PowerPoint Rules of the Road


I helped a very important client establish some rules for their presentations. Most PowerPoint presentations suffer from “too”. Too much information. Too many graphics, too much type, too many slides, too little white space, fonts too small.  These rules below help to alleviate this problem.


What do you want the audience to remember afterwards? Most people can only remember 3 things. What are the 3 critical things you want the audience to recall?

The most important of the 3 things to remember is the takeaway.  What is your presentation’s takeaway?  Express it as a benefit for the audience. Build it into the open and close.

Slide #2 is very important because it communicates the takeaway you want to convey.

The title on a PowerPoint slide is the very top line. It’s often used as a description of that page, such as  “Agenda” “Our Team”  or  “Summary”.  Try to make that heading more active.  For example, instead of “Agenda”, perhaps it might read “How we will reach the goal”.

Keep It Simple

Keep both the design and message simple.

Try to use one slide for every two minutes of your presentation.  A 40 minute presentation has 20 slides. The fewer slides you have, the more you can connect with the audience.

Don’t attempt to put every word and every thought you want to cover on the slides.  The PowerPoint is to help you underscore the big, important points.

One slide per message.


Use two and never more than 3 styles in total.

Fonts should be at least 30 points.

Fonts that work well and are appropriate for your category are: Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri and Courier.


Try to avoid clip art, and never use more than one visual per slide.

If you insist on clip art, don’t make it front and center.  Place it in roughly the same spot on each slide.  I prefer the lower right hand corner, so it doesn’t fight with the type. And, I like the visual to be small but appropriately sized, not big and horsey.

Conversely, if you have an important graph, chart, map, etc. that goes front, center and large, so everyone can read it.

You don’t need an image on every page.  Only use images that help convey the message. For example, when Steve Jobs introduced the new thing laptop, the photo he used to communicate its thinness was the laptop being slid into a manila envelope. That said thin better than even a shot of the laptop alone, because it gave the comparison.


Stick to your corporate palette.

Final Thoughts

Plan your presentation on paper first, then move it to PowerPoint looking to reduce sentences and concepts to simpler ideas.

Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule is good advice. Use no more than 10 slides, speak for 20 minutes and use 30 point font or larger.

You are the star of your presentation, not the slides.  You are the excitement of the pitch, not the PowerPoint.  You are the pizzazz.



Starting a Presentation on a Negative Note


One of the myths about making presentations is that you should never start negative.  I take some umbrage with that notion, but need to add a few caveats.

If you have to deliver bad news within your presentation, the strongest place to do it is in the opening.  For example, let’s say you are in construction and a client asked you to present a plan to build a project for them under certain specs and budget parameters.  The problem is that their budget was not realistic.  You can either  do half of what they want within budget; or, do the entire job with sub-par materials and construction to meet their goal.   A poor scenario either way. So, something has to give. 

The place to raise that negative issue is right in the beginning of the presentation.  It would be unfair and unwise to present a construction plan that far exceeds the budget and not reveal that issue until the end of the meeting. The client will have her hopes shattered at that point. Whereas, indicating the issue in the beginning changes the nature of the meeting to a discussion about which areas are best to compromise on and which areas are must-haves. It’s something that requires both sides to bat it around. That’s an incredibly valuable discussion.

Here’s how that might sound: “Judy, today we want to present our thinking for your new addition.  But we ran into an issue soon after we started the process.  Given all of the things you asked for, we can’t meet your budget request without doing inferior work,  which neither of us wants.  Instead, we put a budget together that achieves your goals under our most efficient scheme, but it’s still 22% more than budget.  We want to walk you through that entire plan, and then together discuss what is important and which areas we can cut.”

Tackling that thorny issue right up front makes a demonstration to the client about your honesty and value. You’re not playing games. You are on her side trying to work out the issues in the best possible way.  You will be seen as more valuable to the team when you do this.

There is a danger starting with a negative issue, however.  Human beings often assume a certain posture and tone when they talk about difficult issues or bad news.  We smile less.  We are less animated. Our body language is hunched over, not the strong posture one should have.  Even the voice becomes more monotone and softer. Further, there is the danger that a down persona will carry over into the rest of the presentation, in which you have more upbeat information.

