Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Critical First Few Seconds

How critical are the first few seconds of a presentation?

More than you might think. Dr. Nalini Ambady at Harvard fielded a research project to study the impact of first impressions with surprising results.Two groups of college students were exposed to professors for different lengths of time.

One group sat through an entire semester with the professors. The second group only saw 2-second video clips of these same professors teaching. Each group of students was then asked to rate the performance and attitudes of the professors--surprisingly, the survey results from both groups of students were nearly identical.

In other words, after only seeing a 2-second clip of a professor these students were able to ascertain a great deal about his/her style and abilities.Likewise your audience rightly or wrongly sizes you up rather quickly when you begin a presentation.

So how do you make a great first impression?
1) Walk confidently to the front of the room.
2) Smile.
3) Pause 2-3 seconds as you look at the audience.
4) Start talking.

This communicates confidence and that you’re happy to be there (even if you feel like running for the hills). You’d be surprised how far these simple steps will go in winning over your audience before you even utter a single word.How will you make a great first impression?

Rhetorically yours,
Steve Hughes

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Thoughts on "Last Comic Standing" - Part I

Last night I was watching NBC's "Last Comic Standing" and was struck by some of the good and not-so-good things the comedians were doing. For those of you living under a rock (which is not a bad place to live if you have sensitivity to the sun) "Last Comic Standing" is a worldwide "funniest person contest" hosted by Bill Bellamy.

After auditioning thousands of comeidans, we're down to the final 32. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from last night's show.

  • A very funny woman from New York did a whole set about living in New York. Hello? She was performing in LA. Lesson: Know your audience and do material they might relate to. (Yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition. Sue me.)

  • Another comedian, a 9-year veteran, got up on stage and did a series of unrelated one-liner jokes. He would have been right at home in the Poconos circa 1959. But in 2007 he couldn't get in a rhythm nor could he build any momentum with his audience. Lesson: Lose the old school approach. Stay current.

  • A comedian from Minneapolis took nearly 25 seconds of her 2-minute set to get to her first laugh. Nothing against Minnesotans, but that is way too long. Lesson: Life is short. Get to your point fast.

  • The comedians who seemed like they were having fun as they walked onto the stage and up to the mic seemed to perform the best. Lesson: Get them to like you before you start talking. Lesson #2: Have as much fun as the audience.

  • And the comics who performed the most universal material (i.e. stuff that everyone can relate to) did the best. Those who just talked about themselves didn't fare as well. Lesson: It's not about you. It's all about the audience.

  • Best line of the night was from Doug Benson after he earned a spot in the finals. "I feel like a weight has been lifted and it has been replaced by another weight."

My favorites from last night's episode were Ralph Harris and Doug Benson.

Time to Hit Your Stride...

Your Turn #1 and #2: See the "Lessons" above.

Happy Speaking,

Steve Hughes

Speaker - Trainer - Critic

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

2007 National Speakers Association Convention: Day Two

Whoa! So many good speakers, so little time. Today there were two mega sessions (2,300 attendance) and close to 20 breakout sessions at NSA so we can't cover it all. Let's just talk about the speaker that made the biggest impact.

John Molidor, PhD - "Shocking Revelations About What's Going On Inside Your Brain"

John is the dean of the college of Human Medicine at Michigan State--he's one of those smart scientist-types you see on "NOVA" and yet he was able to speak to us in language we could understand. (Keep in mind, the old line about NSA is that it's the only organization around whose members have written more books than they've read.) This is some of the stuff John laid down for us:

  • There are 3 parts of the brain: reptilian (survival), limbic (emotion) and neocortex (thinking).

  • You need to engage all three if you want to be a successful speaker.

  • By the way, when push comes to shove the reptilian always wins. Case in point, if you have to go to the bathroom, learning has left the building.

  • He showed the parts of the brain that "light up" on an fMRI scan when listening to the famous "Starfish Story" for the first time. However, it was interesting to note that a person's brain shuts down (i.e. doesn't light up) when the Starfish Story is told again in the first person. Lesson? When we detect dishonesty our brains don't want any part of it.

