Hans Rosling is waving his hands in the air, enthusing over the data on a PowerPoint slide behind him with the cadence and zeal of a sports announcer following a horse race. His exclamations — all concerning the economic health of various countries — are met by bursts of applause. His conclusion, that the world is in fact statistically migrating toward longer life spans and smaller families, receives cheers.
Rosling, a statistician, delivered this talk at TED in 2006, and it's still one of the best examples of a sticky, passionate presentation. It's hard to forget this man's enthusiasm for data and it's impossible to miss the way he inspired his audience.
Helping founders and technologists give powerful presentations that engage audiences is Joe Dolce's business, and Rosling is one of his favorite examples to share. As one of the most sought after media trainers and speaking coaches in the business — the go-to guy for PR experts like Brooke Hammerling — Dolce teaches people how to be magnetic and memorable.
For startups looking to capture attention and market share, having this skill on board is non-optional. It's crucial for technology leaders to get popular audiences and reporters excited about what they're building, and key to that is being able to explain it in simple, clear language and deliver it in a way that telescopes their enthusiasm. In this exclusive interview, Dolce breaks down what the world's best speakers do to come up with great content, turn nervousness into energy, and survive tough questions from the press.
Mastering Your Delivery
“The critical thing is connection,” begins Dolce.“Connecting to your material and your audience is everything.”
How can you create this sense of connection? It seems subjective and unscientific. Yet it can make or break your ability to convey a message. It begins with knowing what the hallmarks of connection are.
“When you look at what makes people memorable, it's vulnerability, enthusiasm, personal revelations,” says Dolce.“It's the ability to establish an emotional connection. When you set out to present something, you should ask yourself: What amount of personal information or character are you willing to show?"
What most people don't know is that the energy they bring to their topic will end up mattering just as much as their content. People listen when they're engaged. It won't matter how groundbreaking your data or announcement is if you don't hook people with how genuinely excited you are by it.
“That's what makes Rosling so effective — his energy is infectious and he provides context to all of those numbers and graphs. He makes the numbers apply to real life. Anyone who has a presentation with a lot of data should look to him as an example,” says Dolce.“Not everyone should jump up and down on stage —you have to be authentic to who you are —but your audience should feel how your material makes your heart race.”
To help his clients find the right level of expression, and to help them shake off their nervousness — he trains them to reframe what they're doing. Instead of seeing themselves alone on stage presenting memorized material, he urges clients to consider instead what they want togiveto their audience.
“With Rosling you know that he desperately wants the crowd to understand the significance of what he is talking about,” says Dolce. He's not just excited to be up there giving a TED talk.“Think of a time when you were so excited to see someone's reaction to something that you could barely wait to tell them. Eliciting that response should be the goal the next time you're presenting your company or making an announcement. If you focus on giving people something, on telling them something they didn't know, on tapping into some part of their imagination, you'll take your mind off yourself, and your energy will rise. It's a suble paradigm shift, but it creates huge results. It's what many actors do before getting on stage.”
When you're stuck or nervous, stop speaking at your audience and start thinking about what you want to give to them.
Dolce's other major weapon against nervousness is common sense, but commonly ignored: Preparation. “It's odd. We all have years of education but most people never truly learn how to speak in public. Just like any muscle, it needs to be exercised,” he says.
In his world, that means more than memorizing or practicing a speech. You need to capture feedback and make revisions constantly. Beyond that, it helps to have different means to express the same information in a variety of ways. Compulsively rehearsing the same version make you more rigid in your delivery, especially if you lose your place or get interrupted.
“By the time you get to your talk or right before an interview with a reporter, you shouldn't be memorizing anything,” says Dolce.“You should have it so internalized that you can spend that time before relaxing, breathing, and getting focused. By then, you should be able to structure what you want to say different ways depending on the audience and what you think they need.”
Getting feedback on your performance doesn't require a live audience.“I encourage clients to use their phones as a coach. Recording and playing back what they say helps them spot ticks and annoying habits,” says Dolce.“Presenting in front of people can feel really unnatural, so it's useful to spend some time alone zooming in on the things you want to fix before moving on to an audience.”
One of the most common and pernicious issues new speakers grapple with is leaning on the filler words“like” and“um.” To unlearn this speech style, Dolce suggests recording yourself describing an object in your home or office — for 90 seconds. You'll hear the ways you use filler words, see the patterns emerge, and with practice learn to take a pause or a breath instead.
“It's fascinating. Once you've become aware of filler words, you'll start to see how everyone uses them, yourself included,” says Dolce.
The other obstacle to being a compelling speaker (that can be smoothed out with self-recordining) is relying on industry jargon instead of colorful and expressive language that is easily understood. “Jargon works like a laxative on the brain,” he says. “It goes through and out. It's bereft of meaning. Do you want to be a leader in the space industry through team-centric innovation and strategic aerospace initiatives or do you want to put a man on the moon? It's the difference between speaking to 60 people andinspiring60 million people.”
Joe Dolceis the former Editor in Chief of Details Magazine. His presentation and media training company is based in NYC.
As a first step, create consciousness. Really hearing what you're doing is the key to change.
