Reference Corner

Presentation Skills

Hit me Again! ... I Can Still Hear Him! Everything you need, to give an Unforgettable Talk.

Long ago, in an old auditorium the chief executive officer had been droning on and on delivering one of the most boring speeches. The audience was trapped and could not slip out because they were frightened of the wrath of the CEO. Suddenly, a large piece of plaster from the old ceiling, at the back of the hall, broke loose and fell onto the head of a man at the back of the room, knocking him to the floor. The speaker was too far away to notice but those close to the unfortunate man hurried to his assistance. As they lifted him off the floor they heard him whisper "Hit me again, I can still hear him!"

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Has it ever occurred to you that it's odd, very odd, that at practically every conference you attend almost all of the speakers are terribly boring? And even those who are half-decent are nowhere near as interesting as when they chat to their friends in the bar afterwards?

As you sit there in the audience trying to concentrate on what the speaker is saying, but knowing you can't and that you're actually falling asleep, has it ever occurred to you that all the people around you are experiencing the same problem? You're never alone, never the only person who can't pay attention. Everyone is trying hard not to fall asleep.

The irony is that every one of those boring speakers has probably been advised or trained to present well. They don't want to bore you. They want to entertain you - but they fail miserably.


This section will explain why. You will see just how wrong much of the well-intentioned advice we are given from school onwards really is. In its place, you will learn what works. You will learn how to make an audience sit up and listen to you.

Perhaps most importantly, you will learn that it is not entirely the listener's responsibility to remember what is said. The speaker has just as much of an obligation to get the transmission correct for the listener.

Familiar cries such as "I told you," "Pay attention," and "Why weren't you listening?" are part of the brainwashing we are subjected to from kindergarten onwards. We are led to believe it is always the listener's fault if he cannot remember what was said. It is not.

The content is designed for all speakers in every situation. That may sound like an ambitious claim but the basic principles of speaking revealed in the following sections are the foundation of any well-delivered talk. I train executives and politicians in countries around the globe, from Japan to Hong Kong to England to Canada, so I know first-hand these principles will work for everyone, regardless of race or culture. They will work for you.

Whether you are an experienced speaker or new to the podium, whether you are facing an audience of thousands or a group of 10, whether you are armed with a formal script or are speaking off the cuff, the parts that you have from this book will lead you to truly unforgettable performances.

Got that?

John Miers

Section 1: Let's Have a Conversation

Before we begin, it's probably a good idea to define what constitutes success in speaking to someone else. The definition is a simple one, and it's true whether it applies to one-to-one conversations or speeches to thousands of people. Here it is:

Success in speaking means the audience remembers you and your message.

Simple, right? In fact, it is simple and can be easily achieved - if you have the right tools and techniques. That is what you will learn in this book. You will learn how to be an excellent speaker because you will learn how to be a memorable speaker.

How do we, as humans, naturally achieve success in communicating? If you think about it, you're at your best in relaxed conversation where your listener can see the real you talking. It's also during relaxed conversation that the listener best remembers what you said. Think of a time when your best friend described a wedding or a holiday as you sat together in a coffee shop. Weeks later, you could probably have repeated most of that conversation to another friend.

When I suggest to people that relaxed conversation is their best communication style, I very rarely get disagreement. So if relaxed conversation is your best speaking style, we had better examine what you're doing in that style that makes it the best - because if you change from the best, you will be worse. You can't get better than best.

Observing the Dynamics of Conversation

Go out and have some fun surreptitiously observing people in conversation. When training people, I videotape them without them realizing it as they chat away in relaxed conversation. This allows me to play back the scene, stopping frequently to show what's happening. What you will see in your observations will amaze you.

You'll find that the more relaxed and engaged the conversation, the more difficult it is to find any complete sentences. Broken grammar and sentence fragments abound. Thoughts stop in mid-flight, veer off in new directions, or get reiterated in a different way. Sentences get chopped up into pieces. Highly educated or not, this is how we talk.

English teachers will be horrified, but this hodgepodge delivery is precisely why the conversation works so well. The speakers are interacting with each other. Each one is speaking, listening and working with the other.

If you ever find yourself in a two-person conversation with someone who talks in perfect grammar and complete sentences, you'll be very uncomfortable. It will seem incredibly weird and stilted. You will also find that you are not listening.

Most of what our ears take in during a typical day is conversation - imperfect, unrehearsed human conversation. This is therefore the type of information that our brain is best adapted to process. Understanding conversational style is intuitive and effortless for all of us.

In your observations, you may also notice that each person pauses many times. Obviously, each person's biggest pause happens when the other person is talking, but even the speaker pauses for a variety of reasons.

Some of the speaker's pauses will be quite long, others quite short. One interesting thing you may note is that the pauses occur anywhere. There is no logical or grammatical reason for where people pause in conversation. You may even see some people pausing in the middle of a word! Such instinctual speech patterns make nonsense of the traditional advice about pausing in the appropriate place. There is no such thing as an appropriate place to pause in conversation.

Let me be clear that I'm not criticizing conversation. I am explaining why it works. Unless the conversation proceeds as I have described it, it won't be efficient. It won't be natural.

Letting the Listener Drive

The most enlightening instruction comes from watching a conversation between just two people. You'll see that one is talking and the other is listening, and the roles switch frequently. The one who is talking tends to be watching the one who is listening - not all the time, but frequently. The one listening is watching the one talking pretty much all the time.

The talker, or transmitter, needs to observe reactions from the listener, or receiver, as he talks. In fact, if the receiver were to get up and leave the room, the transmitter would stop talking. The conversation is two-way. The most important thing to note, however, is that the receiver controls the pace of the transmitter. Nods, puzzled expressions or other verbal or non-verbal signals coerce the transmitter into slowing down, speeding up or stopping. The conversation is what we call Receiver Driven.

Remember "Receiver Driven". I will refer to it, often, throughout this book.

The concept of being Receiver Driven is one of the most important concepts in communication. The delivery of a message must be controlled by the listener for it to be properly absorbed. In practically all formal presentations, the speakers are entirely Transmitter Driven. It rarely occurs to them that they should be controlled by their audiences, and that is the single biggest reason why speakers are so ineffective.

