So you were bad?

So you were bad?

What you see from public speakers is usually just the outside.
The self-assurance, the exuberance, the flashy pictures.
The recommendations, the Facebook and Twitter posts.

Everything is going great, audiences love them, full agendas, interesting locations, deep messages and connections.

I call bullshit

We all have our off days.
We all have presentations that don’t quite go as we had wished for.
Feedback forms with some nasty comments.
Clients telling they didn’t like your message.
Lukewarm audiences.
Audience members that didn’t like your topic, your style, your face.
Being called out when you were wrong.
But most of all: that voice in your head telling you it wasn’t good enough.


Now there might be some speakers who are able to shrug that all off but I feel devastated afterwards when any of the above happens. To the point that I sometimes wonder why I don’t just go back to a secure desk job instead of putting my neck out there time and time again if I’m no good. Then I remind myself of impostor syndrome, I remind myself of my love for what I do, of my cause. And I start climbing out of the pit.

Because as a speaker, the show must go on. 

Impostor syndrome

Ever had the feeling that you don’t really belong where you are? That your accomplishments were mere luck? That you’re actually not good enough to be doing what you do now? That may be impostor syndrome. Here’s the good news: The fake, the cons and the real imposters never have this feeling. Impostor syndrome is the ‘privilege’ of people who are actually good at what they’re doing.

But even if you are generally good at what you’re doing, how do you handle the bad days?

What keeps you going?

Reason. This works better the more experienced you are. For me it helps to remember the times things went excellently, and juxtapose these with the bad performance. To analyse the bad performance to find out that it really was just one moment where I lost them but the rest was just fine. To realize that it is impossible to please 100% of your listeners, because we’re all different, and that’s ok.

Love. The love for what you’re doing, and the people in your audience. One smiling face should be enough reason to go on.

Cause. As a speaker you want to invoke change, you want to reach a goal that is bigger than you. You have a dream you believe in. If that doesn’t keep you going I don’t know what does.


Over the long term, I believe that these days where things didn’t work out help me improve my art most. I believe that the best reaction to negative comments, both from outside and inside is: work hard to get better. Analyse the problem and fix it.

Off days are great reminders that the art of public speaking is a mountain without a peak. Keep climbing!

A mountain without a top

In upcoming posts I will share some of my own experiences with “bad” presentations. I’d love to hear about yours, and how you handled them. Let me know!

The curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge

One of the most common traps speakers fall into is called the curse of knowledge.

They assume that the audience knows the same things they know.

It happens to all of us. We tend to forget the time and energy we put into acquiring the knowledge we have, we forget there was a time when we didn’t have that knowledge. We can no longer even imagine that people don’t have that knowledge.


One way to explain the curse of knowledge is with the tapping experiment:

Take a song that other people will know. Tap the rhythm on the table while you hear the melody in your head. Let the other people guess what it was. Most of the time, they won’t guess it. (Famous exceptions: Happy birthday and We will rock you)

This is the curse of knowledge: the melody is so clear in your head that it’s hard to imagine they won’t get it from the mere taps.

Now tell them the title of the song. If they know the song, and you tap it again, they will now hear the melody in their head as well.

And this is the way out: tell them. Explain. Give examples. Lead them to the melody.

How do you break the curse of knowledge?

So how do you overcome the tendency to speak about things they don’t know in a way they don’t understand?

Three tips:

  1. Don’t assume. Write out your speech and read it over with the mindset of a beginner. Ask the questions: what does this mean? Is it explained when it gets introduced? Better yet – let someone else read it.
  2. Talk to people in your audience before you start your presentation. Gauge their level of knowledge.
  3. Ask your audience during your presentation. Make a habit of asking if they can follow along, know what it is you’re talking about – if not, or when in doubt, explain.


Of course, when preparing your material you always need to make some assumptions. But that’s the material of another blog post.

Form vs value

Don’t get carried away with form.
That perfect gesture,
That clever synecdoche,
That voice modulation,
That charismatic glance.

Form is important.
Form carries content.
But form is not what speaking is about.

As a speaker your job is to deliver value.
Value for your audience.
Value for your client.

Focus on value first.
Touch the hearts & teach the brains.

Sure, improve your voice,
improve your stance,
improve your form.

But improve your value first.


The storyteller and the experiencer

The storyteller and the experiencer


Deep inside you lives an undividable soul, the real you, a core that knows what you feel and what you really want. Right?

Well, that view is a bit outdated.

As psychology advances we find that people seem to be more of a gaggle of different subsystems. You’re not a person. You’re a committee. No hidden homunculus.

