Public speaking (Part 1): Engage

Surveys suggest that many people are frightened of public speaking. They are so frightened that they fear speaking in front of an audience more than they fear death! Jerry Seinfeld, the American comedian, has pointed out () this means that many people at a funeral would prefer to be in the coffin than give a eulogy.

Even people who learn to relish public speaking may have started out frightened of it. At school, I frequently had my hand up with a comment or question. But ask me to go to the front of the class to speak – no matter how briefly – and I would be terrified. How irrational was that? Or so I thought.

One explanation is that evolution has hard-wired this fear into us. For early humans, living as a group was necessary to protect against predators. To become separated was to risk death. In the modern world, standing in front of a room full of people separates one from the crowd. The separation is only for the duration of the presentation but, according to the theory, people instinctively fear that they will not be re-admitted to the group when the time comes to return.

And a speaker’s problems don’t stop there! Research by psychologists suggests that the anxiety created by public speaking makes us much better at detecting angry faces. Thinking that we sense an audience’s hostility towards us may not be an irrational belief: it could be the result of an enhanced ability to detect something that is very real.

If psychologists are right that the fear is built in, and if public speaking gives us an enhanced ability at detecting any hostility from the audience, we need a strategy to conquer these two terrors.

I realised, a long time ago, that I delivered a much better presentation when I could secure an early positive reaction from my audience. The reaction might be laughter at a funny remark. Or it could be questions which showed that the audience had already developed a level of engagement with my material. Sometimes it was merely the audience’s body language: they just looked interested. The sooner the positivity began, the sooner my performance started to go well. I quickly learned that I needed to do something very early on to kick-start a cycle of initial positive engagement leading to a better performance from me which, in turn, won a more positive engagement from everyone else in the room.

Getting a presentation started

If you are sitting in the audience at the start of a presentation, what would motivate you to focus on the speaker? A joke or a fascinating anecdote, perhaps. That is what many speakers choose to do. But, once the joke or the anecdote is over, the challenge to retain the audience’s attention starts all over again. Sooner or later, the speaker needs to get started on their topic.

Most speakers recognise that it is a good idea to give the audience an indication of what they can expect to hear during the presentation. But too many speakers just give a bland description – so bland that they might just as well have said:

I’m going to talk to you today about watching paint dry.

Every topic can be made more interesting – even watching paint dry. You just have to find a hook to catch people’s attention:

There has been a problem recently with people falling asleep whilst watching paint dry. This is worrying because paint doesn’t dry properly unless it’s watched. In order to stop people from falling asleep, the paint industry has come up with some recommended watching techniques.

OK, that’s not real. The only interesting thing to say about watching paint dry is: “Don’t!” I certainly wouldn’t accept an invitation to give a talk on the subject. But, when I do agree to speak on a topic and I have assembled some material to put in my presentation, I can always find an opening hook. (And, if ever I couldn’t, I would have to question whether I should be giving the talk at all.)

I’ll give some examples of my opening hooks below. Here’s an example of someone else’s. It’s the introduction to a TV documentary on breastfeeding – a topic that I had no prior interest in and yet I started watching because I was drawn in by these opening words:

Tonight on Dispatches, we ask why Britain has some of the worst breastfeeding rates anywhere in the world. We reveal the latest scientific evidence showing the crucial role breast milk plays in our health. We’ll explore how government cuts, an aggressive formula industry and strong public attitudes all impact breastfeeding mums and babies and ask how we can tackle the barriers to breastfeeding that permeate every level.

I expect a lot of mothers and mothers-to-be were hooked by the mention of “the crucial role breast milk plays in our health” and “the worst breastfeeding rates anywhere in the world”. For me, it was the mention of “government cuts” and “an aggressive formula industry” that overcame my inclination to change the TV channel. I think I may also have been unwittingly curious at the notion that there are “barriers to breastfeeding that permeate every level”. Every level of what, precisely? I had no idea (and watching the program left me none the wiser). It was a rhetorical device which gave the impression that the topic would be much bigger or much broader than just breastfeeding.

