it’s my top tip for today.

How can a public speaker listen? By asking questions… and listening to the answers! It’s not as easy as you think. When others are speaking, most people tend to fill their minds with their own beliefs, biases and points of view. They selectively listen. As Simon Sinek once said, “There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”

The most successful presenters know how to ask the right questions to generate rapport with their audiences. Which leads me to the second important tip… understand!

It’s not enough to listen, but to truly understand who your audience is. The best persuaders can quickly surmise their audiences’ priorities, needs and goals. The 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking, Darren LaCroix once said to me, “You must follow the thought process of your audience. In other words, as I speak, it is important that I understand what I’m leading my audience to think, feel and do.

Let’s take the above phone “conversation” example. I will go through it again, and add in my own mental reactions to each statement as they occur…

Caller: “Hello. I’m calling from Acme Broadband Services.”

<Oh God, another sales call. It’s really inconvenient because I don’t have the time for this.>

Caller: “Because you are a valued mobile phone customer I can offer you a package deal with broadband.”

<Don’t they realise I’m already signed up to a service? Probably not. I better explain…>

Me: “I already have broadband, thanks a million.”

Caller: “Okay, but with our package you can save 30%.”

<Here we go!!! You’re not listening to me. Why would I want to sign up to something I’m already getting from someone else? Don’t they realise I’m in the middle of a contract? Probably not. I better explain…>

Me: “I’m in the middle of a contract at the moment.”

Caller: “How much are you paying for your current service?”

<What’s that got to do with anything? Now they want my personal information. This is arrogant. And how do they know if I even want to change? It’s not all about money you know. I better explain…>

Me: “Look, I’m really happy with the service I have now. I don’t want to change.”

<I want out of this call. Help!!!>

When I add in my own thought process, it’s easy to understand the mistake the seller is making. Unfortunately, the caller would only ever gain these mental insights if he actually listened and tried to understand my priorities, needs and goals.

This situation is all too common. Callers from so-called professional organisations push scripts at their would-be customers and end up breaking rapport instead of building it. What baffles me is that these companies would allow this behaviour to continue. Why not train your employee to listen and understand, by asking questions and at least attempting to get to know the person at the other end of the phone? The truth is, these companies are too lazy, and the callers are not brave enough to try a simple human connection. Instead they rely on sales through brute force. It’s not good enough!

Let’s imagine how the caller might approach the situation if he attempted to listen and understand…

Caller: “Hello. I’m calling from Acme Broadband Services.”

<Oh God. Another sales call. It’s really inconvenient because I don’t have the time for this.>

Caller: “I’m sure you are probably busy and you weren’t expecting this call, so I won’t take up more than a minute of your time if that’s okay, but I have something that may be of interest to you.”

Me: “Okay, I have a minute.”

<Note: I am now listening!>

Caller: “Would I be right in saying you already have Broadband?”

Me: “Yes, that’s right.”

Caller: “Are you happy with your service?”

Me: “Yeah, sure. It’s fine.”

Caller: “Great. Well, there’s no point in changing if you are happy, but the reason for my call is that, because you are a valued mobile phone customer I can offer you a package deal with our broadband service.”

Me: “But I’m in the middle of a contract right now.”

Caller: “Ah, I understand. Our broadband service has many benefits and features that you may not be aware of, but there’s no point wasting your time with them today. Would it be okay if I contacted you the next time your contract is up for renewal? At least you’ll have another service to compare with when the time comes. Then I can take you through our service in more detail, and you can make a decision in your own time after that.”

Me: “Sure, that would be great.”

<Wow, this caller is accommodating and helpful. This is a rare and novel experience. Now I can’t help but wonder what those features and benefits are. Damn you, you smooth talker!>
I cannot guarantee the conversation will always go like this (and of course people’s current service experience, contract renewal date and general mood will vary) but you get the idea.

Did you spot the hidden bonus from listening to me? Here it is… By listening to me, I’m more likely to listen to you! And now you can adapt your sales pitch to suit me instead of treating me like a statistic.

The late great motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “If people like you, they’ll listen to you.”

Showing your audience that you can listen to them is the fastest way to get them to like you. It’s not rocket science, and it can apply to any public speaking scenario where you aim to persuade your audience to think, feel or do something… unless for reasons beyond your control it’s impossible… which leads me to my final tip…

Don’t sell to the unsellable!

There are many reasons why people are unsellable:

  • No money
  • They already have a system/product/service that works perfectly
  • What you are selling may hinder or harm them in some way

The list goes on. There is no harm in finding out if you are speaking to an unsellable person. If you are presenting to an audience, you can even address the “unsellables” directly. It might seem like a waste of breath, but it demonstrates authenticity and helps to develop trust with your entire audience.

It also shows that you respect the “unsellables”. More than once I’ve been pitched by a seller who figured out I wasn’t a potential buyer, only to be shunned by them. It’s rude and disrespectful, and it shows an unattractive mercenary streak.

Connecting with “unsellables” can bring dividends because these people are more likely to sell your message to others who might in potential buyers. Word of mouth doesn’t only work through customers!

To recap:

  1. Listen
  2. Understand
  3. Don’t sell to the unsellable

But there’s more. To listen and understand is to open the door to trust, but that’s only the first step.

I quoted the late great Zig Ziglar earlier, “If people like you, they’ll listen to you.”

However, I didn’t add his follow-up statement, “But if they trust you, they’ll do business with you.”

In part two of this article, you will discover how to develop and foster trust with a new paradigm that’s taking the sales (and speaking) world by storm. Stay tuned.
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A recent client of mine said this to me...

“If only I didn’t feel that horrible dread in my stomach I’d be able to speak a lot better!!!”

Every time she was about to deliver a presentation she suffered from a heavy knot-like fear in her solar plexus. We’re all familiar with those nervous reactions that occur inside us when we are faced with life’s challenges and uncertainties. In this blog article I will revisit some tools from earlier articles that you can use to ease your anxieties. In addition, I will share with you a powerful technique you won’t find anywhere else – a tip you can use to help reduce your fears instantly…

Where do unpleasant fears come from? Cognitive and behavioural psychology tells us that our emotions are driven by the thoughts we think. It is estimated that the average human being thinks between 15,000 and 50,000 thoughts every day. Most of them are mere noise, like “talk radio” playing in the background. It is only those thoughts that generate strong emotions that tend to influence us in any significant way.

Our emotions drive us towards (or away from) certain behaviours and/or actions. That’s why many people tend to avoid delivering presentations. They hate that horrible feeling of fear that builds inside them. If you have a fear of public speaking it’s invariably due to negative thinking (conscious or unconscious). However, it is not the negative thought itself that’s disruptive – it’s the feeling that inhibits us. Worse still, these negative thoughts and feelings join with, and bolster, the limiting beliefs we unwittingly cultivate about ourselves… beliefs like:

“My audience knows I’m frightened. They can see me dying up there.”
“My voice sucks.”
“I’m such a waffler.”
… etc, etc, etc.

By the way, a belief is just a thought you keep thinking, because you have assigned a certainty to it. You have chosen to make it real for yourself, and your unconscious mind is only too happy to store it for you. Call these beliefs emotional baggage. We are all prone to them, by the way. All it takes is one or two speaking performances that don’t meet our inner critic’s ultra-high standards for living. We also tend to be hard on ourselves for making mistakes. It’s almost a disease in society that people are expected to never make mistakes.