Here is my recommendation.  Instead, of looking at this scenario as a negative (you are presenting disappointing news to the client), look at it as a positive (you are doing your job bringing value to the client on a thorny issue).  And, because you are doing your job, you should have strong posture, animated hands and arms and no sad-dog look on your face.  You should be proud that you have identified a problem that can be addressed now, rather later on when it becomes very costly to both sides to fix.

The client will see you as a strong, problem solver that she can rely on.

Ps: Years ago when I was an account executive at an advertising agency, we gained a new retail account.  It was a major win.  After a number of meetings and development, we still hadn’t nailed the new campaign.  At some point, the client called me and asked why he hasn’t been shown the new work after all this time.  I was tempted to make an excuse, but instead I gave him the bad news. “We’ve developed about 5 campaigns, and each one is worse than the next, so I didn’t want to show anything to you.  I believe we have figured it all out and hope to have something for you next week.”

He was not only satisfied with that answer, but wrote to the President of the ad agency telling him that my honestly sealed our relationship.  He had complete faith in me and the work we were going to show.

Pss: We did a terrific campaign.  The first two weeks it ran business jumped and research indicated we were right on target to meet our awareness goals.  Unfortunately, the wife of the owner didn’t care for the campaign and insisted we trash it. What makes advertising such a hard business is that it is based on individuals tastes, not research or testing.



Presentation Myths

There’s lots of advice out there if you are preparing to give a speech or make a presentation.  Here are 8 myths you should avoid:

You need a funny opening.

While it is true that you need to get attention and hold attention in the beginning of a presentation, it doesn’t require you be funny.  In fact, a good rule is never start with a joke or funny remark unless you are very familiar with the audience.  If you want to hold the audience’s attention, tell them something that will make their job easier, or make them more money, or make them look better in their boss’s eyes.  You will own the rapt attention of the audience when you do that.  You don’t need no stinking jokes.

Always start by thanking everyone, giving introductions and reviewing the agenda.

The audience has a limited attention span and will start to listen with only one ear after a minute or so. If that’s the case, why waste that valuable time by doing all of those housekeeping things you can do later in the presentation?  Get to the main issue as fast as you can and worry about introductions later.  Likewise, I always laugh when a speaker starts off by saying “how excited” he is to be speaking to the group.  He doesn’t look excited. He doesn’t sound excited. And the audience doesn’t believe a word of that babble anyhow.  Start with the presentation’s takeaway.  That’s what the audience wants to hear.

PowerPoint slides should be filled with visuals

Research indicates that visuals helps people get the message.  I challenge exactly what kinds of visuals that might mean.  Graphs, flow charts and organizational charts certainly help people see things better.  But, does a clip-art cartoon of a man with his head buried in the beach to correspond with the headline “Don’t bury your head in the sand” achieve anything?  It adds nothing and detracts considerably.  Serious business people should never use clip-art.  Photos and illustrations can be helpful, especially if they demonstrate a point.  For example, when Apple said its new lap top was the thinnest in the world, having a photo of the lap top slipping into a manila envelope did a great service by demonstrating it.

“I’m Not a Born Presenter”

Charismatic speakers are powerful up on the stage. The audience loves them and buys whatever it is they are selling.  These powerful speakers often dissuade the rest of us presenters from trying hard because “we weren’t born with the gift of gab.”   But a study at Harvard indicates that charisma can be taught, and that by incorporating body language techniques into your presentation, you can be perceived as charismatic, as well.  Imagine how much more powerful you will be as a speaker when you are able to use these techniques successfully.

Saying filler words like um and ah will ruin your presentation.

Here’s my pet peeve. Someone somewhere declared that you have ruined your presentation if you utter a non-word like “ah” or “um”.  And, certainly if your speech if filled with repetitive words or repetitive non-words that’s not good.  If you use any word or expression so much that the audience is counting, you need to stop it immediately.  But, using an occasional “ah” or “um” is perfectly fine.  What isn’t fine is that some less experienced speakers believe that they have ruined their presentation when a non-word slips out of their mouth. That’s not the case.  No one noticed. No one cares except the speech police.

Speak slow and distinctly.

Every presentation course I ever took underscored the need to speak slowly and distinctly.  Obviously, it is important to be heard, so speaking clearly is key.  However, new research on the subject reveals that people are accustomed to listening to their friends speak at a fairly fast clip, so talking quickly is not damaging.  Speaking too slowly can send out negative vibes to the audience.  The audience occasionally needs to catch its breath.  Pausing every once in a while in a presentation is helpful for all concerned.

