The Essential Speaking Skill That Will Boost Your Credibility and Cash Flow

What if you could refine a speaking technique that would have your audience believe you were more intelligent, more likeable and more deserving of a higher salary? 

What if not improving that same technique would lead that audience to think you were insecure, boring and cowardly? 

And what if I told you that those perceptions were not in the eye of the beholder but in your own eyeballs and how you use them when you speak?

That’s right, we’re talking about eye contact. It’s the most important technique in your speaking toolkit because when you do it well, it has a huge impact on your audience’s perception of you.

And yet, most speakers don’t make effective eye contact because they are too busy looking at their notes in front of them or the screen behind them. Presenters have so much fear of forgetting what they plan to say that they over-script their remarks and over-rely on their notes. And when you do so a bunch of bad stuff happens:

Your vocal range (and your confidence) compresses. Very few people can read from their notes in a way that sounds natural, authentic and engaging. Are you Katie Couric and therefore a master of interviewing and speaking from your note? If you're not, you’re likely hunched over your notes, compressing your vocal range and volume and projecting the confidence of a sheepish seventh grader at your first prom.  

You undermine your credibility. When you need to read something basic and foundational, something that your audience expects you to know cold, you lose credibility. If you’re an expert in structured finance, you shouldn’t have to read the definition of a securitization. Watch how often you see people read from their notes notes from the moment you step on the podium—it often looks like they don’t even know what their name is!

Your eyes disengage. If you’ve got your nose in your notes, the only thing your audience is seeing is the top of your head. And when the audience can’t see your eyes, they aren’t thinking and feeling good things about you and your content.

The eyes are the single most important part of the body in transmitting information non-verbally
— Carolyn. P. Atkins

A ton of great academic research has been conducted to better understand the importance and impact of eye contact in communication. One interesting study, conducted by Carolyn P. Atkins, a researcher at West Virginia University, explored the audience’s perceptions of speakers who make eye contact for different amounts of the time when speaking.

The findings were instructive:

  • A speaker perceived to have “no” eye contact looked at his audience less than 10% of the time;
  • A speaker who looked at her audience 10 – 50% of the time was judged to have “minimal” eye contact;

  • A speaker with “good” eye contact looked at her audience 90 – 100% of the time.

You don’t even get to “good” until you’re making eye contact with your audience at least 90% of the time. Ninety percent! Michael Jordan said, “I didn’t come here to be average.” and I bet that's true of you too. You don't get out of bed in the morning striving to be "minimal". You want to be good, even great! This research study suggests that with anything less than "good" eye contact, audiences will perceive you to be:  

  • Nervous
  • Uncomfortable
  • Afraid
  • Insecure
  • Hesitant
  • Cowardly
  • Unsociable
  • Weak
  • Inferior
  • Dull
  • Boring


On the flip side, once you do hit the 90% mark, your audience will perceive you to be:

  • Intelligent;

  • Likeable; and

  • More deserving of a higher salary.

And they will have more active brains, better recall and do more with what you share when you make “good” eye contact. Nice.

So, if you’re not hitting the 90% mark—and most of us aren’t—you have some work to do. And it’s work worth doing. You want to ensure your audience is receiving you and your content in the best possible light.

Here are seven ways you can improve your eye contact the next time you present…

  1. Get your head out of your notes. This is easy to say, hard to do. If you need to script what you want to say to help you think through your remarks, fine. But don’t stop your prep there. Distill your script into high-level bullets and use them to prompt you to speak. Separate your reading from your speaking. Speak with eye contact and then pause to look at your notes. I call this "pausing to reload".

