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7 Reasons Why Executive Speakers FLOP (requested reprint)

Few things create a more vivid perception of an executive than his speaking ability. The higher execs rise in an organization, the more frequently they are called bellyflopupon to address others. Ironically, little or no training is given hapless executives to develop this skill. If they become good at public speaking, it is either a gift of genetics, they get lucky, or a combination of both.

Increasingly leaders are realizing their need for skills development that falls outside of what is typically offered by their organizations. That is one reason why executive coaching has become so popular. Often one of the primary areas coaches focus on is communication, both interpersonal and public.

As a professional who makes his living giving speeches and seminars, I’ve sat through hundreds if not thousands of executive presentations. More often than not, the speeches I’ve heard businesspeople make were less than memorable. And far too often the presentations were painful, not only for the speaker to give, but for the audience to feign interest through.

The majority of executive presenters, even those who flopped dramatically, were well-intentioned. Nobody sets out to destroy her credibility with a bad presentation. So why do people fail in spite of noble intentions?

Intention requires technique to be successfully communicated. It doesn’t matter how well you want to hit the golf ball. Only good form and practiced skill allow you to consistently do so. Public speaking is no different.

I am puzzled why so many seem to think that speaking well in front of an audience is a natural skill. Public speaking, like all skills, is developed. The more often one speaks, the better one becomes if–and this is a big if–he focuses on eliminating undesirable behaviors and developing needed ones.

The fastest gain that can be made in improving your ability to speak well is to eliminate those things that cause disaster. While I’ve observed great creativity in flopping, there are seven common reasons why executive speakers fail. I’ll explain those reasons and what to do about them.

  1. A disregard for time

History has no record of anyone who gave a speech that was too short, but we’ve all been in audiences when the speaker stopped speaking on what seemed like a different day than he had begun.

This problem–speaking too long or taking more time than allotted–seems to be epidemic among high level business leaders. Most meeting planners value their job too much to be candid with an executive and tell him that he completely destroyed the agenda by speaking for an hour when he was scheduled to speak for 15 minutes. And no employee is going to complain to the executive’s face about talking way too long.

Being self-employed allows me the luxury of being totally honest: speaking longer than planned is rude. It suggests to the audience that the speaker and her presentation are more important than anyone or anything else on the program. The length of a presentation shouldn’t be a function of title or power, but a function of how long the exec agreed to talk. If you say you need 10 minutes, quit after 10 minutes. If you need more time, negotiate for it in advance. But don’t take the next three speakers’ time because you either don’t pay attention to your watch or you are too arrogant to realize that the high point of the meeting just might not be listening to you speak twice as long as expected.

Start on time and stop on time. Not only will your audience respect you for it, but it will prove that you respect your audience.

  1. Unclear purpose

Here’s the million dollar question of any presentation: what’s the point? Executives who don’t have clear objectives for their presentation usually achieve little.

Heaven help you if your objective is “to inform.” Duh? Every speech informs, whether by design or by default. Attempting only to inform is aiming too low.

Why not use the opportunity to motivate, inspire or encourage? Why not take advantage of your chance to share a vision or create camaraderie?

Design your speech the way the pros do. Begin by asking, “At the end of this presentation, what do I want listeners to think, feel and do?” Good presenters speak to the head, the heart and the hands. Challenging people with lots of information of limited practical application is more frustrating than inspiring.

If you can’t clearly identify a worthwhile purpose for the presentation, you probably shouldn’t be making it.

And it doesn’t hurt to begin with an overt statement of purpose: “The reason I’m speaking to you today is…” It may not be clever, but it will significantly increase the odds that you’ll fulfill your purpose if you enlist the audience early on.

What about speeches that someone else writes for you? It is critically important that a speech writer have access to you and your ideas. Even the best speech writer isn’t clairvoyant. Your speech will only be written as well as the input you provide. This is not the time for “hands-off” delegation.

  1. Inadequate preparation

There is no excuse for “winging it.” The best speakers are always–and I mean it literally–prepared for what they say, even if their demeanor suggests otherwise.

