How to sound less formal and more normal

If you’re one of the very few presenters who goes to the trouble of actually writing out your presentation in full, you’ll know what usually happens when you read it aloud for the first time. It just doesn’t sound right. If you’re making the cardinal error of reading it to your audience (NEVER do this, if you can possibly help it), you’ll probably find yourself making a few improvisations as you go along.

Why? Because as soon as you sit in front of the laptop, your brain automatically goes into written language mode. And there are some very important differences between how we write for people and how we speak to them.

The other side of the coin is that what we say when speaking without a script sounds fine at the time, but if it’s transcribed verbatim, looks disjointed, repetitive and ungrammatical on paper, with jerky, unfinished sentences and abrupt mid-sentence diversions. Take this quote from ex-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown as an example. Perfectly understandable, but disjointed and ungrammatical:

“I have only [just] found out the links between The Sunday Times and what I would call elements of the criminal underworld who were being paid, while known criminals, to do work that was, if you like, the most disgusting of work, not against me only, but against people who were completely defenceless.”

This is because when we speak, we make much less effort to obey the rules of grammar. In fact, a large percentage of what most people say doesn’t follow the rules. But when you’re writing, you’re thinking about what you’re going to say, and you have to concentrate on grammar even if only because your word processing grammar checker will prompt you if you make a mistake.

Now I’m not suggesting you deliberately ignore the rules of grammar, but if you make a special effort to speak correctly you’ll end up sounding stiff, formal, robotic, wooden and pompous. You’ve probably seen scores of presenters who’ve done this, especially at big set-pieces like company conferences. You’ve heard of Harry Potter’s `Cloak of Invisibility’? Well, they don a ‘Cloak of Formality’ and come across as if they’ve left their personality behind on their seat when they got up to speak.

K.I.S.S. -Keep It Simple Stupid!

Sometimes speakers are tempted to show off their eloquence (or superiority) and level of education by the judicious employment of polysyllabic words where their monosyllabic cousins would suffice (exactly what I just did then – a more effective way of saying the same thing is ‘using $10 words when c10 ones would do‘). But if you look at some of the famous speeches I feature on my site one thing that will strike you is the simplicity of most of the language used.

Now I am not encouraging you to become a hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobe and I do not mean to floccinaucinihilipilificate about large vocabularies (just showing off myself there – the first means a person who has a fear of using long words, the second is the act of estimating something as worthless). It is just that simple words are usually far more effective in getting a message across than complex ones.

If your audience has to keep dipping into a mental dictionary for clarification every twenty seconds, you’ll lose them! And if you keep it simple, then when you do deliberately use a long or unusual word to emphasis a specific point, it will stand out and be remembered. Take the penultimate paragraph of JFK’s Inaugural Address, a masterpiece in simplicity:

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Out of 111 words, only eight have more than two syllables, and again, none of them particularly fancy or unusual (history, generations, maximum, responsibility, generation, devotion, endeavor and Americans).

Yet politicians, journalists and businessmen feel the need to demonstrate their education and supposed intellectual superiority to the rest of us by using what can only be described as gobbledygook, bureaucratese (such as UK politician Tessa Jowell, saying we need more ‘sustainable eating in schools‘ when she really means ‘more fruit and vegetables‘) or even gibberish.

So . . . . Never use a long word if you can think of a short one. In his unpublished ‘Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ Churchill wrote:

“The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words. The error of this idea will appear from what has been written. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force to simple understandings than words recently introduced from the Latin and the Greek. All the speeches of great English rhetoricians–except when addressing highly cultured audiences–display an uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage–so long as such words can fully express their thoughts and feelings….”

When Churchill refers to the ‘more ancient’ words he is referring to those of Germanic origin. Much of everyday English comes from German and French, but the more basic words we use tend to be Germanic. This is because after the Norman conquest, the 95% of the population who were commoners still spoke Anglo Saxon while the only people who spoke French were the ruling elite.

The result is that for many things there are two words in use: a short, plain, ‘Germanic’ word and an alternative, ‘fancy’, French one. Use the short one if you can.

So don’t say, ‘We shall endeavor to ascertain‘ when you can say ‘we’ll try to find out‘. Don’t say ‘bring to completion‘ when you can simply say ‘finish‘, and don’t say ‘in order to ensure that‘ when you can say ‘so that‘.


