The creative process

The creative process


The outside world may not always be aware of it, but speaking is an art.

And art needs creativity.
And creativity is hard to control.

Right now I’m in the middle of creating a new presentation, on a topic I haven’t presented on before. I’m done with my research, reading, comparing, thinking (yes, speaking is science too).

Now I have to weave it all together in one exciting presentation. That’s where creativity kicks in. And even though you cannot control it, you can create the conditions that allows it to flourish.

We all have our systems for that (I hope!). Here are three things I do to get creative.

Laptop closed

The worst thing you can do is open up your laptop, fire up powerpoint and start typing up bullet points. Write, draw, think, daydream, discuss, try. I usually use these techniques before I fire up my trusty Macbook – not necessarily all of them, and not necessarily in order: it’s a creative process after all.

  • Mind mapping. I have collected my facts and stories (for which I did use my laptop), now I’m going to connect them. Big piece of paper, topic in the middle, as many colours pen as I can find, I connect the main ideas to the topic, connect the sub-ideas to the main ideas, and so on. I don’t have an order yet, but now I get an idea of what I could say. Usually in this phase I come up with at least one new main idea I hadn’t thought of before. My favourite location for mind mapping: the train. (For more on mind mapping try The mind map book by Tony Buzan)
  • Storyboarding. I take a big piece of paper, draw rectangles and fill them with drawings and keywords. The wild map of ideas gets linearized. Alternatively I can use flashcards for this, which allows me to easily swap blocks around.
    (These are the cards I use, but anything will do)
  • Napkinning. Just like painters often doodle on napkins and little sheets of paper I like to write (or draw!) parts of my speech on beer coasters or bils. Or anything.  Sometimes I keep them and later actually use them. Sometimes I throw them away.

And then I turn on my computer and continue to be creative with the slides (if I have them, of course)

Laptop closed


I try to start as early as possible for a new presentation. We all know that most of the work will be done in the last moment anyway, so why start early?

Because my early tries of finding stories, ideas, examples and facts prime my unconscious mind. Once I’ve done that I can safely wait for the deadline to appear, knowing that unconsciously I am making connections and generating new ideas. Of course, at moments these ideas pop up I do have to write them down.

And then, when it’s time to buckle up and do the work I find that most of the work is actually done. I just have to put it out there.



Your desk is an idea killer.

Hardly anyone gets brilliant ideas while sitting on that chair and staring at that screen.

When do the ideas come? Usually, when you are in an environment that, in your mind, is not connected with work. In no stress, no routine situations. In other words, in no desk situations..

So I prime my mind, and go for a walk. I bring a notebook (or just a smartphone) because I know that at least one good new idea will pop up. Not necessarily related to the current presentation though…


What is your process?

I believe the three points above are my most important creation-enablers. There’s more of course, like discussing my ideas with others, pseudo-random surfing the web, searching for awesome photographs, and so on.


We’re all different. If you have never tried the three ideas above, give them a go, and tell me if they work for you. If you use different techniques to get the creative juices flowing I’d love to hear from you as well. How do you get creative?



photos CC0: Melanie Simon,Arek Socha, mikegi. 

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


A quotation a day keeps the doctor away


By using a quote in your speech you borrow credibility from from a respected source. But how do you find the right quote for your topic? And how many should you use?

Less is more

To start with the last question: I would say just a few.

A seven minute speech could use one, maaaaaybe two. A half hour presentation perhaps up to four. But according to some, one quote ought to be enough for anybody.

If you borrow too much credibility people might start thinking you’re pretentious. Now you might think: Pretentious? Moi?

But I wouldn’t stretch it. I know very few people who can get away with more quotes. Actually, come to think of it, just one.

The act of repeating erroneously the words of another

Quotes are dangerous. One of the reasons is that they are often wrong. There may be several versions doing the round, and when you dig deeper – and you should – it turns out that the original is different from the version you wanted to use. Less sexy. And from someone else. Take this one:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

not Nelson Mandela

Now what do you do? Misquote, misattribute, and hope they don’t notice? You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?

Use the force, Harry -- Gandalf

If you chase fame, you make bad choices

Who do you quote?

Please don’t let it be Einstein, Mandela, Gandhi and Churchill again. Not only because the quote you just found on the internet is probably wrong and not by them, but because everybody knows they are the easiest choices.