That brilliant toe-in-the-sand presenter you heard who came up with the wonderful analogy and spectacular quotes “on the spot” really didn’t. She planned carefully not only what she was going to say, but how she would appear “off the cuff.”

Here’s how to tell if a speaker hasn’t prepared: he doesn’t say anything important. To make best use of your time and the audience’s time, think through and practice what you’ll say.

If you saw a Broadway show where none of the actors had practiced in advance, you would demand your money back.

Too bad audiences don’t get the same privilege.

And please don’t ever begin by saying, “I really haven’t thought about what I’m going to say…” There are no bragging rights to that. If you ever find yourself tempted to make that statement, at least be honest and say, “I’m a goober and I’m going to waste your time.”

Henri Nouwen, the Catholic mystic of the late twentieth century, was once frustrated as he prepared for an important speech. His insight? Live prepared, rather than simply trying to prepare. Maybe this is what Tom Peters was alluding to when he instructed managers to have a “stump speech” with the same three or four most important messages ready to give and give again at every opportunity.

  1. Failure to capture attention

The scarcest resource in the world used to be time; today it is attention.

The average listener is bombarded with messages from many different sources. From email to radio to voicemail to cell phones, everybody is trying to tell us something, and your attempt to give a speech is just one more bombardment.

That’s why what you say and how you say it had better grab the audience’s attention right out of the shoot. You don’t have time to “warm up.” (“Thank you for inviting me to be here today. It is indeed my pleasure to address you. What a great meeting it has been so far. Blah blah blah blah blah.”)

As my friend and high-powered speech coach Ron Arden says, “In the theater, you’ll never see an actor warm-up on the audience. They warm-up backstage.”

So forget the hackneyed concept of warming up the audience. Hit them square between the eyes with something that will break their preoccupation with what they need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home from work.

Most importantly, make your remarks relevant. Postmoderns are less interested with the question “Is it true?” and more interested in the question “How does it affect me?” Sure, you need to be intellectually honest to prove your points, but never forget to prove that your message matters to the listener.

  1. Pomposity

Ego-driven leaders are more concerned with what followers think about them than they are with what followers do because of them.

But you don’t necessarily have to be arrogant to be pompous. Sometimes it happens accidentally when a speaker confuses impressing a listener with influencing her.

Impressing people is, for the most part, a head-game: it changes what they think of us. Influencing people is a behavioral game: it changes what people do because of us.

A preoccupation with self is deadly. Self-absorbed speakers present to get their needs met, rather than meet the needs of the audience. The audience instantly recognizes it.

One of the best kept secrets in speaking is this: the audience wants you to do well. Everyone knows how painful it is to watch a speaker bomb in front of others, so instinctively, the audience is pulling for you. And they’ll cut you a lot of slack–allow for mispronunciations and other mistakes–if you are sincerely interested in them.

If you speak down to them or try to blatantly impress them, they’ll turn on you like a pack of rabid dogs. It won’t be as obvious as the rabid dogs, but beyond their polite or at least neutral non-verbals, they’ll be mentally dismantling you for being a pompous ass.

You wouldn’t be asked to speak unless someone believed that you have credibility and something to say. That is enough. Don’t undo that assumption through efforts to prove your status to others.

  1. Boredom

“Isn’t life a thousand times too short to bore ourselves?” That wasn’t uttered by a tired audience member, but it could have been. Helen Keller said it.

An audience today contains many people who were raised on MTV. That means they spent formative years watching music videos that often contained 150 images in the course of a minute. Watching a talking head is, for them, about as stimulating as watching software load.

Nobody ever flops who entertains. Don’t get me wrong: to be simply entertaining is not in itself a worthwhile goal for an executive presenter, but is sure beats the alternative, which is to be boring. Sell the sizzle and the steak.

Great restaurants know that the presentation of cuisine is as important as its preparation. Presentation and perception go hand-in-hand.