When a speaker is Transmitter Driven, the audience can't stay properly tuned in. If you're in the audience, you might sit there wondering what is wrong with you, that you can't stay concentrating on what is being presented. You may be glad to learn it's not your fault. The speaker is doing something your brain is not adapted to do. As a speaker, therefore, your challenge is to always appear Receiver Driven, whatever the circumstances. In the chapters that follow, I show you how.

Key Points to Remember

  1. Success in speaking means the audience remembers you and your message.
  2. A natural, conversational style is best for public speaking. And conversation is always imperfect.
  3. The listener - your audience - always controls the conversation.
  4. Remember "Receiver Driven" It is the most important principle of good communication. We will see it again and again
Section 2: Got That?

If we go back to observing our two people in conversation, where one is speaking and the other is listening, we'll discover that the process is actually a little more complex than that. What actually happens is that the first person thinks and then he speaks. This makes the other person think, so she speaks. Then the first person thinks about that and speaks again. So, the second person thinks about that and she speaks again, and so on.

In other words, a conversation has four parts:

  1. First person thinks.
  2. First person speaks.
  3. Second person thinks.
  4. Second person speaks.

We all intuitively think before we speak. (I think most of you would agree thinking before speaking is quite a sensible thing to do!) The thinking manifests itself as a pause, which can be short or long. The speaking part is conveyed through words or possibly non-verbal signals. For example, sometimes a nod is all that one person gives as his speaking piece, but that's enough for the other person to realize that she has permission to think and say something else. The cycle moves onwards.

The contrast to formal presentations is huge. Most presentation training encourages you to speak without any great thought because too much silence, so they say, makes you appear unprepared. Most speakers feel a compelling urge to keep talking anyway, so that the audience does not interrupt and "spoil" their lovely flow of words.

Of the four parts of conversation, we are left with just one: First person speaks continuously. Our brains just can't cope with that, and so we resort to watching the speaker rather than listening to him.

Coming back to the thinking before speaking concept, it is interesting how this is perceived. We feel we should get on with it to prove we are prepared. But, in fact, in normal life the only times we do not think before speak are the times when we are worried, telling lies, not confident, covering something up.... in other words, all the bad aspects of behaviour.

That is how our audience sees us. If you don't think first you look nervous and uncomfortable. You certainly don't look as if you want to engage the audience.

However, if you think before speaking, and look at the audience while thinking, two positive things happen.

First, you appear to be checking that the audience is ready before you speak. Such an action is considered polite behaviour. As in tennis, the server checks that the receiver is ready before she serves.

Second, the audience watches you in the silence and begins to wonder what you're going to say. In other words, anticipation grows. Anticipation can only happen in the silence before you speak. Anticipation is really the same as interest.

no anticipation = no interest

I sometimes remind people that no one is the slightest bit interested in what you say unless they have had an opportunity to first wonder what you are going to say. The use of silence forms the core of speaking skill.

So, if you pause (i.e. think) before you speak, you look relaxed and confident. If you do not, you look nervous and uncomfortable.

"Communication is Silence".

Silence is the time when the audience thinks about what they have heard. Speaking delivers the content that we want to communicate. But the actual process of communication takes place in the silence.

Our brains are marvelously powerful machines but they can't think and listen at the same time. They can only do one or the other. How many times have you heard someone say, "Be quiet! I can't hear myself think with all that racket"? It's literally true.

In practice, many thoughts can be processed very quickly so that the brain can return to the task of listening within a second or so, but you must differentiate between recognition of what is said and contemplation of what is said.

In the silence after a speaker has said something, the audience members contemplate. They analyze what they have heard, compare it to what they already know, and file the thought in their brains from where they can recall it at some later date.

Only if contemplation occurs will anything be remembered because we can only remember what we have thought about. This explains why, after listening to a speaker bound along smoothly and rapidly, we have difficulty remembering much of what was said. He never provided us with silence to contemplate the ideas he spoke. We could only recognize the words. It's truly a case of in one ear and out the other.

A very good analogy of the communication process comes from watching the operation of any computer. You can type away to your heart's content, but nothing goes into the memory of the computer until you press the Enter key. When you press Enter, the computer shows an hourglass on the screen. This hourglass means, "I'm processing what you just typed. I can't play with you again until I have finished processing."

If you type and type and never press Enter or Save, the computer eventually crashes. You lose everything.

Sadly, that's what most audiences do during formal speeches.

As a speaker, your goal is have the audience remember what you say, and that can only occur if the audience has time to think about each idea you present. A little formula I learned some time ago will help you remember the power of silence.

silence = thought = memory

If one of the variables is zero, the others must therefore be zero as well.

The Got That? Pause

To speak effectively, you must pause after each piece of information is delivered. And it's crucial that the pause be directed at the audience. When training presenters, I call this the Got That? pause. The Got That? pause is probably the single most important piece of speaking behaviour, and it's usually missing from presentations.

When you have said something to the person you're having a conversation with, you naturally watch him to see if he understands what you have said. You check for his reaction, whether it be a nod that says, "Go on," or a puzzled expression that means you need to clarify your idea or stop to let him think his way through what you've just said. These are the mechanics of Receiver Driven conversation. You react to the listener, and are guided by those reactions.

When speaking before a group, unless you look at the audience for even a short period of time after each utterance, you will miss their reactions. From the audience's point of view, not looking for their reactions means you couldn't care less about their reactions. You're going to press on speaking regardless. Put another way, you're not listening to them. Subconsciously, since you're not listening to them, they find themselves not listening to you. Tit for tat!

Many "polished" presenters don't understand the Got That? pause, how it works, and why it's important. They believe that all that matters is to be looking at the audience as much as possible while they speak. They use notes or memorize as much of the text as they can, and deliver the words staring out at the audience. As soon as they finish an utterance, generally as they're speaking the last word of the utterance, they glance back at their notes to find more words to say. There is no Got That? pause.

The effect is catastrophic. The audience subconsciously perceives that the speaker is diving back to his notes to find the next thing to say. It's an action that dismisses what has just been said as if it was wrong, or the speaker wished he hadn't said it. It says to the audience, "Don't bother with that. I'm about to say something better." The audience puts aside any effort to think about that last utterance in order to anticipate what's about to be said. Again, I emphasize this is all occurring subconsciously but make no mistake, it does happen.

