From Al Gore's Chief Speechwriter: Simple Tips for a Damn Good Presentation (Plus: Breakdancing)

66 Comments

What happens when you say “laugh at all my jokes and I’ll breakdance for you at the end”–and someone calls you on it?

This is exactly what happened to me two months ago at the Nielsen Training Conference in Atlanta. I didn’t choose the music.


The fine art of distraction… and sore hamstrings sans warm-up.

Ahhhhh… public speaking!

A fate worse than death for some, but the pay-off can be tremendous. The 4HWW hit its tipping point with one presentation at SXSW, and in a digital world, one thought-provoking or rousing speech can propel you or your brand into the stratosphere.

But what are the basics for persuasive content and a delivery that makes evangelists out of disbelievers? I think Dan Pink is the right person to ask…

I first contacted Dan after reading his great article “Japan, Ink” in Wired magazine. I was very curious about why, after two bestsellers, he’d chosen to write his latest business book–which parallels the 4HWW philosophies–in manga format, a first for the English-speaking world.


Johnny Bunko trailer from Daniel Pink.

I found out after-the-fact that Dan was also the chief speechwriter for Al Gore from 1995-1997.

Here are some of his tips for how to prepare and deliver world-class presentations, whether to a small group of colleagues or a huge room of UN delegates and media:

What are the necessary ingredients in a good speech?

I’ve said many times that the three essential ingredients in any good speech are brevity, levity, and repetition. (That bears repeating: brevity, levity, and repetition.)

But at a broader level, the most important aspect of any speech, as Garr Reynolds reminds us in Presentation Zen, is being able to answer two questions:

A. What’s your point?
B. Why does it matter?

That’s the whole enchilada. If you have a single point and can explain to a particular audience why it matters to them, you’re ahead of 90 percent of the business and political speechgivers out there today.

How do you plan and structure presentations?

There’s no single formula for making a point and showing why it matters, but you typically won’t go wrong if you abide by four principles:

1. Give the speech a beginning, a middle, and an end. You don’t have to take the audience by the hand and walk them through each step. And you don’t have to proceed chronologically. But having that structure in your head will give your speech a shape. And it will provide your audience some guideposts about where you’ve been and where you’re going.

2. Mix up the elements. Variety can keep your audience engaged. For instance, funny stories are great. But a half-hour of nothing but zany tales can actually undermine your point. Pelting people with factoids for 40 minutes is usually a mistake. But removing them altogether is also an error. Mix it up. Audiences are so accustomed to predictable speeches that surprise can be your ally. Indeed, one of my favorite speech models doesn’t even have words. It’s Haydn’s Surprise Symphony (No. 94 in G Major). It engages the listener by offering variety and surprise within an established structure.

3. Once you’ve mapped out your speech, remove 20 percent. In all my years of preparing and watching political and business speeches, I’ve yet to hear anyone say, “Gee, I wish that speech were longer.”

4. Don’t forget Bunko’s third lesson. Here’s the key lesson: It’s not about you. That’s doubly true for speeches. It’s not about you. It’s about the audience. Think of it from their perspective. Again, at the risk of being too critical of all those who stride the stage or command the podium, too many speechmakers – either through nervousness or ego – seem to forget that what really matters is the audience’s experience, not their own.

What are the keys to world-class delivery?

Authenticity. Don’t ape someone else’s style. don’t try to be Barack Obama or Tom Peters or Margaret Thatcher. It’ll only underscore how far you are from being one of these outstanding speechifiers. As trite as it may sound, just try to be you. If “you” is someone who’s slightly uneasy, who says “uh” a few times on stage, no problem. As long as you’re authentic — and as long as you have something interesting and relevant to say –- you’ll be fine. I’ve found audiences are extremely tolerant of people who are less polished but who have something valuable to convey. But their b.s. detectors go off big time when they see a super-polished presenter spewing vaporous nothings. Again, assuming you have a point and can explain why it matters, just work on being the best version of you can be.

What are the most common mistakes that presenters make and how do you fix them?

