5 Illustrations Mediocre Speakers Don’t Know: Experience

Which type of illustration to professionals almost always use that amateurs do not? Every one of the illustration types we’ve covered so far has one thing in common: Explanation, Evidence, Endorsement, Example.

What makes the fifth E different?

All of the previous four Es describe something the SPEAKER does.

The last E of illustrations describes what the LISTENER does: Experience!

What Professionals Know

I’ve done hundreds of reviews and analysis of different speakers, from high paid professionals, to billion dollar company execs, to frightened teenagers.

In my notes, each speaker was evaluated on each of my 8 SpeechDeck principles of audience engagement. I took all my review notes and did an informal statistical analysis to determine, what was the single biggest differentiator between the most inspirational speakers and everybody else.

I found two!

One of those principles (the green one), was utilized by almost every professional speaker and almost no amateurs: Encouraging Participation.

And how do you encourage participation? Using the fifth E — illustrations that are EXPERIENCES.

What is an Experience?

The first four illustration types are all illustrations based on what the speaker says. A speaker can explain, share evidence, recite examples, and quote endorsements — all without any feedback or reaction from the audience.

An illustration of “Experience,” on the other hand, requires the audience to DO something: talk back, do an activity, laugh, etc.

I will give you a list, but the options for an experience are so varied that you should not consider this a complete list. However, some popular types of experience illustrations include:

  • Group activities or games
  • Entertainment to generates emotion: laugh, cry, etc.
  • Back and forth conversation or Q&A
  • Written exercises, quizzes, or feedback
  • Mnemonic devices or do-it-yourself tools and resources

The distinguishing feature of all these options is not about what the speaker does. The distinguishing feature of an experience is that the listener has to REACT!

If the audience can sit politely and ignore the speaker (as if in a lecture), the speaker is not creating a reaction. Passive audiences are a sure sign of communication mediocrity.

Did you ever notice how many political speakers arouse strong reactions and demonstrations on college campuses and churches and conventions? You don’t have to be controversial to get a reaction, but the protests and hysteria generated by controversial speakers does prove the point that speakers who create reactions grab attention.

The easy experience

If you are a beginner, the easiest way to create an EXPERIENCE is simply to ask questions. I find that when I listen to professional speakers (the kind that are paid big bucks to speak), about half of the time the very first words out the the speaker’s mouth is either a question, or a solicitation for a raise of hands:

Raise your hands if you’ve ever …

Have you ever … ?

The best speakers almost always say something similar near the beginning of the speech because it sets the precedent that the audience will not be passive.

By the way, is it easier for the audience to remain passive when you just ask a question or when you say “Raise your hand if …?”

Many, many amateurs are afraid to even ask the listener to do anything. Questions are better than nothing, but the best professionals actually take control of the room and tell the listener what to do: “Raise your hands if …”

A question or a show of hands is EASY. Do it!

There is only one rule — you have to actually get an answer!

A question that the speaker asks, but that the audience isn’t allowed to answer is NOT an experience. A passive audience can ignore rhetorical questions. You’re only creating an experience if you actually allow the listener to respond (react) and answer back by a raised hand or actual conversation.

An private internal answer is a type reaction if done correctly, but it’s so much easier to know you’re doing it right when you get physical or verbal feedback.

Experience in Sales and Business

An “experience” in sales and business usually means a tangible, physical experience.

Would you buy a car without ever doing a test drive?

In sales, experience means allowing the potential customer to touch, see, and test your product. Or when that’s not possible, the successful salesman will create an experience in the customers imagination.

If you are selling a car, let them see and touch and drive the car.

If you are selling a proposal for a new highway, help them imagine the new highway. As long as they actually do the imagining, they are reacting, and you are creating an experience.

Information overload

Sometimes your presentations can be highly informational. If you’ve read my past blog posts you know I advise against information overload whenever possible.

But when lots of information is necessary give the listener something to DO with the information–an experience.