Be Quiet and Look

When speaking, your silence must be accompanied by the Got That? action of looking at the audience. If you don't look at the audience and, instead, look down every time you finish an utterance, your audience is continually wondering what is coming next, but never thinking about what has just been said. By the end of your speech, the audience has thought of nothing. The Got That? pause is the difference between memory and no memory.

A colleague of mine explains it this way. If you plant a seed into the earth, you must water it for it to grow. But if you water it without stopping, it won't grow. It will eventually drown. The best approach is to water the seed a little bit, then stand back and let it grow. Then water it some more, and stand back as it grows some more. Your audience is the seed. Their thoughts can only grow each time you stop watering.

In relaxed conversation, you always use the Got That? pause because it's instinctual. Try talking to someone about an idea you want them to understand. Look down and away as you finish each utterance. I bet you can't do it. It's virtually impossible.

What changes when you get in front of a group?

Most people have been told to maintain eye contact while speaking. So they try to look at the audience almost all the time, especially all the time they are talking. That's why they hate using scripts and even dislike notes - they can't be looking at the audience all the time if they are using those tools!

Key Points to Remember

  1. Communication is "silence". It is not "talking".
  2. Silence forms the core of speaking skill.
  3. Audiences cannot listen and think at the same time. If they can't think, they can't remember. The Got That? pause gives the audience time to process your ideas.
  4. You must look at the audience during your silences. This shows you are looking for their reaction, as you would do in conversation.
  5. Thinking before you speak makes you look confident.
  6. Your job, as the speaker, is to make the audience think. You only speak to achieve that.
Section 3: Choosing Your Words

Human beings think in pictures. That's why babies, who have no language, think. If you say something abstract - nothing specific that can be imagined - the audience's brains are not stimulated. They wait for the next sentence that will stimulate thought. Even if you pause for a long time after saying something abstract, it is unlikely the audience will think of what you said.

Instead, choose words that will create an instant picture in the minds of your audience members. Good image words are concrete, referring to something that can easily be perceived by one of the five senses. Examples, analogies and stories are great for creating pictures so use them to add color and interest to your talks.

Instead of
Vehicle Truck
Precipitation Splash
Maximize Balloon
Extemporize Speak without notes
Dialogue Talk, chat
Innovative New

If I were to say "Hamilton has tremendous amenities" nothing much will register apart from thoughts of a city or a rusty steel town. But if I said, "Hamilton has a terrific public swimming pool and a marvelous public library" now you have something to think about - and they are both amenities.

Keep It Simple

Below are a few pages of a script that was about to be presented by a lawyer I was working with. Read it aloud to some friends and see how quickly you lose their interest and therefore their concentration.

By their nature, class actions present a number of novel procedural difficulties for defendants that were not present in bilateral litigation actions between identified plaintiffs and defendants. In this portion of our presentation I would like to outline some of the more important innovations that we can expect in proceedings, affecting the conduct of such litigation from the defendant's perspective.

As we have heard, the critical stage in all class proceedings will be the representative plaintiff's application for certification. It would, of course be unrealistic to expect that all class actions will be fatally vulnerable at the certification stage.

Indeed, it is reasonable to expect a sense of adventure among the judiciary when the first group of these actions begins to make their way through the Ontario Courts. It is necessary, therefore in anticipation of an initial surge of activity once the legislation passes, to be prepared for the procedural pitfalls of proceeding with these types of class action....

Usually audiences tune out before the end of the second paragraph. Why? Is it because the speaker is saying too much? In actual fact, the problem is caused by saying too little. The talk is peppered with concentrated, multi-syllable words that do not create instant pictures. They need to be "exploded" into a phrase or sentence to create any meaning in the audience's brains, even lawyer brains. Now, here is that same speech rewritten.

So - you've failed to win the certification stage and you're now committed to court. What comfort does the new Act offer the defendant?

In short - not much!

I can see clearly that the act has been written to favour the plaintiff and not the defendant.

So I am going to highlight some of the areas where the defendant must be aware of the pitfalls.

The first problem is that no one can really predict how the courts are going to proceed. This is a new type of action and the facts in each case are certain to be totally different from every other case. The courts are empowered to ensure "a fair and expeditious determination" of each proceeding that gives them pretty wide discretion.

But there are three specific areas that are covered by special Provisions.

First, the level to which class members other than the representative plaintiff can be involved.

Second, the alternatives for discovery proceedings.

And finally, the Special Notice Provisions for class actions....

I think you will agree it is much easier to remember now. The language is simpler and more conversational - and yet the speaker now looks more intelligent than in the previous version, not less intelligent! Experts, who speak clearly and simply, come across as really clever because we understand them. Experts who waffle with long words and abstract jargon leave us with a negative impression. In fact it is as if they are putting up a smokescreen so that we will not know if they are knowledgeable or not.

Use Examples, Analogies and Stories

Following the theme of giving your audience instant pictures as you speak, examples and analogies work very well. The audience remembers clearly the example and from there they remember your message. Stories are like examples.

But, be careful not to use too many examples. One example is always better than two, I remember listening to someone speaking who was relishing using lots of examples. He used two, sometimes three, examples for every concept. The problem was that each new example made it more difficult to remember the concept.

It is a bit like dropping a dollop of red paint on a palate, followed by a dollop of blue, followed by a dollop of black. As they mix you don't have those three, clear, bright colours. You have a nasty dirty mixed up colour.

One example for one concept.

The one golden rule is that the examples and stories must absolutely reinforce your message. The worst thing to do is to start with a joke that has nothing to do with the talk that follows. The audience tunes out. You have just set the wrong first impression.

Avoid Jargon...Most of the Time

Jargon is specialized and technical language used within a particular profession or industry. It must be used carefully, with consideration given to the make-up of your audience. Are you facing a mixed group of industry insiders and newcomers? Avoid jargon altogether, as you will lose the newcomers. Are you facing a sophisticated and knowledgeable group with a shared store of knowledge? Use jargon sparingly.

