Quick Tip: Ignore Your Assignments

If you want to be a better communicator then … whatever “they” ask you to speak about … whatever “they” expect … whatever they assign you … ignore it!

But how … but what if … but, but, but … I have to …

Let me explain.

Speaking Without Passion

Have you ever been asked to comment on a subject you found incredible uninteresting? Have you ever been assigned to report, speak, or present a mundane topic? Have you ever been nervous because you were assigned a sensitive topic or potentially embarrassing task?

For example, if you have kids, you’ve probably been invited to to your child’s classroom around about fifth grade to sit with your child through a “sexual maturation” lesson. If your experience has been anything like mine, the adults teaching those lessons are usually so afraid of how the kids (or the parents) might react that they literally waste an hour of your life by talking for an hour without actually saying anything. It’s painful!

checklist-310092_640It doesn’t have to be that way. The problem is that those “teachers” don’t really want to give that lecture. I promise every one of those “teachers” have a “passion” or strong emotional feelings of some sort related to the subject of “sexual maturation,” but they’re not talking about THEIR passion, they’re ticking off a list of assigned topics just to get their assignment over with.

I spent years creating a presentation skills system, with dozens of step-by-step communication techniques. But to be honest, the single most important part of public speaking is something I can’t boil down into a step-by-step formula. But I’m going to try anyway … Here it goes …

Step 1: Ignore the Assignment

The most important ingredient in public speaking (or communication in general) is true passion and genuine enthusiasm about your message. Unfortunately, you can almost never have true passion and genuine enthusiasm about somebody else’s checklist. That’s the problem!

Authentic excitement and energy doesn’t come from completing an assignment that “they” give you. True passion, only comes from within, not from without. Therefore:

Never speak about an assigned subject!

At least at the beginning, you have to ignore the assignment. Whether you’ve been asked to give a quarterly report, asked to give a sales presentation, asked to give a eulogy, asked to call an irate client, asked to present a proposal to management, asked to teach a Sunday school class on “Jesus,” or asked to teach a “sexual maturation” seminar … step number is the same:

Step 1: Never speak about an assigned subject!

Did I just tell you to ignore “Jesus” when teaching  a Sunday School class?

Yes! Yes I did! … at least for a little while.

Step 2: Talk about YOUR passion

I love trees … and you probably couldn’t care less that I love trees! But, on the other hand, you don’t really care what I think about “sexual maturation” either!


You’re essentially neutral when it comes to my musings on sexuality versus my discourses on trees. Talking about sexual maturation can be uncomfortable, but I LOVE trees!

So let me ask you this–if you had to be locked in a room and you were forced to listen to me ramble on about one subject or the other, would you prefer that I talk about trees, or sex?

I suspect the voting will be nearly unanimous. And just in case you were the exception, let me assure you–you want to hear me talk about trees!

I love trees!

All else being equal, you want to hear me talk about the subject I care most about, the subject I know must about, and the subject for which I have the most enthusiasm!

There is a reason nobody buys tickets to go to “Adele lectures on the allegory of trees.” We buy tickets to hear her do what she does best–her passion–her singing!

It doesn’t matter what topic you were assigned, step number two is the same:

Step 2: Talk about your passion

As long as you are talking about one of your passions you will be more energetic, more genuine, more authoritative, and more interesting!

In other words, you DO want to hear ME talk about the “allegory of trees!”

Step 3: Make the Connection

The last step is easy:

Step 3: Show me what your passion has to do with the assigned topic

I once had the opportunity to teach a Sunday School class at my church, and I practically begged to teach the lesson on sex. To be honest, it wasn’t a tough sell, because nobody else felt comfortable teaching the subject.

Why was I so excited to teach an awkward subject?

Because I had no intention of talking about sex — I wanted to talk about trees!

And it just so happens that trees make a wonderful metaphor for intimacy … and business … and relationships … and public speaking skills … and so on.

When you talk about something you love, I promise, it will be really easy for you to relate that passion back to the subject at hand.

I promise you can relate your passions to the quarterly report, or the sales presentation, or the eulogy, or the irate client, or the management proposal, or to “Jesus.”

The audience will notice that you gave one of the best presentations they’ve ever heard on < Insert assigned subject here >, they just won’t have any idea how you did it.

If you’ve ever been to one of my classes, you’ve probably heard me talk about trees, but you probably didn’t notice. You probably thought I was talking about public speaking techniques.

That’s the beauty of it.

You get to talk about what you love, but the audience gets to hear what they need.
You have more enthusiasm, even if the assigned subject is dull.
You convey authority on your passion, even if you’re not an authority on the assignment.
You need less preparation, yet you sound more prepared.
You sound completely genuine, because … you are!

All you have to do, is ignore the assignment.

Image source: nyphotographic.com

Why People Tune You Out

People will tune you out when you act like a book. People will check out the cover, maybe pay attention to the inside of the jacket, and then close the cover, put you back on the shelf, and forget about you.

The most common reason people tune you out is predictability, I wrote about that months ago. Acting like a book, is a very close second on the list of what makes a mediocre public speaker.

