content ideas

Which two little words can kill your confidence?

Kill I think

When I act as an editor for an opinion piece, I frequently strike the phrase “I think.” I remove those two little words because they can actually kill a speaker’s confidence!

Let’s take a look at an example, taken from an attempt to persuade a client.

Read these two sentences aloud:

  • “I think this commercial is going to be extremely effective.”
  • “This commercial is going to be extremely effective.”

Can you hear and feel the difference? Which one sounds more confident and persuasive?

The second statement packs much more emotional punch. Consider the “I think…” phrase as a fluffy pillow that softens the strength of your conviction. The phrase actually weakens the confidence you feel for your own opinion.

When you’re stating your opinion, simply state it. There’s no need to put a fluffy pillow on it. That’s what my designer friends might call “inelegant”.

Luckily, this is an easy fix. The next time you edit a speech, presentation, or essay — run a quick search for the “I think” phrase on your word processor. Simply removing it can make you feel and sound more confident.

Keep your ears open. Now that you’ve read this post, how many times will you hear or see the phrase “I think” in the next 24 hours? You might be surprised to find out that people say or write it more than you, uh, think!

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Overcoming the Gross Out Factor

“I really hate public speaking,” said a student who stood up in front of class to deliver her first oral report.

That’s not the most impressive opening line, but I hear it from a new student at least once per semester. And most of the time, the statement isn’t even true.

Often, students who claim to hate public speaking don’t really mind it at all. I often see them happily talk to groups of friends before and after class. That’s public speaking. And it’s even the same audience!

No, they don’t mind public speaking. However, they don’t like the idea of public speaking.

What’s the difference? Let me give you a food-related example from my Facebook feed…



photo credit: Mike Licht,

Last month, I saw much Facebook kerfuffle about the rumors of inaccurate food labeling. Maybe you ate horse, thinking it was pork or beef. Or maybe you ate pig bung, thinking that it was calamari. And did you eat a fish, thinking that it was some other kind of fish entirely?

Most of the hue and cry I read was about “the gross out factor”. People really don’t mind eating horse meat: as long as they don’t know it’s horse meat!

Knowledge grosses people out. It’s not the meat. It’s the idea of it.

Adults regularly do icky things. And we learn to outgrow, embrace, or at least accept all kinds of stuff that used to gross us out.

  • Kiss a boy/girl? Icky!
  • Eat sushi? Gross!
  • Give a presentation? Yuck!
  • Do taxes? Horrors!
  • Get a colonoscopy? Pass!

Responsible grown-ups dutifully embrace a whole array of what once grossed us out completely. In the future, we’re probably going to accept eating pink slime, gobbling GMO foods, and maybe even toy with Soylent Green.

Many of our hangups are irrational or immature. If you find yourself grossed out by something, ask yourself:

“Am I grossed out by the actual thing? Or just by the thought of the thing? How can I outgrow, embrace, or accept this idea?”

If you face the truth, note the distinction, and work through your more immature or irrational hangups: you’re probably braver than most.

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What’s the exact opposite of what you’re saying?

When you edit a business presentation that offers a numbered list or step-by-step instructions, here’s a fun way to make your content more satisfying. In your head, ask yourself, “what might the exact opposite of that action be?”

  • “Communicate with employees” might become “Leave employees in the dark.”
  • “Follow the company policy manual” can be “Ignore all laws and rules.”
  • “Remain calm” might become “Have a complete nervous breakdown.”

Freak out

photo credit t0 Frau Shizzle

When I play “the opposite game” as I’m editing a list, I can easily spot weak writing. If my “opposite” advice sounds ridiculous, I know I’m saying something too vague to be valuable.

I might as well not say it at all!

Other than simply eliminating weak writing, I might also want to consider a re-write. A great way to pack more punch into a sloppy call to action is to move from the general to the specific. For example, instead of the first two bullet points, I might write “3 Company Policies to Review with Staff on May 1”. A specific headline or bullet point is often more memorable, actionable, or valuable than a generic one.