Instead, try to find a quotation by someone known to your specific audience. That makes the quote a lot more intimate.

Nerds? Yoda quote
Humorous speech? Fake quote
Toastmasters? Smedley quote

You get the idea.

Train yourself to not just go for the first quote that pops up in your Google search, but to dig deeper. Quality is not an act, it’s a habit.

All’s well that ends well

But then! Then! If you omit the obvious, dig deep, and find a quote that resonates from a source, then you’ve struck gold. You’ve enriched your own words with those of a wise person.  Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?



And of course, don’t forget to attribute your quotation. So here we go:

  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away – proverb
  • Less is more – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
  • 640K ought to be enough for everybody – attributed to Bill Gates, who probably never said it
  • Pretentious? Moi? – John Cleese – Fawlty Towers – The psychiatrist
  • The act of repeating erroneously the words of another – Ambrose Bierce (maybe) on quotes
  • Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure – Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles
  • You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk? – Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry
  • If you chase fame, you make bad choices – Justin Theroux
  • Quality is not an act, it’s a habit – Aristotle
  • All’s well that ends well – Shakespeare
  • Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly? – Alan Jay Lerner – My fair lady, act I

How many did you recognise?

Your power spot


The ancient Greek knew what they were doing. And sometimes you can still be witness of that fact. In ancient Kourion, on Krete, the amphitheatre is still in impeccable shape. Ready for tragedy, comedy, oratory.

And in the middle of the stage, just a bit to the front, is a little hole. If you stand there, your voice gets magically amplified. That is the power spot.

Power spot

Every stage has one. But not every stage has its power spot so well defined as this ancient amphitheatre. No auditory feedback for the modern speaker. You will have to find the spot by gut feeling. Where is it?

Normally you would walk the stage on a line from left to right about one third of the depth of the stage. The exact location of that line depends on the size and depth of the stage, the distance to the audience and the size of the room. Your gut will tell you, except when you think speaking is scary, then it is at least a few steps more to the front.

Right in the middle of this imaginary line, take one full step forward. This is your power spot.

The exact location of your power spot can be influenced by lighting. If you think you found the perfect spot, but your face is in the dark, you either need to move or get better lighting for that spot.

Use it well

In ancient times an orator might have stood at the power spot for the entire duration of the speech. If not, people simply would not hear him. But in modern times we have microphones and sound systems, allowing us to use the whole stage and still be heard. So we don’t need to confine ourselves to just one point. Variation makes the speech more interesting.

So when does the modern speaker use the power spot? When she want to make an impact.

And that means that the power spot is used sparingly. Your key message, packed in your foundational phrase, works well in that spot. Your call to action needs to be right there. For the rest, leave it alone. By using it sparingly it gains power.

Mark with X

A great theatre trick to make sure you find the right positions on stage is by marking them with gaffer tape. You can do this with the power spot as well. A small X where you need stand when delivering what matters.

Should you present from your own laptop?

own laptop

When using slides, which I usually do for a presentation, the options are almost always to present from my own laptop computer, or from the “presentation computer.” Some organizers almost expect you to bring your own equipment, some want to have the slide deck, or “the presentation” as they often call it, weeks in advance. Some speakers have a fixed deck that they’re happy to send in advance, others like to tinker up to the last moment or prefer to use non-standard presentation tools. In which category do you fall?

Normally, I prefer to present from my own laptop. Why?


  • I like to update my slide deck at the last moment to include current affairs
  • I use Keynote (just another fancy Powerpoint alternative) on a Mac, and not all organisers have that combination available
  • I know my laptop, I have connected it to countless projectors, and I know how to troubleshoot. I like to keep that control
  • I don’t want the organisers to keep and distribute my slides. I spent a lot of time on them, and bought the copyright to some of the materials. Plus, without the stories they are useless.


But there are reasons to forgo using my own laptop.

  • Not enough time to check the tech. In my experience you need at least an hour to test the compatibility between your laptop and the system. Usually you’re done within 5 minutes, but I’ve had several occasions where we needed the full hour to fix things.
  • If I’m in a block with other presenters and there is no advanced tech in the back that can simply switch from one computer to the other it would be distracting, time consuming, and not very professionally looking to switch computers on stage.

