The Idea EnthusiastThe Idea Enthusiast

Category : 3 Presentation

By Greg Roth

Breaking down the annual holiday speech

As every speechwriter knows, holidays present a special messaging challenge. They’re a recurring appointment on your Outlook/Google calendar — they have a built-in meaning that doesn’t change, they happen every year, they run the risk of a “High B.S. factor” (ie “this year is different because [of some trumped up reason]”).

One approach to situations like these is to go personal, then go populist. It works in nearly every type of public speaking platform, from big-deal executive speeches or award ceremonies to more informal settings like wedding toasts or receptions. In this case, we were filming a simple video message to send out to the association membership via social media channels. You can look at it as a formality, but there’s no reason it can’t have true resonance and emotional appeal.

So, as a how-to, here’s a look at what I wrote in a Labor Day message for Steve Brown, the 2014 President of the National Association of Realtors, and why, in commemoration of Labor Day 2014.



Overall Format

I write all my speeches in outline or a poetry format, for a few reasons. I think it’s easier for the speaker to read and visually understand the structure and nature of the speech. By using two levels of bullet points (3 levels total), you can instantly see the relationship between phrases.

The other reason I write this way is to keep myself honest. Speeches should never have long sentences. That is the main difference between writing for the stage and writing for the page. Readers take in an average of about 250 words per minute, while listeners can only handle about 125 per minute. In this format, if I have a sentence that makes it to a second line, I better have a legitimate reason for that length.

The Setup

As summer draws to a close, another Labor Day is now upon us.
Some of you are returning from vacation while others are sending the kids back to school.
But have you thought about what this holiday really means?

As I teach in my public speaking classes, the Rule of 3 is your friend. As a speaker, you’ve got three quick sentences to get the listener’s attention and explain to them what this is about. You state the scene, add some detail, then pose the question. It has a rhythm to it that the human brain expects on a subconscious level. You know where I get that approach from? Stand-up comedy. It’s the setup/expansion/punchline format. Have you ever noticed this? Something happens and then something else? Well, here’s my thought on that.

Another thing I try to do upfront is use as many words as I could to evoke this specific time and place. In this case, you have summer, vacation, kids, school, holiday. You hear these words together and you already get a sense of where we are.

Finally, Labor Day is a doorway. So, I chose to start with a phrase that has an “in progress” feel. “As the summer…” feels a little bit like “we join this program, already in progress”. You want your message to create urgency and there’s no better way to do that than to illustrate the scarcity of time. Improv theater training tells you to “start in the middle” of a scene. Don’t worry about exposition, dive in.

The Personal Story

Hi, I’m your NAR President, Steve Brown
To me, Labor Day reminds me of my dad
Donald Brown was the hardest working person I ever knew
He had his own dairy distribution business

My dad would get up at 4:30 every morning
and work long hours to provide for our family
He gave me my first job
He taught me the value of hard work
and the value of personal relationships

To inject the personal into this message, I called Steve and asked about his father. Being elected the President of a one-million-member association is a considerable measure of success. It takes years of work, dedication, and building relationship with enough members who will vote for you. How did he become someone who would follow that path? What Steve told me about his father fit perfectly into the message of hard work. “Dairy distribution business” does not in any way sound glamorous. It fact, it sounds like Work with a capital ‘W’. It also sounds like making an honest living in the heartland (Ohio, in this case).

As a complete coincidence, my dad also got up before dawn for decades to go to work. As someone who is not a morning person, this little detail really resonated with me as a perfect indicator of dedication. Steve tells this story to honor his father, but it also tells us about Steve and his values. This isn’t necessarily a story about Steve and his father spending time together, it’s about leading by example and learning from sacrifice. But it’s still “father and son”. It’s a little bit “standing on the shoulders of giants” and a little bit Field of Dreams.

This section wraps up with another Rule of 3, as Steve talks about what his father did for him, in specific terms. First job, hard work, and relationships all translate to practically every career out there, including (especially) real estate.

The Pivot

I benefited from my dad’s work ethic
Just as this country has benefited from millions of hardworking Americans from all walks of life.

