This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Bill Smartt, a coach who believes that everyone can improve their speaking skills. They break down his three big tips — speak up, slow down, and make eye contact — and discuss (and practice!) breathing exercises that can help when stage-fright kicks in. They also discuss his origin story, which involves some poorly-placed dry ice at a Nashville Halloween party.
[Intro music plays for 16 seconds, ramps down]
Paul Ford Hi! I’m Paul Ford and you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, the digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. I’m the co-founder of Postlight [music fades out] and I’m joined by my other co-founder!
Rich Ziade Rich Ziade.
PF Hey everybody, we have somebody really interesting today to talk to and his name is Bill Smartt with how many ts, Rich?
RZ Two ts.
PF But before we talk to Bill [chuckling and chuckling in the background], we should talk a little about what Postlight does. Honestly, sometimes I still find it confusing. Rich, can you clarify for the people at home?
RZ Sure. We design and build apps, sites . . . mobile apps, and platforms that run those apps. We stand it all up and it always comes out beautiful.
PF We’re really good at it.
RZ [Chuckles] We’re biased but we’re very good at it.
PF Beautifully. Actually though.
PF Not just beautiful, beautifully. That was a little Bay Ridge came out right there. [In New York accent] “Comes out beautiful!” [Rich laughs] So that’s who we are, that completes your advertising portion of the podcast until the very end where we like to [do it again] say a little bit more about ourselves. This is a high stress podcast, I’ll tell you why. The person on the other side is an expert and facilitator in public speaking.
PF Named Bill. Now you knew Bill—Bill, hi!
Bill Smartt Hi! How are you?
PF It’s great to have you here!
BS Thank you.
PF So you guys have an existing relationship.
RZ We are very good friends.
PF And you used to work together, right?
RZ And we used to work together and that friendship—actually! It started friends.
BS We met at a Mark Eitzel show.
RZ We did. And—
PF Wait, what’s—who’s Mark Eitzel?
RZ He’s a really good singer/songwriter.
BS Yeah, he’s amazing.
RZ Who is barely known but he’s great.
PF Wait, you guys are—you just like came up, you’re like, “Hey, you seem cool. You like Mark Eitzel?” Or were there like three people in the audience?
RZ It was such a cool setting, it was the basement of The Knitting Factory here in New York and there was like maybe 20 people.
BS And we’re talking 2003? Maybe.
RZ Yeah, this is way back.
PF Oh so you just engaged—Of course, you would actually just—I remember this, like when it was that small a show you would be like, “Hey, how you doin’?”
RZ Well, it was—he was such a non-artist that like when you see someone else who actually likes an artist that there’s nobody else on earth that’s into [yeah], you just connect, right?
PF No, I totally get that. So, you guys just started chatting, ended up working together.
RZ Yeah, and the thing that really created the bond between us for awhile is the fact that we both like the band Low.
BS It’s true!
RZ And I can’t find anybody else [Bill laughing] who’d like to get onboard with the band Low.
PF Most of the people who—
BS We gotta get on that. We really gotta get on that.
PF Most of the people who’ve liked Low as long as you have, I know this from Rich and I guess this applies to you too, Bill, are no longer alive. [Others laugh] Very few people are like, “Oh man, I’m gonna get really into Low,” and then you check in ten years later and they’re like, “That was a great decision for me. . . [Others laugh] I really made a lot of healthy choices during that time in my life.”
RZ Yeah, they’re great. I just wanna just end it there as far as Low’s concerned.
RZ Then we worked together.
RZ And then you went off [yup] and followed your dream?
BS I did! Actually.
RZ Ok, so—
PF So, let’s back up: how did you get the dream to become a public speaking coach?
BS Well it’s interesting and, you know, my mother was a speech pathologist which is not [woah] what I do at all but it’s kind of hilarious, there are some similarities and I would’ve never, in a million years, thought that this was what I would’ve ended up doing. It’s crazy.
RZ Sure. But you knew the direction you wanted to go.
BS Eventually, yes. Yeah, it was a long and winding road.
RZ Alright, so—
PF Well there’s a little southern accent in there. So let’s start there, where’s that from?
BS I am from McMinnville, Tennessee.
PF Oof! Wow! That came out even stronger than I thought [Bill laughs]. What happens there?
BS You know, McMinnville . . . they are one of the largest—they call themselves the nursery capital of the south.
PF So if I want a sapling [Rich laughs]. Or a—
RZ That’s a helluva party scene at the nursery capital of the south.