“Amusement” comes from two words meaning “not to ponder.” “Entertainment” on the other hand, is engaging. The value of entertainment for a speaker is that it mentally engages listeners. I’ve found the best way to educate is to slip good ideas in on the wings of entertainment.

By the way, telling a joke is risky. When it works, it works well. When it fails, nothing fails worse. The best way to avoid groaners is to use humor in such a way that it illustrates your point. If the audience doesn’t laugh, the illustration is still of value. And if they get a chuckle out of the humor, that’s just icing on the cake.

  1. False endings

Remember this variation of a familiar acronym: FEAR is False Endings Appearing Real.

I’ve seen it a hundred times. A speaker starts to conclude, even tells the audience of his intent, and then tells a pithy, witty story. The audience responds favorably. The speaker gets a rush. “Wow, they liked that. I’ve got an even better story,” he thinks to himself. And then he ends again, with another story/quote/challenge/admonition/etc. Like a junkie who has just had a good fix, the speaker keeps ending, until there is no positive response, but rather visible signs of disgust. By then, it is too late.

You can only effectively conclude once, yet I’ve seen executives conclude over and over. Each false ending weakens the message that was in front of it.

The false ending nightmare usually begins with these words, “In conclusion….” That triggers hope in the audience’s mind. “Hey, it’s almost over!” They expect you to wrap up quickly.

In my mind that means either summarizing or making a final point. Several points, or the introduction of new points, is not a conclusion.

A simple rule to remember: a good ending happens only once.

The beginning of excellence is the elimination of foolishness. You can bump up your speaking performance by analyzing your last presentation by asking these seven questions:

  1. Did I stick to my allotted time?
  2. Did I develop and present purposefully?
  3. Was I thoroughly prepared?
  4. Did I capture attention at the very beginning?
  5. Did I positively influence listeners?
  6. Was I appropriately entertaining, or at least not boring?
  7. Did I end only once?

An affirmative answer to each of these questions virtually guarantees that the next time you make a presentation, you won’t be a flop. Not only will you be flop-proof, most likely you’ll be perceived as an articulate and effective speaker.


Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE  is an award-winning speaker and the author of the bestselling books, The Fred Factor: How Passion In Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary, and You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader: How Anyone Anywhere Can Make a Positive Difference. Want to spend the day honing your speaking abilities? Call 303-683-0714. To obtain additional information for growing yourself, your people and your business (including free articles), visit For information about having Mark speak for your group, call Helen Broder at (703) 757-1204.







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5 Times When it Pays to Focus on the Negative

“Focus on the positive, not the negative.”Unknown

That’s pretty good advice…most of the time.

There are times when it pays to focus on the negative and when doing so is necessary. Here are five examples:

1. When it could turn into disaster.

Ignoring a threat is dangerous. Denying an attacking competitor, disgruntled customer, hostile employee or problematic situation won’t make them go away. Despite the bromide, ignorance is rarely bliss. Threats can escalate and end in tragedy. Attend promptly to those negative conditions that threaten your personal or organizational well-being.

2. When it can be remedied.

Even small problems are an annoyance and can drain away energy when left unsolved. Unless leaving a problem unsolved will makes no real difference, quickly deal with the ones you can..
Make a punch list of problems that can be remedied by yourself or someone on your team, then pick a timeline for resolution.

3. When it can teach you lessons.

We can learn from the good, the bad and the ugly. We need only to look for the lesson. Negative situations and results have causes. Finding those causes and dealing with them can literally turn a negative into a positive. More importantly, if we truly learn the lessons, we can eliminate or reduce future obstacles and negatives.

4. When you can help another.

Good people can turn in negative performances. You can help them by pointing out what isn’t working or can be improved. In this case ocusing on the negative becomes beneficial. Difficult as it may be, pointing out another’s negativity and the affect is has on others may be the first step towards a change of behavior.

5. When there is an opportunity within it.

Rob O’Brien focused on the negative: in 1999 he couldn’t find a place to get a good haircut. He didn’t like paying $40 at a salon and he wasn’t into the low price/low quality haircut options at the other end of the scale. So he and his brothers filled un unexploited niche and created Floyd’s 99 where guys (and gals) can get a great haircut and terrific service at a price between the low-priced and the high end. By exploiting an unfilled opportunity, the O’Briens have created a thriving, growing business.

