Presentation Mastery: What You Can Really Learn From Obama’s Oratory Skills: This Isn’t Acting

When someone makes the difficult look easy, we tend to label him or her “a natural.” President Barack Obama is no exception.

His ability to move people through soaring rhetoric and appealing rhythms of his delivery is now the stuff of legends. Detractors often attribute the president’s strong popularity in large part to his oratorical skills, not his ideas. It is the president’s personae and sheer natural magnetism at work they insist, nothing more.

The problem with the argument is that it assumes good communication skills are the same as good acting skills. It presumes that intent and belief by the speaker in what is said is irrelevant, and that, cynically, people can’t tell the difference. It’s that one assumption, that substance takes a back seat to style (and sometimes isn’t even riding in the same car), that holds back many if not most executives from communicating effectively in public.

Any executive looking to improve presentation skill or public speaking confidence must first understand the basics.

In fact, acting and presenting are not the same. In the real world, ideas and words have to align with what an audience knows or thinks they know about a subject and speaker. Contrary to popular notion, assuming audience ignorance or indifference of your own involvement is dangerous. In fact, what other reason is there in this day and age to expect others to leave their offices and devote valuable time listening to presentations or speeches, if not for the audience being able to “see for themselves” whether and how the speaker and his or her ideas resonate? If the speaker really made no difference in our judgment, then all communication could take place out of sight or in written formats.

There are still powerful reasons for us to watch someone communicate their ideas and to judge their veracity and effectiveness for ourselves. The president’s communication mastery is no lucky accident. Mr. Obama has developed his strengths as a public communicator precisely by understanding the links between his ideas and the way those ideas can most powerfully persuade others; techniques any executive can borrow from:

  • Start with what you know. Yes, there will be times when you do not have or cannot address the full picture. Get rid of your discomfort through preparation and practice. Work to build your presentation or speech around those areas you are comfortable addressing. If you are forthcoming about what you do know, your audience will understand if you do not have all the answers immediately.
  • Don’t speculate about what you don’t know. Being forthcoming does not mean taking a stab at addressing every possible concern or question on the topic, regardless of your expertise. Be clear on your purpose for presenting or speaking, and the value you bring on that topic to your audience. Don’t seek to lecture. Seek to communicate.
  • Be clear. Never leave an audience wondering what your position is, why they are listening to you or what you expect them to do with the information you’re giving them. Of all the things you could say about your topic, only choose the things that are relevant to your audience and that they need to know.
  • They’re listening, not reading. Write and speak “for the ear”, the way you normally communicate orally. Your audience cannot re-read your remarks, so seek to be understood the first time. Use a natural communication style, enunciating your words and using the vocabulary you’re comfortable with.
  • Let them judge. Understand your audience is looking for your perspective, not just data. Welcome their attention and build on it with examples, stories and experiences, not just facts. Relate those facts and data to some larger points and conclusions. Look for something to give your audience that they couldn’t have gotten from you any other way than by watching and listening.

Powerful public speaking and presentation skills aren’t “bestowed” on a few lucky individuals. They take work and practice. Start with something you want to communicate, match it with your strengths as a communicator, and leave the acting to actors.

Aileen Pincus is President of The Pincus Group Inc., an executive firm coaching firm offering training in presentation, speech, media and crisis communications. She can be reached at


Public Speaking: Getting Past the Fear Factor

Mark Twain said it best: “There are two types of public speakers: those who are afraid and those who are liars.”

Even for those of us who enjoy it, public speaking can be intimidating. It is, after all, a moment alone in the spotlight; a moment when for some brief time, all eyes are on you, listening to what you have to say. Even the most confident of public speakers will sometimes wonder, “Will I meet their expectations this time?”

Why then, do we do it? Why do we subject ourselves to the work, the practice, and the (dare I say it) the need to summon up our courage enough to speak in public? Why do we need to meet the fear head on and achieve mastery at this particularly intimidating form of communication?

The answer is that, without a level of proficiency in speaking publicly, we have no real hope of informing, let alone persuading others beyond our immediate colleagues, about the strength of our ideas. Public speaking is the best way we have for letting those we don’t work with closely every day hear our ideas and, by extension, witness our competence and our skill. For anyone in a leadership position, or aspiring to hold one, communicating only in writing or through individual meetings attended by a few colleagues isn’t an option. Choosing to leave the communicating to others isn’t an option either if you want to establish yourself as a leader.

