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

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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.

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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. 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