  • The brain hates rote. (Hmmm, maybe that's why we didn't enjoy memorizing dates and facts in school.)

  • Smell is the most acute and least used of our senses.

  • You can partially recreate what goes on in the minds of your audience if you describe in a smell or sound in detail. For instance, how do you feel when you walk into a Krispy Kreme when the "Hot Doughnuts Now" sign is lit up?

  • How audiences remember: 1) use color, 2) break your presentation up into 25-minute segments, and 3) provide rest time - let them soak it in.

  • Want to be remembered? 1) Know how the brain works, 2) speak to the senses, and 3) create an emotional content

  • PowerPoint slides? Put images on the left and text on the right - your brain will thank you for it.

  • You use WAY more than 10% of your brain.

  • Men and women speak about the same number of words per day.

  • Finally, he deconstructed the oft misapplied Dr. Albert Mehrabian communication study that said communication is 7% verbal, 38% vocal and 55% visual. Really? To test this theory he played a two minute clip of a person speaking Russian and asked if we could gleen 93% of the meaning. We couldn't. Conclusion? Content matters.

Time to Hit Your Stride...

Your Turn #1: What parts of the brain are you not addressing in your presentations? Could your facts and figures be dressed up with a little emotion?

Your Turn #2: How can you invoke all five senses and build emotional connections with your audience?

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes

Speaker - Trainer - PhD Wannabe

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

National Speakers Association Convention Day One: Simon T. Bailey and Brilliance

The 2007 National Speakers Association is taking place in San Diego this week. It's a weeklong festival of powerful platform presentations and big time business-building breakouts. Here are the highlights from Day One.

Simon T. Bailey kicked off the event with an amazing speech about recognizing and embracing your brilliance. He suggested that brilliance is the present embodiment of potential. Whereas potential is something that might be realized in the future, brilliance is something we have right now.

He had some great quotes, too:

    • "You’re a vitamin, not an aspirin."

    • "Be an original voice, not an annoying echo."

    • "I want to be judged by actions taken, not evaluations given."

    • "You can tell that I’m from Orlando by my Godiva tan." (He's African-American, in case you didn't know.)

    • "I'll let that marinate for a while." He added this line after he said something very profound. The audience loved it.

    • "Delete your ‘qoute file’." Which means, try to create your own quotes instead of resting on the laurels of others. Plus, if the quote is famous enough, there's a chance most of your audience has heard it before. Be an original voice.

He also through out some great statistics about the meetings and convention business. Every year $1.7 billion is spent on meetings and conferences, 1.2 million conferences are held every working day and there are approximately 3,500 members of NSA. His point? There's more than enough work to go around.

Lastly, he closed with a powerful analogy while seated in a chair on stage. When he said is final words he just sat in the chair and looked at the audience. You got the idea that he was finished, but you weren't exactly sure. Then he stood up and walked off the stage. He didn't get more than 3-4 steps away from the chair before the place erupted into a standing ovation.

Nicely done.

Now it's time to Hit Your Stride...

Your Turn #1: I think it's great to use quotes in presentations, but ask yourself if it's time to freshen up your pool of quotations. The author of the quote isn't as important as the quote itself.

Your Turn #2: How will you conclude your next speech? Consider a powerful, show-stopping statement followed by a three second pause. A strong impression is guaranteed.

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes

Speaker - Trainer - Candlestick Maker

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Stick The Landing! End Your Speech With A Call-To-Action

Last week we talked about how you should never, never, never, never end a presentation with a Q&A. The next logical question is “how should a presentation end?” With a Call To Action (CTA).

CTA is a term borrowed from the advertising world. Believe it or not, every single commercial, magazine ad, coupon, web page design, etc. has some sort of CTA.

A Call-To-Action is what the audience should do or think about a product or service.

“Just do it.”

“Drivers Wanted.”

“The 7-Layer Burrito is now only $1.29.”

You get the idea.