Try playing “the opposite game” with your latest business presentation or article. Take a look at your bullet point lists or headlines. What insights does “playing the opposite game” give you? How did it help you make your presentation stronger or more specific?

(And help me out — how can I re-write “Manage Expectations”??? As opposed to what?)

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Ask yourself: what does your audience really want?

Google Plus Business Page

Google Plus opened its doors for business pages yesterday. Far out, right?

Boom! I’m suddenly getting swamped with requests to follow new G+ business pages.

So let’s say you’re a business communicator. And you’re posting the exact same content to your Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus pages today.

Oh, uh! You’re being redundant.

Think about your audience. Let’s say I’m one of your most rabid brand fans. I follow you EVERYWHERE: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and now — Google Plus.

Now —  let’s also say I publicly ask the question: where you would like me to follow you? Take your pick. If your content at each venue is mostly the same — why should I follow you everywhere? Let’s take a look at three common yet unsatisfactory answer categories:

  • You tell me that if I was a real fan, I’d follow you at all three and put up with your tiresome repetition — because that’s what real fans do. I should suffer. Love means putting up with thoughtlessness and boredom. (Uh-oh. I just went from thinking you’re wonderful to thinking that you’re an abusive jerk.)
  • Or maybe you tell me that I should follow you wherever the heck I want. It doesn’t matter to you, it’s really all about me getting your messages in a way that I most enjoy. (Congratulations! You’ve just revealed that your whole “it’s personal” mantra is a load of manure. Social media is a mass marketing play to you.)
  • You apologize, explaining that your audience is significantly different at each venue, so you need to be redundant to reach as many people as you can. (Oops! Telling me ‘the audience is significantly different’ is saying that I’m insignificant! Also, think about it: if your audiences are indeed ‘significantly different’ — why not develop significantly different messaging to appeal to their different needs?)

Yes, none of these three responses defending redundancy seem quite correct. At this brief moment in history, you have an almost risk-free opportunity to experiment with audience messaging. Google Plus Business Pages are brand-spanking new. Instead of redundant posting, what might you do to deepen or extend engagement with your brand’s biggest fans?

  • Take some time out for audience identification. What’s different about each audience? How can you appeal to different needs and desires?
  • Take some time to think through your content strategy. Instead of repeating the exact same message to three unique audiences — what might you do differently to be more appealing to each?

How might you offer your biggest fans an enhanced experience with your brand or business?

PS – Yes, I’ve created a Google+ business page. But I’m not promoting it yet — not until I’ve completed an audience profile and developed a content plan. You?

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Use super sticky notes for super sticky ideas

After a longish brainstorming session, I heard Mac Fowler quip, “I should buy stock in 3M.”

He was referring, I reckon, to a perceived uptick in the use of 3M’s ubiquitous sticky note. It was true that I had flung a pack of these little devils on the table during our annual aimWest planning meeting. I carry 3M Post-it notes almost everywhere.

I might go so far as to say I have a severe Post-it note addiction. And it’s not just the regular sticky notes.

I’ve quickly moved up to the Super Sticky. I can’t even consider buying the regular kind in my line of work.

post-it notes, sticky note

I do quite a bit of online content development. The sticky note is an indispensable tool for content developers and editorial calendar creators. If you’re brainstorming ideas with a team, give a different colored pack to every team member. We jot down ideas on sticky notes and slap them on the big editorial calendar that we keep on the wall (think of a giant grid sectioned off by time and editorial topics).

I recommend the Super Sticky notes over the regular stickies. Sure, they cost a bit more — but if you’ve ever been vexed by sticky notes losing their stick and falling like so many multi-colored snowflakes over your war room floor — you’ll easily see how these bad boys are worth the extra pennies. You can move them around several times — and they still stick.

We move Post-it notes around in content brainstorming sessions. A story headline idea that seemed perfect for, say, a July 6 online post may get usurped for a much larger breaking news story. We’ll move our originally planned story to another day.  The Super Stickies give an editorial team flexibility.

