Jon Meacham: a model of humor and humility


What a privilege to see Jon Meacham in person.  There were so many things he did as a speaker to captivate his audience.  I will focus on two:  humor and humility.

They occurred within the first two minutes of his speech.

After receiving a glowing introduction, which went on and on, with one notable accomplishment after another, and ending with the title of his most recent book, “The Soul of America,”  Mr. Meacham began his speech.

(Full disclosure. This is not verbatim.  I am telling the essence of the story, even though I am using quotations.”

“Thank you for the wonderful introduction.

“I was walking in the National Mall, when a woman comes rushing up to me  – which doesn’t happen nearly enough.  She said, ‘I love your books.  I’ve read all of them.  I have one in my car nearby.  If I go get it, will you sign it for me?'”

“I was flattered and told her I would.

“A few minutes later, she comes hurrying back to me with “Runaway Jury.”  (John Grisham’s bestseller.)

“My ego deflated, however, I signed it, thanked her, and she walked away.”

Jon Meacham – a celebrated and distinguished presidential biographer –   captured us all with humor and humility.

Dr. Genova shocked the entire audience then held us engrossed for one hour

I typically encourage speakers to begin their talk with something attention-getting or provocative: something that will get the listeners’ minds focused on the speech.

Recently, I saw Dr. Lisa Genova speak in the SF Bay Area. She is a neuroscientist, taught neuroanatomy at Harvard and now, an acclaimed author. She self-published her debut novel, “Still Alice.”

Her theme for the evening talk was Alzheimer’s disease and the brain.

Here was her open:

“Look at the person next to you. One of you will get Alzheimer’s and the other will be the caregiver.”

While startling and scary, the whole audience was rapt.

She continued to hold our attention as she explained how the brain functions at the on-set of Alzheimer’s. Yes, she used polysyllabic, medical terms, but then went on to illustrate those terms by weaving in heart-felt stories, as she witnessed the decline of her Grandmother, who was battling the disease.

It was a profound way of talking about hard-to-grasp medical terms and making them tangible and relatable.

She kept her audience immersed by, not only educating us, but making us truly understand the devastating results of this terrible disease.

This is a great example, from which all of us who present, can learn.

Former Cisco CEO John Chambers lost me

I saw John Chambers speak on Nov. 14; he is the former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Cisco.

I had many issues with his presentation, but I will focus on my main objection:  the speed at which he spoke.

Yes, he is accomplished and smart.  Yes, he has tons of enthusiasm. Yes, he was voted one of the top 10 Best Performing CEO’s by Harvard Business Review.

But, YIKES, he talked way too quickly.

The speed, combined with his West Virginia accent, made it challenging to understand and follow what he was saying.

I brought a guest with me who is from Brazil.  Considering that her second language is English, (which describes many people in the San Francisco Bay Area), she struggled to understand him.  Ultimately, he lost her and she fell asleep.

When you make your audience work to understand your message, they will eventually tire of straining and tune out.

We were disengaged.

An accent can pose another challenge to being understood.  However, if you speak deliberately and slow the pace, you can be confident that you will be clear.


Hand gestures

President Clinton tucked his thumb under his index finger and relied on that as his “go to” gesture.

President Obama emphasized points using an index finger.

President Trump pushes the wrist and palm of his hand….forward, towards the audience, to punctuate his words.

I contend….your audience shouldn’t remember the gesture.  The point of the gesture is to provide meaning to the word.


“Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”
Stephen Keague, The Little Red Handbook of Public Speaking

Mr. Keague is right. I recently worked with the head of Cyber Security for a large corporation, prior to his presentation before the Board of Directors. Together, we re-wrote his speech so that the language was relatable and easy to follow. My client practiced in front of his team; he practiced a couple of times before his boss; and he practiced whenever he had the chance.

The practice paid off. His boss received many compliments, and the interest of the Board was piqued – something that never happened before when the presentations were technical and flat. The Board requested more presentations like this, so that they can have a deeper understanding of his department’s responsibilities.

So, proper planning and preparation produced a professional, polished and poised presentation.

If English is not your native language, are you still struggling finding the right word?

In the San Francisco Bay area, I have many clients whose first language is not English. When I work with them on enhancing their presentation skills, a common fear is either mispronouncing a word, or using the wrong word when explaining a concept.

I know there are some positions where one has to carefully select words, and that being precise is essential.

But, for many of us, I would ask … that really what your audiences want from you….to always say the right thing at the right time? To never mispronounce word?

Even if English is our first language, how many of us can achieve that?

Here is my advice.

First –  be kind to yourself; mastering a language is difficult and public speaking can be scary.

Second – try this. When the right word is not coming to you, call it out. Say, “I am searching for a certain word, but it is escaping me.” You might discover that the audience is willing to help you find that word. Or, you can say, “I am not thinking of it, so let’s move on.”

Third – prepare. When practicing, make sure you select words you are comfortable saying.