PF Some tulips or—
BS You know, so I think it may have something to do with the richness of the soil or something. There’s lots of trees and shrubs and—
RZ And the climate.
BS And the climate. Yeah.
RZ Very cool.
PF Ok. So but that’s not what you did.
BS No, that isn’t what I did. So I left there in the [under breath, through clenched teeth] eighties. I left there in the eighties to Middle Tennessee State University to go to school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I did know I wanted to be in a band.
BS And I ended up being in a band, in a couple bands in Nashville, Tennessee, in the early eighties. It was a total blast.
RZ Can you tell us the names of these bands?
BS Well the first band’s name was Modern Emotions.
RZ [Laughing] I just can’t. It’s a wonderful name.
PF Wait, hold on. What is a modern emotion? [Rich laughs]
BS It’s really funny my husband says it should’ve been mixed emotions, depending on where I was at the time but anyway [others laugh]. So, but—So I didn’t even come up with the name, the whole thing is that we ended up getting a gig and we had to call ourselves something and someone else in the band came up with Modern Emotions and I was like, “Oh my God, really?? That’s the best you could come up with?” There was already Modern English.
BS And there was—there was something with Emotions in the band name.
RZ I’m sure.
BS Anyway. But.
PF So this is the era of like when in Rome—
BS So it’s interesting MTV was just starting at that point.
PF Oh so this is earlier than that.
BS Very, very beginning. It was ‘81.
PF Ok so ‘81, so there’s more than one band?
BS Yeah, so that was the first band and then the second band was Young Grey Ruins.
BS And we were very more Joy Division influenced, a little bit darker. Our lead singer, actually his father was a preacher. So he was the wild child.
BS And he was six foot five.
PF Oh and what I love about this is like in an era of Wikipedia pages, this doesn’t feel like the big deal it must’ve been. There were very few Joy Division influenced people floating around Middle Tennessee at the time.
BS Well, there were a few of us. Yes.
PF So there was a little scene.
BS Yeah, there was a little scene. There was actually quite—It’s interesting [stammers] someone wrote a book about it but there was a record that came out called “The London Side of Nashville.”
PF Woah! [Rich laughs boisterously]
BS Which we were crushed that we weren’t on but there were local bands.
RZ This was a compilation of sorts.
PF Ah how much did you just go like, “Those sellouts!”
BS Oh. I know.
PF How much did you wanna be on “The London Side of Nashville”?
BS Uhh. I really wanted to be on “The London Side of Nashville.”
PF Ok. So there’s a little Nashville scene.
PF And you guys would play out.
BS Yeah. Yeah, we would play out and sort of what ties into—sort of oddly what ties into what I do now is the first time I ever got up on stage in front of an audience, I panicked. I was a little worried cuz we’d only been together for six weeks and we only knew six songs. And we were playing at this gig, it was actually—it was a Halloween party but there was a lot of people there. Right?
PF And you’re what? 18, 19?
BS Yeah, I was 18 years old. Yeah.
PF So it’s a big deal?
BS Yeah, it was totally a big deal. And so I was a little concerned about remembering about my lyrics so I had written them all out on notebook paper in a three ring binder and I had that at the foot of the stage. So I could refer to if I needed to [mm hmm]. And the soundcheck went great and then when we came back to play, you know, we hit the stage and I looked down and all I saw was fog. Because someone had put dry ice out on the stage, after the soundcheck, and I couldn’t see anything.
PF That’s the gothest story I’ve ever in my life [Bill laughs]. That is—if I had a Tumblr blog called just “Goth Problems,” that would be number—post number 17 [Rich laughs].
BS Lemme tell ya. So I freaked out and I couldn’t—so the band kept playing the same thing over and over and over, right? They keep playing, they’re all going, “C’mon, Bill, let’s go. When are you ever gonna remember those lyrics?” And actually my name was Cheek, at the time. That’s my middle name. And they would call me Cheek.
PF Do we spell it E-E-K?
BS So, they were like, “C’mon, Cheek.” Anyway, so a friend of mine said, “Look: if you ever forget your lyrics, sing numbers and letters.”
PF That’s great advice.
BS So, that’s what I did. I sang numbers and letters and I just turned beet red and I was totally embarrassed, I thought it was the most horrible thing ever, I ran off stage, ran out in my car, and burst into tears, I was completely freaked out and humiliated.
RZ Oh no!
PF This was not your rock n’ roll fantasy.
BS No! It was not—this was not how I—
PF Where you’re like Ian Curtis fantasy.
BS—pictured it, right?