Beware of over-rehearsing.

One of the more common excuses that people site for not rehearsing is the fear of over-rehearsing. But, it’s all a lame excuse.  Rehearsal is good and more rehearsal is better, as long as you aren’t rehearsing your presentation word for word. Not rehearsing becomes evident in a second as people fumble about, speak for twice as long as they need and generally make a spectacle of themselves.  If over-rehearsing hurt the performance, would basketball players, for example,  practice their game and specific plays constantly?  They may play 4 games in a row but then they show up for practice the next day.  It’s a crime if you have put in a great deal of time developing the content of a presentation to then not spend another good hunk of time to practice giving it.

The audience is waiting to pounce on any mistake.

Have you ever been in the audience when someone is making a presentation and doing poorly?  You don’t rejoice in that, do you?  In fact, a poor presenter makes everyone in the audience squirm.  We want you to do well and entertain us. We want to learn from you.  We want you to be a star.  Most of the time people look the other way when mistakes happen.



The Power of Metaphors and Analogies

Metaphors and analogies are a powerful way to convey meaning to the audience.  I wanted to share with you an article about a metaphor that a famous basketball coach used to convey how important practice is, and how important your 100% effort is, and how important one’s responsibility to his team is.  Here’s the article written by Don Yaeger:

The Greatest Coach of All Time (as selected by his peers) celebrates his 99th birthday today! Former UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden would be the first to tell you that “he” didn’t win 10 national championships, the young men he “taught” are responsible for those banners.
His teaching methods were often unconventional… but always effective.
Perfect example: The first day of practice at UCLA was always a day full of anticipation and excitement as the new recruits awaited the arrival of Coach Wooden, known affectionately as the Wizard of Westwood.  As they waited, each wondered what secrets of the game, what strategies for winning would spring forth from the famous coach on Day One. 
“Please take off your shoes and socks,” Coach announced to the team, seating himself upon a locker room bench.  “I’m going to show you the proper way to put them back on.”  The new players looked at one another in disbelief – had the old man lost him mind?  What on earth did this have to do with basketball?  Not wanting to question their leader, they all complied and waited for what would come next.
“Now, when you pull on your sock,” he said showing them through example, “I want you to make sure that there are no wrinkles or gaps,” as he put his own socks on. “Make sure your heel is full seated in the heel of the sock; run your hand over the toes and make sure to smooth out any bumpy areas.” Then he showed each player how to properly lace his shoes and tie them snugly so that there was no room for the shoe to rub or the sock to bunch up.
As Coach Wooden got up to leave the locker room for the gym, the players behind him were silent, still wondering what their coach could possibly be doing by starting out the season talking about shoes and socks.  Here they were, the best schoolboy players in America, and this legend had just spent 30 minutes teaching them about shoes and socks.
Just then, Coach Wooden would turn around and, with a glint in his eye,  say ‘That’s your first lesson. You see, if there are wrinkles in your socks or your shoes aren’t tied properly, you will develop blisters. With blisters, you’ll miss practice. If you miss practice, you don’t play. And if you don’t play, we cannot win.
“If you want to win Championships, you must take care of the smallest of details.”

 Coach then walked away, his first practice complete.



Perfect PowerPoint Procedures

I’m conflicted by PowerPoint.

It certainly has its virtues, but it has a Mr. Hyde side lurking in dark alleys.  For my own use, PowerPoint is a great cue card that helps me make presentations with less anxiety.  But, I use as little of it as I can.  Most people, however, use as much PowerPoint as they are able to jam into a presentation. The result is often poor communications, presentations that go on longer than they have to with less real connection between the presenter and the audience.

Recently I helped a client with his PowerPoint.  It was quite long and packed with clip art, catch phrases, a dozen typefaces and no design scheme to the information.  It was a dog’s breakfast, as the Canadian’s like to say.  I went through the slides and eliminated a dozen, consolidated more, removed most of the clip art, standardized the fonts and design, and eliminated duplicity.  The client, upon seeing the slides said that they didn’t excite him.  There was no “pizzazz”.  Which brings up an observation about PowerPoint.  You are the star of your presentation, not the slides.  You are the excitement of the pitch, not the PowerPoint.  You are the pizzazz.

