Editor's Note: This is a guest post by BrainPickings “The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized.” The art of giving a great presentation has occupied humanity for as long as recorded history can trace, from ...


George Plimpton on the Art of Public Speaking and How to Overcome Stage Fright and more...

George Plimpton on the Art of Public Speaking and How to Overcome Stage Fright

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by BrainPickings

“The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized.”

The art of giving a great presentation has occupied humanity for as long as recorded history can trace, from the great oratory schools of Ancient Greece to the TED era.

In How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 timeless rules of writing, Bill Cosby’s 3 proven strategies for reading faster, and James Dickey’s beautiful essay on how to enjoy poetry — legendary Paris Review editor George Plimpton shares his secrets of combating the fear of public speaking.

He begins with an emphasis on doing your homework, with a grounding reminder of what research meant a generation before the age of Google, email, and Wikipedia:

The more you sweat in advance, the less you’ll have to sweat once you appear on stage. Research your topic thoroughly. Check the library for facts, quotes, books, and timely magazine and newspaper articles on your subject. Get in touch with experts. Write to them, make phone calls, get interviews to help round out your material.

In short, gather — and learn — far more than you’ll ever use. You can’t imagine how much confidence that knowledge will inspire.

He advocates for setting the tone quickly and purposefully, in line with the main objective of your speech:

An audience makes up its mind very quickly. Once the mood of an audience is set, it is difficult to change it, which is why introductions are important.


There are four main intents in the body of the well-made speech. These are (1) to entertain, which is probably hardest; (2) to instruct, which is the easiest if the speaker has done the research and knows the subject; (3) to persuade, which one does at a sales presentation, a political rally, or a town meeting; and finally, (4) to inspire, which is what the speaker emphasizes at a sales meeting, in a sermon, or at a pep rally.

Plimpton stresses the importance of sounding spontaneous and — ironically, but without irony — offers some tips on staging spontaneity:

The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized. I’ve found it’s best to learn a speech point by point, not word for word. Careful preparation and a great deal of practicing are required to make it come together smoothly and easily. Mark Twain once said, ‘It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.’

“No speech was ever too short,” a duo of legendary admen famously advised, and Plimpton agrees: He wrote this the year TED was founded and, like any great oracle of culture, he intuited the format-meme that TED would eventually rein in, arguing for the supremacy of the 20-minute talk over the hour-long academic-style lecture:

As anyone who listens to speeches knows, brevity is an asset. Twenty minutes are ideal. An hour is the limit an audience can listen comfortably.

In mentioning brevity, it is worth mentioning that the shortest inaugural address was George Washington’s — just 135 words. The longest was William Henry Harrison’s in 1841. he delivered a two-hour, nine-thousand -word speech into the teeth of a freezing northeast wind. He came down with a cold the following day, and a month later he died of pneumonia.

He shares a counterintuitive insight about the size of the audience:

The larger the crowd, the easier it is to speak, because the response is multiplied and increased. Most people do not believe this. They peek out from behind the curtain, and if the auditorium is filled to the rafters, they begin to moan softly in the back of their throats.

Plimpton concludes with a few related words of wisdom on stage fright:

Very few speakers escape the so-called ‘butterflies.’ There does not seem to be any cure for them, except to realize that they are beneficial rather than harmful, and never fatal. The tension usually means that the speaker, being keyed up, will do a better job. Edward R. Murrow called stage fright ‘the sweat of perfection.’ Mark Twain once comforted a fright-frozen friend about to speak: ‘Just remember they don’t expect much.’ My own feeling is that with thought, preparation and faith in your ideas, you can go out there and expect a pleasant surprise.

And what a sensation it is — to hear applause.


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All Stories Are the Same

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from The Atlantic

From Avatar to The Wizard of Oz, Aristotle to Shakespeare, there’s one clear form that dramatic storytelling has followed since its inception.

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all.

Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical. Some have even accused James Cameron of stealing the Native American myth. But it’s both simpler and more complex than that, for the underlying structure is common not only to these two tales, but to all of them.

Take three different stories:

A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom …

It’s the story of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the story of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem published some time between the eighth and 11th centuries.

And it’s more familiar than that: It’s The Thing, it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Godzilla, it’s The Blob—all films with real tangible monsters. If you recast the monsters in human form, it’s also every James Bond film, every episode of MI5, House, or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Scream, Psycho, and Saw. The monster may change from a literal one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a corporation in Erin Brockovich, but the underlying architecture—in which a foe is vanquished and order restored to a community—stays the same. The monster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure, or a boy’s mother in Ordinary People. Though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical.

Our hero stumbles into a brave new world. At first he is transfixed by its splendor and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister . . .

It’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars, and Gulliver’s Travels. And if you replace fantastical worlds with worlds that appear fantastical merely to the protagonists, then quickly you see how Brideshead Revisited, Rebecca, The Line of Beauty, and The Third Man all fit the pattern too.

When a community finds itself in peril and learns the solution lies in finding and retrieving an elixir far, far away, a member of the tribe takes it on themselves to undergo the perilous journey into the unknown …

It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morte D’Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down. And if you transplant it from fantasy into something a little more earthbound, it’s Master and Commander, Saving Private Ryan, Guns of Navarone, and Apocalypse Now. If you then change the object of the characters’ quest, you find Rififi, The Usual Suspects, Ocean’s Eleven, Easy Rider, and Thelma & Louise.

So three different tales turn out to have multiple derivatives. Does that mean that when you boil it down there are only three different types of story? No. Beowulf, Alien, and Jaws are ‘monster’ stories—but they’re also about individuals plunged into a new and terrifying world. In classic “quest” stories like Apocalypse Now or Finding Nemo the protagonists encounter both monsters and strange new worlds. Even “Brave New World” stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Witness, and Legally Blonde fit all three definitions: The characters all have some kind of quest, and all have their own monsters to vanquish too. Though they are superficially different, they all share the same framework and the same story engine: All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home.

But these tenets don’t just appear in films, novels, or indeed TV series like Homeland or The Killing. A 9-year-old child of my friend decided he wanted to tell a story. He didn’t consult anyone about it, he just wrote it down:

A family are looking forward to going on holiday. Mom has to sacrifice the holiday in order to pay the rent. Kids find map buried in garden to treasure hidden in the woods, and decide to go after it. They get in loads of trouble and are chased before they finally find it and go on even better holiday.

Why would a child unconsciously echo a story form that harks back centuries? Why, when writing so spontaneously, would he display knowledge of story structure that echoes so clearly generations of tales that have gone before? Why do we all continue to draw our stories from the very same well? It could be because each successive generation copies from the last, thus allowing a series of conventions to become established. But while that may help explain the ubiquity of the pattern, its sturdy resistance to iconoclasm and the freshness and joy with which it continues to reinvent itself suggest something else is going on.

Storytelling has a shape. It dominates the way all stories are told and can be traced back not just to the Renaissance, but to the very beginnings of the recorded word. It’s a structure that we absorb avidly whether in art-house or airport form and it’s a shape that may be—though we must be careful—a universal archetype.

Most writing on art is by people who are not artists: thus all the misconceptions.

—Eugène Delacroix

The quest to detect a universal story structure is not a new one. From the Prague School and the Russian Formalists of the early 20th century, via Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, many have set themselves the task of trying to understand how stories work. In my own field it’s a veritable industry—there are hundreds of books about screenwriting (though almost nothing sensible about television). I’ve read most of them, but the more I read the more two issues nag away:

1. Most of them posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?

2. None of them asks “Why?”

Some of these tomes contain invaluable information; more than a few have worthwhile insights; all of them are keen to tell us how and with great fervor insist that “there must be an inciting incident on page 12,” but none of them explains why this should be. Which, when you think about it, is crazy: If you can’t answer “why,” the “how” is an edifice built on sand. And then, once you attempt to answer it yourself, you start to realize that much of the theory—incisive though some of it is—doesn’t quite add up. Did God decree an inciting incident should occur on page 12, or that there were 12 stages to a hero’s journey? Of course not: They’re constructs. Unless we can find a coherent reason why these shapes exist, then there’s little reason to take these people seriously. They’re snake-oil salesmen, peddling their wares on the frontier.

I’ve been telling stories for almost all my adult life, and I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working on some of the most popular shows on British television. I’ve created storylines that have reached over 20 million viewers and I’ve been intimately involved with programs that helped redefine the dramatic landscape. I’ve worked, almost uniquely in the industry, on both art-house and populist mainstream programs, loved both equally, and the more I’ve told stories, the more I’ve realized that the underlying pattern of these plots—the ways in which an audience demands certain things—has an extraordinary uniformity.

Eight years ago I started to read everything on storytelling. More importantly I started to interrogate all the writers I’d worked with about how they write. Some embraced the conventions of three-act structure, some refuted it—and some refuted it while not realizing they used it anyway. A few writers swore by four acts, some by five; others claimed that there were no such things as acts at all. Some had conscientiously learned from screenwriting manuals while others decried structural theory as the devil’s spawn. But there was one unifying factor in every good script I read, whether authored by brand new talent or multiple award-winners, and that was that they all shared the same underlying structural traits.

In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.

Cont >>

photo credit: Ignacio Martínez Egea


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Sales Training 2017 Outlook: Content, Access and Relevance

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Content Raven

Sales training is a $5 billion dollar industry, according to Sales Performance International and companies spend as much as $30,000 or more training individual sales reps.