There are three that I see all the time:

1. Thinking a speech is a right rather than a privilege. When you deliver a speech, you’ve got 10 or 100 or 10,000 people who have decided that the most important thing they can be doing at that moment isn’t taking care of something at the office or being with their families – but sitting there listening to you. That’s an extraordinary — and humbling — gift. Alas, not enough speakers think of it this way. They believe that their own exalted position somehow confers the right to keep people captive for an hour. Nonsense. A speech is a privilege, not a right. The goal is to for the audience to leave saying, “I’m sure glad I listened to that guy for an hour rather than returned those phone calls or answered those emails.”

2. Forgetting the Lamott rule.
Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird, one of my favorite writing guides. [Note from Tim: I used this book when writing 4HWW and second the recommendation] In the book, she describes how an editor of hers cut out a sizable portion of some chapter she had written. Outraged, she asked him why. He said: “Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting.” Great advice for speakers.

3. Not doing their homework. This may seem self-evident, but it’s important to know whom you’re talking to. Yet too many speakers ignore this simple truth. They deliver the same speech to a group of nuns that they delivered three days ago at a punk rock convention. You don’t necessarily have to craft an entirely new speech from top to bottom every time you open your mouth. But there are all kinds of ways to tailor and customize the message to the people at hand. For example, when I was working for Gore, we used to love to include in his speeches what we called “How the hells?” For instance, say he was speaking in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. We’d find out the most popular coffee shop in Sheboygan and its most popular pastry. Then somewhere in the speech, we’d include a place for him to say matter-of-factly, “If you’re talking about health care down at Charley Café’s – and maybe eating one of those cherry-walnut scones – you might wonder whether our Medicare plan covers . . . “ People love that sort of touch. Homework pays.

What are the 3 most memorable speeches you worked on with Gore?

1. His 1996 Democratic Convention acceptance speech. The reason: We were scrambling and I got to the Teleprompter only about ten minutes before the speech. When the technician loaded the disk into the machine, the machine couldn’t read it. And we couldn’t figure out how to fix it. The problem continued even as the VP was being announced onto stage — in front a 10,000 people and a live national television audience. Then, through some kind of divine intervention, about one minute into the speech, we got it to work. I must have lost 35 pounds of sweat.

2. His 1999 eulogy for this father. I was no longer working for him then, but he asked me to lend a hand on this one. He wrote the entire speech himself – and it was immensely personal and deeply moving. What’s more, it was a good reminder that politicians – whom we swat around like badminton birdies – are human beings.

3. His 1995 commencement speech at MIT. We prepared for this one for months. The VP got memos from dozens of remarkable people, including several Nobel Prize winners. He, a couple of policy people, and I would have these long meetings that were like graduate seminars. The day before the speech we had a decent draft. Then that night around 6, he essentially threw out the whole thing and we ended up doing an all-nighter. Believe me: Being in the ceremonial office of the Vice President of the United States at 2am having a conversation about Ilya Prigogine is not an experience I’m going to have (or want to have) again.

Any last advice?

I’m a word guy through and through. I believe in the power of words. But ultimately speeches are about actions. The only reason to give a speech is to change the world. That’s a high bar. But that’s what we should aspire to when audiences give us this privilege.

###

Odds and Ends: Metro UK swaps “get laid” for “get dates” and other fun…

Metro UK gets optimistic: The Metro UK newspaper interviewed me and came up with a most Freudian misquote. I said “get dates” and they heard “get laid.” Alas, though the two might be related, it is not what I said.

Here are a few other recent interviews that do not involve getting laid but are — nonetheless — somewhat fun to read:

US News and World Report: 4 Questions for Productivity Guru Tim Ferriss

Details Magazine: Bromance? Remember that silly “man crush” t-shirt I sold on Valentine’s Day? Well, it got me in a feature story in Details. If you want more ammo for trying to prove I’m gay, like some of you seem determined to do, this is a gold mine.