If you act like a colorful picture book, you’ll be okay, but most mediocre speakers act like one of those long, poorly formatted, picture-less research studies that’s hardbound in a blank, solid cover.

Verbal communication and public speaking skills are not the same as writing skills.

How to Be a Book

The man in glasses shows a finger on the book on a white background

The first rule of being a book:

It’s the reader’s responsibility to understand

When your audience is reading, they have already committed to putting in the effort to read, think, and understand. Written communication has the advantage that you already know the reader is committed and engaged.

Second rule of being a book:

Give them lots of information

Nobody wants to buy a book and feel like they read 300 pages for nothing. You better include lots of great stats, lots of proofs and examples, and lots of details.

Readers expect to concentrate. They read and reread, backtrack and sometimes flip pages out of order. You better give them lots of information!

In other words the structure of a book might look something like this:

Agree with me message because …

  1. It’s convenient
  2. It’s easy
  3. It’s cool

My book above, is structured to give you three, or more reasons to agree with me. Most books have 7, 10 or even hundreds of tips, techniques, and arguments.

In a written message you want to say lots of things about your topic. The reader does all the work. The reader finds the parts that are most relevant, reads, rereads, and analyzes.

Don’t Be a Book!

If you want better verbal presentation skills, you can’t assume the audience will take on that responsibility. When you’re communicating verbally: DON’T BE A BOOK!

Don’t be a book. Don’t be an essay. Don’t be a research paper.

If you take “your book” and present it verbally, you present as if it’s the listener’s responsibility to do all the work. No offense, but even if you are a great speaker, trying to concentrate on your every word for more than a few minutes is exhausting.

First rule of NOT being a book:

It’s YOUR responsibility to make them understand

lessAs a public speaker, you’re listener doesn’t have the luxury of choosing when, how much, or how slowly they read. They only have one choice, listen or not to listen. Therefore, when presenting verbally it’s YOUR responsibility to make it easy.

Second rule of NOT being a book:

Don’t give them lots of information

The audience at your presentation, without written information, has no rewind, stop or pause buttons. The more information you give them, the harder you are forcing them to work. Good public speaking skills make it easier for the listener, not harder.

Whether it’s due to their laziness, your ambiguity, or a distraction, a listener only has to miss one step in your logic to subvert your good intentions. With no rewind button, everything you say after that missed step is pointless.

Either they get caught up  trying to understand something they missed, and you lose them. Or they stop trying, and you lose them. Either way, you lose them. They tune out.

Verbal Presentation Organization

The structure of a non-book (verbal presentation) requires that you narrow your presentation to the most relevant topic. Verbal presentations are ideal for this because you have the ability to interact:

“Tell me what’s most important to you?”


Let me show you three ways my idea is “convenient.”

1. Convenient because …
2. Convenient because …
3. Convenient because …

list-27221_640Notice that that verbal outline only covers one thing, even though the “book” version would cover 3, 5, of 10 things.

Nearly everyone who contacts me for public speaking coaching or speechwriting help has lots of great content–they have a “book.” Whether it’s officially published or not, they have a book’s worth of information.

Nearly every speech I review and evaluation includes the “3 ways” or the “7 steps” or “10 laws” and so forth.

I get it. Your product has 12 great features and you want to talk about all of them.


Pick one–the one that matters most to the listeners–and give me several examples that all illustrate that ONE thing.

If you ask professional speakers you’ll probably hear this rule of thumb

Say only one thing every 15 minutes.

No rule is hard and fast, but 10-15 minutes is a good ballpark.

If you really must tell me more than one thing, you can, but you need a lot more time. If you’re trying to show me all 12 things in 15 minutes you’re more than likely a mediocre speaker.

I’m lazy (and so are most listeners). I’ll pay attention to the first one (maybe) and then tune out.

If you really want to tell me all 12 things, you need at least two hours (12 times 10+ minutes each).

Conquer Public Speaking Mediocrity

oneWhat’s the difference?

In a book, you tell the reader THREE THINGS (or more). In a verbal presentation you tell the listener ONE THING three(or more) different ways.

Verbally you can’t tell them everything. You can’t give them all the information that’s in the book. See my previous posts about the big lie that you need more information.

This is so critically important that I need to repeat myself:

In a book, you tell the reader THREE THINGS (or more). In a verbal presentation you tell the listener ONE THING three (or more) different ways.

Lot’s of people know lots of great information. Lot’s of people can WRITE great content. But lot’s of people don’t condense that information correctly when they present verbally.

If you do, you will instantly become more clear, more memorable, and more successful at verbal communication. You will take your presentation from mediocrity to excellence.

In one of life’s great ironies, you may become a better writer when you say more, but you become a better speaker when you say less.

When your speaking, don’t be a book!

When you make it YOUR responsibility to keep the listener engaged you change everything.

Your “book” represents everything you know. It represents your contribution to your organization and customers. Your “book” is your expertise, talents, and value.

Know everything in the book, but don’t act like a book. Give them something a book can’t give–interaction.

