Category Archives for Focus

When Things Go Wrong, Don’t Get Upset – Smile and Acknowledge the Obvious

If you speak in public or give presentations at work, I can guarantee one thing: sooner or later you will face the unwanted and unexpected. Power will fail. Air conditioning will stop working in July. Sound systems will sputter. Slides will appear upside down. Cell phones will ring. Someone will doze off and start snoring. When these things happen, don’t look at them as “disasters,” but see them as facts of a speaker’s life. They don’t have to derail your talk if you handle them with humor and simple human grace.

The one thing you must not do is to ignore what’s happening. Failing to deal with what’s going on makes you look unaware, embarrassed, and out of touch. Instead, if you handle the situation quickly and with confidence, you appear likeable, spontaneous, and real. Let me share three situations of the many I have faced:

  • The fire alarm goes off. The class groaned, then I ad-libbed: “I know some of you need a break, but you didn’t have to set the men’s room on fire to get one.” The group laughed, we exited the building, then picked up where we left off when we returned. I don’t know if they recalled the key points of my talk, but they may have remembered the one-liner.

  • My beautifully designed PowerPoint slides would not respond to my clicker. I spent about thirty seconds trying to get them to work but realized I didn’t know what was wrong. I asked if anyone in the class was a PowerPoint guru. No luck. Then I called the conference coordinator and asked her to send me an IT person fast. Those three actions took about two minutes.

I turned to the class with a big smile and said, “Looks like we may not have my stunning slides, but that’s okay because I know this material like the back of my hand.” If you don’t know your subject like the back of your hand and are counting on slides to get you through it, you shouldn’t be presenting. Fortunately, the IT guy arrived and fixed the problem, but we would have been okay if he’d never shown up.

  • The pregnant woman in the second row started having labor pains, I stopped the class instantly and asked what she needed us to do. She said, “I’m calling my husband to take me to the hospital.” She made the call, but the phone went to voicemail, and she looked worried. I suggested that we call 911 and she agreed. EMS arrived in ten minutes and soon had her headed to the maternity ward. My priority was taking care of the soon-to-be mother, while keeping the class calm by letting them know what was going on.  

While there is no one size fits all rule for responding to the unexpected, being authentic and keeping your sense of humor are essential. In Coping With the Unexpected from Speaking Tips, we are advised, “How you react to the unexpected is what people will remember. Smile even though you may feel like strangling someone. Keep your cool and sense of humor then make the best of the situation. The good news is that events that seem like a fiasco as they occur will later become a source of amusement. You can even add them to your repertoire of humorous stories for use in future presentations.

During the Academy Awards in 1974, a man streaked across the stage naked just as the emcee, actor David Niven, was about to introduce Elizabeth Taylor. The audience roared with laughter for almost a minute while Niven worked to come up with a comment. He said, “That was bound to happen. Probably the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and sharing his shortcomings!” The crowd roared as Niven said what they were thinking. Later that night Niven won the Best Actor award, but what people remember was his brilliant ad-lib that turned an embarrassing moment into a hilarious one.

Learning to acknowledge the obvious can be one of your greatest assets as a speaker. While you may not be on national television when you face the unexpected, how you handle yourself when things seem to go wrong will be remembered by everyone in your audience. Let’s say you are making the key point of your presentation and suddenly a dog comes bounding to the front of the room. You must instantly realize that no one is watching you any longer or hearing what you have to say. Their eyes are on the dog, and you should join them. Immediately stop your presentation and welcome the pooch.

It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you are warm and kind to your four-legged guest. “Look who’s joined us! You see, even dogs want to be a part of this presentation.” Go over and pet the dog and act as if you couldn’t be happier to see him. Then ask someone nearby to help you. “Would you take this dog out and get him some water? He looks thirsty to me.” As the dog is being led gently out of the room, thank him for visiting.

Everyone in the audience will remember how kind you were to the dog and what a good sense of humor you have. They will think you’re a great guy, and dog lovers will be especially overjoyed. If, however, you look irritated or angry and do not treat the dog well, you will lose the audience forever.

According to Sam Harrison, a popular speaker on creativity, “Never be afraid to laugh at yourself. I was once making a major pitch to a group of prestigious decision makers when the laptop containing my slides began to generate a high-pitched whine, then suddenly died. In my frantic attempt to resuscitate the machine, one of my flailing arms knocked over a pitcher of water on the table.