We need to wrap up Steve the Storyteller and return to Steve The President of over 1 million Realtors. This is the all-important “pivot.” It’s the moment you take the story or anecdote you just told and relate it to the broader message. The challenge here is to avoid equating Labor Day and hard work with how great Realtors are, which would be a pretty narrow view of our topic. Or, getting into unions, businesses, etc. All stuff that’s in the weeds.

Instead, let’s go big. This is like a Presidential proclamation, after all. Steve’s story was about how he benefited from his father’s work. Whose work do Realtors benefit from


As Realtors, our business wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of so many:

  • architects and designers
  • builders and carpenters
  • electricians, plumbers, painters
  • steelworkers, roofers, and drivers.

At some point in every speech I write, no matter what the length, I try to dispense with sentences altogether and go to short bursts of words like this. It’s a chance to change the pace and since we’re nearing the end of the speech, it (hopefully) bumps up the energy level.

Around the office, we started naming every occupation that would be responsible for homes and buildings. I whittled down the list to a size that was still big but not overwhelming. I played with the arrangement of the words so it made some thematic sense and would be easy to say.

This section is based on two things:

  • Hip-hop songs where they do shout-outs — nope, not kidding, that’s exactly what this is, it’s near the end, like it is in alot of rap songs.
  • And, the poetry of Carl Sandberg. He was my favorite poet in college, I have his anthology, and oh by the way not for nothing, he’s from Illinois, where NAR headquarters happens to be.

By the way, Steve nails the rhythm of this section perfectly.

Call to Action

So, this weekend, as you spend time with friends and family for the holiday
I hope you take just a moment to remember those who laid the foundation for all of us
both personally and professionally.

Have a great Labor Day.

In closing, the call to action is simply a request to give a moment of your time, mentally, to those who made that moment possible. We return to friends and family in the setup at the beginning. “Laid the foundation” might be a bit obvious, imagery-wise, but merging the personal and professional underscores that work means more than the work itself.

There you have it, a section-by-section approach to taking an occasion and building a message around it which offers a personal story with a populist appeal. I hope it helps you think about how to structure that next set of remarks you need to write or give.

My thanks to Steve Brown for giving me the chance to write this for him. He was always very kind and easy to work with and, as simple as it may seem on the surface, it’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.


By Greg Roth

How to introduce a speaker, based on the worst intro I’ve ever gotten

This story is lodged in my brain forever.

Back when I worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce running workforce and education programs, I spoke at events regularly. Everything from conferences and banquets to panel discussions and workshops. I gave keynotes, emceed, presented awards, and once, just stood for photos and smiled. (I never looked at celebrity-posing events the same after that).

Since I was usually one of the speakers, I didn’t introduce other folks as often. Which is too bad, because I believe I’m truly good at it. I’ve seen some great ones, not just at conferences, but at bookstores, sports events, fundraisers, dinners, even informal gatherings.

If your job is to introduce a speaker, you have 3 distinct duties:

  • To perfectly capture the moment
  • To make the topic relatable and important
  • To uniquely position the speaker to succeed

However you choose to accomplish those, through your personality, a unique story, some other creative in-the-moment idea, is entirely up to you. But there are 3 things that are NOT your job:

  • To read the speaker’s entire bio (or none of it)
  • To talk more about yourself than the speaker
  • To not care, parrot cliches, or just generally go through the motions

It is amazing to me just how hard it is for some folks to accomplish this. Sometimes, they are volunteers or young professionals who are simply not suited for the role or just in over their heads. But, often, they are mid- to- senior- professionals who do not understand the role of an introduction or likely haven’t noticed when an effective introduction has been given.

The worst introduction I ever received was at an economic development conference. I was there representing my team and my organization with the mix of research and practical “case studies” that populate most breakout sessions. I was the event’s last speaker, at about 3 pm on the second day.  A women whom I had only moments before been introduced to was doing my introduction. She was holding my single-page bio in her hands and seemed pretty relaxed.

Moments later, I would be marveling at the hole in which I was starting. When you’ve been poorly introduced, your entire session feels a bit tainted and, as subtle as it may seem to the audience, it’s an effort to get things back on track, even if just in your own mind. A bad introduction is at best, deflating; at worst, derailing.

So, let’s look at what happened.

