Author Archives: Catherine Ahern

An exercise in storytelling

Ultimate Communicator Training Camp

Earlier this year I attended our Ultimate Communicator Training Camp, a program that teaches participants how to reach their professional goals through powerful communication techniques. I was very impressed by the material, facilitator and other attendees (you can read more about my experience on the Bud to Boss Blog). Ultimate Communicator definitely lived up to its promise to teach attendees how to be more confident and persuasive communicators.

One of my favorite activities from the session was an exercise in storytelling. We read two versions of a fictional speech at a town hall meeting that requested funding for guard rails and other accident-preventive measures on a dangerous road. In the first version, the main facts—11 accidents within a year and $34,000 to install the suggested measures—were laid out clearly and concisely, but without emotion. In the second version, however, the facts were still present, but they were encased inside a story about one of the people who had died on that stretch of road. That story humanized the issue, and—had the scenario been real—would undoubtedly have garnered more votes at the meeting.

If you never read the second version, the first wouldn’t have seemed wrong or even necessarily deficient. It might have been “good enough” to convince those in power to install the guard rail, but is “good enough” actually good enough, when you’re attempting to persuade people about something important? I don’ think it is.

You can practice this technique on your own. Look up data on any subject that interests you, and craft stories around it. Once you have the hang of that, review the data that you present in your own speeches. Could you reveal it in a more interesting, memorable and persuasive way if you embedded it into a story?

If you want to become an Ultimate Communicator, register for one of these upcoming sessions:

Milwaukee: Nov. 15-16

Phoenix: Dec. 4-5

Richmond, Va.: Dec. 11-12

Sign up today for the session nearest you! (And hurry—they do sell out.)

If you’re looking for training that’s focused specifically on speaking and presenting, don’t forget about our American Speaker Training Camp. There are two upcoming sessions in Las Vegas: Dec. 10-11 for the original course and Dec. 12-13 for the advanced course. (Register before Nov. 10 and Nov. 12, respectively, to take advantage of the early bird pricing!)

Who do you think is a great storyteller?


Seize and hold your audience’s attention

Chris Gardner giving a speech

Are your presentations feeling a little stale? You don’t need to alter the meat of your message to reinvigorate your speeches. Before you scrap all your hard work, make these small adjustments:

  • Enhance your opening. Skip your typical introduction and launch right into a story. It can be a piece you’ve prepared ahead of time or an off-the-cuff anecdote about something that just occurred backstage. Ideally, your story will be at least tangentially related to your speech topic, but even if it’s not, jump right in. After you wrap up your story, transition into your introduction.

Why it’s effective: Stories grab your audience from the get-go in a way that a standard introduction never could. In Forbes’s Persuasive Public Speaking blog, Nick Morgan uses the analogy of movie openings to make this point. Older classics such as Casablanca and Rear Window began with the credits. As much as I love both of those films, I have to acknowledge that I’m not instantly hooked by either. Contemporary films like Batman Begins, on the other hand, almost never begin with credits. They jump right to the story. Do that with your speech and your audience will be paying attention from the moment you start.

  • Delay the closing. Including a Q-and-A period in your speech is a great way to ensure that you meet your audience’s needs. However, saving it for the very last spot in your presentation is risky. Instead, save a few minutes following the Q-and-A session to wrap up your speech on your terms.

Why it’s effective: When you end with questions you give up all control over the walk-away message and feeling that your audience members leave with. What if the last question is rambling, off-topic, argumentative or stumps you? None of those will lead to a powerful closing. If you return to your planned conclusion though, you have the opportunity to end the presentation on a high note.

What’s the best opening or closing you’ve ever witnessed?

Want to improve your storytelling skills? Master storyteller Slash Coleman teaches you how in the audio conference “Presentation Power: Command Your Audience and Inspire Action With Corporate Storytelling.”