Advertisers and good presenters know that the CTA is the last thing the audience will hear and it’s the one thing they’ll most likely remember. Remember your Psych 101 class in college? The recency effect? When given multiple pieces of information, people tend to recall the last thing they hear. So why not make the last thing they hear, the most important thought, request or direction of your speech?

It’s fairly easy to come up with a good CTA if the goal of your speech is for the audience to literally take some course of action. Do you want them to approve a budget? Adopt a new strategic direction? Bless the Q4 advertising plan?

Or, do you want the audience to stop doing something? Reduce mistakes? Less waste?

Crafting an effective CTA requires a little more effort and when you’re just conveying information or providing an update. Just boil the essence of your speech down to a single sentence that encapsulates the purpose of your speech.

Do you want your audience to simply be aware of some new regulations? What are the regulations and what impact will it have on them? The shorter the better.

Are you providing a monthly update? What is the one thought or idea you want your listeners to walk away with? What should they keep top-of-mind when they’re back at their desks?
Does your audience simply need an attitude adjustment? Without being heavy handed, what inspirational thought, quote or number could you leave them with? What will make them pause and think about where their heads are?

For example, I conclude nearly every one of my “Presenting with Excellence” seminars by reminding my audience what they just learned. I tell them, “Anyone can become a great speaker because great speakers are made, not born. You’re off to a great start. Keep it up.”

Does the audience start applauding? Sometimes. Is there a group hug? No. Do they throw roses on the stage? No. (But I wish they would.)

A good Call-To-Action is a great way to end. And a great ending is the best way for your audience to begin the rest of their day.

Time to Hit Your Stride…

Your Turn #1:
Take the goal or purpose of your next presentation and repurpose it to function as a CTA.

Your Turn #2:
Set up your CTA by planting the seed in your audience’s mind prior to Q&A. Try saying this, “Before I make my final point [CTA], what questions do you have about my presentation?” Now your listeners are prepared for a few final remarks after your Q&A.

Rhetorically yours,

Steve Hughes
Speaker - Trainer - An Autobot In Disguise

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Never Never Never End A Speech With Q and A

Think back to the last presentation you gave or the last one you attended as an audience member. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts (whatever that means) that the presentation ended with a Q&A session. Perhaps there was even a colorful PowerPoint slide with a giant question mark on it or it simply read “Questions?” Very creative.

It’s hard to pick the biggest mistake most presenters make, but ending on Q&A has to be up there in the top three.

So you might be asking, “What are we supposed to do? Every presentation should have questions at the end.”

To answer that question, let’s look at all the things that can go wrong during the question and answer portion of the program.

1. There are no questions. Yikes! Talk about an uncomfortable silence. (Check back in a few days for a post about out how to solve the “no questions” problem.)

2. Questions take you off topic. A waste of your time and everyone else’s.

3. The questions turn negative. Some colleague or customer wants to assert himself/herself by tearing you down. Not fun.

4. You get asked legitimate questions for which you have no answer. Ouch. Even if you say you’ll find the answer and get back to the questioner, your credibility takes a hit.

5. The Q&A session is flat. Nothing good or bad happens, but the energy and enthusiasm you worked so hard to generate during the presentation simply vanishes.

6. Finally, most of the time during Q&A people just want to get the heck out of Dodge. In many people’s minds the learning is over and they’re just sitting quietly waiting to leave (and secretly hoping that no one will ask another question).

So when do you let your audience ask questions? You have two options.

One, encourage them to ask questions throughout your presentation. This is the best way to handle questions because there isn’t a formal Q&A session that puts you on the spot. Plus people might forget a question they want to ask if they have to wait until the end. But be prepared, if the audience peppers you with throughout you speech, don’t let them throw off your rhythm.

The second option is to have your Q&A as the second to last thing you do. This way you signal to the audience that there’s more to come, that they should stay engaged and that the Q&A will not go on forever. I like to open Q&A by saying, “Before I make my final point, what questions do you have about my presentation?”

And just what is the “final point” you ask? Tune in tomorrow.

Time to Hit Your Stride

Your Turn #1
Do a little experiment. Pay attention to the way the next three presentations come to a conclusion. Was it Q&A? What was the energy level in the room? What was the mood of the audience as everyone filed out?