A slides deck can easily be ignored by a passive audience.

Handouts are usually just skimmed. Skimming is less passive than ignoring, but not ideal.

A non-passive handout requires reaction: fill-in-the blank, assessments, activities, exercises, etc.

The laugh factory

If you have a talent for it, make people laugh.

Humor is one of the few reactions that uses all 7 of the principles in the SpeechDeck color-coded speaking system. In terms of our topic today, humor works because it creates a REACTION. A funny example (that generates a reaction) is always an EXPERIENCE for the audience.

If you have the skill, do it!
If you don’t have the skill, don’t force it.

I taught a workshop once, where my co-host unbeknownst to me, printed off a list of jokes from the internet and just started reading the list on stage.

Don’t do that!

That’s not an “Experience” in the terms we’re talking about. Reading jokes is an experience for the speaker. We want an experience for the audience, and that only happens when it is genuine, unique humor, that creates an involuntary audience reaction. Charity laughs don’t count.

The best experience

The best type of experience illustration is actually quite hard. It takes years of practice for most people. The best way for me the explain the “best” type of experience is by calling it the:

Ah-ha moment

The reason this is so hard is because you can’t give someone an ah-ha moment, they have to get it for themselves.

The most highly skilled communicators will lead the listener to that emotional catharsis. Many techniques can be used to do this such as partial syllogisms, analogies, socratic questioning, withheld closure, etc.

I’ve written many posts about some of these techniques, which are beyond the scope of this post.

The basic rule is this:

You want the listener to figure it out before you tell them

If you tell them something, it’s passive. If they figure it out, it’s an active experience.

If our TV weatherman led you to figure out the forecast before he told you, it might sound something like this:

It’s going to snow this week … but when? All your shopping days look to be beautiful and dry, but let’s just say that Mr. Kringle’s sleigh won’t have any trouble this year. We expect the storm to arrive after 11pm just in time for Rudolph.

I’m not suggesting the weatherman actual say that.  I merely illustrating that you know he is predicting a white Christmas even though he never actually told you that the snow is forecast on Dec 25.

You had to figure it out yourself. This is a purely intellectual experience. What makes it effective is that you can’t listen passively. You must actual DO something. You have to actual think, and engage with the weatherman or you will not understand.

There are intellectual ah-has such as above, and emotional ah-has. The best illustrations have both.

There are MANY other types of experiences, but not enough space in this post.

The Five Es of Illustration

You should use a variety of illustration types in all your presentations. You don’t necessarily have to use all five.

Using all five illustration types makes our TV weatherman a little long-winded, but here it goes anyway:

Look here at the 5 day forecast [Explanation: Visual aid] and you’ll see it will be 90 on Saturday [Explanation: Description] … like a Saudi Arabian Christmas [Explanation: Analogy]

Doppler radar [Evidence: Name] shows the next storm will still be 100 miles [Evidence: Number] to our North on Saturday evening.

The National Weather Service [Endorsement: Third-party] confirms that high pressure will build all week, peaking for the weekend. Kathy McDaniel in Summerville wrote in to say “thank you for the accurate forecast last Friday, it helped us plan our family reunion.” [Endorsement: Testimonial]. This week I’m so confident in the forecast you can call me Nostradamus [Endorsement: Association].

Weekends like this are great for nature lovers. Last weekend I went fish fishing with my son and we the most amazing sunset … [Example: Personal] What will you do this weekend? Imagine how great the cool ocean waves will feel on your ankles …  [Example: Hypothetical] or cooking burgers on the BBQ [Example: Cultural]

Send your weekend pictures to the email shown on screen [Experience: Activity] … Also, we’re starting a new segment tonight where we accept live weather related questions [Experience: Conversation]. Our first question comes from twitter …

Granted, this hypothetical weatherman seems a little ADHD, but even with my contrived example, ADHD beats the typical depressed mediocre-ologist.

Mediocre speakers all sound the same, in part because they stick to just one type of illustration and wear out their welcome. There’s more to communication than just lectures and quotes.

