Author Archives: Amy Beth Miller

Apply the Goldilocks formula to engage listeners

A daylong event to interest girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics was great fun for my daughter and her friends, but like most conferences the presentations had highs and lows. One presenter, in particular, created the ideal mix of information and activity.

A presentation can be:

  • Too hot, with lots of “Wow” but little learning. All of the speakers offered hands-on activities, and the more you can involve the audience’s senses, the better. The girls will remember eating ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, but they learned little of the science behind that experience. If you can play a video in your presentation instead of flashing a photo or telling a story, that can be a great choice. But don’t let the show overpower the substance.
  • Too cold, with a data dump. Speakers who are passionate about their subjects sometimes miss the clues that the audience is starting to tune out while they talk. Even with an audience of adults who are interested in what you have it say, mix up the style of your presentation every 10 to 15 minutes. Assign them an exercise to complete, switch speakers or do something else so that you aren’t speaking for long stretches.
  • Just right, with a mix of information and application. The best presenter of the day took the girls on a journey in the form of a murder mystery. Whether they watch one of the CSI television shows or read Nancy Drew mysteries, each could relish the role of playing detective. Step by step the presenter introduced them to soil science as they tested samples and narrowed the suspect list. She explained and asked questions, requiring them to think and draw their own conclusions. Not every subject lends itself to handing out pipettes and PH strips to the attendees, but you can involve the audience members in their own learning.

How do you find the right mix of speaking and other activities during a esentation?


Ramble and you lose the audience

Romney and Obama debate

Americans can continue to argue about the substance of the presidential candidates’ ideas, but when it comes to style, Mitt Romney was the clear winner last night. While observers called the Republican nominee’s performance in the first debate crisp and aggressive, they criticized President Obama for appearing weary and rambling.

An effective speaker serves as a guide to the audience members, taking them on a clear path to a destination. You must answer questions with a compelling point, not a disorganized laundry list.

In discussing how to have a balanced approach to reducing the federal deficit, the president meandered from talking about corporate taxes and Exxon to a Las Vegas teacher with 42 kids in her class to Medicaid. When it was his turn to speak, Romney replied “We’ve got a lot of topics there, and so it’s going to take a minute to go from Medicaid to schools to oil to tax breaks, then companies going overseas.”

Even when the president tried to personalize the policy debate about Medicare, he seemed to become lost. He started well by saying “I want to talk about the values behind Social Security and Medicare.” Then he began to go off course.

He said “You know, my grandmother—some of you know—helped to raise me. My grandparents did. My grandfather died a while back. My grandmother died three days before I was elected president. And she was fiercely independent. She worked her way up, only had a high school education, started as a secretary, ended up being the vice president of a local bank. And she ended up living alone by choice. And the reason she could be independent was because of Social Security and Medicare. She had worked all her life, put in this money, and understood that there was a basic guarantee, a floor under which she could not go.”

He could have delivered his point much more effectively by cutting the unnecessary detail, like this: “My grandmother, who helped to raise me, was fiercely independent. She worked her way up. With only a high school education, she started as a secretary and ended up being the vice president of a local bank. My grandfather died a while back, and she ended up living alone by choice. The reason she could remain independent was …”

When you are responding to a question, don’t throw in everything you could say. Home in on the compelling points and lead the audience through your logic. For example, “Here are the four things I would do about that. First, …”

Say less to have a greater impact.

What did you think of the first presidential debate? 

[Image Source: C-Span]

How to dodge a question (maybe)

It’s not only politicians who sometimes want to avoid answering a question, and a recent Science Friday podcast explained how skillful speakers manage to sidestep without turning off the audience. Staying “close enough”to the subject and speaking fluently are important for a successful escape, research found.

In one study, subjects heard a speaker give the same answer about universal health care to questions about health care, illegal drug use and the war on terror. Listeners recognized when the speaker didn’t answer the question about the war on terror and gave him lower ratings. But when the speaker answered the drug question with the health care answer, listeners didn’t remember the question and rated the speaker just likeable, trustworthy and honest as those who heard that answer in response to the health care question.

That’s not as surprising as a related study, which also tested a speaker giving the health care answer to the health care question, but stuttering instead of speaking smoothly. In that study, listeners gave higher ratings to the speaker who fluently answered the drug question with the health care answer than listeners gave the speaker who stumbled while answering the health care question.

“It’s better to answer the wrong question well than the right question poorly,” social psychologist Todd Rogers, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, explained on the program.

But Rogers also noted that his research wasn’t aimed at helping people avoid questions. In fact, there’s a simple and effective way to prevent it: Post the verbatim question where the audience can see it while the person is answering. Then the listeners detect even subtle attempts to dodge.

Remember that technique the next time you moderate a discussion.

What’s the slickest sidestep you’ve seen? 

(Mis)quoting Neil Armstrong

Watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon is one of my earliest memories, although what I remember most is that our family was gathered around my sister’s hospital bed in our family room, where she was in nearly a full body cast.

Later I attended a middle school named after the famous astronaut, complete with a small planetarium that was seldom used. I remember attending a program by NASA at that school.