BS But, you know, ten minutes later, there’s a tap on the window. Tschee, tschee, tschee, right? I roll it down. And one of the other band members said, “Where you been? We’ve been looking all over for you. You ready for the second set?”
PF “Party’s still going on, Bill.”
BS I was like, “Second set?! I’m not going back out there!”
RZ That’s an incredibly supportive band member. He probably knew the state you were in and he’s like, “Let’s keep going.”
PF He also didn’t have a vocalist [laughter].
BS Right. They were like, “We’re ready to go. Like, are you ready?” The pressure was on. “If you don’t want to go, then you can tell the whole band that you’re gonna quit but let’s go.” So basically I went back out there but this time I held my lyrics in my hand and we killed it. It was awesome. And like two weeks later I was in a record store and somebody came up and said, “Are you in that band Modern Emotions? Y’all were great!!” [Rich laughs] And I’m like, “Wow, thanks?”
RZ This isn’t fitting together for me.
PF Oh this is so great. Well, this is the era like of REM coming out of Georgia.
RZ Sure, that’s true.
BS REM came through. I saw them a bunch of times.
PF Oh, little tiny baby REM, then. Yeah. That’s cool.
BS Yeah and Modern Emotions opened up for Michael Stipes’ sister’s band OOK.
RZ That’s close, man. Proximity.
BS I know it’s very close. We opened up for The Gun Club once, if that means anything.
PF Woah! It does. It does. We’re in deep now.
BS Anyway, but the reason I tell that story is that I really did have that panic moment in front of audiences which is what most of the people that I work with have that same, you know, that just gut wrenching experience where you’re in front of people and you panic, and it’s just a terrible experience, you never ever wanna repeat it again, and a lot of people just refer back to that and they think that’s what’s it’s like when you get in front of people. So I work with people to help them understand that it does not have to be like that and I give them techniques and ways—strategies they can use so that they can get past that and be present when they’re in front of a group.
PF So you go in—a company calls you, an individual calls you but let’s say a company calls you.
PF And they say, “Bill, we have—” Who needs help? In your world normally?
BS It’s a variety of people so, you know, I’ll have a company call me and they’ll say, “Look, we have people that are going out and speaking at conferences but they’re really not prepared and we wanna prepare them.” So I go in and I work with individuals and groups. So I’ll have a group of like eight and I’ll work with them to give them some basic tips and strategies, right? Here are some things—like the three things I tell everybody that will make you a better speaker right now, you’ll be better than most people: first is speak up.
BS Second is slow down.
PF O . . . k.
BS [Chuckles] The third is make eye contact.
BS If you do those three things, you’re gonna be better than most people.
RZ So, let’s dive in: speak up, raise the volume of your voice.
BS Yeah, yeah cuz most people aren’t comfortable. When they raise their voice, they equate that with yelling or with anger and the reality is if you’re leading a group, right? You just gotta raise your voice a little bit, right? And people are uncomfortable with that. They are also
uncomfortable—they feel like, “Oh my God, I’m being, you know, the blowhard jerk.” I’m like, “No, you actually wanna make it easy for people to hear you.”
PF Rich, you’ve never had a problem with that.
RZ [Sighs] I’ve kind of nailed number one. To the point of like, “Could you pipe down a little bit?” [Laughs]
PF Yeah, so ok no fear of being a blowhard. Just get in there.
BS Yeah! Just get in there. Speak up! You know, one great way to check it is if you just get somebody else to stand at the back of the room and say, “Is this too loud? Am I speaking too loud?” And they will tell you if you’re too loud.
RZ Ok, slow down.
BS Slow down, right? So, you’ve got the fight or flight response. You’re standing in front of people who are all staring at you, right? And naturally, you’re gonna speed up, right? Because your heart rate goes up, you got the fight or flight response. So, typically what happens is people just wanna get it out what they have to say [get it over with] as fast as they can so they can go sit down and relax.
PF Sure, sure.
BS But you have to understand, you are the subject matter expert. You know this stuff! And it’s interesting, people telling their name and their company name. Oftentimes they blast through that. I’m like, “Wait, slow down!”
RZ It’s a pretty important part.
BS It’s really important. But people, they know it, and they assume everyone else knows it. So it’s really slowing down and the big one is using the power of the pause.
PF Mm hmm.
BS It freaks people out and it makes sense to pause. And not say anything when you’re in front of a group. For a second or two. Cuz you’re like, “Oh shit! There’s silence! I should be speaking the whole time.” But the reality is people need time to digest what you’ve said. And they need a break every once in awhile from your voice.