Your Turn #2
Try the “questions throughout method” in your next presentation. You might be surprised to see the level of engagement go up. And your speech will feel more like a dialog than a monologue.

Friday, June 29, 2007

It's Official...You Can Hear A Smile

Many a customer service consultant (especially those who specialize in call centers) will tell you that people can actually detect or “hear” a smile over the phone. Really? Does that mean you can smell colors?

Just for grins, I decided to discover if a smile is truly audible over the phone. So at my recent Virtual Presentations seminar at a big PR firm in Chicago, I put this theory to the test.

I asked the participants to (gasp!) come to the meeting with their cell phone. Once there, I instructed each person to leave himself/herself a 60-second update about in important project on their own business voicemail.

Incidentally, everyone in the room left their voicemails while sitting down and some were even hunched over mumbling into their phones.

Then, I asked them to leave the same 60-second voicemail on the same topic only this time they had to stand up, smile, face the person standing next to them and act like they were talking to the person in the room.

During the second round I noticed there was more energy in the room and I even heard a few chuckles. (Chuckles always make a trainer feel good, whether it’s the jelly candy or actual laughter. We’re not picky.)

The last step of the exercise was for everybody to listen to their own messages. As people listened to their first message I saw wincing, cringing and head shaking. When they listened to their second message, they seemed to be more pleased.

At long last, I asked them to describe each message to me in a word or two and I wrote them on a flip chart. Here’s what they said about their first message.

Message #1 (seated, not smiling):
- Boring
- Muffled
- Lethargic
- Rushed
- Flat
- Incoherent
- Chuck full of “ums”

Message #2 (standing, smiling, talking to a person in the room):
- More enthusiastic
- More confident
- Friendlier
- Upbeat
- More conversational
- Focused
- Engaging

How ‘bout that? The participants couldn’t believe their ears. They were shocked at how lethargic and uninterested they sounded on voicemail. But once they stood up, added the smile and acted like they were talking to the person next to them, everything changed.

Time to Hit Your Stride

Your Turn #1:
How do you come across on a conference call? Energetic? Upbeat? Or, tired and uninterested?

Your Turn #2:
Take the Voicemail Test. Leave a one minute voicemail for yourself the way you normally talk. Then leave the same message standing up, smiling and speaking as if there were a person in front of you. Now listen to each message. Which voicemail portrays you the best?

Happy Speaking,

Steve Hughes Speaker - Trainer - Pirate

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Good Speaker Always Has A Backup Plan

What you’re about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent and the not-so-bright.

A few years ago a major American medical association was conducting a search for a new public relations firm. The four finalists we given specific back-to-back time slots during the day to present their creative concepts and media plans. There were only 15-20 minutes between each presentation with no exceptions.

The fourth agency to present that day was Wingtip Partners and their team waited for their turn in the lobby with all their layouts, handouts and visual aids. Minutes before they were called into the boardroom, Wingtip’s creative director went to the restroom and left his large black portfolio case with all their visual aids on a chair in the lobby.

While he was in the bathroom the third agency, Rutledge & White, completed their presentation and filed into the lobby. During the brief commotion of one agency leaving and the other one entering the boardroom, Wingtip’s black portfolio case was accidentally picked up and carried away by a member of Rutledge & White. (Oops.)

Moments later Wingtip’s creative director joined his team in the conference room to set up.

Problem. No portfolio.

They panicked.

Wingtip Partners would have nothing to present if they didn’t have the layouts and storyboards inside that portfolio. With only minutes to spare before their presentation was to begin, they made frantic phone calls back to their office to see if they had accidentally left the portfolio there, they searched inside their cars and they tore up the lobby like DEA agents looking for crack. They were up the proverbial creek.

Finally, they tracked down the cell phone number of the Rutledge & White VP and discovered that she had inadvertently taken the portfolio because it was sitting by itself on a chair in the lobby. She thought it belonged to her team.

[I know what you're thinking, "She took it on purpose." However, I happen to know this person very well and it is not in her genetic makeup to pull a stunt like that. She would want to win the business fair-and-square.]