How is anyone to know these ideas or statements really are yours? How are they to judge the strength to which you hold those ideas or the passion you have for them if you won’t show them? How is our audience to be persuaded about the soundness of a position we hold, the knowledge behind that position, or rightness or the truth of it, if we can’t communicate our ideas ourselves? Email, printed reports, and third parties just can’t substitute for “being there.”

Leaving the communication to others means leaving the leadership to others.

If you want to lead in any capacity, public speaking is one of the necessary tools you’ll need; as necessary a tool in your leadership toolbox as a command of language itself.

But what if you already know how powerful public speaking skills can vault careers and help sustain existing ones. What if you’re convinced but have allowed fear to hold you back?

Again, we can turn to the words of Mark Twain who defined courage not as the absence of fear, but as the mastery of it.

For anyone who fears public speaking, (and that would be just about anyone who has considered it), how do we master our communication power and become powerful public speakers? You CAN learn to communicate, share, inform, entertain and persuade others, and get past the fear factor.

Begin with 6 basic steps that all successful public speakers have mastered:

  • 1. Preparation is Key The single most important thing you can do to boost your confidence as a public speaker is to be prepared. That means not only knowing your subject, but knowing your audience and what they need to hear from you on a given subject, on a given day. Preparation means always respecting your audience enough to do your homework, no matter how well you may know your data. A case in point: Researchers and entrepreneurs often seek our help before addressing target audiences such as investors. Communication coaches like me don’t get paid to tell such clients what they already know about their own work. Instead, we coach them toward powerful communication of what they know, for a specific purpose. In this case, we work toward understanding what their targeted audience of investors needs and wants to know about their idea or product, to allow for buy in and a motivation to act. Similarly, learn to think of your audience as investors in your ideas. What is it you need to say to them and that they need to hear from you?
  • 2. Assume Good Intentions  If your audience didn’t want to hear what you had to say, they wouldn’t be there. If you’re unsure of why your audience came, you’re both in for a rough time. Even those you’ve never met have expectations about what you’ll say and what they’ll learn from you. Make sure you understand those expectations of your audience so you can better meet them. Arrive early so you can speak one on one to some in your audience ahead of time and discover those expectations for yourself. Greeting members of your audience this way will also humanize them for you, and help take away some of the fear of the unknown that is the “audience.”
  • 3. Channel those nerves Don’t seek to get rid of those fears (especially not by camouflaging them with artificial means like alcohol). Understand instead that your fear is really energy you’ll need to channel into your speech for a good performance. Blow a bit of the ‘froth’ off that energy by expending some physical exercise—a brisk walk, or deep-knee bends if you can—like an athlete might do before a race. Several deep breaths with slow exhalation really will help you slow a racing heart and help you focus. Continued deep breathing from the diaphragm as you speak will also help you control your voice and the level of your projection. Remember, your audience likely has no idea of your fear, unless you tell them (and you don’t want to tell them). Doing so will only lower their expectations. If you need extra help in those first moments—consider opening with a question to the audience, asking for a show of hands or displaying a prop. Getting the focus off yourself, even momentarily, may give you the boost you need.
  • 4. Take a risk Many who fear speaking in public retreat behind their materials. This is why audiences have come to dislike powerpoint and podiums. We in the audience want to see the presenter present. It is, in fact, why we’ve come. Disappearing behind the podium or literally turning your back to the audience at best is disappointing and boring and, at worst, annoying. Being read a script comes a close second for techniques that try an audience’s patience. They’d much rather catch a glimpse into the real person behind the data show or the printed speech. Think of public speaking as an opportunity to engage your audience with a story, your story. Try speaking to the audience in a way they can actually relate to and retain. Don’t tell them everything you know about a given subject. Try setting aside your materials, from time to time, to really communicate a bigger picture than data or facts can provide. If you are to gain confidence while you’re up there, it’s essential to take in feedback from your audience—and that takes eye contact. They have to see you are engaged and interested to catch engagement and interest. The energy coming back to you will help fuel a better performance.
  • 5. Visualize success Don’t allow yourself to focus on the worst of what could happen and indulge your fears—Replace that image by concentrating on how successful you’ll be at delivering your speech or presentation. Think ahead about how you’d handle any mishaps. Powerpoint meltdown? No problem— you know how to begin your talk without it, while the problem is being worked on. Notice some in the audience losing interest? No problem—you’ve already considered how you’d shake things up with some interaction with the audience and a change of pace. Tough questions after your presentation? You’re ready, having already prepared for the toughest anyone might throw at you. Visualize a successful outcome for every negative you throw at yourself. And remember, it’s not the mishap or the mistake we in the audience will remember, but the way you handled it.
  • 6. Engage The single most important factor to success as a public speaker is to show up. That’s right. You can’t win if you don’t play. Confidence isn’t something others can give you and it’s more than just a state of mind. It comes from real experience. Allow yourself to engage so you can have those real experiences that success in public speaking will provide you. All of it: preparation, assuming your audience wants to hear you, harnessing positive energy, taking risks, and allowing yourself to visualize success are basic to communication success. But you can’t tap any of those ingredients and put them to work for you and your good ideas, if you won’t allow yourself to get out in front of others. Don’t allow others to speak for you, whatever your job. Seize the initiative and begin accumulating the successes that will allow you to take on new public speaking challenges. You’ll be amazed at the reaction of others to your ideas, your authority and your leadership, when you finally begin speaking in public.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.


