Poetry As a Performing Art


Have you ever heard of “slam poetry”? Neither had I. Last night I attended a performance by a young slam poet named Dia Davina, who had qualities that speakers in any field would do well to emulate.

I like poetry and have often heard poets read their work. Occasionally, the reading is expressive and interesting. Usually, though, the poet speaks in an intense, rather fervent monotone that falls into a predictable, repetitive cadence. Partly that’s because they’re reading.  It’s really hard to avoid a repetitive cadence when you’re reading words on a page, whether it’s a speech or a poem. I also think poets who read their work may be too eager to make the point that it’s poetry. I often wish they’d simply express their poems as if they were speaking prose. The poetry will speak for itself!

Google tells me that slam poetry is a form of competitive performance poetry. Participants offer works no longer than three minutes and are judged – by a randomly picked audience member – on their skill as theatrical performers (stage presence, timing, voice modulation, body language and emoting) and pure poetic writing (metaphor, insight, brevity, wit). No wonder Dia wins in poetry slams! Last night’s performance was riveting!

What did this young poet have that would benefit any speaker? Continue reading Poetry As a Performing Art

Don’t Pretend They’re Naked

naked person back viewHave you heard this ridiculous piece of advice? “If you’re scared to speak to a group, pretend everyone in the audience is naked.” Does anybody actually follow this advice anymore? It may sound amusing, but really, Continue reading Don’t Pretend They’re Naked

Help Your Audience Follow You


The spoken word is fleeting. It sounds and is gone. Unlike you, who may have spent months – years, even – developing an understanding about your topic, your audience has only one shot at grasping the ideas carried by your spoken words. It’s your job to help them understand. They need a discernible structure that’s easy to follow, and they need a clear premise to keep them oriented. As always, the question is not “What does the speaker want to say,” but “What does the audience need to hear?” A speaker’s first responsibility is to the audience.

Continue reading Help Your Audience Follow You

What to Do When You’re Being Judged

judging panel

Before she receives her Master’s degree, my client will have to present and defend her thesis. With admirable foresight, she came to me four months in advance to work on her presentation skills and, in particular, her comfort level with public speaking.

For many people, one of the terrors associated with public speaking is the fear of being judged and criticized. In the vast majority of presentations, this fear is groundless. The audience is no more judging and criticizing you than you are when listening to someone else. They want you to do well. They’re already “on your side”. My advice to clients with this fear is always the same: stop looking for approval from others and simply focus on the quality you can give to them. The more you focus on giving, the less you will worry about what’s coming back to you.

Continue reading What to Do When You’re Being Judged

Getting Comfortable with Large Groups

Weapon against stress

“I’m fine talking to small groups,” he said, “but this time I have to present to 50 or 60 people. It’s freaking me out!”

What my client didn’t realize is that speaking to large groups is no different than speaking to small ones. You use exactly the same skills. He had a problem simply because he wasn’t thinking correctly.

Your thinking determines your experience. If you have a similar problem the first step to solving it is to recognize that your emotions are born out of your thoughts. They don’t arrive out of nowhere, creating havoc in your heartbeat and your sweat glands. They are a direct result of the thoughts roaming around in your head. When you control your thinking, you control your emotions. If you feel as if you’re freaking out, you’re thinking thoughts that don’t serve you. You are not at the mercy of your thoughts. Discipline them to go only where they will help you. Let’s look at a few thoughts that do serve you.

Continue reading Getting Comfortable with Large Groups

Searching for a Word


Yesterday I met a man from Zimbabwe.  He told me that his mother and father were from two different African countries, and that he, himself, spoke five languages.  He said that when talking with friends or on the phone, his mind sometimes gets stuck searching for the right word in the right language.  He asked me what he could do about that.  My answer?  Simply stop talking while you think.

Continue reading Searching for a Word

Telephone Talk

Telephone Talk, MorgueFile


Me:  Hello?

Caller (unknown, young, female voice in a casual, offhand tone):  Hi, how’re you?

Me (abrupt change to formal tone):  Who’s calling, please?

