SmartMouth Talks!

Speaking on a Panel: Prepare or Wing It?

If there were ever an invitation to “wing it” in public speaking, it would be when you’re invited to speak on a panel.

Or would it?

I think this is worth discussing …

For sure, the glory/work quotient of participating on a panel is high. On the glory side, panels are great public speaking opportunities. You’re usually matched with other notables in your field, sometimes with those more notable. You get great exposure and access to a new audience. And you get to share your best nuggets of genius without bearing full responsibility for filling the time.

On the work side, the heavy lifting is typically low. Except in cases where the panel is structured, and specific subsections of the topic are assigned, most panels tend to flow freely once introductions and perhaps opening remarks are made. They’re often moderated or facilitated, there are plenty of prompts to remind you exactly what to talk about, and there’s always someone to bail you out or fill an uncomfortable silence if you trail off, forget what you were about to say, or have only a few words to offer. Sweet!

So, prepare or wing it?

To answer this dilemma, I think you need to ask yourself why you said yes in the first place. What drew you? Was it a close colleague or friend who invited you? Was it the location of the event? (ProTip: Say yes to panels in Hawaii.) Maybe it was the opportunity to get in front of a particular audience? Or maybe you said yes because the topic is so near and dear to you, speaking about it on a panel would be a breeze, almost second-nature.

Your motivation for accepting the invitation informs but shouldn’t really affect your decision to prepare or not. Would it do you great harm not to prepare? Probably not. Would it benefit you greatly not to prepare? Probably not. In other words, there’s a decent probability that not preparing has a net neutral effect. You don’t really lose, you don’t really gain.

But let’s be honest here. Net neutral is not the typical effect you look to have in your career, is it? You spend a lot of time building – your network, your reputation, your expertise, your visibility. It’s probably fair to say that if you’ve said yes to a panel invitation, there’s some net gain you’ve identified. Therefore, at least some preparation is warranted.

To that end, let’s look at some ways to prepare that don’t take a lot of time but may pack a lot of punch:

Must-air points. Given the topic, there are likely points you do not want to forget to share with the audience. Think of it as a collection of your most important thoughts on the topic – your “greatest hits” – and jot them down in bullet point form.

Differentiators. Surely you have ideas, theories, discoveries, concepts or philosophies that are unique to you/your work and would distinguish you with the audience. Decide which ones you want to share and add them to your bullet points.

Stories. You most definitely have stories – examples, anecdotes, and/or drama-filled sagas – you can share. Pick your best ones and add those to the bullet points as well. Two tips on stories: 1) unless you identify and shape/practice them in advance, you’re unlikely to conjure up and tell the perfect story on the spot; and 2) stories need to be matched up with a point you’re making, in which the point becomes the punchline to the story.

The risks associated with winging it – rambling, hemming and hawing, searching your brain for the right things to say, losing your train of thought – are too great. Being prepared – with a definitive beginning and end to your points and good stories to illustrate those points – conveys confidence, command and polish. All you need is a few bullet points and you can post your next panel in the gain column!

The Golden Rule Rules

At the risk of putting myself out of business, I’m going to give you the only public speaking advice you’ll ever need …

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s the simple ethic of reciprocity. If you don’t like to be treated a certain way, then you certainly shouldn’t be treating others that way.

While the Golden Rule is a nice guiding principle for our daily interactions, it is an absolute go-to principle for decision-making when you’re preparing to speak in front of an audience. Keep in mind, you have been an audience member more often than you’ve been a speaker and so you have a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Use your experiences and preferences as guidelines:

If you’re wondering how long to make your talk, think about how long you can sit through someone talking.

If you’re wondering whether to use PowerPoint and, if so, what should be on the slides, think about what types of visuals appeal to you.

If you’re wondering whether you should engage the audience during your presentation and how, think about whether and how you like to be engaged.

If you’re wondering whether you should use the first few minutes to introduce yourself and establish credibility, think about whether you appreciate that or prefer it to be done another way.

If you’re wondering whether, given the option, you should sit or stand to make your presentation, think about which position you find more appropriate or impressive.

If you’re wondering whether you should use personal stories or not, think about how the personal stories of others have left an impact or not.

