Christine Clapp is the founder of Spoken with Authority, a Washington, D.C.-based presentation skills consultancy that elevates the presence and expands the influence of professionals through coaching engagements and training programs.
Victor Ahipene: Speaking nation, what’s happening? Welcome to another episode of Public Speaking secrets here from COVID studios. I’m your host, Victor. I am looking forward to introducing you to something that I think will be very beneficial to develop now and then with the world and how it’s going to change, and the new world that we’re going into. I think it’s going to be really beneficial. So Christine Clapp onto the shows today and she’s based out of Washington. She’s written a book called Presenting at Work and she is the founder of a company called Spoken with Authority. Little that being said, welcome to the show, Christine.
Christine Clapp: Thanks for having me.
Victor Ahipene: One of those things that I think, we’re obviously on a public speaking podcast, a lot of people have that fear when it comes to public speaking. And then I think a lot of people just put out to be minimum when it comes to obligatory public speaking, which I think most often that happens in day to day life is in the workplace. And so it’s something that I always find really, really interesting because you can teach someone potentially how to give a good keynote presentation. But when it comes to, when you’ve got to insert graphs or information or those repeated presentations that you’ve got, it can be a whole different ball game. So how did you get into that space, the business space and the Presenting at Work and all of that, and your journey?
Christine Clapp: Thanks for asking. So my journey started back when I was a college student. I went to a small school in the State of Oregon. It is called Willamette University and it was one of just a couple of schools that had an undergraduate major in rhetoric. And that’s the study of persuasion. I was really interested in it, but it had a requirement for oral communication proficiency, which meant doing the debate team for a semester. And that terrified me. I was not a comfortable public speaker or a polished presenter. I really didn’t want to do it. But I decided I really love this idea of studying persuasion. I think it could be useful in a lot of different professional paths, so I’m just going to sign up for debate and see how it goes and if it’s a complete disaster and I don’t get oral communication proficiency, I’ll just switch to chemistry or another subject that I liked. So I did debate and of my first two debate tournaments, I won zero debates. I lost every single one. There wasn’t even someone who forfeited because they were running late. I was terrible. I was the worst person on my debate team. And even though I never actually read the fine print that you could get your proficiency by participating, you didn’t actually have to win any debates, I came back my sophomore year to debate because it was a frustrating experience. I knew that my opponents weren’t better, smarter. They were poised and polished and articulate and I knew that as an 18 year old kid, if I didn’t figure out how to do that, it would put me at a disadvantage no matter what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My sophomore year, I came back, I ended up getting a really great debate partner who was a freshman who had debated in high school. He actually is the coauthor of Presenting at Work, the book that I wrote with Bjørn Stillion Southard and we debated and we had great coaches. I had a great partner. We did lots of rehearsals. And by the end of my sophomore year, I made it to the national tournament. I qualified to go, I participated and I made it to the elimination rounds of the tournament. I was also named the most improved debater of my sophomore year and that’s all to say that I had this huge transformation of going from being a really terrible speaker to finding a moderate measure of success and finding any comfort and confidence as a speaker. I continued debating throughout college and by the time I graduated, I knew that for the rest of my life, I wanted to help people with these skills to give them that public speaking presentation skills piece that you need to unlock your leadership potential. No matter whether you’re in politics or whether you’re in science or you’re a journalist or a researcher, no matter what it is that you do, you really have to be able to articulate yourself. And I founded Spoken with Authority in 2008 and the rest is history.
Victor Ahipene: It’s awesome. What I love is you went from being pretty average to some level of success. The level of success side of things, I think, is really irrelevant because everyone’s bars are so much different. Winning one debate could have been a degree of success, but I think the success there is, and what I love is that extreme transformation. You would have seen. I’ve seen a lot in regards to the confidence that people can have like you, I’m sure, and workshops and training that you do. You can see it in hours. You can see someone go from stuttering with cue cards to confidently delivering and holding a room in the space of hours. And it’s something that holds a lot of people back. And this is why I really wanted to get you on the show. In the career progression, those people who are looking to become better speakers within the organization, they may be a business owner, they may not be, but they may just be a person looking to get to the next level on an executive team or to get to a manager and they keep turning down the opportunities to speak. Do you see that a lot? Or is it just something I’ve made up in my head on the people who are turning down those opportunities in work?