RZ Also, it creates a little bit of anticipation.
BS Yes! It does.
PF I like to do it—one of the things—I do a fair amount of public speaking and I’ve noticed that I’m much happier if I give myself about ten seconds in front of the talk [yeah]. Don’t say a thing. Just like let my name be up there, kinda putter around. Just for a few seconds, turn my head a little bit and just let the audience get used to me and then when I launch in I’m at a regular tempo.
PF But if you get up there and you’re just like, “Hi!” You’re off to the races. That’s not what they want. They want you to kinda just sorta be there with them.
BS Yeah and a lot of that has to do with breathing, too. So I’ve studied acting for years. I was an actor for awhile and part of that was what happens with your breath, right? [Right] So when you’re in front of people, you start to breathe in a shallow way and you hold your breath.
PF Boy, do you.
BS And so the heart rate’s up, you’re holding your breath, and then things just sorta decline from there. So it’s really breathing is a big part of that.
PF You can really—I’ve gotten in trouble that way. Not so much—I was on the radio, and when I would do radio commentaries, I would literally be gasping. Like I’d be on my knees in front of the microphone because I couldn’t breathe and I could hear the—that actually was really bad cuz I had ‘em in my headphones so I could hear the breath.
BS Right, yeah.
PF So it’d be like, “And then I—” [Takes exaggerated breath] And then I would freak the hell out. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s all they can hear.” And then I’d be holding my breath to kind of avoid the gasping [Rich laughs] and then—
RZ Vicious cycle.
PF Yeah, minutes would go by and I’d just be like trying to breathe off the mic. So you can get in these little loops—
PF—of very like nervous, upset behavior. What are people so scared of? Do you think?
BS Um, well, it’s interesting, Lora Hogan, who I interviewed—she has a great book—
RZ We had her on. She’s great.
BS Oh my God. Demystifying Public Speaking and I love what she says which is, “When you think about why are you nervous, you really think it’s because you care. Right? It’s because you really want—you care about what you’re talking about and you wanna do well.”
BS A lot of people think, “I’m freaked out because I’m shitty at this.” Right? So if you just shift it, and think, “I’m nervous because I care and I wanna do well,” then that comes from a place where you can actually go somewhere with that in a positive way.
PF You know what I’ve noticed is people get very worried—this happens a lot with writing. And public speaking too. They get very worried about letting their community down. They’re very aware that they’re gonna get up and represent all the CSS developers or all the—or their company or whatever. And it’s a very specific kind of imposter syndrome, right? Where it’s like, “Oh God, I forgot to say these five things that are like the number five—the big five things that everybody needs to acknowledge,” and the reality is like the audience tends to be pretty well intentioned and that one nudgy person is going to probably say something on Twitter and you can’t win with them anyway.
PF But that sense of like, “Am I letting ‘em down?”
BS Well, this is another motto I have is similar: be prepared, not perfect. Like do not expect to be perfect cuz that’s where you start to really put a vice grip around what you’re doing, right? So you just—you get up, you be prepared, and you just gotta let it go, and understand that you’re just one person, you’re giving your perspective and cut yoruself some slack. And that’ll start to decrease the pressure that you put on yourself. So it’s interesting, I would say, I dunno like 75% of what people’s problems are when they’re speaking in front of groups has to do with psychology. It has to do with how they feel about themselves, how they feel about their work, so it’s interesting how some of it’s technical but some of it is—a big piece of it, you know, understanding what drives you, understanding what is making you nervous. So, why is this happening? So I try and just demystify as much of this stuff as possible and then kind of—it’s interesting cuz a lot of people will say, “Oh, I was always told that I should do this,” right? And then like, oh well now you see what drives that behavior, right? Or, “I was always told I was too loud, so—” Some people tend to be quiet like, well, maybe in one situation that was relevant but right now, it’s not relevant.
PF Where do you come down on speaker notes?
BS Um. Everybody is different. And that’s another part of the work that I do is I have some tips and strategies and tricks but I don’t really have like this mold that people need to fit into that makes them a good speaker. Everybody brings their own unique stuff, you know, qualities to the party, so it really depends on the person. Usually what I advise is: you know the gist of what it is you’re gonna say, and you’re able to talk about that, so a slide comes up, and you can speak to that slide. And trying to avoid memorizing things word for word because that’s when you can trip up and, “Oh my God, I forgot that one word. And I didn’t get it right,” so I encourage people to, you know, work with their notes, also rehearsing with your notes. A lot of people will make notes and then they won’t rehearse with them and—
PF See, you’re implying a lot rehearsal here, too.
