The best person to tell your story, is of course yourself.
Monica Lewinsky, now in her 40s, has begun hitting the speaking circuit to tell the story of her youthful mistake of falling in love with the President of the United States. But she is using her personal story to raise awareness of a growing and troubling issue of public shaming, which has exploded in frequency and volume in the post-Internet era.
On a recent flight I watched her March 2015 TED Talk speech “The Price of Shame,” and was moved by both her candor and ability to turn a tabloid-like personal story into a very powerful warning and call to action to use compassion to fight public shaming.
Take 20 minutes and watch the video and see of you agree with me.
As I watched the video, what I also saw were several lessons that any public speaker can learn from. Lewinsky is not yet a professional speaker, but what you see from her talk is that you don’t need to be a great speaker to deliver a great talk – what’s needed is a great story, passion and emotion. These and other traits can be far more important than being a polished presenter.
Here are five lessons and reminders for all speakers that I took away after watching Lewinsky’s TED Talk:
1. The Opening: Lewinsky opened her talk with a compelling combination of humor, honesty and of course aspects of her well-known romance with Bill Clinton. Her candor immediately let the audience know her talk was going to have a very serious and honest tone to it. But her self-deprecating humor also let us know that she was not afraid to be human and very real.
As a viewer, I didn’t really know where she was going to take her talk, but within a very few minutes she pulled you in wanting to find out the path she was going to take you down. It was a great and powerful opening to her talk. After the first few minutes you wanted to hear more. A lot more.
Lesson: The first few minutes of your presentation set the tone for what is to come later. It can either grab the audience and have them lean forward in their chairs or quickly send them to checking email on their smart phones.
Resist the temptation to open with your background, company information or your agenda but instead open with a story, anecdote or something fun. The administrative aspect of your presentation can come after you’ve hooked the audience – don’t waste those most valuable opening few minutes of your talk on content that doesn’t set up your story.
2. The Transition: Perhaps the most important lesson from Lewinsky’s speech was her transition from her personal story to that of the larger message around the troubling growth of public shaming in the Internet era.
She spoke of Tyler Clementi, the 18 year-old college student who committed suicide after discovering that a Webcam had captured him kissing another male and was subsequently widely talked about on Twitter. Lewinsky told of a phone conversation with her mother, who was devastated by the Clementi incident, as it recalled her daughter’s public shaming.
It was a masterful method of transitioning her own story in a very personal way into her much broader message and focus of her talk.
Lesson: All good presentations should have a transition from the opening set up of the problem or challenge, into the solution or resolution. The transition should convince the audience that they need to care about what comes next. It is like the point in a play or movie where the plot becomes clear and shifts into full gear.
Personal stories, powerful visuals or videos or even compelling statistics can do the trick, but it should be very clear to the audience that you’ve moved to the next stage of your presentation.
3. Emotion: Most experienced speakers will not hide behind a podium, but instead move around the stage to better engage the audience. They might use physical movement and voice inflection to emphasize specific points or words. Lewinsky, clearly not yet comfortable with that approach or able to remember everything she wanted to say – stood behind a music stand with her notes. But, while she didn’t leave that stand (until the very end), she used facial expressions to convey her deep emotion and passion.
At the end of her talk, she finally stepped away from the music stand to signal to the audience that she was wrapping up and that these, her final words, were what the audience needed to remember. The simple action of moving away from the music stand visually told the audience: “Pay attention, this is what I want you to take away.”
Lesson: Audiences want to be moved. While everyone loves to hear a polished and entertaining speaker, what most audience members really want is a speaker that opens their eyes, drives them to change. That may be something life changing like how to cope with depression or something as simple as how to improve your website’s search engine rankings.
An inexperienced speaker won’t have the polish of someone who has been speaking for years, so learn from Lewinsky and focus your efforts not on your stage presence but rather bringing your topic to life through passion, emotion and stories – including those that are personal when appropriate.
4. No Slides: Most people who speak as part of their job or career rely on the visuals on their slides, whether it is a video, funny cat image or screenshot of a poorly-designed website. We rely on these images to bring our story to life and to show real-life examples the audience can relate to.
But, the audience doesn’t come to see your slides, they want to hear you enlighten them with stories and great insight. Slides are merely supporting elements to help bring your talk to life.
But if you stop and think about the best speeches you have heard in your life, I bet that few of them included slides.
Lewinsky could have used slides that showed her in the beret, photos of her with Clinton, headlines in the newspapers about her, social media images and headlines on the Tyler Clementi story and a bunch of statistics about cyber bullying. But for audience members, those images might have lessened the impact of her talk. What made her presentation powerful were the expressions on her face, the passion in her voice and the words she was conveying. Anything that distracted from that would likely have diminished the power and impact of her presentation.
Lesson: For most speakers, slides will remain the foundation of your presentations as images and screenshots help you tell your story. Examples and case studies provide great value and provide “proof” to the audience.
But don’t over rely on slides when spoken words, facial expressions, body movement and simple compelling stories will do a better job. The primary focus of your presentation should not be the words on your slides, but instead, the words that will come out of your mouth.
5. Point A to Point B: As you watch the audience throughout Lewinsky’s talk, they go from laughing with Monica as she tells self-deprecating stories, to tearing up as they feel her pain, to being completely riveted and moved as she paints a serious issue on public shaming … and ending in a standing ovation.
Lesson: The ultimate lesson from Lewinsky’s TED Talk presentation is that she succeeds because she is able to bring a serious issue to life through compassionate story telling. She pulls you in to her talk through her own well-known story but then moves us to watery eyes or tears by sharing the aspects of her life that we don’t know. But finally, she uses that simply as a set up to tell the larger and more important story of public shaming. She does what the best speakers do – they get you to care about something and move us intellectually or emotional from point A to point B.
Your presentation at a human resources conference on hiring and retaining millennials may not have an impact on society or stir emotion like the topic of public shaming, but your goal and responsibility as a speaker is no less important. You need to convince your audience that what you are talking about is important to THEM and they should walk away with a different perspective than when you began your presentation.
At the time of this TED Talk, Lewinsky was clearly not yet a truly polished speaker. But it didn’t matter. It doesn’t take a great and experienced presenter to deliver an awesome speech – what it does take is a great story, flow and passion that oozes so much that the audience can feel it in their bones.