Posted on: April 11, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

66 comments on “From Al Gore's Chief Speechwriter: Simple Tips for a Damn Good Presentation (Plus: Breakdancing)

  1. Really great advice. My biggest fear is public speaking though. So I have to work on it a lot.

    Number 3 really spoke to me: “3. Once you’ve mapped out your speech, remove 20 percent.” I think way to many people just talk and talk when they could get right to the facts and do a 5 minute presentation instead of a 30 minute one.

    -Andrew

    Like

  2. What a great post Tim!!!
    I listened to your tipping point presentation,
    it was a great reminder of great points from the book.

    You’re a great inspiration.
    I was interviewed by Entrepreneur magazine yesterday and I strongly believe that it’s thanks to the 4HWW, thanks to me becoming more focused on the important and leading a more structured professional life.

    Endless thanks,

    Anna

    ###

    Congratulations, Anna! Thank you also for the kind words, but you made it happen :)

    Tim

    Like

  3. Hey Dan – Thanks for the tips and advice!

    I think one key aspect to successful public speaking is to make an immediate connection with the audience. If you lose them in the first minute or so it is awfully tough to get them back.

    Oh yeah, and practice, practice, practice…if you want to boost your public speaking confidence.

    For Tim – Since the 4HWW what was your most difficult presentation or who was your toughest crowd?

    All the best,
    Mark H.
    Lifestyle Design Consultant

    Like

  4. I wish you posted this back in September! I would have shared it with my students. Flagged for the Fall 2008 term (with appropriate credit of course).

    Note: Your points are also valid for lectures.

    Like

  5. Tim,

    Fabulous! Great tips. Unlike most, and after a lot of training, I am comfortable speaking in public – and these points are right on point. I will be reviewing my next several workshops and speaking engagements to make sure I am conforming.

    Remembering the privilege of it all is a great context. Already knew it wasn’t about me :) and the reminder is always apt.

    Like

  6. Great article. As a side note, I have to say I hate the ‘how the hell?’ moments in political speeches. To me, those references make the speech seem fake and even a little manipulative. I guess it depends on the delivery. Just my 2 cents.

    Like

  7. @Alberto,

    I can still manage some pretty mean windwills (even tornadoes off the forehead), but my wrists are too messed up to do flares or anything too high-impact.

    B-boying power moves are definitely not for 30-year olds! :)

    Tim

    Like

  8. I forgot about the breakdancing part. Damn. (Someone tell Hillary!)

    Great comments. I especially want to underscore Mark H.’s point about practice. My experience has been that too many people just wing it. And of those, 98% aren’t adept enough to just wing it. If they practice — even a little — they’d leave audiences far more engaged and enlightened.

    Cheers,
    Dan

    Like

  9. Nice moves for an old guy, writs are overrated but hammies aren’t. ;)

    Very informative and the tips can be translated to any form of communication, verbal or written. This post will help me become a better communicator and writer. I try not to come off as an asshat or arrogant. I fail at that on occasion. :(
    Its a delicate balance of portraying confidence with humor and information. I wish my brain worked more succinctly but I am quirky so I should go with the flow and be me!

    As always you are an inspiration and I would man crush you but I am a chick so I’ll say “You are one awesome bad-ass with a nice tushy!” LOL

    Hugs,
    Jen

    Like

  10. Tim,
    I agree. My way-too-drunk to be performing these moves at my cousin’s wedding days are over!
    Couple questions that have been on my mind. Who do train with in jiu-jitsu? What belt are you? I started in 1995 with Chris Saunders (Rickson Gracie’s first American black belt) and have been training on and off since. Also, have you even been to Peru? My folks are from there and was curious what you thought.

    Like

  11. “The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.”

    The whole article is outstanding (no surprise, given the source.) But this line above? If it was the one thing everyone everywhere kept in mind while preparing and giving a speech, the world would be a far better place.

    Not to mention the ballrooms of millions of hotels across the face of it.

    Like

  12. Great post. All compelling points that are indisputably true.

    An extremely minor detail: Haydn’ Surprise Symphony is #94, not #4.

    Like

  13. Great post on speaking, I’d also recommend The Exceptional Presenter, for those eliminating the fat, here is the juice.