BS Yeah, yeah. I know.
PF How much—this I think in almost like concrete—how much should people rehearse before they get up?
BS You know, it also depends on the situation, right? And—cuz everybody is limited with the amount of time that they have.
BS Right? Yeah, so I mean if you’re doing a TEDTalk, I would spend a lot of time being prepared, knowing it backwards and forwards, so that if someone has a gun—you feel as if someone has a gun to your head, you can go through that.
PF I mean a TEDTalk is a theater piece [yeah] that like non-theater people give, right?
PF So if I have a week, I gotta give a talk. I know that like I have to talk to my team. We don’t have to go on stage just yet [yup]. I have to talk about the Q3 goals.
PF I’ve been told that I need to present it, you know, the top ten things we’re gonna do and I got a week to prepare it, and part of that is also to figure out what those goals are, I’m gonna be sharing them with my own upper management and so on. Like what do I do? Where do I start? I’m very nervous about this talk.
BS Yeah, so, the first thing is figure out how much time you have to talk, how much time does your audience have [ok]. In other words, how much detail to you need to go into with these folks?
PF I mean it’s an hour at least with this team. Sure, ok.
BS So, first, define that. Right? And part of it also, too, is a lot of times we feel like we need to give more information than we actually need to really actually give to people, particularly when we’re speaking to them. You can give people an overview or you can kinda give them: here’s where we’re headed and you could send them information to read that’s in more detail. But I would say in that situation, first this is what I do is I actually speak it out loud.
BS I have a few notes like, “Here’s the basic points that I wanna go over,” and then I speak through it out loud and see what it sounds like [ok] and you can also have someone else in the room to just kinda do a run through out loud of what it sounds like. A lot of people make the mistake of—there’s this translation between what’s in your head to language. Right? So you may write something out in a very writerly way but when you speak it, it doesn’t sound like someone actually speaking.
BS So, there’s that translation from the brain to language that a lot of people skip. And then they’re in front of people just—they go off on tangents and they kind of are not clear. So, it’s a little bit different for everybody. So, some of the time you need to spend is just sitting, figuring out, “What do I gotta say to these people? What is important? Who is this audience? What do they care about? How can I speak to that?” You come up with the basic points you wanna speak about and then what I would do is find a room or somewhere where you can just go through it out loud [mm hmm]. Speak through it out loud and time it and see how long it is, see what it sounds like, also recording it is helpful, to then listen to that. Listen back to it. You know, so it varies depending on the importance of the talk and how much time you have but if you can at least, no matter what, speak through what you’re going to say out loud at least one time, hopefully more times, it’s gonna be better when you get in front of the group, particularly if you’re nervous because you will have had a run through, you will have kind of fleshed it out, and gotten a sense of what this sounds like.
PF Do you find yourself giving a lot of feedback on content when you’re—
BS I do!
BS It’s so funny because when I started out like I have a background as an actor and a lot of my coaching was around the actual delivery and it didn’t take long in working with people before I realized that you can have all the tricks around delivery but if your content isn’t clear, and it doesn’t make sense, it’s not gonna get you very far.
RZ What if it’s boring?
BS You have to figure out who your audience is and what they care about and how can you make it interesting to them. So what are the stakes for them? So, anytime there’s the question of if this is boring, ok, so what’s the ultimate end goal for whatever it is that you’re to them about?
RZ I mean sometimes people are just fundamentally boring.
PF It’s not fair to ask Bill to fix that.
BS No, it is. It’s an interesting question cuz I think—
RZ You’ve done workshops where you see the personality there that’s in front of you and it’s clearly a long road, right? Do you give that advice? I mean—
BS Sometimes it can be but what’s interesting is that it’s not so much that they’re boring, it’s just a lot of time they have very low energy. Right?
BS And they’re very introverted, so they kinda come across like this [in monotone] this is really exciting for them. Right? And a lot of the times they have no idea that that’s how they come across. So one of the things I do in my workshops is we video people, and I know people just cringe when you hear that but what’s interesting is that I will give them some tips—“Hey just try using a little bit more volume.” Right? “Let’s just see what happens.” [Righ, little tricks] And when they use more volume, all of a sudden things change. And when they watch the video, like, wow! That actually really does make a big difference. And it’s one of the fundamental things: speak up, slow down, make eye contact, that really can make a big difference with people [yeah] and, you know, so they will then see, “Oh! I see how different that can be,” and depending on what their need is, again if they’re managing people and they need to inspire people or get them to do something, then they have to look at how is it that they’re coming across to people? Right? It’s just really a set of behaviors. So sometimes that—if someone comes across as either bored or boring, it’s just—it also just comes across like they’re disinterested.