See? You have all the answers you need just from your own experiences, and those experiences are quite valuable and informative. Don’t let them go to waste or be forgotten.

Being the speaker doesn’t suddenly propel you into a different stratosphere than your audience. You’re simply an audience member whose turn it is to get up and speak. So remember at the podium what it’s like in the seats and you’ll do great!

A Closer Look at Attention Spans

There is considerable debate about attention spans and about the effects of the digital world and handheld devices. Interestingly enough, just a few decades ago, the debate focused on the effect that television was having on attention spans. Digital devices like smartphones and tablets are just the latest and greatest scapegoats. Whether they have or haven’t contributed to diminishing attention spans, it is certainly mind-boggling to realize that, with Twitter, full-bodied messages can be delivered in 140 characters or less.

The change in attention spans is often discussed in negative terms, as a deterioration in our ability to focus. But I think we have to ask ourselves, is this really a bad thing? I prefer to look at the phenomenon as a market disruption or correction that is forcing communications to adopt the often-touted corporate principles of leanness and efficiency. As companies try to increase engagement and productivity, improving communication—by cutting out waste—could be quite effective. Being brief and to the point may require a little extra effort, but it can accomplish a lot and save precious time.

Many studies have now measured adult attention spans—where they are and how they’ve changed over the years. There are reports suggesting that in just the last decade, the average adult attention span has shrunk from highs of twelve to eighteen minutes and to lows of three to five minutes, depending on the study’s focus and the environments of the participants. Some studies look at how long people can concentrate on a task; others look at their attentiveness while listening. Yet how long people can pay attention to a speaker depends on tremendous variables that can make it hard to measure: the comfort and conduciveness of the environment, the speaker’s voice quality and modulation, the actual content, whether there are effective visuals or good stories, what the objective is for the audience, and whether they understand that objective. The ability to focus is, after all, crucial to the achievement of an objective, so audience motivation levels can vary as well.

Holding the attention of an adult audience requires a tremendous amount of multitasking and careful advance planning. In other words, brevity—or perhaps we should call it efficiency and expediency—in communication takes discipline and planning. As the speaker, it’s up to you to do the hard work of organizing your thoughts and packaging your content for your audience, because their attention spans are what they are and they’re not growing!

(Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World)

Never Mind Your Answers, Know Your Questions

Q: Are you a presenter who likes to encourage audience engagement and discussion?

Q: Are you a presenter who worries about radio silence from your audience during Q&A?

Q: Are you a presenter who wants to know more about your audience when you’re in front of them?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then you are someone who needs to know your questions.

Presentation prep does not end with a well-organized deck, replete with clear points, well-contained information, some stories, and a call to action. Presentation prep also needs to include the questions you plan to ask your audience.

Here are 3 prompts for the types of questions you might need to prepare and know ahead of time:

Questions that encourage engagement, discussion and understanding.

Let’s say you are someone who does well with lots of audience engagement and active discussion during a presentation. How do you encourage that? Or let’s say you are someone who likes to stimulate discussion in order to get a feel for whether your audience is on the same page as you and understands/appreciates your points. How do you find out if they’re with you?

You’ll want to prepare ahead and develop some specific leading questions that get you to the discussion you want to conduct or to the understanding you’re hoping to achieve. Questions like “What do you think so far?” or “Tell me what you think the most compelling aspect of this proposal is so far?” or “Let me know who agrees or disagrees so far and why.”

Questions to prompt your audience during Q&A.

It’s time for Q&A. You announce to your audience, “We have about 10 minutes, I’m happy to take any questions you may have.” Radio silence. No hands, no voices. Now what do you do? Again, you will want to have prepared some questions ahead of time that might stimulate the kind of discussion you want to have.

This is where you might ask them, “Can someone tell me what their number one takeaway is from today’s talk?” (peer teachback!) or “Where are the holes in my proposal, what did I leave out?” (challenge me!) or “Is someone willing to volunteer and share their impression?” (potential exposure!)

Questions to help you get to know your audience.

Depending on the size of your audience, you can solicit input from them, either in the beginning or during your presentation, to get to know them better. You might know generally what they’re interested in, but there’s nothing like asking them on the spot, that day, what’s on their minds. Questions that elicit their personal interest or bias regarding your topic can be very helpful as you work through your material. The answers could well give you insights into things you should avoid or include.