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What’s Right and What’s Wrong With Our Role Models Today?


From Larry Winget:


Role models are nothing more than a reflection of what we value. When we value honesty, integrity, doing the right thing, morals, good parenting, leadership and hard work, we will have role models who exemplify those values. Since we instead value fame, celebrity, being pretty and living an ostentatious life style those are the role models we find ourselves with. When we elevate our values we will elevate our role models.

It’s fine to admire what a person accomplishes in business, sports or the financial world, but it’s stupid to turn them into a role model unless they are the kind of person you want your child to grow up to be. For instance: Steve Jobs quotes are posted on social media every day as if he a guru of business, yet he screwed over his partners. Some great football players beat their girlfriends. Tiger is the greatest golfer who ever lived but he is not a good guy. Before we hold any person up as a role model, we need to look at more than what they do, what they have and how they look. We must look at who they are and how they live.

Larry Winget, the Pitbull of Personal Development©, is a six-time NYT/WSJ bestselling author, social commentator and appears regularly on many national television news shows. To find out more, go to


From Scott McKain:


In 1993, Charles Barkley said something – via a Nike commercial he personally wrote – that was quite astounding.

“I am not a role model. A million guys who can dunk a basketball are in jail. Should they be role models?”

Athletes as role models were formerly appropriate because the press only reported their redeeming qualities. We never heard of Mickey Mantle’s problems with alcohol, Babe Ruth’s womanizing, or Ty Cobb’s racism. Now, we all know of steroid abuse, domestic violence, and drug addiction in sports — as well as entertainment, politics, and about every other walk of life.

Here’s the challenge – separating the message from the messenger.

Jimmy Swaggart failing in his personal life doesn’t mean the Bible was wrong. Michael Jordan may not be a nice guy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from his dedication to excellence.

It’s our personal responsibility to determine what we desire to accomplish – then, find a role model who has succeeded in that area, using their standard of performance to motivate us in a specific aspect.

Just as we all have fallen short in our personal endeavors, we have to realize that our role models don’t need to be all-encompassing examples of inspiration.

Scott McKain teaches how organizations and individual professionals can create distinction in their marketplace, and deliver the “Ultimate Customer Experience ®.” For more information:


From Randy Pennington:


I had heroes growing up just like every little kid. Along the way, I learned that many of them had feet of clay. That is no different today.

I also had role models. They taught me important life lessons about being productive, responsible, and honorable. If you are lucky, your heroes can also be your role models.

It is difficult for heroes and role models today. Immediate information exposes real life to the world much quicker. It isn’t that the heroes and role models of our youth were so much better than the ones today. It is that the illusion of their goodness is more easily stripped away.

The real problem isn’t a lack of role models. It is us.

We have confused being good at something or famous with being a role model. And, we have decided to celebrate, aspire to, or explain away the character flaws and failures of those we seek to emulate.

My father came to a stop sign on an empty country road. He stopped completely and looked both ways. My mother, telling me this story many years later, asked him why he stopped when no one was around or watching. My father nodded to my brother and I in the back seat and said, “There are four eyes watching my every move.”

That’s a role model and one of my true heroes. Anyone who thinks that is strange, hokey, or old-fashioned is what’s wrong with our role models today.

Randy Pennington helps leaders deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. To find out more, go to


From Joe Calloway:


America’s number one role model is fame.

Sadly, in our society what seems to be admired, prized, and revered more than anything is quite simply fame. If you’re famous, then you’re admired. You can be famous for good, for bad, or just for being famous (Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian). If you’re famous, people will flock to be near you, to have their picture made with you, and many of them will want to be just like you.

How many people choose a teacher or a master carpenter or a single mom working two jobs to provide for her kids as a role model? Not many. More often we admire singers, dancers, movie stars, and anyone who gets on TV. Personally, I don’t get it. What makes someone worthy of adoration or admiration simply because they do their job in front of lots of people?

