First (and despite what you might read in those “Become a Millionaire Speaker in Three Weeks!” books), there is no magic formula to getting a standing ovation. There are no special phrases that work, no mind tricks, no special way to walk around the podium — you simply need to become an outstanding speaker.
Luckily, becoming an outstanding speaker is completely attainable by almost everyone. You don’t need to have survived a harrowing climb to Mount Everest in a wheelchair to be a great speaker, and you don’t need to channel Steve Jobs.
Here is the technique I’ve developed to help earn standing ovations for your work: Design your presentation so it connects directly with your audience members in three ways — a model that in my head I’ve come to call the 3L Model.
I’ll get into the actual speech design and 3L flow in a moment, but first, let’s talk about why you even want standing ovations.
Why Aim for Ovations?
- They Feel Awesome! There’s nothing more energizing and motivating than having an entire audience rise to their feet because of something you’ve said.
- Great for Marketing: From a marketing point-of-view, there’s nothing better than being able to say you have earned a standing ovation (always use the word “earned,” never “received” — they just didn’t hand it to you for no reason, you really DID earn it, so say so!) On my marketing bio, there’s a phrase that says something like “And he’s one of the few speakers to be able to earn a standing ovation at 7:30 a.m. in the morning.” I don’t know who wrote that, but it’s brilliant. (I think we can all identify that it takes something extra to get going in the morning!)
- Confirms Your Material: It will help confirm that you are on the right track with your material. People don’t give standing ovations for speeches that suck.
As I mentioned before, my experience is that those speakers who earn standing ovations do so because they employ —whether they know they’re doing this or not — a presentation flow model that opens with Laughter, then helps the audience Learn, and ends by helping them apply the lessons to their own Life.
3L = Laugh, Learn, Life
Remember that audiences want speakers to succeed. From the moment you take the stage, audiences are thinking “I sure hope this is a good use of my time,” and they’re rooting for you. This realization, alone, has helped many people I coach on becoming awesome speakers overcome their fear of speaking. They believe that the audience is against them and looking for any slip-up. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Why That Order?
Because being a great speaker is really about being a great storyteller. Think of all the great business speakers of our time — like Steve Jobs, who doesn’t talk about the technology as much as talk about how the technology will make it easier for some military soldier’s wife to show him their new baby.
I used to be a public radio producer for the CBC (Canada’s public broadcaster) and produced a short documentary series about people’s life stories. I quickly learned that we got the best audience response when there was something that grabbed their attention up front but, more importantly, ended by helping them understand the “universal truth” in the story — how could they apply what they’ve heard in their own life.
Public radio producers sometimes refer to this as the Anecdote/Reflection model of storytelling. (If you’re interested in more about storytelling, you might want to check out my ebook: From Idea to Air: A Freelancer’s Field Guide to Writing for Public Radio.) The model is very simple: Tell part of a story, then pause for a moment to help the listener understand the universal truth in it, then tell the next part of the story, then do the same universal truth, then tell more of the story, and so on.
What makes a great presentation? The same elements that make a great story:
- Great stories take surprising turns.
- Great stories compel us to action.
- Great stories illustrate a universal truth.
- Great stories evoke genuine emotion.
- Great stories get us cheering for the characters.
So, let’s look at each of the three Ls in depth:
In my own speeches, I usually open with a very short, self-deprecating joke (audiences like speakers who are comfortable enough up there to not take themselves too seriously) and then a slightly longer funny story. Combined, they’re not more than three minutes.
The first words out of my mouth (after “Thank you,” said to your introducer as you two shake hands on their way off the stage — never forget to acknowledge the introducer) are almost always variations on:
- “That was an awesome introduction. Clearly, my mom wrote it.”
- “That’s the second-best introduction I’ve ever received. (pause) The first was last week when the emcee at the conference I was keynoting was sick. So I was forced to introduce myself.”
- “Wow. And the best part? Some of that is even true.”
This opening kicker just signals to the audience that you’re capable of being entertaining and you’re human like them.
