The Safe and Sure Way to Deliver “Spontaneous” Ad-Libs During a Presentation: Plan Them in Advance

An ad-lib is less risky than a joke with a set-up and a punchline because there is no observable set-up for a laugh and no awkward hang-time after the punchline.

Ad-libs are risky, though, in the sense that when you think on your feet you may come up with material that just doesn’t work.

Use ad-libs the safe way: Think up a few planned ad-libs (which clearly is as illogical and self-contradictory a term as the “mandatory option” a car salesman recently tried to talk me into, but so be it) and deploy them during your presentation.

You can probably look at the program or script for your presentation and envision situations that will arise that would lend themselves to a humorous remark.  For example, I once emceed an event that had an awkward moment planned where two retirees would come to the stage and stand next to each other while they received an award. By bizarre coincidence, one was 6’6” and the other an inch or so taller.

I am of medium height, so I knew in advance the grouping would be visually odd, so I used the situation as fodder for a planned ad-lib.  I decided that instead of ignoring it I would call attention to how awkward the situation was, and observe that I felt like I was surrounded by redwoods.

After a beat, and a very mild laugh, I would add a misdirection line…

I meant your AGE, but you’re tall, too.

From Present Like a Pro. 

How to Give Your Readers or Listeners a Face-Saving “Out” if You are Trying to Sway their Opinion

If your audience is likely to disagree with you telling them they are wrong and then trying to change their view is not only pointless but counterproductive.

The most effective way to attempt to persuade a hostile readership is to use the same deflection and redirection technique a good salesperson uses: “I understand your objection, and one way we can overcome that… .”

What you do in a hostile-reader situation is this: 1)Acknowledge the objection,

2)don’t belittle it, and

3)deflect the argument into another choice you offer the reader.  

Here’s an example:  One of the most interesting pieces of persuasion I’ve encountered was a letter that came to me when I was involved with a local board considering land-use regulation.  In a nutshell, the government wanted builders to install a sidewalk in front of houses planned for a new development.  Builders don’t like sidewalks.  They are expensive and a nuisance to construct.  But instead of writing, “sidewalks are expensive and hard to build and you are wrong to require me to do so,” a builder used the three-prong technique, writing:

I do understand that there is a great need for sidewalks in high-traffic areas, with sidewalks being less of a necessity in more isolated developments.   It is a dilemma builders confront often, and in many cases, such as the ones to be considered next week, I ask for the option of saving on sidewalk construction so that I may give the buyers, many of whom will be first-time homeowners, a little more house for their money.  

Do you see the cleverness embedded in this approach?  The reader is not put on the defensive or told he or she is wrong.  The reader’s likely opinion is not denigrated.  And then the reader is guided into an alternate choice that does not require the reader to admit being wrong in the first place, either to himself or others. The reader is also given a viable, defensible fallback position: “I decided to change my mind about the sidewalk issue so I could give first-time homebuyers a break.”

Remember, when confronted with contrary positions, most people hunker down and defend their views, either explicitly – if directly confronted – or stealthily, by simply moving to the next article, channel, or conversation.

How to Introduce a Speaker — Seven Steps for a Smooth Transition at the Podium

MCs and event hosts sometimes take the task of introducing a speaker for granted — and flub it.  Here’s how to make it go smoothly.