PowerPoint is not there to be the comedian that gets a chuckle from the audience from some obscure photo or clip art,  or a cartoon of a man sticking his head in the sand.  If you’re taking up the audience’s time, give them value. If they want chuckles, they can watch Curb Your Enthusiasm.

PowerPoint has made us lazy presenters.  We think we’re working hard as we churn out a hundred slides for a 50 minute presentation, but the opposite is true.  Our real message is now buried in some obscure slide that has a rainbow and elves running around on it.

Slides need to communicate.  They need to help you make your point.  Steve Jobs did it with one or two words on a slide and spectacular photography.  My guess is that you don’t have the same art department and the same resources to create the perfect visuals for your slides.  Better then to not use any visuals.  All-type slides are fine, as long as you haven’t stuffed each slide with hundreds of words.

PowerPoint made us lazy because we no longer think about what we want to communicate, but how.  The “how” is certainly important but it should come into play after you know what you want to say and why you want to say it to a specific audience.

Unfortunately,  when people are told they have to make a presentation, their knee jerk reaction is to start by building a slide deck.

Instead, let’s start by identifying what your message is to the audience, and how can you best package that message so that it is an obvious benefit to everyone listening, because…the bigger the benefit it is to them, the more they will listen and the more they will respond and the more they will hire your firm.

Ask yourself this question as you begin to think about your presentation.  “When the presentation is over, what one thing do I want the audience to remember after I’m gone?”  Make sure that one thing is a benefit to the audience.  Now package that one thing  – the takeaway  –  into the open and close of the presentation. Use the middle to demonstrate the importance of the takeaway.

DO NOT USE THE POWERPOINT TEMPLATE YET. Sketch out the presentation on paper as you visualize the information being dealt out to the audience. Visualize how the audience reacts to that information. Visualize yourself telling them that information.

When you have the paper version where you want it, start to transfer it to the PPT template.  You don’t need to do it word for word.  Think of a single word or sentence that captures the gist of each major point.

I won’t bore you with all of the rules of effective PowerPoint, but keep the word count low, the font size large, and clip art nonexistent.  If you have strong graphics that truly add to the presentation and demonstrate the point you are making, by all means use them.  If they are really strong, they probably don’t need any other thing on the screen but the picture.  If you still have to add words to the slide, perhaps the graphic isn’t as strong as you thought.

Try to stick to Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule.  No more than 10 slides, presented in 20 minutes.  The font size on the slides is at least 30 point type.

Consider opening your presentation with a black screen.  The reason this is effective is because when slides are on the screen, the audience looks at the screen.  When the screen is black, the audience looks at the presenter.  What a great opportunity to connect with the audience and deliver your opening.  Likewise in the close, go to a black screen again and sum up your presentation, then go back to the slides to ask for some action step.  Most remote control slide changers have a button that allows you to go to a black screen.  If not, simply hit the letter “B” on your keyboard and the screen goes black.

Finally, have a vanity monitor in the room so you can see the PowerPoint without turning around after each slide to see where you are.  This will make you appear to be in complete control of the presentation, which in turn will make you look confident.  People tend to agree with others who they think are confident.

Put your energy into the content and into identifying what the audience values.  Don’t spend too much time on the PowerPoint.  The less you use, the stronger it becomes.

Check out my web site for lots more PowerPoint suggestions, including these:




Creating Openings for Stories

Recently, I was told a terrific story by someone I met for the first time.  It happened when she asked me about my workshops and I recited a few stories that were used in the most recent group I ran. The stories were particularly dark. When I was done, she said, in a most polite manner, “I think I could beat that”.

She started her story by saying that she was in The World Trade Center on September 11.  She was meeting two other people in the lobby before they went upstairs for a 9 AM appointment at Lehman Brothers.  At 8:45 events changed rapidly for the three of them and they ran out of the building as fast as any of them had ever run. She kicked off her high heels so she could run faster, running on streets strewn with broken glass. She turned at one point, about 4 blocks from the building, to see what had caused this explosion when she witnessed the 2nd plane hitting the 2nd tower.

I was glued to every word she spoke.