First, what she could have said was something like this:

Good afternoon, everyone, and congratulations! You have all made it to the last session of our two-day conference. Give yourself a hand! Ok, that’s good practice, because I want you to do that again in a few moment.

He will be talking about [topic]. He is the [job title] at the U.S. Chamber. He [interesting fact about his background, related to the topic]. Speaking for the audience, I think we’re all very interested in [aspect of topic].

So, please give a warm welcome as I turn it over to [presenter].

Not too hard, right? 6-7 sentences, minimal improvisation, logical order (end with their name), but still conversational and helpful. A modest bridge, one might say.

Instead, on this particular day in 2008, here’s what I got:

Our final speaker today is [first name only].

It’s been a long day and I’m sure you’re all looking forward to finishing strong.

I don’t know our speaker, but I do know that he kind of looks like Bill Gates.

So please welcome [full name, looking down at paper].

So, now you know the difference between a good introduction and one that sucks. I give you this gift of wisdom. Go forth and do not suck.

By Greg Roth

My friend Steve’s commencement address and how it was written

Sometime back in October, my friend, sometimes guitar player, and all-around good guy who also happens to be a pretty serious journalist, Stephen Losey, mentioned to me that we was asked to give a commencement address at his alma mater. I’ve always wanted — and still want — to give a commencement address, but in the meantime, helping someone else out is good too. So, I offered to help him put together a 15 minute speech to the graduating English department at East Carolina University.

Most importantly, you can read the final version here and it is well worth your time. Steve has broken some important stories regarding our nation’s military and is generally everything you want a good journalist to be: hardworking, patient, fair, invested in getting things right, and humble even though he is helping uphold the First Amendment everyday, in a time when that is harder than it has been in decades.

I’m thankful for the chance to get to work with him on something that contains actual perspective and wisdom. Here is a run down of how it went:

Up front, I told him to start with his three best stories. Start with your three best stories: what they mean to you and to others who may want to be like you in the future. Each one of them should have all the elements of good storytelling: characters, plot, choices, and ultimately lessons, even if in the span of only 2 minutes. Stories are the guts of good speeches, and in commencement speeches, the social proof of lessons learned and wisdom earned.

His initial draft came with this commentary:

This is very messy. The way I write is, as you can see at the bottom, I started just jotting down some potential anecdote subjects (cool stuff I’ve done) and possible points to make. The speech draft here is longer and less refined, but fundamentally not all that different from what I delivered. I experimented with some alternate phrasings in parentheses…I tend to write non-linearly, jumping from bit to bit as inspiration strikes (like, “Oh! This would be a good end!) and stitching things together later.

This is absolutely the way you should write. Expecting that you can shape a complex, interweaving set of thoughts, stories, lessons, and reflection in a linear fashion is a ridiculous standard to set. No one does that because that’s not how the mind works. Write from the inside out. The most important things you have to say will come to you quickly, but should be spread across your time.

I suggested dividing the 2500 word speech (about 15 mins worth of text) into 4 parts, to help compartmentalize your thinking about how it’s structured and put together. (I added those section headers to the final version just so you can see what I mean).

  • Opening Thoughts
  • Career Reflections
  • Stories + Advice
  • Closing Thoughts
While these sections should flow together and refer to each other seemlessly, it helps to think of about the goals of each section, because those goals are different.

I gave him a bunch of comment about language, or turns of phrase, but only as ideas that he gets to choose from. Working with a writer is great because, if you have that kind of understanding with them, everything is exploration; none of it is judgmental. Every alternate idea I offered was in service to helping him find the what and how of his overall message. As an example, I suggested this passage near the end:

“Throughout your life, as an English major, you will always be looking for people who see the world the way you do. Who have the insight you have into writing, speaking, art, politics, society, life in general. We’re a particularly breed of mind. There aren’t that many of us. You have to push your way through the MBAs, the medical students, the tech folks, to find each other. It’s hard. It can take a while. But it’s worth it.”

He didn’t use it, and that’s OK. Instead, he used this:

“It is both a calling, and a privilege, to be able to tell other people’s stories — to have them open up parts of their lives, even some of the worst and most painful parts, and trust that you’ll tell them honestly. Whatever I do, whenever I write, I hope it has a positive effect on the world in some way.”