When speaking conversationally, 99% of the time we shorten words, changing ‘I do not’ to ‘I don’t’ and ‘we will’ to ‘we’ll’. If you don’t do this when presenting, you’ll sound stiff and pedantic.

Active vs Passive

Use the Active Voice. Try not to use the passive when you can use the active one instead (before you email to point it out, I know that you can probably find hundreds of examples of me using it on this site and in my E-book; sometimes some do manage to slip through). The passive voice is used where something happens to the subject of the sentence (see – I nearly used the passive and wrote ‘where the subject is acted upon‘ ), and it usually involves the verb ‘to be’. For example, “a decision was made”, or “prices were increased”, or “songs were sung”.

Very often politicians use it when they are seeking to avoid blame or responsibility. So “mistakes were made” is often an easier way of saying “we (or heavens forbid, ‘I’ ) made mistakes ”. Likewise, “a decision was taken” can be a way of avoiding the dreaded (for a politician) words “I decided …”.

The reason the active voice is more effective is that it is far more direct, and usually shorter than the passive. Thus Eric Clapton’s line “I shot the sheriff,” is both shorter and more effective than “the sheriff was shot by me”. And “We will fight them on the beaches” beats “They will be fought by us on the beaches” hands down, I think you’ll agree. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” is much better than “it is dreamed the speaker”.

A good way to clear up your speech of the passive voice is to circle every use of the verb ‘to be’ (including the future and past tenses, e.g. ‘will’, ‘was’ and ‘were’) to see if they are used in a passive way and if they can be converted to the active.

However, you won’t always want to do this. Good English contains a balance of the two, and sometimes using the passive voice simply sounds better, especially when the action has been carried out by someone unknown (e.g. “a car was broken into last night on Church St.” or “a fight broke out”) or whose identification isn’t important (e.g. “the mail is delivered twice a day”). The problem arises when the passive is over used. That’s when speech becomes over-complex and unintelligible.


Low-impact openings: How NOT to open a speech or presentation.

Research has shown that the first and last 90 seconds of any speech have the most impact and are the most memorable, so you should always give the opening and closing of your talk extra thought, time and effort.

Often your audience will have already listened to a number of other presentations and may be brain-dead, suffering from ‘Death by PowerPoint’ or simply thinking about something else they deem to be more important.

Just stop and consider the 1001 things that might be going on in your audience’s brains as you get on your feet to present. They could be thinking about the big game on TV that evening, the argument they had with their partner before going to work, a big date on Friday, the clunking noise their car engine was making on the way to work, the fact their child isn’t doing well in school or their pet is sick, financial worries or even what they’re going to cook for dinner that evening.

And that’s just personal stuff. That’s before we throw in all the things that are happening at work. And with everybody’s new-found ability to multi-task and the fact that attention spans are getting shorter, there is always the temptation to open some of the 500 emails in their inbox while you’re speaking (while looking like they’re being attentive and taking notes)

And because you think your presentation is important, you expect them to put everyone of those things to one side, forget about them and give you their full attention instead. Let’s be objective for a moment. What are the chances of that happening without you giving them a very good reason for doing so? Pretty slim, I’d say.

So your job is to grab them by the throat, shake off their torpor and give them a compelling reason to listen. Because if you don’t, why should they bother?

However . . . . . . most people lose this tremendous opportunity, simply ambling into their introduction without any real forethought. They put all their preparation into the body of their talk or presentation, and give none to the opening at all!

Let’s look at the ways most presenters begin.

1. Greetings. Do not open with “Hi/Hello/Good morning/afternoon/evening, it’s a pleasure to be here today …..” Every single presenter before you has probably already said it, it’s bland and obvious and it wastes too much of your precious 90 seconds.

2. Self-introductions, i.e. “My name is Earl . . .” I’ve even heard people open with this when presenting to their co-workers and every single person in the room knew them! It was simply their default way of opening. But even if you’re presenting to people who don’t know you, this is a low-impact, unimpressive opener. There are 3 things you can do instead:

a) Introduce yourself to everyone individually before the presentation, during coffee, if this is practical.

b) Get someone else to introduce you before you get on your feet. If you’re going to do this, give that person a piece of paper with the exact details of what you want them to say. I was once speaking at a conference in Galway, Ireland, and the conference moderator introduced me by saying, “Our next speaker is a consultant from the UK, Nick Skellon. He’s just finished his first book …. and he’s going to start coloring in another one on Monday!” The audience all laughed and I thought it was a brilliant introduction.

