How to make or break your first impression

In my workshops, attendees often talk about how they'd like to make better first impressions.

Most of us think we subscribe to the concept that we judge people based on knowing them for an extended period of time. The reality is often another story. Back in my acting days, we worked on our monologues for auditions tirelessly.  But what we ALSO worked on:

  • How we walked into a room (confident, but friendly)
  • How we said our name (declarative, without an up inflection - like a question)
  • Making eye contact with the auditors and smiling when first entering the audition room
  • Rehearsing saying the name of the piece we’d be performing as well as the author and character in a clear, confident way

So why on earth would we focus all this attention on what seems like innocuous behavior? Because first impressions can make or break your ability to get the job. First impressions carry a lot of weight, and whether you’re auditioning for a role, interviewing for a job, networking, building your business, or looking for a date, the way people perceive you has everything to do with your ability to get what you’re seeking.

Spend time working on making a positive, friendly connection with potential clients, employers…as many people as you can because you never know how they might be able to help you out.

Yes, sometimes it’s a real effort. We all have bad days when we’re cranky. The effort you put into making a good first impression will pay off.  Sure, be clear about your subject matter—practice speaking out loud your pitch, or your work history—but remember to pay attention to how you first connect with people. They won’t forget it.

3 tips to avoid the public speaking freak-out

People often ask, “why do I get so nervous when I get up in front of a group?”

Well, if you think about it, it makes total sense.

You’re standing in front of a crowd of people, and they’re all staring at you, waiting for you to speak.

You want to put your best self forward.

So what can you do?

  1. The first thing is: normalize it. Expect to be nervous. It’s not just YOU, it’s part of the process. Most people feel a surge of adrenaline when addressing groups.
  2. Know your material backwards and forwards — rehearse it out loud until you’ve got it down. Know your points, but don’t memorize it word for word.
  3. Find opportunities to get in front of people to practice as much as you can. Having live people in the room to speak to will model the situation you’ll be in. The more you do it, the less anxious you’ll be.

Remember, you’ll always have nerves or feel adrenaline, so check the box and don’t freak yourself out. It’s totally normal.

Avoid the dreaded monotone

We all have the ability to hit within three full octaves of notes when we’re speaking, but a lot of times, we hit just one or two. This can result in your voice being monotone where you hit just one note the whole time—which can put your audience to sleep. If you listen to announcers on radio or TV, you’ll notice that they’re hitting different notes when they speak to give variety to their delivery, which makes it easier to understand what they’re saying.

Borrow this technique when you’re speaking—try hitting different notes.  At first, it’ll feel awkward—partly because you’re focusing on something new, but as you get more comfortable with your new vocal range, you’ll start to incorporate hitting different pitches based on what you’re saying. 

If you’re around young kids, practice playing all the parts when you’re reading them stories. They’ll love it, and you’ll get a chance to see all of the places your voice can vocally go.

Another way to practice vocal variety is to get a book (that you want to read), download the audio book and read along with the voice over actor, modeling your voice on theirs as they raise and lower their pitch. Then, put the audio on pause and read on your own for a few minutes, recording yourself each day to track your progress.

Use these tricks to avoid the dreaded monotone delivery and keep your audience engaged.

Ditch the Critic!

We’ve all got it—that critical committee in our head that’s commenting on our delivery WHILE we’re speaking to a group—saying things like “That was a stupid thing to say,” and “Wow, you really blew THAT one,” and “You are so terrible at this—everyone is bored out of their minds."

These voices can sometimes be helpful and keep us from saying inappropriate things in our daily lives, but it’s NOT helpful when we’re speaking to a group.

What can you do about it?

Send the committee out of the room. When you’re doing run-throughs, practice seeing them leave the room and go out the door. When it’s time to deliver your talk, find the closest exit and visualize them leaving the room.

With the critical committee gone, you’ll be able to worry less, and focus on what’s most important—sharing your ideas with your audience.

The least popular secret to public speaking

The number one thing people DON'T do when preparing to speak is rehearse. The majority of presenters spend 95% of their time working on their PowerPoint and just 5% practicing their actual talk. 

So here are three ways to get started:

  1. Plan rehearsals in advance—put time on your calendar and book a conference room for multiple run throughs well before your talk. This will give you deadlines to meet so you don’t leave it all to the last minute. 
  2. Record your run throughs using the voice memo or video function on your phone. Yes, it’s painful to hear yourself, but you owe it to your audience to give a listen.
  3. Get a test audience. Ask some friends and colleagues to sit in for a run through. Having real people in the room makes a big difference, and gives you a chance to practice making eye contact, as well as get some helpful feedback.