While I like what I wrote, his is better because it’s more personal, less ambitious. You don’t always need to go for the big, sweeping ending. In the context of my his speech, my version is a bit off-key or distracting. Sometimes, it’s much better to speak directly and more concisely.

It’s worth mentioning that we sometimes think our stories aren’t good enough. Steve has the benefit of some pretty unique encounters. But, it’s important to remember that stories serve solely as a form of expression of experience and wisdom. And story that has “the moment”, a small piece of time when perspective changes, is a story worth telling.


By Greg Roth

How Prepared Are You with Your Ideas?

Whenever you present your ideas, you are being evaluated. Your work and your work ethic is being evaluated. Your depth of thought is being examined. An interview is a special kind of presentation because you are selling yourself as a fit into a situation and your ideas for how to solve problems. So, anytime you find yourself in that type of situation, there’s a really good axiom for success:

Always come prepared.

The following anecdote is shared by Joe Banner, the former general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles on his experience hiring Andy Reid in 1999, who nonwithstanding his playoff loss this past week, is still the winningest coach in that franchise’s history. Banner was interviewed by Sheil Kapadia for The Athletic, a new online magazine site that is subscription-based and seeking to both return a level of quality to sports journalism that has been lacking as newspapers are downsized, and disrupt the stranglehold that ESPN has had the past few decades.

(Since it’s a subscription site and I just want to point out one story, I’ll cite the passage here with my emphasis in bold).

Kapadia: … Next question, for the interview process, can you take us inside how it works? That first interview, is it one-on-one? A group? What are the key questions at the top of your list?

Banner: The first part, the process is pretty simple. You set up the get-together through the agent. If it’s a team like the Eagles that has a bye week, you have to coordinate with the team. Those interviews are restricted to being this Friday and Saturday. The team gets to designate where and for how long, which sometimes can be a challenge, because you’re trying to fit it together with other interviews, and obviously you’re wanting as much time as you can get. My experience is first interviews generally last between four and six hours. Usually a large chunk — maybe three or four hours — is spent with anywhere from two to four people that are the decision-makers. Obviously, the owner always. If there’s a president or CEO. If there’s a general manager. And sometimes you may just have another person in the organization whose judgement you highly respect. So you may include them in the interview process. Oftentimes, after that first three to four hours, at least the owner will probably take some time — maybe as much as an hour — and just go one-on-one. And then some teams may have one other person that’s going to do some one-on-one time, or it may be just the owner. And that’s your initial interview.

When we interviewed Andy Reid, we did probably five or six hours in the first go-around. He actually went back to Green Bay. We brought him back the next day and spent about three or four hours over dinner with him, just getting to know him better. When we brought him back, frankly, we were pretty sure we were going to hire him. We just felt like if we could get more time just to make sure, that made sense.

The answer to your question about what you’re looking for and what you focus your questions on really depends upon on what you decided ahead of time. So when I was at the Eagles, when I was at the Browns, the top of that list was leadership, CEO qualities, hiring great people and managing them. So we backed into the questions that helped us try to evaluate the candidate on those criteria. I know teams that ask coaching candidates to walk through great detail his plan for training camp, his practice plan, his schedules. We did not do that because to us, if you get the right leader who hires the right people and is somebody that’s detail-oriented, you’ve got to trust that they’re going to figure all that out. And you’ve got a limited amount of time. So we wanted to focus on the few criteria that we thought separated the coaches that were the most successful from those that weren’t as successful.

Frankly, you can tell a lot just from how much time, for example on leadership, has a coach spent time thinking about? How many books has he read on that? How often has he discussed with other people or coaches what makes somebody a good leader? You find a lot of coaches that read books about military leaders, from which they get sophisticated thinking about how to lead their teams. And then you can ask specific questions about what they think makes somebody a good leader, not just the names of who they’re going to hire but why they’re hiring those people, what they’re looking for in their staff. Anything from their experience to scheme to their sense of leadership to people that are ambitious versus people who just want to be the offensive line coach for the next 30 years. So you get into all these different areas to try to get into the mind of how this coach really thinks and project how he’ll act and fit into your group.