How do you get rid of negative public speaking beliefs? The same way you get rid of any negative thoughts. Cultivate more constructive positive ones! Sounds simple, right? I admit this can take time, but it invariably involves being kind to yourself, and at the same time pushing yourself just outside your comfort zone. That feeling of discomfort never lasts as long as you think, and the rewards are life lasting.

Find a warm, encouraging place to speak, and find a good system for skill building (e.g. body language skills, storytelling skills, vocal skills, etc.) If your funds are limited, Toastmasters is a worldwide non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering public speaking skills – go to www.toastmasters.org to find a club near you. They are not free of charge, but very close.

When you practice your speaking skills, only accept constructive, detailed feedback from people (and from your own inner critic). And for goodness sake, give yourself permission to make mistakes (because everyone does).

Now that I’ve advised you to face your fears step by step, it’s only fair that I should share three powerful tools to help cut through your fears and anxieties. These will help you at any stage of your public speaking career, regardless of whether you are receiving coaching or attending a course…
  1. Breathing from the Core
We already discovered this technique in our blog article “Calm Your Wobbly Voice” . The “core” is an area behind your belly button, in your abdomen. This is the place we breathe from when we are completely relaxed. It’s also the most effective place to breathe from when you are performing any activity that requires focus and skill. If you want to learn a martial art (e.g. karate); if you attend yoga classes; if you want to develop your dancing skills – every teacher of a skill that involves a synchronised mind and body will encourage you to breathe from your core.

Try breathing from behind your belly button right now. If you have trouble focusing on where you are breathing, visualise a balloon behind your belly that inflates every time you breathe in, and deflates every time you breathe out. After a few breaths you should start to feel calmer, more assured and more focused. Technically, you are meditating (it doesn’t matter if you are active or still). This is because your mind slows down. Less thoughts, less chance of negative emotion. You are also taking in the maximum capacity of air into your lungs. Any nerves you feel will quickly dissipate because you are what yoga masters call “grounded”.

You should breathe from behind your belly as often as possible (not only when you are speaking in public). If you are still confused as to how to breathe like this, check out the experts… new born babies. They know how to breathe properly. It is only when we grow older that we begin to breathe from our chest in reaction to negative feelings. When you breathe from the chest, any nerves you feel will build up in that area and stick there. This will begin to affect your voice, giving it a nervous wobble.

It doesn’t take too long to re-learn how to breathe from the belly. From now on, whenever you feel fear (or other unpleasant emotions), check where you are breathing from, and practice belly breathing. Activate that balloon. It will give your voice more projection and gravitas, and it will always make you feel better.

   2.  Keyword Emphasis

In the blog article entitled “Help, I have a Monotonous Voice”  I discussed the concept of emphasizing words and phrases during your delivery to inject passion and energy into your speech. For example, take the sentence:

“This is so important.”

This could be delivered with a special emphasis on the word “so” to read like;

“This is sooo important.”

Sometimes there is no preferred word to emphasise. In our sample sentence, you could instead say;

“This is so important.”

It’s your choice.

If you have a script in front of you, go down through the text and underline any words and phrases that, if emphasized, will deepen the meaning and context of your sentences. Read your script out loud to help you find those so-called keywords.

An added advantage of using keyword emphasis is that your fear usually decreases, or in some cases disappears altogether. The reason is that, though it is easy to do, emphasizing words takes some focus, and so it distracts you from worrying about other things (such as how you are coming across). Meanwhile, you will actually come across as more engaging. Don’t underestimate keyword emphasis as a quick and easy tool sound and feel much better as a speaker.

   3. Role Modelling

And now for something completely different – the role model technique. To begin, choose your favourite public speaker – a person you admire the most. It could be anyone; a politician, comedian, television presenter, someone from your personal life… anyone. Next, set up a camera to record yourself speaking (get a friend to point a smart phone in your direction). Now, demonstrate to the camera how your favourite speaker would deliver your presentation. The material doesn’t matter; you can choose a speech you are currently preparing (or one you have recently delivered).

It is important not to attempt a full-on impersonation. For example, if you choose to do Donald Trump you don’t need to slap on a blonde wig and take on a nasal American twang, complete with jabbing fingers and a Tourette-style vocabulary. You are only looking to offer a general rendition of the speaker’s overall positive speaking traits; confident body language, vocal pace, passion levels, etc. To prepare, write down all their positive traits on paper:
  • Confident
  • Charismatic
  • Relaxed
  • Clear Diction
  • Energetic, etc.

Now record yourself on video pretending to have these skills, just like your favourite speaker would. Watch the result back. How does it look? Pretty good, eh? If you look too inauthentic or over-zealous, it’s probably because you tried too hard, or went into an impersonation. Turn it down a notch and try again. Don’t lose yourself in the delivery – keep yourself in there. Remember you are not becoming the speaker, instead you are showing us what they are like using yourself as a reference point.

By the way, did you notice how your fear disappears when you do this exercise?

That’s because you are allowing yourself to feel as confident as your chosen speaker does. This is called role modelling. The reason why it works so well is because you are tapping into speaking traits that you in fact share with this person. You just never realised it, or I suspect believed you could be that good.

The famous psychologist Carl Jung once talked about the “shadow” of the human psyche. The shadow contains those aspects of our personality that we don’t like, and so we disown them, projecting them out onto others.

There is also the so-called “golden shadow”. This part of our psyche contains all the wonderful potentials we have not yet discovered or developed. One of the best ways to figure out what these hidden talents are is to look closely at the people we admire – our so-called role models. The reason why we admire these people is because we feel a psychological resonance with them. Even to watch or listen to them gives us energy. That’s because they are waking up those parts of ourselves we haven’t taken the time to nurture.

When you practice the role-modelling exercise, it is important to note that you are not trying to be someone else for the sake of acting. And no-one in your audience will suddenly laugh and say “Hey, that’s Donald Trump” or whoever. You are still being you – just a new enhanced “you”. You can use this trick any time you feel anxiety before a presentation. Just say to yourself; “Okay, this is how Barack Obama (or whoever) would do it” and go do it!

As the actor Denzel Washington once said, “I think a role model is a mentor – someone you see on a daily basis, and you learn from them.”

With the role-model exercise you are in fact learning about yourself. So, get out the video camera, pick your favourite speaker, have fun, and say goodbye to your fears.
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In my previous two blog articles we discovered many reasons why storytelling is the most powerful component of public speaking. We examined the elements that make a compelling story, and we explored key concepts such as conflict and character building. In this article we will learn how to further polish our story writing skills by studying the three narrative modes.

There are as many different writing styles as there are writers. However, it is possible to break down every writer’s work into three basic stylistic modes. Since storytelling is an art there is no “perfect” style. However, it is possible to avoid the most common mistakes which result in trite, clunky, or otherwise ineffective stories. These issues usually stem from an over or under-use of one or more of the three modes. If you learn to recognize, develop and manipulate each mode, you’ll be on the royal road to storytelling success. Here they are:
   1. Reporting

Reporting is the simplest form of storytelling.  It can be heard whenever you listen to the news on the radio or television. When you report something, you relay events as if you are summarizing. The following passage is an example of a fictional passage written in the reporting style…

“That night, I called to John’s house.  He told me he wasn’t interested in being part of my plan to form a protest in response to the new government taxes.  I explained how unfair it was, and how disorganised the politicians were, but John was adamant he didn’t want to be involved.”

As you can see from this passage, the story clearly has a timeline, plot, scene and characters.  However, when any passage is written in this mode, the details of the elements of the story tend to be sparse. You don’t get to know much about any scenes or characters. Further, any conflicts that occur will not be clearly presented or even understood. And, while there may be a climax to the scene (as above), there is no obvious message or theme.