For example, if I was talking to a group of car enthusiasts and I mentioned the Jaguar XK-120, they would all instantly imagine the beautiful, sleek sports car built in the 1950s. But, if I was to say, "that Jaguar sports car from the '50s with a long hood, wings over the front wheels, and a rear end that had covers over the back two wheels" my audience would probably interrupt me and say, "Don't you mean the Jaguar XK-120?"

No matter who is in your audience, however, there is one type of jargon you must consistently avoid: those empty phrases that don't create any sort of mental image at all. Use "unilateral power countered by a multi-faceted thread" with just about anyone and the audience will just brush it aside and wait for something with appeal.

For kicks, I enjoy collecting these hollow pieces of jargon. I try them out on my friends to see if they instantly understand anything. Below is a selection of phrases that usually conjure blank stares from an audience. These are real phrases I have collected from actual speeches, reports and marketing materials.

Banking Jargon

  • Benchmark yields
  • Quality of issuance has improved
  • Real-time growth settlement
  • Transparency
  • Enhanced trading conditions
  • Plain vanilla transactions go online
  • Empowerment of middlemen
  • Disintermediation
  • Open-ended index linked mutual funds
  • Trading at little deviation from the net asset value
  • Offset benchmark drag
  • Cash equitization
  • Substantially underweight leaning towards a neutral position
  • Investment time horizon of investment plans

Technology Jargon

  • Efficient, effective, scalable, value-added, customer care solutions
  • Agent assisted help
  • Unified business rules
  • Peer-to-peer networking
  • Unauthorized exchange of copyright materials
  • A fundamental shift
  • Technology enabler
  • Non-fiction storytelling through interactive media
  • Cutting-edge interactive documentaries
  • Application management server
  • Bringing amazing financial driver to the table

Business Jargon

  • Stimulate a dialogue
  • We're looking for bolt-on spin-offs
  • Fiscal stimulus support
  • Infrastructure investment
  • Rink fenced
  • Integrated convertible capability
  • Euthanized
  • Exponentially more flexibility
  • Customize transactions
  • Convertibility undertaking
  • Deseasonalization
  • Deambiguatize
  • Our template market
  • Mobilizing the immense, interactive power of IT
  • Paradigm shift
  • Multilateralism
  • Proactive use of IT
  • Interoperable, intermodal transport system
  • Right sizing
  • Activity based budget methodology will be integrated
  • Contextual atmosphere

A friend gave me a wonderful illustration of how dangerous and useless jargon is. It is called a jargon generator"


Holding it so that your friends cannot see it, ask them to give you three single numbers in any order. For example, someone might say; 'two, five, seven'. Reading from the card, you say "systematized, logic projection!" Try it with any other combinations of three numbers and you get similar phrases that sound like something very complicated and technical. Every one, of course is rubbish. The point is that we hear this sort of unintelligible rubbish a lot in speeches so we are used to them. We do not recognize them for what they are:' useless nothings'. They are impossible to think about, so they are discarded by our brains.

Avoid clichés

I define a cliche as a fossilized metaphor. Thirty years ago or more, when that first person stood up and used the metaphor "on a level playing field," his audience must have marveled. "Wow, what a clever concept to explain how everyone has a fair chance." Now, however, that cliche is used millions of times a day around the world. Today's audience recognizes it but only as a cliche they have heard countless times before, not as a clever metaphor. Too much repetition irritates. That is what clichés do.

In the financial world where young salespeople and analysts are briefed every morning on the latest market predictions, they have become so jaded by the repetitions of clichés that they have invented buzzword bingo. In this game, each person is surreptitiously given a bingo card where there are clichés instead of numbers in the boxes, something like the illustration below.

Do you keep falling asleep in meetings? Here's something to change all of that.

BUZZ Words
How to play: Simply tick off 5 BUZZ Words in One meeting and shout out BINGO!
It's that easy!

Take That
Offline Strategic Fit
Lessons Learnt
Touch Base
Game Plan
Value Added
Movers And Shakers
Ball Park
Proactive Not Reactive
Win Win Situation
Left Hand Not Knowing Right Hand
Bread And Butter
Results Driven
Core Competency
Slippery Slide
Quality Driven
No Blame
Buy In
Total Quality
Strategic Plan
Stretch The Envelope
Brief Overview

As the morning speakers drone on, pulling out well-worn phrases, the listeners check off their boxes. You can imagine how much attention the audience is really paying to the talk itself.

It is very difficult to avoid using clichés because we hear so many of them every day. They seem to roll off our tongues automatically - and that's exactly why they're a problem. When we use clichés, we are speaking without thinking.

If you're really concentrating on your audience understanding you, you think and then speak clearly. When you're tired or simply want to get on with it, you probably slip into using clichés.

The fact that clichés sneak out when our brains are in neutral perfectly explains why athletes who are interviewed after an exhausting race or grueling game tend to gasp out a string of meaningless phrases. We laugh at them for it but perhaps we should all try to produce a coherent thought at the end of some exhausting physical exertion.

When you're planning your talk, you have time to choose your words carefully. Put some real thought into it and avoid the clichés.

Key Points to Remember

  1. Use words that will create instant thoughts and pictures in the minds of your audience. Examples and analogies will help you.
  2. Avoid abstract and long-winded jargon. They do not create any thoughts.
  3. Talking in clichés means your brain is in neutral. Think before you speak and choose a different phrase.
Section 4: Organizing Your Ideas

Years ago I remember being told that when preparing a talk you should consider the following:

  1. What you must tell your audience.
  2. What they already know.
  3. What they might challenge.
  4. What questions they are likely to ask.

Once you have the information, make sure you incorporate it all into your speech. Well done, well prepared.

Actually, no.

That kind of speech is a disaster because the speaker is doing everything and leaving nothing for the audience to do. If you prepare a talk based on the points listed above, you will bore your audience to tears. Your speech should provoke thought; it should be a collection of loose ends that the audience will tug at to find out more.

Moviemakers are very clever at producing previews of their upcoming films. The previews tell you what the movie is about and make the film seem so tantalizing that you want to watch the whole thing. If your speech has many similarities to a movie trailer, you are on the right track.

In Chapter 2, I explained that your job is to make the audience think. It is not to speak.