Christine Clapp: No, I see it too. The place where I see it is, we work with lots of different types of people. We do training programs. We also do one on one coaching and a lot of the one on one coaching clients that come to us, they come to us when they’re at a pivot point in their career where they have an opportunity to present at a conference, where they have an opportunity to give a celebratory speech such as a graduation address or a Ted style talk, a thought leader talk. They might have a job interview or a job talk if they’re an academic and they get to this point in their career where they have that big opportunity, they know it’s a big opportunity and they are not ready for it. And so that’s the moment where they come in search of our support and our help because they know that this is a make-or-break moment. Our goal is to help people in that moment, teach them the tools and strategies so they can do well for that presentation. But the bigger picture is that we want to give people the tools and strategies starting when they’re a young professional or starting when they’re a college student or starting before then so that they don’t have to have that crisis moment so that they are taking- When you’re a brand new professional, you may not have a ton of opportunities to speak at conferences, but we want young professionals to think about, “Oh yeah, when I give an update at our team meeting, that’s a public speaking opportunity.” It’s not a conference. There’s no stage, there’s no microphone but me doing my virtual meeting or standing up in front of my team for our Monday morning meeting, that is an opportunity for speaking. So we want to help people in the crisis moment but bigger pictures. We want to help people build the skills in the day to day, week to week speaking opportunities that so many people don’t think of them as quote unquote public speaking. But they are public speaking opportunities. If you look at them like that, if you approach them like that, if you deliver like that, because if you do those practice the skills and strategies and techniques in those day to day, week to week, month to month opportunities, when those big make-or-break ones, the career opportunities come along, you already are ready. You don’t have to freak out.
Victor Ahipene: And that’s what I think. A lot of people, they either freak out or they go into it and they go, “Oh look, this is an obligatory presentation that I have to give at work.” rather than an opportunity. And so they just make it like everybody else. Boring, read off the slides, put you to sleep, no enthusiasm into it. Nothing, nothing like that. So that’s what I would love to jump into. I guess the second half of this episode is what are some of the actionable ways that people can present more effectively within their work, within their own workplace? Whether it be, how to, I’m happy to let you guide and have a discussion around it or whether it be like, how to present data, which can often be a bit dry or boring or information. How to incorporate storytelling into the different things. Do you have a system or an approach that you work towards when you’re helping people?
Christine Clapp: Yeah, we do. And again, we have our own approach. I think there are lots of awesome approaches out there. So this is just ours. And I think that the message for your viewers is that it’s not important that you use our approach. The important thing is that you adopt an approach and a strategy. Our particular approach is that we start with an outline because we think that when people start writing text on slides or writing text on paper, that leads to that scripted, unemotional delivery that does not build rapport because there’s no eye contact. So we want people to start with one sheet of paper, write words and phrases on it and we do it all on one sheet and we start with that central idea. And for most workplace presentations, that central idea, you’re either going to inform someone about something or you’re going to persuade them to do something and you have to be really clear about what you want people to know or to do at the end of your presentation. And the biggest mistake we see people make is that if they’re trying to inform, they want to inform them of way too much. If they’re an expert in something, they want to teach the people in the room what they know. The people in the room don’t need to know what you know. They need to know enough about what you know so they can reach out to you for help is usually the answer. And in terms of persuasion, when you want someone to do something, people have a very limited capacity to do things. So the amount of time that we’re willing to take after we listen to a speech and how far we’re going to stick out our neck to do something, I do have a pretty low bar in terms of what we’re asking people to do, whether it’s to make a donation or to invest time or to vote. We have to be really, really careful about how much we ask. Because if we ask too much, people get overwhelmed, they just, they won’t do anything. So you have to be strategic about what your goal is and to be realistic about what you can accomplish. So that’s the first thing.
The next thing that we do, getting to your question about how do we avoid just reading data off slides, is once we put together that central idea, we encourage our speakers to think of a structure that they could arrange their main ideas to support that thesis. And think about an organizational pattern that’s logical both to the speaker and to the listener and some of those organizational patterns, for example, for informative speech, you might tell three examples or three stories of how, what happened, or three case studies. You might talk about three different topics or you might talk about what happened in the past, what’s happening in the present, what do you expect to happen in the future. So a chronological pattern of organization. For persuasive speech, you might identify a problem and the solution and the benefits of the solution. You might talk about why we should do it, how we should go about doing something and what the benefits of doing it are. So similar to problem-solution. For any of those structures then, you want to think about the structure of your ideas. You want to think about, how do I add in humanistic elements to that structure? And some of those structures already have humanistic elements worked in. So if you tell three stories or examples, those stories or examples are the humanistic element. If you talk about why, how, and what, you might have examples or stories that you tell within each part of that structure. But the important thing is to think about where the story’s fall in and it might be for the main points themselves, might be a sub point to support the main point, it might be the introduction and conclusion as a way to break in narrative and narrative element. And then another way to do it is to think about how you could use metaphors and analogies. And for people who use data and science, those metaphors and analogies can be really helpful to explain what exactly is going on. So use one concept to make it clear what another concept is about. And you might even be able to use it for the entire structure of your speech. So your organizational structure could be hinging on a metaphor.