Then, I often go with an actual joke or a funny story. My “usual” story (you may have heard me use it!) starts with me pretending to check my wireless lav mic (“Can you hear it at the back of the room?”) then using that to tell the story of how I accidentally yelled bad things live on CBC Television without knowing that my mic was live.
If you don’t know any jokes, look some up online! This is the one I use whenever I’m speaking at a resort where there’s golf resort and lots of senior executives: “Yeah, so golfing. I don’t get it. Seriously, I don’t get why you guys all love to golf so much. To me, golfing is just like work. It takes all day and you just end up getting pissed off.”
So, right off the bat, be funny. Even if it’s just a little bit.
Then, find out what parts of your story the audience laughs at and build that chunk up a little more for your next group. It’s how stand-up comedians build their set.
It’s critical to do this at the beginning of the speech so you allay their fears that you’re going to be boring.
LearnUnless your presentation is entirely a story (one of a personal journey or triumph for instance), the bulk of your presentation should focus on solid, use-it-tomorrow information. Present case studies from their industry, don’t over-use charts, and repeat back key information you want to really lock into their heads. This learning content is the meat in your Awesome Speaker sandwich!
LifeHere’s the most important part — tell them how they can apply this information to their own day-to-day life. It might seem obvious to you, considering you just spent 50 minutes teaching them stuff, but it makes a much stronger impact if you transition to a section called something like “Putting It All Together” or “Now What?” or “Using It Tomorrow.” Make that a title slide as you enter this last L.
Very, very few speakers bother to explain how what they’ve said is applicable to their audience! They expect that the audience will figure that out on their own. They won’t. They’re swamped with information at that event. Lay it out for them.
I will usually pick just three or four key points from the Learn section of my presentation and cover them again very briefly. That’s where a “Summary” slide comes in best, though I prefer “How to Apply This” as a heading.
Another very powerful way to end is to tie directly into the conference’s theme. (Really, you should be building their theme into your whole presentation, but that’s another matter.) I like to ask them to think beyond the theme — I think it makes for a more interesting ending.
Here’s an example. A couple of weeks ago, I was the opening keynote for the national conference of the Canadian Mental Health Association. They asked me to present my Taking Crazy Back keynote which is mostly the story of my own personal journey through depression and addiction.
After I’d told the story, I moved into the “Here’s how this can apply to your work and life” section (the third ‘L’). I opened it with this slide:
(I’m fond of starkly simple title slides, written the way I’d speak. I hate the overly designed template slides with horrible titles like “Transitioning Learning to Real-World Applications.” Ugh. “So. Now what?” says the same thing, and more elegantly, I believe.
I only had three points to make, and these were the verbatim titles I used:
- Enough With the $#%@& Studies
In this section, I gave my opinion that mental health treatment has been studied to death by government. Each time there’s a new government, they commit money to funding new research. The research always comes back saying the same things as all the previous studies: We need more doctors, more beds in psychiatric units, more services to aboriginal communities as well.
- Studies Kill People
After saying that, I put this slide up and said it out loud: Studies Kill People. (Some people laughed, some people applauded, and some people just looked confused.) My point was that we’re spending our money on paperwork and studies, instead of on prevention and treatment, and that results in the death of people who needed those services.
- Crazy Gets Shit Done
I don’t often swear in front of audiences, but sometimes the shock value can be very powerful, as long as you don’t overuse it. (One popular marketing speaker drops f-bombs throughout his presentations. He’s known for it, actually. I think it’s quite disrespectful to the audience and your client, personally.) But in this case, I needed to get the point through that things only change when people are uncomfortable, and that maybe we should be a little less about “the way things are done around here,” and more about “You know what? What the hell. Let’s try this wacky idea.”
Throughout my presentation, I kept talking about why I was disappointed that the public gets its proverbial knickers in a twist over the simplest and often innocuous things. Near revolutions have been built around deciding how a tax should be applied. I asked in my presentation a few times: “Where’s OUR revolution?”
I ended by coming back to that thought and upping their theme, which was “Building Movements.”
My last lines were: “As you go through the next two days of your business here, I want to issue a challenge to you. Do more than build a movement. Build a revolution. And you will save lives.”
And with that, I said thank you and walked off stage.