“It was a laugh-or-cry moment, and, against my instincts, I chose to laugh. My audience laughed with me–okay, maybe they laughed at me–but tensions melted, and I was able to move ahead, sans slides.”

The next time you face make a mistake or face an interruption, don’t let it wreck your talk. Think of it as an opportunity to be spontaneous and human. If you acknowledge the obvious with warmth and wit, the audience will say to themselves, “I loved the way he handled it when he tripped over the mic cord and fell on the floor. If something like that happened to me, I hope I could handle it as well!”

Jim Comer works with clients through one-on-one coaching on speechwriting and speech coaching – in person or on Zoom. He also offers presentation workshops to help organizations train groups become more confident and persuasive speakers. For more information on how we can work with you, contact me at www.comercommunications.com

The Power of Storytelling

When I speak on presentation skills, I challenge the audience to take a few moments and think about the last speech, presentation, or sermon they’ve heard. Then I ask them to raise their hands if they can name two key points from that talk. The audience squirms and only one or two hands go up. 90% of the audience can remember anything!

What separates the memorable from the forgettable? In most cases, it is stories. When we share experiences from our personal or business lives, we connect with people on a human, emotional level. They are unlikely to remember our charts, but they won’t forget the time we maxed out our credit cards to make payroll or had a flat on the way to meet our biggest client and our cell phone was out of juice. 

I urge speakers to be real and share their stories as well as their bullet points, and yet so many of them tell me, “I don’t have stories anyone would want to hear.” That is simply not true. Our lives are filled with funny, touching, and powerful stories, but most of us don’t realize it. Or – if we do – we lack the courage to share ourselves with an audience. We are afraid of kidding ourselves, and yet people love it when we do.

In Elena Renken’s article, How Stories Connect and Persuade Us, “When you listen to a story, your brain waves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller and you are transported to another time and place.” I believe that all our experiences – good, bad, funny, sad – are communication gold as they belong to us alone. No one else on the planet has our stash of stories. Unfortunately, too many speakers refuse to use their own best material. Why? They think it’s too real. Too vulnerable. Not “professional.”

A story does not have to be important to be powerful. Let me give you an example. Last summer I was going to meet an old friend at a restaurant. It had been ten years since we’d seen each other and when a man walked in clearly looking for someone, I was sure it was my old friend. He looked as if he’d gained a little weight, but I went up to him, gave him a big hug and said, “It’s great to see you, Chris.”

He replied, mid-hug, “I’m not Chris.” It could have been an awkward moment, but we both started laughing simultaneously. It was such a human mistake. The same day I was scheduled to speak to 200 people and decided to begin my talk by telling the story of the misplaced hug. The audience roared, and we established an immediate bond.

In telling stories, you don’t have to look good. Be real. Make yourself the butt of the joke. Audiences don’t warm to those who talk only about their successes. They want to hear about your struggles, failures, and comebacks. Then they are willing to celebrate your success.

In his article, “Storytelling That Moves People” in the Harvard Business Review, Bronwyn Freyer states, “A big part of a CEO’s job is to motivate people to reach certain goals. To do that, he or she most engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is a story…If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, you can get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”

My job as a speechwriter/editor is often to encourage and convince people that their stories are worth telling. I have never met one person who did not have interesting experiences to share. If you are married, you have stories. If you have children, you have stories — and pictures on your iPhone to go with them! The list of story possibilities is endless: neighbors, in-laws, pets, high school, vacations, first job, good bosses, and bad bosses. I enjoy hearing people talk about embarrassing moments as well as their proudest moments. As author Robin Moore states, “Inside of each of us is a natural-born storyteller, waiting to be released.”

When my dad was nearing eighty, I took him on a three-week trip to China and Tibet. On the flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, we lost three engines over the Pacific and had to make an emergency landing in Tokyo wearing life jackets. My father had survived 75 missions in a B-17 during WWII, and I hoped he wouldn’t meet his maker on a 747. Fortunately, we survived, and I used that story for years as an example of how quickly our lives and our businesses can change – and how we must instantly adapt. We are a mixture of ups, downs, adventures, and struggles. There are stories in our lives that will move an audience if we have the courage to tell them.