I guarantee if you follow these steps and practice out loud beforehand, you will be better. Steve Jobs was a great presenter because he rehearsed—A LOT.

How to have a conversation

You know more about speaking publicly than you think. We all do it every day when we’re having conversations. When you’re talking to a friend, you don’t really worry about your delivery. You’ve got something to say, some sort of message, and you want to assure they get it. Apply this same concept when you’re speaking to a group. Envision a supportive friend, and focus on making sure they understand you’re saying. If you’re using video – put a picture of that friend right next to the camera as a visual reminder. It’ll take your mind off of your nerves, and remind you of what you already know – how to have a conversation.

How you tell your story—is the story

In job interviews or in everyday conversation, do you freeze up when you start to talk about your yourself? Do you have a hard time figuring out what to tell and what to leave out? What about the things you did that didn’t really turn out exactly as you’d planned? And most important in job interviews, how do you talk about jobs that you absolutely hated?

The good news is that as the storyteller, you have the ability to craft your story. This isn’t to say that you should lie or in any way misrepresent yourself. Don’t. It will come back to bite you. But if you had a job that you absolutely hated, the one thing that you CAN say is what you learned from it. Whatever it was about it that you didn’t like, it more than likely made you wiser than when you started. Give it a positive spin--going negative in a job interview is a big turn off for employers. Think about it, would YOU want to be around someone who complains all the time?

Focus on talking about what you really love and are passionate about. This is the same advice I give to my workshop attendees. When you speak from a place of passion, your audience picks up on that and you rise above the other interviewees.  Being able to communicate your desire and showing a willingness to learn more and build on what you already know is a great place to start.

The one thing that I cannot recommend highly enough, is to spend a decent chunk of time looking at and writing out your personal history. Yes, it’s jobs that you’ve had, and school you’ve attended--but don’t forget to think about the things that you do that you might regularly gloss over--hobbies, family history, hometown and travel. These are important elements that reveal who you are and what makes you unique.

Once you’ve written down your personal history, and included all of the things you’ve done and are good at (paid or not), think about a way to tell your story that emphasizes your strengths that will give a brief history of what brought you to where you are today.

Practice telling the story out loud. This is where people often drop the ball. Converting your thoughts into language is a process that takes practice. Yes, it feels a bit ridiculous, but don't skip this important step. Time yourself. Have a five-minute version ready. Then, a two and a one-minute version. Obviously, you can’t tell everything, but you can hand pick the important elements that are relevant and that brought you to where you are today.

How you tell your story--after you’ve respected the contents enough to commit it to paper, stripped away the inessential, and polished it with enough rehearsal to let the natural passion shine through—IS the story.

10 ways to 10x your tech talk

Speaking about something technical need not be boring. No matter how technical your topic, it’s up to you to find a way to keep your audience interested in what you have to say. Here are 10 ways to take to assure you’ll keep your audience with you.

  1. Think about why you are speaking. As the subject matter expert, you have a gift to give your audience that will help them out. Think about an action that they will take as a result of your presentation. Saying you’re speaking to them to “impart information” is a cop-out. Get more active and think about what they’ll DO with your words of wisdom.
  2. Give your unique perspective and tell personal stories that relate to your material. It is up to you to find stories that connect you to your material. Your audience will remember a good story, especially one about something really stupid you did (and learned from). Bonus points: this will also get them on your side.
  3. Define who your audience will be. What is their background? What are they interested in? How familiar will they be with your topic? This is one of the most important things that people tend to overlook — but finding out what your audience really cares about will help you tailor your presentation to their needs and interest.
  4. Do you care about your topic? If you don’t care and can’t show passion for your subject, you certainly can’t expect your audience to. You’ll be radiating your boredom, and your audience will follow suit.
  5. Keep it Conversational. Sure, you’re the subject matter expert, but that doesn’t mean you have to speak like a robot. Tape yourself and listen and/or watch. Does it sound like you’re speaking at gunpoint, or like you’re actually talking to someone? Practice with a friend running through the presentation talking to them as you would about anything. Speaking like a real person having a real conversation makes a huge difference to your audience.
  6. Make Eye Contact. Keeping your face buried in your notes, or staring at the screen behind you disconnects you from your audience. After you make a point at the end of a phrase or sentence, check to see if the audience got what you said. Avoid scanning the audience, choose one person at a time to speak to, and the entire audience will feel as if you’re talking to them.
  7. Breathe and Slow Down. These are the two things that will most quickly improve your ability to speak effectively to an audience. No doubt, having lots of pairs of eyes on you is freaky and stressful, and you’ll probably start to breathe in a very shallow way, and speak as fast as you can so you can get this over with. This is normal, so don’t beat yourself up for being a freak. Breathing more deeply will send needed oxygen to your brain and nervous system telling them to calm down. Pauses and breaks are great ways to give your audience time to process what you’ve said.
  8. Be Prepared, not perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist, and straining to be perfect will squeeze the life out of your presentation and squelch your natural ability to carry on a conversation with your audience.
  9. Choose your visual images carefully. Less equals more. Go easy on the bullet points, and please don’t just read exactly what’s on your screen without elaborating. If you have to use bulleted lists — at least reveal them as you speak about them, otherwise everyone will stop listening to you while they are reading what’s on your screen. Use real world examples and talk about real situations. Check out Garr Reynold’sPresentation Zen for more tips.
  10. Practice. A lot. Period. I’ve come across a lot of people who feel that if they practice too much, their presentation will come off as “too rehearsed.” The most calm, relaxed, conversational presenters you’ll see have rehearsed A LOT to look that effortless.

