Margot Leitman Presentation Skills: Don’t Memorize Don’t Wing It

Margot Leitman is a storyteller, comedian, writer and teacher originally from Matawan, New Jersey.

She is the author of "Long Story Short- the Only Storytelling Guide You'll Ever Need". Her stories have been featured on NPR on “The Moth Podcast,” “Good Food” and “Unfictional,” and she's a frequent contributor to the popular podcast “RISK!"

Today we talk about why your story shouldn't memorize your story and why you should never ever "wing" it.


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Alzay Calhoun: Hello, everyone. It's Alzay Calhoun with Coveted Consultant. Today, we've got a good change of pace interview today. We have a storytelling expert from a much different background that normal, at least normal for us. I want to introduce Margot Leitman. She is a five time winner of the Moth Storyslam. I'll let her tell you more about what that is. She delivers a number of trainings and courses, she's written a book on storytelling, so she certainly has a robust background in it. It's just different than what most of us have as our background. First, let me say hello to Margot. Hello, Margot. How are you today?

Margot Leitman: Hello. How are you?

Alzay Calhoun: Doing good, doing good. Good to have you.

Margot Leitman: Thank you.

Alzay Calhoun: Let's start at the beginning. Let's start with this question. When did you realize that storytelling was valuable?

Margot Leitman: Oh, I think probably in college, socially. I started realizing that it was grabbing people's attention in a way that I wanted to get attention. In school settings, there's a lot of negative and positive attention for being the class clown or whatever. I wasn't necessarily that, but I found that when I told a true story, people really engaged and connected with me and were really involved in that process with me. I think that's when I started to realize it mattered, so very young. Maybe 19 or so, yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: Tell us about your background. The light bulb went off, storytelling is valuable, and then you began to use that in your different professional experiences. Kind of give us a sense of how you developed.

Margot Leitman: I come from a different background than you. I went to school for theater and I was just going to be a trained actor. I went to school for theater theater, like Shakespeare and things like that. I graduated school and I moved to New York City and I thought that's what I was going to do, but I knew I was kind of funny, and so I tried my hand at stand-up for a few years. That was going well and that felt very disingenuine to me after a point. I wanted to be honest and truthful and a little more heartfelt. I didn't really know what storytelling was, but one night instead of doing my stand-up set, I told a true story on stage. I got a crowd reaction that I'd never seen before. I got kind of a bug in me. Thought, "Well, what if this was a thing I could do? If I could tell stories instead of, and entertain people in that way?"

I started trying to find shows I could do that on, and there weren't that many. I lived in New York City at the time, so I started my own show that I could tell stories on and invited guests to tell stories, which took off immediately. The first show, it was called Stripped Stories, and it was not just my own show, it was myself and a partner, Giulia Rozzi. The first show was standing room only and we turned a bunch of people away. It was amazing, it sold out, so I knew I was on to something. That developed into a live career, which developed into a teaching career, which developed into a huge teaching career all over the world. I got flown to Australia to teach and all over the place, and eventually led into a great writing career, as well. It started from theater and it evolved into that, yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: Okay.

Margot Leitman: All arts.

Alzay Calhoun: All in the arts. I'm interested in where you first began to structure your storytelling. When you talked about the live show that was done with you and a partner.

Margot Leitman: Yes.

Alzay Calhoun: When you say that, as you were explaining it, I heard, literally, two women just telling simple stories.

Margot Leitman: Yes.

Alzay Calhoun: Was it that straightforward? Tell us more about how that worked.

Margot Leitman: My partner and I hosted the show. We each would tell a true story. We'd always give it a theme like embarrassment or I remember one of my favorite shows was obsession and things like that. We would give it a theme and then we would each tell a story and invite two guests that would each tell a true story on that theme, and we'd invite a musical guest at the end just to wrap it all up to make it theatrical. That's how it worked. We wouldn't tell the stories together necessarily, or at all, but we would each tell about maybe a ten minute performance of a true story based on that theme.

Alzay Calhoun: Got it. As you've evolved, you've written a book.

Margot Leitman: Two books.

Alzay Calhoun: Two books. Tell us about those and how they fit into the larger puzzle.

Margot Leitman: Oh, they both do. The first book was called Gawky Tales of an Extra Long Awkward Phase. That's a publication of a bunch of my true, funny stories, mostly on the theme of adolescence and early growth spurts and that wonderful time of middle school, coming out of high school, that was not funny at the time, but now it's kind of funny. It's an adolescent book of true stories in that regard. It's for adults, but it's written from, I think it starts at age 10 or so and goes to age 19, so all those years. That was my first book. That's, obviously, a lot of those stories were formulated on stage that became things that were written in the book.

ccp-019-margot-leitman-presentations-skills-dont-memorize-dont-wing-it-bookMy second book is Long Story Short-the Only Storytelling Guide You'll Ever Need. That is a guide to how to tell stories and that was based off of my years and years of live performance and teaching. The second book is an instructional manual and the first book is a book of true stories.