  1. Explanation
  2. Evidence
  3. Endorsement
  4. Example
  5. Experience

Use all five.

Don’t sound the same the whole way.
Don’t sound the same as everyone else.
Don’t be mediocre.

5 Illustrations Mediocre Speakers Don’t Know: Endorsement

When should you use a quotation, stat, testimonial, or endorsement? Mediocre speakers all sound the same because mediocre speakers tend to do things for the wrong reason. You can’t answer when to do it unless you first understand why.

Last week we showed how evidence should be used not just to make a point, but to build the credibility of the speaker. My SpeechDeck communication skills system used the five Es of illustration. Today is number three–Endorsement:

What is an Endorsement?

Here are three common types of endorsements:

  2. Testimonials
  3. Associations

Evidence such as facts, figures, and research can be used as an endorsement, similarly quotations or testimonials may include factual evidence or have a basis in research. There is often overlap between the two. So what’s the difference?

“There are two types of speakers: Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” – Mark Twain

Are the words from Mark Twain above an “endorsement” or “evidence”?

For our purposes, what matters most is the your PURPOSE for using the words of Mark Twain.

As explained last week, the PURPOSE of “evidence” is to prove the credibility of the speaker (and only rarely your argument).

In other words, if I quote Mark Twain to illustrate that I know a lot about public speaking and that I am familiar with the industry, then I am using that quote as “evidence” — evidence that makes me a more credible messenger on public speaking.

On the other hand, maybe I just want to quote Mark Twain because he’s funny. Maybe I used Mark Twain because I know that in America, most people know who he is and love his pithy wisdom. That would be an “endorsement.”

The purpose of an endorsement is to NORMALIZE your message and yourself.

If I and everyone in the room laughs together, I instantly become NORMAL–no matter what I’m talking about. When we all do the same thing–laugh–I can’t be perceived as too different. In the SpeechDeck color-coded presentation skills system this is the orange principle of “Developing Relationships.”

Bad Endorsements

Anytime I quote Mark Twain the sentiment of the message seems quintessentially American. It builds relationships and develops rapport because Mark Twain seems NORMAL (to Americans raised in America).

But what if I was talking to a Chinese Audience?

Some of the audience might still laugh, but for those that don’t really know Mark Twain or relate to American culture I can easily do myself a disservice. Instead of building rapport, the exact same quote might actually seem AB-NORMAL. By reinforcing my cultural difference, a Mark Twain quote to a non-American audience might make me seem less NORMAL, less credible, and more foreign.

Mark Twain calls people liars. It’s normal for Americans to call people liars. That’s not normal everywhere.

So back to my original question: When should you use a quotation?

NOT when it breaks rapport.
NOT when it highlights differences with the audience.
NOT when it seems ab-normal.

This is why quoting Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in a politically diverse audience is likely to get you into big trouble. No matter how wise the words, half the audience won’t think it’s NORMAL, even if the other half does.

Good Quotations

Good endorsements, on the other hand, are those that align with the listeners’ existing in-group relationships and experience.

If you’re talking to an audience of Republicans, quoting president Reagan seems a lot more normal, because Reagan is already in the Republican in-group.

A good quotation is one that comes from a person the listener already admires and understands. Or perhaps even better said, someone who understands the audience. The originator of the quote must seem NORMAL.

When do you use a quotation? When it makes you and your message seem NORMAL.

Good Testimonials

This is why testimonials make great endorsements. A testimonial is pretty much just a quote from someone in the audience member’s own peer group.

If you have ever been to a sales presentation of any kind, a skilled presenter probably had people “just like you” who already bought the product stand up in the room, or speak on video about how great the product was.

The salesperson–if he or she was good–was trying to make the product seem NORMAL!

When do you use a testimonial? When you need your message, or yourself to seem NORMAL.

Good Associations

Associations are the cheater’s endorsement.

