6 things that make me a better speaker

I was first asked to speak publicly sometime in the early 90’s for a broadcasting trade association meeting. I had a small media-buying business, and my model was a little different than the local agencies. The association believed my thoughts on media buying would be useful to those who were trying to sell media. I was part of a panel, but I cannot recall what I talked about or how helpful my comments might have been to those in attendance. I do remember I was quite anxious about participation but managed to get through it because I understand how important public speaking opportunities were to help build credibility for my business and my entrepreneurial endeavors.

Public speaking does not come naturally to me.

It makes me uncomfortable in all sorts of ways, none the least of which is feeling unprepared regardless of how much preparation time I put into the talk. There are other challenges, too. I want everyone to find something of value in my talk, I want to be entertaining as well as informative, so those listening don’t get bored. I want those in the audience to have at least one “ah-ha” moment or walk away with one piece of information that is useful. And I don’t want to hang around afterward to talk to people—the introvert in me needs to recharge—but I do. Public speaking, even for the most experienced, can be exhausting.

I am sure I fail at more than one of the things I noted above every time I speak publicly. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to do so. Practice breeds improvement, not perfection. Improvement should be the goal.

Six things I have learned that make me a better speaker.

Perhaps these learnings from my experiences speaking might be helpful to you:

You will not be perfect. You shouldn’t strive for that in your talk. You will forget critical points you wanted to make, and you may lose a thought or two. Usually, no one will know unless you tell them. Everyone listening expects you to be human, so imperfection is expected and allowed.

Know your audience. By knowing your audience, you can seed your talk with information and relevant personal stories that will be most interesting to that audience. That’s key to keeping their attention and engagement.

Be wary of humor. Humor can be useful, but it is also subjective. You don’t want to say something that will cause some of your audience to shut down or diminish your credibility.

Don’t allow PowerPoint to be a crutch. It’s okay to use slides, but use them for emphasis of your key points and not as a checklist of bullet points to read to your audience. If you’re planning to read bullet points, do your audience a favor and hand out your presentation and forget about speaking. However, if you emphasize your key points in your presentation, they will serve as reminders of the flow and pacing of your talk but not bore your audience.

Practice a little, but not too much. Practice is important, but unless you’re giving a TED talk, you want to seem authentic, not a cog in the speaking machine. If you know your topic, you will need less practice and will likely be less anxious because you’ll be talking about something you know. Of course, one way to feel comfortable in your knowledge is to practice. You'll have to determine how much practice is enough.

For keynote speeches or any talk that goes over about 20-minutes, I practice by writing my speech in its entirety and then reading it aloud several times to pace delivery, plan vocal inflections and pauses for crucial points. Next, I put top points from the talk on 3 x 5 index cards and rehearse the talk a couple of times as if I were making it in person to one individual. This helps with timing. I usually carry those index cards with me to help jog my memory if an audience question causes me to lose my pacing. Oh, and the most important thing to do with those cards is to number them in case they are dropped. I learned this the hard way.

Speak slowly. Most of us can deliver a 20-minute talk in 10-minutes if we get nervous. Take your time. When it seems like your talk is crawling by, you will have pretty close to the proper pacing for your talk.

Now I am often called upon to speak.

Since my first talk, I have given many. I regularly speak to user groups, at conferences, and at trade shows. I speak to groups large and small. I speak on many topics ranging from marketing strategy and branding, to direct marketing, to licensing and trademark protection, and most recently on how to launch a podcast. I even speak on leadership and about motivational topics.

I am asked to speak because my audiences seem to enjoy my talks. I seek speaking opportunities because it allows me to continue to expand my knowledge of a topic, and hopefully to build a little credibility in the topics of which I speak. There’s a Latin principle that applies here: Docendo discimus, which means “by teaching, we learn.”

And I am always trying to learn. How about you?


Some of my favorite resources of speaking and presentations include:

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience (Business Skills and Development)

slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences

Note: The above are affiliate links.

And if you're looking for a speaker for your next event, I am happy to discuss the opportunity with you. Click this link to learn more about my speaking engagements.


Featured image: David Harkins speaking at the Amazon Inventions Tour. Click here to see the talk.

Can long copy still make the cash register ring?

Long copy ruled direct response marketing, once. Marketers could create a brilliant story-driven copy to draw a reader in and then close the sale with a strong call to action.  David Ogilvy (in the photo above) and his team at Ogilvy and Mather were the masters. But that was more than thirty years ago.

Twenty years ago, I had a great deal of success with long copy in printed direct mail. Just simple letters to the target market that would bring them along in a story and then get them to take action. I am not sure that’s possible any longer. I believe the proliferation of email spam and the dawn of mobile phones have decreased the effectiveness of long-form direct response appeals.

A recent grad school assignment asked for the creation of a two-step direct response campaign. In such a campaign, the first step generates the lead and the second step closes the sale. In the direct mail days, a long letter—often several pages—was more effective as that first step—it told the story and offered the benefits to the prospect. The close came with a phone call or a response card. It was highly effective, and of the campaigns, I was involved in we often pulled a 5-6% response with a 50% conversion to a sale.