You can also use your phone to see and adjust how you hold yourself on stage. “Deliver just 2 to 5 minutes of your presentation while recording video — don't try to do too much at once — then watch it,” says Dolce.“It's fascinating, when I record clients, I don't have to offer much criticism. Everything they do wrong is revealed. It's a great mirror.”
But moving from awareness to change requires more than simple observation, so practicing in front of live people supplies the extra needed charge. But, Dolce says, choosing the right people for is critical. You want to pick people who fit the following criteria:
They will give you honest feedback — e.g. they aren't your employees.
They should be honest but knowledgeable about the proper way to give criticism. You don't want people who will crush your confidence or be insensitive. This means they should be directly or indirectly invested in your success (friends and family outside of work count).
They know how to pay attention to the positives as well as the negatives.“I like to say two positives for every negative. Anything else can be counterproductive.”
They know how to break things down into meaningful chunks of feedback. They don't attack 20+ things you did. Instead, they focus on larger themes, like the speed at which you spoke or the moments where they started losing attention.
At the end of your presentation have everyone in the room first state what they found most memorable. It's fascinating what people retain and will show you where you excelled. After that, have them grade you on the characteristics they were tracking. If multiple people were watching for the same thing, average their scores.“You'll arrive at a consensus on the areas you need to work on,” says Dolce.“It's a great guide on what to keep and what to scrap.”
Once you’re comfortable with the nuts and bolts of your delivery, you can optimize.And the place to start should be the first 15 seconds of your talk.
You have 10 to 15 seconds to get people to listen to you. Use that time to make a compelling case for yourself.
One of the biggest challenges every client faces is tearing their audience away from their phones. You have to provide more value or entertainment than their email, texts from friends, and the internet. It's possible, Dolce says, but it definitely doesn't sound like this:“Hi, I'm so-and-so, and I'm so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.”
“We're trained to begin that way,” he says.“But it's perfunctory and it's the easiest way to get people to tune out. Everyone in the audience knows who you are. You can introduce yourself later in your talk, after you've grabbed them. There's no need to waste your time on that — again, put your audience first.”
One of the best ways to grab attention is to ask a question that solicits a show of hands or a vote. Depending on the forum — especially if it's a professional event — this snaps them out of passive listening and engages them in what you're saying.
“I also like to tell a personal story. Some of the most effective talks I've seen start with the person relaying their 'creation myth' about how they got to where they are,” Dolce says.“It works on several levels. People always want to know how others succeeded. It subtly communicates your specialness and why people should listen to you. And it usually involves the most gripping aspects of storytelling — a challenge that had to be overcome.”
Data shows that people are most likely to remember how something started and how it ended, and — perhaps more importantly — how those moments made them feel. So, after you've nailed your opening, the next thing you need to think about is what you want your audience to take away. They don't have a lot of bandwidth, so it needs to be focused and succinct. “I call it the bumper sticker," says Dolce.
You want to leave your audience with one thing. You don't get two or three — the world is too noisy and complicated. You just get one.
Having a powerful opening and closing will organically elevate everything that comes between, Dolce says.“Suddenly you'll find yourself worrying less about your posture, or how you're holding your hands,” he says.“Mastering your content makes many other nervous ticks fade away because you're less focused on you.”
Telling Incredible Stories
“I see it so often — people are way too concerned with conveying a bunch of information, being the smartest person in the room. But that's not what makes someone A compelling speaker,” says Dolce.“Stories succeed when they help us relate. When we make others feel connected to us and our experiences.You don't want to be the smartest person in the room. You want to be the person that everyone else wants to talk to.”
So how can you construct these stories? Remember first that all great stories have a beginning, middle and end. That's what distinguishes them from a passing anecdote and makes them sticky. Within that narrative arc there is some opposition, frustration, difficulty or challenge that is overcome.
“This doesn't mean that your stories always have to end neatly tied with a bow or with you finding The Answer to The Big Question. The story could be about all the different things you tried that didn't work, leading to the conclusion that you're still trying or learning. And don't skip the details. What were the sights, sounds, tastes, smells? Who was there? How were you feeling? Details and color bring stories to life.”
He cites entrepreneur and investorGuy Kawasaskias a master storyteller. Not only does he tell personal stories about his history, what he learned, and how he failed — he paints nuanced pictures of these situations. And he does it with emotion, humor and energy.“I highly recommend watching Guy,” Dolce says.“He’s authentic. He’s opinionated. You may disagree with him, but he holds you rapt.”
Baking stories into your narrative also prevents you from sounding over-rehearsed and stiff. Drawing on stories that you've told friends and co-workers socially will enable you to repeat them comfortably. By telling them often, you’ll know what gets a laugh or a gasp or a“me too!” These are the kinds of stories you want to repurpose in presentations.
When practicing in front of your hand-picked focus group, assign someone to be on story-watch. Did you tell too many? Were any too long or unfocused? Interesting? Unexpected?Did you get lost in all the details? Was the narrative always driving forward?
Re-think your goals. If people like you, great. If they remember your name, even better. If they ask for your email afterward, you've won.