If you don’t have a good quote from someone the audience already respects, and you don’t have an audience peer to quote, then you just associate yourself with someone or something that seems normal.

An association is an implied endorsement without the direct quote.

Master inspirational Zig Ziglar is really good at making associations

Do you see what I did there?

I’ve never met Zig Ziglar.
I didn’t quote Zig Ziglar.
I have no idea what Zig Ziglar thinks about this blog post.

Nevertheless, I associated him with my main point. Subconsciously, the reader also associates my message with him–someone more famous than I am in my industry. Some of his gravitas rubs off on me props up my message.

And I didn’t even lie! Nothing I said above was dishonest — so I didn’t really cheat.

I can associate myself with objects, people, experiences, language, traditions, or anything that my audience finds NORMAL.

Like … totally normal, dude!

If I jokingly say it that way I automatically associate myself and endear myself to people who are my age who remember that kind of language as a NORMAL part of  junior high school. If you don’t get it, you’re probably not my age. I shouldn’t use that specific language association when I’m speaking to someone that never thought it was NORMAL.

The Weatherman

As we have done in every post of this series, let’s help the TV weatherman become a better communicator by adding endorsements. Our mediocre weatherman starts by saying.

It’s going to be a comfortable 82 degrees tomorrow.

The weatherman could appeal to a third party that the listener already respects:

According to the National Weather Service, it’s going to be 92 degrees tomorrow.

He could appeal to an audience peer testimonial:

We received an e-mail from Jessica in Springville who said she’s going to use the nice weather tomorrow to take her kids to the park.

The subconscious message is: “If normal listener Jessica believes him, I should too.” Alternatively, the weatherman could associate himself indirectly with someTHING that seems normal to the audience:

This is the kind of weather that makes it really hot in a parked car. Be careful for pets and children.

Of course you already know that. Nevertheless, I bet you’ve heard some newscaster actually say something like it — because everybody listening knows what’s it’s like to get in a parked car that feels more like a sauna. It makes the weatherman seem NORMAL.

There are 5 types of illustrations — 5 Es:

  1. Explanation
  2. Evidence
  3. Endorsement

Next week we discuss the biggie: Examples.


5 Illustrations Mediocre Speakers Don’t Know: Evidence

For some reason, mediocre speakers think facts and figures make them better presenters. Yet somehow, even after adding more facts and figures, mediocre speakers still sound just like everybody else.

Last week we discussed the least effective type of illustration–Explanation.

This week we’ll discuss the second of the 5 types of illustrations that you can use to convey your message–Evidence.

If you do it right, evidence (facts and figures) can make you look more credible, more authoritative, and more intelligent.

On the other hand, I’m willing to guess that you’ve also been to that know-it-all’s presentation with so much information that you sat there with only one thought:

I don’t care!

Have you seen that know-it-all? Do you respect him more? or less because of all the evidence he spews all over the office?

I can’t possibly enumerate all the ways that you can do it wrong, but here’s three:

  1. Other people’s knowledge
  2. Logical Argument
  3. Information overload

All of these problems lead to mediocrity because of one simple fact:

The purpose of evidence is not to prove your POINT. The purpose of evidence is to prove YOURSELF.

Let me illustrate …

Other people’s knowledge

The most common mistake I see from mediocre public speakers is including statistics, research, facts and figures from others.

Isn’t that what they taught you to do in school? Always reference where you got your information? Of course! You have to give credit where it is due.

The problem is, that the more you talk about other people’s expertise, the more other people look like the expert instead of you!

The point of sharing evidence is to prove YOURSELF — YOUR credibility. Merely sharing evidence for the sake of evidence can actually make you look worse. This is especially true is you have to consult your notes, read the evidence from a slide, or hesitate to “make sure you get it right.”

If you want to use Stephen Hawking’s research to prove your point, why should I listen to you instead of reading what Stephen Hawking says about it himself?

Don’t get me wrong–you can and should use evidence. Just make sure you are establishing your own credibility and not someone else’s.

