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.



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"

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

One Question if You Hate Mediocrity

I hate speakers that put me to sleep, I hate presentations with no purpose, and I hate it when the boss requires me to sit through an hour-long meeting that could have been condensed into an e-mail.

Unfortunately, many such presenters think they’re great, but are shockingly mediocre. Let me give you a simple test to know if you are one of those presenters. Continue reading One Question if You Hate Mediocrity