Think about stating your topic and then asking the audience what it is about your topic that they would want you to be sure to cover. Or ask for a show of hands when you want to find out what proportion of the audience has had an experience you’re about to describe. Ask them to share their experience. Find out, on a more granular level, what they’re interested in regarding your topic.

It’s all risky. Knowing, not knowing. Asking, not asking. Put yourself out there, ask with sincerity and curiosity and then adapt/adjust accordingly. Your audience can be a presentation helper, not just a receptacle for your words.

Time’s Up

Q: What’s up with long, tedious presentations?

A: Time’s up.

Be brief, people! Break away from the pack mentality of proving your worth with your word count and slide count, or the arbitrary convention of filling your allotted time. Leave your audiences wanting more!

No matter how much time you think you have, plan on less (I promise, no one will complain if you finish talking earlier than expected). When conference planners invite you to speak for an hour, don’t. They only do that because it’s easier to book eight speakers per day than 16. No audience can really hang on for an hour; in fact, we know that adults can only digest material for a maximum of 20 minutes. Even when the last 15 minutes are reserved for Q&A, those first 45 minutes are likely too long unless you are able to break up the time with Q&A throughout, videos, group discussions and exercises, or appealing/entertaining visuals.

Adult audiences also need a stimulus change to stay engaged. Without it, they zone out periodically. I recently led a group of female executives who met monthly to practice making different types of speeches and presentations, and they all admitted to zoning out at least once during each other’s talks, which, by the way, were capped at three minutes!

Audience attention is sharpest at the beginning and the end of a speech or presentation, so that makes openings and closings vitally important. In the middle, where the meat is, is where the audience zones out. The point is that it matters how you organize your material and guide your audience. And if it’s absolutely necessary to fill an hour-long time slot, be aware of about a 15-20 minute attention span limit. Break up the talk into sections, and keep each of those as brief as possible. Switch things up at 15-20 minute intervals as a way to restart the attention span clock: turn on the PowerPoint, turn it off, solicit Q&A at the end of each section, draw or write on a white board, show a video. Choreograph the time with your audience’s experience and attention spans in mind.

It’s all about them, so make some judgment calls about what will best suit your audience, including the length and structure of your presentation.

(Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World)

You’re Not Special

You’re not special. But don’t worry, I’m not special either.

Why do I say that? Because no matter what we do – how well we prepare or how engaging we are – we will lose our audience at one point or another during our presentation. It’s just not realistic to assume that everyone in the audience will be able to hang on for every word, every slide, or even every key point of a talk.

People check out. It’s a fact. And it’s not (necessarily) your fault. It’s the ebb and flow of the human attention span and the unavoidable distractions – both tangible (messages coming through on devices) and intangible (daydreaming, exhaustion, or randomly occurring thoughts) – that are to blame.

No matter how diligently you prepare or rehearse, it’s still not an insurance policy against audience members checking out during your presentation. As much as you plan a presentation for audiences to hear your every word, they won’t. They’ll drift off. You’re not special, and neither am I. We have to work to grab and hold their attention and we have to plan for their lapses in attention.

So, how do we do that? Below are 3 ways you can provide a helping hand to your audience members:

Be Brief

Unless your topic or audience call for a deep, thorough download, be as succinct as possible. Every time. In fact, I would advise you to think about whether people are in the room on their own free will (in which case you have some leeway) or out of obligation (in which case brevity is urgent). This will help you gauge how much time and detail you will use, and it will be better suited to your audience.

Know, don’t guess, how long your presentation is. Rehearse a few times and time yourself. This way, you’ll know if you need to make adjustments or cut some material. You’ll also be able to let your audience know what they’re in for from the start. If you can tell them how long your talk is, they’ll be better able to calibrate their own attention span – e.g. “oh, this is only 20 minutes? I can hang on for 20 minutes.”

Use Signposts

On your slides and as you are speaking, give your audience cues and clues as to where you are in your talk. Trust me, they need this. (You’ve needed it, haven’t you? Think about your own experiences sitting through presentations … I’m guessing there are at least a few instances when you would have liked some cues or clues!) Guide them.

