Podium Coaching Blog

How to make your words rise to the occasion

Posted on 11. Nov, 2014

by Halina St James

Words have a wonderful knack of rising to the occasion.

Beautiful words, spoken from the heart, graced Canada’s Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa.

Some of those memorable words were from speakers who’d had a chance to refine and rehearse their tributes. Like the military chaplain who paid tribute to Cpl Nathan Cirillo, murdered last month while on guard duty at Canada’s National War Memorial. The chaplain recalled how, in that moment of horror, the Unknown Soldier and a young soldier suddenly and heartbreakingly known to everyone lay together on the steps of the memorial.

Or like Governor General David Johnston, who noted that Canadians were people of peace, of tolerance, of kindness and honour. They held those qualities as precious. And the people being remembered today believed those qualities precious enough to die for.

But some of the memorable words came from people who had no chance to polish or practice their lines. Like the 94 year-old veteran talking about the friends he saw die on the battlefield.

Or the young woman in the crowd talking about the need to honour those who put their country before their own lives.

Or the young student who gave a teenager’s perspective on selfless service and sacrifice.

These people didn’t need to practice their words. They spoke from the heart. They spoke simply. They spoke conversationally.

There will always be times in our lives when we need to find the right words for the occasion: at weddings, funerals, retirement, graduations… any gathering that demands insight, inspiration and encouragement.

If you want to stir an emotion in an audience, if you want to plant a thought that lingers in the brain of the listener, take a lesson from those whose words struck a chord in Ottawa today.

Have something to say. Believe in it. Say it simply. And, if you can, lodge an image in the minds of your listeners. Those simple thoughts will help your words rise to the occasion.

Two tips to ensure a truly conversational speech

Posted on 02. Nov, 2014

by Halina St James

How do you truly sound conversational when you are making a speech? How can you be relaxed and authentic when you are feeling the pressure of being in front of an audience? Here is a great tip from Steve Lowell, my colleague in the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers.

Steve’s starting point is that the job of a speaker is not to convey information: it’s to convey emotion. One of the best ways to do that is to speak conversationally. But many, far too many, speakers don’t speak conversationally. That’s because they create speeches for the eyes and not the ears.

Steve demonstrated this difference with a volunteer from his audience during an appearance at a CAPS event in Halifax, NS, recently.

Steve Lowell

Steve Lowell

He asked the volunteer to speak about his work. When the volunteer was finished, Steve kept him on stage and engaged him in a casual conversation about his work.

The audience could immediately see that the volunteer in casual conversation was very different from when he was ‘presenting’ his speech. He was relaxed and conversational during the questions; he’d been more formal and tense during his presentation.

Steve’s interview strategy is a great tool for checking for a truly conversational delivery. At Podium we have another little trick for building a relaxed and authentic presentation or speech.

When we think clients are straying from a conversational style, we ask them to put ‘Hi Mom’ in front of their words. If they can read them out loud with a straight face while imagining saying the words to someone they care about, the words can stay. But usually the words get changed pretty quickly.

Between Steve Lowell’s question technique and using Podium’s ‘Hi Mom’ trick, you’ve got a good chance of delivering a speech that’s truly conversational.

Join the crusade to save the Walking Dead Presenters

Posted on 30. Oct, 2014

by Halina St James

Think that ghouls and ghosts and the long-dead only rise from their graves on Halloween? Think again.

You may have seen one of these troubled souls recently. Perhaps at work, when you sat through a presentation.

I’m talking about the Walking Dead Presenters.

The Walking Dead Presenter is wooden. He stumbles gracelessly from one sentence to another. He hangs his head and avoids eye contact. If he does raise his eyes you’ll see they are glazed over – as if he’s in another world.

zombie presenter


His voice is a dull monotone. He’s programmed to deliver his words without passion or pause. He trips over his words, and staggers through his paragraphs. But he keeps on going. And going. And going.

What’s wrong with this poor soul? And what can we do to help? Surely he’s not like this at home. Or out with friends.

What happened is simple. He was struck down with a case of ‘presentation-itis’.

The Walking Dead Presenter caught the cruel affliction when he sat down and wrote out his presentation in silence. He wanted to impress, so he used some of his best and biggest words. And because he was judging the words by how they looked on the screen, he didn’t care that the sentences were getting longer and more complex.

Because he worked in silence, he didn’t know that some of the words wouldn’t flow easily from his tongue.

He didn’t have a plan, but he managed to write a lot. Then he tried to memorize his long essay. But he didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse.

So when he went to present, he felt nervous. He put his head down and started to read at the audience. Pretty soon he was stumbling over the big words, and running out of breath in some of the longer sentences.