    We have a tendency to fall in love with our own prose—it’s called the Eloquence Trap—and when we have our speech written out in front of us, we stay stuck in our notes and that kills our eye contact and credibility. Instead, focus on getting the essence of the message across rather than obsessing over eloquence. Essence with good eye contact beats eloquence every time.
  2. Don’t be a grazer. People can feel it if you’re not making authentic eye contact, when you’re grazing around the room and your eyes aren’t landing anywhere. It feels like you’re not really in the room but caught up in your own internal teleprompter. So, when you thank the person who introduced you, make eye contact with her and then turn to someone in the middle of the room. From there, start making meaningful, sustained connections to random people throughout the room.
  3. Lengthen the duration of eye contact per person. Connect with a human in the audience for 3-5 seconds before you move on. Time gets compressed when you’re under pressure—5 seconds will feel like 30.
  4. Wait for a natural pause before you shift your eye contact. When you have a natural pause in your content, disengage your eyes and move onto the next person. Be sure to randomly select the people you make eye contact with so you don’t look like a robot—or one of those crazy lawn sprinklers that jerk from side to side. People will understand their turn to connect with you will come.

    If the stage lights are bright and the room is dark, look for audience members with glasses. Their lenses catch the light and can give you focal targets. You can also divide the room into 6-8 sections and move around the room landing for 3-5 seconds on each section as you talk.

    When you slow it down and become more deliberate with your eye contact, your presence strengthens and the audience senses that you are calm, comfortable and confident.

  5. Align your eye contact with your most interested listener. When you get to the content that you know particular people in the audience care about, look at them when you talk about it. Look at the business line leader, for instance, when speaking about the acquisition’s efficiencies and the head of corporate development when speaking about reps and warranties. This helps your content land in a powerful way and makes them feel like you’ve designed the presentation just for them.
  6. Square up your shoulders and your face. If you want to increase the consistency of your basketball shots, you turn your shoulders to be square with the hoop. (Trust me, it works. I’m 5’8” and take all the help I can get!) The same is true with eye contact. Square up your shoulders and your face with the person you’re looking at and you’ll appear to be comfortable, not stiff, as you enhance your presence. You don’t have to move your feet every time you make eye contact, but sometimes you’ll want to. The same notion applies when you are sitting—most boardroom chairs swivel—so move when necessary to make meaningful eye contact.
  7. Practice every day. Practice making sustained eye contact in casual conversations in your personal and professional contexts. Build the habit in low stress environments so you can do it comfortably when pressure is on. Serena Williams learned to smash the ball when she was six. She still practices it to this day.

Your eyes may well be the windows to your soul, but they’re also the windows through which your audience experiences your confidence and credibility. Don’t miss the opportunity connect with them.


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How to Present Like a Rock Star When You Can't See the Audience

Technology has made incredible things possible: humans on the moon, rovers on Mars and unlimited, on-demand reruns of the West Wing on Netflix. It’s also made it possible for people living in places far away from each other to work together. And that is an awesome thing—everyone wins when people can live where and how they want while working on great projects. Everyone wins, except perhaps you as you try to present or pitch to a group of people you can’t see and can’t see you.

Modern work realities have created a very difficult presenting situation. When you can’t see your audience, you have fewer tools to capture and keep your audience’s attention and you have very limited ways to get real-time feedback. Being relevant, clear, compelling and organized is that much more important because if you lose your audience when they’re not physically with you, they’re completely gone.

So what to do in this techno reality of absent audiences?

Here are some tips for keeping those body-less voices engaged...

1.    Ask questions.

Audiences, present or virtual, have a hard time ignoring rhetorical questions. They may not always answer them immediately (see note about staying with silence below), but rhetorical questions snap your listener’s attention back into your presentation. Just be careful not to overuse them.

You can also ask questions that you know the audience has and then answer them. Before you hold your webinar or conference call, ask your client/host about the top 3-5 pressing questions the audience has. When you’re giving your presentation, reference back to this conversation and the questions as you respond to them.

You could also poll your audience, even when they’re remote.  Ask questions like “how many people have encountered this problem?” or “How many of you see this as an opportunity?” It’s also a good remote presentation practice to let the audience know that a question is coming so they can collect their thoughts. That approach sounds might sound like this: “In a minute, I’m going to ask you about…, but before I do let me finish up my last point by saying…”. When you’re ready for the audience’s responses, you can invite them to share their thoughts over the conference line or ask them to share via the chat box on whatever webinar or virtual meeting platform you’re using.