Young children tend to use the reporting style when they relay stories, for example, “Then we went to the circus. Then we saw the clowns. Then we had chips and a drink. Then we… Then we…”
Before we leave the reporting style it is important to note that it does have an important place in storytelling, and it does have advantages. For example, reporting does “get to the point” in what it is trying to describe. It is also extremely succinct. And of course, it allows you to pick up the pace between more important scenes and events.
   2. Transporting

Transporting is a powerful narrative style that thrusts the listener right into the story.  Transporting works by painting scenes, engaging the senses, and bringing characters to life through tangible and kinaesthetic descriptions and dialog.

If your writing allows a listener to picture a scene in their minds; if it engages several senses; if it allows listeners to visualises characters; if they can hear characters’ voices directly through quoted dialog AND allows the listener to form a relationship with everyone involved, including the storyteller… THEN you are successfully transporting.

Transporting allows the storyteller (and listeners) to go back in time and experience the story as if they observers, sitting at the side-lines, experiencing everything as it happened. Transporting is the most powerful mode of narration, however, there are disadvantages to overusing it.  Let’s re-write the above passage in the style of Transporting…

“The night I decided to call to John’s house I threw a thick heavy coat on.  It was freezing outside, and windy to boot. The estate where John lived was utterly quiet; devoid of sound but for the wind.  John’s house was a five minute walk; every step against the wind. I felt the chill cut through me as I made my way up the steps towards John’s front door. I grabbed the heavy brass knocker and rapped the door four or five times.

John could be best described as a hippy out of time, an aging “new ager” with an axe to grind about everything. He wore a permanent smirk on his face, giving people the not-entirely-untrue impression that he looked down on the rest of humanity with disdain.

I cupped my hands and breathed warm air into them. “Hurry the hell up, John”, I whispered looking around the overgrown weed-ridden garden.

Finally, the door swung open. Some 70’s rock music I didn’t quite recognise blasted from behind his ruddy red face, smirk very much intact.

“I know why you’re here”, he said, “I told you already I’m not interested.”

“We need you”, I said, “You know the tax is unfair, and you know we need someone who can make a speech to the crowd.”

“It won’t make any difference”, he said, making a move to shut the door.

I wedged my boot in front of the door.

“The politicians haven’t a clue what they’re doing”, I said, “If we…”

“Forget it”, John said.

The results of writing in a transporting style is that the story is more compelling and memorable. As you can also see, the story becomes a lot longer. What can we do to fix the length?

The trick is to give the listener just enough to experience the story first hand while concentrating only on what you have decided are the important aspects of the story. Of course, what you decide is important depends on what you are trying to say with the story. In the context of public speaking, ask yourself, “What is the main point, overall purpose or message of my story?”  This will determine what you can deliver in the transporting style. Anything less important can be reported.

Let’s re-draft the above passage with a balance of Reporting and Transporting…

“The night I decided to call to John’s house I threw a thick heavy coat on.  It was chilly outside, and I walked against the wind for the five minutes it took to reach John’s front door. I knocked five times.

Finally the door opened and I was greeted by John’s ruddy red face.  John was a hippy out of time, an aging “new ager” with an axe to grind about everything.  He wore a permanent smirk, giving people the not-entirely-untrue impression that he looked down on the rest of humanity with disdain.

“I know why you’re here”, he said, “I told you already I’m not interested.”

“We need you”, I said, “You know it’s unfair, and you know we need someone who can make a speech.”

“It won’t make a difference this time”, he said, shutting the door.

I wedged my boot in the door and pushed in.

“The politicians haven’t a clue what they’re doing”, I said, “If we…”

“Forget it”, John said.

The result is shorter and tighter while keeping the essence of the story intact. You will notice that some chopping and changing of the order of some sentences can improve the flow of the story. You will also notice that the dialog and character descriptions have been left largely intact. This is because it’s very important to connect with the main characters in a story. Ancillary characters do not need much detail or attention, especially if you are stuck for time.

In the passage above we have more of a sense of the conflict between the characters. This is achieved through dialog. Direct dialog (which is always transporting) is so important. Many speakers fail to quote key characters in their stories, much less describe them in any significant detail. I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard speakers say things like “my team did this”, “they agreed that”, “my sister said this”, “my family traveled with me” and yet we never got to know those characters. “Just who are they?” I often find myself asking. At least give your characters a name, for goodness sake. And please give them a voice!

   3. Philosophizing

Philosophizing is very important for the public speaker, because speakers will frequently use stories to support facts, opinions, ideas and/or messages. Even if your overall purpose is to entertain (with no clear message) you’ll likely have a theme or moral. You may also want to emphasize different ideas or add commentaries of your own that you deem interesting. This can be done by a character within the story, or by you, the speaker. Philosophizing also lays breadcrumbs for the listener to understand your eventual message, moral or theme.

Let’s use the latest draft of our sample passage and introduce a little philosophizing to point towards a message “Sometimes flattery gets you nowhere!” The philosophizing statements will be in bold…

“The night I decided to call to John’s house I threw a thick heavy coat on.  I suspected I was wasting my time but I decided I would try to talk to John.  John was a hippy out of time, an aging “new ager” with an axe to grind about everything.  He wore a permanent smirk, giving people the not-entirely-untrue impression that he looked down on the rest of humanity with disdain.  Maybe I could use that to my advantage.

It was chilly outside, and I walked against the wind for the five minutes it took to reach John’s front door. I knocked five times.

Finally the door opened and I was greeted by John’s ruddy red face.  “I know why you’re here”, he said, “I told you already I’m not interested.”

I felt I was already I was up against a brick wall.

“We need you”, I said, “You know it’s unfair, and you know we need someone who can make a speech.”

I was trying to appeal to his ego but he was having none of it.

“It won’t make a difference this time”, he said, shutting the door.
I wedged my boot in the door and pushed in.  This was my last chance.

“The politicians haven’t a clue what they’re doing”, I said, “If we…”
“Forget it”, John said.

As he slammed the door I realised… sometimes flattery gets you nowhere!

If you chose to share a different message, such as “You should never let a refusal discourage you!” you would change the philosophizing statements accordingly; perhaps resulting in this…

“The night I decided to call to John’s house I threw a thick heavy coat on.  I suspected I was wasting my time but I decided I would try to talk to John.  John was a hippy out of time, an aging “new ager” with an axe to grind about everything.  He wore a permanent smirk, giving people the not-entirely-untrue impression that he looked down on the rest of humanity with disdain.  Maybe I could use that to my advantage.

It was chilly outside, and I walked against the wind for the five minutes it took to reach John’s front door. I knocked five times.

Finally the door opened and I was greeted by John’s ruddy red face.  “I know why you’re here”, he said, “I told you already I’m not interested.”

I felt I was already I was up against a brick wall.  His refusal to help was proving difficult so I tried appealing to his ego...

“We need you”, I said, “You know it’s unfair, and you know we need someone who can make a speech.”

“It won’t make a difference this time”, he said, shutting the door.

I wedged my boot in the door and pushed in.  I knew this was my last chance.

“The politicians haven’t a clue what they’re doing”, I said, “If we…”

“Forget it”, John said.

He slammed the door, and at that moment I decided I wasn’t going to let John dissuade me.  I was going to speak to the crowd myself.  Sometimes a refusal is all you need to find your place and step up!

