Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Would you trust billionaire Warren Buffett to give you financial advice? Would you trust Bernie Madoff's suggestions for investing your life savings? How about trusting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to teach you about the origins of Facebook? Would you trust Lindsay Lohan to lay out the plan for the United States' response to North Korea's testing of nuclear weapons? How about Robert Deniro's advice on acting?

Your answers to these questions are driven largely by the speaker's credibility--or lack thereof.

Credibility is trust. It involves trust in your competence (you know what you are talking about) and your character (you wouldn't lie to me about this and are basically a good, trustworthy person).

Credibility can be difficult to establish and easy to lose. It is an essential prerequisite to persuasion of any kind. This is true in speeches and interpersonal dealings of all kinds. As such, it deserves our full attention as speakers and people in general as we strive to exert influence on others.

Your credibility depends on the listener's perception of you. That word perception is really important here. Your credibility is a perception individuals have of you, it is not necessarily true or accurate. But for the listener his or her perception is reality. So if an audience member believes (perceives) that you don't know what you are talking about, you don't--to them anyway. If they think you are lying, you are lying (in their eyes). So it is essential that we mange perception to enhance others' views of us.

First let's talk about competence. Again, the goal is to convince the members of the audience that you are a trustworthy source of information because you know your topic and know it well. How do we do this? You might mention your credentials in the subject area, such as your job title, degrees in the subject, or specialized training you have. You might mention your years of successfully working in this field or research you have done in the area--maybe even citing some specific fact(s) from that research. However you do it, you want your audience to perceive you as being well-informed on the topic at hand.

And while it does not necessarily directly relate to your knowledge in the field, it is important that your delivery be as confident and polished as possible. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you fumble and bumble your way through the presentation some audience members may (wrongly) infer that you don't know what you are talking about simply because you don't deliver it well. So a poor delivery can hurt your credibility and a strong delivery can help it.

Establishing your competence in the subject matter is actually pretty straightforward and relatively simple to establish for most audience members. The trickier challenge is to establish that you are a person of good character, someone I can trust to not steer me wrong or manipulate me for your personal gain.

This raises the question, "Whom do we trust?".

We tend to trust people who share our values, beliefs, and attitudes. Why is this true? Because we are right. Everybody is right in their own mind...about everything. What do you think of the job the president is doing? It doesn't matter, you are right. If you think he is doing a great job, you are right and you know it. If you think he is doing a lousy job, you are right and you know it. It doesn't matter what you believe, you are right--in your own mind anyway.  What is your opinion of rap music? it doesn't matter. Whatever your opinion, you know you are right, right? Everyone believes they are right about everything. We simply don't hold beliefs we think are wrong. Sometimes we find out we were wrong and change our beliefs, but guess what? then we are right again!

And because WE are right, who else is right? People who agree with us, namely people who share our values, attitudes and beliefs.

Thus, if I want you to trust me I need to establish that you and I are kind of alike. I mean obviously we are different. We are all unique and have traveled a unique path bringing us to this moment. But to the degree that I can establish commonality, I can get you to identify with me.  And maybe, just maybe, I can get you to see me as being like you, and therefore worthy of your trust.

But how do we do this? We need to establish commonality. One way to think about it is to consider the past, present, and future (I use these categories because together they account for everything and anything because you can literally use anything and everything in the world to potentially establish commonality).

So for instance if I can recount some experience from childhood that audience members can relate to I can establish a common past. And in that moment, consciously or unconsciously, you say "wow, he's a little like me...I had that experience too...we have similar childhood experiences" and I become a little bit more trustworthy in that moment.

Or maybe it's a common present. When I say something like "I'll try to make this as brief as possible, I know we all have a desk full of work waiting for us" I establish that we are all in the same (overworked) boat and our time is limited and valuable. I "get it", and in doing so demonstrate that I share your plight. Then-President Clinton made great use of the phrase "I feel your pain" to establish commonality with one of his audience members (the same man would eventually destroy his credibility in the eyes of many with his unscrupulous behavior).

Or maybe it's a common future. When I talk about our desires for a happy and successful future, my audience can relate to me because we all want a happy and successful future.

This is why it is so important to put some of yourself into every presentation. If we can see a little of ourselves in you we are more likely to trust you. This can be quite subtle at times but still effective as we can relate to people on many levels. It is also why audience analysis is so important. Think about your audience and build into your speech bits that they should be able to relate to.

