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In Silence

I heard a speech given by Simon Sinek, best-selling author of “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”.

He was making a point about sacrifice within an organization. Too often, he said, the many are expected to sacrifice for the benefit of the one leader when in fact the one leader should sacrifice for the benefit of the many.

He repeated “Many are expected to sacrifice for one leader”. And then he silently mouthed the words “That’s backwards.” as he made a hand gesture indicating ‘backwards’.

It was highly effective. Have you ever tried that? Just silently mouthing your brief, important  point while making the relevant hand gesture?

When each member of the audience fills in the silence for themselves they remember it far more clearly than if the point had been made orally by the speaker.

Try it sometime.

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As I write this our Toastmaster contest is approaching its District finals. Many speakers have been eliminated. Those remaining have polished their words, practiced, edited their speech and practiced some more. Eliminated a section, added an anecdote and practiced again.

They have received suggestions, ideas and critiques. They have been told they have too much of this and not enough of that. Or not enough of this and too much of that. Or both.

But throughout all this one thing remains as constant as the North Star:

Your speech has to have value to the audience.

It needs the humor, the emotion and, of course, the stories. But they are the clothing that makes your valuable idea interesting and acceptable to the listener. Your valuable idea is the soul beneath. It is the bedrock on which you are building.

You can tweak and edit and adjust all you want but the constancy, the shape, the stability of your valuable idea should not be diminished by your changes. Your changes build and illuminate; they do not chip away at your idea because you have found a line that is funnier or an anecdote that brings a bigger hit of emotion.

The criteria for change are:

– it makes my premise deeper or adds insight to it

– it it makes my premise clearer and brighter for the audience.

You present your idea with emotional honesty (the audience will sense it if you don’t). This emotional honesty is what carries your message. The audience has probably heard this idea before – few speech ideas are truly unique.

What takes this idea – your idea – from ho-hum to enlightening is your honest insight into your weaknesses and your growth. This is the value you give to each person in the audience so they can take your experience and use it in their own life.

Share your ideas with honesty and the change you bring to others – change you may never know about – is the real reward.


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Your Important Message

What if you have an important message – one that you strongly want to share with other people? It might be political or religious or just plain motivational or inspirational.

You might want others to join the struggle for…to believe that…to help make this change to….

You might have had an experience that so moved and changed you that you want others to be changed by it also.

It’s so important to you that you feel you must tell others. You need to stand up and tell them. You can call it a speech or a sermon, a lecture, an address, a talk but you have to stand up and tell it. It’s just that important.

The question is – how do you start putting it together?

There are three basic rules:

  • Don’t preach
  • Tell stories
  • Be very clear about benefits

Don’t preach

Resist the temptation to show them the error of their ways. The wrongs of the past may be very clear to you. People have sinned, political parties have been corrupt. Grievances abound. Let it go.  If you do mention it, tie it to the way of the future – a future you can show could be much better. Be specific about the ways it can be better if…

However much you believe that your way of thinking and acting is vital and it will improve people’s lives, resist the temptation to tell them what they OUGHT to do. Nobody reacts well to being told what they ought to believe, how they ought to  live their life, or what change they MUST make. It sets up a resistance and makes your job of changing their behaviour twice as hard.

Instead, show how the change has benefitted yourself or others. Show how the change can improve the future for them. Show, don’t tell. Which leads to:

Tell Stories

Your stories and the examples that illustrate your points are what will carry your message home to a deeper level. A smattering of facts and a whole lot of stories are the structure that will draw people in to listen. Your stories can be personal or about others whose experiences have been relevant.

Your stories are about real people who have physically and emotionally “been there”. The emotion is the most important part. It could be raw or warm or anywhere in between. But sharing the feeling is far more important than sharing the fact.

Be very clear about benefits

Many important messages ask that people change in some way or follow a course of action that is unusual for them. People find change or doing the unusual to be difficult. For this reason you spend time researching the benefits that will follow. If you can, brainstorm the benefits with others because different points of view will enrich your list of benefits.

Once you know the benefits, find the story that you can tell about them. In this way the points you make are not mere logical reasons, they are benefits. As you speak, the list of benefits grows.

You wrap up with a call to action. Make it resoundingly clear how your audience can achieve these benefits. Make their first step very clear.

