Boring slides aren’t what’s wrong with PowerPoint.

Kindly allow me a short rant. Because this article from Business Insider is driving me a little nuts:

PowerPoint presentations are the standard for presentations in the workplace.

Except that they kind of suck …. It’s not really Microsoft’s fault. PowerPoint gives you all kinds of templates and graphics tools, but all anyone ever uses is boring bullet points on a white background.

PowerPoint gives you all kinds of templates and graphics tools, but all anyone ever uses is boring bullet points on a white background.

Today, Microsoft is introducing a pair of new PowerPoint features, Designer and Morph, that make it a lot harder to create a boring presentation ….[Designer] suggests slide layouts and features based on the content…. [Morph] makes it much easier to do simple animations in your presentation.

Dammit, people: this isn’t what’s wrong with presentations.

The very last thing you should worry about with your PowerPoint (or Keynote, or Presi, or Google Slides) presentation is how exciting your slides are. Or how pretty. Or whether they move.

Nobody’s presentation sucks because they chose a dull template.


On Earth.

In recorded human history.

What sucks about PowerPoint isn’t the default template. What sucks about PowerPoint is that so many people use it so very, very, very badly. They…

  • use PowerPoint for speeches that don’t need it at all.
  • overload their slides with words that they then read aloud, basically delivering a document with narration rather than a speech
  • focus relentlessly on their slides without thinking about their actual message and story
  • focus on the individual slides without thinking about structure

Only once you’ve addressed those questions should you even begin to think about templates.

Because if you have a compelling, relevant speech with great content and a rousing call to action, very few people will gripe that you were using black Verdana on a white background.

And if people are noticing your slides are boring, you have much bigger problems. The kind of problems no lovely layout or zippy animation can solve.


A joke that gets a good laughbut stops the flow of your speech deaddoes more harm than good.

How to use humor in a speech (without getting burned)

One of the best perks of speechwriting is the way it lets you indulge your sense of humor. Nearly every time you sit down to write a speech, there’s a chance to tell at least one joke.

That’s not something most other communicators get to do nearly as often. (Try slipping a one-liner into the annual report some time. Let me know how that goes.)

And it isn’t an indulgence—or at least, it isn’t just an indulgence. Humor has real communications power. It humanizes your speaker, builds a rapport with an audience and can help overcome hostility, suspicion and resistance to new ideas.

But written or delivered badly, a joke can work against your speaker. Which gives us a responsibility to use humor carefully and sensibly. Continue reading

Draw me a speech: Six speechwriting lessons from eight years of cartooning

Six speechwriting lessons from cartooningThink of cartoons as storytelling, and you probably think of animation or graphic novels. (You won’t get much argument here: my kids and I spent months enraptured by Noelle Stevenson’s “Nimona,” and we’ve probably watched every episode of “Shaun the Sheep” a dozen times.)

But single-panel cartoons are stories, too: just really distilled ones. And drawing them for eight years has taught me a ton about storytelling — which in turn has taught me a lot about speechwriting, helping me connect with audiences whenever I put down the stylus and put on my communicator’s hat.

Here are six of the key lessons I’ve learned along the way, and the cartoons that helped to teach me:

1. Surprise me.

Confounding expectations is a big part of a cartoon. You think an idea is going one direction, and discover it was headed somewhere else entirely. Here, you think at first this is someone in awe of nature… and then realize nope, they’re in awe of its financial potential.


That works with speeches, too. We love the twist that recasts everything before it in a whole new light: think back to “The Sixth Sense” or “The Usual Suspects.” We love to be surprised. If your speech unfolds exactly as expected, you’ve missed a chance to enthrall your audience. Worse, you’ll probably bore them.

2. The reader’s the hero.

The cartoons I hear the most about are the ones where people identified with the characters’ situations. For instance, if the thought of your inbox fills you with anxiety, maybe you’ll relate to this:

(woman on ledge) I have 175,682 unread emails. You tell me what I have to live for.

Your audience should see themselves in your speech. And if you want to lead them to action (and not just a rueful smile) then make them active protagonists, not passive victims; show them how taking that action resolves a conflict and gives them a happy ending.

3. Cut.

Nearly every caption that fills me with regret is a long one that I wish I’d made shorter. Heck, if I could figure out a way to trim this one, I would:

(group of people holding a candlelight vigil) Twitter's down.

Everything in your speech should serve a purpose. If a detail or a moment isn’t pulling its weight (say, by helping to create a picture, by lending emotional heft or by improving retention through repetition), cut it. At best, it’s dragging you down; at worst, it’s putting you off your core narrative.

4. Don’t tell it all.

Much of what makes many cartoons funny is that they leave just a little bit missing for the audience to figure out: a small gap in the circuit. The audience fills that bit in — like the information that McCormack just always asks if what’s on offer is meat-free.

(officer briefing soldiers) Now, in case of capture, you've been issued with suicide capsules... and yes, McCormack, they're 100% vegan.

When the reader (or listener) completes the circuit, the cognitive spark of realization helps trigger or amplify laughter — or, depending on the story, a jump of surprise, gasp of horror or surge of sympathy.

The result for you is a lot more emotional impact, and an audience that’s listening that much more intently for the next spark.

5. Cop an attitude.

Nearly every cartoon takes some kind of stand. And readers want them to, especially if that stand reflects a value they share. It could be something as serious as unease over surveillance… or as trivial as being fed up with retweet contests:

(marketers brainstorming) Suppose we run a contest where people retweet our ad repeatedly, and the winner's whoever loses the most followers.

If all you’re doing is relating the facts, you’ll have a pretty bloodless speech. But when you convey your speaker’s emotion and attitude as well, and when that attitude lines up with your audience’s, you can forge a strong connection with them.