    Glad to read you revised the tipping point since answering my Q. in london town. SXSW was about the time i became aware of 4hww and observed the proliferation of the bug through the blogosphere, you fanning its waves like a well rehearsed Mr Orange.

    Nice breaking, man I haven’t done that for about twenty years, last time I tried a swan dive I winded myself and scared my kids.

    All the worker bee’s read Metro, hopefully the faux promise of sex will sell a few more copies in this weird world where a product can be launched more than once :)

    Like

  14. Great post, also very impressed with the sailor pants, army hat, lumberjack shirt combination. You are just one Indian headdress away from being the Village People.

    Like

  15. I’ve been really lucky that public speaking isn’t something that fills me with an icy sense of dread, and I’ve been able to turn some of that talent/skill/whatever you wish to call it into a way to generate income.

    Dan Pink’s comment and reference to Mark H’s point about practice really needs to be taken to heart by those who speak in public on a regular basis.

    There are those, like Tim, who make it look easy. But make no mistake: it only looks easy because they practice-practice-practice. If an unseasoned speaker thinks they can “wing it,” they’re deluding themselves. Unless they’re Robin Williams, the off-the-cuff unpolished speech comes off as just that: unpolished, unprofessional and unworthy of the audience’s attention.

    So if there’s just one bit of advice that readers take from any of what’s been written here, it can be summed up in three words: practice, practice, practice.

    OK, so it’s only one word repeated a couple of times… but yes, it’s that important.

    Nice moves, Tim. I’m personally too farking old to be doing that sort of thing (my back’s hurting just looking at the video clip).

    Like

  16. All, thanks for the excellent comments and suggestions.

    @Ashton

    I’ll get on the correction ASAP. Thanks!

    @Dave T

    It’s a fashion trend I might call “Sailorjack” :)

    @Micki

    Perhaps we need to have a six-step breaking party in SF or LA?

    Pura vida,

    Tim

    Like

  17. @Mark H.

    My hardest crowd or presentation? Every crowd I give a new presentation to for the first time. It takes a while to iron out the kinks and identify the frequent questions that people ask over and over again. Once you’ve been through it once and can reflect, the answers and points are much better the second time.

    My most nervous was probably doing an Ignite-style keynote at the Web 2.0 Expo in front of 5,000 when I’d only spoken to about 400 maximum prior to that. Talk about sweaty palms :)

    Tim

    Like

  18. Hi Tim,

    This is my first time posting here, so first let me say that 4HWW changed my life dramatically. I am constantly reading whatever I can get my hands on, and your book is the best thing I’ve read in years. I’m constantly talking about it and I have applied quite a few of your principles to my life. I don’t want to be presumptuous but I must be one of your biggest fans and I am responsible for dozens of book sales (I make people buy it)!

    I give you a lot of credit for the breakdancing. Not just your skills, but just the IDEA of giving that challenge to the audience and then holding up your end of the deal. What I love and admire so much about your work is that you disrupt the status quo and like you’ve said, you act outside of the box instead of just thinking outside of the box. I appreciate your initiatives to add some fun and excitement to people’s lives.

    I’ve been working on being a better public speaker, giving inspirational speeches and I aspire to speak professionally. I welcome these suggestions you have provided to us from Dan Pink. I will pick up Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird” and read that. I have heard other people speak highly of it also.

    Thanks again Tim for everything you have done for us, and for sharing your wisdom and connections so freely.

    -Zo DiGiovanni

    ###

    Hi Zo,

    Thanks so much for the comment and nice comments. Bird by Bird will have you laughing out loud and won’t disappoint. I hope to have some more big disruption coming soon :)

    All the best,

    Tim

    Like

  19. Love the breakdancing. Love the advice on speaking (I’ve got a speech coming up in a month, so good timing, thanks!

    Johnny Bunko is, in the words of my anime-adict girlfriend “made of awesome and win”. She insisted I send her the link so she could share it with everyone she knows. Incidentally, those people are his target market. (23-35) Fantastic demonstration of viral marketing in action. My inner Seth Godin fan is in a happy place. Thanks so much for sharing that!