Then step out of the way so your message can do its work.





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First, I want to welcome someone new to the blog – a reader from the 130th country. That’s right. This blog is read in 130 countries. It’s a milestone for me and it makes me very happy.

My 130th country is Angola. I treated myself to a little geography lesson and I now know that Angola is a republic, formerly a Portuguese colony, on the west coast of Africa. Most Angolans are Christian and speak Portuguese. The capital is the port of Luanda and the country has much mineral wealth, largely untapped. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Now – matching actions to words. We’ve all seen new speakers doing something like saying “I was so sad and depressed” but saying it with a smile on their face. Clearly the smile and the words don’t match. To be taken seriously as a speaker your actions must match your words.

But it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Let’s say you are still nervous when you stand up to speak and the tension shows in your shoulders. But you’re speaking about your vacation and your words are “I was relaxing on the warm sand, with palm trees shading…”  Understand that there is a dissonance for your audience and do whatever you can – breathing, relaxation exercises – to reduce it.

Or, maybe you are giving a technical presentation and you want to appear knowledgeable, competent, in control. You’d better be 100% certain of your visual aids so your computer or projector, or screen don’t let you down. Nothing says incompetent better than a memory stick that doesn’t work with the projector, or a screen that won’t roll smoothly into position. No point blaming Fred, who was supposed to set it all up for you – it’s you who gets to wear the responsibility.

Your actions start before you walk in front of the group. Stand up a few moments ahead of time. Stand tall, loosen your shoulders, take some deep breaths. When you move forward, move with as much grace and confidence as you can muster. Still standing straight, proud chest,  give your audience a smile that says you can’t wait to get started.

Whether your presentation is technical, persuasive, inspirational or a story your audience will remember it better if what they see matches what they hear. You’ve got the words they will hear organized to your satisfaction. Your rehearsal or practice time is where organize what they will see.

Rehearsal time is not only for drumming the words into your brain, it is for making sure your whole body, especially your face, is totally in sync with the words that will be coming out of your mouth. It’s not about body language and gestures per se, it’s about total consistency. It’s about bonding two of the five senses in order to have your message fully received on more than one level. It’s about making your message stick.

Can you add more than two senses? Maybe, depending on the message. As speakers we rely on ‘what you hear is what you get’. Add in ‘what you see is what you get’ and you raise your chances of being truly heard.

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An Unpopular Opinion

Have you ever tried to persuade an audience of something that they are almost shocked to hear about. Popular opinion within this group says one thing and you are trying to persuade them of the opposite. Let’s say you are an environmentalist talking about a proposed oil pipeline to a group of business people. Or the reverse, a business person addressing the same topic to a group of environmentalists.

How do you go about this? It’s one thing trying to give them more information about something they already believe, or trying to advance their thinking a little further along they way it is already going. But trying to reverse, to completely change their thinking is much harder.

You need to bring your persuasive skill to the podium. Not your logical skills and not your passion. Don’t set off with a mind set of “I’m right. You people are wrong!”

It’s unlikely that you will completely change minds with one speech. At best you might soften their position and cause them to look into the topic more carefully.

The basic speech structure is similar to any informational or persuasive speech. Select a small number (three is good) of the strongest points. Find good research to back them up and tell stories to drive the points home and give them a human dimension.

A few don’ts:

  • Don’t try to make lots of points
  • Don’t omit the stories
  • Don’t point out to the audience how wrong they are, and definitely not how stupid or blind they are for thinking that way
  • Don’t use a tone that is even remotely defensive or hostile
  • Don’t expect that your speech will immediately convert them to your way of thinking.

To persuade people to cross the great divide, even part way, requires that you respect your audience’s thoughts as you hope they will respect yours. This will reflect in your voice, that your tone is warm and friendly and betrays no hint of ‘I know better than you do’.

Your thinking will reflect in your word choice too. Avoid any emotionally loaded words, or words that betray signs of prejudiced thought. Even simple words like ‘big’ can be loaded, as in ‘big oil companies’ or ‘big drug companies’.

Make sure you research is thorough and from respected sources. “One university professor says” will not cut much ice.

Address the view that opposes yours with respect. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Give thought to your appearance. If you’re on the environmental side dress rather more formally than you might usually dress if you’re talking to a business group. If you’re on the business side, loosen up a bit. You don’t have to copy the other side, just don’t flaunt your different-ness.