We know that sales training is big business with big investments. In 2016, sales trainers realized that the high cost instructor-led training sessions that take sales teams out of the field and seat them in conference rooms was ineffective.  In its place sales trainers relied more on sales coaches and peer leaders,  social media and gamification.

The sales training outlook for 2017 includes many of the same initiatives that were introduced in 2016. However, in 2017 these sales training programs will be more fully implemented with greater participation levels from sales teams. As a result, sales trainers will see an increased return on investment in their overall training spend.  By switching away from costly events to one-on-one, or self-paced training labs, sales trainers will deliver far more instruction, offer much more in-depth knowledge and ultimately, have a greater impact on closed business.

Here are five key elements that will play a big role in sales training in 2017.

1. Content is (Still) King

Whether delivered via instructor-led training sessions or online, in 2017 content will still be king. Sales trainers must provide good, high-quality, highly relevant content or risk the worst fate – being ignored by the sales team. In online sales training there is a greater need for short, engaging and easy-to-consume content delivered via secure, enterprise YouTube or a secure content delivery system.  In fact, in 2017 more sales training content will be needed than ever before, as sales reps have become increasingly adept at content consumption.Learning paths, which can turn sales reps into experts in the field, require in-depth information delivered in measured sections.

2. Time is Money

Time is money is a cliche, but it is also true for many sales reps. As they rush from one sales meeting to the next a rep may have just five minutes to catch up on the latest product information or review a relevant industry success story. That is how  just-in-time situational sales training will turn five minutes into thousands of dollars worth of commission in 2017. We know that when reps can easily access short training videos and content right when they need it, they are more successful. They are also more likely to retain what they learn.

3. Accessibility Equals Capability

Of course it does no good if great content is available for just-in-time learning if it is not accessible. In 2017, sales trainers will put a bigger focus on making learning tools, content and video easily accessible via mobile apps with offline access. Offline accessibility is critical to reps who are unable to rely on high quality internet access, whether travelling internationally or driving through a dead spot.

4. Search and Discover

With accessibility a major theme in 2017, and content production at all time highs, it is no wonder that search will be a priority for sales trainers in 2017. In fact, a major theme for sales trainers this coming year will be“learning at the speed of search” which means making content easily discoverable via Amazon-like advanced search and filtering functions.

5. Strategic Direction

This will also be the year that sales trainers tightly align eLearning with strategic business goals, ensuring that appropriate content is promoted at the right time to helps reps sell solutions that fit within the company’s strategic priorities. In 2017 sales trainers will use eLearning tools like gamification and promotions to encourage sales reps to engage in  content that matters to corporate growth. 

Sales training in 2017 will be all about making it easy for sales reps to learn, use and retain knowledge.

photo credit: Kevin Jarrett


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5 Ways E-Learning Enables Effective Sales Training

Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post by Content Raven

Sales trainers are smart people. They know when something is broken, and if The Bridge Group is correct and sales reps are only meeting their quota half of the time, then something is very broken.  It is clear that sales kick off events, in-room presentations, and mandated day-long training sessions are not working for the 50 percent of today’s sales learners who are failing to meet quota. E-learning programs can fix many of the problems with sales training.

Sales reps are human, and we know that humans only retain about a quarter of what they see or hear, and lose 80 percent of information if they do not use it within two weeks of learning it. As a result, sales training executives are looking to replace costly and limiting classroom, instructor-led training with newer, more effective e-learning programs that deliver knowledge to reps exactly when they need it.

Successful sales reps must establish a diverse knowledge set. They must know their product line in depth, but also must know successful selling strategies, their customers’ unique challenges, competitive differentiators, industry-specific requirements, budgets and forecasts. To expect a sales rep to learn and retain all of this information in quarterly or even monthly training sessions is unfair to the sales rep and the trainer. Instead, sales reps need up-to-date, in-the-moment access to critical knowledge. That’s why e-learning solutions get the best results for sales trainers.

The best e-learning programs for sales trainers include the following five elements:

1) Just in Time Situational Learning

Sales reps need easy access to specific information related to their current deal or challenge, and they need that access anywhere and anytime. Just-in-time situational learning makes e-learning tools such as short pieces of content, case studies, testimonials, and best practices easily available to reps via mobile devices with offline access.

2) Learning at the Speed of Search

The immediacy of a sales reps need for specific e-learning content cannot be overstated. Learners today are learning at the speed of search. Sales reps need to be able to access relevant, up-to-date content with a quick search. By configuring e-learning systems via advanced search taxonomies and leveraging content categories, sales trainers make it easier for reps to find the content they need, even when they do not know exactly what they need.

3) End User Content Curation

Good sales training teams know that sometimes the best instructors are other sales reps. By empowering reps to catalog and share useful content with each other, sales trainers make sales reps a part of the e-learning process. 