2.    Stay with silence.

When you’re presenting to a remote audience you will need to fight against the discomfort you may have with silence. You might worry that it’s a strange experience on the other side of the presentation too. But the reality is that your audience will appreciate a chance to absorb the concepts you’re sharing and being able to do so will increase their likelihood of staying engaged in your session.  

And if all you get are crickets when you ask a question or request feedback, you can make a joke (“come on people throw me a bone!”) or call on specific people, friendly allies you know to be in the audience and open to participating.


3.    Use visuals with more copy.

Since your audience won’t have the same visual cues from you to locate where you on in your talk track, it’s often helpful to use visuals with more copy so people are clear on where you are in the presentation and what you’re talking about. It’s also helpful to use directional language periodically (“Now, moving onto the third point…”) so people know where you are on the screen/slide.)


4.    Incorporate more examples and stories.

When your audience can’t see you, storytelling and examples are more important than ever if you want to keep them engaged. Use short vignettes and crisp examples to keep things interesting.


5.    Boost your voice.

A remote audience can’t see your eyes or your body language, elevating the importance of your voice. To add more impact, stand up when you deliver your presentation. This allows your diaphragm to expand so you can project more effectively.

And use your hands, even if your audience can’t see them. Your hands are connected to your voice. When your hands are animated your voice will be too and you and your content will be more engaging.


6.    Be clear and colloquial.

Eliminate qualifying phrases and distracting sounds that make you sound uncertain and distract your easily-distracted listeners. Phrases like “sort of,” “kind of," “I guess,” “like,” “ok?,” “right?,” “you know?,” and “do you know what I mean?” All of this gets amplified when an audience can only hear your voice.

Do keep some of the conversational colloquialisms that make you sound natural. This could include some dialogue, snippets of important conversations you’ve had with clients, customers or member of the audience. It’s more engaging when you recount parts of conversations rather than report them, such as, “The client said, ‘You miss the deadline, and I’ll be pissed. Do it twice and you’re done with our business.’” This is more interesting than reporting about the conversation, as in, “The client emphasized the importance of meeting deadlines.”   


7.    Mix it up.

It’s always important to fight habituation when you present and it’s doubly so when you’re speaking to an audience you can’t see.  Mix up the pace of your presentation, add pauses for effect, adjust the tone and volume of your voice when appropriate.


8.    Rehearse with the technology.

Murphy’s Law about things going wrong seems to be particularly true when presenting with technology. When I saw Salim Ismail from Singularity University present, he joked, “AI (Artificial Intelligence) is easy. AV is difficult.” Rehearsing with the tech you plan to use will save you a mountain of stress on presentation day. 


9.    Be respectful of time.

This is always important and even more so when your audience is of the virtual variety. You have to start and stop on time.


10. Send what you promised.

If you've promise an agenda or slides in advance of the presentation or call, send them in advance. And make sure you budget for a few minutes of “document finding” at the beginning of your presentation so everyone has what they need in front of them before you begin. Remind them where to find the documents just before and during the beginning of your session.


11. Make behavioural requests.

It doesn’t hurt to lay out expectations and make behavioural requests at the beginning of the presentation or call. You might set up the call with a request like this: “Here’s what I’ve found will deliver the richest experience for everyone: shut off your other devices, shut down all other the apps, windows or tabs so you can be present, participate and contribute.”

Conference calls can be particularly painful. (And should you need a refresher on the absurdity of conference calls and other remote communication, check out this funny video.) To get the most out of a conference call situation, always circulate the agenda before hand, take attendance and ask people to announce and introduce themselves when they come on the call. Referencing back to people on the call and what they said earlier on the call or before it started helps keep people engaged. And be sure to announce yourself before you contribute if not everyone will recognize your dulcet tones.

So, if you’re not able to convince your tightfisted boss or budget sensitive client to pony up for a train or plane ticket so you can present in person, don’t panic. While it’s not always easy to be persuasive and engaging when you can’t see your audience, it is possible. Remember that they are with you, invite them to participate and be your best, most animated self to keep them engaged.

