Lessons on Public Speaking (Feelings, Actions, Data)

See below for a blog post I’ve sent many, many times to folks on public speaking. Given it’s no longer online, I wanted to post it here for easier personal sharing and even to help anyone who finds this post.

To be super clear, this is a post from Dave Hitz’s blog back in 2007 and I want to fully attribute it to him. At the same time, I’ve thought enough about this over the years that it feels like my own content too. 🙂


Tom Mendoza’s Lessons on Public Speaking (Feelings, Action, Data)

This week I worked on a big presentation, so I thought I’d share some public speaking techniques I learned from Tom Mendoza.

Many people – especially technical folks like me – focus way too much on the data that they want to present to their audience. Tom always asks me how I want the audience to feel after my talk. Before I learned his technique, my answer would be something like, “I want them to feel that they understand the design goals and architectural details of ?”

At this point Tom would interrupt: “Feelings are one word. Angry. Proud. You know – emotions.” You can have a small phrase describing what the feeling is about. “Disappointed in our performance.” “Proud of our new release.”

Next, Tom would ask what I wanted people to do differently after my presentation. He argued: “If you don’t want them to do anything different, why are you wasting your time talking with them?” If you’ve reached an important milestone in a project, like a key code-freeze date, you might want people to feel proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, but to keep working hard until they’re done. If a project is way off track, the feeling of disappointment in the progress so far could motivate people to accept and engage a new approach. If a competitor is beating you, perhaps anger will help drive action.

Part of the trick is to choose actions and emotions that naturally reinforce each other.

When you are clear on the feelings and actions that you hope to inspire with your presentation, then, and only then, should you start to worry about the content – about what data to share to inspire those feelings. You can say, “I want you to feel excited about what you did,” but it might work better to show the sales figures or benchmark results that prove people did a good job. Then the audience will naturally be excited. Or if the results are bad, naturally disappointed.

When I start with feelings and actions, it makes my presentations much better. Good content is important, but it’s only a tool. Feelings and actions are the goal.

At first, I struggled with Tom’s method because I wanted to share too much information. Now, I’ve learned to appreciate the elegance of finding the smallest amount of data required to drive the feelings and actions I want. For exhaustive detail, a web site or white paper is a much better communication tool. Sometimes go read the white paper is the action I want to inspire. Even in a classroom setting, lectures don’t replace textbooks.

I used to worry that removing details would result in over-simplified presentations. Now I believe that my job as a public speaker is to over-simplify.

But I still try not to over-over-simplify.

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