How to become better as a speaker

Toronto, Canada.

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Can you learn a lot about how to become a great speaker from watching other speakers? Absolutely.

But personally, I learn more from a slightly different profession: Stand-up comics.

After giving a speech in New Jersey yesterday morning, I then flew to Toronto, Canada where I am scheduled to give a speech on Monday morning. So I found myself with some free-time over the weekend in this amazing city.

I decided to do some professional development and headed for the comedy club “Yuk Yuk’s” in downtown Toronto.

Watching comics perform the extremely difficult art of being funny is, for me, the best way to learn how to be a speaker.

You get to study how they build up their stories for the punch-line, how they use their bodies to enhance the message – and perhaps most importantly, how they deal with the audience, and in particular, the hecklers.

One of the comics last night described the job of being a comedian as: “Building up tension and releasing it.”

I think that is a great way of putting it.

But today, I am not going to write about how to structure a joke. Instead, I will talk about interactions with the audience.

A few weeks back, I had the privilege to see Russell Peters live in Singapore. Yes, going to a lot of stand-up comedy is a great perk of being a speaker.

Russell is one of the masters of “working the crowd”. A big part of his show is just him talking to the audience.

Watching him “pick” on different members of the audience reminded me about the power of transforming a speech from a one-way-communication to a two-way-conversation.

The funny thing is that you can get this “conversation feeling” even in a huge group. In the case of Russell Peters, there were more than 2000 people in the crowd.

Now, interacting with the audience means, per definition, that you loose a bit of the control that you have if you “only” stand on the stage and speak your message.

But the advantage is that you get a MUCH closer connection with the crowd.

And done right, that part of the speech where you interact with the audience is going to be the best section of your speech, and the part that the audience brings up when they come up and thank you for your “amazing speech”.

If someone in the audience says something during your speech, do not just ignore it – invite the person into the speech by asking “Excuse me, what did you say?”

If a person answers a question you ask the audience, take this opportunity to turn it into a “micro conversation” by asking a follow up question.

But remember, you are the “guy with the mike” (or “gal with the mike”) and that means two things:

1) The power of your words are multiplied, which means that anything negative you say will hurt more, so be careful of what you say.

The same words in a normal conversation might not be hurtful to a person in the audience when spoken in a one-on-one conversation, but if magnified from the stage, they might.

2) As the person on the stage, you can easily decide when the conversation is over by just moving on. Some members of the audience might get a bit too excited when being invited to be part of a speech, but if that happens, simply cut them off in a nice way by saying “thanks for your comments, now let’s move on.” Or something to that effect.

Audience interaction is like saffron in a soup – it can make the dish stand out – but be careful of using too much or it might ruin the overall experience.

Unless you are a master of audience interaction like Russell Peters, limit the amount of it that you use. But do not be afraid to “spice up” your speech with a short and sweet infusion of audience participation.

Great speakers know that those magical seconds when the speaker “leaves the safety of the prepared speech from the stage” is where the magic happens.

Think about how music stars leave the stage to go into the audience, or lets the audience sing part of the song while the singer is silent – they normally do not do it a lot, but the fact that they do it a little bit makes the crowd go wild.

Lesson: Use your audience – they are the best “prop” you will ever find.

The word “audience” comes from the Latin word “audire” which means “hear”. Turn that meaning on its head and ask yourself: When you speak, are you “hearing” the audience?

Make your speeches better by thinking of the audience as someone that you not only speak TO but whom you invite to speak TOO.

P.S. Russell Peters actually started his career at the amateur night at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto. Now, he travels the world with his “Almost Famous” tour. Check out this video for some examples of his comedy routine full of audience interaction:

Montvale, New Jersey, USA – BMW North America HQ.

 

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What is the one thing that stops good speakers from becoming great speakers?

If you ask me, it’s their lack of personal stories.

We have all heard those speakers. They use general statements and messages, but forget to back them up with personal examples and unique stories.

It’s all “It’s important to listen to your customer”, or “Companies that do not adapt to change will die” and so on.

A good speaker can have a great message, but if the audience doesn’t feel like the message is supported by real stories that are unique to the speaker, the audience will think, “Why should I listen do this person?”

The good news is that this is easily fixed.

As a keynote speaker, you are invited to speak at conferences where the top management of companies will be present. As a speaker, you have access to these managers. Take the time to ask them about their business. Tap into their knowledge as leaders. Learn about their industry. ASK, ASK, and ASK questions.