The case was returned to the boardroom and Wingtip started their presentation about five minutes late. The client later told me that every presenter appeared flustered.

Long story short, Wingtip did not win the account. Rutledge did. And no one will ever know if Wingtip might have prevailed if they had a back up plan (or had their creative director decided to go to the bathroom back at home like mom always told you).

Time to Hit Your Stride…

Your Turn #1: Do you have a backup plan when you’re at a new business pitch? What if a key player doesn’t show up? What if you accidentally arrive late?

Your Turn #2: How good would your presentation be without your visuals? How could you make your presentation shine without your visuals?

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes
Speaker – Trainer – Presentation Whisperer

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dealing with a Chatty Audience

Have you ever faced an overly chatty audience? They’re not being rude per se, but once they get talking during an exercise or a Q&A, it’s hard to shut them up. How do you maintain control without alienating the people you’re talking to?

Yesterday, I got an email from a woman who speaks nationally as a nutrition expert. Her speeches are well received and her audiences like her, but she always runs into trouble during the “did-you-know-how-many-calories-and-fat-grams-there-are-in-some-of-your-favorite-fast-food” section of her program Is it just me, or does everyone today have a fast food calories and fat grams segment?

Without fail, when she “weighs” in on the fast food statistics the audience members begin to talk among themselves. Apparently they’re so amazed by some of these numbers that they can’t help discussing it with their neighbor. She doesn’t want to play the “heavy,” but if she lets them chatter away she won’t have enough time to finish her speech.

So how do you deal with a chatty audience while keeping them on your side?

Here are three ideas to consider and I would love to more from all you fine people out there (see below).

1. Prepare them. As you introduce a “discussion-inducing” portion of your program, warn the audience that they’ll be tempted to discuss it with the folks around them. However, you want to honor their time and keep the presentation on track. (Remember, no one ever wants a presentation to go over the allotted time.) This won’t eliminate the problem completely, but you’ll be clearly establishing your expectations for the audience up front. The easiest way to maintain your leadership position from the platform is by setting your expectations in advance, then your audience will be more likely to follow you. It’s the old adage leave-nothing-up-to-chance approach.

2. Give in. If they’re going to chat about the subject no matter what, go ahead and let them. Set aside 2-5 minutes for the audience to talk amongst themselves. This must be what schoolteachers face during the first snowfall of the year. I say let the students “ooh” and “aah” at the window for a few minutes to satisfy some of their natural curiosity. Then, once they’ve got it out of their system, they’ll be more willing to go back to their desks to continue with their schoolwork.

3. Snap ‘em out of it. Buy a hotel bellhop / lunch counter bell, place it on the lectern and “ding” it several times in rapid succession. These bells make a fun (non-threatening) sound that quickly gets everyone’s attention. The instant the room goes silent after hearing the bell, jump in and say whatever you need to keep them on track.

Time to Hit Your Stride

Your Turn #1: How do you deal with chatty audiences?

Your Turn #2: What have you seen other speakers do when faced with a loquacious bunch?

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes
Speaker – Trainer – Occasional Close Talker

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Best Banking Presentation Ever - Part II

Here’s the scene: I was attending the annual shareholders meeting for a start-up bank, Champion Bancshares ( To be perfectly honest I showed up partly because I heard the food at the event would be fabulous. And it was. What I wasn’t prepared for was how good the presentations were by the bank officers. In my limited experience, most people don’t camp out for several days to get line tickets for an upcoming bank presentation. The Police reunion tour, yes. A series of banking speeches, not so much.

At any rate, after the bank president Kirk Briden kicked off the meeting in fine style (See “Part I”), he turned the mic over to Lane Alpert, Senior Vice President. Lane talked about the commercial side of the bank by opening with a short anecdote about Auguste Renoir. (Art history majors, rejoice!)

Apparently Renoir suffered from terrible arthritis during the final twenty years of his life; it was so bad that his gnarled, pain-stricken hands could barely hold a paintbrush.

