World class communication and public speaking lessons from Marcus Sheridan

Do you do public speaking?

What about running seminars or workshops?

Whether you’re stood in front of 10 people or a thousand, you’re in the spotlight and have to be at the top of your game. And to stay on top you have to continue to learn, develop and improve.

You can watch Ted Talks, attend master classes, join Toast Masters, or you can seek out an event called World Class Communication.

I’ve clocked up over 20 years of public speaking. I’ve done audiences of 10. And crowds of thousands.

In that time I’ve learned, developed and improved and changed my style for the better. Starting out, I made the mistake many still do. Inflicting death by bloody PowerPoint on my audiences. Talking to slides and not to people. Now I hardly use any slides at all and my talks are better without them.

But the best lessons I’ve learned in 20 years of speaking happened over the last year on Day 1 and Day 2 of World Class Communication with Marcus Sheridan.

World class communication and public speaking lessons from Marcus Sheridan

Marcus critiquing our talks on Day 2: The Principles.

If you listen to my podcasts or read my blogs you’ll have heard me mention Marcus. He’s a US marketer and well-known keynote speaker. Described by Ann Handley as being, “in his own category of one”, Marcus is one of the most powerful, engaging speakers I’ve ever seen. At the same time, he’s a humble, family man without a trace of ego. A true professional.

When I heard Chris Marr, the Scotland-based entrepreneur and head honcho of the Content Marketing Academy, was running his WCC event, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of working with Marcus.

World Class Communication (WCC)

Day 1, called “The Principles”, covers the ten commandments of speaking, the essential “Columbus Principle”, the concept of preparing segments and not complete talks, and digs deep into the fascinating concept known as, “yes…and”. Expect 25-30 people at the event and you’ll have to speak at least once.

“The Practice” is Day 2. A more intimate group of only 10 people. You’ll stand on a proper stage, deliver your talks and hear Marcus add his critique. He’s never brutal, but he’s always challenging, squeezing out gems and angles you’d never have realised existed. Pushing you to improve. Motivating you to excel.

Some people were in tears on stage. Not because Marcus pushed them too far. But because he helped them find emotional depth within their stories. He gave them permission to be more human.

Before WCC I’d already changed my style over the years and put these principles into practice. Let me share them with you before I move on to the lessons I learned from Marcus.

Start with the speech, not the slides.

We’ve all done it. Especially if you work in a big corporate. Someone asks you to put together a presentation. Your mouse pointer immediately clicks on PowerPoint and you start to put together a slide deck.

Once upon a time this was my greatest presentation sin.

Basing your talk around the slides means you’ll talk to the slides during your speech.

Heading. Bullet point. Bullet point. Bullet point.

People can read but they turned up to hear you speak not to read your slides. Talking to slides diverts you from the people who are the heroes of your speech. The audience.

Have you ever been to a conference and a speaker puts up a slide with tiny writing even people on the front row can’t read? And he’ll say, “You probably won’t be able to see this.”

Don’t you want to shout out, “Well why bother putting it up there.”

Write your speech first. Build the structure and the stories. The conclusion. Only when you have the speech nailed should you think about whether you need slides.

World class communication and public speaking lessons from Marcus Sheridan

Day 2 venue: Scottish Whisky Experience.

Ditch the slides (or at least most of them)

Once you have your structure, messages, stories and conclusion only add slides if they help reinforce the point you’re trying to make.

If it’s a technical subject or about business results, then, of course, slides are relevant. If not free yourself from them. Forbid yourself to do heading and bullet points. If you must use slides just use a couple of words or a strong picture.

It’s surprising how expected slides are, though. Last year the day before one seminar, I received a panic-stricken phone call from the organisers.

“We haven’t received your slides,” they said.

“It’s okay I don’t have any.”

A moment of silence.

“But speakers always have slides. We like to give them out in the delegate pack so they can read along.”

Even some conference organisers think the slides are the most important part of the presentation.

Prove them wrong.

Start with a provocative statement or question

How many times have you heard someone start a presentation will a load of blurb about themselves?

“I’m really pleased to be here. Let me start by telling you about myself. And my company.”

Stop it.

People don’t want to hear your life story or an advertising campaign for your company. If the organiser did their work properly they’ll have introduced you anyway.