Ultimately though, your credibility will be tied to your reputation. So if you want to be perceived as competent, be competent. If you want to be perceived as a good person, be a good person. There is a risk in everything I've written today that we can say all the right things, manipulating the perception of our audience members with empty rhetoric. Walk the walk, don't just talk the talk. If you live your life the right way, it can never come back to bite you on the bottom. A fact former President Clinton learned the hard way.

That's all for today folks. Be well, speak well, and as always, thanks for reading.

For more information about Dan Leyes' consulting work see the Semiosphere Consulting webpage

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The All-Important First Minute

You hit the stage (or the conference room, or the classroom, or the pulpit) and all eyes focus in on you. The audience, who were mentally somewhere else just a moment ago, one by one begin to watch and wonder "what will this person say to me?". They may be charitably attentive and hope for the best, or they may be cynically imploring "Please don't waste my valuable time", presumably as so many prior speakers have done.

You generally have a minute or so--sometimes less--before people start drawing conclusions about the quality and value of your presentation.

Many fail to capitalize on that first minute and as a result have to hope they can win you over later in the speech. But if you get off to a great start, you're winning them over from the get-go.

And so today I will talk a little bit about your speech introduction. It's that first 10-20% of your total speaking time. For that 5 minute talk it's that first 30 seconds to a minute. (If you have the luxury of a 50 minute talk, obviously, it would be longer and you have more time to develop it).

A good Intro has three parts: the hook, the promise, and the road map. Allow me to explain.

As I mentioned, prior to your speech your audience is somewhere else mentally.  They're talking with other audience members, looking at their schedule on their IPhone, or thinking about all the things they could and should be doing instead of waiting for you to begin your talk. Therefore it is important to pull the focus of their attention on to you.

Here's how not to do it. "I'm here today to talk about _________". Never begin by announcing your topic because you give your audience an "opt-out moment" and believe me they will opt out and go back to thinking of all the things they could be doing if they didn't have to be here listening to this topic that they don't fully understand yet and therefore don't see the benefit of listening to. The problem is you can't tell them the topic until you have first made "the promise"...but I am getting ahead of myself.

Start your speech with a story ( for more on storytelling see this or this). It may have to be a short story, of 30-45 seconds, but start with a story. It can be the story of how you came to speak in front of this particular group, the story of the humorous hotel clerk last night, the story of how your daughter had a birthday party last week and what a fiasco of fun it was. If you can directly tie the story in to your topic or the occasion that's great. But even if it doesn't, the story ends with you being here today to talk about something really important. For instance you might say, "Now I know, you didn't come here today to hear about my daughter's birthday party, we're here to learn how to sell more widgets and increase revenue". As long as the story is a brief one, the audience will forgive the non-topical start (if you must). The important thing is you've captured their attention. They are no longer working on their schedule or talking to the person next to them. When someone starts a story, it's almost impossible not to get caught up in the plot and wonder where it is going. Mission have their attention, and that is the goal of the hook.

The promise must come next (or if you're creative and your topic and story align the right way you have built it in to the story itself and in that way kill two birds with one'll understand this better in a minute). The promise is where you give them a reason or motivation to listen to your talk. This is where you tell them how the information you are sharing with them today will benefit them. There is presumably some value to the audience in what you are sharing with them (if there is not then you are wasting their time and need to reexamine your motives for speaking!). Come right out and tell them this will help them in some way. Depending on the topic and context it could be anything from increasing the bottom line, to better mental or physical health, to improving communication with their loved ones. As an audience member, How is my life better as a result of learning/knowing what you are about to teach/tell me? This sometimes takes a lot of thought and some people have difficulty seeing this, but it is essential. For without it your audience has no motivation to listen to you. What can they do, post-speech, that they couldn't do pre-speech? Tell them.

The promise though, is two-fold. Part of the promise is that the audience will benefit from your talk. The other part is that you know what you're talking about and can be trusted. This is your credibility. I will be writing an entire blog about credibility soon, but for now let's just say you need to establish your expertise on the topic and your general trustworthiness (both on the topic and as a person of good character). That's why the story about your daughter's birthday party is not without value...any person who loves their child enough to not only throw a great party but be so happy about it to come in and tell a room full of strangers about it, is probably a pretty good egg, no? People can relate, and if they can relate to you they like and trust you. Credibility is established--as long as they also believe you know what you are talking about!

Now sometimes your story/hook has the promise built into it. If you tell the story of how you first got involved with this topic and the change it's made in your life and how you're here to share those benefits with the audience today, you have built the promise into the story. This is ideal when you don't have a lot of time to develop your intro.