When asked by a friend why he continued to paint while he suffered so greatly, Renoir replied,
“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
Lane tied this quote to his team’s hard work and creative approach to banking. It’s not easy, but certainly worth the effort. He also quipped that bankers’ hours for his group meant 11-12…(long pause)…hour days. Nice.

And to top it off, Lane concluded his remarks by going back to the Renoir quote. Very poignant. Very symmetrical. Sort of like a Hemingway chapter. Bravo.

Even when the vertically-challenged CFO, Bruce Phelps got up behind the lectern to start his portion of the program, he opened with humor by saying, “Yes, I am standing up.” Laughter ensued. Undoubtedly Bruce had the toughest assignment of the night because he had to read all the legal disclaimers, review some key financial information and handle the Robert’s Rules of Order stuff. But he even joked about trying to make his part of the presentation shorter, but the lawyers wouldn’t have any of it. Another smile, dare I say a laugh from the crowd.

Finally, Kirk Briden once again stepped up to the microphone and he asked all 37 of the bank employees to stand while the shareholders gave them a rousing ovation. But he didn’t stop there. Kirk also acknowledged the support and sacrifice made by the employees’ spouses and significant others (who were also in attendance).

Again, it was THE best banking presentation I had ever seen. Kirk, Lane and company took a potentially dull discussion of data and turned it into a decidedly dynamic discourse. That’s dynamite.

Interesting sidebar: After the meeting I had no less than three people came up to me and ask if I had given the presenters speech coaching. I had not. I wished I could have taken credit for their speeches that night because it probably would have lead to additional business for me.

I guess I’ll have to find another group of bank officers that need help jazzing up their presentations. Know anybody who fits this description? Let me know.

Time to Hit Your Stride

Your Turn #1: Who are the unsung heroes of your organization that need to be recognized publicly? How can you honor them in your next presentation?

Your Turn #2: Many people might think that banking and humor don’t mix. I think they mix quite well. Where can you add a little relevant, appropriate humor to your business communication?

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes
Speaker - Trainer - Sudden Banking Enthusiast

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Best Banking Presentation Ever - Part I

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you can make a speech about banking fun, you can change the world.”

Okay, I’m not 100% sure that Ben actually said that, but the words are a truism as far as I’m concerned.

Case in point. Last week I attended a shareholders meeting for a newly formed bank in St. Louis called Champion Bancshares ( While the bank is off to an amazing start with the 2nd largest capitalization in Missouri banking history, I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to the officers’ speeches with all the numbers and spreadsheets and details and whatnot. I, like most people, find the choice between a banking presentation and a root canal to be a toss up.

Was I ever wrong.

The first speaker of the night was Kirk Briden, the bank president, and this guy immediately grabbed the audience’s attention by flashing a picture on the screen of a group of 15 geeky looking 20-somethings from what appeared to be the late 1970s. Everyone laughed. This group was an odd sort to say the least. Kirk then asked the audience, “Would you have invested in this group of people?” More snickers and laughs.

He continued, “Well, you would have been wise to do so because these are the founding members of Microsoft.” Stunned silence followed. “My team and I are certainly glad that you all decided to invest in out bank…”

He then quoted 19th century architect Daniel Burnham who was instrumental in Chicago’s urban planning after the Great Fire of 1871. Burnham said,
“Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably
themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work
remembering that a noble, logical plan once recorded will never die.”
This quote summarized the bank’s approach to business. Make no small plans. Aim high. Powerful stuff.

After this Kirk proceeded to discuss the “state of the bank,” what lay ahead and what was in store for the rest of the meeting. This part of the speech could have been a cure for insomnia, but Kirk used several analogies from Alexander the Great vanquishing superior armies to the last year’s surprising World Series victory by the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals analogy was brilliant because he used it to reassure his investors that while things were going very well, the bank had experienced a few bumps along the way. He noted that the 2006 Cardinals won baseball’s top honor, but they also endured two 8-game losing streaks and committed their share of errors. In other words, he reminded his audience to keep their eyes on the prize and that any worthwhile venture will suffer minor glitches along the way.