So, when planning the structure of your talk, the same principles apply. Banish, forever, the long hours of downloading information onto your audience. Every talk from now on should be as short as possible, to provoke questions from your audience.

Before you think this as being unrealistic because you have been asked to give an hour long speech in front of four hundred people, Let me point out some principles:

  1. No one ever complains that a speech was too short
  2. The maximum time a human being can stay engaged, listening, to some one talking is 18 minutes. That was a survey taken in the 1980's. This figure is certain be less now.
  3. There is no point talking if they are not listening.

Fidel Castro was a very powerful and passionate speaker and, for twenty minutes or so, I find him wonderful to listen to. But he is renowned for speaking to the people of Cuba for as much as six hours at a time... No wonder they had guards making sure the people stayed where they were.

There is also a wonderful story about the late John Paul Getty.

Whilst in London he was passing a church. Caught in a rainstorm, he ducked into the church for shelter. As it so happened, a well known priest renowned for his "fire and brimstone" sermons about missionary work in Africa was about to deliver a sermon.

After the priest had been speaking for three minutes John Paul was so moved that he decided to set up a Getty endowment fund to provide regular money to the missionaries.

Ten minutes went by. The priest was still in full sail. John Paul decided he would write a cheque for $50,000.00 to give to the church. After another 5 minutes of the sermon he decided to put some large notes into the collection box. After a further five minutes, the priest was still speaking. John Paul got up and left the Church.

If ever the phrase "Less is More" is appropriate, it is in the length of time you talk.

I often say to my students, "If you are talking to a huge audience in the most formal of settings and, after you have been talking for about three minutes, someone puts up his hand and asks you a question, think positively. It is working! They want to have a conversation with me! I have engaged them already!"

Unrealistic as this may sound, my point is that not only speakers, but audiences, are brainwashed into thinking that speeches have to be one way examples of information streaming out of the speaker. The audience must remain silent.

By pausing you go a long way towards involving your audience in a dialogue. Do not spoil that by overloading them.

As a government friend of mine says, "Speeches should be like a great meal. You should always feel a little bit hungry at the end...not bloated!"

So if you have the power to decide for how long you will talk, consider saying less and allowing your audience more time to engage.

In my Navy Days we were required to write detailed, lengthy reports of most of the tasks we performed. As an example, my submarine might have spent three months conducting trials with a new torpedo. My report might be five inches thick. But the Admiral would be sent, by me, a one page, cover letter. Everything, conclusion, recommendations etc had to be on that one page. That was all he would read. Of course, he would direct the staff in his headquarters to go through the five inch report to confirm what I had written on that one page.

Think of your audience as the Admiral. They cannot absorb more than "one page" from you before being waterlogged. (Overloaded). The details (the five inch report) are their questions. Try to make it so that the details are drawn out by the audience - from you.

Now there is only one thing you must control. What they ask questions about. And that brings us to the structure we recommend.


Start with the Bang

You have a blank sheet of paper and you're about to write down your talk. The first thing to write down is your conclusion - the one thing, above all others, that you want the audience to do, or to say that you talked about, when you have finished speaking.

By writing the conclusion down first, you focus your mind on the theme of your talk. Everything you say from here on in must support this conclusion; if it doesn't, leave it out. Sometimes nothing will seem to flow as you work on constructing your talk. It may be that you have settled on the wrong conclusion. A change may do the trick.

Once you have decided on your conclusion, the next thing is to determine your opening. You want to grab the audience's attention from the very start so your opening must have two elements:

  1. A wow factor.
  2. Your conclusion.

The Wow Factor

What you say must cause the audience to sit up, listen and want to hear more. You're actually rather good at using the wow factor when meeting people socially. You say something short and sharp that catches their imagination. I have yet to find myself sitting next to someone new at a business luncheon that turns to me and says something like, "Hello, I'm Joe Smith and I am going to talk to you today about my family. I will start with a general overview and then go into more detail about..."

I wouldn't spend much more time talking to Joe, and neither would you. So why would you revert to that stodgy formality when your audience is sitting in rows of seats facing you rather than seated next to you?

Something with wow factor is something interesting - an example, a colorful story, an anecdote, a dramatic statement, some humor. A joke is fine as long as it very directly supports the point of your talk. A joke for the sake of a joke is only a disaster, not an icebreaker. Sometimes a shocking conclusion could also be a "wow" factor.

Start with Your Conclusion

Get right to the point. Let the audience know immediately what you're going to prove to them. You are not Agatha Christie and your audience will not enjoy wondering why you're saying what you're saying and in which direction you're likely to go. They want to know now.

"Cut to the chase!" is a common cry when the speaker has not made his position absolutely clear. If you start with your conclusion, then each important point that follows makes sense by supporting your opening statement. The opposite is true if you don't start with your conclusion. You make many important points but the audience doesn't know why you are making them.

In the everyday world around us we often encounter conclusions that come first. Every newspaper headline is a conclusion because editors have learned that conclusions grab people's interest. If you read "Airplane Crash, 25 Dead," you wouldn't think, "Silly fools, you just told me the conclusion! I won't buy the newspaper now." In fact, you buy the newspaper precisely because the headline has intrigued you enough that you want to know the details.

Build with the Pyramid

After starting with your conclusion, follow with your supporting facts and points in sequence, from most important to least important. Imagine a pyramid that represents everything you could say on your subject. The very top of the pyramid, the point, is your conclusion. The next row down contains the really vital points that led you to the conclusion. The next row after that contains the important points that led to the vital points that led to the conclusion. As you descend into less important supporting points, you are getting into background information.

The Content Pyramid

If you are having trouble determining the correct order of your points, start with your conclusion and ask yourself why or how. The answer is your following statement. Repeat the process with each new statement that you create. Asking why or how is precisely what the audience will be doing as you move through your talk. If you consistently provide the answer, it will seem to them as if you are very nearly reading their minds.

When writing a talk, always start at the point of the pyramid and work your way down. Too often, speakers start near the bottom of the pyramid, with the background information, and explain how they got to the next row up. Then they explain how that row led to the row above it, which led to the vital points and eventually the conclusion. All the time they are meandering upwards through the pyramid, the audience has no idea where they are going.