The assignment further asked for the creation of a “squeeze page.” A squeeze page is a page on that “squeeze that last bit of info out of you” so that you might get what you’re looking for from the site.  Typically, it is your name and an email address.

In the early days of the Internet, that long-form direct mail piece was often used in a two-step process. You may remember that time. The pages were often a single page with a lot of copy, a few photos, some bulleted text, and multiple opportunities to buy or subscribe as you read down the page. If you took action, you would go to another page—the “squeeze page”—to provide your name and email address for more information or so the sale could be completed.

For the assignment, I wanted to know if long-form still worked in a two-step process for a particular target market (women 25-to-60) for a health and wellness opportunity. My hunch was that given the volume and frequency of content and information we already get it would no longer be effective. Let’s see what happened.

Step 1 – The solicitation.

I wrote a long-form direct mail piece below (click the image to read the entire letter). Granted, I know my long-form direct marketing skills are rusty, but I think it reads well and tells a decent story. I purposefully chose not insert photos or bullet points because it would have impacted how a perceived target would see the offer. In other words, I wanted readers to commit to reading it would have done in a direct mail piece back in the day.

My intent was that this solicitation would be delivered by email, or possibly by mail, to the target market.

Step 2 – The squeeze page.

I created a small squeeze page (see below) to encourage sign up for the offer, a 1-month free trial to a recipe/meal planning service delivered via email. No credit card number was required to participate, and all I asked for was the first name and an email address. As far as offers go, it was pretty low risk.

Step 3 – Testing with the target market.

I posted the letter and the image of the squeeze page to my Facebook page, as well as shared with some friends directly asking for input. Eight of my female friends in the target market responded on Facebook or in private messages.

The Feedback.

Overwhelmingly the response to the long solicitation was negative. Aside from some suggesting bullet points or images to break up the copy, the response was that it was too long. Although my friends read the letter at my request, all but two said they would not read it if it came in an email, and probably would not read it if it arrived by mail. And because they wouldn’t read it, they wouldn’t get to the call to action at the bottom of copy.

The squeeze page faired a little better, assuming I could get them there in the first place. Some didn’t like the color choices or food choices I made. Those things turned them off and likely would have affected their interest in subscribing.

A few said they might subscribe if just presented with the signup graphic via email or on a page.

My takeaways.

Clearly, this was not scientific. There were too many variables and too few responders.  Still, I think it supports the idea that long-form copy has a lot of competition these days and not too many people will read it. There’s just not enough time for most people.

I do recognize that the readership might improve with bullet points, graphics, and probably even stronger copy, as one of my friends—an accomplished copywriter pointed out.  Those things could have helped it. There is the possibility that those who were reading were not the true target market – I did not ask more clarifying questions to drill down. That’s possible, too I suppose, although I think it really has more to do with the time-length equation. And the goal of direct marketing is to fill the funnel with a higher number of leads.

Although the squeeze page might work as is, I think I would pull images of food. I struggled with this before putting testing because I did not want to turn people off if they didn’t like grilled peaches (which look sort of like sweet potatoes in the photo). The challenge is determining what kind of image to use so as not to alienate a prospective customer based on their individual likes or dislikes. That will need additional research and testing.

Final thoughts.

The squeeze page might work better in the form of a pop-up on a web page. Personally, I hate them, but they work well. I use them on an e-commerce website for newsletter sign ups (with a discount incentive) and have about a 3% conversion rate, which is about the average conversion rate for top performing e-commerce websites. Those customers over time have a solid sales conversion rate, too. This might address the signup or step-two in the process. Figuring out the best way to get the attention of the target market in the first place might prove to be the bigger challenge.

It seems those of us who are till working, getting emails, and answering texts don’t have the time, interest, or inclination to read those long messages. As a writer who once made a living writing copy, I have a hard time giving up on the idea that long-form direct response is not as effective. Of course, it should be noted that this blog post is clearly long. If I had a squeeze page in the right column of this page, might it entice a reader to sign up for more information?


It depends on how committed that reader is to what is written in the post and their desire to read all the way to the end.

Who does that anymore?

I do. And if you’re reading this, maybe you do, too.

What do you think? Might long copy and the David Ogilvy approach to direct marketing still be effective in a world of information overload?


Featured Image Source: Getty Images / Keystone

P.S. Check out these thoughts on the matter from Mr. Ogilvy himself…

Interview: Rachael Harper on Entrepreneurship

Rachael Harper, owner of Vida Calma Wellness and owner of On Track Yoga shares her thoughts on entrepreneurship for my Entrepreneurial Marketing graduate course. Rachael and I discuss what it’s like to start a business, grassroots marketing, the importance of creating a business built for community and social good, and many other things in this interview for my Everyday Entrepreneurs podcast.

You can listen below on Soundcloud or subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.