[Image Source: dbking]

With time and practice, you will improve

Public speaking is a complex and challenging activity, so very few people are able to master it in two or three attempts. Polished professional speakers have typically put in years of hard work to refine their presentation skills, so don’t be demoralized when you witness a “perfect” speech. I can all but guarantee that in their early days, those speakers stumbled a bit too.

Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize your own small improvements, so it can be useful to pay attention to how others make strides, if only to remind yourself that you, too, are improving. For example, as I watched Mitt Romney’s Republican National Convention speech, I was struck by how much he’s improved even since the beginning of this campaign. In earlier addresses he’s been called “stiff” and “robotic,” but at the RNC, he seemed much more comfortable and impressive on stage. That’s because of a whole lot of practice and coaching, I’m sure.

Another public figure who’s improved a great deal is the Duchess of Cambridge, who gave her first speech abroad while in Malaysia today:

Is she the most impressive speaker you’ve ever watched? No, she’s still a little uncomfortable in front of a crowd, but look at how much better she has become since her first public address, which Kendall Martin wrote about back in March:

In six months she’s come a long way.

The next time you watch someone who seems like a natural on stage, remind yourself that he or she probably invested a good amount of time and practice into honing that “natural” aura.

Who do you think has become a much better speaker?

Handling questions during presentations: What to do when you don’t know the answer

handling questions during presentation

No one expects you to be omniscient, so it’s not a big deal if you’re stumped by an audience member’s question. But if the thought of having to admit that you don’t know leaves you panicky, use one of these go-to responses for handling questions during presentations:

If the question is on-topic:

  • “That’s a good question, and we’ll come back to it at the end.” If an audience member asks a question during the meat of your presentation, you can postpone it until the official Q-and-A session. That is useful for situations in which all you need is a little extra time to think before you respond. Bonus: The person may feel that you sufficiently answer the question in the remainder of your presentation.
  • “Good question, but I’m not sure. Does anyone in the audience know?” Directing questions to the audience members doesn’t make you look dumb. It’s a smart move because it shows that you think they are intelligent, thoughtful people.
  • “I’m not sure off the top of my head, but I bet you can find the answer in/on _____.” When audience members ask you a nitpicky detail question, it’s OK to direct them to a resource with the answer.
  •  “That’s a great question, and I’d love to know the answer myself. I’ll look into it and get back to you.” If the question is relevant to the whole group, offer to follow up with an email to share your findings. If it’s relevant only to the person who asked, get the person’s contact information and follow up individually. Tip: Be sure to make note of the question so you don’t forget to follow through with your promise!
  • “That’s a great question, but I’m not sure. My gut says …” As a general rule, it’s better not to guess, but if you’re open about being unsure, that can be an effective response. Note: If your topic is controversial or if your audience seems skeptical or hostile, do not use this technique for handling questions during presentations!

If the question is off-topic:

  • “That’s an interesting question, but that’s not my area of expertise. Does anyone else happen to know?” If you think an audience member could briefly answer the question, direct it to the crowd. However, don’t let the off-topic query take your Q-and-A session on a wild tangent. Be prepared to steer it back on track, if necessary.
  • “That’s a little off-topic for right now, but I bet it will make for an interesting discussion once we wrap up. [To the audience:] If anyone has insight into this person’s question, be sure to see him afterward.” That response keeps your Q-and-A session on track while still showing respect to the person who posed the question.

When handling questions during presentations, there’s really just one thing you should never do: make up an answer. If you’re wrong, there’s a good chance that someone in the audience will call you out, and that will make everyone distrust the reliability of your entire presentation. Don’t risk that.

Find more Q-and-A tips in this month’s free Focus on Q-and-A section on

What advice do you have for handling questions during presentations?

[Image Source: Cherie Cullen via The U.S. Army]

Analyzing what makes a great speech

As we’ve mentioned here before, we love as a source for inspirational speeches and speakers. Regardless of the topics they cover, the presenters showcased there are first-rate in terms of their subject-matter expertise, storytelling abilities, sense of humor and poise. You can watch a video of a talk about business or biology and pick up good ideas for speaking in general.