All the life drained out to him. The audience shrank back in horror.

Fortunately there is a cure – a healthy dose of Talkitout™. Here’s how I guarantee to bring Walking Dead Presenters back to life:

  • I teach then how to speak before they write. This releases their authentic voice and cuts down on nerves.
  • I get them to focus on simple words, simple sentences, one thought per sentence. Much easier for the undead to say.
  • I show them how to use the pause to overcome awkwardness.
  • I get them to emphasize what’s really important in their message.
  • I get them to tell stories to engage the audience and make their message memorable.

With just these few tips, I see life slowly returning to their undead eyes.

Yes, we can save those already afflicted.

But better by far that we pledge never to let another soul join the ranks of the Walking Dead Presenters.

Happy Halloween.

Tax letters ‘gibberish’ – but why delay changes?

Posted on 29. Oct, 2014

by Neil Everton

Three cheers to the Canada Revenue Agency for acknowledging that most of their correspondence is gibberish; three resounding boos for them announcing that they’ll start a consultation process next year on fixing things.

What’s wrong with making changes now?

After all, they know what the problem is. They just paid big bucks to an American consulting firm to discover what any Canadian taxpayer could have told them: too often CRA letters are confusing, unprofessional, unduly severe in tone, dense, and packed with bureaucratic jargon.

The consequence? Confused people pick up the phone to get clarification from CRA call centres, swamping the centres with unnecessary work. Worse still, people are having benefit payments stopped because they didn’t reply properly to a letter they didn’t understand.

The findings of this year’s $25,000.00 review shouldn’t come as a surprise to the CRA. They were told the same thing in another expensive consulting process back in 2012/13.

The CRA really needs to take a lesson from revenue services in the US, UK and Australia. Those three countries have all made great strides to simplify documents. Plain language prevents mistakes, cuts costs and keeps everyone happy.

Should we hold our breath for change in Canada? It’s hard to feel optimistic when the CRA spokesperson is quoted as saying: “The CRA will also engage Canadians to solicit their feedback on how to improve our correspondence with them.”

I suppose it was too easy to say “we’ll ask Canadians how we can help them.”


You can download Neil’s free 30 page White Paper on Tighter, Brighter Writing from the Resources Page of our website.

Shouldn’t you be smarter than your phone?

Posted on 14. Oct, 2014

by Halina St James

Texting and emailing from smart phones has become a preferred method of communication for many. It’s fast. It can be done anywhere, anytime. It’s perfect for our digital age… or is it?

Your smart phone is not as smart as you. Sure, your texts and emails get people’s attention. You can have a lot of followers on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. But how many of them actually buy your products, are swayed by your opinions and heed your calls to action?

For that to happen, you need to form relationships. And the best way to do that is by actually speaking to someone. When you do, you increase your chances of people buying your products, accepting your vision and doing what you recommend.

The communication irony in the texting and emailing age is, we need more help than ever to actually speak effectively and persuasively to others. Speaking is the art that seals the deal. And to speak effectively, most people need coaching in public speaking and presentation skills.

At Podium we created the Talkitout Technique because we know the power of any kind of public speaking. We say yes to texting. Yes to emailing. But be smarter than your phone. If your speaking skills are bit rusty, call us. Let’s talk about it.

Halina St James is the author of TalkitOut: From Fears to Cheers. This popular guide to upgrading presentation skills is available in paperback, or as an e-book or workbook, from the Podium Coaching online store.

‘Speak me your story’ plea gets a happy dance

Posted on 08. Oct, 2014
Halina  with the participants in the global change leaders course at the Coady Institute

Halina (in red) with the participants in the Global Change Leaders course at the Coady Institute

by Halina St James

If you’ve had a litre of acid thrown in your face, how do you speak about it to bring awareness of domestic violence?

If you’ve seen the tragedy of human trafficking, how do you speak about it so you can help stop it?

If your sister died because she was stigmatized for having Aids, how do you speak about it so you can educate people about HIV?

These are just three of the challenges facing the women I met at the Coady Institute in Nova Scotia. The women were at St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish to take part in an international women’s leadership program called Global Change Leaders (GCL).

These women, coming from very diverse parts of the world, are leaders in their communities. At Coady, they strengthen those leadership skills. And I get to spend two days with them, teaching them presentation skills and upgrading their ability to tell their stories.

For many of these women, English is not their native language. But that’s not the biggest problem when it comes to developing public speaking skills. The biggest problem for these women is exactly the same as for all of Podium’s clients – it’s the way they prepare for a speech or presentation.