Eventually, she got down to the ferry below the World Trade Center and took it to New Jersey.  On the ferry she saw the first building collapse.  She went on to discuss the trauma she experienced and how she dealt with it.  She had special therapy for people with PTSD which helped her deal with the powerful emotions that day that became imbedded in her mind. Years later, on April of 2013, she was blocks away from the finish line of the Boston Marathon when those bombs exploded.  The angst and sadness of 9/11 came rushing back with each explosion and she started sobbing as soon as she heard the bombs go off.

I just gave you the fast overview of her story.  Her telling was compelling, dealing with how the 9/11 episode changed her life. Changed her career. Caused her to look seriously at how she was spending her days.

I appreciate a good story and love to retell it to friends. I’ve done so with hers. I kept exploring how I wanted to start the story.  There’s a preface needed, of course.  I started by saying “I heard the most incredible story” because I wanted people to know I’m retelling someone else’s story.  I wasn’t there. I also experimented with her opening.  I tried it a number of ways. I wanted to see if there was a more intriguing way to start the story.  She started with the big headline:  “I was in the World Trade Center on September 11.”

I tried to tell the story as a reveal without first mentioning the name of the building or the date.  My opening was that my friend was in finance and was going to be part of a team to make a presentation to Lehman Brothers.  She was to present with 2 colleagues whom she never presented with previously.  So, as folks often do when they are presenting together for the first time, they all met in the coffee shop of the building to discuss who says what, and who presents what and who opens and closes, etc.

When they worked out the choreography for the presentation it was time to take the elevator up to Lehman Brothers.  They were still seated in the coffee shop of the building…The World Trade Center… when suddenly the windows on the ground floor exploded and all hell broke out.  It was 8:45 on September 11.

I noticed that as I told it my way, I had to rush a bit to get to the reveal (It was 8:45 on September 11) because my audience was becoming inpatient. There wasn’t enough of interest to hold their attention.  Subsequently,  I started telling it the way she told it to me, starting with the big headline: (my friend was in the World Trade Center on September 11).

When I started with the big headline version, I owned the audience and they stayed with me for every step and turn of the story.  When I told it as a reveal they had trouble catching up emotionally to where I wanted them to be.

It’s a good lesson learned. When the story is compelling, start with the story. It doesn’t have to be creative.  When the story is less compelling, use some tricks to dress it up.  One caution, however.  If the story is compelling and you start with the most salient fact, make sure there’s more meat on the bone to discuss, otherwise it becomes a lopsided story with a terrific opening and no follow through.

Her opening wasn’t creative, but she owned the audience with it. Recently in another workshop the presenter told a story that was moderately interesting so he started with a creative opening. This also worked well.   His opening was “So, I’m in the examining room of the emergency ward when the doctor turns to me and says ‘You know, as chain saw cuts go, this one is pretty clean.’ ”

There’s a simple lesson here. If you have a great story, open with the most impressive factoid.  If it is less than great, dress the opening up a bit.





For Foreign Born Presenters, Body Language is the Real Test

I’ve worked with foreign born presenters frequently.  They are people trying to do business in the western world.  From a presentation standpoint, each one is most concerned about their use of English: “Are my pronunciations correct?”  “Am I using the right grammar?”  These are all justifiable and understandable concerns.

When a non-western person is presenting, I am not put off by the accent, or an odd pronunciation.  I’ll excuse minor grammatical mistakes (English grammar can be tricky).  The part of the presentation that throws me are all of the non-verbal things that a foreign born speaker does or doesn’t do.

I’ve noticed in my workshops, for example, that some Asian-born speakers tend to not use their hands as much when they present. They speak in a soft voice.  They avoid eye contact.  Although the content of their pitch was potentially persuasive, these body language issues were more disruptive to good communications than an accent. And, while I appreciate that some of this is cultural, if the speaker is training for making presentations to western audiences, then these cultural issues should be addressed.

Some studies have indicated that body language often carries the weight of strong communications.  For example, the speaker might be impassioned about an issue but a passive body language says the opposite. I need the body language as a physical cue to reinforce and underscore that which the speaker is saying, especially if accents get in the way.  When the words and body language conflict, I don’t always get the message.

It’s not unlike standing in front of an audience, and in a monotone and soft voice, with arms unmoving and eyes cast down to the floor proclaim that “I’m very excited to be here.”  People who are excited show it with their body language. Their face lights up, their hands become animated.  And, because I can’t always understand each word they speak, I need the body language to fill in the meaning of what they are saying.