In the early nineties, I heard General Colin Powell speak soon after the success of the first Gulf War. He was a national hero and had retired a few months earlier. Today I have no idea what he talked about, except for one story that I have remembered for 25 years. He told the audience, “I love being retired. Finally, I can take my wife to the movies on a Saturday night. Last week, we were walking back to our car from a local theater and a woman ran up to me and said, ‘I’m so thrilled to see you, general. I’ve admired you for years. You are one of my absolute favorite people, General Schwarzkopf’”

The story got a big laugh, but more importantly, it formed an authentic connection between the five-star general and his audience. At a deep level, we said to ourselves, “He’s just like me. People forget his name just like they forget mine.” I don’t know if it was a real story or a speechwriter’s invention, but it doesn’t matter. The anecdote established a warm connection between the general and his audience – and I have remembered it for more than two decades.

I challenge you to make a list of your own memorable moments – funny, touching, challenging – and find ways to integrate them into your presentations. As up share yourself along with your message, you will connect to an audience, entertain them, and have your key points remembered.

Jim Comer works with clients through one-on-one coaching on speechwriting and speech coaching – in person or on Zoom. He also offers presentation workshops to help organizations train groups become more confident and persuasive speakers. For more information on how we can work with you, contact me at www.comercommunications.com

Individuality: The Secret to Speaking Success

One of the secrets of being a good speaker is the ability to allow your individuality to shine through. That’s true whether you’re giving a keynote address, a sales presentation, a wedding toast, or a eulogy. What do I mean by individuality? It’s being the best of yourself — how you talk, walk, gesture, and use your emotions when you are with the people you know and like best. You’re not trying to impress anyone. You’re the natural, relaxed, authentic person who is unlike anyone else on the planet.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, famed author and astrophysicist, explains the power of individuality in his video “Be Yourself: Big Think.” He states, “The greatest individuals in society were not versions of someone else, but instead made their own path to greatness.”

Unfortunately, many speakers are so worried about looking good, not making a “mistake,” or impressing others that they leave the best of themselves offstage. Audience members never see their uniqueness. Instead, they are treated to a pale replica of the real person, someone who is being overly careful, hiding behind PowerPoint slides, or burying their head in a script that sounds nothing like themselves.

The Ultimate F Word

The reason that so many speakers don’t share themselves with audiences is fear – the ultimate F-word. Speaking in public is right up there with death, snakes, and identity theft among the greatest fears of the American people. This fear knows no boundaries and can strike anyone. How often have you seen someone you know well – a person with a natural smile, great eye contact, and relaxed body language – turn into a stranger the minute he gets in front of an audience?

Suddenly his entire being is transformed. His eyes focus on the floor or ceiling. Her voice loses its natural tone and seems lifeless. Natural body language disappears – arms and legs become rigid. Your friend looks like a zombie because he has abandoned his true self. I know you’ve seen this negative transformation happen to others. Has it ever happened to you?

Sharing your individuality allows you to be your authentic self whenever and wherever you speak.In “10 tips for Improving Your Presentations Today,” speech coach Garr Reynolds said, “What made Robin Williams such a remarkable and beloved entertainer was his humanity and his authenticity. This is not something you can fake. Faking authenticity is like faking good health. Sooner or later it’s all going to come crashing down. Authenticity is built on honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable. It is risky, which is why authenticity is relatively rare, but so appreciated when it is found.”

If we made a list of great speakers, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Kennedy, and Winston Churchill would likely be among them. Each had different backgrounds, accents, and points of view. Their education and religious background varied greatly. The one thing they shared was their individuality. They could not be mistaken for anyone else. They didn’t try to blend in. They allowed their distinct personalities to come through. Their words and the way they delivered them didn’t sound like anyone else. They were one of a kind. Today’s most acclaimed motivational speakers share that same diversity and uniqueness.

People often wonder what makes a star – in entertainment, business, or politics. It’s not difficult to decipher: a star is someone so talented, confident, and unlike anyone else that she is instantly recognized and remembered. There is not another Lady Gaga on earth. She can sing jazz and show tunes with Tony Bennett or rock in “A Star is Born” with Bradley Cooper. She defies definition.

In the business world, there’s Elon Musk. He never plays it safe or by the rules – even when he’s being arrogant or maddening. He refuses to act the part of the typical CEO. And yet Tesla is now the considered the highest valued carmaker in the world. These two stars didn’t allow anyone to categorize them or box them in: they created categories all their own.

