Today I’m happy to share an exclusive interview with David Brooks, an award-winning professional speaker and trainer who has taught more than 10,000 business professionals to speak and write clearly, concisely, and confidently.
Recently David came to Las Vegas to give a presentation for Toastmasters, and I was so impressed with his content that I immediately approached him about doing an interview for this site.
For three consecutive years David was the top-rated trainer with an international seminar company, and he has spoken extensively across the U.S. and Canada, and in Puerto Rico, Ireland, Sweden, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Bahrain, Oman, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, and the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to his teaching, writing, and training skills, his skill as a public speaker has been even more prominently recognized. In 1990 he emerged from a field of more than 25,000 competitors to become the Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking.
Since then, he has taught, coached, and mentored six subsequent World Champions and dozens of finalists. He has been published in national magazines and has appeared on nationwide television and radio broadcasts in the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, Oman and Australia. He was also once featured in a segment on National Public Radio.
David is the co-author of The Seven Strategies of Master Presenters, a comprehensive guide to better speaking, and he has also produced three audio CD learning programs and two DVDs to teach better speaking and delivery skills.
In this interview David Brooks shares his insights to help you improve your communication and presentation skills.
1. What overall strategy did you use to become the 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking? How did you do it?
The day I made the commitment to attempt a run for the Toastmasters’ title I told myself, “I may encounter competitors who can ‘out-speak’ me, but no one will ‘out-prepare’ me.” I then made the commitment to spend as much time as it took to be absolutely ready the moment I took the stage in the International finals. I promised myself I would not take the stage with the thought “If only I had a little more time” in my head. That was the most important strategy–Do whatever it takes to be the best prepared. Thereafter, it was merely a matter of choosing the right message, writing it well, and practicing it more than anyone else.
2. Why did you become a professional speaker? Was it a conscious choice or an accident? What motivates you to speak professionally today?
My decision to become a professional speaker was mostly due to necessity meeting opportunity. When I won the World Championship of Public Speaking, I had a successful business as a writer, editor, and graphic designer. Desktop publishing didn’t take off until the early ’90s, so I was doing publication design the old-school way–with a light table, a T-square and an X-Acto knife. Then desktop publishing took off and my business changed radically. Many of my mainstay accounts decided to invest in their own desktop publishing systems and I lost a large number of clients to a technological revolution. Somewhat in desperation, I decided to parlay my credentials as a recent World Champion Speaker into a career as a professional speaker. I signed on with SkillPath Seminars and went on the road for three years presenting seminars for them. I found immediate success–for each of the three years I worked for them, I was their highest-rated trainer. That’s when I knew I was able to make a living as a speaker. So I left SkillPath and went into business for myself, and I now make more in one day than I did in several weeks working for them. That’s what keeps me going today–I get paid well for doing what I do well.
3. What’s your best advice for overcoming (or at least effectively managing) the fear of public speaking, especially for people who aren’t professional communicators?
As with any skill, speaking can be improved with practice. Simply, the more time you spend in front of an audience, the easier it becomes. That’s why Toastmasters is the best recommendation for anyone who needs to practice in front of a live audience. After five or six presentations in a Toastmasters’ setting, fear transforms into familiarity, and with familiarity comes fun. Once fun sets in, fear is gone. How long does this process take? I made enormous strides from fear to familiarity to fun in the first six months…and it continues to be more fun every time I stand to speak.
4. What relevance do presentation and communication skills have to someone who doesn’t intend to make a career out of speaking?
It always surprises me when I hear someone say “I’m no public speaker.” I disagree. Except for those who have a physical limitation that prevents the power of speech, everyone is a public speaker. If you speak on the telephone, that’s public speaking. If you place an order at a fast-food restaurant, that’s public speaking. It doesn’t matter whether the “audience” is one person or a thousand, if words come out of your mouth you are speaking publicly. So, since virtually everyone is a public speaker, virtually everyone should be concerned with speaking clearly, concisely, and confidently. The ability to speak with precision and poise is one of the most important professional and personal skills a person can attain. As Daniel Webster said, “If all my possessions and powers were to be taken from me with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of speech, for by it I could recover all the rest.”