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The Importance of Speaking as a Signal Skill

In the inaugural episode of The Podium Project podcast, I talked about speaking as a "signal skill". The concept generated a lot of interest and feedback so I thought it would be helpful to expand on the idea a bit further here on the blog.

Here’s the rub when it comes to speaking: if you're a compelling and confident speaker, people assume you're good at other things too. If you're a great speaker, people think you're a great leader, a strategic thinker, a trustworthy advisor, a charismatic and a friendly person. The act of speaking confidently signals that you have competence in a variety of other areas, even if you have less experience than the people around you.

One of the best examples that illustrates speaking is signal skill is the ascendency of Barack Obama. When he ran for the Democratic nomination, he was a junior Senator from the state of Illinois with a couple of years experience under his belt. Everyone else vying for the nomination in 2008 had more experience than him. But his ability to share his ideas with clarity, conviction and an infectious sense of possibility shaped the way the electorate viewed him—someone fit to hold the world’s highest elected office.

But you don’t need to be a politician to benefit from speaking as a signal skill. It’s available to everyone, whether you're an management consultant, a lawyer, an investment advisor, a creative director or an entrepreneur. Improving your ability to speak takes hours (and not 10,000 of them) and it enhances people's perceptions of you in a way that might otherwise take years.

After coaching thousands of speakers over the past two decades, I can assure you that speaking is a learned skill. You don’t need to be born with Margaret Thatcher’s brain or Bill Clinton’s charm. A few small changes to how you prepare, frame and deliver your communication makes a big difference to how others perceive you and that shift in perception can help you quickly you achieve your bigger picture goals.

One of my clients made a few tweaks to her presentation and delivery before getting on the podium at a big off-site meeting. The next day, one of her colleagues approached her and said, “I’ve been watching you speak for 30 years and you have never spoken like that. You had the hair on the back of my neck standing up, the room was in the palm of your hand...". Those simple tweaks she made transformed how others viewed her as a leader and emboldened her belief (and theirs) in her broader capabilities. The best part? She didn’t need another degree or to get up an hour earlier every morning to get better. She just needed to spend a few minutes of focusing on the right things.

So, if your speaking skill set is sending a signal to the people around you, how strong is yours and what message is it conveying? What would shift for you professionally if you improved your speaking skills and took things to the next level? I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

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The Power of Examples: How to Make the Abstract Concrete

Photo by Evgeny Sergeev/iStock / Getty Images

You’re an expert.

You’re an expert in something that other people find interesting and valuable.

As an expert, you are invited to speak at conferences and client seminars because you can share something new, something that will advance the audience’s knowledge, provide clarity and spark some new thinking.

Because you are a highly regarded expert speaking to an audience that knows less than you do, you will use language, provide technical details and share concepts that no one understands or cares about.

Then you would be an expert who is very bad at sharing his expertise.

And you would not be alone.

The knowledge gap between an expert speaker and her audience creates a significant communications challenge that many professionals struggle to overcome. It’s not easy to navigate but those who do it well will find themselves in hot demand.

So, the question I’d like to explore today is how do you effectively share abstract concepts and complex ideas in a way that is easy to understand?  The best and easiest way to do this is through examples.

In their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Die and Other Survive, Dan and Chip Heath write thoughtfully about the importance of “concreteness” if we want to make our ideas clear, compelling and “sticky”:

“We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. This is where so much of business communication goes awry. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images – ice-filled baths, apples with razors – because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure our ideas will mean the same things to everyone in our audience.”

When you’ve been hired to share your knowledge and experience with an audience who knows less than you do, don’t force them to try and interpret what you’re saying, don’t make them work to extract meaning. That’s your job as a speaker. You must make the abstract concrete, make your expertise relevant and meaningful and use language and examples that will create a clear and shared understanding.