Moving backwards through the pyramid in this way often leads your audience to ask questions that are off-topic, or outside of your content pyramid. These irrelevant questions can be frustrating to you as a speaker and can throw you off balance. If instead you start with the conclusion, then move onto the vital points, the important points and so on, the audience knows what you're talking about from the outset. Any questions they ask will be about the conclusion. In other words, the audience questions will be inside your pyramid.


The pyramid structure works very well when you have a conclusion - but there will be situations when there simply isn't one. A briefing is one of those situations.

For briefings, instead of using the pyramid, look for a focus point. Why must your audience understand your focus point? What will happen if they don't?

When I was in the navy as a young officer in training, my mates and I were put into groups of twenty officers. We spent a year traveling around the country, visiting various bases to experience different specialist applications. We spent a month with the navigation school, a month at the gunnery school, a month at the submarine base and so on.

On one memorable occasion, we had just arrived at the fleet airbase where we were going to spend the next month flying jet fighters around the sky to see if we liked that type of specialization. My group arrived late on a Sunday evening and we were herded into a small, dingy classroom. A grizzled lieutenant appeared at the front of the class holding a metal pin about the thickness of a pencil.

"Does anyone know what this is?" None of us knew. Silence filled the tiny room. "This is a safety pin for the Martin Baker ejector seat," he said, "and if you don't listen to every word I say over the next fifteen minutes, you will probably die." We all listened! And he briefed us on how to operate the ejector seats. To this day, I remember the lieutenant's instructions.

Of course, I'm not advocating that you threaten your audience with instant death, but give them a focus, a reason to listen and learn. Repeat this focus as often as you can throughout your talk to keep reminding the audience of your point.

Shortening a Longer Talk

Sometimes you'll find that the material you'd like to cover is far longer than the time you have been allotted for your talk. Perhaps you have a talk that has been previously prepared and it now needs to be adapted to a shorter time slot. Whatever your reasons for needing to shorten your speech, there is an easy way to do it without losing or distorting your key messages.

  1. Make two copies of the text. Put the second copy to one side.
  2. Working with the first copy, use a highlighter to mark all of the "utility" or factual elements of your argument. Now set this copy aside.
  3. Pull up the second copy and use a highlighter of a different colour to highlight all the "beauty" - the examples, metaphors, analogies and stories - that you have used.
  4. Now look at the two copies together. You will probably find a sea of text that has not been highlighted. This is material that can safely be discarded without distorting or eliminating your key messages.

Some really important consequences of starting with your conclusion.

If you start with the conclusion, the audience immediately knows what you are talking for, what they are being required to agree with, understand or do.

In meetings they can engage instantly and the discussions will proceed exactly the way you want them to be - about your conclusion. They will draw the supporting points from you, even the detail.

It will become "Receiver Driven". I told you we would come back to this principle.

Did you know that the word "Education" comes from the Latin:

"Ex" and "Ducare" to lead out, not to cram in!

The second advantage rather follows from the first. You may have planned to talk for twenty minutes explaining why your plan is a good one.

Your boss and the directors know that you are an expert and take well-prepared decisions.

You start with your conclusion and follow with the two vital supporting points to that conclusion. At this point your boss could say:

"That sounds great, Alice, but what about this detail.....?"

You answer: "Well it is because of this and that."

"I see, but why this?" Says the boss.

"Well" you reply. "Because if we did that, this will happen."

"I see." Says the boss."OK let's do it".

That is the end of the meeting. It lasted five minutes. Everyone saved 15 minutes.

Why do we feel that we should go to meetings and explain all the steps we took before ending with the conclusion?

One reason for that goes back to school. We spend roughly one third of our life being taught and examined. When being examined we must demonstrate that we did the correct analysis and thought process to achieve the answer. We are marked by how correct and logical our journey is, to the answer. However, in the world outside this is not the case. You are hired to do the job. When reporting to colleagues and senior officials you do not have take them through the journey you took, to get to the conclusion.

That was your job. As your boss, I do not wish to do your job as well as mine. I just want you to tell me what I need to know, to do my job - - in other words, your conclusion.

If I am not comfortable with your conclusion, I can ask enough questions to find the supporting answers I need to convince me that you are right. That is my prerogative.

When commanding a submarine, I would say to the Engineer Officer "Listen, "Engines", if I hear a loud bang from the motor room, I expect you to find me pretty quickly to tell me what to do! All I want is the action I need to do, I do not need to have all the background building up to your recommendations. If I want it I can ask for it. Just tell me what I need to know to do my job!"

So, by starting, with the conclusion, presentations and meetings could finish much earlier.

The third advantage, to starting with your conclusion, is that you are easily able to shorten your presentation. It often happens that you have prepared a thirty-minute talk and with ten minutes to go before you deliver it, some one tells you that the day has got out of hand.

Speakers have gone on too long. Can you cut back your talk by fifteen minutes. If you have planned your talk as in the pyramid I described, shortening it is easy. You just say the first fifteen minutes cutting out the last fifteen minutes.

If you have started with the background, you need to rewrite your presentation.

Finally, , the advantage of starting with your conclusion is that if a "fire alarm " goes off after you have been talking for five minutes, will the audience have got the most important points from your talk, before evacuating the building? If they have the conclusion and supporting points, your efforts will not have been wasted.

Long Presentations

So therefore, you understand the principle, and theory that I have described. However, you are still required to speak for forty minutes or an hour. What can you do?

Try to break up your talk into small sections, fifteen minutes maximum for each section. Involve your audience by asking questions. Even rhetorical questions, with long enough pauses to make them think about the answer can work.

Let them ask you questions. Make sure that each section of your presentation has its own little pyramid.

Perhaps inject videos or picture to break up the monotony of just talking. But use visual aids as described in Chapter 5.

And, in all cases, welcome interruptions for questions.

Key Points to Remember

  1. Start with your conclusion so the audience knows exactly where you're going from the beginning.
  2. Start with a bang, a wow factor. Make them feel that this is definitely going to be interesting.
  3. Use the pyramid structure to add supporting points in descending order of importance.
  4. For briefings, have a sharp focus point that gives the audience a reason to listen.
Section 5: Using Visual Aids

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it's true that some things are much better explained with the help of a diagram, map or image. But oh dear, what a disaster modern speakers have created with visual aids. In their desire to accommodate the virtual age, they're following all the wrong advice.