Start with a provocative statement like, “80% of businesses fail because they don’t focus enough on marketing.”

Or a question like, “By a show of hands how many people in the room have done a live video broadcast in the last 24 hours.”

The Columbus Principle

The first of the lessons I learned from Marcus back on Day 1 back in May.

When you go on most presentation skills courses they still teach you an age-old successful formula.

Tell ’em what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you’ve told them.

It works. I’ve based many successful presentations on this formula over the years. Feedback has been great. But in the end, I’ve been up there in “tell tell tell” mode. It’s time for something different.

Marcus teaches the Columbus Principle. The idea is to ask your audience questions so they find the answers themselves. So you get them to tell you what you want them to hear.

It’s hard to switch to this way of presenting. You’ll get a load of “WTF” looks from audiences not used to being asked questions. But it works and it’s engaging.

Here’s an example. Before Day 1 if I’d wanted to show what a powerful content producing device a mobile phone is, I would’ve told the audience something like this. “The mobile device in your pocket is a phone, obviously but it’s also a portable TV studio. A live broadcasting unit. A radio station. And it’s a virtual assistant that can take dictation.”

Now instead of telling, I’ve asked questions to get the audience to tell me what the phone can do.

This is one of the key, game-changing lessons you’ll learn on the WCC course. Try it. The results are amazing.

Listen to the answers

If you’re going to ask a load of questions you have to listen to the audience’s answers. Often the golden nugget you need to let you make a vital point will come from an audience member. Marcus refers to the Power of Three. If you stick with the same person and ask them more than one question you’re more likely to get the nugget you need.

As Marcus says, “Asking one person three questions is more powerful than asking three people one question.”

Be careful, though. I’ve found myself thinking about the question I’m going to ask the next person and not listening to the answers. If you do that you’ll miss the gem you need to nail your point.

The Power of Silence

Silence is a great way to emphasise a message. But when you’re on stage one second feels like an eternity.

Marcus helped us to exploit the power silence can bring to the point you want to make. So hit the audience with your punchline and count slowly to 10 before you continue.

Yes, that 10 seconds might feel like an hour. You might be desperate to continue. But hold on. Let your words sink in.


Another game changer. Most of us probably put presentations together from scratch or adapt existing ones. Maybe starting with the slides which we’ve already discussed isn’t best.

Marcus teaches segments. Rather than writing whole presentations create a series of segments. And when someone asks you to put together a full presentation simple construct it from the most relevant segments in your segment locker.

The key to each segment is the story.

I’ve always littered my presentations with stories. Always believed stories are the best way to engage an audience. But I’ve never thought about them in the context of segments before.

You can split each segment into 4 parts.

  • A question or questions
  • The story
  • The result
  • The call to action

In the above example audio snippet the segment would work as follows:

  • Questions: What can your mobile device do?
  • Story: The practical example of using the mobile device to create text from dictation
  • The result: The realisation you have a powerful content creation device in your pocket or bag
  • CTA: Go out there and create great content

Most people doing presentations might unconsciously have segments. I found the formal process of identifying them, separating them and working on the stories, means I can put together a great presentation quickly.

The story is the hero.

Other gems and last thoughts

Marcus’s comments on my presentations both humbled and motivated me. And I have some things, like “silence” and “the power of three” to work on. But it’s now just his comments and suggestions on your own work. You learn a ton from his thoughts and advice for everyone else in the intimate group.

  • Where to stand on stage and how to use movement to enhance your storytelling
  • A reminder of the structure of a cracking story: the setup, the struggle, and the resolution
  • Letting the “laugh wave fade”
  • Relating lessons you want the audience to learn back to yourself, “I had to get over it… We have to…”
  • Focus on the outcome
  • It’s all about the story
World class communication and public speaking lessons from Marcus Sheridan

Day complete. Many lessons learned.

I’ll say it again. What a game changing couple of days.

Many thanks to Chris Marr from the Content Marketing Academy for arranging WCC. And to Marcus Sheridan for such an inspiring, motivational experience. I’m fired up to get out there and deliver more talks.

If you fancy going on World Class Communication click here to find out more from the CMA website.

If you want to hire me to speak at your next event click here to find out more about how I can help you.

Now it’s your turn

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