You can see from this exercise that, with minor tweaking, you can tailor a story to make many different points. The philosophizing statements will be the ones you will need to tweak accordingly.

As I mentioned earlier, different writers have different styles. This is a result of having different affinities and preferences for the different narrative modes. J.R.R. Tolkien loves to transport, hence the size of The Lord of the Rings. If you read Oscar Wilde you will quickly realize he is a philosopher.

Let me finish with some final tips:

If you find your stories are a little boring or dry, you are likely reporting too much. If you find your stories tend to be lengthy and protracted, you are overdoing the transporting or otherwise adding too much superfluous information. If your stories are a little confusing or hard to draw ideas from, you are missing out on philosophizing, which can add a stability and a steer.

With time you will discover that you can mix the modes together within a single statement. It takes practice, but practice makes polish makes prose. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Every artist was first an amateur.” Storytelling is an art. As such, if you want to become a great storyteller, the best thing you can do is write, write, write.

As a public speaker, please use stories to teach, entertain, persuade and/or inspire someone somewhere sometime soon. Everyone loves a good story.
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Who are your favourite characters from literature? Who are your favourites from the real world? How about your personal life?

I want you to conjure these characters up in your mind, and really think about why they are your favourites. Focus on them and ponder for a moment…

The truth is, there could be many reasons why you love (or love to hate) your favourite characters, but one thing I can tell you for sure; you have a strong, lasting, emotional response to them. In other words, they resonate with you.

It should come as no surprise that the characters you plan to write (or speak) about should have an emotional impact on your audience. That’s the key insight I want to share today. Use characters in your stories that audiences can resonate with.

Let’s break down the essential elements of storytelling…

The purpose of a story for you, the public speaker, should be to make a point that supports the main purpose of your speech. Your purpose could be to inspire, sell, teach… or simply to entertain. In all cases, an effective story should have the following elements:
  1. Characters
  2. Plot (Events and Scenes)
  3. Conflict
  4. Climax (Resolution)
  5. Carry-out Message, Theme, Moral or Punchline
In the previous article we explored the nature of conflict, and we discovered that conflict forms the backbone of every good story. If that’s true, then your characters are the heart and soul. Without them, nothing moves. Without them, your audience doesn’t have anything to connect with, and learn from.

​Before we explore how to make our characters work, it’s important to separate characters into two categories; ancillary and main. Ancillary characters are only there to complete a scene. They are characters you cannot exclude for plot purposes, however they are not integral to the plot. For example, a waiter that serves you in a restaurant, or a taxi driver that drives you to an airport.

Ancillary characters should not have a detailed description other than their basic function, unless they are of particular interest. Think of them as living props within your story and nothing more. If you focus on them too much, your audience will become distracted from the plot. Main characters are those that are integral to the plot. If any character isn’t an integral part of getting to the point or message you are trying to share, make them ancillary or if possible edit them out.

Tip 1: Only include and/or develop the characters that matter to your plot.

Next, help the audience to build a sensory “picture” of each character in their minds. Your audience should be able to hear, see and feel the characters for themselves. This is easier than it sounds, and you can achieve it with one or two well-crafted statements.

Let’s start with a few examples…

“Frank was a well-built no-nonsense chauffer.”
“Mary ran the shop like a drill sergeant.”
“Mark had hunched shoulders and a sheepish voice.”

Do we have a coherent picture of these characters in our minds? Possibly. You may already have pictures in your mind, or even what their voices sound like. Does it matter if these voices or visuals are inaccurate? Not if it doesn’t matter to the plot.

What happens if we change something in our descriptions?

“Frank was a well-built no-nonsense grandfather.”

Notice how your impression of Frank changes. Let’s try…

“8-year-old Mark had hunched shoulders and a sheepish voice.”

This begs the question, if I’m supposed to keep my character descriptions brief, what should I include?

The answer is to give the audience just enough to form a coherent picture in their minds. Don’t include anything that’s superfluous to the story. We don’t need a detailed rendition of what people were wearing, the colour of their hair, eyes, etc. unless it’s essential to the plot, or otherwise aesthetically interesting.

On the other hand, don’t leave any lingering gaps, ambiguities, or unanswered questions. In one of my classes, I invited the attendees to share an early experience of fear from their lives. A third level student named Karen told a story from her childhood. Karen’s tale involved her older sister Janice who took charge of 6-year old Karen, when one day they were separated from their parents at a carnival.

After Karen had finished speaking, the audience offered some verbal feedback. Many listeners were bothered that they didn’t know how old Janice was in the story. I had wondered it myself. It was important to know, because if Janice was 15 years old I might have had a different emotional reaction to the story than if she was 7.

What are the essential details you can include to bring your characters to life?

Age, gender, name, occupation, character traits, skills and quirks are all potentially powerful details to share. It’s up to you what you feel is enough to service the plot and allow your audience to form their mental picture. Ideally, you want your audience to say to themselves; “I know someone just like that” or “I’ve never met anyone like this before.”

Tip 2: Give your audience enough character description to form a mental picture, but no more.

If you have enough time, it’s also useful to “show” rather than “tell”. In other words, don’t say “Frank was an angry boss”, say instead, “Frank was always shouting at people in the office for making mistakes.” Define traits through action rather than adjectives… but only if time allows.

A common mistake many rookie storytellers make is that they do not give their characters a voice. Look at this statement:

“Last night my mother told me that she loved me.”

This is a common style of “reporting dialog”, but there’s a problem here. The narrator is relaying what their mother said, not quoting her directly. Try this:

“Last night my mother told me, ‘I love you to bits, my little man.’”

In the second example, the mother has been given a voice. With an indirect report of dialog, we only get a summary of what a character said. With direct dialog, we get (or should get) the exact quote. This allows us to experience their vocabulary and manner of speaking. With distinctive tweaks of the voice you can also give us a sense of that character’s vocal patterns (accent, tone of voice, etc.). You can also demonstrate their emotional state during the scene.

Tip 3: Give your characters a voice through direct dialog.

Finally, if you are one of the characters in your own story, never make yourself the hero. Instead, make sure you portray yourself as someone the audience can relate to on their level. That way, if you manage to resolve conflicts and gain successes within your story, your audience will feel they could do the same. Inspire the notion “If I can do it, so can you.” If you portray yourself as Superman, the audience will feel some distance between themselves and you. They won’t feel able to “do it”.

Bonus tip: Never make yourself “special”, always make yourself “similar”.

I’ll finish with a quote from Walt Disney…

“I try to build a full personality for each of our cartoon characters – to make them personalities.”

​If Walt can do it for cartoon animals, we can surely do the same for the people that matter to us, and our stories.

Coming up next, a crash course in story writing – “The three narrative styles that form powerful stories.”
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Are you a natural storyteller?

Twelve years ago I had an experience that changed my entire perception about the nature of storytelling, and my own role as a storyteller…

I joined an organisation called Toastmasters (a worldwide enterprise dedicated to fostering public speaking and leadership skills). As I built my confidence I stumbled across an issue that many speakers grapple with when they begin their journey. In short, my speeches were a little on the boring side.

An early mentor of mine, Freddie Daniels, noted that the reason my speeches came across as bland was that they were overstuffed with facts, leaving little room for anything else.

“You need stories”, he said with a knowing smile that indicated he had been through this journey himself. He already knew what my answer was going to be…

“But I don’t have any stories!”

