Audience Participation

As a speaker you should always keep in the back of your mind: What’s my audience going to take home from this speech? What will they remember?

Both speaker and audience have a certain role to play. The speaker needs to engage the audience, the audience needs to give feedback. Nothing worse for a speaker than getting a bunch of blank stares!

Sometimes you can push the limits on how much feedback you want from an audience and go for full audience participation.

Bobby McFerrin, the jazz-vocalist and conductor most famous for the hit-song “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, shows in this clip how an audience not only gets engaged, but actually anticipates the next move and the startlingly fun response it creates.

Bobby doesn’t say a lot and the way he starts the sequence is very telling. The audience ‘gets’ immediately what he wants. Once Bobby realizes the audience understands his instructions he ups the ante by adding more layers of difficulty to finally have the audience work out for itself what the next move should be. It’s a very entertaining piece of communication. And better yet: because of the participation the audience will remember it forever.


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Dealing With Interruptions

You are presenting in front of your executive team in the board room of your company’s high-rise office. All of a sudden the window washers come by. You see everybody’s attention is momentarily being shifted to the men on the other side of the window.

Most people at this point in time will keep on talking AS IF NOTHING IS HAPPENING. Wrong. The moment the window washers come by you will have lost your audience. And when you have lost them they can’t hear a word you say. The best thing to do:


This applies to many different situations you may have come across. Coffee being brought into the meeting? Acknowledge the person bringing in the coffee. Mobile phone going off during a talk? Tell the person answering the phone to say hello from you (I guarantee everybody else will now switch off their phone in fear of being next).

Even the world’s greatest speakers get this principle wrong sometimes. When President Obama toasted to Queen Elisabeth during a recent state visit he simply ignored the British national anthem and continued his toast. The moment he says “To the queen” she replies “Set it down”.

The moment Obama heard the music he should have stopped. Similarly, if the window washers come by just say: “Oh, look, the window washers,” allowing for your audience to divert attention for a little while. Then you can follow-up with “… as I was saying …” and continue your talk.

Acknowledge interruptions, every time.

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The WOW factor

Every speech needs to start with two things: 1) a WOW factor, and 2) the conclusion. The WOW factor can be an anecdote, an analogy or a story that is relevant to the topic and that hooks your audience into paying attention. Once you’ve got the audience’s attention you can reveal your conclusion.

Sometimes the WOW factor is the conclusion. Take for instance the first 22 seconds of Obama’s “The US killed bin Laden” speech.

WOW factor and conclusion combined: a very powerful opening.

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Frustration with Japanese Nuclear Communication

Naoto Kan, the Prime Minister of Japan, was furious. “What’s going on?” he burst out at Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) officials in front of journalists when he learned of new explosions at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant not from TEPCO but from television.

In the aftermath of a massive 9.0 earthquake, a devastating tsunami and a doomed nuclear power plant, the TEPCO news releases have been vague, opaque and decidedly optimistic. In the words of the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, who is Japanese: “I am asking the Japanese counterparts to further strengthen, to facilitate, communication.”

The frustration with Japanese communication is something people who do business there know well. Japanese hardly ever talk straight, certainly when it comes to conflict or unpleasant situations. The euphemisms used in this situation are appalling. TEPCO referred to an incident as being “under investigation” because “a big sound and white smoke” were recorded at the facility. They couldn’t call it what it was: an explosion.

And not dealing with unpleasantness wasn’t limited to words but to images as well. NHK, the Japanese national television broadcaster, was showing old footage of an intact nuclear plant while other news organizations clearly showed smoke billowing from one of the reactors where the entire encasing of the reactor blew up.

The total sum of the communication effort is a disaster in itself: evasive news conferences, uninformative briefings, conflicting reports, ambiguous language (which led foreign press to conclude the facility was abandoned at one stage) and refusal to confirm basic facts.

Let’s hope that out of this crisis will come better Japanese communication. Given the stress the Japanese population is under they deserve strong leadership and straight talk.

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The World’s Coolest Résumé

I have over the past few years helped quite a few people with preparing for job interviews. One of my success stories landed herself a phenomenal job at a high profile luxury goods company. Another was a student who managed to enroll himself into his university of choice.

In the process of preparing for the job interview I have helped people write résumés that communicate well. They have no clutter, focus the reader’s attention on important parts of the résumé and in general convey a message of the person being well-organized.

The résumé below is going viral on the internet. It conveys all achievements in a clear and understandable structure. The résumé achieves this clarity not with words but in a highly visual way. It is outstanding.

The author adheres to 5 rules:
1) Make it you
2) Know where to apply for a job
3) Have fun
4) Share
5) Enjoy constructive criticism

Chris Spurlock gets my vote for World’s Coolest Résumé!

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Warren Buffet’s Certificate

In the February 2011 edition of Vanity Fair Magazine there’s an article about Warren Buffet, the legendary value-investor, called “Mr. Warren’s Confession.”

It is no secret the Mr. Buffet is a down-to-earth guy. It shows in the car he drives (so unremarkable the reporter couldn’t remember the brand), the place he lives (Omaha as opposed to Wall Street) and the fact that there’s no security around him whatsoever.

He’s also fun and easy to talk to. The reporter is with him for 11 hours and he still stays affable. Maybe it has to do with the course he did in 1951 “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” The certificate still hangs above the couch in his office.

Mr. Buffett saw the benefits of communicating well with others early on. And if it works for Buffett …

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Great Metaphors

During the financial crisis of 2008 Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, had to explain to the Senate Banking Committee why he had offered to pay so little for Bear Stearns (2 US dollars per share). He knew full well that the senators thought he had been handed a gift and was looking for a metaphor to explain in plain English why the offer had been so low.

He finally settled on this great metaphor: “Buying a house is not the same as buying a house on fire.”

In the end the burning house could be salvaged somewhat: the final transaction price was USD 10 per share, well below its 133.20 high but 5 times the price initially offered.

The definitive account of what transpired can be found in the book Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

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