For example, I’m putting together a webinar in how to have presence in virtual meetings, something everyone’s thinking over right now. So what we did is we talked about it in terms of a cooking analogy. So the recipe and ingredients is what goes into it. That’s your agenda and the participants. Whether it’s an in person meeting or virtual meeting, you see you need to have a recipe and you need to have great ingredients. They might be a little bit different based on whether you’re using an Instant Pot or a grill, but you still have to have those fundamentals going into it. Then we talked about the equipment you’re using. Are you using a green egg, are you using an Instant pot? Are you using your barbecue grill or smoker? That’s the equipment. That’s like, do you use zoom or WebEx or an in person meeting or whatever the case is?
And then at the end it’s how do you conduct yourself? So how do you actually cook the meal? So the conduct in terms of that situation, the metaphor is what’s your presence? How do you work on your verbal and nonverbal language and your setting, and your clothing? How does that all play in? So that was one cooking metaphor to help people make sense of how you approach virtual communication. So that’s an example of how you can approach the humanistic side. And then so we have the crafting of the content. We think about the humanistic elements. Those humanistic elements oftentimes might have a visual element that goes with it. It might be a prop, it might be a slide, it might be a handout, or maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s a flip chart and markers. It depends on the situation and the speaker and the audience. Then after you do that, then you want to shift to that. How do you say it? And what we find is that most speakers don’t practice enough. So we recommend that speakers practice a presentation six times out loud to get confident with it and to become more fluent so they can have a really conversational and confident delivery. And it’s the reason why we think most speakers are really nervous and why most speeches are not conversational is people just don’t know the material well enough. So those are the three big pieces that we encourage folks to think about in terms of the putting together of a great presentation.
Victor Ahipene: It’s what I love when you said practicing at least six times. I think the other thing is people without a system or a formula or a recipe, they don’t bother practicing because they’re like, ‘Why shine a turd?’
Christine Clapp: Exactly, yeah!
Victor Ahipene: It’s kind of like, ‘It’s going to be crap. Why practice it to make it a little bit less crap or fluently crap?’ I think as soon as you realize you put any of the multitude of things that you’ve put into place, like one of those things, it doesn’t even matter if it fits your organization if you suck already. Like, if you pick in the past and the present and the future, and you apply that and you go out and you practice it six times, and you add some humanistic elements into it and whatever else, you’re going to be a lot better. Because I use a similar analogy to the cooking in the sense of it’s like riding a bike. You don’t begin riding in the tour de France or the Olympics. You start off on a tricycle or a bike with training wheels, and then you’re riding around in your backyard without the training wheels and you go into the road. But if you don’t know how to ride at the start, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, I can see this person riding. I’m just going to try and have that kind of a skill without really putting the time into it. So I’ll just walk down to the local shop instead of jumping on my bike.’ That’s what I think a lot of people tend to do.
I think people, if you’re listening to this, you’re listening to it for a reason because you want to improve your presentations at work. So I’d highly suggest going back to a lot of those points that we’ve just been gifted by Christine, because they are valuable. You have to implement them. That’s what you have to do. You have to get out there and practice it and implement it because it’s all well and good knowing it, but the rubber’s gonna meet the road at some stage.
My other question, and I know you’ve kind of touched on it already with your answers, some presentations are just unavoidably information deans or data deans. What are some strategies that people can kind of either soften the blow or disguise some of that information into the presentation and let’s say a situation where there’s still a degree of time restraint. It’s not like, ‘I’m going to make this meeting run over time because I’m going to give an awesome story for every piece of data point or something like that.’ Is there any technical ways that you look to integrate information and data?