By the way, you can be a great role model and be famous, but you shouldn’t be a role model because you’re famous.

My role models tend to be great dads. I doubt you’ve ever heard of any of them.

Joe Calloway helps great companies get even better.


From Mark Sanborn:


Role models greatly impact learning and development. There’s no debate about that.

Positive role models provide us both example and inspiration. We can see the reality of a life well lived rather than just learn about the abstract concept. In addition to living role models, history also offers a buffet of role models to chose from. (One advantage in choosing role models from history is that you know how their lives ended up.)

The danger is picking the wrong role model. We often confuse greatness with fame. Greatness is about what you give. Fame is about what you get. Contribution is the hallmark of greatness, not attention.

Be careful in selecting your role models, and take just as much responsibility in being the kind of person others would benefit from choosing as a role model for themselves. It might just make you a better person.

Mark Sanborn is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio for leadership development. He is an award-winning speaker bestselling author of books including, The Fred Factor. For more information and free resources, visit

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How To Work With A Jerk


From Joe Calloway:


OK – here’s my answer. It’s the answer for me and not necessarily for you.  The answer is that you don’t work with a jerk.  My vendors and colleagues aren’t jerks.  My customers aren’t jerks because we have a finely tuned “jerk filter” on the front end to weed them out.  I’ve worked too hard and life is too short to put up with jerks so I won’t.  If you don’t have that luxury or option, my friends here will probably have good advice.  There are also lots of books you can read about how to work with difficult people.  But my advice is to move on.  Either have the jerk removed or remove yourself.  Don’t work with a jerk.

I know. I know. Some will say, “But it’s not that easy.” or “I can’t remove them or me.” Fine.

Then listen to my four friends here.  Three of them are almost certainly more patient with difficult people than I am.  Winget’s not.

Joe Calloway helps great companies get even better.


From Larry Winget:


I am surrounded by more jerks than most folks so I have learned to work with them more than most would ever have to.  Why is that the case?  Because I am more opinionated than most folks – at least I am more vocal with my opinions than most people. When you are an opinionated person who rarely hesitates to voice your opinion, people will react to you in jerky ways.  Which means they aren’t necessarily jerks, but are only reacting to you in jerky ways.

Of course, being an opinionated person also makes you a jerk in the eyes of many people.  So begin with asking yourself the question, “Am I the jerk?”  About half the time, when I ask myself this question, the answer is either a resounding “probably” or a very definite “yes.”  Knowing that will help you deal with most jerks.  Jerks are usually defined as someone you strongly disagree with or who strongly disagree with you. After all, how can anyone who agrees with you be a jerk?  The solution? Confront, engage or ignore.  Those are your choices. I almost always choose to confront while most choose to ignore and gripe.

Larry Winget, the Pitbull of Personal Development©, is a six-time NYT/WSJ bestselling author, social commentator and appears regularly on many national television news shows. To find out more, go to


From Mark Sanborn:


Assuming (as Larry points out) that you’re not the one being the jerk, try this:

Start by making sure you’re dealing with bona fide jerk behavior. Be honest about your own interpretation. I’ve heard employees say their boss was a jerk because he or she required them to be on time or live up to other performance standards. Requiring compliance to a job description doesn’t make your boss a jerk unless he or she does so in a petty or demeaning way.

Next, “feed the trolls” as the internet saying goes. Your response to a jerk can be fuel for his or her fire. While it is natural to respond negatively it doesn’t help your cause. Be assertive to protect yourself, but don’t resort to bad behavior.

Finally, have a tough conversation. Call the jerk on her or his behavior. Define the jerk’s behavior, how it makes you feel and—importantly—how it impacts your work. Get the problem out in the open and ask that it be addressed.

Mark Sanborn is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio for leadership development. He is an award-winning speaker bestselling author of books including, The Fred Factor. For more information and free resources, visit


From Randy Pennington:


I agree with virtually all of my colleagues’ comments. My only minor disagreement is with Larry’s assertion that people who agree with us are seldom jerks.