Here are four different ways to effectively incorporate examples into your next presentation:

  1. Leverage a light-hearted hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you’re speaking at a conference a few weeks before Thanksgiving and part of your presentation is about the effectiveness of using Decision Tree Analysis when making business decisions. Instead of prattling on about the theory and the power of this approach in the abstract, you could connect it to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. So, for you, talking about Decision Tree Analysis in the context of a hypothetical Thanksgiving scenario might go something like this:

    "Decision Tree Analysis is all about making choices based on projected outcomes. Let’s look at the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend as an example. I could spend the weekend with my in-laws and extended family or I can take my immediate family to Disneyland. On one hand, there is an 87% chance that my husband Sam and I will have to return to couples therapy immediately following Thanksgiving. On the other hand, if I go to Disneyland with my family, there is a 95% chance that Sam and I, and our two daughters, Alexandra and Chloe, will create wonderful shared memories that we can cherish for many years to come. Hmmm…"

    The hypothetical example explains the Decision Tree Analysis process in a way that is fun and easy to understand. Once the concept is clear for people, you can share a real example from the audience’s industry, or it’s own organization, that further illustrates how the process of Decision Tree Analysis works and why it is, or has been, effective in their context.

  2. Draw on examples from the public domain. One of the best examples of using something in the public domain to make something complicated more concrete is the Big Mac Index that was created in 1986 by The Economist. The Index was developed “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their “correct level”. It is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity (PPP), the notion that in the long run exchange rates should move towards the rate that would equalize the prices of identical goods and services (in this case a burger) in any two countries. For example, the average price of a Big Mac in America in January 2015 was $4.79; in China it was only $2.77 at market exchange rates. So the “raw” Big Mac index says that the yuan was undervalued by 42% at the time.” ( The Economist used a universally understood food product – the Big Mac - to illustrate the purchasing power of currency in various markets. Not bad.

  3. Use metaphors or analogies. One of my clients was just discussing how he was going to help his team improve their project management process. He said, “The easiest way to change the direction of a large ship is pushing the ends of it. It’s very difficult to change the ship’s direction by pushing in the middle. Well, we’re going to focus on improving our process at the beginning and end of projects...” If you are having a hard time creating metaphors and analogies, plumb your passions . Maybe you love gardening or monster truck rallies or sewing or fly-fishing. How could you draw a comparison between an abstract professional concept and a personal pursuit in a compelling way? Doing so will demonstrate deep knowledge, showcase your personality and helps you make memorable point. The most indelible communicators in history, from Churchill to Clinton, use comparative devices. You should too.

  4. Share client success stories. One of the most powerful ways to make the abstract concrete is to share client success stories. Case study examples invite your audience into a story of transformation where people just like them went from a place of fear and frustration to a better place, one filled with confidence and success. And the best part? You were the bridge between the land of pain and suffering and ultimate triumph. Even though you were a supporting actor in the case study story—because your client is the lead character—you were the agent of transformation. Casting yourself in a supporting role helps you avoid sounding too self-congratulatory or grand-standy.

It’s a paradoxical thing, being invited to share our expert knowledge with people who don’t share our level of expertise. The very expertise that landed us the gig is the very same expertise that can make it hard to connect with an audience. We have to mind the gap. Examples are the bridge, use them well.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How and when have you used examples with great results? Have you ever attempted to make the abstract more concrete and failed fantastically? Share your experience in the comments below.

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Eleven Proven Techniques to Help You Answer Your Audience's Toughest Questions.

Photo by marekuliasz/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by marekuliasz/iStock / Getty Images

In the last blog post, I shared a variety of techniques designed to help you anticipate questions and design the answers right into your presentation.

And since even the most brilliant presentation isn’t going to anticipate and address all of your audience’s questions, this week I’m going to talk about how to answer the questions that do come up in your Q & A session.