Three hundred people took to their feet and gave me a standing ovation that must have lasted two solid minutes. Two people at the head table were in tears. Did I say anything sad? No. I just told my own story and told them how they can use that story to help their own work and live their own lives better.
There’s nothing more powerful.
Accepting the Standing Ovation
“Wait,” you might have just thought. “You literally walked off the stage?!”
Yep. Sometimes I’ll need to stay on the stage if the client wants to give me a gift or draw a name for a door prize or something (make sure you ask in your pre-event call exactly what they want you to do immediately after you say thank you to avoid any awkward moments). But if I think there might be a standing ovation coming, I will ignore whatever directions I’ve received and I will leave the stage immediately.
Why? A couple of reasons.
First, you can’t make it appear as if you’re expecting or wanting a standing ovation. I’ve seen speakers stand there, practically waiting for one. I’ve even seen a couple of speakers do that “Get up!” arm motion to tell people to give them a standing ovation.
More importantly, that stage action, for whatever reason, is tied in people’s heads to big performances. They see someone say thank you and leave the stage as somehow more important. Watch any top-rated stand-up comedian, like Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock. They’ll yell “Thank you!,” literally drop the microphone on the floor, and walk off. (Then, of course, come back when the ovation happens.)
There is something very powerful in the human mind to feeling like you have brought the speaker back on-stage, perhaps even against their will.
In this particular example, I did what I usually do when I receive a standing ovation. I left the stage immediately, walked down to the head table (where they seated me), and stood there with my hands clasped politely in front of me, mouthing Thank You occasionally.
Do not raise your hands in the air. Do not make that “Please, everybody sit down, this is way, way too much!” motion with your arms. Do not go back on stage and start to say anything else. You are not Neil Diamond. You do not need to perform an encore.
Just stand there and smile. Look people in the eye, and say thank you. Do not sit down until they do.
The Dark Side of Standing Ovations
While it rarely happens, I have occasionally seen a speaker try to make a standing ovation happen artificially by using a clever technique known quietly on the circuit as “The Force” (taken from magic terminology where you control where cards will be in the deck, without the audience realizing you’re doing it).
Here’s how it works. Near the end of the presentation, the speaker tells the audience to stand up, under the guise of some kind of exercise. Usually it’ll be like this: “Now everybody stand up and find another person. Share one thing that you’ve learned today with that person. I’ll give you 30 seconds.” Instead, they give them about 15 seconds and end by saying “Good! Okay! Thank you! You’ve been great!” and leave the stage.
Because you’ve told everyone to stand, then you suddenly ended, they’re all going to stay standing to give you the polite clap. Then, the speaker can gloat to everyone “I receive a standing ovation 95% of the time I speak,” or “Oh, I nearly always get standing ovations when I speak to groups in your industry.”
Do not do this. Ever. It’s corny, people “get” what you’re trying to pull off, and you’ll seem desperate.
One More Thing
Here’s one last thing: Sometimes, groups just don’t give standing ovations, ever. Jesus Christ himself could show up in a poof of sparkles and smoke and even he’d get tepid applause.
Sometimes, it’s a regional issue. For whatever reason, I find it really hard to get a standing ovation in Vancouver, Canada (My home town! Come on, peeps! Smile on your brother!) and yet the major city next door, Calgary, seems to be a lot more willing to stand up. It’s just regional sensibilities.
I also find some industries and professions to be a little tight with the love. Accountants and lawyers are very appreciative, but perhaps it’s their conservative nature that prevents most of them from feeling comfortable enough to stand up. Realtors and teachers are more likely, in my experience, to give you a standing ovation. I guess they’re more “people” people.
So, Now What?
So, knowing all that, here’s how to apply this to your own work on the podium: (See? I just pulled the 3rd L on you!)
- Look over your presentation and see if you can group the content into three main sections — a bit of humour for a few minutes, then the meat of the presentation, then a “here’s how to use this tomorrow” wrap-up.
- Find out what the conference’s theme is and find out a way to build that messaging into your presentation. Use the theme (or better it!) as the very last things you say.
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- ….and lots more.
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