There are remedies for these issues.  If the accent is so thick that it’s difficult to understand the words they are speaking, a speech therapist would be very helpful.  There are speech therapists who specialize in working with people from specific regions of the world.  It may even be a case of requiring a small fix.  For example, Indian-born presenters sometimes have difficulty with the  “t-h” sound.  When saying “theme” it comes out “team”.  “Thanks” becomes “tanks”.  Things like that are easily addressed in a session or two (followed by lots of practice).  Heavier accents might require specialized help to address the basics of speech.

Body language issues require a trainer to point out what they are doing and to demonstrate more acceptable ways of expressing themselves.  This may require a single session, but the student then needs to practice those new moves in front of a floor length mirror.

International business people understand that they need to become more proficient at English.  They often seem less concerned with their body language affectations.  But, they should focus on body language just as much as spoken language and pronunciation.  We get so much of our understanding of a message from body language that international presenters need to work equally hard on that aspect of their delivery, as well.





A Pitch Blueprint*

I have been involved in over a thousand pitches. In some I was a participant.  In others I was a consultant. The ones that are successful all pitch in very similar ways. And the ones that are less successful all share in their own pattern.

Most companies, when they make a pitch, work from the left to the right.

Who  →         What   →      How →       Why

That is, they start with telling the prospect Who they are:  “Let me tell you about our company, this is when we started, this is where are offices are located, this is how many people work for us, this is our founder…”

Then the pitch progresses to the What:  “This is what we do and why it is different from our competitors.  This is our secret sauce, our unique formula, our USP that makes what we do unlike anyone else’s. (And sometimes they actually believe it!)”

Next moving right is the How.  This is where the company making the pitch finally acknowledges there are people on the other side of the conference room table (the prospect) as they discuss how they will approach the assignment at hand, who will work on it, schedules, deliverables, etc.

Finally, the pitch reaches the Why.  This area requires a bit more explanation, because the “why” that the pitching group is addressing is not always the “why” that the prospects have in mind.

The pitching group typically uses this section to say “why you should hire us”. The “why” that the prospect is interested in is “why by hiring you will I make my life easier? Why by hiring you will the job get finished faster? Why by hiring you am I more likely to win the case? Why by hiring you will I look better to my investors and superiors? Why by hiring you will I have to worry less?

More often than not when there is a pitch and it gets into the later rounds, the prospect already knows the technical attributes of each group.  The prospect probably believes that any of these firms is capable of doing the job.  What other benefits can they bring to make that prospect’s choice easier?

Companies who are consistently successful tend to start their pitch on the right by answering the prospect’s Why questions and work left.  They start by telling the prospect the benefits the prospect will gain rather than the attributes the pitching firm has.

Who       ←  What      ←  How      ← Why

Hopefully, from prior conversations, you’ll know what concerns the prospect the most and you can address those as the first thing out of your mouth.  Everything you say in the opening (as well as the remainder of the pitch) should be framed as a benefit to the prospect. Even if you must give the history if your firm, present it as a benefit.  When you introduce the team, each person should be presented as a benefit towards the overall effort.

Then, after listing the key benefits the pitch moves to how you will deliver on those benefits, what techniques you’ll use, what specialists you will hire, and how many of your key personnel have expertise in this area.

The What becomes another proof point:  “This is what we do for many of our top clients including A, B and C, and we’ll do it for you.”

The Who is the final proof point:  We’ve been in business for 50 years with offices here and there and we specialize in this kind of work.

This right to left approach accomplishes a whole bunch of things.  First, you start the pitch by talking about the one thing the prospects really cares about, themselves.  The more you talk about how you will help them, the more attention they will give you.

Secondly, from a pure presentation standpoint, it’s much more exciting to talk about real benefits you can accomplish for someone, rather than talking about when your company was founded.  You’re just going to be that much more enthused.  That  passion will do a lot to help you win the pitch.

Why don’t more companies pitch in this manner? Most pitches are a competitive beauty contest.  Companies think that they need to come out of the gate immediately and tell the prospect why they should be hired over the other 5 contenders, so they focus on their company attributes instead of the benefits for the prospect.

It’s all ass-backwards and that’s why most companies have a batting average of about one in 5. You can never go wrong in a pitch when you start by talking about the concerns of the prospect.


*I’m borrowing a concept from Simon Sinek’s outstanding TED Talk on inspirational leadership to discuss business pitches. You should watch Simon’s TED Talk.  It’s terrific.











