Final Update

A big welcome to all visitors from Thesis Whisperer. If you want to know more about me and my work, I recommend you visit my new website Integrity Languages, as this site will shortly be removed. You can find out about the department where I did my PhD here.

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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 35 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Who Can Become A Motivational Speaker?

Regular Rock Your Talk readers will have seen guest posts by my speaking coach Iain Davidson. This week, we have a guest post by Jonathan Curran, who leads Europe’s premier motivational speaking agency: Promotivate. Here, he gives us the lowdown on what it takes to become a motivational speaker.

So you’d like to be the next Tony Robbins and have millions of adoring fans who pay to listen to your every word and get people to walk barefooted across hot coals – cool eh!

There are 3 ways to become a motivational speaker:

  1. Do something exceptional
  2. Research, read and study psychology and then teach self-fulfillment to others
  3. Train to be a public speaker by attending groups

What is exceptional and why do people want to pay to hear you talk? If you have won Olympic medals; jumped out of a pod from 37 miles up; invented the world-wide web; built a global brand; overcome paralysis and more people are very curious to know more about you. People are eager to learn how you achieved something that they see as either impossible or a challenge beyond themselves. Motivational speakers are paid often huge sums just to point out the reality that they are normal humans who with a lot of effort achieved their goals.

Great speakers are able to not only inform audiences how they achieved success but, more importantly, they relate it to normal people doing normal everyday things. Exceptional people will all tell you that there are no short-cuts to success and that hard work is required. They’ll make it clear that they have an inbuilt ability to put obstacles behind them and seek out ways to overcome all forms of adversity that they encounter on the way.

But there are exceptions and by way of qualifying that you don’t need to break records to be a successful speaker there is no better example than the world’s most famous motivational speaker Tony Robbins. His wikipedia background states:

“Robbins was raised in a violent household by a volatile mother addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. After she kicked him out of the house when he was 17, he worked as a door-to-door repairman. By the age of 24 he was a millionaire, trading in his Volkswagen for a Rolls-Royce.”

Robbins is a great example of someone who got to grips with himself and as his book title states, he wants people to ‘Awaken The Giant Within’. This theme is consistent with a lot of mainstream motivational speakers. Top speakers will inform you that we all have the talent within us to be successful and lead fulfilling lives, but we need to unlock the potential and stop thinking about the negative thoughts that hinder our progress and hold us back.

I’m privileged to work some of Europe’s leading motivational speakers and I take the time to understand them by attending their lectures and reading their inspirational books. I fully understand that every day is a new day with new opportunities. To become a good motivational speaker you need to know and communicate to others how they can put aside difficulties some of which can be very significant and seemingly impossible to cast aside to enable progress. Here’s a video of Mark Pollocks new cine documentary titled ‘Unbreakable’. Mark was my first speaker and 8 years later working with hundreds of other top speakers, Mark is right at the top. He has through tragedy been forced to put into practice all he has preached to others and anyone who has heard him will understand this.

Finally good speakers do need to be great communicators. Toastmasters is a global group that has a presence in cities worldwide that anyone can sign up to and attend to improve their public speaking skills. We also work with a range of professional speaking coaches whose job it is to work with speakers on their presentations and delivery.

Finally all speakers need to constantly reinvent themselves if they are to retain demand in a competitive market place. Sir Ranulph Fiennes is regarded as the world’s greatest explorer and the UK’s most in-demand inspirational speaker. Ran, at 70 years old, still seeks out new global challenges every two years. He was 65 when he summited Mt. Everest despite suffering from a weak heart condition and a fear of heights.


I hope you enjoyed the article contributed by Jonathan Curran. The Founder of Europe’s leading Motivational Speakers Agency called Promotivate. Follow us on Twitter to get more updates.

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Starting Talks with Questions and Stories

It’s 4pm. I have the last slot in a parallel session at a major international conference. The mulling crowds that packed the room for the first speaker in the session have long since wandered off to find something else to do. Here I am, in front of about 10 people. Frankly, it’s a tough gig.

It doesn’t matter how great a speaker you are, some days, you will face tired audiences, tricky slots and tough topics. At times like that, you don’t just need to be good, you need to be great. And you need to be great right from the start.

If you have read the last two weeks’ posts, you will have two ways to do that. Now I want to add two more.

If you have the same slot I had at the start of this post, or if you have an unfamiliar crowd, you can’t beat asking questions. Simple things like asking people to put up their hands if they have been challenged or querying where people have traveled from can help you to connect with the audience and get them onside.