Christine Clapp: Yes, and it’s a great question. How do you deal with data heavy presentations? The first recommendation I have is to look at the data that you want to present and to ask yourself why you want to present it. What is the purpose of sharing this information? What is the ultimate goal? And then take a step back and ask which pieces are necessary for me to share in order to reach my goal? Because a lot of times, we have a lot of data because we worked our butts off to collect that data, to analyze the data, to write reports about the data and we want to show everyone what we did. And I get the impulse to do that when we’re so close to a topic. We have to remember that your audience is never as close to a topic is you. They never care about as much as you do. So you have to figure out, of everything I have, I know that I have a very limited capacity for people to listen and for them to either learn or take action. So what am I going to focus it down on that is most important to get across and what are the most compelling pieces of data? So first of all, narrow, narrow, narrow, narrow, narrow. And now in this world of Covid19, when we’re doing virtual meetings and presentations, you have to narrow even further because we have even a shorter attention span on a virtual meeting than we do in person. So that’s first. Narrow.
Second is that when you are sharing data, I encourage you to try to link it to a story. So here is an example of a phenomenon which is happening to one person, or one city, or one case study and this is what it looks like when we look at the data from a much larger sample so that people can connect to it through that story. People don’t connect to the aggregated data, but they can connect to the one story which makes it important. Like, ‘Oh yeah, this one story, I get it. I can feel that it’s an important issue. It resonates with me.’ But then use the data to say, and it’s not just one person that’s happening in all of these places, in all these contexts, and then it makes it something that needs action. So I care about it and now I need to act on it.
And then the other thing I would say, one of the biggest problems I see with presentations with graphs is when you put something on a slide, when you put data on a slide, make sure again that you call out all of the unnecessary stuff. Oftentimes, when we present our data in the report or the binder, the article, there’s a lot going on in the charts. You really want to strip down anything that’s unnecessary from what you put on the screen. Otherwise, it’s just going to be overwhelming and people are going to be trying to read it and make sense of it and the minute they do that, they’ve lost you and your commentary. So really simplify it. And then the heading of your slide or of the handout, whatever you’re doing as your visual aid, should have an argument. Because if you just say, ‘Graph about trend’, you are not analyzing what the data says or making an argument to your audience about what the data says or what they should believe about it or do about it or know about it. You need to make that connection. It should be an argument at the top of that slide. That argument needs to be reinforced in the verbal communication as well. So make arguments in the titles of your headings that go with the visuals, the slides, the graphics, and whenever possible, link them to a story or a humanistic element to really make it resonate with people on a human level.
Victor Ahipene: Yeah, I love that point in regards to the argument because you see it in the slide. I’ve been to, in previous years, in kind of like health professional based conferences and stuff like that. And like you say, they just get so excited about all their data that they just drown you in it. They’re not really talking, they’re just explaining what the article says rather than, ‘Does this work better than this? It’s like, ‘Oh, well we researched this and blah blah blah. Here’s what graph number one says.’ And it’s exactly that. And you see people are pulling out their phones or just walking out of this dark place. In a boardroom, you might not be able to do that, but you’re going to lose the tension. And what I find really, really amazing is little things, just such little things. All you’re doing is tweaking what you’re already planning on delivering. You might be cutting a few things out and changing how you present that information, but it makes a huge difference. And then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Wow, Victor is a really good presenter. We might get him to see if he wants to do such and such, or we’ll get him to do another one of these.’ And it’s just like the snowballing effect of opportunities that you kind of see from there.
Christine Clapp: I would say in regard to that, a lot of times people who we work, they’re subject matter experts and they’re serious and they’re hardworking and when we come to them and we say, ‘How can we do this presentation differently and to have this humanistic element and to think about differently?’ And they’re really concerned about, they’re like, ‘Oh gosh, no one else on my conference does it like this or no one else in the board does their presentation like this.’ That’s the point. If you do it differently, that’s why they will pick you to do more speaking roles is because you’re not falling into the same mistakes that everyone else at the conference and everyone else in the organization does. So we always say, you gotta go big. Go big or go home. You have to take risks as a speaker. And there is a risk that it’s not going to go well. But what we found is that even if some of the risks may fall a little flat, I mean, yeah, you want to make sure you’re not telling an off color political joke. Yeah, you definitely want beta test things. But even if people like, ‘It’s a little bit too much.’ or whatever, I think that audiences are really magnanimus toward people who are trying to make their material more interesting and more understandable.