It’s hard work, and takes time, but as long as you rehearseconnect to your wordshave passion for your subject, and carry on a conversation with your audience, you’ll come across as genuine and knock it out of the park.

Why am I a public speaking coach?

I was up in front of an audience for the first time in my life. I forgot everything, I forgot my lyrics and panicked. A friend of mine had told me, ‘If you ever forget your lyrics just sing numbers and letters.’ Which is what I did, and I somehow made it through our six-song set.

I was traumatized and ran out to the car. Then the bass player, Jennifer, came out and said, ‘Well Bill, are you ready to do a second set?’ Horrified, I said, ‘No way am I going to go back out there and make a fool of myself a second time.’ She said, ‘Look. The band is waiting and we’re ready to go. So if you don’t want to do the second set you need to tell the band that you’re quitting, and then tell that audience that you’re not going to give them a show.’

So I thought, ‘Well, it certainly couldn’t be any worse that the first set.’ So I just got out there. This time I held a notebook with all my lyrics for reference – and it actually went really well. And people liked it.

As an actor, I forgot my lines many times in front of hundreds of people. That’s why I can so powerfully identify with people who get up in front of groups and have issues with it. It’s because I’ve had challenges with that myself, and I understand how hard that can be.

I try to give my clients an experience in front of other people that shows that they can make some improvement, and have them re-experience what may have been a bad experience in the past.

That’s why a lot of people leave my workshops feeling energized and hopeful. Because public speaking is really not rocket science, it’s pretty straightforward – but we get in our own way and worry about what the audience is thinking, as well as worrying about being perfect. My motto is ‘Be prepared, not perfect.’

Read the full interview here.

My Public Speaking Origin Story: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Being a New Wave Lead Singer

In the '80s, I was in a new wave band in Nashville called “Modern Emotions.” We had only been together for six weeks when we got our first gig.  Well, OK, it was a Halloween party in someone’s basement, but there were going to be a TON of people there, and that constituted a gig for us.  It was the first time I had ever performed in front of any audience EVER.

My friend Barry Nelson, gave me advice when I revealed that I was a little concerned I would forget my newly learned lyrics:

“If you forget your lyrics, just sing numbers and letters--no one will know the difference.”

Barry’s advice was good (listen to REM’s Murmur and tell me if you understand ANY lyric on that), but I had another plan.  I had a notebook with my lyrics written in large print in it, and I’d position it so I could glance at it if my memory failed.  We did the sound check and it worked.  Whew!  Now I could relax and focus on my eyeliner.

The crowd started to gather--and they’d crowded a lot of people in that basement. I ran down my new wave checklist: pink tuxedo shirt, check. Black thrift store jacket, check. Hair & Makeup, check & check. Killer ascot, check and mate.

As we walked out to the band riser, I saw that someone had taken the extra step of putting dry ice in buckets all around the stage, and my carefully placed notebook had vanished in the moody fog.

The band starts up--Chuck Orr on his drums, Skot Nelson begins to tickle the synth ivories, Jennifer Thompson gets going on the guitar, and…I struggle to remember what the hell I’m supposed to sing.

“Three.  F. Eighty Eight. Two. Ninety Nine. Ninety Nine.”

I remembered some of the choruses, but most of what I sang was numbers and letters.  Thankfully, we only knew six songs, so it DID have an end point.  Once we finished the last note, I slinked off the stage in shame, feeling like I’d made a huge fool out myself. I was devastated that I had sabotaged our DEBUT performance! I burst into tears once in the cocoon of my enclosed car – a 1974 AMC Hornet.