BS So I work with people that’ll be working with clients. Right?
BS How can you be more engaged when you’re with a client?
RZ They look like they don’t care.
BS Right. So, you know, a lot of this stuff feeds into that as well.
PF So at some level you start to see the symptoms of other larger issues that people are gonna face in their careers. Like—cuz communication skills, especially in management, are just utterly core. Like you can never get good enough.
BS And it’s all about really being present in the room with somebody. Right? And so you’re tracking—it’s not just about what you’re saying but it’s also how is the other person receiving what you’re saying? So it’s really understanding and, you know, a lot of times when we’re in work environments, we’re just trying to solve a problem. So someone comes to us and we’re like, “Here’s the answer to that problem.” Well a lot of times, you know, it’s important to think about how can you listen to build a relationship with somebody? Right? And there are different—it’s not always coming up immediately with solving a problem, it’s actually being present with them, listening to them, so it’s interesting cuz public speaking, yeah it ties into the larger picture of communication, right? So that’s what I’m finding with this work. It’s not just when you’re behind a podium, in front of people, it’s really applicable anytime you’re talking to anybody. And just being aware: how do you come across? Right? If you come across as very low energy and really disinterested, that’s gonna be really tough for you as a manager cuz people are gonna be thinking that—they’re gonna be reading into that and thinking that you aren’t happy with their behavior or you’re unhappy with their performance.
RZ Hmm. You talk about eye contact.
RZ I’m guessing you don’t like reading. Some people, they bring up the script [right, yeah]. And they’re good at like doing the quick eye contact and back to the paper thing [yup, yup] but I mean for me I go up with bullets almost intentionally forcing myself to be a little conversational. I mean where—and that’s hard for some people. I’ve seen people try to do it and—
BS This is kinda where the practice part comes in and it’s weird because a lot of people think um you know you wouldn’t think you would need to rehearse to become impromptu but that’s where that translating what’s in your brain to language thing, cuz a lot of the times, you’re like, “Oh, I have some notes here!” But until you actually stand up and try and speak based on those notes, you’re gonna have a challenging time. But so! But so back to if people use notes, right, so again, there’s no right or wrong, yes or no way to do this stuff, right? If someone—someone can be very compelling if they are reading their speech, right? But there are some techniques that they can use to be more compelling. If they need—
RZ Right, sometimes the content carries itself. It’s just so good that even if they read people are captivated.
BS And there’s some tricks you can use like, you know, when you’re reading which is—the slowing down and taking pauses is part of this, but a lot of people what they do—this is a technique that’s in Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo and so there’s a technique where—I think it’s in that book. Anyway, it’s a technique where you look at the first part of the sentence, you just—you don’t say anything, you look at it, you kinda memorize that first part. You look at the audience, you speak that first part, and then you look down for the middle of the sentence, right? And then you get the end of the sentence, and then deliver the end of the sentence with the audience. So it’s like your eyes are up, on them, at the beginning of the sentence, and then you end on them. So it’s like you’re—a lot of people do—what most people do is they look up at the audience, then look down and read the whole thing, and then they kinda come back up. So it’s—
BS Yeah, so that’s a technique that takes a little practice. But.
RZ Have you ever had to slow anyone down?
BS All the time.
RZ Calm down.
BS All the time.
RZ No, I don’t mean speed. I mean like they’re overthrowing the whole thing. They’re just kinda loud and in your face and—
BS Oh yeah! You know that’s the—
RZ It’s like, “Dude, chill.”
BS That’s the do less. [Others laugh] You don’t need to work so hard. And a lot of people, you know, feel like they need to work really hard.
BS And—but it’s interesting, I feel like I have more of the case of people with really low energy. That’s a—you know, low energy, being uncomfortable, using volume and vocal variety and hitting different pitches, right? So another thing is that we all have the ability to hit three full octaves of notes but usually in our daily life and in business life we’re just hitting one or two.
PF Mm hmm.
BS So, you know, I encourage people to listen to people on radio, tv, and notice that they’re hitting different pitches as they’re speaking, right? Why? Because it makes easier to process what they’re saying because each word is on a little bit of a different pitch. Right? So, if they can start to—particularly if they’re delivering something that’s really technical, right? “So we could go with A, or we could with B.” And, you know, you’re really kinda hitting different pitches, it makes it easier for people to process what you say and it makes it less dull. Right? So—
PF It’s contrast.