  1. Begin by answering the question surely on the audience’s mind: Why should they listen to speaker? Do not begin by rattling off qualifications. Be specific as to why this speaker is apropos for this event.
  2. Give the full name and title clearly, even if you think most of the audience knows the person. There may, for example, be a journalist or visitor in the audience who will be puzzled if the introduction is not complete.
  3. Ask a question or tell a story soon after you begin the introduction. “How can you turn around a school system when there is just no money and no political will to provide any money? Our guest faced that issue in 2016, when she…”
  4. Qualifications are important, but don’t overdo and don’t ramble. If the person is famous or very well-known to the group, look for unusual aspects of the person’s background to highlight.
  5. Never say, “This person needs no introduction.” It’s a cliché that is so old it belches dust and also produces some bizarre cognitive dissonance by calling into question your role in standing in front of the audience making an introduction.
  6. Determine whether you want applause when you bring the speaker to the lectern. Applause would be out-of-place in some situations, such as a corporate training or the introduction of a person who is there to relay bad news. But applause is welcome and expected for most larger convocations. If you don’t want or expect applause, just hand the presentation over. “Dr. Kelly, please tell us about the project.” If you do want applause, be sure you clearly cue it: “And please join me in welcoming Dr. Kelly.” Clap YOUR OWN HANDS just to be sure everybody gets the message. It is a terrible start to a presentation to get scattered and tentative clapping in isolated pockets.
  7. Stay in place for a moment while the speaker gets settled. You may need to adjust a mic, help with equipment, or as happens, pick up papers that get dropped in the transition.

Advice for Presenters: How to Eliminate the Five Most Distracting Voice Patterns

Everyone has a certain pattern to their vocal inflections, but when it becomes noticeable and repetitive it becomes a distraction and a detraction. It’s hard to identify your own speech issues, but with the help of a recorder you can often identify common annoying patterns. Here are the patterns you must seek out and destroy:

• Uptalk. This is the worst of all patterns. Uptalk – constantly ending sentences by sliding upward in pitch – packs a double whammy. First, it kills your credibility because it makes you sound like character from the film Clueless. Second, it makes your voice seem higher (because it is, at the end of each sentence), thus defeating your efforts to lower your pitch. Seriously, this is a very bad habit: A recent survey of 700 managers found that almost three-quarters found uptalk “particularly annoying” and 85 percent said it was a “clear indicator of a person’s insecurity or emotional weakness.” When a speech habit becomes identified as a moral defect, it’s a real problem.

• Downtalk. This is where you lower your pitch repeatedly at the end of every sentence and sound like a small-market newscaster. It’s not as damaging to your credibility as uptalk, but all in all, it’s a pattern you want to break. Change your ending patterns occasionally to ensure that your speech sounds natural and conversational.

• Monotone. Speaking in one pitch not only bores people, but it gives them the impression you are bored. Worse, it can cause physical damage to your vocal cords. Pay more attention to inflection and make your voice rise and fall naturally. Don’t imitate a top-40 disc jockey; just move the pitch around a little. Listen to patterns of actors and newscasters and attempt to adapt (but not slavishly copy) their vocal variety patterns.

• Singsong. This is the smarmy disc-jockey pattern, characterized by artificially wide swings in pitch. A singsong pattern makes you seem insincere. Or insane. Work for more natural variations in pitch within sentences.

• Whininess. You become whiny by elongating vowels and stressing words at too high a pitch: “I tooooooooold you this would happen!” To fix, shorten up vowels, lower pitch, and say centered on a calm, deliberative tone.

Easy, Low-Risk Tricks to Encourage (The Right Kind of) Audience Participation

Audience involvement enhances listenability and your appeal as a speaker, but it is a double-edged sword.

If you encourage involvement, you often wind up with a more engaged and entertained audience. However – and this is a big, mighty scary “however” – you run the risk of encouraging the subspecies of audience members who are attention junkies and want to take over the presentation.

Having served up that disclaimer, let me note that experience, research, and common sense demonstrate that audiences retain more and pay attention when they are involved in some fashion.

The most basic tool for encouraging participation is simply asking questions. There are several ways to ask a question, and all carry specific benefits and risks. You can ask a question of the entire group and hope someone responds. The upside is that if you get an answer it is likely to be responsive rather than reflexive. The downside is that if no one responds you look a little silly, and if a boorish attention junkie responds (sometimes repeatedly) you have to deal with potential disruption.

One way around this is to ask for a show of hands (“how many think this approach might work, please raise your hand”) and then call on one of the hand-raisers who appears as though he or she might have a lively and intelligent addition to the conversation.

Alternately, you can single out an individual. This can backfire if the target is unresponsive or takes the question as an affront. However, if you are in a position of authority over the group – say, delivering a mandatory training – this technique can be a powerful motivation for audience members to pay attention because they know they could be next on the hot seat.