If you have the same worry, I sympathise. But I’m also here to tell you this is another limiting belief you are carrying around, with no basis in truth. The fact is, you are bursting with stories. In the past 24 hours, the chances are you’ve been involved in at least 10 intriguing, thought-provoking sagas.

You might reply with something like, “I suppose in some vague philosophical sense, my life is a series of stories. But unless you want to hear a vivid rendition of how I put my socks on this morning, I can assure you nothing interesting happened to me today. Certainly nothing worthy of a speech.”

Okay, you might not be saying that (I don’t like to put words in other people’s mouths). However, I did say this to Freddie all those years ago. And I really believed what I was saying. “Nothing exciting happens to little old me!!!”

Annoyed and fatigued with the conversation, I asked Freddie, “Why the hell are stories so important anyway?”

Good question!

The answer lies deep in the human psyche. Storytelling is in our DNA. From birth until death, stories form an essential part of the human experiential and learning process. Our memories work by association (forming links), and stories are the most powerful way to do that. Before we had modern technology like computers, books and blackboards, stories were our primary tool for sharing information.

In today’s society, books, movies, television, gaming and theatre are the most popular forms of artistic expression. Why? Because (most of the time) they are story-related. When you tuck your kids into bed at night, I bet they don’t want to listen to an educational workshop, or watch a PowerPoint presentation. What do they want to hear?

Taking all this into account it should come as no surprise to you that storytelling is the most powerful component of public speaking. To quote Craig Valentine (1999 World Champion of Public Speaking) – “When you master the art of storytelling, you have mastered 80% of the art of public speaking.” Some experts put that percentage point even higher.

Back to my argument with Freddie…
“Okay stories are powerful”, I said, “But that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t think of any worth telling.”

“Okay, forget stories then”, Freddie said, “Tell me, did you have a challenge, struggle, hassle, or otherwise negative experience in the past day, week or even month?”

“Loads”, I said, “I work in I.T.”

“Great”, he said, “And did you solve any of your problems?”

“Yeah, some!”

“There are your stories”, he said, triumphantly, “And what’s more. They are the ones that people will want to hear. Why? Because they can teach and inspire people to overcome their own difficulties.”

This leads me to the backbone of what makes a good story… conflict, and how to overcome it!

In fact, that should be the new definition of the word “story” in the dictionary:

“Conflict and how I overcame it.”

You will already be aware of the importance of having engaging characters in an engaging plot for your stories, however it is the conflict that drives the plot, and defines character growth. As a result, a theme, message or moral (sometimes many) should pop out towards the end of the story, forming your climax. In public speaking terms, the “conflict” leads to the “cure” which leads to a “carry-out” message. The “carry-out” message provides something your audience can learn from, and carry with them into their future lives.

By the way, don’t read too negatively into the idea of focusing on conflict. Let me be clear, conflict does not necessarily imply fighting with swords and fists. It simply defines a situation your characters are faced with that has no initial solution. Your story will explain how the solution came about.

In psychological terms conflicts break down into:
  1. Conflict between a person and their world (or some aspect of it)
  2. Conflict between a person and a group of people
  3. Conflict between two groups of people
  4. Conflict between two individuals
  5. Conflict within one person (inner conflict)

If you can identify and clearly define the conflict that drives your story, you are off to a flying start.
Let me finish this first article on storytelling with a top tip related to conflict…

Get to the conflict as quickly as possible, or generate suspense until you get there.

In case you hadn’t noticed, most modern books and movies get straight into the conflict. For films, these days you can expect arguments and/or explosions within the first 10 minutes. For your public speaking stories, do follow suit. Get to the conflict as fast as you can.

The only exception is when you want to give yourself breathing room to build up complex characterisations and/or locations. If you do this, you should introduce suspense (a strong hint that conflict is on the way). This can be as simple as dropping in a statement like, “Of course, this wasn’t going to last…” or “Soon everything would fly head over heels…”

If you watch Brene Browne’s excellent TED speech entitled “The Power of Vulnerability”, she expertly drops in foreboding statements like, “You can tell this is not going to end well” towards the beginning. It’s a great way to buy time as you make your way towards the conflict.

To conclude, stories are the fertiliser for your messages. Conflict, the nutrients.

So, I ask you: What story do you have to tell today? Or are you one of the unlucky people who never encounter challenges in life? After all, no challenge, no growth.

​Coming in the next article: Storytelling Part 2 – Powerful Characterisation Made Simple.
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Twelve years ago, when I was working as an IT engineer in a bank’s headquarters, my boss, Declan, “volunteered” me to deliver a presentation to the entire staff. Yikes! I had to speak to over 100 people! IT engineers are not renowned for their public speaking skills. Declan knew this, which is why he pushed me into the presentation. It’s a little bit like the proverbial parent who teaches their child to swim by chucking them in the deep end of the nearest pool. I can tell, you it certainly felt like I was drowning that day…

As I struggled and stammered my way through my speech I suffered from one particularly irritating and frightening phenomenon: the quivery voice. From the moment I opened my mouth, my voice had a noticeable wobble, and I couldn’t make it stop. As time went on, it grew more pronounced. My anxiety had snowballed. Why? Because (ironically) I could hear my voice quivering and I couldn’t make it stop.

On that fateful day, I decided I was going to conquer my fears of public speaking. On my journey toward professional coaching (and competing internationally) I discovered the source, and the cure, for my infamous wobbly voice.

The root lies in the breath. Believe it or not, the quivery voice should not exist, were it not for the fact that most people do not know how to breathe correctly. I learned this fact when I started taking yoga classes. One of the first lessons I learned was how to breathe from the so-called “core”. Interestingly, when I took up Latin dancing and kick boxing, this “core” came up again and again as being an essential area not only for proper breathing, but for overall presence and focus.

So, what and where is this core that leads to great success in such disparate skills as dancing, kick-boxing and public speaking?

In general, people tend to breathe by expanding and contracting three areas of the body; behind the belly, in the chest, and from the shoulders. Breathing from the shoulders is quite rare, and only occurs when a person is under extreme stress or trauma. As you might imagine, you don’t get a lot of air that way, and it’s definitely not sustainable.

The other extreme is to breathe from behind the belly (this is where the core is!). To do this properly, there should be no rising of the chest or shoulders. Imagine there is a balloon behind your belly button. Every time you breathe in, the balloon inflates. Every time you exhale, the balloon deflates. When you breathe in this way, you are breathing from your “core”. You are also taking in the most lungful of air.

Breathing from the core (or behind the belly) allows you to be “grounded”. What that means is that, any time you feel strong negative emotions (e.g. nervousness) these feelings will pass through you naturally. The energy dissipates, like electricity passing into the Earth. When you breathe from your core, technically speaking you are meditating. Strong emotions will always regulate themselves, smoothly evaporating into calmness. The feeling of nervousness (the physiological aspect of fear) is not designed to build up and stick around in the body.

By the way, if you are still not sure how to breathe properly (you can’t find your belly button?) check out the experts; new born babies. They know how to belly breathe. As we grow up, bad breathing habits creep in and take hold. Why? Most people (especially children) do not like the feeling of fear. At a young age we teach ourselves to resist negative emotions by breathing from higher up along the spine. Welcome to breathing from the chest!

Breathing from the chest is known to be an adapted form of breathing; a learned reaction to stress. The problem with breathing from the chest is that, not only are you taking in less of a lungful of air, you are also not grounded. Any nerves you feel will tend to stick around and build up in your chest, trapped by your breathing. When you speak, the trapped nerves will colour your voice. In other words, you get the quivery voice. And unless you switch to breathing from your belly, the problem will get worsen. A wobbly voice coupled with a shortness of breath is not a pleasant state of being when you are speaking in public.