4) Secure, Private Enterprise YouTube

With high speed broadband connections a universal given for most sales reps working in the U.S. and Europe, secure, private enterprise YouTube has become an efficient and effective e-learning tool. Now reps can record quick videos of successful case studies and share with colleagues, without the risk of sensitive information falling into a competitor’s hands.

5) Gamification 

We all know that the typical sales reps loves a competitive challenge and gamification is a great way to bring competition into e-learning. Badges, notifications and leaderboards inspire sales reps to compete against others on the sales team to complete e-learning programs first, or exemplify mastery of important sales skills.

It is clear that the sales training team is responsible for increasing the percentage of quota-meeting reps. With e-learning programs that deliver sales tools and information exactly when and where the rep needs it, sales training teams can move the needle on their sales team’s quota achievement.

photo credit: NEC Corporation of America


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5 Public-Speaking Tips TED Gives Its Speakers

from Forbes.com

“Presentation literacy” isn’t an option anymore, according to TED Talks curator Chris Anderson. “It’s a core skill for the 21st century.” Anderson calls presentation and public-speaking skills a “superpower” for those who want to express their ideas.

TED talks, which are viewed more than 1 billion times a year, have become the gold standard of public speaking. In his new book, TED Talks, Anderson gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the speakers who have made TED a global phenomenon. Here are five public-speaking tips that Anderson and the conference organizers give each speaker as they prepare to take a TED stage.

Make Eye Contact, Right From The Start

“At TED, our number-one advice to speakers on the day of their talk is to make regular eye contact with members of the audience,” writes Anderson. Speakers must build trust if they hope to make a connection with their audience. The best tool at a speaker’s disposal is one they’re wearing—a natural smile. “Great speakers find a way of making an early connection with their audience. It can be as simple as walking confidently on stage, looking around, making eye contact with two or three people, and smiling.”

Show Vulnerability

“One of the best ways to disarm an audience is to first reveal your own vulnerability,” according to Anderson. “Vulnerability is something to be treasured, not hidden from.”

Anderson is quick to point out, however, that vulnerability doesn’t mean “oversharing.” It’s important to be clear on the intention behind what you choose to share with the audience. “Is sharing done in service of the work on stage or is it a way to work through your own stuff? The former is powerful, the latter damages,” says Anderson. “Authentic vulnerability is powerful. Oversharing is not.”

Make ‘Em Laugh—But Not Squirm

Humor has become a secret weapon for many great speakers, and chief among them is educator Ken Robinson. His TED talk on schools’ failure to nurture creativity has reached 38 million views on TED.com. Robinson’s talk is insightful, thought-provoking, and entertaining—the magic formula for winning over an audience. Robinson begins with this observation about the conference: “It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away. In fact, I’m leaving.” He didn’t let up, keeping the audience in stitches and riveted at the same time.

In my own analysis, I calculated that Ken Robinson’s TED talk received about 2 laughs per minute, making his talk about as funny as the movie, The Hangover  (2.5 laughs per minute).

According to Anderson, “Audiences who laugh with you quickly come to like you. And if people like you, they’re much readier to take seriously what you have.” Both Anderson and I agree that humor in the form of anecdotal observations work more effectively than contrived jokes. “If you can find just one short story that makes people smile, it may unlock the rest of your talk,” says Anderson.

Park Your Ego

This is a great tip and it applies to any form of business communication. Don’t be boastful. Don’t be full of yourself. “Nothing damages the prospects of a talk more than the sense that the speaker is a blowhard,” writes Anderson. “Remember that the purpose of your talk is to gift an idea, not to self-promote.”

Tell A Story

Nearly every great TED talk begins with a story, and there’s a good reason why they do. Stories are irresistible. “Stories helped make us who we are… we love hearing stories and stories probably helped shape how our minds share and receive information,” Anderson writes.

In my own analysis of 500 TED talks I discovered that some of the most viral presentations were comprised of 65% to 72% story, or what Aristotle called “pathos.” Whether it’s Bryan Stevenson arguing for equal justice, or Sheryl Sandberg recommending that women “lean in” to the workplace, or Ken Robinson exposing the failures in our educational system, the talks we remember are memorable because the ideas are presented in narrative form.

According to Anderson, “The stories that can generate the best connection are stories about you personally or about people close to you. Tales of failure, awkwardness, misfortune, danger, or disaster, told authentically, are often the moment when listeners shift from plain vanilla interest to deep engagement.”

I agree with Anderson that public-speaking skills are teachable. The “superpower” is available to anyone and everyone. Watching TED talks is a good way to develop this power. As the global economy rewards people with great ideas, your ability to explain, inspire, inform and persuade is more important than ever.

photo credit: Steve Jurvetson


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