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Maximizing Podium Potential: Speech Coach Cossolotto Preaches Passion over PowerPoint
August 1, 2007
Brian Pittman’s spotlight this week: Matthew Cossolotto, Founder, Ovations International
“If we fear public speaking more than death, the worst we can expect is to die giving a speech,” jokes Matthew Cossolotto, a former top executive speechwriter at MCI, Pepsi-Cola International and GTE who offers speech writing and coaching through Ovations International.
“Better than living with that kind of fear in our professional lives is to master a few easy mind games, tricks and skills—including realizing that there really is no such a thing as ‘public speaking,’” continues Cossolotto, whose newly released All the World’s a Podium: The Manifesto for the Authentic Speaking Revolution outlines these techniques in detail to help people overcome the fear of public speaking and reach their peak “podium potential,” as he puts it.
“There is only speaking,” he explains. “You speak every day with friends, colleagues and family. You have conversations every moment of the day. So wash away the fear the next time and lower the ‘public speaking’ terror alert by saying, ‘It’s just speaking’ when you step on stage,” advises Cossolotto. “Sure, it’s a mind game. But so are the tricks your mind plays on you that cause you to be afraid. So play the game to win—use those tricks to serve yourself rather than undermine yourself.” Read on for more, along with key insights into today’s best—and worst—presenters in politics and business:
Who is the best speaker in the presidential race now—and why?
I’m not alone in saying Barack Obama is excellent. One thing he does better than others is he comes across as being authentic and thoughtful. He also seems to be present in the moment—he’s not just scripted. He’s engaged with the audience. The best speakers see the opportunity as a two-way street. Barack seems to “receive the audience” with his eyes as he speaks. That’s pretty unusual, but it’s very effective. Bill Clinton is a master of doing this. Giuliani is good at it, too. There’s a kind of one-on-one conversation quality that you see in Barack, Rudy, Bill Clinton and a few others.
Who is the best corporate speaker you’ve seen?
The best corporate speaker I’ve seen is John Chambers at Cisco. He has a conversational style. He interacts with and engages the audience.
How about the worst public speakers—who are they and what do they do wrong?
I honestly don’t think Bush is the worst I’ve seen. Let’s start there. With prepared text, he can be effective. His speech at the National Cathedral following 9/11 was excellent, for example. With the right preparation, he can be good—especially when he speaks authentically and from the heart. That’s when we’re all at our best, in fact.
Al Gore at his worst was pretty bad. I mention him in the book because he’s a case study of someone who is really good one-on-one and in small groups. But historically, in front of audiences, he was stiff and almost seemed to be somebody else. He didn’t make sure the “real Al Gore” showed up. The lesson for the rest of us in that is to find the easygoing person you are with your family and friends. Convey no airs. Forget about “performance.” If you can be real, then you’re suddenly on a whole different level of effective communication. Bill Clinton certainly is one of the best at this. He, at least, appears to be authentic.
What transformed Gore’s presentations—why is he less stiff?
Gore made a turnaround with his global warming presentations, and it has translated to all of his speeches, I think. He is now much more authentic. In fact, he told The New York Times that he thought he’d be in his second term by now if he had the presentation skills in 2000 that he’s learned since. What did he learn? To speak from the heart with passion and authentic emotion about something he truly cares about.
The old line that people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care certainly applies here. Audiences aren’t fixated on your content. They can only absorb so much of it. But if they feel you are present, that you care and that you have some heart in this thing, then it becomes a two-way relationship. Audiences are hungry for real, authentic moments with speakers. So get up there and speak with what I call a “glowing heart.”
What’s the biggest mistake CEOs make in presentations and speeches?
Far too many executives rely on slides or PowerPoints. The technology has some positive uses, but it has been abused. Most speakers using PowerPoints don’t use them correctly. Most audiences experience a slow death by PowerPoint. So I’d say that’s the biggest problem. Close behind—and related to this—is being almost exclusively trapped in the left brain: the content.
One of the key ideas I get across in the book is the importance of the right brain—which is where you find emotion, intuition, imagination. Speakers should not be “content with content.” Instead, I advocate “whole-brain speaking,” which is a “value added” approach to speaking. Get the content down—that’s important. But then “add value” by injecting imagination, passion, emotion—essentially the right brain qualities. The audience is listening and understanding using their whole brains. Speakers should use their whole brains, too.
How can PR and media trainers help CEOs deliver stronger interviews and speeches?
In both interview and speaking situations, CEOs and other executives need to be given permission to be themselves. Too often, they seem to think they need to be more formal, more scripted, less spontaneous. But interviewers and audiences want authenticity, spontaneity and “the real you.” A “mindset shift” that I talk about in the book is to, “Make sure the real you shows up.” This is what I was referencing when talking about Al Gore. It also applies to interviews and speaking. How do execs get to that place? It’s a process of changing the way we think about interviews and speeches. Mindset shifts like making sure the real you shows up can lead to the point where the executive feels comfortable being himself or herself on the podium or even on camera.