If you tend to suffer from a wobbly voice and/or a shortness of breath when you present to audiences, from now on I want you to reboot your breath. In other words, take a short pause, then breathe only from your belly. To help you, visualise a balloon behind your belly inflating and deflating as you breathe.

You can also visualise your voice coming from your belly button, as you speak. It may feel strange to think of your voice coming from anywhere other than your mouth, but it’s only a visualisation exercise designed to focus your awareness back into your core. From now on, become aware of where you are breathing from, not only when you are presenting. Whenever you are breathing from higher up than your belly, smoothly and easily reboot your breath.

Practice the belly balloon technique as often as possible in your spare time, and of course, when you are speaking. When you breathe from the belly you will find that you naturally speak slower, with more emphasis, depth, and gravitas. Your vocal projection will increase, and you will never feel short of breath. And most exciting of all, you can say good riddance to the quivery voice forever. A wobbly voice can never take over when you breathe from your core.

As Byron Nelson once said, “One way to break up any kind tension is good deep breathing.”
And speak from your core. It’s make sense on every level.
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Remember that priest in the famous sit com Father Ted who had an incredibly dull voice? We met him during a tense scene in the Christmas special, where the priests are trapped in the women’s lingerie department of a supermarket.

“I have an awful dreary monotonous voice, God help me.”

If you haven’t seen it, search for “Father Ted boring voice” on YouTube.

During Speechcamp’s courses, I always ask the audience, “Raise your hand if you think you have a boring voice, like that priest in Father Ted.” Invariably, the majority of people put their hand up. It always amazes me how many people feel they have a monotonous voice. In truth, wilfully boring voices, like that poor priest in Father Ted, are rare, and even then, they can easily be fixed.

Yes, that’s right! Every so-called “boring” voice has a simple, straightforward root cause and cure. It’s important to understand that so-called monotone voices are merely symptoms of something deeper, something that can be sorted first with awareness, and then with an elementary technique I will share with you later.

To give you some background, if you read the section in our website about Speechcamp’s CORE speaking system, you will know that CORE stands for Connect and Respond with Emotional Empowerment. At Speechcamp we teach you that public speaking is not about perfection. It’s about connection. Specifically, we talk about connecting with 3 things:
  1. Your material
  2. Your audience
  3. Yourself

When I talk of connection, of course I mean an emotional connection. In short, people who exhibit a so-called monotone voice are quite simply emotionally disconnected from themselves (and subsequently their material and audience). There could be many reasons for this; they don’t care about what they are talking about, they hate public speaking, they are shy… and so on.

What’s the solution? Whatever your reason for feeling a little disconnected, you have to start feeling something positive; something that gives you energy. In other words, you have to get in touch with the feeling of passion.

Most people believe that the reason they have a monotone voice is that there is something physically wrong with them. They may have trouble varying the pitch in their voice… they may have been told (or tell themselves) that they are bad singers… that their voice doesn’t have a range. But you know what?

You do not have to be Paravotti to have passion!

Unless you are in a coma, or otherwise heavily sedated, you can always feel passionate. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The truth is, most people don’t give themselves permission to feel passionate, or feel anything at all. Maybe because they are self-conscious, fearful or shy. I will admit, it can be tough to feel positive when you are in the grip of fear, especially the fear of public speaking.

There are many wonderful ways to overcome your fear of public speaking, and in this blog we will share all of them with you, but since we are talking about monotonous voices let’s focus on a technique that can introduce some passion directly into the voice without too much effort. And you don’t even need to feel strongly about your material. It can even help you to overcome your fears, because it gives you something to focus on while you are speaking.

The technique is called Keyword Emphasis.

Take a look at the following phrase:

“Mary had a little lamb”

One sentence, right? One meaning, right? Wrong! Let’s try speaking the sentence while emphasising different words (in bold):

Mary had a little lamb”
“Mary had a little lamb”
“Mary had a little lamb”
“Mary had a little lamb

I want you to speak this sentence 4 times, emphasising the words in bold. Have you noticed how you can change the meaning of the sentence by emphasising just one word? For example; Mary had a little lamb, implying that she doesn’t have one anymore.

By the way, to emphasise a word, imagine you are speaking it to a young child because you want to teach her how to pronounce it properly. Really sound out the word. Savour it like you are tasting it. You can also emphasise groups of words, or phrases. If you do, make sure to sound out each word individually.

TOP TIP: If you are a non-native speaker of English, make every word you have trouble pronouncing a keyword. By sounding the word out with emphasis the audience will always understand what you are saying.

Right now, as an exercise, I want you to print out this article. Go down through the script and underline each word or phrase that you might emphasise. Then record your voice as you recite the article, emphasising each keyword and phrase.

Some people like to emphasise different words and phrases within the same script, according to what they want to give more meaning to. There is an art to this, and often there is no "right" or "wrong" keyword. This is called the “musicality” of speaking.

There are many advantages to speaking with keyword emphasis:
  1. It slows your pace down, introducing pauses, which you are forced into after each keyword
  2. You will tend to speak your keywords and phrases with more volume and projection
  3. It sounds more passionate

You do not need to have any pitch range in your voice to use keyword emphasis, and you will always sound more energised. If you find the technique is not helping you to break through enough, exaggerate your keyword emphasis until it sounds really lively. Record your voice as you practice, listen back, and adjust accordingly.

I will finish by repeating this point: a speaker with a so-called monotone voice is simply emotionally disconnected from themselves. The ultimate cure to the monotone voice lies in giving yourself permission to feel more passionate. Keyword emphasis is a step in the right direction, but you’ve got to start feeling more. Even that priest in Father Ted could captivate an audience if he felt strong positive emotions as he spoke. People don’t respond to pitch, they respond to passion.

As Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s extremely difficult to make people feel anything if you don’t feel anything. Please give your permission to speak with passion. There is no greater gift to yourself and the world.
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Are you the Best Man? The Mother of the Bride? The Groom? The Bride herself? Whoever you are, you may have decided (or been “volunteered”) to deliver a speech for an upcoming special occasion. Now comes the easy bit… writing and delivering!

Let me start by sharing a very important tip…

I never like to judge a speech to be a failure because I genuinely think there is something positive to take from every presentation. People sometimes ask me, “What is the worst speech you’ve ever seen?” I’m always reluctant to answer that to be honest – it’s not my way - but this article begs me to share my answer with you. Several years ago, I witnessed a speech that started well, but went downhill fast because of one simple mistake…

Two dear friends of mine (who shall remain nameless) got married and invited seventy guests for the occasion. From the bride’s walk up the aisle to the final fireworks display that night, the entire event was a roaring success… except for one off-the-wall moment - the best man speech!

What sin did he commit? Did he spew out excessively offensive material? Did he humiliate the groom? Nope. Nothing so interesting. To his credit, he did manage to hold the audience for over 5 minutes before it became clear he was too much in love with the sound of his own voice to quit while he was ahead. His initial success had fuelled his ego into thinking he could go on forever. His speech ended up lasting over 25 minutes; that is, until someone finally snatched the microphone away and told him to sit down.

I’m sure you’ve heard of stage fright. There is a much rarer, opposing phenomenon called stage addiction. It can be a lovely thing, but it can also strike quickly, and it can be deadly if it infects the ego.