One thing needs to be borne in mind though, using rhetorical ‘think about this’ questions has an entirely different effect. With them, rather than eliciting an immediate response, you are asking people to pause. If you are asking people to pause, you need to pause too.

While questions are the most upfront way of trying to connect, stories sneak round the back. Start with a compelling, relatable or dramatic story and you grab people by the heart.

Well-told stories help people to feel more connected to you by putting them in your shoes. And it’s always easier to accept someone when you can viscerally feel where they are coming from. As smart as people are, we still tend to judge people by subjective, emotional characteristics. Do they seem friendly? Do I feel comfortable with them? Do they put me at ease? Are they like me in some way?

You can throw around all the facts you like but if people find you distant or shallow, your words will fall into the void. If, on the other hand, you help them to feel something from the start, you will prepare their hearts and later their heads for the help you want to bring them.

Prologues, stories, questions: three powerful ways to start a talk. Note that none of these involve giving an outline of your talk and none of them require flashy PowerPoint background. The truth is, if you get your introduction right, outlines are an unnecessary waste of time. Connect well and you set the groundwork for the message your words, actions and visuals will bring.

So go on, experiment with introductions. You never know where they might take you.

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The Power of a Prologue

First of all, I’d like to thank you for reading this post. It is a great pleasure to be read and recommended by people in many different countries. When preparing this post, I was reminded of a saying by someone you have never heard of. Here is the structure of the post, which you don’t really need to read but I will waste a good chunk of my time going through anyway.


As awful as that seemed, that paragraph represents to most common way that people start a talk. It’s mind-numbing stuff. Instead of catching your attention, it seems that many speakers actively want to lose it. Between long-winded acknowledgements, fluffy self-presentations and, of course, the unnecessary and ugly talk structure slide, the first five minutes can be frittered away without anything useful being achieved.


Thankfully, there is a much better way. Almost any talk can be introduced with a prologue – a short, snappy attention-grabbing introduction that sets the stage, whets the appetite and makes people sit up and listen. Like a good dose of caffeine, prologues get people ready to listen and allow you to do all the correct introductory stuff, like acknowledgements and framing, at a point when people are actually ready to hear it.


So, how do you write a prologue?


It’s pretty simple, really. If you have read previous posts, you will have made a t-shirt message for your talk. In your prologue, you should present that in as obvious, skilful and creative a way as possible, preferably with a succinct explanation or claim.


Here’s a simple example. I once did a talk on a project that aimed to helped people to engage more with research by using social media. Long story short, the project failed but did give useful data for later work. A prologue for that talk could have been something like this:


Research is exciting. We all know that. Research is useful. We all know that too. Sadly, for many people, research is distant, disconnected to real-life and disempowering. This talk will show you how a team in my department tried to change these perceptions. This particular attempt failed but this talk will demonstrate the important lessons this failure has taught us.


At that point, it would have been the right time to do the traditional thanks and introduce myself. Notice how the prologue does three things.


  • It gives people a hook to hang the talk on

As I said in the Four Cs series, all talks need to connect with people where they are. A good prologue hits that point of connection hard and tells people, in as few words as possible, where the talk fits into their world.


  • It tells people the main message

Apart from anything else, this is what makes a prologue valuable. By hitting the main message, you tell people straight away why they should listen. You also make sure that, even if people need to leave early or their attention drifts, they know exactly what you are trying to tell them. Instead of giving them a detailed route plan, as structure slides are supposed to do, you show them the destination. Once people know where you want them to go, it’s much easier to lead them there.


  • It proves you are in control

I really believe that the reason why we default to fluffy acknowledgements, slides giving the talk structure and some boring waffling is that we fell that we need time to warm up. Get a punchy prologue and you tell people that you are already red hot and ready to go. For bonus points, give the prologue without even looking at your notes. People want to be confident that you know your stuff. Give a good prologue and you can tick that box easily.


Prologues are great for those talks when you need to make a punchy first impression. Next week, we will look at some alternatives for other occasions.

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Hit ‘em Between the Eyes: Introductions that Mean Business

For the next few weeks, I will be giving you ways to grab people’s attention and keep it. If first impressions count then your introduction is your most valuable asset. I want to show you some ways to use those precious first few minutes wisely and set yourself up for success.

This week, I want to talk about connecting. The introduction is the ideal place to connect with your audience with either a (short!) remark about them and the conference location or by showing how what you will say relates to what others have said. I would like to give you a few quick pointers to getting this right, most of which I have learned from two true experts: speaking coach, Iain Davidson, and my senior PhD supervisor Graham Turner.