Another attention-grabbing device was the way that the writers injected themselves into the story by using the phrases “we ask why”, “we reveal” and “we’ll explore how”. The audience was being encouraged to think that the program contained original research. For anyone with a genuine interest in breastfeeding, the unstated implication was: “If you don’t carry on watching, you’ll miss out on findings that aren’t available anywhere else.” It’s an effective device for grabbing people’s attention, but it needs to be used with care. It risks raising the audience’s expectations too high and leaving them feeling disappointed if the expectations are not fulfilled.

Now, here’s an example from a presentation given by a student of mine at a business school where I taught communication skills.  The student’s first attempt didn’t raise expectations at all:

I’m going to talk to you today about the Financial Reporting Council’s recent pronouncements on active share ownership.

Even if you are interested in finance and you know what “active share ownership” is, this is probably not going to have you sitting up in your seat, eager for the speaker to go on. Any introduction which takes the form “I’m going to tell you what [someone] has said about [something]” is unlikely to hit home with many people unless they are fairly obsessed with the something in question (or perhaps the someone!).

When I had seen the student’s presentation, I suggested changing the opening to this:

Active share ownership is central to the control of public companies. This means the companies’ owners (or “shareholders”) taking an interest in the activity of their company – voting when the opportunity arises and taking action when they believe that the directors are not serving the shareholders’ interests well. But many shareholders hire professional investment managers to look after their assets, which gives rise to a real concern that active engagement isn’t taking place. The Financial Reporting Council recently published a paper aimed at reinvigorating proper control of our country’s major companies.

For a presentation at a business school – or anywhere with a business-focussed audience – that introduction should pique sufficient interest to get the speaker off to a good start.

Introductions that kill the excitement

Where so many speakers go wrong is that they have heard – and misunderstood – a famous three-part adage for public speaking: 

-  Tell them what you are going to tell them

-  Tell them

-  And then tell them what you have told them

The beauty of the three Tell Them’s is that it’s an easy adage to remember.  But the power of it is completely lost if the purpose of each Tell Them is missed. The idea behind covering the ground more than once is to aid understanding and retention. The purpose of the first Tell Them isn’t just to “tell” the audience; it’s to engage them in what you are going to speak about. (More on the other Tell Thems below.)

Let’s try an example. Think about a topic in your everyday life that interests you. Maybe it’s sport, politics, cooking, something from work … anything you like. Whatever it is, imagine that you are in the audience at an event related to that subject. A new presenter is now getting to their feet. They start to address the room:

I know you’re all here because you’re interested in [your chosen topic]. What many of you may not know is that we couldn’t all experience [that topic] in the way we do today without Tessellated Appliance Strictures (or TASs). Ever since TASs were introduced to make [the topic] safer for us all, TASs have become an essential feature of [the topic]. After a long delay because of design problems that no one foresaw, the first TASs emerged around 20 years ago. But users quickly found they didn’t work properly. TASs were reinvented by the designers and revised into the form we have today. But are these TASs really doing what we now want from them? And what would be the future of [your topic] in a world without TASs?

The audience won’t know what Tessellated Appliance Strictures are (because I invented the term), but my hypothetical speaker indicated their purpose in the third sentence when they said that TASs made [the topic] safer for us all. Then the speaker sought to draw you into the talk by hinting at how essential TASs had become, building up to two pretty big questions: (1) are TASs doing what we want them to do; and (2) what would be the future of [the topic] if TASs didn’t exist? 

That wasn’t a difficult opening to write. But it eludes many speakers. I have far too many academic or business presentations which begin with an introductory slide as useless as this one:   

  • Definition of TASs
  • The origin of TASs
  • Initial design delays
  • Emergence in the 2000s
  • Early adoption problems
  • Revision of the TASs
  • The future of TASs?
  • Summary
  • Questions

The words spoken as an accompaniment to such a slide are something like this:

I’m going to start my talk today by describing TASs. I will explain their origin and tell you about the initial delays that arose owing to design issues. I will go on to discuss the emergence of the first TASs in the 2000s and the problems people had when they started to use them. I will outline the revision that followed in the 2010s, from which we got the TASs we have today, which I will describe. Finally, I will speculate on whether there is a future for TASs. I will end by summarising my talk and, if there is time, I will be happy to answer any questions you have.