I can’t prove this, but I feel that subconsciously many people like being put on the spot in a competitive environment and take some satisfaction in being held to task. So if you want to channel your Inner Professor Kingsfield from The Paper Chase, give it a try if you believe your personality and the situation lend themselves to the approach.

My favored no-risk mechanism is to frame the inquiry as a rhetorical question and then call on people who respond or look as though they are going to respond. You can fake this if you want:

Me: “But the question is, how do we make this approach work?

(Pause…if no response, just leave it as a rhetorical question and continue with your presentation:  “One method that consistently…)

-or, this approach-

Me: “But the question is, how do we make this approach work?” (Scan the room for any signs of someone who remotely appears to be coercible into offering a contribution, and follow with): “Wow, I see a lot of people who look like they have ideas to offer.”

(The technical name we use in the business for this technique is a “lie” but remember that you can’t get caught because most members of the audience, if they are seated facing you, can’t see the other members.)

Continue with, “and I think I saw Bob in the last row ready to contribute… (pick the person you think looked as though he or she had something to add).

This technique allows you to read the room and move on if the audience is dead or to select a responder in a non-threatening way.

There is one situation where you don’t want to get people talking, at least right away: when you are trying to persuade them and possibly change their opinions.

Note that people become much more intransigent once they have publicly stated an opinion. In other words, if you allow or force them to oppose you publicly in the beginning, you will never be able to change their views by the end.

If you do want to gauge the attitude of an audience, I have one participation tactic that usually works very well: Conduct an anonymous poll at the beginning of the presentation. Pre-printed paper with one or two questions works well; 3 by 5 index cards work better.

If you have an audience of fifty it will only take a helper five minutes or so to tabulate the questions and maybe another five minutes to write some down some of the more provocative responses.

That translates to ten minutes of your presentation during which the audience is in some suspense waiting for the results while your helper tallies the numbers.

If you don’t have a stake in the outcome of who favors what view, or even if you do and feel confident you will change some hearts and minds, conduct a poll of attitudes at the beginning and end of the presentation. You now have two suspense points – and I guarantee the audience will be curious about whether attitudes changed during the presentation.

Move with a Purpose: Use Powerful Gestures and Work the Room Gracefully During a Presentation

Appropriate and expressive gestures enhance engagement, but repetitive gestures are distracting.  Fidgety gestures indicate a lack of self-confidence, and exaggerated gestures make the speaker appear out of control.

Here are five guidelines to using gestures to your advantage:

Remember to keep scale appropriate. If you are giving a speech in a hall with two balconies, grand gestures are OK. But in a small room or – worse – on television, expansive movement appears manic. Have a colleague stand where you will be stationed and then you scope out the venue. You’ll get an idea how much movement is needed. If you’re performing on video, find out what the standard shots will be and adjust your movements accordingly. In general, less – much less – is more when it comes to televised gestures.

Be careful of mannerisms. I used to have a professor who would punctuate each and every sentence with a palsied karate chop. We would imitate him in class, in the hall, and at frat parties. Don’t be that guy. A distinctive gesture is fine – in fact, you might want to develop one as a trademark – but when it is overused the gesture becomes distracting at best and fodder for ridicule at worst.

Along the same lines, make sure gestures have purposes. If you want to stab a finger at the audience to make an appropriate point (“and you have been cheated time and time again by this insane policy…”) that’s fine. But if the gesture habitually persists through a joke or a tribute to a fallen friend, you are sending mixed and confusing signals. This might actually be a bigger problem than you suspect, because sometimes people subconsciously read things into inappropriate gestures, and they may not even be aware of their reaction; all they know is that something is wrong. I once knew someone who kept his fists clenched during even the lightest parts of his presentations. I don’t know if the mismatched gesture was symptomatic of anything, and it took me a while to figure out what the dissonance in his appearance was, but I believe his habit made people uneasy in general even if they could not put their fingers on what was bothering them.