5. In your Magic Moments series, you dissect notable segments from various contest speeches, both from the winners and the other finalists. What have been some of the most important distinctions you’ve gained from this dissection process, as opposed to simply considering each speech as a unified whole?
I’m no automobile mechanic, but I do know this: better parts produce better performance. A speech is much the same: its impact can be greater if all of its components are well crafted. Memorable messages can come when every part of a presentation has a purpose. In my Magic Moments DVDs I teach speakers to take a speech apart, focusing only on the best parts. By studying “magic moments”–those moments of brilliance that can be found surrounded by the mundane in almost every speech, you can learn to focus on what works best. And once you learn what works best you can then build a better speech. (Magic Moments is the best-selling and most-watched educational program in the history of Toastmasters.)
[SP: I have Magic Moments 1 and 2 on DVD, and both are excellent. I was actually in the audience during Magic Moments 2 while it was being recorded in 2004 in Reno.]
6. Would you share some practical, immediately applicable ideas for improving one’s presentation skills in a job-related setting?
Without question, the single most important skill any speaker can develop is the ability to tell a good story. Think back to your earliest recollections of childhood. Except for your none-too-subtle “requests” for food, do you recall what you asked for first? A story. We wanted to hear a good story when we were children and we never outgrew that desire. It is a universal human pleasure. The most effective communicators are the most effective story-tellers. But it’s not enough to simply tell a story–the best communicators are those who tell small stories to make big points. It works everywhere, from social settings to the boardroom. However, I must inject an important distinction: the best stories to tell have two unique characteristics. They must be real, and they must be your own.
7. What role does humor play when speaking on otherwise serious topics? How can one effectively incorporate humor into a presentation?
A standard line in the speaking profession is “Do I have to use humor in my presentations? Answer: Only if you want to be paid.”
In North America, humor is indispensable. This is not nearly as important elsewhere in the world. In Europe, for example, a content-rich presentation without a single laugh can still be well-received. But in North America, the best-received presentations are those that make us laugh while making us think. So does this mean you have to become a comedian? No. In fact, the standard-format “joke” (A ______, a ______, and a ______ walk into a bar…) rarely works for several reasons. First, few people can tell a good joke well; second, most people have already heard it; and third, you give up the element of surprise as soon as you give the setup. As a result, I suggest you stay away from jokes. Instead find ways to inject humor through your stories as discussed above. The best humor is story-based, and always based on your experience in real life.
8. What are your favorite do’s and don’ts for creating more effective PowerPoint presentations?
I despise the phrase “Death by PowerPoint.” People that use that phrase don’t understand how PowerPoint can be a presenter’s powerful ally, if used with judicious restraint. In fact, I have been featured in a Microsoft Online article in which I explain some PowerPoint do’s and don’ts.
In addition to the points cited in that article, I suggest these five tips:
1) Don’t substitute PowerPoint for practice. Bad PowerPoint users think “My notes are on the screen–I’ll just read my slides instead of learning my message.” The audience won’t listen because they know you didn’t care enough to prepare.
2) Do use PowerPoint to illustrate or reinforce the point you are speaking about. Your slide should be a summary or a reminder of your point, not the verbatim message you are delivering.
3) Don’t commit typographic atrocities just because the program lets you. The “Word Art” button is a feature that allows you to compress, expand, elongate, stretch, spin, skew and swirl type…and all of them are bad. Typography is an art; respect the artistry by leaving it the way the typographer intended.
4) Don’t use “Random” slide transitions; they create a visual circus. Slides zooming or sliding in from all directions call attention to themselves, and as soon as the audience starts noticing the motion, your message may be lost.
5) Do limit your transitions to no more than two styles in each presentation. I use one as the as the standard transition from slide one to two to three, etc., and a second style to reveal key words within a slide. The best slide transitions are the least noticeable.
9. What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made as a professional speaker, and what did you learn from them?