Caller:  I’m from XYZ Financial (the name went by too fast for me to catch).  I’m just calling to let you know you’ve been pre-approved for a line of credit.

Me:  Thank you, we don’t want it.

End of call.

Let’s assume this wasn’t a scam.  The voice sounded too young and inexperienced for its owner even to dream of making money out of deception.  However, there were so many disastrous elements in this call, it was doomed from the start.  The mistakes were extreme in this case, but they occur in varying degrees with great frequency.

Continue reading Telephone Talk

The Wedding Toast

Wedding Toast

As we move into June, the month for weddings, here’s a “Tips on Talking” re-post from shortly after the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate.

‘Tis the season.  Of weddings, that is.  The prospect of giving a wedding toast need not spoil your enjoyment of the day.  There is a wealth of helpful information on the internet.  Here are a few pointers to get you started.

Traditionally, wedding toasts are given by four people: the father of the bride, the groom, the best man and the maid/matron of honour.  Nowadays, many couples depart from tradition with other speakers and even guests invited to offer their congratulations.  As I recall, even I said a few words at my husband’s and my wedding.

Continue reading The Wedding Toast

Stage Presence Tips for Job Interviews


Many young people are graduating and starting their job search this month.  This article from a few years ago is still relevant.

The moment you walk in the door for your job interview, you’ve made an impression. Make sure it’s a good one. A job interview is a performance, just as if you were on stage. Here are some stage presence techniques that you can apply to your next interview.

Your posture says volumes about what kind of person you are. A slouched, sunken-chest, round shouldered posture does not project the energy of a person ready and willing to do a good job. If you walk in the door with your head high, your chest lifted and your shoulders down and relaxed, you project an image of self-confidence and energy.

Good performers pay close attention to their costume, and so should you. When applying for a job, arrive at the interview dressed as if you already worked there. Be neat and clean, with your hair secured off your face. Understate jewellery – no distracting, dangly earrings. If you can wear something colorful near your face – a tie or a blouse – it will draw attention to your eyes. Dress according to what is appropriate to the situation and the image you want to portray.

Chances are, when you greet your interviewer, the two of you will shake hands. The point of a handshake is contact, so don’t offer someone the ends of your fingers. Let your palm connect with the other person’s palm, with your fingers curled around the bottom of their hand. For both men and women, use firm pressure (no dead fish, please) but not too much. Be considerate of the other person. If a woman is wearing a ring on her right hand, a finger-crushing grip can be extremely painful. Hardly the first impression you want to make!

Make eye contact when you shake hands and when you speak. People in western cultures expect eye contact from a speaker and are uncomfortable when it’s absent. It’s especially important to make eye contact when you say something good about yourself. Eye contact says you’re telling the truth, and it speaks of self-confidence. Everyone has an emotional need to feel seen and acknowledged, even employers and interviewers. If you make eye contact, you’re fulfilling the other person’s need, and he or she will be more comfortable with you.

Speak with a firm tone and good diction. Make sure you remember to breathe, because your voice won’t come out firmly without enough air behind it. Articulate clearly. Use the muscles of your lips and tongue energetically to form clear, distinct consonants. Lazy speaking forces the listener to work harder to understand what’s being said. The speaker should be doing the work to make sure he or she can be easily understood.

Walk in with a smile. Shake hands with a smile. Where appropriate, speak with a smile. A smile makes you feel more relaxed and it helps to break down the barriers between yourself and the people you talk to. Human beings seem to be hard-wired to respond favorably to those who smile at them.

It can be difficult to smile when you’re nervous, but remember two things:

1) Your potential employer is interviewing you, but on the other hand, you are interviewing him or her. Both of you have the task of finding out if you’re a good fit for each other. You aren’t walking in with your hat in your hand, begging for a job. You are a worthy, valuable person wanting to see if this is the right place to offer your talents. With that in mind, you can afford to be friendly and smiling.