Visually, you can help your audience by including a progress bar in your slides, so that your audience can track where you are in your presentation. Or, if you have a small deck, you can include a countdown – e.g. 1 of 12, 2 of 12, etc. Or, if you have, let’s say, three main sections that you told your audience you would be covering, you can let them know where you are by including the name or keyword for each section in the lower right corner. In fact, all of these visual cues are best situated in the lower right corner of your slides.

Verbally, you can keep your audience tracking by narrating where you are and what you’re doing. Some examples of this include: telling the audience how long your talk will be, letting them know when you’re digressing to share a relevant story, letting them know when the story is over and you’re returning to your point, alerting them whenever you’re transitioning from one section of your presentation to another, and (everyone’s favorite) announcing the conclusion.

Be Dramatic

Use the pregnant pause. Stop and stand in the middle of the stage. Animate or “act out” what you’re talking about. For example, if you say the number 4, hold up 4 fingers. Or if you say, “fast forward a few years,” roll your forearms, one over the other, to show motion. Or if you’re talking about something meaningful, touch your heart.

If “the show” moves along and there’s more to look at than just your visuals, people might hang in there with you better and longer. Before you resist and say I can’t do that, let me offer this: What might feel like theatrics to you will merely look like good delivery energy to your audience.

In a perfect world, speakers would be efficient enough with their words that audiences would be able to hang on every one of them. But as we all know, that’s not the case. Even the most efficient speakers and the best audiences have lapses – no matter how good or how special the speakers are! The best you can do to hold onto your audience’s attention is to take them by the hand and guide them through your presentation. The rest is up to them.

Stop Talking

Last week, I was strolling the streets of Manhattan, killing time, when I walked by one of those nice stationery stores that sells not only paper, but beautiful cards, planners, and novelty items. I was thinking it was almost time for a 2019 calendar (yes, I still love a paper calendar!) and so I went in to browse.

The first thing I spotted, on a display table that sat front-and-center, was a stack of small black boxes that said “Stop Talking” on the front. I couldn’t imagine what they were. Luckily, one of the boxes was already opened and so I got a look – inside were 50 or so ivory-colored cards that also said “Stop Talking” in black ink.

This is when my head-scratching began. So, for $9.95, I could have 50 of these little cards to hand out to over-talkers? When would I use these and how? Were these for chatty friends who, over coffee, start answering ‘what’s new?’ and then never come up for air? Were these for those meeting participants who talk for the sake of hearing themselves talk? Were these meant to be surreptitiously slipped onto the desks of neighboring cubicle dwellers who talk too much and too loudly?

My imagination ran wild. And then it stopped. I decided these little “Stop Talking” cards were for any and all of the above … and probably more. We live in a world of talkers, and clearly someone invented this novelty item on the theory that there would be plenty of consumers who would find these “calling cards” amusing and/or useful.

What does this say, then, about how we’re doing with two-way communication? Can you imagine a similar offering of 50 “Stop Listening” cards? I can’t. The problem is that the talking side of the communication see-saw is always over-weighted, and the listening side is under-weighted. Anecdotally, I know this to be the case because I often get asked if I can coach people to be more succinct and to listen better, sometimes teams of people. It’s quite common that people talk more than others can bear, and it’s universally challenging among individuals and groups alike.

For those who are nodding in agreement while reading so far, here are 5 quick-tip reminders about listening versus talking that you can use as refreshers for yourself or that you can share with your favorite over-talker(s):

  1. Think about your audience: Is this someone/a group you should be listening to more (boss or client) or talking to more? Is there really anyone you should be talking to more than you should be listening to? Balance your talking with listening.
  2. Train your brain to go into neutral and simply be present and listen. Literally, stop your brain for a minute. Focus. Hear. Process. Listen, stop talking.  
  3. Listen for the purpose of empathizing and relating rather than listening for the purpose of formulating a response. You might not need to formulate a unique response at all, you might just need to reiterate/reinforce/validate what you heard. Slow down. Listen, stop talking.
  4. Listen for the purpose of learning, gaining insight or gathering intelligence. Listening can produce some very valuable material you can use to your advantage later on. If you’re talking, you’re not learning. Listen, stop talking.
  5. Listen intently, actively and sincerely. Be that person. So that when you want to talk and be influential, you will surely be given your due. Listen for real, so you when you need to talk, others will listen.