A few minutes later, Mary (of Mary K. and the Cosmetics) knocked on the window and came in to console me (with her pet boa constrictor no less): “Honey, don’t you worry about it at all – nobody noticed anything, y’all were great!” I was convinced she was just being nice.

Oh well, at least it was over.

Five minutes later, Jennifer knocked on the car window and said, “You ready for our second set?”

“What? Second set! No one told me we were going to do a second set!”

Semi-shell shocked, with Mary K.’s support, I got up out of that car, went in thinking, “well, it certainly can’t be any worse that the first set!” This time, I held my notebook in my arms and…it actually went well! I had been through the worst the first set, so after that, I threw caution to the wind, and we ended up rocking the party and having a small local following afterwards!

A mantra that I have referred to often after experiencing a similar situation as an actor forgetting my lines:  

Well, I didn’t die.  

Kind of puts things in perspective.

When prepping for a presentation, Rehearse. A lot. Out loud. In front of other people. Know what you are going to say. Expect the fog to obliterate your notes and be prepared. The more you rehearse, the better you’ll be.

*Note - the picture above is from Young Grey Ruins, a subsequent Nashville band I was in. You can listen us here.

Who cares?

When preparing your presentation, don’t forget to tune into the audience’s wavelength, WII-FM, what’s in it for me.  If the audience feels that you are tuned into what they care about, they will give you their undivided attention.

An example of tuning into the wavelength of an audience is Cicero.  Writer, John D’Agata, provides an example of this: “No one in the ancient world did this better than Cicero.  He didn’t exactly invent [it], he perfected it instead.  An anonymous biographer describes for us in a second-century fragment the afternoon in 44 B.C. during which Cicero spoke to an audience of “over ten thousand men” for “three and a half hours” as they stood in wool tunics in the August Italian sun.  There are some who even believe that the long contentious transition between the Republic and Empire wouldn’t even have occurred if Cicero hadn’t been around to stall the city’s history.  He was that good.”

When preparing your talk or presentation, remember to ask what is in it for your audience, what do they care about? It could be cost, time, “that IT guy” or exposing plots to overthrow the Roman government.

When preparing your talk, remember these questions. 

What is the problem?  

What is your solution?

The difference between talking and public speaking

When speaking publicly, most people find it difficult to take pauses. As the person getting the focus of the entire room, taking a pause can initially feel awkward. It feels to you as if a Mack truck could drive through any pause you take.

Many of us feel that if we’re not speaking every second, the audience will get bored and tune out.

The ironic thing is—taking your time and using pauses will give the impression that you really ARE the expert—as you’re not worried about trying to prove it to anyone.

So, take a breath, pause and truly engage with your audience, making eye contact to see if they’ve received your message. Imagine that there’s a thought bubble that appears after each major thought that asks: “Did you get that?”

This is your time—be wise with how you shape it. Connect authentically. Give your audience time to process what you’re saying—they’ll be thankful.

My #1 Tip for Public Speaking

When you’re presenting in front of a group, you want to do your best. There are a lot of things you can do to prepare, but I advise you to remember to remember one thing: “Be prepared, not perfect.” Think about it. When you’re talking to friends, do you focus on being “perfect”? The pressure you put on yourself for perfection can be like a vice grip, and you end up coming across as stiff, impersonal, and dull as dishwater. So prepare as best you can, do lots of run throughs, and cut yourself some slack. Try to have a sense of humor, and expect a stumble here and there. You’ll be more relaxed and hopefully, more of ‘you’ will show up.

How to break the up-speak habit

When leading my Public Speaking workshops, I find that a lot of people have a difficult time with the first thing that comes out of their mouths when they get up to speak—their name. There’s a trend many people have of speaking their name with “up-speak” as if their name is somehow a question. 

When rehearsing for auditions in acting classes back in graduate school, we practiced not only the monologue, but entering the room, saying our names and introducing the piece we were going to be performing.  

What surprised everyone, was that it took practice! Who would have thought we’d have to practice saying our names?

We knew that opinions were being formed the minute we walked into the room, so working on connecting with the auditors and telling them your name was an important part of the process of getting hired.

The same holds true when you’re introducing yourself to people every day—at a job interview, a networking event, or if you’re pitching your idea to VCs. 