Make a great impression interacting about ONE thing. When you prove one thing so thoroughly, you’ll leave a great impression, and leave the listener wanting more. When the audience wants more, they won’t tune out.

They’ll invest in YOU–they’ll buy the book.

Myth-buster: Dress for Success

You have an important presentation. You have to make a good impression. What do you wear?

I’m not a fashion consultant. My father gave me his fashion sense–I inherited the who-cares-about-the-paint-stains-it’s-still-a-good-shirt gene.

If you took fashion advice from me, you’d definitely “stand out.” I’m even colorblind. I can’t give you specifics about accessories and colors, but fortunately, I don’t need to be a fashion expert to answer the question in principle.

So what do you wear?

What NOT to Wear

320px-statelibqld_1_207213_a-_g-_murray_1901Years ago I began a job that gave me the opportunity to do training in US federal government agencies all over the USA. I was fortunate to get public speaking experience in front of audiences ranging from secret service agents, to smoke jumpers, to pencil pushers.

My first day training, I wore my best suit!
A few months later I quit wearing the coat.
Months later I wore just nice pants, nice shirt, and tie.
Months later I downgraded to cotton pants.
Months later I lost the tie …
… and kept it that way for the next 5 years.

It wasn’t just because I was uncomfortable. People actually liked me better, learned more, and gave me better evaluations when I DIDN’T wear the tie.

Something about the pretense of your “best” is just a pretense. Decades ago, this blog post would not have been the same, because US culture was different. But in 2017, at least in US culture, pretense is out, and “dressing for success” doesn’t mean what it used to.

Back when I still wore the tie, I happened to be at a US department of agriculture facility in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

Just in case you’ve never worked for the US government, outside, in the sun, all year long, in the middle of the New Mexico desert, let me assure you: They don’t wear three-piece suits to work!

At the end of my seminar, I joked that because of my tie I was overdressed. The next thing I know, a man in the front row, opened up to me about how often “city-slickers” show up in their suits to give official presentations. According to this US government employee, guess what happens after the presenter leaves? They make fun of the guy in the suit!

Why? Because when you show up in a three-piece suit (or a little black dress) in the middle of the desert to talk to a bunch of people wearing blue jeans, everybody in the audience is feeling the same thing:

You’re not one of us!

By over-dressing (or under-dressing), you’re unintentionally sending the message that you are not part of the group. That unintentionally makes you less interesting and less persuasive.

The same thing happens when you’re the only one in a dress, or the only one in jeans, or the only one in shorts, the only one in a tee-shirt, the only one in makeup, etc.

What to wear?

So what do you wear? Easy:

Start with the same thing as everyone else.

The answer of what to wear is not about fashion. If you want to be an effective communicator, you don’t have to look the best, you just have to look normal.

Depending on to whom you are speaking, normal may be anything: a tux, a dress, blue jeans, boots, high heels, or anything else.

I’ve heard WAY too many people promote the myth that you should always dress for success. Technically, that’s true. You should dress for success, but dressing for success does not always mean dressing your BEST!

steve_jobs_wwdc07Why was a black turtleneck and jeans good enough for Steve Jobs? Because it was normal!

If your best does not fit in with the audiences version of “normal” you are breaking rapport with your audience. In that case, dressing your best will actually do you a disservice.

Standing on stage and talking about your imported designer shoes will give the wrong impression if your audience isn’t made up of the kind of people who also wear imported designer shoes. I’ve seen this happen. The audience politely ignores the shoes, and the speaker obliviously ignores the lack of rapport.

You must dress nice enough that they notice–so they know you care–but not extreme enough to be a distraction.

It’s true that scientific studies have shown that better looking, better dressed people can appear more trustworthy, more confident, more credible and smarter. In isolation, yes.

But in a public speaking or presentation situation, rapport is the more important goal. No amount of IQ points or trustworthiness will overcome a lack of rapport, and to build rapport you must mirror the audience. Mirror their words, mirror their attitudes, mirror their body language, and yes–mirror their attire.

Public Speaking Attire Rules

You can’t answer the question what to wear unless you know the audience. My rule of thumb is this:

Dress slightly nicer than the audience.

First, I have to know what the audience will wear. I mirror their attire in some way, so that I appear “normal.” That builds rapport. Whenever I’m hired to give a keynote or a seminar, one of the questions on my checklist is to ask the host what people in his or her organization will wear.

Second, I want the advantage that science tells me better dressed people achieve, so I take my wardrobe up just one notch–not all the way up–just enough that they know I’m supposed to be the center of attention, but not enough to break rapport.

Yes, there are exceptions. Just remember that the exceptions are always based not on what YOU think is appropriate, but based on what the AUDIENCE thinks is appropriate:

Nice and noticeable, but normal.

Don’t wear a three piece suit in a room full of agricultural field researchers.
Don’t wear a bathing suit to an awards ceremony.

Do dress for success.
Dress slightly nicer than the audience.
That’s how you’ll succeed.

Beyonce and Evangeline Lilly image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beyonce_and_Evangeline_Lilly.jpg