Make sure your closing offers opportunities for later questioning or discussion – this shows you to be open and not as closed-minded as you think they are.

Much of this comes down to your mind set. You are passionate about this topic or you wouldn’t be taking on this task. However, passion won’t serve you well here.; it can easily be mistaken for an overly assertive or even aggressive stance.

Once you have structured your major points work on the stories that soften them and bring them into emotional focus. Work on presenting a friendly, acceptable point of view.

You are persuading, not fighting a battle.

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December Sunset

A lingering red

sunset, the sky reluctant

to yield to darkness.

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We’re told that in our speech stories we should use specific detail. Yes, indeed. But how much and what what kind of detail?

How much? Just enough to create a clear picture in the mind of the listener.

Recently I read a speech written by someone who had been on a skiing holiday. I’ll just give you the beginning of it. Trust me, you won’t want more.

“We skied through glistening, powder-soft snow, gliding down through flakes that kissed our faces. The heavens above were a clear arc stretching blue to infinity. We were blessed with crisp, cool air. The scenery was majestic, with mountain peaks stretching gloriously skyward.”

I read through paragraphs of this stuff. Way, way too much. A couple of short sentences would have got the idea across. A little bit of purple prose goes a very long way.

On the other hand “We went skiing, drove up in the car, stayed in the youth hostel and I lost my best pair of mitts.” doesn’t cut it either.

The audience doesn’t want to wallow in adjectives but, on the other hand, they would like to get the flavour of the ski trip. So tell it to a friend. Say it the way you would tell a friend when you got home. If you’re still in doubt, actually tell a friend and record your words. Audiences are your friend too.

What kind of detail? The details that will deepen your story and bring it to life. Suppose you want to describe a kitchen. If you are in North America you wouldn’t need to blether on about an ordinary stove, fridge and sink. But to enhance your story get clear about exactly what kind of kitchen this is. A rich, no-expense-spared kitchen? You’d go to the internet and find out what the rich housewife is buying these days. Maybe it’s a gas range with a built-in barbecue, a two-door fridge with an ice maker.

Suppose you want this kitchen to be a dump. There might be a stack of old newspapers in the corner, torn lino, a burned out light bulb.

You want the place homey? There’s a red knitted pot holder, the cat’s dish full of food, a mat with “Home Sweet Home” by the sink.

You don’t need to mention the big, obvious pieces, just a few revealing details.

To go back to the skiing story. Saying “Mountains stretched gloriously skywards'” is like saying “The refrigerator kept food cold effectively through the use of electricity”. We know that.

Detail is most useful when it is selected and presented in a way that adds to the audience’s understanding.

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Suppose someone did something very nasty to you. Let’s say they hit you hard for no reason.

Your body reacts. Your heart rate and blood pressure climb, your stomach muscles clench, your shoulder and neck muscles tense.

These feelings are passed to the brain which assesses the data it is receiving, clumps it together and labels it as an emotion. “I feel so ANGRY about this.’ or perhaps “I feel so HURT by this.” or perhaps “I RESENT  this.” or “I’m so AFRAID.”

The way we feel about this nastiness has been filtered through and interpreted by our attitude to life, our past experiences, our present circumstances and many other factors. So the emotion we end up with varies from person to person even though the hit was the same for everyone.

Furthermore, everyone will invent their own story about it. Think of the person-on-the-street interviews on television.

“Now I’m always going to be afraid to walk down this street.”

“I knew there was something strange about that man as soon as I saw him.”

“I blame the mental health system. People like him should be given treatment. It isn’t his fault.”

“It’s a good job he didn’t hit me because I’d have hit him right back.”

What has this got to do with the story in our speech?  When you search back in your memory bank for a story to illustrate your speech you might find one that feels like a good story but the emotion doesn’t fit the needs of the speech. Can you imagine someone else experiencing the same happening but filtering it through a different emotional lens.

Let’s say your mom caught you with your hand in the cookie jar – it’s a common childhood experience. Let’s say that you yourself felt guilt – your back story being that your family and your church had told you many times that it is wrong to steal.