    Like

  20. Perfect timing! Maybe you ought to hook up with this really cool program in L.A. for practicing moves: rampartjuice.com,…super fun.

    Okay my question (off topic): choosing a business credit card and want to diversify my miles from United: want a card I can use for Taca Airlines,…best line?

    Like

  21. Thanks Tim and Dan – I really enjoyed this content.

    My biggest breakthrough in speaking came as a graphics instructor in college. One semester I said “to hell with the grades and me strutting around, I am just going to help everybody the best I can” – It was like a switch went off somewhere and I lost all my fear (at least most of it) and the students improved tremendously after that. The section where you talked about “it’s about the audience” spoke to that.

    One really smart life coach asked me, “What if all were really here for is to help other people? And how would that change what you do?” another reminder…

    Thanks again,

    Thomas T

    P.S. Nice moves – I suppose you do some Capoeira too? We were fooling around with the Ginga tonight after a Pedro Sauer BJJ seminar. I can’t do an Aú Batido kick yet, sigh.

    Like

  22. Dear Tim,

    Have always been waiting for your post on public speaking.
    Few questions…

    1) Never seen you carrying a paper during your speeches. Do you use any memory technique or is it just that 4HWW is such an integral part of your life that you don’t require notes anymore?

    2) Have you ever worked on your voice? Do you or your voice feel tired during long speeches (a few hrs of continuous speaking)? Any remedies for the same?

    3) Your blogs are simply amazing! Ever considered coming out with a book with your posts, along with the most interesting questions asked to you?

    (Btw… hope you take back-up of your website on a regular basis. We had once lost all our data due to some stupid mistake from the people taking care of our website. We had a tough time getting the site back on. We would not want to loose your posts!).

    Looking forward to your reply. Take care.

    Like

  23. Actually, it’s not the first business book manga for the English world. That honor would go to the 1987 translation of a book on Japanese economics, which I remember reading avidly at university.

    The title, ironically enough, was “Japan, Inc.”

    Like

  24. Speaking of man crushes, I loved the book but I really do enjoy seeing and hearing Tim speak (and dance!).

    For those interested, there’s a five part series of Tim speaking at a Viewstream event. Although most of the information is covered in his book there’s a few new nuggets of information and personal stories I haven’t heard before. Here’s a link:

    EJ

    Like

  25. Hey Tim thanks for the greatest and simplest advices! Especially the first two from Dan Pink. It’s just so easy to plan the speech then…

    Do you know anything when the 4HWW will be published in Poland? I read the original version and want to share it with my friends

    Like

  26. @Tim – 5000 people isn’t that Rock Start Status…?

    And I thought presenting in Melanesian Tok Pisin to 50 Village Chiefs in Papua New Guinea (who formerly practiced cannibalism) about the dangers of clear-cutting the forest was tough ;)

    All the best,
    Mark H.

    Like

  27. Hi Tim,

    I read your book during a recent vacation to Jordan, and it blew my mind.
    Living the 9-5 currently, I have set it upon myself to begin life as an urban nomad, and to document this on my blog.

    I’m really interested in your thoughts on what could be done from a government point of view to improve conditions for urban nomads?

    Thx for an immensely inspiring book and blog.

    cheers, Joat.

    Like

  28. Thanks for the awesome sampler on your audio presentation! You mentioned towards the end that one of the core skills we should try to develop is in creative deal structuring and negotiations, do you have any good tips about how to get started in this area or perhaps people you think would be a good role model?

    Like

  29. Dear Tim,

    Felt like sharing my first speech – which was in front of a 1000+ audience (man… I was surely nervious).