So in the spirit of this post, I will now stop being general and instead give you an actual example of what I am talking about – a story that just happened to me.

Earlier today, I gave a speech to the employees at the HQ of BMW North America. While I was there, I also spent more than one hour with Kenn Sparks, Manager for Business Communications of BMW North America. I learnt about storytelling, about how BMW is reshaping its brand, and even about how to make documentary movies.

I also got a one-one-one meeting with Alexander Bilgeri, VP Corporate Communications, BMW of North America.

Alexander told me about how BMW is trying to change its corporate culture, about how they want to work with their dealers and about how North America is changing what BMW is. Many of the things he told me were very interesting, but since they were “off the record”, I can not share them in a public blog post.

But let me write about a story that I can share.

When I was talking to Alexander Bilgeri, I saw that there were words written on the glass walls of his corner office. I asked him about what they meant.

It turns out he had encouraged his colleagues to write down messages on his windows that they found important or inspiring.

One of the messages that caught my eye said “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

He told me that not long ago, the cleaning lady had come into his office one early morning and said: “Sir, can I tell you something?”

This old and tiny cleaning lady then told the boss of corporate communications at BMW North America about how she, during the holidays, had gone to Disneyland and while being there, had seen a roller coaster that looked thrilling but declined to go on it when her children had offered her a ride.

“But then i remembered the words on this wall,” she told him, “and I decided to give it a try even though I was terrified.”

And then, with a laugh, she revealed that not only did she like it, but she enjoyed it so much she went on it a second time!

I like stories like this. Simple stories about leadership, courage and the power of a great message.

Will I use this story in one of my speeches? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

But that is not the point.

The point is that if (!) I decide to use the story of a CEO who wrote messages on his office window to inspire change, it will not just be “a story” – it will be a story that was told to me by the person whom the story is about. It will become my story.

And the audience will like the story – and the message – much more than if it was just a general story about a leader who did something, because they feel the personal connection between me, the speaker, and the story that I am telling.

So make sure you use the unique opportunity that you have as a speaker to collect as many stories, examples and interesting facts as you can from the clients you speak for.

As a speaker, you are basically being paid to do research!

Do not miss this amazing opportunity to get new material for your speeches by being so busy speaking that you forget how to listen.

Lesson: The greatest asset of a professional speaker is not to be good at talking – it is to be good at listening.

Sao Paulo, Brazil.

 

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About 30 percent of the audience at my speech in Sao Paulo today did not understand English and had to rely on the earphones that had been given out to them, and on the skills of the translator to get the message of my speech.

If you work as a global speaker, you are bound to get to have your speech being translated sooner or later. I think the record for me is 12 (!) different languages being translated at one conference. The translator booths took up a big part of the conference room.

In honor of all the times I have relied on a translator to get my message across, I thought I should make a post about working with translators.

So, what is the most important thing to remember when giving a speech that is being simultaneously translated?

To speak slowly?
To avoid difficult words?
To avoid too much text on your slides?

No.

The most important thing to not forget is to remember to go and meet up with your translator(s) before the speech!

You would be amazed how seldom speakers do that.

I recently spoke at a conference where I had been assigned an assistant who followed me around during the conference. I asked him to bring me to the translator booth that was hidden away on the fourth floor in this huge convention centre. After I had introduced myself to the translator, my assistant asked me why I did that.

I replied, “Did you see how I was the only speaker who made the effort to find the translator? Now, not only does the translator know more about my speech, what I am going to talk about, and what I find most important in my presentation. More importantly, which speaker do you think he will put in the most energy to make as good as possible?”

My assistant smiled and replied, “Yours?”

Correct.

A bad translator can ruin a speech. And a great translator can be so good that the audience forgets that they are listening to a translation. But doing a great translation in real time is an amazingly difficult thing to do. Try translating something out loud what you watch on TV for example, it’s HARD!

Having your translator put in a little bit of extra effort when translating your speech – because he or she likes you because you took the effort to go and say ‘hi’ – is going to be so valuable.

Translators do not just take the words you say and say them in another language – they transform your message – in real time – to communicate the essence of what you are trying to say. Or, like my translator in Sao Paulo today put it when I was introducing myself to her before my speech, “We translate the meaning of your words, that’s why it’s called ‘translation’.”

Lesson: Your translator is your best friend – so treat them like that, go and say ‘hi’ before the speech. It will pay back big time.

P.S. If you want to see a great example of the power of having an engaged translator, please watch this sign video of the sign language translator from the Swedish Eurovision Song Contest. Golden!