A mediocre speaker shows a chart like the one above from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), then they begin to nearly quote the CDC numbers verbatim:

In 2010, a total of 2,468,435 deaths occurred in the United States. The first two leading causes of death, heart disease (597,689 deaths) and cancer (574,743) …

That’s the wrong way to do it because nobody actual cares about the exact number 597,689!

If you’re giving a speech on heart disease your goal it NOT to prove how many people die of heart disease, your goal is to prove that YOU know enough about heart disease to be trusted.

The actual number is nearly irrelevant. When you read other people’s information verbatim, all you prove is that you know WHO ELSE knows more than you.

All you have to do to retain credibility for yourself if make the information your own. MEMORIZE the most relevant evidence, reference the source, but present it as your own knowledge.

According to the CDC, 24% of deaths are from heart disease. I know that if you include indirect deaths from other causes, it’s even higher …

All that other information, and sometimes even the chart is just evidence for the sake of evidence, and will not help you.

Logical Argument

Another EXTREMELY common mistake from mediocre public speakers is to present facts and figures as proof  in a logical argument that the speaker believes will convince the listener of some “thesis.”

If you are actually presenting an academic thesis or dissertation, this may be expected behavior, but in real life, business, or social settings, that type of academic presentation puts people to sleep.

Academics want the evidence for the evidence sake. Remember, though, everywhere else, your goal is not to make the EVIDENCE credible, but to make YOURSELF credible.

There is a subtle, yet monumental difference between:

Academic: This research proves I’m not wrong


Persuasive: This research illustrates my point

The academic, in the interest of appearing unbiased, leaves open the possibility that he may be wrong, and indirectly invites the listener to doubt. This may be a healthy approach in the scientific method, but it’s also why it takes decades for the scientific consensus to be overturned.

Most presentations require more inspirational, fast-tracked results. In science the researched assumes the truth of her position and tries to disprove herself.

The persuader assumes the truth of his position, and illustrates it with confirmatory evidence.

There is a reason I call the proof an illustration, and not a proof. One approach assumes the presenter is wrong, unless he can prove the EVIDENCE is valid. The second approach assumes the SPEAKER is right because THE SPEAKER knows the evidence.

In most settings, you want the latter — because you are trying to establish your own credibility, not that of the evidence.

It’s not about the EVIDENCE; it’s about the SPEAKER!

Information overload

I don’t think I need to explain “information overload.” You’ve been there. You’ve seen it. You didn’t like it.

More information doesn’t make the SPEAKER more credible. You only need enough information to establish your own credibility, no more.

Because once again … your goal is NOT to show the audience what all the information is, you’re goal is to show that YOU have all the information.

If you have everything, they need you! If you give them everything, they don’t! Give them just enough that they know you have more of what they want.

The weatherman

How would I coach the TV weatherman to include evidence. The weatherman doesn’t usually just say:

It will be a nice day sometime …

Credibility requires names and numbers:

Saturday it will be 82 degrees by noon

The name is “Saturday” and the numbers are “82” and “noon.” Names and numbers make you more credible — they are evidence.

Of course, any wanna-be-weatherman with no real credentials can read that off the screen, or from the National Weather Service (NWS). The more persuasive weatherperson will learn how to make the names and numbers his or her own:

The NWS models say it will be 82 degrees by noon on Saturday; Based on the lower stratospheric winds, I forecast you’ll have an about 5 degrees warmer Sunday.

This weather report delivers the message, but also builds the credibility of the messenger, because  the weatherperson shares his own evidence “I forecast” with specifics “5 degrees” and “Sunday” in addition to someone else’s. Also the messenger throws in specific names “lower stratospheric winds” to prove his or her own credibility.

Warning: If the weatherman looks like he has to read it, he looks like a wanna-be. The words only work if they appear to be coming from the weatherman and not from the teleprompter.

We as listeners probably don’t care to understand about the “lower stratospheric winds.” What we do care about is trusting that the weatherman does!