The last thing you need to set up your speech and prepare the audience for what is to follow is your road map. This is where you explicitly state your topic and lay out what the main points you will be covering in your speech are. It's okay to say "Today I will be talking about ________" now because you have already made the promise, and only foolish audience members would opt-out if there is real value to be gained by listening. And the last line of your intro should always be that preview of main points. "So in order to better understand (topic) today we're going to discuss ________, ___________, and _________. (And you should have three main points, not one or eight...another topic for another blog entry!).

The road map is essential to help your audience follow along and gives them a mental checklist of what you are covering, which will help them remember your message. Have you ever tried to follow someone in a car when you don't know where they're going? Well you should stop being a stalker! Just teasing. If you have, you know it is difficult and stressful. You want to make things easy for your audience, not difficult. And you want it to be a pleasant experience, not stressful  So tell them where you are going in your speech and they will happily follow along.

Now you have captured their attention with your hook, given them motivation to listen and reason to trust you with the promise, and told them where we are going together with the road map. You are on your way to a great talk!

That's all for today. Be well and speak well. And as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Being Interesting, The Ultimate Challenge

If you ask most people what they dread as a listener or as an audience member they will quickly mention being on the receiving end of a boring presentation. And I think as speakers one of the things we most fear is that our audience will find us boring and tune us out.

But what is a speaker to do? How can we ensure that we are not boring our audience?

Many years ago I was asked by the American Forensics Association to present a workshop on "Creating Interesting Informative and Persuasive Speeches". Today I would like to share what I talked about that day.

First, I think interesting talks start with a topic you find interesting, This really is an essential aspect of an interesting end product. If you are given a choice about what to speak about, choose something you are interested in and your challenge will be so much easier. Audiences can tell when we love our topic. There is an inner enthusiasm that shines through in nearly every word.

Unfortunately sometimes our topic is thrust upon us with little regard for our personal interests, such as having to explain a new software program to our co-workers, or the latest federal regulations regarding our line of work. In cases like these it is essential to identify one or more "benefits of knowing" this new information. Will it make our work easier in the long run? Will it save us money or increase profit (which may open the door for those long awaited wage increases!)? Will it make us healthier? Wealthier? or Wiser? What is in it for the learner? Once you identify that this is valuable information at some level, it should enhance your interest in it.

Or perhaps it is just the speaking opportunity itself that has value. This will enhance your career, enhance your status in the eyes of your co-workers or in the community, or provide some economic opportunity. All of these are factors that should raise your interest level in giving this talk.

So you have established that your topic or speaking situation is something that interests you, great. But how do you make it interesting for an audience? Well, one essential is to make sure THEY know the "benefit of knowing" because this is a reason to listen. It motivates the audience's interest in what you are talking about. So early in your speech--right after your attention-getter--give them the reason to listen in the form of the benefits of learning/knowing what you will be sharing with them.

Beyond that though, try to fill your talk with interesting information. There is probably ten times more information on your topic available to you than you have you have time to cover. This puts you in a good position, as you can cherry pick all the interesting bits of info. In this way all the information in your speech is relatively interesting.

So at this point you have an interesting topic and interesting information to share, but that does not remotely guarantee that your presentation will be interesting because you still have to deliver it. A poor speaker can ruin even the most interesting information!

In fact I once had to attend two workshops on the same day. One was on Sexual Harassment, the other on FERPA (the Federal Education Respect for Provacy Act  it's the academic version of HIPPA laws, which limit who your doctor can share your personal medical info with). Which do you think would be more interesting? Sex, right? Wrong. The Sexual Harassment workshop was poorly done and dry as toast. I could barely stay awake. The FERPA presentation on the other hand was engaging, thought-provoking, and oh so interesting. The difference was all in the delivery.

And so how do you make your delivery interesting? First, avoid reading to your audience! Speak extemporaneously (a big word that simply means speaking from limited notes containing the ideas you will talk about NOT the words you are going to say). Speaking extemporaneously will keep you natural and conversational, which is the goal.

Furthermore use PowerPoint, or whatever visual aid you use, well. Fewer words and more pictures for starters. And since I have already written on how to use PowerPoint more effectively, you can read it HERE.

And last, but not anywhere remotely near least, tell stories. Audiences love stories and find them interesting. When you hear a story begin it is almost impossible to not listen intently because we naturally become curious about what will happen to the characters in the story. For more on storytelling for public speakers read this and this.

And that's about it for today. Start with an interesting topic, include interesting information, deliver it in an interesting manner, use stories, and you will be interesting in front of that audience. I guarantee it!

Be well, speak well, and as always, thanks for reading.

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.