6. Create pictures.

Obvious for a cartoonist? Maybe. But I often struggle to make the images carry at least as much of the humor as the caption. The payoff when I do is a funnier cartoon. This one, for example, would still work without the over-the-top majestic scenery, but the eagle and those mountains do a lot to magnify the joke:

(woman in kayak in the middle of beautiful wilderness) Well, dammit. I feel totally blissed out over being disconnected from the Internet, and I have no way to lord it over my friends on Facebook.

Your speech may not include actual photos (although thanks to the miracle of PowerPoint, it certainly could). But adding even a little sensory detail can make it feel far more immediate and real to your audience — and much more powerful.

Adapted from my guest blog post on storytelling at Shonali Burke’s Waxing UnLyrical. Her blog is a terrific resource — geared to PR, but valuable for communicators of all stripes. Do go check it out!

How CNBC did the GOP a solid (and why leaders should embrace gotcha questions)

Harsh, even unfair questions can tell you how you’ll do under much more intense fire.

The long-standing Republican hostility toward the news media was on full display last week after the CNBC GOP presidential debate. And it led them to fall into a trap that tempts many speakers: settling for easy wins instead of preparing for difficult questions.

On Friday the party, citing outrage that its candidates were asked difficult questions, suspended its relationship with NBC, putting the next debate in limbo. And there’s no question that some of the questions were juvenile, and framed to generate heat rather than shed light.

But what angry Republicans don’t seem to realize is that they were given a huge gift by CNBC on Wednesday night. It may not have been the gift they wanted, but it’s one they needed — and it came at a surprisingly low price.

The debate’s moderators provided a taste of the kind of scrutiny the Republican nominee will face during the presidential campaign itself. Whoever that is will have to face tough questions from their Democrat opponent and (I live in hope) the media. Those questions are essential if voters are to make an informed choice among competing candidates, platforms and visions.

Cruel (or at least harsh) to be kind

It isn’t rude, or even unkind, to direct a little harshness toward a candidate in a debate, if you want to know how that candidate will fare under much more intense fire. But apparently what Republicans wanted from the debate was a series of easy questions that would allow each candidate to showcase their skills at rhetorical slow-pitch ball.

And the problem for Republicans is this: whoever emerges victorious from that kind of contest probably isn’t going to go very far in the major leagues.

Yes, CNBC moderators asked some difficult questions, and not all of them were geared to garnering wisdom rather than audience share and reaction GIFs. Welcome to 21st-century media.

But they did it virtually cost-free. When candidates ducked some questions and lied outright in response to others, the moderators exacted precisely zero price for it. They even apologized when challenged on non-existent factual errors.

In short, the leading lights of the GOP field got a dress rehearsal for their 2016 high-flying act, complete with a nice, big safety net. They — and their supporters — should have seen it for the rare and precious opportunity it was.

Prepare with a worthy adversary

The Republican Party of 2015 is probably far too vested in their antipathy to the non-Fox news media to see that. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t learn from their mistake. For leaders who plan to communicate around contentious issues in the rough and tumble of the public spotlight, and for those helping them to craft their messages, here’s the critical lesson.

When you prepare, whether it’s for an audience Q&A, a media interview or a debate, choose mock opponents who won’t hesitate to bring the tough questions and raise the awkward points you’d rather avoid. If that means bringing in outsiders, great.

Welcome the opportunity to rehearse opposite a worthy adversary… even (especially) if they’re willing to be unfair, obnoxious and confrontational. They’re doing you a favour — even if that’s hard to see in the heat of the moment.

Photo by Flickr user Ben Watts

Photo of an auditorium, with a seat labeled Reserved For You

Being there: Why a seat in the audience can make you a better speechwriter

Sometimes, there’s just no fighting geography. And the truth is, there’s no faster or better feedback on how a speech you wrote goes over than to be in the audience when it does.

That’s often hard, especially if the speech is in another city, or if your speechwriting is a freelance gig outside of your day job. But if you can show up, even if it’s only to a handful of speeches, you’ll have a far better handle on the chemistry between your text, your speaker and their audience. Continue reading

"Nice speech. Did you write it?"

"Great speech! Did you write it?" How to answer the QUESTION OF DOOM

Being in the audience when a speaker delivers a speech you’ve written is great, for all kinds of reasons. But it does hold one big danger: being asked, “Did you write it?”

See if you can spot where this conversation at a banquet table after a luncheon keynote went south:

“So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a speechwriter.”

“Oh! Did you write this speech?”

“This? This speech? The one you just heard? Ha, ha, excellent question. My gosh, my throat’s dry. I’m just going to get some water, and then sit down at a different table on the far side of the room.”

We love to get credit for the work we’ve done. (Maybe not when a speech bombs. Success has a hundred proud parents, but failure is an orphan.) But when we’re writing for someone else, claiming authorship is complicated at best, and fraught with moral and financial peril at worst. Continue reading

You risk swapping being a storyteller for being a stock ticker.

Putting the ‘numb’ in ‘numbers’: Don’t let statistics sap your speech’s emotional punch

I recently saw a speech by someone clearly accustomed to the public spotlight and comfortable on the stage. She had an important message to deliver about a profound social injustice. She spoke with authority and confidence.

And she spent nearly all twenty minutes of her speech reciting statistics.

Good, compelling statistics: stark, often startling, sometimes infuriating. But two hours after her speech, I’d have been hard-pressed to tell you any of them.

Now, there was an interview-style Q&A after the speech where she was a lot more engaging. But by that point, she’d already lost a big chunk of the audience.

When it comes to statistics in speeches, less really is more. One or two telling statistics to buttress an argument or illustrate a point can be powerful. Once your trickle of stats swells to a flood, though, your audience can easily get overwhelmed and emotionally detached. And you risk swapping being a storyteller for being a stock ticker. Continue reading