Likewise, your boss doesn’t usually care about all the evidence in your presentation. He or she doesn’t want to know it all, but your boss does want to know that you do.

The purpose of evidence is not to prove your POINT. The purpose of evidence is to prove YOURSELF.

The evidence only helps if it has your fingerprints all over it!

Mediocre presenters think evidence by itself will make them better communicators. It won’t! It take 5 types of illustrations to rise above mediocrity:

  1. Explanation
  2. Evidence

Next week we’ll make the most of number 3.



5 Illustrations Medicore Speakers Don’t Know: Explanation

Mediocre communicators are all the same! By that, of course, I mean that mediocre presenters get in the rut of presenting everything the same way.

In my SpeechDeck Communication System, there are 5 types of illustrations — five types of proof that support the message you are trying to convey. I call them the 5 Es. Mediocre presenters tend to pick one or two and ignore the rest.


Mediocre speakers almost always default to the least effective E — explanation.

This is the speaker who rambles. This is the presenter who thinks he has to explain the joke when nobody laughs. This is the “teacher” who thinks “teacher” is a synonym for “lecturer.”

This is the presenter whose first slide is a bulleted list, whose last slide is a bulleted list, and all the slides in between were probably bulleted lists, but nobody was paying enough attention to remember.

This is the lecturer who follows the same format from beginning to end and that format is … explanation.

Did you notice that instead of explaining what it means to explain something, I instead gave you examples of people who explain? I could have just explained it:

Explanation: statement or account that makes something clear

That definition is REALLY boring. <<<—- And that sentence (and this one) are the perfect examples of explanation. You really don’t need me to tell you any of this paragraph. As you see, explanation is usually unnecessary. We better try something else …

Are you an explanation addict?

You know that you’re falling into the explanation trap if you catch yourself trying to make a point, and then clarifying it, and then rewording it again and again. If you’re never satisfied with what you say, that’s a sure sign that you’re trying to explain something instead of “present” something.

Explanations usually focus on a mediocre speaker’s selfish need to perfect and articulate information in his or her own head rather than the inspirational speaker’s desire to “present” something the audience truly wants and craves from the audience perspective.

Here is a mediocre TV weatherman who is an explanation addict:

Tomorrow will be a nice day … nice, meaning a day you probably will like … maybe not perfect, but nice, you know … not to cold, not too hot, nice … you might prefer to call it a pleasant day … or comfortable … the dictionary defines NICE as agreeable, satisfactory …

Of course, if you’re mediocre enough to use such an ambiguous word as “nice,” some explanation will be required.

Building a Better Explanation

No speaker can avoid all explanations, but not all explanations are created equal:

  • Definitions
  • Descriptions
  • Comparisons
  • Visuals
  • Demonstrations
  • Analogies

I’ve created the above (incomplete) list of explanations in order of typical effectiveness.

The mediocre presenter inexplicably feels the need to EXPLAIN details that are irrelevant or obvious.

In 2007, apple began selling the iPhone. Before 2007, people didn’t have smart phones, or any phone with a touchscreen or internet which they could access by tapping the screen.

If you were in the audience do you really need the speaker to explain to you that once upon a time you didn’t have a smartphone? NO! DEFINING what a smartphone is and DESCRIBING how to use it is pure unnecessary EXPLANATION.

Giving that explanation makes you look less credible, less interesting, and more patronizing.

It might look obvious in my example, but I’ve heard nearly those exact words about the very subject of cell phones in numerous presentations.

DEFINITIONS and DESCRIPTIONS are usually the least effective explanations. If you must have descriptions, such as describing the setting of a story, make sure you use the SpeechDeck principles of color to make those descriptions more engaging.

Keep logical explanations simple:

Most of us didn’t have smart phones until at least 2007

That’s enough to raise the point that things have changed. We already know what that implies without having it explained to us.