Next week will be all about prologues. Prologues are all about impact and power. Whereas connecting gets people on your side, prologues catch people’s attention. If you want to know how to peel people off their smartphones for a few minutes, that will be your week.

In two weeks’ time, it will be all about alternatives. I will cover stories, how to do an outline without an outline slide and starting with questions. All of these offer useful ways of doing an introduction that don’t require the hard work of getting connecting right or the sharp delivery required of prologues. In short, over three weeks you will get five introduction strategies that you can apply to any talk.

So, now to connecting. You will probably be used to a certain kind of introduction. The speaker might say who they are and where they come from, they might say something like “it’s really nice to be here” and then, if they are of a certain generation, you are likely to get a black and white slide with all their main points. At the end of their talk, someone else comes on and does exactly the same thing. It is as if each talk exists in its own little bubble cut off from the rest of the world.

I was the type to do that too, until I watched this talk by Bill Hybels, where he spent about 5 minutes talking about the church where he was speaking. Then I received advice from Graham Turner on academic conferences, when he pointed out that the people who get the most interest are those who can show how their work relates to everything else that is going on at the conference. The theme is the same. People are more likely to listen when you show them how you are joining the dots between their world and yours.

That is your job if you want to build connection in your introduction. Take something simple, like the conference venue or the city or the topic and think about the ways that other people might have experienced it. Maybe the venue is especially impressive or the city is famous for traffic jams or the topic has been in the news recently. Whatever it is, if it is common, it is a possible point of connection.

But beware. It is possible to get connection wrong by dropping into clichés. It seems a rule that the any opening speech for events in Scotland must include mentions of haggis and kilts. When visiting France, speakers will mention garlic or the Eiffel Tower. I sometimes wonder if guest speakers in Texas feel they have to mention oil or the Bush family.

As common as those things might be, they are pretty dead in terms of connection. In fact, they might even push people away. “Oh great, another speaker who sees us as walking stereotypes,” will be the words in the minds of your audience.

On the other hand, tune in to something closer to home and you help people to see you as someone who cares, in short, someone who is listening. So, instead of clichés, try something like “I was really impressed by what Mr X said, especially since I would like to talk to you about Y” or “[Topic X] has been in the news a lot recently. Today, I would like to share with you how [your theme] is affecting it.” The point is that you link your talk into something tangible and important in the minds of your listeners. Do that and you have their attention.

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Addicted to Flashy Visuals

Nowadays, PowerPoint slides and talks have become almost inseparable. From scientific discoveries to church sermons, almost every talk you can imagine will be accompanied by a series of slides with a dash of blue backgrounds and, if course, generous amounts of bullet points.

Of course, there are competitors to PowerPoint but even they are founded on the same mentality: talks must come with flashy visuals. We have turned into a generation of speakers who feel distinctly uncomfortable unless something is projected onto a screen behind us.

But do we have to share the stage?

I recently announced to my officemate that, for my next talk, I am going back to basics: pen, paper and hand-outs. He was shocked. After a short laugh, he said “but will people still learn?”

Good question. Did people learn from textbooks before we had the internet? Did people use dictionaries before they came on CD? Did anyone learn when lecturers wrote on blackboards or whiteboards or (oh the horror!) acetates?

Those questions are deliberately facetious but they are still serious. How easy is it to spend more time on developing your PowerPoint slides than actually thinking about the people who will be listening to you talk? How many of us spend more time on writing a contents slide than actually thinking about the contents the slide covers?

My point is not that PowerPoint or Prezi or any other similar programme is inherently wrong. Slides have been and remain powerful tools for helping to get a message across. But they are just that: tools. There is a great danger in feeling that we have to do a talk with slides. Why not, just for once, use physical visuals alone or even none at all!

It is truly wonderful to see people get creative with slides but creativity throughout the entire talk is even better. In the theatre, you learn about creativity through manipulating sight lines and the different symbolic meanings of different parts of the stage. In performance, you can learn about how movement can underscore or undercut what is said and how many people want to relate to the performer as a person, not just as an expert.

Isn’t there something we can learn here? A talk can be much more than one person plus a score of slides. It can be a meeting of minds, the beginning of a debate, a declaration of intent, an instance of personal expression and much, much more. Thinking of visuals of any kind as only one aspect of the talk pushes us to think about things like movement, intonation, repetition, structure and all the techniques that people knew and loved before a single bullet point appeared on a screen.

Perhaps it’s time we learned how to learn, teach and speak without a bullet point in sight.

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