Further, I use the sticky note approach for quickly story boarding speeches and presentations. I’m not one to memorize speeches word for word, so I might rehearse a speech by staring at something like this:

post it note storyboard

Oh, sure, it looks like gibberish to you. But I can assemble a quick speech by arranging symbols that represent stories for my opening, main points, and closing. It doesn’t matter that you know what these little notes stand for. I know that when I see the guy with the top hat, that’s my cue to tell the story about that one time in New York when the guy with the top hat and tails got caught…

…well, you get the picture. This approach works for me. Way better than memorizing a script. Plus, the images and headlines I scratch are for MY head and MY rehearsal. I don’t have to subject an audience to PowerPoint. I can remember a series of pictures in my head way better than a prescribed set of words.

And even though Post it notes may line my desk, office walls, and car interior: I still get a little flak from my high-tech lovin’ friends. A few pooh-pooh my old tech Post-it note habit. With so many software applications available that emulate the sticky note, why do I persist in cluttering up my environment with low-tech paper and pen scribblings?

post it notTweet credit: Bruce Abernethy | @babernethy

My answer is simple: I like interacting with the physical world. I enjoy touching things beyond my keyboard and screen. The physical world inspires me.

I like to consider sticky notes as colorful, highly tactile playthings for work. Like Play-Doh or alphabet blocks, Post-it notes are fundamental toys for modeling ideas in the physical world.

It can be no coincidence that Play-Doh and alpahbet blocks also grace/litter my office… what colorful toys do you use for idea generation, collection, and management? How do you use them?

ps — to my knowledge, I own no stock in 3M. Nor have they paid me to write this post…

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What is the most interesting part of your presentation?

Let’s say you’ve been asked to stand & deliver a one-hour presentation to a large business audience. So you craft a presentation. You rehearse.

At this point, it’s time to deploy an old speechwriter’s tip. Ask yourself: “What is the single most interesting part of my presentation?

Answer honestly. Your response should give you some profound insight.

I like asking this “single most interesting” question. It gives me amazing ideas for re-crafting, editing, or restructuring a speech or presentation. When I ask the question and get a shrug, “nothing”, “everything!” or “I don’t know” — I have my work cut out for me!

exciting interesting presentation

But here are 3 other answers to the “most interesting” question that indicate a speech or presentation is in serious trouble:

  • “Why, the incredible design and nifty animations in my PowerPoint slides, of course!”
  • “The overwhelming amount of facts and statistics that support my main thesis.”
  • “That part in the middle where I share an emotional & dramatic anecdote.”

If your slides, stats, or center are the most interesting or exciting parts of your presentation, uh-oh! You’ve got troubles, my friend! Why?

Good storytelling always trumps fabulous design. You can design the most beautiful slides your audience has ever seen. But in the absence of a good story paired with outstanding delivery, all the audience will be able to remember are pretty pictures + special effects. Remember, design supports the story — not the other way around!

No one likes being slowly clubbed to death with facts. I like facts. And I like statistics. I just don’t like be repeatedly clubbed over the head with them. If you aim to overwhelm your audience, overwhelm them with emotion. In a heightened emotional state, your audience might be more predisposed to accept your logic… or maybe even a fact or two.

Audience attention wanes about every 9 minutes. If the most exciting part of your presentation is in the middle, for heaven’s sake — move it to the beginning. Start strong! Then, craft at least 5 more compelling stories to tell for the duration of your 1 hour presentation. No matter how exciting you are, audience attention wanes about every 9 minutes.

Of course, what you think is the most interesting part of your presentation and what your audience thinks may be two different things entirely! That’s one reason why planning to talk for only 35-40 minutes out of your allotted 60 is generally a swell idea. When you open up the discussion for questions and answers, you’re more likely to find out what’s really most interesting to your audience.

So go on. Ask yourself:

What is the single most interesting part of my presentation?

You’ll be amazed at the insight this simple question will give you!

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Be yourself? Why not be someone else?