Nancy Duarte, however, did an excellent TED talk about public speaking, so I wanted to share it with you:

Duarte shares her findings on the structure of great speeches and presentations. Just like stories have an arc, she proposes that presentations also have shape. It looks like this:

Duarte illustrates the structure using Steve Job’s 2007 iPhone launch speech and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. Below is a screenshot of her slide about the first half of the famous King speech:

"I have a dream" speech analyzed

I’m very analytical myself, so I thought the whole presentation was fascinating. But what I really want to know is whether you’d consider it worthwhile to diagram your own presentation like Duarte has done with famous speeches—to see if they use this ideal structure. I imagine it would be time consuming but also very enlightening. What do you think?

[Image Source:]

Avoid phrases that undermine your credibility

phrases that undermine your credibilityLast week Amy Beth shared a tip for appearing more confident, which increases your audience’s trust in you. On Nitpickers’ Nook, we’ve talked about how ceasing to use an uncertain inflection can also increase people’s confidence in your words, as can eliminating certain “non-words” from your vocabulary. I’m back to share another tip for maintaining your credibility as a speaker and as an expert in your field. This one is a little counterintuitive though: Don’t stress your honesty or truthfulness.

You might think that referring to yourself or your message as “honest” would help your credibility, but when you use phrases such as “Let me be honest with you” or “To be perfectly honest,” you are suggesting that whatever you said prior to that phrase wasn’t completely true or forthright. That’s never the message you want to convey. If you want to emphasize the importance of your next point, replace the problematic phrase with something like “The most important thing I want you to remember is …” or “I want to stress this because it’s so important …”

What other words or phrases have you found that undermine a speaker’s credibility?

[Image Source: Juliana Coutinho]

PowerPoint presentation techniques: 25 sins you must avoid

PowerPoint presentation techniques

PowerPoint has gotten a bad rap not because it’s a bad tool in and of itself, but because so many people misuse it. Here at American Speaker, we encourage people to use PowerPoint properly. This month, we shared PowerPoint presentation techniques for improving your slides in the free Focus On section on and for including visuals in the free American Speaker Forum e-letter (sign up to receive ASF today if you haven’t already). Plus, some of our most popular public speaking audio conferences are about using PowerPoint correctly: “Avoiding the PowerPoint Coma” and “Why Most PowerPoint Presentation Stink … And How to Sure Yours Don’t.” Long story short, we love PowerPoint when it’s used well.

But we loathe these PowerPoint sins that give the tool a bad name:

  1. Presenters who read their slides verbatim.
  1. Text-only presentations.
  1. Slides with full paragraphs.
  1. Slides packed with bullet point after bullet point after bullet point.
  1. Distracting animations.
  1. Too-slow slide transitions.
  1. Gimmicky sound effects.
  1. Too-small fonts.
  1. Cheesy fonts (like Comic Sans or Papyrus).
  1. Text in difficult-to-read colors.
  1. Jarring colors.
  1. Impossible-to-decipher graphs and charts.
  1. Inappropriate design themes (like background butterflies or snowflakes for a work-related presentation).
  1. Infantile graphics for adult audiences (like cartoon clipart).
  1. Lots of images crammed on one slide.
  1. Inconsistent formatting for titles, text, bullet points, borders, etc.
  1. “Franken-presentations” that include slides from multiple sources—and thus, lots of inconsistencies.
  1. Jargon and other unnecessarily confusing vocabulary.
  1. Presenters who race through slides.
  1. Obnoxious formatting of text (like words that are bold, italicized and underlined).
  1. Non-functioning audio or video.
  1. Unattributed pictures or quotes.
  1. A general lack of proofreading or editing.
  1. No “Plan B” in case technology fails.

Which PowerPoint presentation technique sins do you find most irritating?

[Image Source: Paul Hudson]