Kapadia: This is a follow-up but also our trip down memory lane. What was that initial interview with Reid like? What did he say that made you believe he did have those special leadership qualities? And then the fun stuff — was he wearing a suit or a Hawaiian shirt? What stood out from that session?

Banner: He wore a suit and he was very, very serious, although you could tell there was a dry sense of humor in there. But he was very, very serious. He came in as the very determined, fighting to win Andy Reid that those of us that know him well see as the essence of him. The story’s well known. The most impressive thing from Andy’s interview was he came in with this notebook at least 6 inches thick that he wouldn’t leave with us but he shared with us. It had sections on everything he had done and learned and written down in what he had been doing for 10 years to prepare for the day that he’d become a head coach. He had never thought of himself as anything but a head coach and even preparing and documenting almost a diary. He had notes from like Mike Holmgren’s opening speech to the team the first day of training camp in this book. By far the most impressive thing in the book was he had every single position coach, from quality control through his coordinators and strength and conditioning coaches, he had graded from one to 10 who he thought were the top coaches at every one of these positions in the country.

So you said, ‘Who’s your defensive coordinator?’ He said, ‘Here’s my sheet. Here’s my top-rated guy.’ And literally one through 10. He said he updated this every year. He did the same thing that I referred to earlier. He would go to the combine. He would go to college speaking engagements. He’d go to the Senior Bowl. He’d either meet people and speak to them and make notes about it or he’d watch the tape or talk to people that knew them. And through this, he accumulated what was really a draft board of coaches, and it was varied. He had Division III college coaches in some of these spots — not necessarily rated at the top, but in the top 10. So this was very in-depth, very sophisticated, very thought out. In addition to being incredibly impressed with that, it was very important to us because it showed us that he shared our view to how crucial a part of head coaching success was going to come from getting the best possible people.

This is not the work of someone who is just looking for a job. This is someone who, years before he became a head coach, knew he wanted to become a head coach. So, he did the work. He dressed the part for years as an assistant until it came time to present his ideas and his case for becoming a head coach.

As you can see, it’s one thing to be prepared. In a competitive situation, it’s another thing to be prepared in a way that no one else is.

How have you thoroughly and uniquely prepared for what you want?

By Greg Roth

Idea Books Reading List for 2018

While others like to publish a list of books they read in the previous year, here are some to-be-released “idea” books that I may (no promises) get to in 2018. Let me know along the way if you read them as well.


9: Powerful (Patty McCord)
I would love to think I’ll get to this book, by a former Netflix exec, but there’s chance I don’t. I tend to shy away from execs writing primarily about their companies. Call it the Google Complex.

16: Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need (Todd Henry)
Overly cute title aside (not sure creative people are always tigers), I discovered his work as I was just getting started and he’s staying about 8 years ahead of me. I’ve watched a bunch of his keynotes to get a feel for business creativity plays in keynote form.

16: This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know (John Brockman)
“The latest volume in the bestselling series from—dubbed “the world’s smartest website” by The Guardian—brings together 206 of the world’s most innovative thinkers to discuss the scientific concepts that everyone should know.” Could be cool, could be dry.

23: Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language (Emma Byrne)
I detest the word “amazing” in titles (I’ll be the judge of what I find amazing), but I’m intersted enough to give this one a chance. Not sure how she’ll get 240 pages out it.

30: The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle)
The author of The Talent Code changes a word and applies his thinking to teams. Audiobook candidate.



6: Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (Annie Duke)
I love everything about this book, from the description referencing Pete Carroll’s decision to pass the ball at the end of Super Bowl XLIX to the author being a former poker champion. Def thinking audio book for this one.

6: Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley (Emily Chang)
Billed as an expose by a Bloomberg TV journalist, which sounds just a shade on the tabloid side, it’s an interesting subject that hopefully gets a good treatment.

13: Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness (Melissa Dahl)
One of the endorsement quotes is from Adam Grant, my informal mentor (he doesn’t know this), so I’m interested.

13: The Sociopath’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Tips for the Dark Art of Manipulation (PT Elliott)
“A practical satire that holds a funhouse mirror to American business and political culture. It is the first book to call out the new, “scientifically” grounded insights of social psychology for what they are: tips for the dark art of manipulation.” Funny how this and Cringeworthy come out on the same day.