If you really feel the need to drive home a point about not having smart phones, don’t explain it with a DEFINITION or DESCRIPTION, use one of the more effective types of EXPLANATIONS such as a DEMONSTRATION in which you could imitate using a 1990 style car phone in today’s world, or an ANALOGY:

In 1990 you probably had a VCR. Do you remember the video store charging you extra fee if you didn’t rewind? We didn’t have smartphones until the iPhone in 2007! Imagine using VHS tapes today, or 1990s style car phones today …

I hope you can see, without any commentary, how DEMONSTRATIONS and ANALOGIES almost always make less patronizing EXPLANATIONS than DESCRIPTIONS and DEFINITIONS.

The Weatherman

The simplest way for the amateur to rise above mediocrity is simply by replacing the long-winded definition with a COMPARISON:

Tomorrow will be a nice day … 5 degrees warmer than today.

A weatherman could take it up another notch with demonstration or analogy.

Weatherpeople on TV almost always use a visual representation of the forecast. Visual Aids are a type of DEMONSTRATION that is usually more effective than a mere verbal explanation. The most effective presenters make their DEMONSTRATIONS more creative.

I remember a few years ago, the most popular weatherman in my local area used to wear a white suit coat every time the forecast called for snow. That’s a DEMONSTRATION. That’s also why his station had the highest ratings — every other station just had a guy in a business suit saying it will probably snow.

So if I were coaching the weatherman on the ten o’clock news — a job that requires a lot of EXPLANATION, I would encourage him to spruce up his explanations with COMPARISONS, VISUALS, DEMONSTRATIONS, and lastly, ANALOGY:

Tomorrow’s going to be a nice day … like the sun wants to give you a big hug (5 degrees warmer).

Cheesiness is optional. I’m merely trying to illustrate that better explanations don’t put you to sleep.

You should try to avoid long explanations, whenever practical. The more you EXPLAIN, the more your whole presentation sounds the SAME, and the more you seem mediocre.

There are 5 types of illustrations that drive home your message. We’ve covered just one:

  1. Explanation

Next week we’ll talk about another illustration type that mediocre speakers butcher, the second E: Link here.


Weatherman image: Dave Scott by photographer Phil Konstantin (wikimedia)

How to Find Your Subject

If you want to be a more effective communicator, you’ll remember from last week’s post that no matter what your subject, you must incorporate your “passion.”

But how do you find your passion?

What subject will inspire? When you’re not assigned a topic, what do you talk about? When you are assigned a speaking topic, what “passion,” if shared, will make a difference?

You might want to read last week’s post: “Ignore Your Assignments” before reading this post.

What is “Passion?”

In public speaking, “passion” is not necessarily your love, or your hobbies, so much as it is your core beliefs and values. What is that personal “so what” factor for you?

Great presentation skills require that you tap into that inner passion.

If you have parents, you can probably tell me what stories they tell over and over. If you have kids, they can probably tell you what advice you tend to give over and over. It’s easy to see in others the values they hold dear. But it’s much harder to know this about yourself.

If you want to sound authentic, authoritative, and interesting, you must include those core elements of yourself, but first you have to know what they are.

Maybe you’re motivated by family. Maybe you’re motivated to altruism. Maybe you’re a perfectionist, or maybe you’re a persistent devil’s advocate.

What is your core “passion?”

Start with Memories

Brain_powerIt’s a pretty safe bet to say that you remember things that you care about. If you remember something, then something about that experience was important to you. So let’s start with memories.

Make a list of memories. Your list will include include childhood memories, lessons learned, mistakes, triumphs, and dreams. Generally speaking, this exercise will work better if you return to childhood or young adult memories rather than more recent events.

You might find that it’s easy to list a hundred different powerful memories. On the other hand, if you’re like me, your list (your memory) might be lacking.

If you’re struggling to find powerful memories, stop. They don’t have to be “powerful!” You’re not looking for exceptional, out of the ordinary experiences. No matter how seemingly mundane, the very fact that you remember something from so long ago proves that is had a “powerful” effect on you–even if the memory itself doesn’t seem so noteworthy.