An incomplete list of visual aids includes:

  • PowerPointR and other digital presentation technologies
  • Overhead projection slides
  • 35mm photo slides
  • Pitchbooks
  • Brochures
  • Drawings and paintings
  • Storyboards
  • Flip charts
  • Blackboards or whiteboards
  • Scale models
  • VHS tapes or DVDs

One is not better than the other but each will be best suited to a different situation. What works well in small groups may not work well in large groups. Generally speaking, the smaller the audience, the less technical your visual aid should be.

Introduce the Concept First

Let's try an experiment. Before we begin, let me tell you that, for the purposes of this experiment, you own shares in a dot-com company that has recently been so successful that it's going public on NASDAQ next week. The investment banker has said she will show you some of the things you need to be aware of concerning your shares.

Now, look at the image on the next page. Study it for no more than 10 seconds. Then put it away and decide what it demonstrated to you.

Did it seem extremely complicated and confusing, perhaps even depressing? If you thought so, you're not alone.

Even sensible and intelligent people, faced with an image they have never seen before, race around it illogically. You would think they would start at the top and work their way down. But they don't. They jump around randomly and get rather glum at how unintelligible it seems.

I often use this exercise with clients or when I'm speaking before a group. I show the image for 10 seconds, then I ask the audience what the title was. At least 70 per cent of them have no idea. This is what happens every time you show an audience a visual they don't recognize.

When using visual aids, you must first explain the concept that the visual illustrates so that when you put the image up, your audience recognizes it right away.

Consider the architect who is pitching to have his building accepted as the new headquarters of a large corporation. He would be foolish not to have some drawings, or even a scale model, of his design at the pitch meeting.

If he starts his presentation by revealing the model and then talking about it, everyone in the room will go straight to looking at the model and making all sorts of snap judgments, many of which may be negative.

Things will play out very differently if, instead, he starts the presentation with a cloth covering his model. He might say something like, "Before I show you the model of what I believe should be your new headquarters, let me make a couple of points about it.

"One: Tom asked me to use the sun as much as possible for heating and light. You will see that by clever designing we have managed to have almost 70 per cent of the windows facing south.

"Two: you will see that the parking lot is about 100 yards from the main building. Now I know that in winter the temperature sometimes drops to minus 20! So you will see that there are many covered entrances to a heated underground passageway that leads straight to the basement of the main building. This has allowed me to maintain the garden and beautiful mature trees that will frame the front of the main building."

When he finishes his remarks, he removes the cloth. Everyone is now drawn to finding the things he mentioned. In other words, the model is now reinforcing the positive points he made.

No One can Read and Listen at the Same Time

This is indisputable. Remember that in the chapter on silence we noted that no one can think and listen at the same time. The same principle is at work here.

Of course, you don't go blind because you're listening or deaf because you're looking, but the brain only samples one sense at a time. If you're thinking about what you're looking at, then you're not processing anything entering your ears. You can hear it, but the sound is just going straight past you.

Furthermore, a listener always looks at the speaker. In our culture, we know it's rude not to do so. If I'm listening to someone, and out of the corner of my eye I see that beautiful person I've been wanting to meet, I know I can't turn to look at her without being rude to the person talking. So I wait until he has finished before I turn.

Yet speaker after speaker obliges us to look at a picture while they are talking. In other words, they're asking us to look away while they're speaking. And that's alright, is it, because they asked us? No, it's not. The audience feels conflicted and confused because looking away contradicts what they feel to be proper.

Keep the pictures simple

When creating images for your presentation, keep them as simple as possible. Remove all redundant writing and information that is not adding to your point or that may be distracting. For instance, do you need the axis values on your graph? Any writing that might be useful in a handout is probably not needed for a presentation slide where you can verbally fill in the information. Similarly, don't have labels showing things you are not talking about at all.

A Picture is worth a thousand words ... but a picture of a Word Is worth Just one word

So far I've been talking about pictures and diagrams, but what about those word slides we are assailed by? What use are they? Quite simply, none. If you can say it, never make an audience read it.

Remember, your audience can't read and listen at the same time. Yet all our lives, from school onwards, we are brainwashed into thinking we should be able to. Teachers put something up on the screen or board and carry on talking. We believe we can glean information from the screen at the same time as we are listening.

The truth is that neither our eyes nor our ears are functioning at their optimum level. It's a physical fact that if you make an audience read and listen at the same time, the two sensors (eyes and ears) drop to about 20 per cent efficiency because they are interfering with each other.

Think of those occasions when you have been reading a newspaper, and someone comes to talk to you. You can't read the paper even if what they're saying concerns the article you're reading. You have to put it down and give your full attention to the speaker, or ask him to wait until you're finished reading before you listen to him.

Word slides are really just speaker's notes. They have become the norm in presentations because almost everyone today plans a talk starting with the slides. The problem, of course, is that when your slides are the notes, you can't speak unless the slide is showing.

Other problems with word slides abound. For starters, an audience silently reads much faster than you can read aloud. They get to the bottom of the slide before you have even started the third sentence. They then become irritated that you're taking so long and they have to wait for you.

Another problem is that the audience generally reads too fast to really absorb or remember the content. They retain nothing as they read from slide to slide.

Some speakers think they can fix the conflict between reading and listening by saying something different than what is shown on the slide. Is that intelligent? Do you want the audience to listen to you or read the screen? They can't do both at once. And just in case you're wondering, it doesn't matter if the words are bullet points or full sentences. In all cases, they are a distraction.

Imagine people at a dinner party holding up short notes to reinforce the points they're making as they talk. You would laugh at the absurdity of it. Yet I have often seen speakers show a few short reinforcing notes to recap some section they have just covered.

In most cases, the audience becomes restless because all the speaker is doing is repeating what she just said.

But we are visual people today!

We supposedly live in a visual age. People say that children today are much more attuned to visual stimuli than we ever were. This is absolute nonsense. Children, today, may have more visual stimuli stuffed in front of their faces than we did at their age, but that does not mean we have altered the pattern of our brains in the span of a generation or two.