2) An audience only knows what you show them. No matter how many butterflies are flying around in your stomach, good stage presence makes a good impression. Show your interviewer upright, energetic posture, appropriate attire, a firm handshake, clear speech and smiling eye contact, and he or she will see good energy and self-confidence.

Above all, be authentic, be yourself. Stage presence skills are not an overlay to hide your real self. Rather, they are techniques to help reveal the beautiful person you are. If the job interview were a piece of jewellery, the presentation skills are the setting, but the jewel is you.

Avoid the Information Trap!

Information Overload

Telling people too much is as bad as not telling them anything at all.  Anybody who works in a specialized field is vulnerable to the too-much-information trap – technical and scientific people especially so.  It happens so easily!  You love what you do, you’re enthusiastic about your message and you have so much you want to share!  If you tell your listeners too much, you’re doing the mental equivalent of force-feeding, and your listeners’ brain will do the mental equivalent of regurgitating – it won’t keep down, that is, remember, what you say.  It’s not that they don’t want to.  It’s that they can’t.

If you want to be an effective speaker, you need to know how to keep your audience’s attention.  Saying too much will have exactly the opposite effect, simply because that’s the way the human brain works.


How we pay attention is one of the most widely studied brain functions.  There’s a great deal that researchers still don’t know about it, but there’s one thing they do know for sure.  The human brain doesn’t pay attention to anything boring.  If you’re a “techie”, all the details you want to share are fascinating for you, but for most people, especially if they’re not in your field, straight data is boring, and you will very quickly lose your listeners’ attention.  The brain is hard-wired to focus on things that change, not things that stay the same.  A long stream of detailed data is too much the same for the brain to stay focused on.

Here are some ways to make sure you keep your audience’s attention:

  1. Stick to broad strokes.  If your presentation is a 15-minute introduction to your business, your purpose is to spark interest, not to educate about details. Paint a general picture, and leave the details out.  If you’re giving an hour-long workshop, you’ll need to convey lots of data.  Still, your audience can’t stay focused listening to an hour of minutiae.  Put those in a printed handout.
  2. Organize your material in clear, easy-to-follow chunks, rather than one, long, continuous flow of data.  The brain loves structure and patterns.
  3. Number your points to make it easy to grasp your structure.  Make your transitions clear by summing up the preceding point before introducing the next.
  4. Provide “state changes”.   Anything that stays the same for more than a few minutes (like a steady stream of words) begins to bore the brain.  The longer your presentation, the more state changes you need to introduce.  Examples of state changes are asking for a show of hands or asking questions that require an answer from the audience.  Even rhetorical questions are state changes because they switch the listener’s brain from being told to being asked.  Keep your audience’s attention by keeping them actively involved.  Depending on the length and purpose of your presentation, you can ask audience members to discuss a point with one another, or even to stand up and stretch.
  5. Humanize your data.  The more you can make dry facts relevant to human experience, the better your listeners will pay attention.  Give examples and tell stories that show how your information affects real people in real situations, and leave out any details that aren’t absolutely necessary to the story.
  6. Involve the senses.  Use descriptions that involve as many of the senses as possible – sight, sound, touch, and even taste and smell, if you can.  Humanizing your data and involving the senses engages not just the brain’s pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain behind the forehead that processes dry facts) but also the limbic system, the part that feels emotion.  In order for information to be transferred from short-term memory (10 to 15 seconds) to long term memory, it must have some component of emotion or the senses.


Do not go over the time you’ve been given for your presentation.  Aside from the fact that exceeding your time is inconsiderate to your audience, to any speaker following you and to the organizers of the event, your listeners will tune you out.  The moment you go over your time, their brain focuses on that fact, rather than on what you are saying.  No audience minds if you finish early, but they sure do mind if you finish late.

Practice your presentation before you give it, and time it.  That will tell you how much or how little you can say.  If you find yourself running short of time, cut something out rather than talk faster to get all your information in.  People can’t remember a data dump anyway, so why would they remember it if you deliver it faster?

To keep your audience’s attention, and to have them remember what you said afterwards, forget about what you want to say.  Focus on what your listeners need to hear and how they need to hear it.