Those “Stop Talking” cards stopped me dead in my tracks and got me thinking. I’m not sure I’d have the gumption to hand them out, but I considered it. More than that, they prompted me to think about communication as a two-way transaction that breaks down when one way gets more traction and time than the other. The fix is simple, though: stop talking so much, start listening more!

5 Principles for Elite Communicators

It doesn’t take much to be a good leader-communicator. Perfection may be elusive, but being good enough to earn the admiration of your team are well within reach. Adherence to a few core principles takes care of most situations.

In my book Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World, I walk readers through the philosophy behind, and application of, these 5 principles: Audience-centricity, Transparency, Graciousness, Brevity, and Preparedness.

Taken together, they send two really important messages about you to your audience: 1) that you care about and respect them, and 2) that you’re real and therefore credible and trustworthy.
Audience-centricity is probably the most fundamental of the five principles. Simply put, audience-centricity is making the audience’s interests and experience a top priority in the planning and execution of a talk. Too many speakers prepare and deliver what is important and interesting to themselves without enough careful consideration of their listeners. Being audience-centric is a mindset shift that encourages the speaker to prepare and deliver content in a way that will matter to and resonate with the audience.
Transparency is exactly what you think it is; it’s about being open and direct—yes, and honest, too. Transparency is critical. It contributes to the levels of sincerity and trust that are accorded to you by your audience.
Graciousness is the art, skill, and willingness to be kindhearted, fair, and polite. As motivators and influencers, love and peace work far better than hate and war. Speaking in positives rather than negatives leaves lasting, favorable impressions. 
Brevity is a crowd-pleaser and needs no further introduction.
Preparedness speaks for itself as well, especially because the unprepared speaker is the one who is most likely to be longwinded, not to mention unfocused. While the mere thought of preparation might bring on feelings of dread or even impossibility, there are ways to prepare that take only seconds but that can greatly enhance a speaker’s effectiveness.
As summer winds down and everyone settles in for the homestretch toward year-end, I would encourage you to pick one of these principles as your personal pet project for the fall. Which one of these 5 do you feel like you need to improve on the most? Or which one of these 5 would have the most impact on your business if you strengthened it? Pick one and go for it!

1 Turn at the Podium, 3 Speeches

“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave.
The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”  
Dale Carnegie

This is a daunting thought for overachievers or anyone who strives to do their best at the front of the room!

Or not? You might be one of those people who is so relieved to be done with your talk and still have a pulse that you don’t bother to reflect on any of the three, and especially not on the speech you wish you gave.

But you should.

That third one – the speech you wish you gave – is the one that’s most valuable. To you. Your audience is likely fine. The one you gave is the one you practiced, augmented by shots of adrenaline and the energy (or lack thereof) in the room.

It’s the one you wish you gave, though, that is loaded with wisdom for your next turn at the podium. Don’t let 24 hours pass before you give it some thought and, instead of sighing and saying oh well, make some ‘notes to self’:

On Content

Did I open well and grab their attention right away? Would I open differently the next time?
Was every section relevant?
What about the length? Too long/too short?
Did I stray into too much detail in one section while the other sections were more succinct?
Did their questions reveal an interest that was different from the angle I prepared?
What did I wish I had included/excluded?
What are three things I could do to make this content more memorable?

On Delivery

Did I move around and use the floor, or did I stand in one place the whole time?
Did I look at my slides too much (or worse, read them)?
Did my voice have energy, convey passion or dedication to the material?
What about my eye contact in the room? Is that something I could have done better?
Was I able to move forward, toward the audience, giving them the sense that I wanted to be there?
Did I talk too fast? Should I have incorporated some pauses where the audience needed to digest the material?

Making ‘notes to self’ immediately after a talk is one of the simplest ways to help yourself improve as a speaker. Not only are you your own harshest critic, but because you are the source of your own feedback, you’ll understand it completely and you’ll be more motivated to correct it the next time around. The only tricky part is remembering to refer to your notes before you prepare to speak again.