All beginning speakers make this mistake, just as I once did: Never ask “What do you want me to speak about?” Beginning speakers are so eager to get an engagement, they overreach. As a result, in an effort to get any paid engagement, many beginning speakers accept assignments that require weeks of research for a $500 speaking fee. Obviously, you can go broke fast with this strategy. Instead, I recommend you ask the meeting planner what the purpose of their meeting or event will be. If you have a presentation that will be a good fit for their purpose then begin your negotiations. But if the meeting planner wants a presentation on a topic that is not one of your specialties, decline. It will save you money and enhance your credibility. The key to speaking success is to become an expert in one or two disciplines and having the integrity to turn down requests outside of your specialties.
10. In your book The Seven Strategies of Master Presenters (co-written with Dr. Brad McRae), you tell a story from February 1, 2003, when you were slated to do a presentation immediately after your audience learned of the Columbia Space Shuttle explosion — right above their heads in Texas. As a professional speaker, how do you handle such unforeseen situations?
ATO: Acknowledge The Obvious. When something highly unusual or unforgettably noticeable happens, to pretend it didn’t is a sign that you are not paying attention. It is perceived as indifference or ignorance. In the case of the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion, which happened directly overhead minutes before I was due to speak, my introducer had just informed the audience of the devastating news. The mood in the room was a mix of shock, fear, and sadness. For me to take the stage and pretend as if it had not happened would have been insensitive. So I had to acknowledge the obvious. I first asked for a moment of silence in respect for those who had just died. Then I asked the audience for guidance. I asked “Do you want me to proceed or postpone my presentation?” I felt it to be important to let them decide, and I was willing to accept either answer. They chose to proceed so I did, though in a much subdued manner. Let’s face it, there is no way to predict such a disastrous turn of events, but as my friend and fellow World Champion Ed Tate says, “I know I haven’t seen everything; but I’m confident I can handle anything.”
11. You very likely hold the distinction of being the person who’s spoken to more Toastmasters in the world than anyone else. In assuming this role, what have you learned that other Toastmasters probably haven’t?
Since winning the World Championship of Public Speaking in 1990, I have spoken to an average of 5,000 Toastmasters a year. I’ve done this for 17 years, so I’ve spoken to approximately 85,000 Toastmasters. Therefore, though this number is not precisely verifiable, I do believe it to be as accurate as an estimate can be. I’ve learned many lessons along the way, and not the least of which is this: “The Pope and a peasant know more than the Pope alone.” I interpret this adage to mean that no matter how good I am, or how experienced I am, or how well-traveled I am…I can always learn from someone else.
In fact, the single best line in my World Championship speech came from a beginning Toastmaster. There I was, one of the top nine speakers in all of Toastmasters in 1990, preparing for the World Championship. As I practiced my speech in front of speakers who had not attained such lofty credentials, one beginning Toastmaster wrote a comment in a post-speech evaluation. She simply wrote “I really liked when you said ‘You’re not supposed to know the Lone Ranger’s name.'” Well, when I read that note I instantly reacted defensively: “That’s not what I said.” But in a flash it hit me… “It’s not what I said, but it’s better!” I am grateful that I was smart enough and humble enough to acknowledge a better idea, without regard to the inexperience of the source. From that I learned “Keep your eyes and your ears and your mind open; you never know when a teacher will appear.”
12. What other advice, ideas, projects, and/or activities would you like to share with StevePavlina.com’s readers?
As I hope the answers to this interview have proven, I am grateful for what knowledge I have been given, and for the skills I have been able to develop. This knowledge and these skills were gifts from others, and I would be the most selfish person on Earth if I kept them all to myself. As a result, it is not only my opportunity but also my responsibility to share what I know. I invite you to visit my website: www.DavidBrooksTexas.com and search the site for more resources, some for purchase (Products tab) and some for free (Resources tab). These resources are a culmination of what I have learned in my 21-year journey from fear-filled beginner, to World Champion of Public Speaking, to globe-trotting professional speaker. You will also find information about the programs and services I offer, including executive speech coaching and speech writing. After taking a look at my website, please contact me if I may be of service.
SP: Thank you very much, David!