    Click the link below to check it out (Its only 2 mins short!) …

    The speech is in Gujarati (one of the many Indian languages), but none the less, would love to know your comments on it :)

    Like

  30. Excellent post.

    To people who are not very good at presentations and speeches, here are 2 tricks I’ve learnt:

    1. Use a “Top 10″ format. It makes things easy for your listeners to follow your presentation.

    2. Figure out the end first. Then work on how you’ll begin. This simple idea will give you more clarity.

    The quote that has affected me most while writing and presenting is:

    “The secrets of telling a story well are three:
    1. How to end
    2. Where to begin
    3. What to leave out.”
    – Roy H. Williams

    Like

  31. hi tim,

    really great stuff! cool breaking moves.

    if speaking in front of 5000 doesn’t terrify you, what does? anything at all?:P

    btw, saw in the metro article that you’ve got yourself a girlfriend, congrats bro! hah or to bad for my sister since she had a little bit of crush on you^^

    keep on breaking!

    Like

  32. Great post, “Presentation Zen” is one of my favourite blogs on the topic of presentations.

    P.S. I like your dance moves, but more importantly, where did you get the hat? I have a melon head, can’t find cool lids….

    Like

  33. I’ve learned so much from you and your book, it’s been incredible, that I’m glad I finally got a chance to give back in a small way haha (yes I realize this is unrequested advice)…so as for your Bboying:

    -when your doing your toprock, keep your head up, this helps engage crowd more, and when your battling(dunno if this still applies to you) adds the intimidation effect to opponent too “I got my eye on you”

    -for both TopRock and Footwork, more on your toes and ball of your foot, less reliance on heels or flat foooted…helps keep your hips up for better form and more clearance room for smoother flow…also much easier to hop/bounce quickly and efficiently when you’re on ball of the foot then heel

    and if power moves create too many injuries, work freeze transitions or just get better with variations on your foundations..see guys like Ken Swift, Storm, and Alien Ness all still going strong at an old age…

    take care!

    Like

  34. Great post! I haven’t read your book yet but I plan to. Your blog is a great resource. What I really must know though … what jeans are you wearing? They are quite fashionable!

    Like

  35. Loved seeing you dance! I am very impressed by life and your book.
    So much that I’ve read it twice now!
    I am very inspired, yet overwhelmed by all your info.I know I must sound like a total geek, but
    I get very excited about launching a “Muse”. You make it sound so simple.
    I am thinking of writing an inspirational book about my husband who is a fully functional quadurupal amputee with an incredible attitude!. (he dresses himself, drives,etc…)
    I am a little overwhelmed with how to start such a project.
    Does the micro- test apply for the title of the book?
    Any advice?
    Thanks, Amy

    Like

  36. Hey Tim, you mentioned that you got sweaty palms when giving a presentation to a group of 5,000. Any great tips for helping a guy reduce his arm-pit sweating? I sweat quite a bit in that region. Fortunately, it doesn’t smell, but who likes having stain marks on their T-shirts? I’ve tried some of he hihg-strength anti-perspirant’s on the market, but they damned near burned off my skin due to the high aluminum content.

    Cheers,
    Peter

    Like

  37. I loved your book Tim. And, loved the energy in this video

    Coming from India I do have some comments to share about a few things in the book. I will find a way to reach them to you.

    Thanks again.

    Best,
    Raj

    Like

  38. Hey Tim,

    As a public speaker, and a member of Toastmasters International, this was a great reminder on how to present an excellent speech. I have a few quick pointers I have found helpful:

    The post says to have a begining, body, and ending, but this can be misleading to some and a version that worked for me when I started out is:

    Tell your audience what you are going to tell them… tell them… then tell them what you told them.

    Also, one of the most important things to do in a speech or presentation is to connect with and relate to your audience. If you don’t connect with them in the first few sentences to where they can all relate to you, then their minds will wonder, and your message, no matter how great it is, will be lost.

    Thanks Tim

    Like

  39. Great tips on public speaking. It is a very difficult thing if you dont have the confidence in it. I took Dale Carnegie’s course and it worked pretty well. I used to get the sweaty palms and back and now can get up without that happenings. Most of the nervousness is gone and I feel more comfortable getting up. The key once overcoming the fear is having confidence and being prepared for the speech you are going to give. You must know your topic and be passionate about it and then it should come naturally.

    Like