Rocket Science … Not

Communicating effectively is not rocket science (maybe this is why rocket scientists are not known to be great communicators?). It’s rarely considered something that’s terribly complicated or difficult, yet I have spent the better part of a decade and a half “dumbing it down” so that professionals of all types can be more clear, more concise, and more successful at getting their points across to other busy (read: busy-minded) people.

The reality is, I’m not actually making it dumber, I’m making it simpler. Less work. Less time. Easier for the speaker (to remember, deliver). Easier for the audience (to pay attention, retain). And the simpler I make it, the more accessible it is to everyone regardless of their level in an organization, and therefore the more widely utilized it is.

On more than a few occasions in the past few months, when I’ve been invited to share my simple framework for communicating effectively, the CEO has been in the room with his or her team for the session. My approach and the SmartMouth methodology have been met with sighs of relief and exclamations of “this is what I have been trying to tell all of you!” In one case, I was met with what could only be described as excitement and joy – clearly, this executive has spent a good bit of time being frustrated with his team’s communication skills.

Since there are a lot of rocket scientists out there – i.e. a lot of smart people with a lot of dense technical knowledge in a variety of fields – I want to share my top 3 pieces of advice for any communicator. You could be a keynote speaker or you could be a participant in a meeting. It doesn’t matter. These 3 are game changers.

1. TMI is the #1 killer.

If I could fix only one thing about how people speak or present, I would attack the “too-much-information syndrome.” In fact, I do attack it, and pretty regularly. Here are some root causes of the problem, see if they sound familiar: presenters who feel the need to prove how smart they are, presenters who love their detail because it fascinates them, presenters who don’t (or can’t?) prioritize their brain dumps, thereby leaving it to their audiences to figure out what’s important.

Information is only valuable and, arguably, relevant when it supports a point. So identify your point first and then pick the information that best supports it (a point is a statement that captures significance or value as a main thought or idea does, or one that summarizes a collection of information). The amount and type of information a speaker chooses to use should be based on the audience – their appetite, their needs/interests, their level of sophistication – not based on what floats the speaker’s boat. If you are sitting with a pile of information that you need to present, ask yourself how you might capture the importance or benefit of all that detail in once sentence and deliver that first, followed by the info.

Finally, less is more. If you can eliminate some information, even better!

2. Serve dessert first.

Life is short, and so are attention spans. Serve dessert, or the point, first. Everything else, like information, is a side dish. Audiences don’t have endless attention to give you, and there are lots of distractions in any given room (some, like devices, give instant gratification when you don’t!). Audiences need a reason, and some context, to hang in there with you.

You can serve dessert first in two ways: First, think about telling your audience upfront what you want them to think, know, do or feel by the end of your talk. And when I say upfront, I mean it’s okay to make this one of your first few sentences – while audience attention is still fresh and on you. You literally can spoon-feed them the impression you hope they’ll take away or the action you hope they’ll take when they leave the room. Second, per the above section on TMI, don’t deliver a truckload of information and then serve up the conclusion; instead, figure out what your conclusion or point is, deliver that first, and then unload your information.

Dessert first!

3. It’s not all about you, it’s about them.

Have empathy! For your audience, that is. Consider the experience you are about to give an audience based on your own experiences. You know what it’s like to sit through a presentation or a talk. You know how often you check out, what you like/don’t like when someone else is at the front of the room, or what visuals you find helpful or enjoyable. Use your own experiences to inform the kind of experience you want to give your audience(s).

No matter how much you love your topic, or no matter how urgent it is that you share your content, think about them – who they are, what they really care about, where they are on the learning curve of your topic, why they’re in the room, and how you might impress them – and then adjust your content accordingly. Their needs and interests are more important than yours. I always say, there’s an unspoken agreement between speaker and audience that, in exchange for their time and attention, you will give them something useful or valuable – which you can determine based on the who, what, where, why and how listed above.

Putting these 3 pieces of advice into practice may take some time, but even just the awareness will help you make some advances in your communication skills and style.


I wish I’d had this training 20 years ago. It would have changed my career. I will never do a presentation the same.

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