Stage Fright

Nothing impacts a presentation more than your own anxiety.  It causes you to forget things you wanted to say. It makes you rush through passages that you wanted to spend time on.  It adds a vibrato to your voice that you would rather do without.

Stage fright is the number one concern of most speakers, particularly people who have less experience talking in front of a group.

Yet, anxiety is also a fundamental aspect of every speaker, every actor, every politician and every person who ever presented.  Human beings get nervous when we have to talk in front of others.  We all suffer from some level of stage fright.

In my workshop I offer lots of physical techniques to help quell those nerves. Some of them have to do with diverting your attention to other things so you won’t think about the anxiety you might be experiencing.

Recently, in a workshop one of the participants was chatting with some of her colleagues before the formal session started and said she gets so nervous she can’t even speak when in front of the room.  Her colleague mildly chastised her and said “just don’t think about it.  Just ignore it.”

You can’t just ignore a hundred pound weight that has been placed on your shoulders. Instead, consciously acknowledge that you are experiencing stage fright and think about what you can do about it.

Stage fright is best described as fear of impending trouble.  We are fearful that the audience will not like what we have to say, fearful that we’ll forget what to say, that they may not like us, not like the subject matter, not like the way we said it, not laugh at our jokes, not empathize with the subject matter, not appreciate us. It’s a long list.

I’ve assembled below a pretty good, tried-and-true list of things to do before and during stage fright.  There is one thing in particular I’d like to focus on and one exercise that you will find useful.

The best advice to combat stage fright is to know the opening of your presentation better than you know your own name.  I’m not a fan of memorizing a presentation, but I do believe you should intimately know the opening to that presentation.  Knowing the opening and being able to recite it, like you can recite the Pledge of Allegiance, will give you incredible confidence, which will translate to less anxiety.  That confidence will carry you through the rest of the presentation in fine shape.  Rehearse the opening 5 times more often than you rehearse the whole presentation.

Here is a new exercise to help calm your anxiety.  At your next rehearsal, start by reciting the numbers 1 to 25, or the Pledge of Allegiance or Mary Had A Little Lamb. Recite something you know so well you don’t have to think about it. Don’t rush through it.  Take your time, use hand gestures, make eye contact, smile, pause and then recite it. Pretend you are making a presentation of the alphabet, for example. You’ll be amazed at how confident it makes you feel. Now, segue into your real presentation rehearsal with your new-found bravado.

This exercise will tell your brain that there is no need to worry. You are in command.

Here, then, are the definitive and absolute best additional techniques for dealing with stage fright.

1)      Always rehearse in front of other people.  Rehearsing by yourself in the shower or in front of a mirror does nothing to help you overcome stage fright.

2)      Put a lot of energy into constructing the opening.  If possible, start with a story.  Just knowing you have a killer opening will give you incredible confidence in the beginning.

3)      Fake it. Look like you are enjoying the attention.  Smile. Have strong posture. Make good eye contact with everyone in the room. Use hand and arm movements, move around. Pause occasionally.

4)      Drink a lot of water before you start to speak.

5)      Believe that you are going to knock the ball out of the yard and that the audience will love everything you have to say.

6)      Smile as you look at the audience. They’ll smile back and that will relax you.

7)      Hold something in your hand. It will help stabilize you.

8)      Lean into the conference room table. It will ground you.

9)      Become aware of your breathing and focus on it right before you go up and as you settle in.

10)   Smile if you sense that anxiety is messing with you.  Be strong.

11)   Try a run through the night before, just prior to going to bed. You’ll remember the material better.

12)   On the day of your presentation, as your audience is filing in, chat with people and get to know them. It will give you friendly faces to look at as you speak. If asked what you’ll be speaking about, recite the opening.  It’s good practice.

13)   If possible, have a video made of your presentation, or of one of your rehearsals. You’ll learn mountains from that. One thing you’ll learn is that when you are experiencing stage fright, it’s not nearly as evident as it feels.

14)   Slow down and enjoy the process of speaking to an audience. Connect with individuals.  Have a conversation. Don’t try to rush through just to get it over with.

15)   Smile some more. It tells your brain things are OK.


Go forth and present.  Did I mention smile?