An experience

Last week I had to give two presentations on the same day with not a lot of leeway to travel from one to the other. Both organizers preferred me presenting from their laptops, and because of the time constraint that’s what I wanted as well.

Organizer 1 didn’t have a Mac. So I had to translate my slides to Powerpoint. That translation is not as smooth as one would hope. Movies and builds don’t translate well. So I remade my original Keynote slide deck to translate smoothly into Powerpoint rather than updating the slides there. As a result my slides are now Powerpoint proof and my deck is more robust. Win!

Organizer 2 did have a Mac, but it was not the same they tested on. They installed Keynote half an hour before the presentation. Fonts were missing. Someone managed to unplug the sound minutes before I got on. I only noticed when I got on and my intro music didn’t play. I hope the audience didn’t notice, but I felt I made a false start. No win!

Lessons learned

My lessons and conclusions are:

  • As a speaker, I prefer to present from your own laptop. However, if need be, I need to be flexible. Flexible = bookable.
  • I will keep my slides simple. Do I need the elaborate builds, page transitions and fonts? Turns out, I didn’t really. Simple safes time. And issues.
  • I’m creating a test slide to go before my regular deck, containing some text in the different fonts I’m using, a sound, and a short clip – just to quickly see if things work.
  • I need to stay focussed and in control. I should have checked one last time after other people had tested their presentations.

But the most interesting question that keeps popping up in my mind is: Do I really need slides at all?

Back to the roots


I’m in Athens right now, the place where it officially all began for us speakers. The great orators of antiquity shaped the craft of public speaking here, and we follow in their footsteps.

There happen to be a lot of speakers here this weekend, as the Toastmasters Rebirth in Athens unites all European Toastmasters in a grand finale of district 59 and 95. We’re all going back to the roots. To be reborn 🙂

The Pnyx
Forget the Parthenon at the Acropolis. The Pnyx is where it happened!

But going back to the roots is something you should do in your speeches as well, of course.

We live in a time where all sorts of “facts” are thrown out there and just accepted without much thinking [citation needed].
We’re a species capable of believing practically anything, and once we do, we discard all contradicting information.

So: we need to check our facts. With an open mind. Not simply go online, do a search and take the article that confirms our ideas as our basis. Actively search for contradictory points of view and their evidence. Check Snopes. Search for “<my point> refuted”. See if there is scientific evidence  and how this evidence is reviewed by peers. Think.

If the quote you want to use is from Einstein or Mandela, your search isn’t finished.
If you base your opinion on one article, you haven’t done your homework.
If you didn’t dig deep, research and think you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Go back to the roots.

How fast is too fast?

Are you one of those speakers that got told several times that you speak too fast?

I am.

And although I do believe that wilfully slowing down should be in your speaker toolbox, I don’t think fast is always a problem. In fact, it’s a great skill. If you don’t overuse it…

There are people out there that tell you to you should speak 150 words per minute. Or 120. Or whatever. The truth is, that rate is highly variable. It depends on the language, the level of education of the audience, your topic, the goal of your speech, and much much more.


Your audience will need some time to get what you’re saying. To connect the new information you give them with the information already available in their neural network. You need to give them time to build a picture in their head of what you’re saying. How slow do you need to go?

Depends. People can make pictures in their head really fast.

Basically, if you’re using too many unwanted filler words, ehms and ahhs, and stop your sentences halfway to start new ones, you should slow down. If your pronunciation is good, your audience native, and your topic lively, nobody will mind your speed.


An example of a fast talker is Tony Robbins.

He has several reasons. His game is to be enthusiastic and energetic. That doesn’t go well with a slow pace. He knows his text – he’s been teaching more or less the same message for 30 years – he doesn’t talk in words, he talks in chunks, so he can go faster with less mistakes and fillers (although he definitely has them). And finally, part of what he wants to achieve is to turn the audience’s critical thinking off – bring them to a place where they wouldn’t go if they were overthinking. And immersing them in words does the job.

Auctioneers can go even faster.


I have no clue what he says (apart from the numbers), but his audience understands him – they know what to expect; it’s numbers going up, interspersed with purposeful filler words (less filler words if the bidding speeds up).

And then there are the famous South American fútbol commentators, who only slow down for a goal.

So go ahead. Speak fast. Depending on your goals and message that might actually help you. But never forget to bring your friends Pause and Variety.