So if you look at people like Hans Rosling with his global population box by box, and he has his props from Ikea and it is a little hokey, but people remember it and they get it and they say, ‘You know what? At least he didn’t give the same old boring thing where people are trying to edge out of the room in the dark.’ So when your listeners say, ‘Gosh, these are kind of different ideas, I don’t know if I can do it.’ When you question it like, ‘Should I do that?’ That’s when you should lean into it absolutely because you will stand out from everyone else on your team. And you will get more opportunities and that will take you up the ladder. So when you’re questioning, when you’re uncomfortable, that’s exactly where you need to go. Public speaking should not be a comfortable experience. Our line is, the harder it is to give the speech, the better the speeches. And that oftentimes has to come at, where it comes in is if you’re sharing a difficult personal experience or story or a failure of loss, those are the speeches that people will never forget, but are really hard to give. So when you have that sense of discomfort, that’s exactly where you need to go.
Victor Ahipene: I love that. Another example is my fiance was doing her masters for physiotherapy, like physical therapy and the last assignment was to present at this small to medium sized conference. The six of them all had to present and I was like, ‘No, you can’t do it like everybody else has done it.’ The first image she had was like an arrested Tiger Woods. Like, drugged up and drunk and everyone’s like, no one was really shocked. It was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re not starting with the title of the presentation, read off a PowerPoint presentation like that.’ The presentation got the information, it challenged the and blah, blah, blah. You’d kind of hope so when your other half is not bad at helping people with public speaking but it worked. It ended up, guess what? Got the best mark out of their class for the presentation. Why? Because it wasn’t the same boring, dry stuff. And people will remember it to a degree. They’re going to remember a lot more than what they remember from others.
Christine Clapp: Right. In that moment of, when they see the image on the screen and there’s that disconnect. Like, where is the speaker going? There’s that suspense. And that’s exactly what you want to do as a public speaker is you want to create suspense. So the best public speakers are ones who can draw that suspense out to the end. And I would say for someone who’s just starting, that’s a lot to ask. You’ll be able to do it with your introduction until you get into the main point of your presentation. But next time that your listeners listen to a keynote speaker, someone who gets paid thousands of dollars as a professional speaker, those are the people who can create suspense throughout the whole presentation. At the very end, they’re able to resolve it and it keeps you listening and on the edge of your seat the whole time. And you have to do that when you are at that high, high, high level of speaking because that’s the only way that you’ll be able to win over the internet. Because now that everyone has a phone in their pocket, like when I started doing this, I’ve been teaching and doing this work starting in 2001 and people didn’t have access to the wifi, they didn’t have laptops, they didn’t have smartphones. So you only had to be better than falling asleep. That was how entertaining you had to be. But now as a speaker, we all have to be better than the worldwide web, everything on the internet because people have it at their fingertips. So I think that the standard, the requirement of us in terms of being interesting and polling people really has gone up. So I think more than ever, the go-big-or-go-home is really important. And now that people are working from home, it’s 10 times because in a face to face meeting, when I get out my phone, you can see that and there’s still a little bit of social shame that goes along with it. Whereas now on zoom, I know that zoom has an attention feature, so there’s some ways to tell if people are paying attention, but there’s very little social shame when you just leave the box open and you start working on your email or surfing the web. So I think that she went the right direction and that’s exactly the way that your listeners need to go when they’re thinking about, is this really a risk worth taking? I think those risks are necessary or else you’re irrelevant.
Victor Ahipene: That’s brilliant. Well, talking about suspense and holding it for all the way to the end, this has been an absolutely brilliant episode and I know a lot of people are going to get a lot of benefit out of it. For those people out there who have heard that you’ve got a book or they’re wanting to find out how they can work further with you, where can they go and what can they do?
Christine Clapp: Well, thanks for asking. We are on Twitter, @spokenauthority. We’re also on LinkedIn, Spoken with Authority and of course our website, Spokenwithauthority.com are all great ways to get connected with us and we look forward to having that community of folks to learn more about how to be great speakers and how to fulfill leadership potential.
Victor Ahipene: That’s brilliant. Well we’ll link all of that at publicspeakingblueprint.com. Look, Christine, it’s been absolutely amazing. I really appreciate your time. We welcome you into our speaking nation family and I look forward to hopefully when the world allows people to talk in person again, that we hopefully cross paths sometime in the near future.
Christine Clapp: I would love that. Stay well, stay healthy.