They stare at their computer screen or notepad, and they write an essay. And then they wonder why their long sentences don’t feel right when they stand up to speak. The words that looked so good on the page suddenly don’t feel so smooth sliding off the tongue. They hesitate, they stumble, and they don’t do justice to their amazing stories.

For two days I teach the women our TalkitOut Technique. I help them find their voices. “Tell me your story”, I urge them. “Don’t write me your story, speak me your story.”

My advice for them is the same as for any client:

  • use simple words
  • put them in short sentences
  • stick to one thought per sentence
  • avoid jargon and clichés
  • and say the words before you write them down

Simple is not simplistic. Simple means taking complexity and breaking it down to its component parts so an audience can understand and connect with the message when it’s being asked to process 200 words a minute.

The women’s transformations were dramatic. One was so elated by her breakthrough, she broke into a spontaneous happy dance in front of the whole class. She thought she couldn’t speak; she discovered that she could.

All these women will make a difference when they return to their home countries. Now they have a few more tools to help them tell their remarkable stories – stories the world needs to hear.

Post-It note clue to better presentations

Posted on 05. Oct, 2014

by Halina St James

A dear friend once sent me a birthday surprise…. Post-It notes. Not a box of Post-It notes but one solitary package of Post-It notes. I was surprised at this unusual gift… but it all made sense when I read what was written on the Post-It notes.

‘If you always do what you always did, you’re going to get what you always got.”

My friend had sent me a profound life message. Change. Change your old habits. If you don’t like what’s happening in your life, then change.

I often quote my Post-It note message to my clients in our presentation skills training sessions. Especially when they preparing a speech or presentation… because that’s when they default to what they’ve always done – writing in silence, using their eyes not their mouth and ears.

For many it’s because that’s the way they were taught at school. For others it’s because they’re striving to imitate someone else. For some it’s because they don’t trust their natural voice.

When you write in silence using only your eyes, you are preparing an essay. That’s why people wind up reading at their audiences, either from a prepared text or slides. The sad result of this flawed production and delivery system is an audience that will not remember or care about your message.

I teach my clients to change… not to do what they’ve always done but to prepared their speeches or presentations differently. I teach the TalkitOut Technique. At it’s heart, you have to speak first, then write. Get the words flowing comfortably from your mouth before you worry about writing them down.

It’s different, at times challenging, but always delivers the same result – an engaged audience that remembers the message.

So, as the Post-It note says:

If you aways do what you always did, you’re going to get what you always got.

If you want something better, the choice is yours.

Halina’s book TalkitOut: From Fears to Cheers, is packed with advice on how to create a speech or presentation that really captures the way you speak. It’s available as a paperback or e-book from our online store.

How stories can help you ace a job interview

Posted on 29. Sep, 2014

by Halina St James

If your job involves makings speeches or presentations, you probably know how stories help get your message across. But did you know stories are also a great way of winning a good job in the first place?

At Podium we regularly work with groups of people who are looking to enter, or re-enter, the workforce. After all, the most important presentation you’ll ever make may well be when you set out to sell yourself to an employer.

Telling short, relevant stories is a great way of delivering the key points of your CV in an interesting and memorable way. A well-chosen story will hold the listener’s attention, and will stick in the memory much better than facts and figures.

So what stories should you tell in a job interview? According to Google, the top 10 questions asked in job interviews are:

  1. What is your greatest strength?
  2. What is your greatest weakness?
  3. How do you handle stress and pressure?
  4. Describe a difficult work situation or project and how you overcame it.
  5. How do you evaluate success?
  6. Why are you leaving or have left your job?
  7. Why do you want this job?
  8. Why should we hire you?
  9. What are your goals for the future?
  10. Tell me about yourself.

Pick about three questions to answer. Prepare a story for each question. Make sure the story demonstrates your strengths. Wait for the opportunity and then roll out your story. If the question is not asked, find an opportunity to turn the conversation to the story you want to tell.

Don’t forget to set the scene for your story. Use specifics rather than generalities. “I handle stress by taking deep breaths and going for a walk” is not as effective as this story a client told us:

“I was working as a main data entry clerk. They hired an assistant for me because of the volume of work. But my assistant was making a lot of errors. It was stressing me out because now I had to correct all her mistakes. I decided the right thing to do was to tell my manager the assistant wasn’t working out. My manager agreed with me and happily I got another assistant who was much better. It was stressful to get someone fired, but it had to be done.”

Young people have just as many stories to tell as more experienced workers. If you’ve been in a team, been a member of a club, been on a trip, worked on a project or had a part-time job you have plenty of potential stories.

Pick the stories with care. Make sure they highlight the qualities any would-be employer would focus on: enterprise, imagination, problem-solving, leadership, communications and inter-personal relations.