Yet it wasn’t until three years ago that I learned there is a debate over one of the most famous quotes: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” According to Armstrong, he said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Several articles about Armstrong’s death last week mention the debate about the quote, and it’s discussed at length on

Before you quote someone in your presentation, take these precautions:

  • Provide the context. During this political year there are plenty of examples of quotes taken out of context. When your audience recognizes that you have done that to make a point, you undermine your argument and destroy your credibility.

As you write a speech, pay as much attention to correctly quoting others as you do to writing your own words.

What mistakes with quotations have you seen in presentations?

Master a question-and-answer session as comfortably as Katie Couric

Katie Couric shows that she's a question-and-answer session pro at BlogHer 2012.

Watching a video of Katie Couric’s lunch keynote at the BlogHer ’12 conference this month reminded me of several ways speakers can improve question-and-answer sessions. BlogHer co-founder Lisa Stone interviewed Couric for the session, and they also took questions from the audience.

These techniques made the session a success:

  • Be comfortable. You probably can’t sit in cushioned chairs like those on stage at BlogHer, but you could rest on a stool to present a more relaxed tone during the question-and-answer session in your presentation.
  • Gesture naturally. Couric’s enthusiasm shows in her hand movements. Don’t tie yourself down with a microphone that you have to hold.
  • Prompt questions. Avoid going into an interview cold. Stone mentioned to Couric “the multimedia format that you and I were discussing backstage.” When possible, talk with people in advance about possible topics. As you meet audience members before you present (and you should whenever possible), tell people when they raise a topic that could be a good question to address in front of the audience. You also can raise those questions yourself. Example: “Eli told me earlier about … and asked …” It appears that BlogHer also took questions in advance, because Stone referred to notes with questions from attendees.
  • Filter questions. With a tech-savvy audience, it was natural for BlogHer to have people tweet their questions. Stone gave instructions at the beginning of the session for how to mark questions with the appropriate hashtags and had someone texting them to her. That allowed BlogHer to pick the best questions, instead of leaving to chance who might raise a hand or go up to a microphone in the room. If going high-tech isn’t an option, pass out cards and ask audience members to write their questions for you. If possible, have an assistant read and organize the questions.
  • Wrap up with your message. Stone allows Couric to remind the audience about her new show by asking “Can you give us any hints on what we’re going to see starting September 10th?” Save time to have the final word.

Share your tips for question-and-answer sessions in the Comments section below!

[Image Source: BlogHer]

A simple tip to sound more confident

avoiding filler words

No matter how well you know your subject and your speech, you will sound unprepared if you pepper your remarks with filler sounds and words. The “Ums” and “Uhs” that you utter to fill the silence as you think of your next comment, or repeated use of words and phrases like “Basically” and “You know,” tell the audience that you don’t know what you want to say.

The solution is surprisingly simple: Keep your mouth shut. Silence is better than a filler. When you pause, you give the impression that you are thoughtful. You prepare the audience members to hear your next point, instead of distracting them.

The silence will seem much longer to you than it will to listeners, so train yourself to be comfortable with that pause.

What bad habit are you trying to curb to become a better speaker?

At the American Speaker Training Camp you’ll learn how to write and deliver a great presentation. Register today to take advantage of the $200 early bird discount for the training camps coming up in Boston and Las Vegas.

[Image Source: Chris Fournier]

How to write a presentation like Nora Ephron

Read the text of Nora Ephron’s 1996 commencement speech at Wellesley College here.

How to write a speech like Nora Ephron

I knew that Nora Ephron was a great screenwriter, but I didn’t know until after her death last month that she also knew how to write a presentation that was funny and memorable.

When I saw her first films, Silkwood and Heartburn, I didn’t know who Ephron was. But I certainly recognized her work when I enjoyed When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and Julie and Julia. One of the articles about Ephron’s life led me to watch a video of her 1996 commencement speech at Wellesley College, her alma mater.

With no film, and certainly no PowerPoint slides, Ephron created vivid scenes that I can recall later as easily as I remember key moments in her movies. When you ask yourself how to write a presentation that will stick with your audience, remember to pepper it with detail.

Because of the details Ephron included, I could imagine being in a dorm at Wellesley in 1958 when “if you had a boy in your room, you had to leave the door open six inches.” I could see Ephron writing the speech on her computer when she describes it “next to a touchtone phone with an answering machine and a Rolodex, there are several CDs on my desk, a bottle of Snapple, there are felt-tip pens and an electric pencil sharpener.”

Instead of saying directly that abortion was illegal, she describes it this way: “If you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with $500 in cash in an envelope and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic.”

By using the specific name “tunicata” instead of “a small fish” Ephron cements it in the audience’s memories when she describes its habits and how an article in the Harvard Crimson had compared Wellesley “girls” to it.

I see glimpses of Ephron at different stages in her life, based on only five words she used to describe herself at those times.

Details bring your stories to life. They are the difference in how to write a presentation that is vivid and memorable instead of one that is ho-hum.

What’s your favorite line from a Nora Ephron movie?

[Image Source: David Shankbone via Wikipedia]