Now here is the most astounding revelation. What exactly does 'visual people' mean? It means they love watching videos, DVD's, Television and films, even 'you tube' and similar video images on their computers.

If you analyse what we are watching, plays, DVDs, soaps or movies, you will find that 70% of that time we are watching people talk!

The thing we all like to enjoy, as entertainment, more than anything else, is watching people talk!

Next time you watch a movie you will notice that when Brad Pitt is talking you see his face, nothing else. When Gwyneth Paltrow starts talking, we cut to her face. The director cuts back and forth very often. We do not notice because we are used to looking at the person who is talking.

So, 'visual people' like watching people talk..

So if we enjoy watching people talk more than anything else, why do speakers encourage us to look away from them while they are talking?

The answer is not simple. Here are some beliefs that contribute to this mistake:

  1. The speaker is not engaging and is boring
  2. They believe that if you have the information being spoken and visual, at the same time, the audience will get twice the value from the presentation.
  3. A picture is worth a thousand words.
  4. Diagrams make it easier for audiences to understand complicated concepts.
  5. Modern humans are "visual" people.
  6. The visuals can be given out as a hard copy before the presentation starts so that the audience can write their own notes on them.
  7. The speaker does not need to have his/her own notes so he/she can move around more freely.

Let me address all those mistaken statements.

  1. If the speaker is boring then no amount of pictures or word slides is going to make him more interesting. He will merely make it more difficult to enjoy looking at the pictures. The only cure is to make him/her speak in his/her natural interesting style.
  2. We have addressed this. No one can read and listen at the same time. You actually reduce the efficiency of the ears and the eyes to 20%
  3. A picture is worth a thousand words but unless the picture is introduced first, allowing the audience to know what it is and why they are looking at it, the thousand "words" that each person will generate in their minds may not be the words that the speaker was hoping they would generate.
  4. More importantly - a picture of a word is worth ONE word. And a picture of a word with a circle around it, is just that: one word with a circle around it!
  5. This is a variation of 2 and 3. Of course, diagrams, charts, and pictures make concepts clearer but only if the speaker has explained as simply as possible the main elements of the concept, giving the audience the audience enough to imagine and to recognize the diagram. Even then the speaker must allow the audience as much opportunity to absorb, in silence the information on the screen. The rule of reading versus listening still applies.
  6. I hope I have burst the bubble of misunderstanding. "Visual people" enjoy watching people talk. More than anything else: Especially if the Speakers speak well.
  7. This is an interesting argument. You could argue that you have to choose between the two conflicting requirements. However, I believe that people learn better by listening and absorbing followed by good notes afterwards. Whilst thinking about the information given during the talk. The notes will almost come to life as the reader remembers the presentation.
  8. The fallacy of this "look at me, I can do this without notes" is nonsense. The speaker does have notes. He is showing them to us - on the screen. Furthermore, because he is now showing them to us he is totally subservient to what is on the screen. He has to follow it. He has to support it. In some cases, the notes on the screen are really all he wants, or needs, to say> But the screen has stolen that away from him, so he finds himself in the secondary role of saying something that supports what is on the screen. Often when I ask presenters how they felt having their notes in front of them and not on the screen, they enthuse about how liberated they felt because they could say the points clearly and briefly, without competing with something on the screen

Audiences love to watch and listen to someone speaking well. Get the speaking part right, and they won't need to see the words. They won't even want them.

How to Use Visual Aids Effectively

Keep in mind that some visual aids require sophisticated equipment, which takes time to set up and operate. Maddeningly, for both you and the audience, the equipment often fails. I wish I had a dollar for every time I had been to a presentation where the audience was forced to sit and wait while the speaker fiddled with the equipment trying to make it work. This is why I insist you plan your template talk on paper first - as notes. If the technology fails, you still have a presentation you can deliver.

Regardless of the type of visual aid you use, however, each one requires the audience to look at something. As we have discussed, it's important that you don't ask your audience to listen to you at the same time. Here are some simple steps to ensure your visual aids are truly aiding you.

  1. Plan your talk first without PowerPointR slides or visuals of any kind. Just decide on the message and the points you're going to make.
  2. Now plan where visuals can support your message and points.
  3. If you're using slides, insert a blank black slide in between every content slide. If you're using flip charts, insert blank charts in the same way. These blanks are to be shown while you're talking.
  4. When you reveal a visual, your audience should recognize it. Do a dry run of your presentation and make sure you have introduced each visual clearly.
  5. When you show a visual, shut up. You have invited your audience to look at something. Let them do so. You need to give them eight to 10 seconds depending on the complexity of the image.
  6. If you need to make any points about the visual then do so, but only after the audience has had time to look at it. Don't forget that your audience still needs time to absorb each thing you invite them to look at.
  7. When you have finished using the visual, take it down. Go to the blank slide.

Nothing is guaranteed to distract an audience more than a picture that remains on the screen because it's not time for the speaker to reveal the next one. A map of the world showing all the offices of the corporation, left up on the screen while the speaker introduces various topics, within a few seconds, has most of the audience planning their next overseas holiday. The speaker is tuned out.

Using Color

Color is good and catches attention. But watch for colors that are difficult to see against a dark background. For example, red is very difficult to see against a blue background. There are many debates about white on a black background versus black on a white background. They are both effective in most cases. Just make sure that if you are using white against a black background you make any type or images larger than normal. Small white type can be difficult to see.


If you are giving an important presentation such as a pitch for new business or a keynote at a major conference where people want handouts, then slides with full detail, bullets, sentences and labels are excellent. The participants will look at the sheets and remember you speaking the message. But hand out the sheets after your talk and only include the detail on the handouts. During your talk, use only the pared down visuals we have been discussing.

Key Points to Remember

  1. People can't read and listen at the same time. Don't talk while you are showing a visual.
  2. Introduce the concept or idea that the visual is illustrating before you show the image.
  3. Cover up or take down your images when you have finished showing them. Do not continue to talk with a visual showing.



This content is extracted by Black Isle Consultants (Asia) Limited from the first five chapters of its publication "Hit me again, I can still hear him!". Black Isle Consultants (Asia) Limited has granted permission to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University for the use of this material to support the learning and development of all participants who have entered the PolyU Innovation and Entrepreneurship Student Challenge.