On Executives and Elevators – Perfecting the ‘Pitch’

If you’re an executive, you probably already know the value of a powerful ‘elevator pitch’; that thirty second dazzling display of verbal brilliance designed to deftly sum up your position, your product, your qualifications or your company.

You also know just how tough it is to master the art of explaining your “unique selling proposition” in the time it takes an elevator to travel the length of a tall building. You know your business, product, service or issue well, but where do you begin in explaining it to someone else? What do you highlight? What do you leave out?

Whether you’re seeking votes, customers, a job, a partnership, or simply understanding, you have to know what to say and how to say it when faced with the opportunity to meet a key decision-maker. Perfecting your elevator pitch helps you explain yourself clearly and to best effect, giving you an edge in all executive communication.

How then to develop a powerful elevator pitch? Here are some brief tips to help you develop your pitch or perfect the one you use:

  1. Know who’s catching
    Your pitch is far more likely to be accurate if you know your target. Everything you say has to be aimed at your listener and center on what you, your service or product can do for them. Make sure your entire pitch is about them. Don’t waste time highlighting your awards, your record or other markers of your success, unless you know how those relate to what your listener needs to hear. Leave out supportive data, long stories, detailed examples and anything that isn’t about ‘the bottom line.’
  2. Stay away from platitudes
    Every business says it’s “customer-focused” and “results oriented.” Every would-be hire calls themselves “reliable” and an “out of the box” thinker. Every department believes they’re unique, and every cause believes it’s “just.” Ever hear of a startup that didn’t believe it had found a “winning strategy”? Find the uniqueness of what you’re offering and be able to explain why your audience should care. This is not your mission statement. It’s your core delivery.
  3. Preparation is the key to confidence
    Don’t ever “wing it.” A first impression only happens once. Respect your audience enough to prepare well, including arming yourself with succinct answers to the toughest questions that might follow your pitch. Be flexible enough to be guided by your listener. If he or she interrupts with questions, make sure you answer them.
  4. Solve a problem
    Don’t just offer capabilities, opinions or a suite of services. You’ve got to focus on the problem you solve; the solution you offer to this specific audience. If your audience has to ask “How does this help me?” or “Why should I care?” you’re in trouble.
  5. Let the passion show
    Facts actually DON’T speak for themselves. They can move heads, but it takes emotion to move hearts. Let your listener hear the commitment in your voice and your words. Let them see your involvement with direct eye contact and confident body language. An elevator pitch is not a dry recitation of facts delivered neutrally. If you want to move someone to take action, you have to show them you care.
  6. Call for action
    Give your listener something to do with the information they’ve just received. Make clear what you want to have happen and the suggestions or alternatives you are proposing. Talk about next steps, and make sure the action you want them to take is clearly understood.

Aileen Pincus is a former reporter,U.S. Senate executive staffer, and public relations executive, who now provides crisis and media training, as well as presentation and speech training, as president of her own communications firm in Maryland.