When it comes to public speaking I don’t like rules because rules were made to be broken. I much prefer guidelines. Public speaking is an art as much as a science. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts and see what happens. In other words, sometimes you have to break the so-called rules. Having said all that, here comes a rule! Please don’t break it! Ready?

Never outstay your welcome!

Got it?

In the case of wedding speeches, they should last no longer than 10 minutes! When I say 10 minutes, I mean that as an absolute limit. Not a target. If you decide to speak for longer than 10 minutes, you better make sure you are Billy Connelly or Barack Obama… and even then…

The sweet spot for a wedding speech is 4-5 minutes. Less is more! People did not come together to listen to one person. They came to celebrate two people.

Wedding speeches belong to a specific category of speaking called the “Honouring” speech. Honouring speeches are all about celebration. The emotions offered by you, the speaker, should include any (or all) of the following: gratitude, appreciation, joy, passion, hope, playfulness and love.

In terms of the content, you should include the following:
  1. Acknowledgements – Compliment the bride, groom, bridesmaids, parents, family, friends, etc. in that order.
  2. Personal Stories – Share stories about the bride and groom that showcase either playfulness or love (or both).
  3. Toast – Ask everyone to raise their glasses to the happy couple
It’s worth co-ordinating your content with the other speakers to make sure you are not repeating any material. If you want to compliment the bride after another speaker who is also planning to compliment the bride, make sure you do it in a way that’s unique. For example, if a previous speaker mentioned how gorgeous the bride looks, you can mention how radiant her energy is. When complimenting anyone, try to make your compliments as specific and unique as you can. That way it comes across more personal and real.

Here’s a structure that works well for any wedding speech:
  1. Acknowledgements
  2. Funny Stories
  3. Poignant Celebratory Compliments
  4. The Toast
For the funny stories, it is possible (and in the case of the best man speech expected) to poke fun. The groom is the easy (and most acceptable) target. However, make sure you don’t go too far. Don’t humiliate the guy beyond redemption. To avoid any issues of offense, check your material out with the groom first. Encourage him to laugh at your jokes on the day. If the audience sees him laughing, they will tend to forgive more that you might imagine. Just keep away from negative experiences such as ex-spouses, divorces, health issues, etc. And steer clear of universally controversial or overly personal material; e.g. alcoholism, abortion, etc. This may seem obvious to you, the reader, but you would be surprised what people try to get away with at weddings.

It’s also a good idea to check your material with the parents of the bride and groom, especially if you are considering pushing the envelope. If you share a contentious story with the audience and they are uncertain if you have pushed it too far, they will tend to look towards the top table to see how they are reacting. If the parents are laughing away, it will sway the majority in the right direction.

It’s up to you to use sound judgement with your content. Remember, this is not your opportunity to be a stand-up comedian. Remember who you are there for!

Like all public speaking scenarios, stories are the most important ingredient of all. The best stories have characters we can resonate with, conflicts we want to see overcome, and of course climaxes that entertain, and teach us more about the quirks and traits of the characters. Stories offer messages and punchlines. Make sure your stories give unique, specific, humorous or poignant insights into those you are speaking about.

Stories offer a chance to “show” rather than “tell”. Don’t tell us how loyal the bride is. Share a story that proves it. Stories that you are a part of will come across as the most genuine, but if you don’t have anything appropriate in your repertoire, the couple’s families should be able to help you out. They have more stories about the bride and groom than anyone else.

Keep your stories as unique as you can. If the other speakers are talking about the bride in her adult years, consider using a story from her childhood. Look for stories that prove positive or quirky traits; e.g. loyalty, intelligence, perfectionism, adventurousness, etc.

Finally, and most importantly, enjoy your speech!!!

​How many people forget to enjoy themselves when they are speaking? It’s a privilege to present, especially at a wedding. Make the most of it, and once again… remember who you are there for.
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How well do you look?

As in… how well do you look at the people you communicate with?

Do you look at all?

If you step into an elevator with a stranger, your eye contact will be fleeting at best. If you are enjoying an intimate moment with the love of your life, your eye contact will be deep, protracted and intense. Real life tends to be somewhere in between these two extremes. For the public speaker, eye contact is definitely important (or rather, the “essence” of eye contact – I will explain this distinction later).

Why is eye contact so important anyway?

Recently, a large county hospital in the U.S. analysed their letters of complaint from patients and found that 90% of letters cited poor doctor-patient “eye contact”. On further examination, patient’s interpreted this as a “lack of caring” by the doctors. <source>

You may already be aware that eye contact conveys confidence, but it also shows that you care!

Let me ask you… do you care about your audience?

Ah, of course you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article.

Perhaps you find eye contact intimidating. Perhaps other people find your eye contact too intense. Maybe you are comfortable with eye contact in small groups and informal settings, but you’re not sure how to use your eyes in front of a larger audience. Or maybe you have a passing interest in the topic and would like to pick up a few tips…

First off, while it is important to make eye contact, you don’t actually have to make actual eye contact. What do I mean? Well, it’s all in the intention. If you find direct eye to eye connection too intense you can always look at your recipient’s nose. It also eases the intensity if you look directly at one eye (either the left or right). You can also look between the eyes, at the mid forehead. Your recipient will find any of these options just as engaging. In some cases these techniques can be more relaxed and friendly. Practice them at home, looking in the mirror, to see the effects.

If you’ve ever received feedback that your eye contact is too intense, it’s likely that person has issues with people who make good eye contact, so you have nothing to worry about. Take it as a compliment. If, on the other hand, many people remarked on your eye intensity that indicates an issue. You can use the nose and mid-forehead techniques above to remove your intensity.

It may also be that you are trying too hard to look at people. People who stare with excessive intensity tend to have too much awareness “in their heads” – they are overthinking; trying to make a connection rather than allowing it. If you have this tendency and want to overcome it, consciously try to reduce the time you spend locking eyes with people. Break up eye contact by spreading it around the audience and occasionally “looking within” (i.e. looking to the side, as if to reflect).

For those of you with especially intense eye contact, become more grounded in your body by breathing from behind your belly. The more connected you are with your body, the less intense your eye contact will be. All of this takes practice but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of.

What about connecting with large audiences?

While it is important to make eye contact with most if not all of you audience there are a couple of insights that make this task less challenging.

First off, you only need to make eye contact with an individual from your audience once or twice during your entire speech. Make the eye contact genuine and meaningful, with the simple intention of truly expressing what you are saying to that particular person. Speak from the heart.

Secondly, for anyone in your audience situated more than 5-10 metres away (and not isolated from others around them) you only need to make eye contact with one person in their area. Everyone around them will think you have looked at them. The size of the group you can cover with one glance increases as the distance increases. Think of it like splashing paint on your audience with your eyes. The further away your audience is, the bigger your footprint of paint. As long as you’ve covered everyone once by the end of your speech your job is done.

Break your audience up into different areas; perhaps four corners, and the edges and centre in between. Make sure not to focus on one area for too long. Spread your love around, so to speak.

The front two or three rows of your audience can enjoy more individual eye contact. That’s their reward for sitting so close to you. Again, you only need to glance at them once or twice. Just make it count. Sincerity, conviction and warmth never fail to succeed.

I will close by stressing that while eye contact is important, the “essence” of eye contact is even more important. That’s why looking at someone’s nose has the same effect as looking into their eyes. It’s all in the intention. If you don’t believe me watch the TED speech entitled “Looking Past Limits” by Caroline Casey. If you haven't seen it before there's a little surprise revealed a few minutes into her speech. Seriously, how good is her connection with her audience?

