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


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.

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

  1. 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


  2. 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.



  3. 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.



  4. 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


  5. 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.