Again, this was a banking presentation. Kirk had the crowd of 150+ engaged and interested in what he had to say. What a terrific way to get the evening rolling.

To hear about the other speakers, tune in tomorrow.

Time to Hit Your Stride

Your Turn #1: How can you use quotes, stories and pictures to make your next presentation meaningful and memorable?

Your Turn #2: What “big plans” are you making? Are your goals lofty enough? How can your next speech “stir the blood” of your audience?

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes
Speaker - Trainer - Utility Infielder

Monday, April 23, 2007

How to Make Your Next Presentation Funnier

One of the most frequent questions I get asked at my seminars ( is "how can I add more humor to my presentations?" A natural follow up question is "can anyone learn to how make people laugh?" The answers to these questions are "very carefully" and "yes."

Many business people, trainers and educators recognize the need to keep their presentations interesting and engaging. Duh. They just don't know how to do it. Humor is hands down the quickest and most effective way to make even the driest presentation palatable. Just ask the flight attendants at Southwest Airlines. The best part is anyone can learn to generate more laughter at the podium.

That's right. Anyone can learn to generate more laughter when they speak.

Just follow this simple three-step process and you'll get more people to crack up.
  1. Don't be a stand-up comedian. In other words, there is such a plethora of humorous material out there that has already been vetted, there's no need to create your own stuff. Just identify the quote, picture, comic strip or story that fits the occasion and watch the laughter materialize. Then be sure to cite the source. BUT, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES TELL A JOKE. (That's a subject for a future post.)
  2. Be relevant. Don't be funny for funny's sake. Try to graft in humorous material that reinforces the point(s) your trying to make. The humor needs to move the presentation forward. Then, even if you attempt at humor doesn't generate any laughter, at least your audience will understand and recognize that you were just trying to make a point.
  3. Start slow. If you haven't ever used humor in a presentation, don't go from zero to sixty in one speech. Your audience will probably recommend some kind of therapy.

You're probably saying, "Steve, that's all well and good, but can you give me an example?" Glad you asked.

Let's say you're a financial planner and you want an engaging way to begin your public seminar on "planning for retirement." You could use the one-panel New Yorker cartoon ( that features a husband and wife pouring over their finances amid spreadsheets, stock reports and retirement literature. Eventually the husband looks up and says, "If we take a late retirement and an early death, we'll just squeak by." Wait for the laugh and then say, "Let's talk about how you can plan for an EARLY retirement and a LONG life with full health coverage. Sound good?" Then your audience is ready for the heavier information they came to hear.

Time to Hit Your Stride...

Your Turn #1 - In your next speech, what key point(s) could be reinforced and driven home by the addition of relevant humor?

Your Turn #2 - If you're hesitant to add a little humor (and that's okay), what's holding you back from mixing more mirth into your presentations?

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes

Speaker - Trainer - Hair Loss Survivor

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

So you think you can speak?

On Saturday I sat in on one of the early stages of the Toastmasters International Speech Contest. For those of you that aren't aware of this colossal annual event, let me set the stage.

25,000 people enter from over 14 countries across the globe.

Contestants write and deliver an original 5-7 minute speech on any topic.

The contest has six levels.

At level 5 you have to write and deliver an entirely new 5-7 minute speech.

At level 6 (the Finals) you have to write and deliver yet another totally new speech. So, you can't just be a one trick pony, you have to show that you can rock the house with three different speeches. Think of the contest as "American Idol" for speakers without the snide remarks from Simon Cowell. Previous winners include folks like Cavett Robert, the founder of the National Speakers Association.

What's amazing about this contest is that forces speakers to get the most out of themselves and their speeches. If you're looking for some good entertainment that's free to public, check out and find a contest in your area. The finals are in Phoenix in August.

That said, I observed several things in the speeches (in Round 3) that are instructional for anyone who does public speaking. Some things to avoid, some things to do.

#1. Make sure you have the floor before you start speaking. This may sound obvious, but on more than one occasion the speaker was so eager to begin talking that he started while the last few claps of the welcoming applause were still audible.