A couple of months later I was speaking at an evening event and the organizer asked me how he should introduce me. I told him about the coloring book introduction, and he opened by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming along. Our speaker this evening is Nick Skellon, who’s going to talk about XYZ. He’s just finished his first book, but I’m told the next one will have pictures in it.

In other words, he completely screwed it up! So prevent this from happening by giving them that little slip of paper.

c) Have your name on your opening slide.

If you still feel a self-introduction is necessary, do it after you’ve grabbed their attention, not as the first thing that comes out of your mouth.

3. ‘Fluff’ such as “OK, here goes …”, “1-2, 1-2 … is this mike working?” or “Can everyone hear me at the back?” (especially when tapping the microphone). Or starting with a conversational inanity, such as “How you all doing this morning?”, “Hey, what do you think of those Cowboys/Giants/Patriots/Bears?“, or comments about the weather and how difficult it was to get to the venue in the snow.

4. Thanks, e.g. “Thank you for inviting me to speak here today,” or “When John asked me to speak here today I was delighted to accept …” Again – mundane, everyday, ‘safe’, predictable, boring ……

Yes, I know President Obama usually opens his speeches by thanking the event organizers, but that’s deliberate ego-stroking; it’s important to them that the audience knows the President knows them by name, and Obama realizes this. You’re not the President.

5. Apologies, such as “I’m really not used to doing this sort of thing”, “I’m glad there’s a lectern here so you can’t see my knees knocking”, “When I accepted my invitation to come tonight, I didn’t know I’d have to say anything. If I’d known that I’d probably have made an excuse,” or “I’m sure there are a lot of you in the audience more qualified to speak on this subject than myself”.

Nervous speakers say something like this for two reasons: to lower the audience’s expectations so they don’t seem so bad and gain sympathy and appear likeable, but to me it’s the kiss of death. As soon as I hear words like this I wilt inside, for two reasons.

Firstly, nervousness is contagious. If a speaker owns up to it, it makes me nervous. If she is obviously uncomfortable, I start to squirm and look at the floor, avoiding eye contact. Is this the reaction you want from your audience? Audiences are like wild dogs; they can smell fear.

Secondly, if there are people in the audience more knowledgeable than you, why isn’t one of them presenting instead? You’re hardly giving me a compelling reason to listen to you by admitting your lack of expertise! So I can’t stress this enough – No matter how nervous you feel, DO NOT comment on it in a pathetic, wimpish attempt to gain the audience’s sympathy.

6. Praise such as “It’s a great honor to be here today speaking to such a distinguished audience,” or “Thank you for the opportunity to come along and present to you today, I know how busy you all are.” Churchill once said that praise at the beginning of a speech sounds like you’re sucking up. Praise given halfway in sounds genuine. So if you must praise the audience, do it after the opening, not as part of it.

Comments about how busy the audience is are usually accompanied by something like, “This won’t take long,” or “I’m just going to rush/dash/sprint through a few slides …” Saying you’re going to ‘rush through a few slides really quickly‘ makes it sound as if your presentation is unimportant. If even you don’t think it’s important, how can you expect the audience to think it is? Such comments hardly fill the audience with a burning desire to forget the 1001 things we mentioned earlier, stop everything and listen!

Often people will combine some (or all) of the above and say something like, “Good morning everyone, my name is Nick Skellon and I’d like to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to present to you today, I know you’re very busy. The weather was so bad today I didn’t think I’d ever get here; what did you think of that snow? A 25 minute journey took me 90 minutes today. Amazing! I don’t do many of these things so I’m a bit nervous, I hope you’ll make allowances. Can everyone hear me OK at the back?

By which point 75% of the audience is thinking about the clunking noise the car was making on the way to work, or checking their emails. 25 seconds and you haven’t said a single thing of interest! You DESERVE to lose their attention.

Now it’s not that these methods of opening are bad. Nobody ever got the sack for opening with a self-introduction. People won’t talk about you around the coffee machine for starting with a greeting. They’re just not memorable, that’s all.

They’re boring, mundane, so-so, average, bland, colorless, middle of the road, everyday, predictable, humdrum, conservative, safe, obvious, grey, low-impact, unimpressive and instantly forgettable. Do you really want any of these adjectives or phrases to apply to you? No, I thought not.

You’re objective when opening is to reach out and grab the audience by the throat and give them a compelling reason to give you the next 15, 30 or 45 minutes of their lives. And none of the above do that.