I recommend a technique I read about many years ago in a book called “Did I ever tell you about the time…” by Grady Jim Robinson.

Simply make a physical or mental map of your childhood home, and in your mind walk in the front door and tour the house. As you walk around this virtual map, make a note of significant memories from different locations in that home. You can do the same exercise with outdoor locations, recreational destinations, or workplaces.

If you need more ideas, go through a list of important people in your life, and see what memories come to mind for each.

By the time you are done, you should have many dozens of memories on the list.

Pick the top 10-20 memories that feel important to you even if they are mundane or may not appear significant to someone else.

For example, my list looks like this:

  • Vacation with Mom
  • First public speaking anxiety attack
  • Eating cow brains
  • Business failure in high school
  • Helping my dad with the computer

My real list is much longer, I just want to give you an example of the general idea.

Find Meaning

so-what-1462746_640Once you have a list of 10-20 memories, go through the list one by one and write a sentence to explain why you think you’ve retained the memory, or what you learned from the experience.

You remember these experiences for a reason. Write down that reason. My list looks something like this:

  • My trip Mom taught me to take advantage of opportunity
  • My public speaking anxiety attack taught me not to give up
  • My eating weird food made me feel proud to have accomplished something
  • My business in high school helped me appreciate failure
  • I remember Helping Dad with the computer because it frustrated me when he didn’t figure it out himself.

Find Common Themes

As you start writing these “WHY” sentences you will start to see some common themes. When I did this exercise myself I ended up with about 4 or 5 common themes that applied to almost every single one of my memories.

For example, as I thought about the above list, every one of those five sentences on my list can be summarized in one word: TRY!


Those experiences taught me to TRY. It frustrated me in life when others did not TRY, and I learned valuable life lessons when I did TRY, and I regret those times when I did not TRY.

This is one of my core life values: TRY!

There is no right or wrong answer. There is no set number of themes that you could or should find. Your values don’t have to match mine. Just write down the core values you find in your memories.

Like in my example, “try,” your core values may be easier to phrase in terms of a lesson learned or advice you would give to someone else.

Speak Your Passion

Next time you have to give a presentation, or next time you are asked to do public speaking, take one of those core values and relate it to your subject. It’s a lot easier than it may sound.

  • When I’m teaching a public speaking class, I might be tempted to talk about “public speaking.”
  • When I take my kids out to diner I might be tempted to talk about how much I love the crab salad.
  • When I’m writing a eulogy, I might be tempted to talk about the dead guy.
  • When I’m running a team meeting at work, I might be tempted to talk about the to-do list at work.

All of those approaches would be less effective because they focus on a SUBJECT isolated from feeling. The more effective approach is to always begin with my PASSION FIRST.

Never talk about an assigned subject. Talk about how your passion relates to the assigned subject.

Here’s a better way:

  • When I’m teaching a public speaking class, I should talk about how my public speaking skills changed when I was willing to TRY new techniques. Then, encourage my audience to TRY as well.
  • When I take my kids out to dinner I should talk about how I love to TRY new food, and how I would be proud of them for trying the crab salad.
  • When I’m writing a eulogy, I should remember that time that the deceased gave me a good example of TRYING — because that affected me.
  • When I’m running a team meeting at work, I should talk about how we’ll never succeed with our to-do list unless we TRY.

What’s your subject?
What should you talk about?
What do you say?

In case you didn’t catch on yet, besides “trying,” one of my core values is the need to share your core values. Authentic, powerful communication requires you to share your true passions. This blog post wasn’t about public speaking, it was about one of my core values–“share the real you.”

That single epiphany, “share the real you,” began my personal transformation from anxiety ridden awkwardness into presentation skills mastery.

Remember your feelings. Identify your core values. Share your passion. The rest will be easy.

"Core Memories" images from Disney's "Inside Out"

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.