BS Yeah, it’s contrast. It’s vocal variety and an exercise I tell people is buy a book you wanna read, download the audiobook, read along with that voiceover actor for a page, and then turn the audio off and read along on your own, audio record it, and then check your progress. If you do that for like five minutes every day, you’ll start to shift the habitual patterns that you’ve always had. And I worked with someone a few weeks ago and he was telling this amazing, compelling story but [in deep monotone] he told the whole story like this and—I mean it was just, it was extreme. Right? So it’s just. [Rich chuckles]
PF Well and it can feel very false and a little campy when you’re going up and down.
BS Yeah, so it’s practice first. It’s practice first and then what I tell people is like, you know what? Just choose one word in the sentence and hit a different pitch on that word.
PF Oh interesting.
BS It takes a little bit of practice to do it, but once you kinda get used to it then the content will deliver where you hit different pitches.
PF So we’ve been talking a lot about where people struggle, what makes a really good talk?
BS For me, what makes a really good talk is anytime someone is truly connected to their content, they’re passionate about it, and you can see that and that can register. And it’s interesting cuz I work with—most of the people I work like what they do, right? So if you can tap into what is it about what they do that they love and then they can speak about whatever content they’re delivering through that then the audience is psyched about it. Like cuz they see that they’re excited about it.
RZ Right, it’s contagious.
BS Yeah, right? And that’s why I say, like I said at the beginning, I really wanna help people to be as present as possible and to really empower people to find their voice. And be as real as they can. Like I want them to show up. Instead of the perfect version of themselves that we all try and put ourselves into some sort of box, like, “Oh, this would be the perfect version of me.” When in actuality if you just show up with the passion you have for your topic and you’re connecting with your audience, you’re making eye contact, then that reverberates. It’s not just the voice, it’s really the presence of the person in the room.
PF So I’ve rehearsed, I’ve—you’ve come along and helped me get my content in a better place, I’m speaking with more tonality and I’m doing more—I’m being a little louder and a little more confident, I’m going up and down, but now, I have to go on stage, I’ve got 20 minutes, and all of it just went out the window, I just started panicking. What do I do?
BS Number one thing [Paul takes a deep breath]. So what you do is you breathe—[that’s kinda nice actually] you breathe in through your nose to a count of three, hold for one, and breathe out through your mouth for a count of seven . . . And you gotta do the Mississippis here. One Mississippi, two mississippi—
RZ That’s a long time comin’ out the mouth.
BS It is—
PF Boy, that’s good though. I’m feelin’ good.
BS So breathing in—But what’ll happen is that actually—so what’ll happen is that will bring your heart rate down. So that’s really what’s happening is you’re feeling that fight or flight response and your heart rate is up. And it’s also . . . expect that you will be nervous. People say, “Well, I just wanna get over the nervousness,” and like, well you may never get over it. It’s always probably gonna be there and in some ways that’s not necessarily always a bad thing, right? But it’s breathing to help combat that. Another thing that can help is if you find yourself really freaking out is think about physically connecting to the floor like saying, “I feel my feet connected to the floor. I feel my feet grounded on the floor.” And that will take your mind off from going spiralling out into panic mode to something physical in the room, something physical you can feel. So the breathing can help, and focusing on the physical can also bring it back and make your more present, right? Watch something funny. Find something to make you laugh.
BS Yeah, find some dumb video or something that would make you laugh because—
PF We’ll have to share it when we post it. I have this video I like to watch which is Tom Hanks in the movie Punchline where he plays a standup comedian and he just dies on stage for like five minutes and it’s the most grisly, horrible thing [Bill laughs] it’s unbearable to watch [uh huh] and I find before public speaking, it’s just very therapeutic [Rich laughs] cuz you’re like, “Well, you can’t screw up that bad.”
BS Right! Exactly.
PF One of the things I’ve noticed too is that as time goes on, the nerves are always there but you start to get to the point where you manage them a day or two or a week or two ahead of the talk. You pre-panic.
PF And then by the time the talk shows up, you’re like, “Ok, I already had my freak out.”
PF Right? So I gave a talk not too long ago and the panic came about four days early [mm hmm] and then by the time I was on stage, someone was like, “Are you nervous?” I’m like, “Nah, it’s just 20 minutes. I’ll be alright.”
PF But it’s—you never get away from it. You can’t escape that sense of like, “I’m going to go in front of a group of people and tell them something.”