Link to Caroline's speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyBk55G7Keo
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Eight years ago I delivered my second ever speech to the general public. As a newbie I expected to receive a lot of feedback. The reaction I received was unexpected but unanimous… and insightful. Everyone said, “We enjoy it, but your speech just… ended!”

I scratched my head as I poured over my script. Did I forget to cover anything? Did I forget to explain some detail? Did the audience simply want more? Nope. It turns out I was missing a proper conclusion!
As a student of public speaking I’m sure you are aware that every speech should have an opening, body and conclusion. The opening sets the stage for what is to come. The body refers to the information at the heart of the speech. But what is the conclusion all about?

Public speaking is an art as much as a science, and in that respect there are no hard, fast rules. However there are seven optional components (or tools) that will always guarantee you an impactful and memorable conclusion – the Seven Samurai. If you employ at least a two or three of these worthy Ninjas, you will have yourself a conclusion worth concluding with. Here is the list:
  1. The Signal
  2. The Recap
  3. The Message or Purpose
  4. The Food for Thought
  5. The Sale
  6. The Tool
  7. The Closing Anchor

Wow, seven is a lot, eh? After all, shouldn’t a conclusion be concise as well as clear? I hear you. Don’t worry. These items can be covered lightning fast. You don’t need all seven, and you can combine them together.
For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to use a hypothetical speech as an example so that we can craft a pretend conclusion. I want you to imagine that you are required to draft and deliver a persuasive 5-7 minute speech entitled, “Variety in diet is a route to healthy living”. Let’s see if we can fashion a decent conclusion… and don’t sweat, we won’t need to see the opening or body of the script for the purposes of this exercise.


The Signal is the first thing you should consider. It is a transitional statement that tells the audience that the conclusion is beginning. It only takes a couple of words: “In conclusion…” Or if you prefer, “In summary…” Here are a few more:
  • “To finish up…”
  • “I would like to finish by saying…”
  • “My conclusion is this…”
  • “The message I would like to leave you with is…”
  • “So what have we learned today? ...”
It’s important to let your audience know the end is nigh, because it will re-focus their attention. Have you ever listened to a speaker and almost drifted off wondering when the speech was going to end, only to hear the words, “So to conclude…” and snapped back to attention? Of course, no speech should ever encourage anyone to “drift off” at any moment, but you get the idea.


The Recap contains a brief summary of what came in the body. This helps your audience to revise and retain your content. For entertaining, honouring and inspirational speeches, it’s not essential. For persuasive, informative and technical speeches however it’s much needed and welcomed by your audience.

In our example 5-7 minute speech - “Variety in diet is a route to healthy living” you might decide to cover 3-5 supporting points in your body (very wise). In your conclusion you should recap them with something like, “First, we discovered the reasons we eat that have nothing to do with hunger. Second, we learned about medical studies that prove repetitive eating results in more calories consumed, and third we heard about Tony, survivor of three heart attacks who changed his diet and changed his life.”


It is essential that you leave your audience with a clear understanding of your overall reason for speaking to them. Let’s face it, there has to be some kind of reason why you spoke (and “because it’s my job” or “my boss forced me to” is not going to cut it).
Informative, entertaining and honouring speeches tend to be very light on strong messages, but they should have a purpose. A persuasive or inspirational speech should always have a single clear message.
For our example above we will use the message, “My message is this - a varied diet is far healthier than a repetitive one.”


The “Food for Thought” forces your audience to think of your message or purpose within the context of their own lives. It’s not so relevant to entertaining or honouring speeches, but for inspiring, persuasive and informative speeches it can work wonders.

Ask yourself, have you ever been convinced of something but you failed to act on it? Why weren’t you motivated enough? Was it because the idea remained conceptual and not necessarily relevant to you personally? So often we come to believe an idea “in theory” but we fail to make that message a part of our own personal experiences – in other words, “in practice”.

In our example speech, a good reflection might be, “Ask yourself right now, are you happy with your health? Do you eat the same meal more than 3 times per week?”

The “Food for Thought” forces your audience to become a working part of your message. That’s a good thing!


This is your final opportunity to sell your message. Your opening and body should have done most of the work but now you have one last shot. Perhaps the “Food for thought” statement will be enough, but if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to push the sale a little.

The Sale shouldn’t be too specific, obscure or highly detailed. That’s the job of your opening and body. Instead, pick your strongest, easiest, most resonant persuasive point and state it more one more time in your conclusion.

To find the Sale, ask yourself; “What will my audience be able to think, feel or do better as a result of taking on my message?” and/or “What does my audience stand to lose by ignoring my message?”
In our example let’s put, “Eating repetitively means you will eat emotionally and you will eat more. How long will that last before you start having health issues?”


This could be the most useful and generous statement of your entire speech. The Tool allows you to offer an idea, technique or method that your audience can employ to make your message a reality for them. After all, your audience may be convinced by everything you said. That doesn’t mean they understand what to do next. In persuasive and inspirational speeches this is sometimes referred to as the “how to” or “next step”.

If you are trying to persuade your audience of something, make sure you give them one or two ideas that they can use to enact your message (i.e. to buy whatever it is you are selling). After all, every sales trainer will tell you it’s not enough to have your customer “willing”. They need to be “buying”.
In our example let’s state, “The next time you are shopping for food, make it your goal to leave out the one meal you eat the most. Replace it with three things you have never tried before, and savour those new tastes.”


An anchor is any script component that is not a fact or opinion. In other words, an anchor can be a story, question, joke, metaphor, song, visual aid or quote. They are called anchors because they “anchor” themselves into the memory of your audience. Anchors have facts (or opinions) tied to them, but they are much more memorable than bare facts.

For whatever your message or purpose was, you can finish your speech by picking an anchor that helps your audience to remember your message or purpose more effectively.

A top tip for closing anchors: stories are effective but they can take time. A quick easy and engaging anchor to finish on is a quote. You can use a famous quote, or an anonymous one. You can also play with quotes, or modify them to make a new idea that fits with your message. It doesn’t matter. Make it accessible, catchy and/or relevant and that will be enough.

In the example above let’s write, “They say variety is the spice of life. Today I hope you have discovered - variety is the spice of health.”
Let’s combine our “Variety in diet as a route to healthy living” conclusion to see how it looks unedited:

“To conclude, today we discovered the reasons we eat that have nothing to do with hunger. We learned about medical studies that prove repetitive eating results in more calories consumed… and we heard about Tony, survivor of three heart attacks who changed his diet and changed his life.

My message is this - a varied diet is far healthier than a repetitive one. Ask yourself right now, are you happy with your health? Do you eat the same meal more than 3 times per week? Eating repetitively means you will eat emotionally and you will eat more. How long will that last before you start having health issues? The next time you are shopping for food, make it your goal to leave out the one meal you eat the most. Replace it with three things you have never tried before, and savour those new tastes.

They say variety is the spice of life. Today I hope you have discovered variety is the spice of health.”

Not too bad for a first draft!

If you want to save speaking time feel free to edit your Seven Samurai down to between two and six components. And you don’t need to use them in the order above. Feel free to play around. The goal is to make your conclusion impactful and memorable, otherwise your speech will evaporate into the air like so many others.

The Seven Samurai is designed to help you craft a conclusion within minutes, and it forms an essential part of our Speechcamp CORE Master Speaker System. Find more free power tools for your speaking kit at www.speechcamp.ie/blog.

As Ryan Holmes once said, "For everybody in their busy lives, you need to invest in sharpening your tools."
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