6: 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise (Zack O’Malley Greenburg)
“Based on a decade of reporting, and interviews with more than 100 sources”. Even if that’s less than an interview a month, I’m looking forward to it.

20: In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (Charlan Nemeth)
“An eminent psychologist explains why dissent should be cherished, not feared”. The why is good, hope it has some how also.

27: Alive at Work (Dan Cable). I am thinking this book could be kind of boring (I would read a book called Dead at Work). But, it’s trendy to include the word “neuroscience” in your title and one of the examples cited in the book is “How Italian factory workers reduced their anxiety about a new process by playing with Legos”. OK, you got me, I’ll at least thumb through.


No release date

The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom (Joel Simon)
Light reading! I’ve always been fascinated my media studies. This is technically a reprint, but I’ve been reading the Columbia Journalism review on and off since I moved to DC in 2000. Will be interesting how my spokesperson training workshops changes after reading this.

I’m sure there will be other along the way, especially since I can’t find any slate for after the first quarter of the year. so check back and I may update this list.


By Greg Roth

3 Strategies to Defeat “We’ve Always Done It This Way”

Have you ever had an idea for a new product, service, or process that held great potential? Or, thought “if only we could fix this one thing,” we could save time, make money, establish new relationships, or achieve some other goal, everyone would celebrate?

And yet, your enthusiasm was met with the Darth Vader of creativity-killing phrases: “Nah, we’ve always done it this way.” Along with its cousin, “it will never work,” the “WADITW” mindset has been used to potentially deny the world medical advancements, iPhones, overnight delivery, analytics in professional sports, valleys of startup ideas, and so on.

An oft-cited 2014 piece in The Atlantic magazine discussed why people inherently distrust new ideas, even when they profess to value creative thinking and solutions. The truth is, great ideas don’t automatically sell themselves. They almost always face a “no.” So, let’s look at three ways to pitch your idea to counter the “WADITW” mindset.

Establish a Precedent

Identifying a fundamental “shift” is one of the most powerful pitching techniques. “WADITW” begins to lose its power when you point to sea changes, whether they are happening next door or a world way. This is why Airbnb was once pitched as “eBay for space” or why movies are often pitched as “Movie A meets Movie B.” You shouldn’t necessarily reduce your idea to this much of a simple formula, but offering a precedent of some form is a powerful tool to position your idea in the sweet spot between freshness and familiarity. Many organizations are risk-averse and this helps reduce the perceived risk.

Identify the Smart Alternative

Never assume you are the first person to think of your particular new idea. Why not? Because the “I can’t be the first” mindset will help you prepare the idea you’re pitching for scrutiny. If you understand the prevailing wisdom — “what got us here and why?” — you can pitch your idea as an outgrowth of that line of thinking, just with a different turn along the road somewhere. While ride-sharing apps have been praised for disrupting the taxi space, they still deliver the same essential service as a traditional taxi – they get people from A to B. So, the logic of their pitch is same goal, smarter tactics.

Open New Possibilities 

A common mistake in pitching is starting with the problem. Too often, this stacks the odds against fresh ideas. How? Leaders might not agree with your problem (viewpoint), they may not like to admit there’s a problem (ego), or they might like the way things currently operate (comfort). Instead, focus on how your idea can open up new possibilities. What will this idea allow us to do that we couldn’t do before? And, just as powerful, what could people say about us if we succeed? In essence, you are asking “how can the organization think big and make the world a better place?”

Remember, while people may inherently distrust new ideas, they will often accept smart, sound thinking.

(Cross-posted from its original version on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce IOM Blog.)

By Greg Roth

“Page to Stage” or Writing for Presentations

(As originally published in PRSA’s Tactics)

Tonight, as the President delivers his final State of the Union speech, the craft of writing for presentation will be in the national spotlight. Of course, the SOTU isn’t the pinnacle of speechcraft by any means; it’s often just a grocery list of policy talking points and vague ideas. But, it does raise issues about what translates from the page to the stage. Having been both a speechwriter and a speaker, I’ve developed a special appreciation for both.

If you’ve got a conference, workshop, or webinar coming up, consider these 10 for-the-stage writing tips to make sure your next presentation is always your best one.