Rule by committee


It is late, but tomorrow you have a lot of work. No problem, you say. I just set the alarm clock early and eat a big chunk out of my work first thing in the morning. I can do it!

Next morning. You wake up from the alarm. Grumpy. Put it on snooze. 9 minutes later: snooze again. I do NOT feel like getting up. What was I thinking yesterday?


The storyteller and the experiencer

Let’s look at two characters in the mind of our audience that are particularly important to speakers: the storyteller and the experiencer.

Your experiencer knows only one timeframe: now. It doesn’t care about past or future, all it does is measure how things feel now. Experience! It can be elated, satisfied, sad, enamored. But whatever it feels, it’s always there. In the moment. In the now. Fully.


And then there is the storyteller. The storyteller tries to make sense of your life. We can’t just be surrounded by random input, random thoughts, random encounters. Surely there needs to be some deeper meaning, some plan, some bigger story?

So the storyteller invents one – whether it’s right or not doesn’t matter. The storyteller uses the weaving loom and ties all the threads of your life together. That tapestry is what you remember, and the strings that didn’t fit are simply lost.

The storyteller

While the storyteller weaves your memories, the experiencer meanwhile forgets all about the original experience. But the storyteller’s memories can make it experience again.


Who is more important?

Obviously, both are important. But imagine this choice:

You are offered a free holiday. Either:

  • A week to a somewhat interesting location with somewhat interesting things to do and somewhat interesting people to meet. In other words, it’s better than nothing but far from stellar.
  • The holiday of  your dreams, whatever it is – that cruise to the south pole, the safari, a trip into low earth orbit, you name it.

One caveat: if you choose the second option, upon return all your memories (and photos) will be wiped, so you will have no recollection whatsoever of what you’ve experienced.

Which one do you choose?


Your audience is split as well

As a speaker you should be aware that every single member of your audience also has an experiencer and a storyteller.  What does this mean for your speech? Do you cater for both? Which one should you serve first, and how?

The answer is simple.

First, your speech needs to be an experience for them. The experiencer hands the threads to the storyteller to create the memory after all. If you fail to engage it, you fail to reach your audience.

In order to be an experience you don’t need to be good. You need to be different.

And then you feed the storyteller. Indirectly, through the experiencer. You want your message to be remembered. And what does the storyteller remember best? Stories! What kind of stories do you feed it? Lively stories! Because the storyteller gets fed by the experiencer!


The storyteller’s secret

In order to get to the secret of the storyteller in your head, I will need to share a bit of a dirty story. In a study in 1996 Kahneman and Redelmeier did research on colonoscopy patients. Colonoscopy, without going into further depth (oops), is known as a quite unpleasant experience.

In one group the catheter was removed as was the norm: immediately.

In the other group catheterization lasted about twice as long, but the last minutes the experience, though still unpleasant, became somewhat less so.

Overall, the experiencer experienced more pain in the second version. However, when asked afterward, the second version was considered a lot less painful by the storyteller.

It is called the peak-end rule, and it’s the storyteller’s secret. What the storyteller remembers of what you tell is the peak and the end, the rest will likely be forgotten. That’s life.

So what does that mean for your speech or your presentation? Pay special attention to the apotheosis and to the end. Let it flow like a good story, like a fairy tale, like a movie. If you work towards a climax and have a happy ending your audience will love it…

The last laugh

As over time your speech slowly fades in the memories of the audience, your story merges into their own stories. Funny enough, there is one thing that lasts: the memory of the experience.

As Maya Angelou put it so nicely:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

What type of speaker are you?


You’ve probably met a few of them.
They’re eloquent, they’re exuberant, they’re entertaining.
They are full of stories and examples. About themselves.
Off stage too, they know what’s important. Themselves.

They are the prototype inflated self-centric speakers.

And that is wrong.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.


Because it is not about the speaker.
It’s about the audience, right?
Your stories and examples need be relatable.
Your expressiveness, energy, and enchantment should be tailored towards their needs, not yours.

This is what I learned at Toastmasters.
And it’s absolutely correct.

But it’s not enough.


He who pays the piper calls the tune

But in the world of professional speaking there is a next step.
Sometimes you don’t give the audience what they want. Or need.
Because the audience is not your client.

It’s your client who pays the bills.
It’s your client whose agenda you need to adhere to.

So suddenly you need to be client-centric.

I found out after concluding a keynote on cyber security with the message that security can be easy and cheap. But I was hired by an insurance company to speak for potential customers and this was not the message my client wanted.

Ever since that day I make absolutely sure that I know what my clients want to achieve with my presentation.