Polish your stories. Keep them short. Rehearse them. And then look for the chance to slip them into the conversation.

You’ll give yourself a head start over the other candidates.

You can learn more about the value of stories in Halina’s book, TalkitOut: From Fears to Cheers. It’s available as a paperback or e-book in our online store.

You’re a speaker: stop writing essays

Posted on 22. Sep, 2014

‘A speech is not an essay’ is the title of a blog a client thought we’d be interested in. We were… so interested we want to share it with you.

We were hooked from the first line: ‘Reading an essay to an audience can bore them to tears’. It’s something we could have said in one of our presentation skills workshops. In fact, it’s IS something we say – over and over.

A lot of people prepare for an important presentation or speech by sitting at their computer staring at a screen, working in complete silence, judging the content by the way it looks on the page.

That’s such a crazy, hopeless model for building something that has to be spoken aloud, and which has to be processed by the ears of the audience.

Sitting in silence, watching the sentences form on the screen, is how we write an essay. And then you take that essay and try to make it sound conversational. No wonder a lot of people struggle to connect with the audience. It’s like buying a really nice car – and then wondering why it won’t fly like a plane. It wasn’t designed for the purpose you have in mind.

Here’s the link to the blog our client shared with us. It’s from the Harvard Business Review. There’s a lot of great advice in the article. Here are a couple of snippets:

  • Simplify: the spoken word needs to be short, sweet and to the point;
  • Signpost the journey: make sure the audience knows exactly where you are leading them;
  • Stories work better than statistics: audiences love and remember stories;
  • Use pauses and emphasis: performance is key to helping the audience process your content.

Our book TalkitOut: From Fears to Cheers, is packed with advice on how to create a speech or presentation that really captures the way you speak. It’s available as a paperback or e-book from our online store.

(This blog is taken from our latest newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, click here to see what you’re missing. The sign-up form is on our website.)

Only voters can change the ‘rules’ of politics

Posted on 20. Sep, 2014

by Neil Everton

At a time of growing public discontent at the behaviour of politicians, it’s nice to meet a man who still believes public service means doing what’s right, rather than taking a course of action just because it enables him to cling to power.

In Graham Steele’s case, doing what he thought was right and in the public interest cost him his job as Finance Minister of Nova Scotia.

His experience has caused him to challenge the ‘cling to power at any cost’ attitude of many current politicians and political parties.

In a book looking back on 15 years in politics, Mr Steele warns: Being in politics makes you dumber, and the longer you’re in politics the dumber you get.” He says even the most well-meaning, idealistic newcomers to politics are soon taught what he calls The Rules of the Game.

Rule One is simple: get yourself re-elected. The drive to be re-elected drives everything a politician does, he writes.

Rule Two: spend as little time as possible at the Legislature. There are no voters there.

Rule Three: perception is reality. Since people vote based on what they believe to be true, it doesn’t matter what is actually true.

Rule Four: keep it simple. Focus on what is most likely to sink in with a distracted electorate: slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures, image.

After running through a few more equally dispiriting rules about keeping in the spotlight, avoiding blame and not leaving a paper trail, Mr Steele arrives at Rule Ten. And Rule Ten says “deny that these are the Rules of the Game.”

Graham Steele resigned over a pay deal for health care workers. The deal would buy-off the nurses and avoid a high-profile strike by traditional supporters of the NDP government. But he believed it was wrong. It would lead to more high-wage settlements in the public sector, without tackling the fundamental problems facing health care. It would have been expedient, but it was wrong.

Author Graham Steele chats with Podium's Halina St James at the book launch

Author Graham Steele chats with Podium’s Halina St James at the book launch

Graham Steele launched his book at Province House in Halifax. Just up a flight of stairs from the book signing was the room where another Nova Scotia politician made a stand for ‘climbing above the muddy pool of politics’. That man was Joseph Howe, a journalist, writer, politician and shaper of modern Canada.

Joseph Howe said his public life was governed by three questions:

  • What is right?
  • What is just?
  • What is for the public good?

One hundred and fifty years later, Graham Steele is urging the public, the voters, to hold politicians to a higher standard than they seem to settle for.

He writes: “For the public good, something different has to be done. Otherwise we’ll just keep watching the same bad movie, over and over.

“Our politics are in a bad way because politicians succeed by following the Rules of the Game, and the Rules of the Game are incompatible with good government.

“It is not our politicians who will lead the change. The only person who can change our politics is the engaged citizen.”

What I Learned About Politics: Inside the Rise and Collapse of Nova Scotia’s NDP Government, is published by Nimbus Publishing.