Persona grata
Everyone has a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, experiences, and outlook. One of the hottest terms in marketing right now is “personas”, a set of characteristics that define a customer. Now flip that around, and think about your persona as a presenter. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. It doesn’t necessarily determine what you talk about, but how you talk about your expertise.

If you do slides, do them last
Your slides are not your presentation, YOU are your presentation. Your slides should be the last thing you work on, once you have your notes and content put together. Like a stand-up comedian, a good presenter can command a room without any slides at all. Slides should be in a support role: visually helpful but not visually overwhelming.

Write a 3-act drama
The structure of a movie or play can help you think about your organizing your thoughts. Act One: establish why your presentation matters (the stakes), who’s involved (the characters), and your viewpoint (as the director). Act 2: develop the plot (your thesis and main points). Act 3: tie things together to show progress or the potential for action (the resolution). Each act needs to be strong. It can’t be all backstory, unless you want to be shrugged off like a Star Wars prequel or True Detective, Season 2 (boo!).

Don’t lose the bullets
They aren’t just for brief outlines. Here’s how I write speeches and presentations. Why? To prevent overwriting. Visually, this format helps you stay concise: one sentence, one thought. It’s also easier to rearrange your thoughts as you decide to how to group information.

Rhetorical change-ups
One of the most popular writing and speaking tips is the “rule of three.” A, B, and C. This, that, and the other. It’s a good technique with great rhythm, but you shouldn’t overuse it. Some other great techniquesto illustrate a given point: comparing and contrasting, what happens if you do or if you don’t, repetition on a theme (“we can do A, we can do B, we can do C”), metaphors and similes, and open-ended questions.

Storytelling isn’t enough
In public speaking, as well as public relations, marketing, advertising, branding, it’s been drilled into our heads that stories are important. They are great tools to use, but simply telling a story isn’t enough. That story has to serve the goal of the presentation or campaign. The end of every story should transition to a “that’s why” moment with a lesson or observation.

Make stories and anecdotes portable
Every story or example should be put through an editing process called “10 30 60 90”, meaning length of time in seconds. The same story can be told in numerous ways and the time you have is one of the most important factors. A 10-second version makes a simple point, while a 90-second version is more about taking the audience on a journey of understanding or discovery. More on this in Public Speaking for Real People.

Explain data with analogies
On webinars, in workshops, and at conference, we consume massive amounts of data and research from presenters. But, the numbers lack context or are just too abstract. Find relatable ways to convey big numbers and important data. You see this done in congressional testimony: “the economic impact would be equal to the GDP of your home state, Senator.”

Cut out 25 percent
Once you’ve finished a draft of your presentation or remarks, the first thing you should do is pull out the scissors. You may have facts that you really enjoy using, but they may not fit within the framework of your content or the goals of your session. You can trim them, but keep them on stand-by for Q&A or even discussion after your presentation is over. Better to go short than go long.

Tweetable test
When preparing your remarks, try to imagine writing at least one tweet for each of your main points. By doing so, if you can have a few great turns of phrase, you increase the chances that someone is going to love what you just said. Every idea can be conveyed in 140 characters.

By Greg Roth

3 great lessons in David Letterman’s Pearl Jam tribute speech

Over the weekend, the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony featured a retired talk show host David Letterman honoring and introducing Pearl Jam. Originally, Neil Young was slated to give the speech, but was unable to make it. Letterman stepped in, big wispy beard and all, and delivered what was very arguably one of the best induction speeches the Hall has ever had. (The ceremony will be officially broadcast later this month).

As I’ve referenced before, the “tribute” is one of the 5 essential types of presentations every speaker should be able to deliver. Besides being well-written and personal, here are 3 things Letterman does that help make the whole thing a classic offering.


1. His unique cadence as a storyteller
Despite wearing a suit every night and making tens of millions of dollars over the course of his talk show career, Letterman has a unique style as a salt-of-the-earth speaker, albeit a comic and clever one.

You know the song “Black.” There was a period in my life when I couldn’t stop doing this: do-do do-do-do-do do [the crowd joins in]. Great. Now we owe them a lot of money. Honest to God that’s all I could hear running through my head. I kept wondering how many times does this refrain occur in the song? I finally had to go to my hypnotist to get it to stop: do-do do-do-do-do do. One night on the show, I’m doing it and the stage door bursts open, in walks Eddie Vedder. He sings the song with Paul and the band. Then he comes over to me and looks me right in the eye and he says, “Stop doing that.” And I was cured, ladies and gentlemen.