“The anatomy of being memorable has almost nothing to do with your slides — I promise,” says Dolce.“It's all about whether you related to your audience on an emotional level. Think back to the last party you went to. You probably saw 30 or 40 people. Now, who are the ones you remember talking to? Why? Because they made youfeela certain way. You probably remember less than half of what they actually said, but you remember the emotion. That's the way human beings are wired.”
Taking on Challenge and Controversy
Every public speaker has the fear of being asked a question they can't answer, or that could be potentially damaging. The danger is even more palpable when facing a reporter. As a former journalist, Dolce knows what can happen when someone who is unprepared falls prey to a tough question. He's spent years figuring out ways to trap subjects, so he knows the best way to avoid these situations.
“The best advice I have is to prepare, but in very specific ways,” he says.“First step, get all the facts. Make sure they are not your version of the facts. They must be the facts as anyone might see them. This will take some research, but it's so important to bust your own biases and misconceptions. All the facts may not be on your side, but that's life, and you have to make peace with it. And remember that facts don't always equal the truth of a situation.”
No matter what you're talking about, there are useful ways to prep for an interview:
Read up on the competition: Be familiar not just with the companies in your field or industry right now, but with those that may have come before. Be able to explain what you're doing in context of the wider industry, and be able to draw clear distinctions. Know how competitors position themselves so you can stand out with your own language and features.“If you don't think you have competition, you're not looking closely enough,” Dolce says.
When you lie, know that you will get caught. It's impossible to stay consistent.
Lying to the media comes with a host of negative consequences. It clutters the mind with extra information to keep track of. It distracts you. It ruins your momentum. It's time consuming. Bottom line, no matter what lying did for you in the moment, it will never be worth it.“Case in point: Brian Williams' credibility and career damaging lie about being shot at in a helicopter in Iraq. Sorry, Brian.It's pretty hard to misremember being shot at.”
But let's say you're backed up against a wall. You're about to make something up or venture into territory that you don't know well or admit something that could hurt your brand. This is where Dolce recommends “pivoting.” For this, he uses the “A-T-M” method —answer, transition, message.
It's a lot like another technique a lot of PR professionals suggest called "bridging" — where you use a reporter's question as a jumping off point to share tangentially-related information you want to spotlight. In a pivot, you answer the reporter's question, transition to another topic, then deliver a different message.
The key to mastering the pivot is practice. For a pivot to work, it has to be delivered naturally. Your face can't show doubt, and the pivot can't sound manipulative. You must offer information that has value. “Start by identifying the questions you dread being asked,” Dolce says. “It's worth working with your colleagues or PR firm to enumerate all of your possible weaknesses or vulnerabilities, so you can custom tailor your pivots. Think about how you might answer those questions with valuable information. It isn't only about pushing your agenda or trying to get them to write the story you want. You have to respect the fact that the reporter has a job to do just like you have a job. Good pivots serve both of you.”
This is one of the first exercises Dolce works through with his clients.“We start with the bad questions and create pivots. The goal is to create a neural pathway in the brain through repetition so that when the question hits, there's no hesitation or stumbling , no sweating, no impulse to say the wrong thing. All of these reactions can happen when you're caught unaware.”
When he media trains clients, Dolce's first order of business is to make them aware that their job is not to simply answer questions. “That is every neophyte's mistake,” he says. “Yes, your job is to provide quotable responses. But more importantly, it's to conveyyourmessage. You need to be able to get your message across in 10 different ways, be it through telling stories, sharing personal revelations, or citing helpful stats."
Before you go into any interview, you should know the five worst questions you could be asked.
The other easy thing you can do in advance is read a journalist's work. You don't have to dig deep — just read a few recent pieces. Get a sense for the type of information they look for and their tone.
"I recently read an interview with Airbnb Co-founder Brian Chesky in the Financial Times, and he did fine until the very end when he insisted on sharing his vision with the reporter," says Dolce. "It was Silicon Valley jargon, and the reporter ate him for lunch. If he had read the reporter's work, he might have known that was a no-go zone." Even the most accomplished founders and speakers can fall into a trap if they don't see it coming.
“You can start every interview on a positive note if you walk in and say, 'You know, I read your pieces on X, Y and Z... I really liked how you did this, or I really agree or disagree with your perspective on that,'” says Dolce.“It elevates the mood and creates a rapport.” Note: Brown-nosing is unacceptable. You don't need to say that they wrote the best thing you've ever read on a topic. Just say it got you thinking.
No matter what, never mistake a journalist for your friend (even if he or she is a friend in your personal life). Dolce has seen many founders make this mistake.“If you don't think of every interview as a campaign you're trying to win, you're missing something,” he says.“Reporters have a job and it's to get something juicy or colorful. Have that material ready for them, but I counsel clients to never speak off the record or on background. These distinctions are often meaningless — once it's said, you can't take it back.”Along the same lines, saying, 'no comment' is also off limits. It’s always self-incriminating.
If you're not willing to say something publicly, don't say it at all.
Instead of saying, "no comment," choose a pivot and go with it.
In all areas, preparation is your best defense. Putting in the work and energy can make the difference between a slam-dunk interview and an appearance that can haunt you and your business for years to come.