Maintain an arsenal of functional and appropriate gestures. Two that work well are:

1) hands in front of body and spread, palms out, when addressing the audience, and

2)palms turned in when talking about yourself. I like listing points from time to time, and using fingers to count them out.

Just don’t use this technique for eleven or more points. Some speaking coaches advise against using clenched fists or pointed fingers, but if those gestures are used with sincerity and not in a hostile way, they can be very effective. An arm outreached to the audience in a gesture that looks like you are inviting someone to dance is an excellent device to implore listeners to join you in a belief or idea.

Full-body gestures, when appropriate for the venue, work well. For example, if you want to make a final appeal to the audience, get out from behind the lectern, move to the edge of the stage, and use the come-and-dance gesture with one arm while holding the microphone in the other hand. If you are wearing a microphone and are not tethered to one location, moving around the stage or platform is an excellent option as long as you don’t pace mechanically. If you are comfortable doing so, opt for a location that does not plant you behind a lectern; it’s just one more barrier between you and the audience. If you have notes but no formal lectern, you can put them on a music stand and refer to them occasionally. I believe that one of the most physically inviting setups for a speaker is a simple stool, a music stand, and a hand-held mic. It communicates to the audience that you are not afraid of them and not desirous of a barrier and allows you the freedom to sit and then stand when you want to punctuate an idea.

For more, please check out my latest book, Present Like a Pro: 

Present Like a Pro JPEG

The Oxford Comma Controversy Explained…

You may have read that lack of a “serial comma” or “Oxford comma” could cost a Maine company several million dollars because of an vaguely worded law regarding who has to be paid overtime.

Because of a missing comma, it wasn’t clear if workers were exempted from overtime for “packing for shipment and distribution” of several items, or “packing for shipment, and distribution” of the items — which covers considerably more territory if “distribution” is viewed as a separate activity.

If you didn’t see it, here’s the link to The New York Times article:

So what’s the deal with the Oxford comma?

Let’s start with the basics: A comma is employed to separate things in a list.

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

The question of whether there should be a comma after the last item in the list is, believe it or not, a vigorously debated issue among grammarians, editors and other people who have a lot of time on their hands.

A comma used at the end of a series, before the “and,” is called a serial comma, or sometimes an Oxford comma.

Some people use a serial comma and others don’t. It often depends on what “style” you are following, meaning the guidebook used by your profession or publisher. In news, journalists generally follow the lead of the Associated Press stylebook and The New York Times stylebook and omit the serial comma on the basis that it is unnecessary and clutters up the wording.

Without serial comma: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Several academic style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style and, not surprisingly, the Oxford Style Manual, instruct the writer to use the serial comma.

With serial comma: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

Personally, I favor the serial comma because omitting the final comma can, in rare circumstances, create confusion. Here’s a joke grammarians swap among themselves when they really want to cut loose:

With serial comma: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

But without the serial comma it appears that JFK and Stalin will finish the night naked:

We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

And sometimes the lack of a serial comma can produce some real-life puzzlers, such as a December 10, 2013 dispatch from the British news agency Sky News, which told readers that the top stories of the day were:

“World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…


How Not to Slip Into Stage-Fright Overdrive: Four Ways to Keep a Steady Pace During a Presentation

Almost everybody speaks too quickly when delivering a presentation, and when nerves kick in a lot of us slip into a jabbering overdrive.

Here are four ways to keep yourself steady:

  1. Write a reminder directly into your script or notes. A visual reminder popping up from time to time is helpful. Even the best of us need a cue; President Eisenhower was notorious for rambling on, so his handlers had a special plate attached to his lectern that would light up and demand: GET OFF NOW. In comparison, writing “SLOW DOWN’ on page 3 of your script is not such an imposition.
  2. Breathe more deeply and more often. Breath control is essential to magnifying voice power but taking regular deep breaths calms you and effortlessly slows your pace because you can’t talk and breathe at the same time.
  3. Insert pauses. Pauses offer the dual benefit of adding drama and slowing down fast-talk.
  4. Time yourself reading from a script and observe what your word-per-minute rate is so you will have a consistent measure to shoot for. I like to keep my rate for audiobooks, online narration, and most public speaking at about 150 words per minute. Your mileage may vary depending on the circumstances, but 150 is a good starting point. Hitting it is easier than it sounds: When you rehearse, simply set your smartphone timer for a minute, count 150 words into your presentation, mark that spot, and read. If you finish before hitting the marker, slow down. If you drag on much longer than the marker, chug a couple cups of coffee and rev up. Keep practicing to hit the target and after a few sessions that rhythm will be imprinted in your neurons and you will be able to summon it naturally.

Five Steps for Spotting Typos in Your Copy

Last week I was interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer about techniques to avoid typos:

Here’s the link:

As a follow-up, I put together a five-point plan you may find helpful:

  1. Get another set of eyes, even if it’s the kids or the dog. Then get the cat to make sure the dog wasn’t asleep on the job.
  1. Give it a rest if you can – sleep on it or at least give yourself a break before you hit the send button. Remember, right after you’ve finished something you are mentally involved in it and fatigued; not only will your mind be autocorrecting your mistakes in your head, you’ll be in no shape to spot the mistakes in the first place.
  1. Develop your own techniques to see the trees and not the forest – a method to focus on the words and not the ideas. One way that works for me is to read the copy backward, one word at a time, looking for typos.
  1. Triple check anything that is high-risk, such as a proper name or a word with an irregular spelling, such as ‘restaurateur.” Copy it and paste it into a Google search just to be sure.
  1. Be sure you quadruple check to assure you have put the letter “L” in the word “public.” Wish somebody had given me that advice before I proudly wrote the title page to one of my books. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

For more on this and other writing hints, check out my recent book, Write Like a Pro.


Write Like a Pro Cover

How to Maintain Eye Contact — or the Illusion of Eye Contact – During a Presentation Before a Large Audience

If an audience is large, you obviously cannot maintain eye contact with every member.  However, you can give the impression of engaging in individual eye contact with these mechanisms:

  • Pick several locations in which you will routinely focus on an audience member. Direct front, left rear, right front, right rear center, etc.  The point is that you don’t want to forget about a section of the audience, something that’s easy to do in the heat of battle.  Practice your sectors in advance until it becomes routine, but not too  You don’t want your movements to become perceptibly predictable (a pattern presentation coach Olivia Mitchell characterizes as acting like a “tennis umpire” or a “lighthouse)[i].  In sum, don’t overcomplicate this: Just make sure you regularly maintain eye contact with people in different sections of the audience.
  • Pick out one person in the sector with whom to make eye contact during your talk. Hold eye contact until it is reciprocated.  You might even get a nod.  Then move on.  Be sure not to break eye contact in mid-sentence.  You’d be surprised how effectively this works: A few years ago I and a group of friends attended the Broadway play “Barrymore,” starring Christopher Plummer.  The play is a monologue with much of the dialogue addressed to the audience.  I noted afterward how Plummer had, I believed, held eye contact with me for several seconds.  My friends, who sat in different sections of the audience, said the same thing. Everybody thought Plummer was, at one point, looking right at them.
  • Having said the above, remember that in smaller groups some people may be uncomfortable with eye contact. You can perceive if that’s the case. Just focus on another audience member.
  • Also remember that the point behind eye contact is to establish a relationship between the presenter and the audience. We are obviously talking about a generalized relationship here, and the audience’s view of that relationship is more of an overall impression than a tally of how many times you looked at individuals.  You can maintain an overall atmosphere of contact by looking at the audience instead of your slides, and looking up from your notes as much as possible.
  • In relation to the latter suggestion about notes, be sure to finish a sentence while you are looking up. Only then should you glance downward to your notes.

You can find out more in my upcoming book, Present Like a Pro, to be published in January.

[i] Olivia Mitchell, “Eight Presentation Tips to Make Your Eye Contact More Powerful, accessed July 12, 2016,