Solution: Smile at the audience and wait at least 2-3 seconds in silence before you start talking. That way you'll have 100% of their attention.

#2. Avoid distracting/reflective/sparkly jewelry. One woman (who happened to be quite good) was sporting round silver earrings the size of half dollars that caught the light like a giant radio telescope. Combined with her head movements I found myself distracted by the light flashes emitting from her one point I thought she might be signalling "SOS" or something.

Solution: Accessories are great, but do a quick mirror check in two different settings to test the reflective aspect of your jewelry. The last thing anyone wants is for your sense of fashion to take attention away from you and your message.

#3. No one cares. Unless you tell them why they should. There, I said it. The contestants were telling lots of amazing stories, but very few of them took the extra step to involve the audience. While I was listening to these stories I found myself asking, "So what?" I'm glad you got through that difficult trial, but what does that mean for me?

Solution: As you tell a story (especially a long one), be sure to invite your audience to join you mentally by asking rhetorical questions. For example, when you mention that you got fired from your dream job, don't just plow forward. Pause for a moment and ask the audience if they have ever had a similar experience. Then, they'll be more likely to stay with you.

#4. Get out of the phone booth. Despite the fact that many of the speakers had good gestures, a lot of them were still trapped in the proverbial phone booth. Picture the speaker standing inside a phone booth (for those of you under 25, phone booths were where we used to place calls before the advent of cell phones). I could tell that a lot of the contestants wanted to move around the platform, but held back for some reason. They'd take a half-step here and a half-step there reminiscent of an 8th grader awkwardly attempting to do the Fox Trot at his first cotillion dance. Unfortunately, these kinds of movements communicate nervousness almost as loudly as shaky hands.

Solution: When you feel the urge to move, that's your body saying "Listen up, Public Speaker Person, I've got some nervous energy here and I'd really like to move around a little. Would that be okay?" When this happens, heed the call. If you have an 6' x 10' platform, use it. It will also help your audience pay more attention.

Time to Hit Your Stride...

Your Turn #1: The next time you give a speech. What questions can you ask along the way to engage your audience so that they feel included?

Your Turn #2: The stage is your canvas. How are you going to use the full footprint of the platform to deliver your next presentation?

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes
Speaker - Trainer - Denture Wearer

Monday, April 9, 2007

Presentation Lessons from the 2007 Masters

31-year old Zach Johnson made golf history on Sunday by fighting off Tiger Woods to win the 2007 Masters. There are two interesting things about his win. He posted a final score of 1-over 289, the highest winning score in the tournament's 71 year history. It wasn't pretty, but he won. And, he "settled" for birdies (and got them) on the par 5's while others were trying for eagles (and failing).

So what does this have to do with presentations?

Good question.

The first thing is that a good presentation must have a game plan. It doesn't have to be flashy, just effective. Last week at the Masters the conditions were horrible and Zach Johnson had the best game plan to take the top spot. If fact, his approach probably would not have been as successful in previous years. But this was 2007.

He didn't drive the ball the farthest, but he was accurate. He didn't try to reach the green in two on the par 5's like everyone else. His strategy was to not to fight the wind, but take what the course would give him and use it to his advantage. He was content with birdies.

Shorter drives + more accuracy = green jacket.

Good presenters also recognize that they must have a plan going into a presentation. What do you want the audience to do or think as a result of your speech? More importantly, why? Why should they care? Why should they act? Answer these questions and you'll be well on your way to a successful outcome.

The other thing good presenters do is they aren't afraid to make mid-course corrections. What always worked in the past may not be as effective today. Assess the conditions and adjust accordingly.

Now it's time to Hit Your Stride...

Your Turn #1: What is everyone else doing in presentations that you shouldn't be? Do your co-workers always use PowerPoint? Next time consider shaking things up by presenting without it. I guarantee you'll be remembered.

Your Turn #2: In your next presentation how can you stay within yourself to get more than you expected? Don't try to be like someone else. Don't try to do too much. Focus on one thing and nail it.

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes
Speaker - Trainer - The Presentation Guy