This second approach covered the same ground as my first version, but in a much less interesting way. The vital opening moments of the presentation were wasted because the speaker addressed only the structure and sequence of the presentation, without saying anything that could grab people’s attention.  

There is one particular mistake that I have noticed often. A speaker will acknowledge that some of the audience will not be familiar with a technical term at the heart of the presentation, eg “I’m going to start my talk today by describing TASs” – see the second version above. But this won’t do. Merely promising to explain later what TASs are doesn’t address the problem. We could be in for a talk about anything from crazy-shaped kitchen tiles to unmanned space missions.

All that we know from this opening paragraph of the speech – and from the bullet points in the slide – is that the presentation will be a chronological tour of … something. Something undefined that was apparently difficult to get off the ground; that doesn’t seem to have worked the first time around; and which has an uncertain future.

If audience members in the room are too polite – or too trapped – to get up and walk out, their brains may wander. Imagine yourself sitting in the room for that second presentation. Just as the opening paragraph comes to an end, a late arrival sits down next to you and asks what the talk is about. What could you tell them?  (“It’s going to be about TASs”. “What are they?” “Dunno.”)

For this talk to be interesting, I recommend the speaker to open with a story about TASs, with twists and turns and a point to it. That’s why my preferred version (already shown above) was:

I know you’re all here because you’re interested in [your chosen topic]. What many of you may not know is that we couldn’t all experience [that topic] in the way we do today without Tessellated Appliance Strictures (or TASs). Ever since the TASs were introduced to make [the topic] safer for us all, TASs have become an essential feature of [the topic]. After a long delay because of design problems that no one foresaw, the first TASs emerged around 20 years ago. But users quickly found they didn’t work properly. TASs were reinvented by the designers and revised into the form we have today. But are the TASs really doing what we now want from them? And what would be the future of [your topic] in a world without TASs?

The slide to accompany that introduction could be something like this:

  • Tessellated Appliance Strictures (TASs) making [the topic] safer
  • But not without problems in the early years
  • TASs reinvented: are they doing what we want?
  • What would be the future of [the topic] if we got rid of TASs?

These two alternative introductions can lead to the same talk. The subsequent material doesn’t need to be any different, or any more/less sensational, between the two versions. The purpose of my preferred introduction is to grab the listener’s attention.

I always keep this in mind: if a topic is important enough to require a room full of people to sit quietly whilst one person addresses them for several minutes – or several hours or several days – there must be something about the subject that deserves their attention. As the presenter, you need to identify what that is in order to highlight it at the start of the presentation.

Instead of the three Tell Thems, I prefer to think in terms of The Three ’Ns, Engage, Inform, Encapsulate:

-  Engage them in what you are going to tell them

-  Inform them (more about that here)

-  And then encapsulate what you have told them to entrench your message (more here).

Do they have to like me?  

Getting the audience engaged with the subject matter isn’t the same as getting them to like you, personally. Being liked by the audience won’t make up for a bad presentation. And while it helps, it’s not essential. About 20 years ago, I attended a three-day training event conducted by a single presenter. He was a guru in his field and the content was magical: one insight after another, interspersed with numerous examples which brought his message to life. On and on he went for three days, without flagging. And seemingly without any notes. He was a true expert in the subject of his talk.

But he didn’t seem very nice. Early on, he gave the audience a bunch of rules we had to obey. These rules included not asking questions except at the designated times. And certain questions were forbidden even during the designated Q&A interludes.

Nothing about his personal demeanour gave me the impression that I would warm to this person if I met him socially. Even the personal anecdotes that he threw into his material – which were few and far between – gave the impression that his view of his fellow human beings was not an attractive one. But I stayed for all three days, hanging on his every word and taking copious notes. I doubt that I have ever learned more from any training event than I did from this one. But I had no desire to meet the man outside the course.1Some years later, I ran into him at another event. His temperament was much improved. Perhaps he was just in a bad mood, first time around.

Clearly, the I’m-unlikeable-but-my-talk-is-really-interesting approach can only work if your presentation doesn’t depend on audience interaction. If you want to generate a dialogue with participants in the room, it’s important that they feel comfortable engaging with you as well as listening to your subject matter.

Some opening hooks of my own

As promised above, here are three examples of introductions I have used in speeches of my own.