BS Right, right. And you just have to think—you know, part of it is think like if you can, think, “Why do I love what I do? And what is it that’s gonna be helpful for this audience? Like what is it that I have to share with them that’s awesome?” And this—“I’m so psyched about this thing.” This is the thing—this is gonna help you in this way. So, a lot of times that can shift your perspective from yourself and how am I doing to, “I can’t wait to tell you this thing.” It’s like I visualize it as like an arrow going out to the audience. Like, “This is amazing—here’s the deal and I’m gonna tell you this because this is gonna help you in some way and that’s my focus. My focus isn’t on me. It’s not about me. It’s actually about you and how I can help you or make things better in some way.”
PF So count of three through the nose, hold one, seven out.
RZ I’m gonna do five out. I tried the seven, I almost fainted [Bill laughs].
PF Don’t fix this, Ziade.
RZ Alright, sorry.
BS You can adjust it for yourself.
RZ 3, 1, 7.
BS Yeah, 3, 1, 7. Well, you could do 3, 1, 5.
RZ Bill, you’ve been incredibly generous.
BS No, guys, thanks for having me. This is fun. I could talk about this stuff all day long.
RZ Alright, so—
PF So let’s say I wanted to hire you to do that, what would I do?
BS Well, you would go to smartttalk.com, that’s with three ts.
RZ That took guys. That URL.
PF That’s a strong URL.
RZ Yeah [Bill laughing].
PF Very few have three ts in a sequence.
BS You know, I tried to buy smarttalk with two ts and it’s a long story.
RZ It’s a—yeah.
PF You know what I like about it though? No hyphen.
BS No hyphen.
PF No hyphen. Hyphen might’ve even been a logical choice in there but no, you knew.
RZ It would’ve cheapened you [Bill laughing].
PF Don’t put a hyphen in a URL.
RZ Don’t put a hyphen.
PF That’s really my—in the entirety of this company the only piece of advice I think I can give you that it truly is permanent and lasting is never use a hyphen in your URL.
BS Ah! That’s a good thing.
RZ We’ve shared six page strategic documents about why you shouldn’t put a hyphen.
BS Really? Ok.
PF Just don’t do it.
BS That’s good to know. Well it’s a hard thing to find and hit on the keyboard, isn’t that part of it?
RZ It just looks cheap.
PF It does. It’s also really rough on mobile.
BS Ohh! Right, yeah.
RZ Hmm. Empathize with your mobile user.
BS Yeah, see, what’s in it for them? Think about that audience, always.
PF Alright, so I go to that website [yes] and I—is there a form for me to fill out or should I email you?
BS Yeah, so there’s a description of what my offerings are: my workshops and my seminars and I go into companies and, you know, I can lead a workshop for small groups and I also do lunch and learns for larger—like for hundreds of people. So, you know.
PF Ok, so—how long does an engagement go?
BS So, I have half day workshops, I have full day workshops, and I have, you know, an hour lunch and learn, that could be 90 minutes, it could be two hours. So it’s kinda flexible.
PF Ok. And do you travel a lot for the job?
BS I have been travelling quite a bit.
BS Yeah, yeah. But a lot of my work is in New York but I do travel.
PF Ok. Thank you for coming on our podcast.
BS Thanks, guys, for having me. It’s a total pleasure.
PF Rich, I think everyone who’s listening should take a breath in through their nose, count to three. Hold that breath [Rich exhaling]. And exhale to the count of seven. Ready? One, two, three [inhales] . . . Exhale, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.
RZ You inhaled after six. I saw you.
PF I’m the coach!
BS It’s hard to do it and coach it at the same time.
RZ It’s really hard.
BS You can’t count [Paul laughing].
RZ The counting is throwing him off.
PF Alright [Bill laughing], anyway, there you go [music fades in]. So, we’re very grateful to Bill Smartt of Smartt Talk, S-M-A-R-T-T-T-A-L-K.com, coming in and giving us some helpful speech tips, hopefully that will make for a better podcast in the future.
RZ Oh, without a doubt!
PF Yeah, I’m gonna go breathe for awhile and just sort of get my head straight. This has been Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City.
RZ Reach out! We love when people email us, email@example.com.
PF firstname.lastname@example.org. Or give us a nice rating on iTunes, we’re told it makes a difference and we believe it. My name is Paul Ford, I am the co-founder of Postlight.
RZ I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder of Postlight.
PF Everybody have a good week.
PF Bye [music ramps up, plays alone for 11 seconds, fades out to end].