Nelson Mandela Truly “Speaks”

Posted March 18, 2010 by Katie Howison
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If you haven’t watched the movie, Invictus, you should.  While admittedly slow in places, it’s interesting to see how one compelling leader, Nelson Mandela, was able to reach out to a very diverse and divided audience and unite South Africa.  In this movie, in which he is played by Morgan Freeman, Mandela joins forces with the captain of the rugby team, Francois Pienaar, to create a common source of pride that South Africans could rally around. 

Mandela is an inspiring and creative speaker from whom we all can learn, whether he is speaking to one person or many.   His core messages to various audiences around the world are basically the same … to improve the future, to end discrimination and inequality, to respect freedom and independence, to expect more of ourselves,  to exceed our own expectations and to recognize our common humanity.  

Mandela manages to adapt these core messages to different audiences in order to connect with them in a language they understand, whether it is a group of sports fans, miners, journalists,  government officials, universities, civic groups, community leaders or corporations. 

Mandela truly speaks!    He employs all of the skills of an effective speaker.  He is humble, tells stories, smiles, emphasizes key points, maintains good eye contact, speaks with passion, gestures in all the right places, and makes a lasting impression.  His content resonates with and holds the attention of the audience.   He looks relaxed, yet speaks with conviction.  He is conversational and shows a sense of humor.  He speaks at a good pace and volume, and is clear and concise.  And, he manages to do all this and more without PowerPoint slides. 

We can all learn from Mandela’s speeches, including his inaugural speech in 1994. They not only teach us how to be better speakers, but also how to be better people.

Know Thy Audience

Posted March 8, 2010 by Katie Howison
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Have you ever listened to a speech that was well-organized and nicely delivered, but you could simply not relate to what the speaker was saying?  Did you start to look around the room in askance only to find that other attendees appeared to be confused too?   

This is never a good sign for you OR the speaker.  Chances are the speaker has broken the first commandment in speechwriting:  Know Thy Audience.

Knowing your audience and what makes them tick is the basis for every successful speech, and is covered in virtually every book on speechwriting, including the more recent hit, Presentation Zen.  Audience research will drive the topic, content and call to action and dictate both tone and style.  If you get it right, you will:

- Connect with the audience and hold their interest

- Show you care by making the speech about them, not you

- Create a speech that is compelling, effective and memorable

- Position yourself as a thoughtful and credible speaker

So do yourself a favor and start every speech by performing a deep audience analysis.  Learn as much as you can about your audience and the venue before you start writing the speech.  Ask, for example:     

- Who is in your audience?  Nail down demographics like age, gender, salary, culture, professions, employment and level of education.  Also determine predispositions, such as attitudes, interests, agendas, personal beliefs, lifestyles and ideologies.

- What do they want to hear?   Your audience will want to know “what’s in it for me?” and you need to answer.  Learn about the motivations, goals and expectations of your audience and define three key take-aways that will resonate with them. 

- What are their emotional hot buttons?  Find out what you should emphasize and expand upon to win over your audience, and what is best to avoid altogether.

- Why are you being asked to speak?  Know the purpose of this event so you can better meet expectations.  Is it your job, for example, to inspire, motivate or educate?

- Where and when is the event?  The location, logistics and timing of your speech can also impact the nature of your content and delivery. 

Conference organizers can help answer many of these questions, but if you happen to know any members of the audience – or people who fit the profile – ask them for input too.  The more people you talk to, the better your understanding. 

If you Know Thy Audience, the greater your chances of delivering a compelling speech that people can relate to and remember, not one that leaves them confused.   On that note, check out this compelling and memorable speech about anti-obesity, which earned a TED prize.

Avoiding Death by PowerPoint

Posted February 19, 2010 by Katie Howison
Categories: Speechwriting

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Not too long ago, I was following the real-time tweets of a seminar being delivered in New York City.  Two things struck me. 

  1. Most of the tweets were about how good or bad the speeches were and guess what; most of the “failures” were attributed to boring, data-filled PowerPoint® slides.
  2. The vast majority of tweets were about the failures, probably because people were yawning and distracted – a speaker’s absolute nightmare.

So how do you keep a dual-tasking, twittering and texting audience awake and focused on YOU?  Well, my first recommendation is to avoid slides altogether and to rely on strong words and delivery. 

However, if you MUST have slides to keep you on track, here are a few simple tips to avoid death by PowerPoint and keep the attention of your audience:

  1. Keep your slides simple, clean and light … focus on quality not quantity. 
  2. Use slides sparingly to put more focus on YOU instead of the slides. 
  3. Use fun visuals that tell a story … a picture IS worth a thousand words. 
  4. Embed short videos to give your audience a visual break.
  5. If a graph or chart is absolutely required, keep it clean and break it down into layperson terms and memorable sound bites.
  6. If you must use words, try the 4 by 6 rule … 4 lines down and 6 words across.
  7. Stand to the side of the screen, to keep the visuals from tattooing your forehead.
  8. Choose simple slide designs.
  9. Avoid using web links. 
  10. Practice, practice, practice to increase your confidence.     

Finally, for the truly PowerPoint obsessed, there is hope.  Start by weaning yourself by using the PowerPoint sandwich.  Speak for five minutes with two to three simple slides, five minutes with zero slides, and then another five minutes with two to three slides.  Soon, you will find yourself needing fewer and fewer slides, and you will build a reputation as a credible, interesting and desired speaker. 

Remember, some of the greatest speeches in the world have been delivered without slides.  The Gettysburg Address is a case in point – a model of brevity and impact.  If Lincoln can do it, so can you!


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