Say you’re giving a live presentation to a large audience. And let’s say this is not something you do on a regular basis.

You might be a little nervous about your presentation, so you turn to friends or the internet for some public speaking advice. As you do, you’ll undoubtedly hear or read this strange bit of folkloric wisdom:

Just Be Yourself! Act Natural!

The problem with this advice is that you’ll find yourself in a completely unnatural environment — alone in front of a large group of people, lights shining in your face, a mike wire dangling from your lapel to your fanny, monster visual displays behind your back — just exactly how do you go about acting “naturally” in such an unnatural situation?

And suppose your “natural” self is rather shy, nervous, or introverted? How does that help?

Telling a nervous neophyte speaker to “act naturally” on stage sets them up to flop. Rather than trying to “act naturally” — whatever that is — why not try one of these three more specific courses of action?

1. You can make the environment seem more natural. Nothing takes the jitters out of a presentation like a real, live, full dress rehearsal. Get lots of practice! Physically walk on the stage. Feel the lights on your face, the fanny pack on your belt, the video remote in your hand. Once you’ve experienced your surroundings, the stage environment is going to seem more natural — so there’s a better chance that you can act naturally, too.

2. If you’re going to be yourself, be your best self. There’s really no point in being yourself if you’re naturally dull. Getting up on stage will only amplify your natural witlessness and bore your audience. Instead, natural dullards would do well to work with professional speech writers and coaches. Professionals can help buff a dull personality or presentation so that it shines on stage. If it’s an important presentation, don’t mess around — hire a pro.

3. You can be someone else.
OK, you can’t really BE someone else. But you can channel the spirit of someone you admire, and project their personality when you speak. This actually takes a speech out of the realm of “presentation” and into the realm of “performance.” It’s called “acting” — and you may have heard that many audiences find a good performance highly entertaining and enriching.

If you know who you are and are completely comfortable with the stage — you might do well to act naturally. You might do even better to act appropriately for the audience and the situation.

And hey — what exactly does it mean to “be yourself?”

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Two Ways to Let Your Audience Co-Create Presentation Content

Your audience has the technology. They’re carrying smart phones. They have net books or note books.

So why not let them use their snazzy tech tools to co-create presentations? Here are two tech-driven ways to let your audience co-create presentation content.

PollEverywhere. Audience interactivity is a big part of the draw of PollEverywhere. You ask your audience a question; they can answer using Twitter, text messages, or the web. The PollEverywhere online service instantly tabulates audience survey results in chart form in your PowerPoint presentation.

PollEverywhereI used PollEverywhere in class earlier this week — it took me only a few minutes to craft a few cheeky surveys using the service. Downloading the poll as a PowerPoint slide (ppt or pptx) was a smooth, one-click operation. When students took the poll, results weren’t exactly immediate — I estimated a 15-20 second lag time before the graph started moving and changing before our eyes. Not bad at all.

PollEverywhere also allows you to ask open-ended questions as well as create bar or column charts. You may download survey results in CSV format, tweak colors and font sizes, and embed polls in web pages. This tool is very simple to use, yet fun and potentially quite powerful. Free for a small audience of 30 or less, PollEverywhere also provides more robust options with its paid services for use with larger audiences.

Twitter Hashtags. In the 1990’s, I would often moderate candidate forums during election years. To keep these town hall meetings civil, we would pass out index cards and ask the audience to write out their candidate questions. Audience members passed their written questions to volunteers who made sure that the most popular and well-framed questions were brought forward to my lectern.

Today’s audience may warm to a similar approach that is more transparent than using index cards. Why not ask a modern audience to Tweet their questions with a special Twitter hashtag for panel discussions? This lets a tech-savvy audience easily see the most popular and well-framed questions, while preventing boors from hijacking the Q&A portion of the program with tiresome or poorly-framed questions. Services like Tweetchat and Twitterfall let the panel and audience easily visualize the scope of questions surrounding the topic at a larger meeting, forum, or conference.

How else have you used technology to encourage audience interaction in your presentations? What works well? What doesn’t?