It’s not speed that matters – as long as it serves your goal. It’s variety.





Even if fast talking serves your purpose your speech may be enhanced by slowing down every once in a while.

  • Pause. Inhale. Exhale, completely. Continue. You’ve just rebooted your system.
  • Talk to a metronome. Free apps are available for your phone.
  • Be your own director: when creating your speech mark the pieces that need to be slower. Memorise these pieces. Practice.



  • When it gets real serious
  • When relating hurtful emotions
  • When you need to emphasise your point
  • When you want to signal that what you’re saying is important
  • When you’ve been talking too fast for too long
  • When your audience’s understanding of the language is low
  • When you are being simultaneously translated


  • You want to convey excitement
  • You want to rattle of a list of items, where the content of the items doesn’t really matter for your point, but the number is. German prepositions for example
  • You’ve been talking too slow for too long
  • You want to lift the energy




Original full Tony Robins TED lecture

LeRoy Van Dyk – fastest talking auctioneer

pictures: Pixabay

Why ums and ahs can be a good thing

Ums and ahs

At the latest Google I/O conference, the company showed what they had been working on for the last four years: their AI (Artifical Intelligent software) is now able to make phone calls. And is in fact so good at it that real humans can’t tell the difference.

How do they do that? Well, they use an advanced neural network and train it on a very specific type of situation, blah blah blah, but more to the point in this context: they make it sound human.

Just listen to this conversation where the Google AI calls a restaurant to make a reservation. (source: Google AI blog)

As you can hear, one of the techniques they use to make the computer sound more human is: ums and ahs.

Get rid of your ums and ahs?

And yet, as speakers we often hear that we need to get rid of our ums and ahs. At Toastmasters meetings there is even a special person assigned to the task of counting them.

Well… of course, there can be too many ums in your speech.


But the underlying assumption often seems to be: a good speaker has no ums and ahs in their speech. And that is an assumption I don’t agree with.

Because ums and ahs have a function. And it’s not just to bide us time when we’re thinking. We can train ourselves to do that while pausing.

Signal function

Ums and ahs have a signal function for the listener. They add emotional information to the speech. An um will often be interpreted as: “something important is about to follow.” And it has been shown that people pay more attention after it.

Ums and ahs can also be used as a form of politeness. To soften an otherwise harsh message. They show that the speaker is concerned.

Ums and ahs make you sound more human. And the developers at Google knew this all too well.


Not the number that counts

Still, it can be a good idea to get feedback on your use of these filled pauses. But it’s not so much the number that counts, but how distracting they are.

If your listeners don’t notice the ums and ahs because they are enthralled by your story, you’re fine. If there are too many, if they are too distracting, or if they become an obstacle for comprehension, they hamper your communication. The good news is: You’re definitely human.


(There is a lot more to say about these little buggers. So: to be continued)


PS somewhat unconnected, or maybe not? This blog was written with this music in the background.




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?

Plop skreek boink


Sometimes the best words in your speech aren’t words.


Your mouth is able to make so many different sounds. Why confine yourself to words? Come to think of it… Why confine the sounds to your mouth?

Audiences love sounds. They’re unexpected. They’re different. They shake things up.  However, few speakers incorporate them in their speech. Do you?

Storytellers do.  

When someone is riding a horse they’re not afraid to make a kloppety-kloppety sound. When someone falls, they’re more than willing to do an AAaaaaaaaaa and a Pgggggh.

They do snores, they do guffaws, they do heartbeats, they do….


They hoot, they boom, they bubble, they purr, they squeek, they huff, they puff.
Things that are hard to write down. Because they’re not words.

Three dimensional

Often, when we write our speech, we forget these simple interjections – we go into literature mode. Speechcraft doesn’t stop with writing. Paper is two dimensional. You need three.

Why do sounds work so well?

Because they are received and processed at a more basic level in the brain. They bypass the language center and immediately communicate with the emotional core. We call it public speaking but speaking is not just a linguistic exchange.


So here is your challenge: for your next speech or presentation: introduce a well placed sound. Whether it’s with your mouth, your body, or an instrument doesn’t matter. As long as it adds to the story. You’ll notice that a well placed sound can say more than a 1000 words.


What sounds have you used in your speeches and presentations? Let me know!