Letterman has always been a person who uses the language of the populace. There are no flourishes of prose, no big words, hardly any rhetorical devices beyond mimic plain old conversation. One of things this means is, his stories are lean and the pace is usually brisk. Despite him being on the air five nights a week for 33 years, I challenge you to find a clip of Letterman being verbose. He does not drone on about anything. He does not offer excess insight as to what the bigger picture is. Letterman tells you what happened.

2. His use of silliness as humor
A hallmark of Letterman’s appeal over the years was his out of left field approach to irony and humor. He was always willing to say a line that was inherently ridiculous, or ironic in a way that just enjoys the chance to say a combination of words or thoughts he happens to like for some reason. A lot of his humor has a “just for fun” feel to it.

He peppers his narratives with these throwaway jokes and lines, sometimes to change gears for his own amusement, or to surprise you into a laugh you didn’t know was coming.

“I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it is to be out of the house.”

“Why isn’t Neil Young here? The truth of it is the poor guy just can’t stay up this late. That’s what it is. Either that or he swallowed a harmonica.”

Talking about the anger in Pearl Jam’s music from the beginning of their career in the early 1990s.

“I was almost 50 and even I was pissed off. And it was also easy to dance to but that’s another deal.”

After talking at length about Pearl Jam being a band that speaks its mind and takes a stand, he’ll happy do a 180-degree turn to even poke fun at the whole convention of connecting results to activism.

“And because they did, because they stood up to the corporations I’m happy to say, ladies and gentleman, today every concert ticket in the United States of America is free.”

There’s almost a celebration in saying things that aren’t true or haven’t been said quite this way before. Using humor like this, in this way, is encouraging folks to just enjoy the moment. The approach is disarming in its inessential nature, yet, strip out these little chestnuts and you have a much different speech with a much different feel and tone. This is Letterman’s “ear candy” for listeners; it gives folks a breather from the over-arching importance of the speech. The more sobering the topic, the more important — and effective — ear candy can be.

3. His ability to be personal without being maudlin
When he made his final appearance on the Late Show before Letterman retired, Norm MacDonald said the host “is not for the mawkish and has no truck for the sentimental” before offering a heartfelt thank-you.

The danger in doing tribute speeches such as this one is that it’s very easy to become emotional. That in and of itself isn’t bad, but it walks a tightrope between the honoree being the star and the speaker claiming a bit too much spotlight. Emotion is good. Maudlin can be sabotage.

One way for the speaker to keep the balance is to address the issue of sentimentality, to be self-aware about how you may be presenting yourself. In this case, because a man known for not being sentimental is going to possibly be sentimental, he offers a qualifier that buys him some credibility:

“So, if you’re in show business it’s likely there’s a good strong streak of cynicism in you, and I would be the president of that club except for things like this. This letter to my son from Eddie Vedder, May 18th, 2015, three shows left. I’ll read you this letter now if you don’t mind.”

Letterman goes on to read the friendly letter the Pearl Jam singer gave to his young son, along with a small guitar. He closes this tribute perfectly by summing up both the historic and personal nature of the moment:

“There are quite a few reasons why these people are in the Hall of Fame, but forgive me if this personally is the most important reason.”

Final thoughts
If you break apart this speech, you can probably guess how it was built. Letterman certainly knew he wanted to end with story about his son. He then probably considered how he could provide a unique perspective on the band through both its career and it’s 10 appearances on his show, which led to a few of the highlights he mentions. The jokes and ear candy very likely came once most things were in place. Once he had a draft, chances are, he went back through it to see if he was missing any important details (notice he mentioned Paul Shaffer, to applause).

The beginning, which is usually the last thing you’d write, was directly inspired by how he ended up there — as a replacement. There was no attempt to disguise that fact. Instead, he got a few jokes out of it and then moved into the heart of what he wanted to talk about.


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“Page to Stage” or Writing for Presentations
3 great lessons in David Letterman’s Pearl Jam tribute speech