Larry, Joe, Mark, and Scott are four of my best friends in the entire world. We agree 98 percent of the time, and … you see where this is headed. I’m sure they would say the same thing about me.

Even your best friends will occasionally be jerks. If they are, call them on it. And if they won’t do the same to you, they aren’t your friend.

If you decide to talk to someone about their jerkiness:

  • Focus on the behavior. Don’t assume their motivation. It takes a strong relationship to actually call someone a jerk and not have them react negatively.
  • Own your feelings and emotion. You can’t control others’ actions and behavior. You can control your reaction.
  • Know the difference between a jerk and a bully. We all deal with jerks. None of us should tolerate a bully. Report it or remove yourself. Just don’t accept it.
  • If you supervise the work of others, being or allowing others to be a jerk will be detrimental to your and their success.

Randy Pennington helps leaders deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. To find out more, go to


From Scott McKain:


The fundamental problem with jerks is often that THEY don’t realize they are one.

They believe that they’re “driven,” or “results-oriented,” or “a decisive leader,” instead of understanding themselves to be the total ass that we perceive they are.

I suppose that down deep we would all like to be a bit of a jerk. We’d enjoy saying what we really think without repercussions – however, as you and I know, the real world doesn’t work that way.

And, perhaps the truth may be a bit deeper than you first recognize.

When Van Halen demanded in their contract there could be no brown M&Ms in the dishes of the candy required backstage, it wasn’t the band being a bunch of jerks…or rock star excess…that was behind it. Van Halen knew that if a promoter skipped that detail, there would probably be other, more important ones that they would miss, too – meaning fans might not get the show the band wanted to deliver.

In other words, what was perceived as “jerkiness” was instead a commitment to excellent performance.

Before you deal with the jerk using the great insight from my friends – first, make certain the problem isn’t the jerk, but instead…your perception.

Scott McKain teaches how organizations and individual professionals can create distinction in their marketplace, and deliver the “Ultimate Customer Experience ®.” For more information:

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5 Ways to Lead Larger

larger1. Expand your vision.

If you had to choose, wouldn’t you rather expect too much than expect too little? A small vision of what’s possible limits you. When Daniel Burnham famously said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood…,” he was pointing out that the size of the motivation is often directly proportional to the size of the undertaking. Little visions create little motivation.

It can be scary to think bigger. No leader wants to think unrealistically, but I believe more leaders are limited by their thinking too small than by overreaching. My friend Erwin McManus says it well: If you’re big enough for your dream, your dream isn’t big enough for you.

2. Increase your learning.

The wider your intellectual bandwidth, the greater your leadership potential. Ideas and the ability to act upon them are the fuel of those who lead large.

What one skill, if you mastered it, would create the greatest payoff in your life? What does your team most need to learn to power up their performance? What original sources of information and ideas can you find to get you out of the mainstream of common thought that produces only common results?

3. Narrow your focus.

No matter how big the vision, you can only truly concentrate on one important thing at a time. Distraction is a killer of accomplishment. The danger isn’t just in trying to do too much, but in trying to do too much at one time.

Rid yourself of the obsession to do the trite, easy and expedient. Instead, focus on those activities, relationships and events that will move you most quickly to achieving your vision.

4. Improve your team.

Leaders frequently quote Proverbs: Without a vision the people perish. Less often considered is that without people the vision perishes. You will be as successful as the people who work with you. Have you surrounded yourself with the right people? Are they clear on the vision? Have you created shared focus for each team member so he or she isn’t wasting time on the insignificant?

5. Enjoy the process.

If you’re not having fun in your leadership journey, those around you probably aren’t either. There are always challenges and difficulties–and dealing with them is a big part of what leadership is about–but focusing on your strengths, opportunities and the people who matter will keep you grounded and prevent you from burning out.

Living large isn’t just about wealth and affluence, but attitude and orientation. When you live large, enjoying the people, opportunities and activities around you, you lead larger, too.

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