But wait! There is more!

Now you could choose to be that kind of speaker that just does whatever the client wants. But…

We want to change the world, right?
Make it a better place
Help our audiences become wiser, more adept, energised.

What is your cause?

If what your clients wants you to do conflicts with it, do you take the job?

I believe the best speaker are cause-centric.
They believe in something that is bigger than themselves and they stick with it.

All together now

Self-centric. Audience-centric. Client-centric. Cause-centric.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could be a bit of every one of them?

To thoroughly enjoy yourself, giving the audience and your client value, while staying true to your cause? I believe it’s possible.
Not always, but often.

In my example above I could have reframed my message to include insurance. As I do believe insurance is part of the solution, everybody would have been happy.

What are you most centered on?

(Depending on where you stand any answer might be good*)


*yes, even self-centric. That takes some explaining. Which I won’t do here 🙂

pics: Gert Altman. Clip: Monty Python


Left! Right! Mirroring on stage.

Do you mirror in your presentations? When you gesture, do you translate your gestures for the audience?

Let’s assume you and your audience are from a left-to-right-writing culture. Then your imagery is also left to right.

  • Before is left, after is right.
  • Growth is a line from bottom left to top right.
  • Past, present, future is left, middle, right.
  • Pros are on the right, cons are on the left.

You get the idea.

For whom?

But whose left and right? Yours? Or the audience’s?

The answer of course should be: the audience’s. And that is called mirroring: you flip your gestures to make them more easily understandable for them. Does that matter? Yes, it does.

On a cognitive level they will be perfectly able to follow you if you don’t mirror, but you’re making it harder on the subconscious level. They have had a lifelong programming of what left and right are supposed to mean, and if you go against it you’re making your message fuzzy at best. It might even be that they don’t accept your reasoning but can’t really tell why. The unconscious is a powerful force.

Now of course this left-to-right is a cultural thing. Speaking to Arabs for example, your gestures need to be from right to left instead of left to right. For a mixed audience you’ll have to make it depend on the writing system of the language you’re presenting in.

Ad failure in Saoudi Arabia, where they read from right to left. Order matters.


If you don’t mirror – yet – it may take some training to get it ingrained in your system. After all, you have a lifelong conditioning as well. But mirroring is a habit that’s not too hard to gain.

How do you practice movement? By doing it. Consciously. For your next speech or presentation, go over your gestures. Any gesture that’s not symmetrical is a candidate to be flipped.

Do I mean to say that you have to rehearse and plan all your gestures? Of course not, I’ve seen speeches of people doing that, and it doesn’t look real. But in GETTING fluent in mirroring, you need to plan and rehearse those gestures that need to be mirrored. That means they may look a bit odd in the beginning, but you’ll soon grow over that, and start mirroring automatically.

Do YOU mirror?

Have you always done so, or did you train yourself to do so? If so, any tips?

Why you should tap into loss aversion to convince your audience

The psychology of public speaking

The psychology of public speaking

As a speaker it is your job to influence people. You want them to see a different point fo view, to take action, to change their lives. What tools do you use?

The first thing that usually comes to mind is to paint a beautiful vision of where they can end up if they take action. But a more powerful tool is to play into the general human tendency of  loss aversion.

Say, you want to convince your audience to write a book. How would you go about?

Would you stress the advantages of writing a book?
Or would you focus on the disadvantages of NOT writing a book?

Take a moment to think about it.


Although you might be inclined to take the positive approach, stressing what they would lose out on if they don’t take action might actually convince more people.

Loss aversion.

Banksy girl balloon

In our brains the downside is bigger than the upside. In our evolutionary past this was even stronger than it is today. These were times when one stupid mistake could lead to instant death. Careless people didn’t make it into the gene pool. The people who did, the careful, who didn’t take big risks, are our ancestors.


Empiric proof shows that a loss has an emotional impact that is twice as strong as a win. Loss aversion may lead to illogical decisions, but it leads to decision quickly.

So if you want to convince your audience, don’t argue about the potential benefits, mention the potential aversion of a loss.


Knowing the power of loss aversion it is extremely simple to add this tool to your presentations. It suffices to turn the benefits upside down.

Say, you want your audience to consider buying solar panels. Instead of telling them how much money they will save on the investment, you are much more convincing if you tell them that they can avoid losing that money if they don’t invest in solar.


So start convincing your audience by making use of their loss aversion.

It will make you a more impactful speaker. Or let me put that differently. You will never reach your potential as a speaker if you don’t use this technique.


pics by geralt, pixel2013 / pixabay