Here are eleven techniques that will help you address your audience’s questions like a pro:

  1. Listen carefully. This seems obvious, but when under pressure many speakers are so concerned about their answer they fail to listen carefully to the question being asked – and the one that isn’t being asked overtly. Listen for what isn’t being said. What is the subtext? What is at the emotional core of the question? Make sure you address the overt question and the underlying one in your answer.
  2. Don’t answer a question you don’t understand. We’re often so nervous we start to babble the minute the questioner finishes asking his or her question. If you don’t understand, ask for clarity in a non-confrontational way: “I think I understand your question, would you mind asking it again to make sure?” or “Could you help me understand your question a bit better and why you’re asking it so I can provide the most helpful response possible?” You can also paraphrase the question back to them to ensure you understand what they want you to address. It’s much worse to answer a question that wasn’t asked than to ask for clarification.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take the question offline. Keep the focus of the presentation and the Q & A session in mind. If someone asks a question that is off topic, suggest that they speak to you afterwards so you can keep the discussion focused on the topic at hand. And sometimes you might encounter people who are looking for free advice and they ask complex questions that require more time and information to address properly. Acknowledge some of the variables that would inform your advice, provide some general guidance with the appropriate caveats and suggest that you connect offline to discuss further.
  4. Validate the question. Some people who ask questions just need to be heard and they won’t listen to your answer if they don’t think you’ve heard them. Show some empathy and reflect back what you're sensing: “That sounds frustrating.” Then pause for a moment and if you have it right, they will nod. Then provide your answer and show you know why it’s frustrating: “Trying to prepare quarter-end statements for a publicly traded company using Excel is like trying to build a house with cardboard. Here’s what you might want to do...”
  5. Collect your thoughts. It is okay to pause and take a beat as long as you look physically comfortable while you collect your thoughts. Avoid physically recoiling, expressing nervous energy or saying things like “Okkkaaaaay….ummmmmm….wellllll….”. This does not engender confidence. It’s more powerful to pause and think than employ transparent tactics to buy time like repeating the question for the sake of buying time.  
  6. Structure your answer. To help you organize your thoughts and ensure your audience is clear on what you’re saying, it helps to physically and orally enumerate your response: “A few things come to mind. First…". When you enumerate, you speak with a lot more clarity, conviction and authority and you will be more inclined to be concise. But it's important not to commit the number of points you are going to share in your response, lest you have less than you thought, or lose track of them while you're answering. In the infamous “Oops” moment in the last Republican primaries, if Governor Perry had said, “There are a few agencies of government that are gone when I get there. First, Commerce. Second Education. And that’s just to get us started”, we may have had a very different outcome in 2012. (He said there were three agencies he wanted to cut and then couldn't remember the third!  It was painful to watch. You can see the clip here.)
  7. Leverage the audience. You don't have to have all the answers. When a speaker can share his or her thoughts in response to a question and invite input from colleagues or other audience members, it demonstrates confidence, professional courtesy and commitment to ensure the questioner gets the information and insight they need.
  8. Answer with your eyes. Begin your response by making eye contact with the person who asked the question. This helps ensure that they feel heard and acknowledged. As you continue your response, include the rest of your audience in your eye contact and then finish your answer by looking at original questioner. This bookend approach is respectful, inclusive and commanding.
  9. Respond with “it depends”. It’s often acceptable and useful to provide a “range response” to a question from two ends of a spectrum. It might sound something like this: “I don’t know the exact context for you, but here are some ideas that might help. On one end of the continuum, we have no data security back up measures. Here’s where you should start...[provide insight, ideas, advice]…and on the other end, we have so many safeguards that it denigrates the user experience in a material way …[insight, ideas, advice].  Does that give you a few ways to begin to approach the problem?”
  10. Answer the question asked. Don’t be a politician and answer the question you wished they had asked. Don’t go looking for questions for your answers. It is incredibly hard to do this well. Few people can do it and you might not want to be a member of the club of those who can!
  11. Be concise. Verbosity belies your command of your topic. At the very least, provide an initial concise response. Then pause. Elaborate only if you have something additional (and helpful) to say.

Q & A sessions can be stressful. And they can also be opportunities for you to showcase your expertise, confidence and comfort as a speaker. Anticipate and address as many questions as you can in your presentation content and then relax, listen, respond and invite others into the conversation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you feel about Q & A sessions? What techniques do you use to answer questions on the fly? Do you have any Q & A stories of terror or triumph? Share your experience in the comments below.

I'm committed to helping people just like you improve their presentation skills and impact so if you've found this article helpful, please share it with your networks using the share buttons below. Thanks!

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