Someone else, with a different backstory, might have feelings that translate into a different emotion:

  • anger at their mother for coming into the kitchen at that moment
  • superiority because they were actually stealing more expensive donuts but they fooled their mom into thinking it was just plain cookies
  • annoyance at their brother, who must have ratted on them
  • frustration because they were hungry, having missed breakfast

You can tell the same basic story through a different emotional lens. You could tell this story as an anecdote, part of a series of anecdotes illustrating how your relationship with your brother developed.  Maybe you accused him unjustly – he didn’t rat on you – and your frustration changes to regret about misjudging him.

When you tell an anecdote or a story it should fit the theme of your speech exactly but the basic story can stay the same while the feelings and emotions can change. It’s your emotion that gives depth, dimension and power to your story.

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How to Stop

I remember one of my early speeches, coming to the end of the information I had planned to provide and tailing off something like:

“Well, um, that’s all I have to say about that. Um. Thank you.” Then I scuttled from behind the podium as fast as I could.

My mentor, bless her heart, did not let me get away with that. After telling me all that I did right in the speech (which did not take long) she asked,

“What happened to your ending?”

“Well, um, nothing. That was it.”

“Always, always, always have an ending. An actual ending for your speech – and make it a strong one.”

This was some of the best speaking advice I ever received. Since then I have always worked on the closing words of my speeches. Some endings worked better than others but all of them were better than “That’s all I have to say about that.”

I came to the  conclusion right then that making a speech was like learning to ride a bicycle. Before you start you should know how to stop.

What makes a strong closing?

1. A brief summation of the major points in an informational speech. And I do mean brief. Don’t get sucked into re-stating your points in depth. Re-state the points in extremely short, memorable sentences. Conclude with a short sentence wishing your audience success in working with this information.

2  A re-statement of the message underlying a motivational or inspirational speech.

“So, what are you waiting for? Go out and follow your dreams!”

Notice the exclamation point at the end. Deliver that conclusion with an exclamation point in your voice. Raise your voice towards the end of the sentence; make it a clarion call to action.

3. Having a strong closing sentence in mind – and using it. This means knowing exactly what your ending is – not wandering from one sort-of good closing sentence to another closing sentence to another, never finding the one that is just right. There are times I’ve wanted to shout at a speaker “Stop NOW.” as they heaped closing sentence on top of closing sentence.

4. Not ending with an apology. Even if this is one of your very first speeches don’t apologize. “I’m sorry if this wasn’t a very good speech but…”. “I know I’m not as good a speaker as the rest of you guys but…”.  “I meant to work on it longer but I’ve been really busy this week.”.

Keep those insecurities hidden. Fake it till you make it.

As you come to the end of your speech slow your speaking pace a little to signal that you are about to conclude. Then deliver your concluding lines with confidence and power. End with a bang, not a whimper.

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So you made your speech and you felt that you really communicated to your audience. You made all the points you had intended to make, threw in some good movement and gestures, a couple of  touches  of humour and you ended on a high note with a call to action. You feel pretty sure you communicated your message.

You ARE sure, aren’t you? Here are 10 signs that tell you “YES!!”

1. As you are speaking you see all eyes on you. No-one is checking their phone or fiddlings with papers.

2. You can see people in the audience taking notes

3. People’s body language shows focus and concentration.

4. You see nods of agreement

5. You see the “Ah” of dawning comprehension.

6. You see people reflect the emotion of the story with a smile, a laugh, a frown, sadness. Their faces display the emotion you are expressing.

7. The applause is whole-hearted.

8. Afterwards people say, “I never thought of it like that before” or “Thank you. What you said helped me/made a difference/made me want to know more.”

9. People comment afterwards on one specific point you made or phrase you used. Nothing generic. Not  “wonderful” or “great job” but a specific point or phrase they are taking away.

10. You get another gig on the came or similar topic.

You’ll notice that six of these points are what you see during the speech and four are what you hear afterwards.

The six signs you see during the speech are signals to you, indicating that you are communicating strongly. The fact that you actually notice these signals means that you are not merely giving eye contact. You are mentally asking the question, “Audience! Are you connecting with me?”

When you see these signals you know the communication loop is complete because you are receiving positive, non-verbal feedback. The audience is connecting back to you. It’s a magical feeling.  Getting the verbal feedback later is icing on the cake.


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