Today’s Top Speakers Are Diverse

At the end of the day, everyone in your audiences will leave with a feeling about you. It will be good, bad, or blah. If they leave with a positive feeling about you – and your company, cause, or organization – you have hit a home run. If they leave with a positive feeling and remember one of your key points, that’s a home run with two men on base. If they like you and remember two points, that’s a grand slam! It doesn’t get any better than that.

When I give a talk on presentation skills, I’d be thrilled if the typical audience member left saying “I kind of like that guy from Austin. He made me laugh and had a lot of energy. He’s right about most speakers. Half of them read their slides and show no personality. I’m not going to do that. I’m going give my next talk to my buddies first, get their feedback and make some adjustments.” I would consider that a five-star review as he remembered two things I said, and it led to a positive shift in behavior.

The next time you speak in front of any group anywhere, bring your real personality to the podium. Let them know you as well as your message. Don’t hide yourself, share yourself.

Jim Comer works with clients through one-on-one coaching on speechwriting and speech coaching – in person or on Zoom. He also offers presentation workshops to help organizations train groups become more confident and persuasive speakers. For more information on how we can work with you, contact me at www.comercommunications.com.

How do I get my points across if I only have 5 minutes to speak?

Most people feel like they have to make too many points…

… and I often tell people that audiences, if you’re really good, they’re going to have a feeling about you – hopefully a positive feeling – and they are probably going to remember one point, two weeks later.

So the key thing is, to make that one most important point really well. If you have five minutes, focus on connecting to the audience and making your most important point as deeply and as powerfully as you can.

And I would do it by telling a story if I could, or at least a little anecdote because people tend to remember stories and anecdotes and if you tie your point to a story, they’re going to be more likely to remember it. Remember, Gettysburg address three minutes. It’s considered maybe the best speech ever given in America. Three minutes he made his point.

Which is more important… Content or Delivery?

Content or Delivery?

People are always asking which is the most important and my answer is: both!

You can have the best content in the world, but if it’s badly delivered, no one will realize how good it is. And, you can be brilliant at delivering, but if you don’t have coherent thoughts and express them in a way that’s powerful, the best delivery is going to not be as effective.

You must have, first, good content that sounds like you – the way you really talk and gets across your key points. Then, you must deliberate in a way that again, expresses your natural, real, likable, individual personality.

When you put the content and the delivery together, that is a marriage of equals – and it works perfectly.

How do I avoid rambling and going off-message?

One of the key things that most people worry about is rambling when they talk, you know, getting off the subject.

Here is the secret to that: Know what you want to say.

Know ahead of time the one or two key points that you want to get across.

Whether you’ve got two minutes or 20 minutes. There’s still a couple of things you want the audience to remember and if you know those and if you have taken the time to practice those, then you’re much more likely to stay on the subject.

And, if you feel yourself wandering off, you can bring yourself back because audiences don’t remember much. So if you can get across to points and do it in a likable way, you have hit a home run.

What if my mind goes blank on stage?

Remember: Speaking is like real life (only more so). And, in real life – I hate to say this – but my mind sometimes goes blank.

Oh yes! I forget names of people I know and love. I forget dates… I forget a number of times… the world does not end.

Often, if I forget a name and I’m in front of a group, I’ll say, “who was it that did blankety-blank?” I’ll ask for the audience to help me. They like that. They like seeing that you’re human!

And if your mind goes blank and the middle of a speech… do not worry about it! Pause – if you give yourself a second or two – it may well come to you. If you still can’t remember, you might just ask the audience: “Now, I was trying to make an important point… what was the last thing I said?” I have done that many a time – and they’ll tell me, and I go, “Oh yeah!”, and I go on and give the next point.

Audiences are on your side. They’re not judging you. There’s not going to be a guillotine at the end and if you do something wrong – they want you to succeed! And if they can help you, and if you can show your humanity, they think, “Wow, that’s great. I mean, Jim forgot something and he just kept going,” and they love that.

So, don’t worry about forgetting things because for the most part you’re not going to. And when you do, there are plenty of ways to get back on track and you’ll be able to find them. If you just give yourself a short, quick pause – or, give yourself a break!