1)   Talking about a Government enquiry

In 2000, one of the oldest established and most famous British life insurance companies spectacularly collapsed. Several government-commissioned inquiries followed. Between 2005 and 2009, I was asked to give a number of presentations about the second of those inquiries, which examined the role of the financial advisers (known as “actuaries”) who were expected to make certain that insurance companies remained solvent through thick and thin.

If you were one of those advisers, the topic was inherently interesting. For everyone else, not so much. My theme was as follows and, if I had wanted to, I could have used these words as the opening of my talk(s):

It’s not surprising that, after a major British life insurance company collapsed, the Government set up an enquiry to explore what went wrong. It was not, however, expected that one of the outcomes of that enquiry would be that an entire profession of financial specialists would come under scrutiny. After all, only a small group of them were thought to have messed-up. But that is what happened. We got the Morris Review of the Actuarial Profession, conducted by one of the government’s top economic investigators, Sir Derek Morris.

That would have been a perfectly workable introduction. But I wanted to raise the stakes a little. I wanted to convey that members of the public had lost out; that government was trying to pass the buck onto an esoteric profession in the hope of reducing – or avoiding – the flack it would face for refusing to compensate the unfortunate policyholders; and that the profession under scrutiny was much more than a group of nameless, faceless financial technicians. Each time I was asked to speak on this subject – in the UK, USA, Holland and Canada – I opened with the following:

It’s Monday, 8 March 2004. Just coming up to 4 in the afternoon. The UK Government is moments away from releasing the results of a judicial enquiry into the collapse of the Equitable Life Assurance Society.

In the House of Commons, a little-known Treasury Minister, Ruth Kelly, is about to rise to her feet. It is her job to make the announcement. Around the country, more than a million policyholders are about to find out that they will not receive any compensation for their losses.2Several years later, this decision was reversed and compensation was awarded. But I couldn’t know about that when I was giving my talks. Ruth Kelly is not going to be popular. In the days and weeks ahead, her ability to defend the Government’s position will be tested many times over. By the end of the year, she will have changed jobs twice and been catapulted into the Cabinet. By the end of the day, actuaries will be facing a threat to their own jobs and their professional bodies, the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, will have been catapulted into a fight for their continuing relevance.

Jeremy Goford, President of the Institute, is nowhere in sight. He hasn’t been answering his cell phone all day. He is with Tom Ross, President of the Faculty. They are locked in a room at the Treasury, reading an advance copy of the official report. They are not allowed to leave until the report has been published. They also have a copy of the Government’s announcement that it is commissioning a wide-ranging review of the actuarial profession. The Presidents’ eyes fix on the words “wide-ranging”.

Then they turn to the name: Sir Derek Morris. It is not familiar to them. Soon it will be. But, for now, the announcement they are holding tells them what they need to know. Sir Derek is a former Oxford economist and the outgoing chairman of the UK Competition Commission. Clearly, he is very experienced at market investigations. He is also no stranger to complex finance. This could be a disaster.

By the time their Treasury host returns, the two Presidents have already made their first critical decision of the Morris Review. They must ensure that it is the best thing that has happened to the profession, since the invention of compound interest.

And so began the Morris Review.

2)   Addressing a conference on digital convergence

In 2000, I was invited to address a conference of regulators. This was to be the theme of my talk:

It is widely believed that television, telecommunications and information technology (IT) are no longer three distinct fields of endeavour. Popular belief has it that they have converged so closely as to become (virtually) indistinguishable from one another. It is suggested that regulators should treat them as one and the same thing. My aim, this morning, is to convince you that this convergence – which may seem so obvious to us all – is, in fact, something of an illusion.

I could have used those three sentences – or something very like them – as my introductory hook. But the first two sentences were making a point that was well known to everyone at the conference and, in all likelihood, the point might well have been made by other speakers before it was my turn to speak. Even if the point hadn’t come up already, the conference chair would almost certainly introduce my talk by referring to it. So the chances were that I would find myself starting out by repeating someone else – which I would not want to do.