Presentation Skills: The How To’s of an Effective Welcome Speech

They’re short and not generally substantive. That’s why welcoming speeches don’t tend to get the respect they deserve in the realm of speech making. Seen as what they are though: an important first chance to make a good public impression, and it becomes clear why this deceptively simple task should never be overlooked.

Welcome speeches by definition should be more about the audience than the host. The aim is put invited guests at ease, get the proceedings off to a good start, and to set expectations for what is to come. As important as these goals are, welcome speeches are also opportunities to give the right impression–of the hosts and the individual speaker specifically.

Rush through these opening remarks, and you risk leaving the impression the event isn’t taken all that seriously, or isn’t well organized. Spend too long at the welcoming remarks, and your audience may have cause for concern about whether their time is going to be well spent.

Here are some tips and techniques executives can use for an effective welcome:

  1. Be a good host.

    As you compose your remarks, picture yourself hosting a group at your own home. Strive to strike the same tone of good-natured familiarity and ease. By all means, single out special guests, but be sure to include remarks that include everyone as well. Don’t make the list of individual recognition too long or detailed, or you may risk offending those not singled out for recognition.

  2. Keep it short.

    Welcome speeches are opening remarks that set a tone, not substantive speeches of any duration. Keep them just long enough to welcome attendees, recognize a few special guests, share your goals for the event and thank everyone for participating. Don’t get into any substantive details of the proceedings.

  3. Do introduce yourself.

    Even if you are reasonably certain most in the room know your name and position, do take a moment to give yourself an introduction. This is your opportunity to personalize your welcome and to show your sincere pleasure your guests are there.

  4. Practice good delivery techniques.

    Do make sure the audience will be able to hear you from any vantage point. Maintain eye contact as much as possible with your guests during these brief remarks. If possible, practice your remarks at the site of the actual event so that you know where you’ll be standing, whether you’ll be wearing a microphone, and how you’ll sound. Avoid reading your remarks if possible, so you can be sure and sound genuinely welcoming and prepared.

  5. Use humor wisely.

    It’s hard to recover from a joke that isn’t received well, so if you’re not comfortable using humor generally in public forums, this isn’t a good place to start. Never open with a joke at someone else’s expense. It’s a good idea to vet your remarks with someone else before taking the stage.

Welcome remarks are an excellent opportunity to showcase your confidence and your goodwill toward your guests. Do spend time preparing as you would any other public speech and make sure that first impression is a powerfully effective one.

Aileen Pincus is President of The Pincus Group Inc., an executive training firm offering media training, presentation skills training, speech training and crisis media communications. She can be reached at


Investor Presentations Basic Training

Few appearances will test your ability to communicate well more than the investor presentation. Doing your homework, settling on strategy, developing messages, honing a pitch and delivering it well, will take time and a lot of practice. However, the judgment of your performance will be swift. Your audience will decide within the opening minute of your pitch, whether they want to hear more.

With so much at stake, there is simply no room for error on the basics. Investors won’t be sold on a good idea poorly presented. However powerful your product or idea, your presentation must be targeted to this very specific audience to be successful. Keep these basics in mind when preparing for your investor presentation:

  • Where’s the beef? It’s simply not enough to explain your product or idea. Investors want to know whether that product or idea presents a worthwhile market opportunity for them. You must show you understand this potential and have done your homework well enough to be able to describe it from their point of view.
  • Know the lay of the land: Know what others are doing in your field and how your idea or product stacks up to the competition. Who are your competitors, and what makes your product unique in comparison to them?
  • Short and succinct: Investors will not invest in something they cannot understand or explain easily to others. No matter how complex or sophisticated your idea is, you simply have to be able to talk about it in a way that anyone, even those outside your field, can understand.
  • Confidence is catching: Enthusiasm and confidence are essential in convincing investors of the need and worth of your idea. Hone and practice your pitch as much as possible to nail this one.
  • Present like a pro: Keep your pitch short and powerful with a clear flow and a logical progression. Don’t forget to close the deal with a call to action and a clear “ask” about what you’ll need financially to make this investment a success for all.

Remember to let your passion and your confidence shine through. Invest in your presentation and your investors are more likely to invest in you.

Aileen Pincus is founder of The Pincus Group, providing communications training worldwide.