That being said, using up-speak when introducing ourselves can be a hard habit to break. You’ve most likely been saying it that way most of your life, so it’s going to take some work to change it.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Use your phone to audio record yourself saying your name as you would introducing yourself to someone.
  2. Play it back and notice if your pitch tends to rise as you get to the end of your last name.  Does it sound like you’re asking a question?
  3. Practice saying your name as if it’s a declarative statement with your pitch going down at the end as if your pitch is walking down stairs.
  4. Incorporate your new way of pronouncing your name as you meet people in your day-to-day life.
  5. Find a way to get in front of people to get practice—join your local Toastmasters or attend a public speaking workshop.

You’ll be amazed at how differently you’ll be perceived if you change the habit of ending your name and other phrases with a question.  

Get set for success

When the day comes for you to present, there are 3 things you can do to get off on the right foot:

1. Exercise - Get a good workout out or take a brisk walk to get your heart rate up to burn off some of your nervous energy

2. Arrive Early - There are so many things you can’t control, but getting there early is one thing you can. 

3. Have a backup plan - What happens if your laptop dies? Have your entire deck printed out just in case. Have a copy of your presentation on a thumb drive so you can easily swap out your laptop if you need to.

Follow these 3 tips, and you’ll be set for success.

Find Your Public Speaking Partner

The single best way to improve as a public speaker is to practice.  And while technology makes reviewing yourself easy, the best way to practice public speaking is to get a partner. 

Find a partner

Email an acquaintance or colleague, letting them know you are looking for a short-term public speaking partner for a month or two, and that you’d like to meet for thirty minutes every week.  Decide on a goal - it could be to give a presentation or a talk at your company, host a meet-up or prep for an interview. Clearly defining the goal and setting end dates will help you stick to your plan.

Find a space

Book a conference room large enough for about 8 – 12 people so that you can practice using enough volume (the bigger, the better). If you can use the space that corresponds with your final speaking goal (giving a talk at work), all the better.


Start with an autobiographical story. It could be your first job, your first car, your first apartment, your first day in school, you decide.  Run through it out loud at least 3 times before you meet so that you’ve translated what’s in your head to language.  See previous blog post on CAR to structure the story of your talk.

Initial Run-Through

 Try to keep your weight evenly on both feet to avoid swaying back and forth. If you decide to move, move with purpose, coming to a stop when you end a thought. Feel free to use the same gestures you use in everyday conversation.

 Eye contact is key when speaking to groups. Besides your partner, choose 2 or 3 other imaginary people (putting post it’s high on chair backs) to practice landing your thoughts to assure that you’re speaking to everyone in the room.

After the first run-through, collect feedback from your partner on filler words, any uhs and ums, monotone delivery, and any up-speak (going up in pitch at the end of sentences so that it sounds like you’re asking a question). 

Give it another go incorporating the feedback, then switch.


Once you’ve identified your specific challenges (filler words, monotone delivery), start to practice incorporating your new delivery style in your everyday conversations in low stakes meetings or calls. Eventually, it’ll become automatic, and you won’t have to think about it. That way, when you get up to speak, you can focus on telling a great story rather than how many times you say “um.”

Public speaking in 3 simple steps

There are three simple things you can do right now to be a better speaker.

1. Speak Up

The majority of people just aren’t speaking loudly enough when addressing a group.  By increasing your volume, people will see you as more of an expert, and you’ll actually feel more confident.

2. Slow Down

Nerves can drive you to speed up your delivery, so remember to take your time, pause and don’t be afraid of silence every once in a while.

3. Eye Contact

Keep your eyes on your audience, not on your notes or slides. Have a conversation with your audience. Make eye contact. Check to see if they’ve gotten what you’ve said before you move on to your next point.  If you do these three simple things, you’ll be so much better than the majority of speakers out there.

How to calm down

You’re waiting to speak, and there are five people in front of you. Now four, Then three. Your stomach is in knots, you’re sweating profusely, your heart is racing and you haven’t heard a word anyone has said for the last ten minutes. What can you do in this situation to calm down?

Well, the one physical thing you can do is try to remember to breathe.

1. Take a deep breath through your nose relaxing and expanding your stomach.

2. Count to three.

3. Hold for three.

4. Release for three.

That oxygen will bring down your heart rate, and send messages to your muscles to relax.

This is a great technique any time you’re feeling stress and need to remain calm.

Your phone is your friend

Do you use “um” or “like” a lot when you’re speaking?

Do you speak in a monotone voice, where everything you say is on the same pitch?

Or maybe you have problems with “up-speak” where everything you say is a question? “Today, we’re going to cover communication basics?”

Your phone is your friend.

The next time you’re speaking at a meeting, in front of a group, or maybe on a land line–use the voice memo on your phone to record yourself and listen back afterwards.

I know, you hate hearing your voice–so do I. But hearing how you sound to others can be a huge motivator to take steps to improve.