What is the “Wizard of Oz Formula” mentioned in your book about?
It’s based on the three key colorful characters: Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Every speech needs to contain elements of what these three characters were seeking: brains (content, information), heart (passion, emotion) and courage (call to action, asking the audience to do something, even demonstrate courage). The greatest speeches have these three elements.
What is the “SPEECH” six-point checklist mentioned in your book?
I’ve also made this list available free to people who visit the Ovations International website if they sign up for my newsletter updates. But the quick overview is this:
Strong start: Don’t open with predictable pleasantries. Surprise the audience with an interesting quote, a little known fact, an unusual observation or a personal story. Then link the opening to your topic and your close.
Pause for effect and drama: Well-timed pauses help to emphasize key points, create drama and pique the interest of the audience. Pausing also conveys an impression of self-confidence, command and poise.
Eye contact: Establish regular one-on-one eye contact with audience members. This allows you to “connect” with the audience. It keeps listeners alert and enables you to “read” audience reaction. You can only look at—and speak with—one person at a time. Keep your eyes “on the road.”
Enthusiasm and energy: Enthusiasm and high energy are essential. Banish monotony by stressing key words and using natural hand gestures and facial expressions. Imagine you’re talking with a close friend about a topic that really excites you. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to show how passionate you are about the subject.
Conversational style: Using a conversational delivery style helps you “talk” to your audience. Speeches should be written for the ear, not for the eye. Use everyday language, short sentences and memorable word pictures.
Humor: Many speeches are part entertainment, part information transfer. Using appropriate humor—not necessarily canned jokes—to reinforce your main points will help you get your message across and increase your “likeability.” An audience that laughs with you also likes you.
Why is “public speaking” important for the average PR person—can it grow our careers?
I would say that anybody who is involved in PR in any way and wants to aspire to a senior level should go out and find opportunities to speak. Talk to audiences as much as you can. Then use the principles in everything from how you write to how you manage staff, talk to bosses or interact with clients. For example, using a principle like maintaining eye contact during a performance review will underscore that you’re engaged in the process and that you’re an excellent communicator.
But eye contact can be tricky—what is the right “amount” of eye contact?
If you are engaging in eye contact continuously yet unthreateningly, it really can be a conversation warmer. Eye contact is electricity. It’s a circuit you plug into. If you break the connection, you have to reestablish it. Keep that connection and the more credible, trustworthy and sincere you will seem, and even be.
That said, don’t stare. You have to be careful about the intensity of your eye contact. You can’t be aggressive and wide-eyed. It should be “soft” eye contact—not commanding or piercing. One way to “soften” your eye contact is this: If you have a “glowing heart,” then your eyes will communicate that. But if your heart is rigid, commanding and controlling—then that’s what your eyes will say. So, it starts from the inside out. Work on the inside first. Bad managers don’t start on the inside. They think, “How should I be looking now? How should I carry my hands or eyes?” Stop worrying about the content of your talk. Worry about the content of your heart and the appropriate eye contact will come.
Why do you do this—what are you most passionate about in your work?
Early in my career, I was passionate about getting the words right in speeches on Capitol Hill and getting clever phrases out. I liked that from the communication perspective. But as I progressed, I noticed it wasn’t about the content anymore. It was about the connection first, then the content. So, I focused on the idea of “not being content with content.” That’s the doorway into “whole-brain speaking” and is one of the mind shifts that I preach.
So now, I’m passionate about empowering others. I have another book, called Habit Force, about the habits and mindsets that hold people back. I call them the six “F-A-I-L-U-R-E” traps. The idea is you can recognize and replace the failure habits with corresponding “S-U-C-C-E-S-S” habits. For example, the “U” stands for “undermining” oneself. You replace that with “empowering” habits, starting with positive affirmations.
I believe that success is an inside job, and speaking is a part of that. If you want to succeed and be a leader, you have to speak. Leaders speak and followers listen. To advance your career—you must banish the fear. You can start by empowering yourself and reprogramming all the negative habits in your mind. I believe that, and it’s why I do this work.
How is your presidency of The Shakespeare Oxford Society relevant to your work?
The society is built around the whole issue and controversy of who the real author is. Our 500 members believe that the traditional scholars are “barding up the wrong tree.” Our perspective is that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward deVere, was the playwright. Right now, the overwhelming circumstantial evidence points to him. There’s virtually no evidence pointing to the typical Stratford candidate.
I think the commonality with my work starts with the soliloquies, imagery and written word as related to the stage. Also, the title of the book, All the World’s a Podium, is an obvious play on a well-known Shakespeare line. The ultimate connection, however, comes down to authenticity and transparency. We’re about finding the real author. And I’m about the exact same thing when it comes to helping people as speakers. Who is the real you? “To be you, or not to be you.” That is the question.