If you’ve ever participated in one of my presentation skills training classes, you’ve heard me say the following words: BAN WISHY WASHY! I even reinforce this point by brandishing a sign on which the words WISHY WASHY are slashed through with a big red line. That’s because, when it comes to public speaking, nothing galls me more than ho-hum, sorta-kinda-not-really-sure-what-I’ve decided-to-do-or-say-here moments. Unfortunately, most of the presentations I see are full of wishy-washy, bland, or what I call beige moments.
For those of you who don’t know what beige is, here’s a nifty definition from Merriam-Webster dictionary: a variable color averaging light grayish-yellowish brown… a pale to grayish color. Ugh. Or maybe more like “Meh!”
Beige is fine when it comes to, say, sand on a beach, vanilla pudding, or vanilla ice-cream (all of which I do love).
Beige is fine when it comes to high-heeled pumps, or the paint on the walls of your living room.
Beige is fine when it comes to pasta (ok, I must be hungry since I keep referencing food), or maybe a wedding dress.
But Beige is NOT ok when it comes to speeches and presentations.
Because beige doesn’t read from the stage.
Yep, that’s what I said: Beige doesn’t read from the stage.
That’s how my master-level acting teachers explained it to me. As did the best directors I ever worked with. And they didn’t just mean that beige clothing gets washed out by the stage lights.
What they meant was that beige, wishy-washy choices in content or delivery confuse your audiences and make them work too hard to understand what’s going on. Neither-here-nor-there choices in content or delivery often elicit no more than a shrug from your audience… a sort of “I have no idea what you meant by that… and I don’t really care because I don’t think you care” kind of reaction.
Beige, wishy-washy choices in content or delivery are boring—not just for your audience, but for you. And a bored presenter is a disengaged (and unengaging) presenter.
Beige, wishy-washy choices in content or delivery are, in my humble opinion, lazy choices. They broadcast the fact that you really haven’t made a choice and are just treading water.
Let me put it like this: Your audience deserves a speaker who is willing to plant a flag and claim the words she is saying and the choices she is making (e.g. the stories she’s telling, the anecdotes/data/examples she’s using, the language, pacing and intonation she’s using, the body language she’s employing) to make those choices as compelling and sticky as possible.
Contrast—in tone, pace, emotion, proximity to your audience–is far more interesting than beige.
Taking your audience by surprise—by slipping in humor, a compelling visual, an evocative pause, an interactive exercise, a meaningful personal story, a poem—is far more engaging than being wishy-washy.
Wishy-washy often happens at the opening and closing of presentations, at transitions from one slide or point to another, and when you make a point you’re not so sure of or haven’t rehearsed enough.
As I like to say, “Start and end your presentations with a bang!” Don’t open in a wishy-washy way by saying something trite and yawn-producing like “Hello, everyone. My name is Sally Smithereenhopper and, as you can see from the title on the screen behind me, I’m going to be delivering a presentation called “The Wonderful World of Widgets” which is about widgets that make other widgets that make other widgets”). Instead, try stepping directly into a compelling story (“It’s the middle of February 2009. And I’m standing in three feet of snow, in a howling, blinding blizzard, with absolutely no idea where on earth I’ve parked my car…”) Or try opening by asking a startling question (“How many people here would rather leap into a tub of live rats than speak in public?”) or making a bold statement that’s relevant to your topic and gets people’s attention (“80 percent of the population feels totally ambivalent about giving presentations! 80 percent!!!! That’s a lot of “M-eh” people!)
And when you close your presentation, I beg you to avoid beige-wishy watching endings like “Uh, I guess that’s it. Anybody have any questions?” Beige endings leave your audiences wondering “Is she done? Is it over? What do I do now?” Help the audience know you’re finished, by speaking your final words in a declarative manner (with your voice going down at the end of the sentence), and perhaps having that sentence be a strong call to action (“I challenge you to apply one technique I’ve taught you today in the very next presentation you give. And let me know how it goes! Thank you!”)
The more willing you are to ban wishy-washy, and to risk making bold, brave choices (and sticking to them), the less beige you will be…and the more your audience will engage with—and benefit from—your wisdom, your knowledge, and your know-how. Which really matters, if you want to use your words to change your world.