I could, of course, just go straight to the final sentence of the hook (“My aim, this morning, is to convince you that convergence … is … something of an illusion”). But I thought I might be able to do better than that. I decided to see if I could come up with something a little playful connected with the final word of the hook, “illusion.” At some point during the writing of my speech (or perhaps during a car ride in between drafting sessions), I hit on the following:

My favourite composer of Rock Music is Jim Steinman. He wrote Meat Loaf’s classic album Bat out of Hell and, fifteen years later, the even better Bat out of Hell II, from which this talk derives much of its inspiration. One of the tracks on Bat out of Hell II is entitled Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are. The song – not one of my favourites – is about love, hate, death and motorised vehicles (“We got our dreams reborn and our upholstery torn”). 

The title, Objects in the Rear View Mirror …, was not, of course, conceived by Steinman himself. He took the words from the manufacturers of motor cars who, after decades of fitting their cars with rear view mirrors that function properly, suddenly took it upon themselves to use mirrors that gave a distorted view of life.

And so it is with the proponents of convergence. As I hope to demonstrate this morning: technologies viewed through a distorted lens may appear to converge closer than they are.

This was something of a left-field connection – regulation and a rock album (). I was using the very bizarreness of the connection to grab my audience’s attention. It’s a risky technique because it might have left the audience thinking that I was using a cheap gimmick to hide the absence of a serious argument. But the substance of the talk was well-researched and I was confident the audience would quickly see that.

I also worked in another Jim Steinman song title, Good Girls Go To Heaven – Bad Girls Go Everywhere () to give a sense of rhetorical balance and completeness when I sat down at the end.

3)   Replying to a toast on my 40th Birthday

I don’t usually choose to have a big celebration on my birthday, but I made an exception for the Big Four – O. A friend was kind enough to propose a toast and I was planning to give a reply. The speech would be a series of anecdotes, drawn from three important areas of my life: career, the friends and family who matter most to me and the fun I have had away from those two areas of my life.

I was hoping the audience would find my speech humorous and touching, in equal measure. But I also wanted the speech to be largely about me! Egotistical, or what? But, then again, it was my birthday and I was paying for the party.

The most important job of the opening words was to set the tone for what was to come, rather than identifying a topic to interest people. I needed to make my guests comfortable and get them ready to laugh along with me – not at me – by recounting a series of events, only some of which reflected well on me.

I started to realise the gravity of today’s event on New Year’s Day. I was at a party and someone I had never met before asked me: “What are your plans for the coming year?” Not wanting to reveal my private thoughts for the year – and not wanting to reveal that I didn’t have any private thoughts for the year – I replied: “This year, I shall be 40”. Amazingly, he was impressed. He said it was the clarity of my vision and the certainty that I would achieve my strategy that he admired. He was a management consultant.

And he was, of course, wrong. Statistically speaking, the success of my strategy had a probability of only 99.92691 per cent – a figure which I obtained from the latest mortality tables, and which is accurate to no less than five places of decimals. If nothing else, Ladies and Gentlemen, you will find this speech to be full of information you did not already know. By the time I have completed my reply to Tom’s toast, you will know all that you want to about my life – and so much more besides. In particular, you will know the answers to the following three questions:

    1. What was the three letter word that my father should have discussed with me many years ago, but didn’t?
    2. Who was the dark stranger who compelled me to hug my brother, Charlie, in public 14 years ago?
    3. What have been the highlights of Queen’s Park Rangers’ recent history – focusing on 1968 to the present day?

With that opening, I felt I could achieve the following:

-  The opening sentence signalled ego straightaway (by referring to my birthday with the words: “the gravity of today’s event”).

-  There were references to work (“he was a management consultant”) and to my links with insurance (“statistically speaking, a probability of only 99.92691 per cent”).

-  And I posed three questions which summed up the three themes of my talk: (i) hugging my brother – representing relationships; (ii) football – representing fun; and (iii) well, I have to confess here that I messed-up with the work question. Saying I would reveal “the three-letter word that my father should have discussed with me” made it sound like I was referring to a second type of fun – very different from football. In fact, it wasn’t that three-letter word. The word in question really did come from a career discussion. But my guests weren’t to know that until much later on.

With hindsight, I wish I had found a different question to represent work. But I know I got my guests hooked – I have a video of the speech to prove it! – and that’s what really matters.

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