When is a Story Not a Story

One of the big trends in communications these days is storytelling. “If you are giving a presentation, start with a story.”  Good advice that I am guilty of giving, as well.  The reason it is good advice is because stories are the easiest way for most people to communicate. We are more relaxed when telling stories than at any other time.  Audiences seem to like stories. Research shows that people remember stories better and longer than any other form of communications.  Nervous speakers are less nervous when they can start their presentation with a story.  And all speakers who start with a story launch their presentation with a higher degree of confidence, which carries through the rest of the presentation.

So.  What’s the problem?

Recently I saw a tape of an industry gathering. It had a dozen speakers over the course of the day. Each and every speaker started with a story.  Almost each and every speaker told you they we’re starting with a story “I’d like to start by telling you a story about…” And, in almost every case the story technique didn’t work.

In some cases the story technique didn’t work because people told a story that had absolutely nothing to do with their topic or takeaway. It was just a gratuitous story they told because someone in their office read an article about the importance of starting with a story, so they told about the time they hit a baseball through Mrs. Murphy’s plate glass window.

Some of the speakers started by announcing that they wanted to share a story, but it really wasn’t a story.  It was the steps they took in research and execution to develop a particular campaign.  It was a recounting of the chronology of a certain event. That ain’t a story. That’s a report.

The remainder of the speakers worked hard to get the story to relate to their topic or takeaway, although it was sometimes strained.  Their problem was that they were reading the story to the audience, not telling it.  There was no emotion. No joy in telling a story. No interesting language or suspense. No big payoff. Absolutely nothing memorable.

A story is a self contained unit. It has its own open, middle and close.  It should hit some basic emotional notes that we can all relate to.  To paraphrase E.M. Forster, “The King died. The Queen died” is not a story.  It is a listing of facts.  “The King died. The Queen died of a broken heart” is a story because it introduces the emotional element which then gives the audience permission to think about what kind of relationship the king and queen had. How he must have loved her, what their marriage was like, what kind of king he was, etc.  When you tell a real story, it shows in your body language and voice. There’s more modulation, more pauses, more working the audience.  When you tell a story that’s not a story, it’s like reading a shopping list.

This is subtle. So let me try to recreate the best use of a story I ever heard.  Carl was the head of historic preservation for a construction company.  His firm was pitching a prestigious and historic private high school.  The school had a chapel that had lots of custom designed wood:  seats, rails, banisters, steps and other things.  The school was looking for a construction company to take on refurbishing this 100 year old chapel and was rightly concerned about getting someone who understood the value of this beautiful wood. The budget was $12 million.

Four construction firms pitched for the business. When Carl’s firm came in, he brought with him a carton that was previously used for his son’s Sony Play Station.  Carl stood at the conference room table facing the school’s building committee and put the carton in front of them.  He said, pointing to the carton “Sony Play Station. I’m sure some of you got this as a gift for your kids this Christmas. Let me show you what my father used to give me for Christmas when I was growing up.  (Carl reaches into the box and removes a tool) Each year he would give me an antique tool that he used and that his father, my grandfather used every day. Both my father and my grandfather were master carpenters. They would be called in to work on complicated projects. They brought their own tools.  This tool allowed them to plane the curved handrail, like you have in your chapel, this one… (He went on to describe 4 other tools).  These tools probably helped shape your chapel because my grandfather worked on this project, my father worked on this project, and I can’t think of anything more important in my life than for me to be involved as well.”

He went on a bit more. He explained what his role would be in the project and how his construction firm would address key issues.  But, he didn’t need to say another word. He won the account. With the story.

A story is best told with great relish.  It’s told at a different pace than the rest of the presentation.  There’s real joy in telling a story. More pauses. More modulation. More connecting with the audience.

There is nothing more important in a presentation than the opening.  Instead of deciding that you are going to start with a story, decide first what the takeaway is that you want the audience to remember. The takeaway should be a benefit to the audience. It’s not about you.  Once you are certain of the takeaway, see if there are any stories from your own experience or that of your company’s that relate to the takeaway. If there is one, tell it.  If there isn’t, find a different way to open the presentation.

If you do decide to tell a story whether in the open, middle or close, tell it. Don’t read it.  If you need to look at notes in order to convey the story, it’s probably not a real good story for you to tell.  If you are going to read a shopping list and call it a story, use something else.  But if you have a story that plays to the theme in your presentation, practice it and tell it with great vigor.