Alzay Calhoun: Help us. Those who are listening on the call right now and know they have a story. For folks listening, their stories revolves around their business in some way. How they got started, what they plan to sell, et cetera, et cetera. From your point of view, help us understand how to tell a story. Where do you start?

Margot Leitman: I think you start with something about yourself that is pertinent to what you're talking about that day. I always say it's got to lie in a story zone. You don't want something to be so personal that you'd only tell a therapist, and you don't want it to be so safe that you'd bore a room.

Alzay Calhoun: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Margot Leitman: Business people tend to err on the so safe you'd bore a room. Some artists tend to err on the therapy side, but there's a middle ground that is great. I don't know, if you're doing a presentation you'd start it off with like, "Guys, boy do I love coffee." That's not really, everyone likes coffee, it's not really that interesting to start that off with. They think that that's their big personal intro that they're showing about themselves, but that really reveals nothing at all.

Alzay Calhoun: Right.

Margot Leitman: I always say that I think that there's a lot of businesses that tell their story well. I always say there's a reason that KFC is still using Colonel Sanders in all their ad campaigns. That's because of his story of the founding of the company, which is vulnerable and personal, which is that he's 65, he's on Social Security and it's not enough money. Then he starts to try to sell his chicken for profit and look what it becomes. There's a reason that after that man is dead, he's still in all the ads. It's because there's a story of an underdog that resonates, but it's also a little bit vulnerable to say that you're running low on money. That's a vulnerable thing to say. I think that you have to tell something that's in that story and it relates to what you're talking about.

Another thing people do is they go on and on and on about stuff in the beginning that has nothing to do with what they're talking about that day. You know, "I'm from Detroit and I'm from a single mom," and all these things. Maybe that has nothing to do with what you have to say that day, so think about something personal about yourself that relates to the topic and open it up in that way.

Alzay Calhoun: Do you teach storytelling from the stage, specifically, or do you teach a certain presentation style of storytelling?

Margot Leitman: What I teach is presentational, yes, in the sense that I teach people how to tell a true story that could be done on the stage. However, I work with a number of businesses and they just adapt what I teach to their own business. Some businesses want to learn just the principles of storytelling and then they can take that and incorporate that into whatever type of work that they do. I've gone to a number of, you could name it, I've been to that business and talked to them about it. It applies to so many things, but no, I don't teach people here's how you do your business presentation and take all the art out of it in any way. Because that's not my area of expertise. I come from a performance place. I'm going to teach you how to tell a story and how to tell a story that resonates, and now go off and apply those to your work. With that, there's been great success. Great success.

Alzay Calhoun: Can you help us understand some of the applications between perhaps what you would introduce from your theater background to how they apply it in their business specifically? Do you have any stories that come to mind?

Margot Leitman: Yeah, for sure. One of the things from my theater background I talk about is preparation. I think a lot of business people think, "I'm going to memorize a speech and say it," or, "I'm going to read from a paper and say it." Neither of those are entertaining. Even in theater, if you're going to memorize your monologue, you still need to bring a little oomph to it. You can't just memorize the words and speak them. That comes with it. I say there's a difference between memorizing a story word-for-word and speaking off the cuff. You don't really want to do either of those. You want to do something in the middle that makes it sound like you're coming up with it off the cuff, but you've actually put a lot of effort into preparing it. Excuse me. That tends to work in a sense that you want it to be somewhat [inaudible 00:09:33], make it feel like a conversation in a way. Make the audience, or whoever you're speaking to, make them feel like they're a part of it. Excuse me.

What they will take from that is my bullet pointed way of approaching, which is first starting with a script, then going to an outline. Then from that, going to bullet points. Then from that, doing your presentation. That way, it comes off a lot less presentational than just memorizing word-for-word or reading. I think a lot of business people rely a lot on PowerPoints to tell their story.

Alzay Calhoun: Yes, ma'am.

Margot Leitman: It's not really that entertaining. I always say that, in my book, I say visual aids are like nudity in film. If they're necessary, that's great. Otherwise, they can come off as kind of tacky. You have to think of it in that way. Is this visual aid really going to, is this slide behind me that just says the exact words I'm saying right now, going to really add anything? It may not. Business people love PowerPoints, but I don't know. I don't think that just standing up there with a memorized speech with a couple of slides behind you is going to resonate that well and be really memorable to you.

We've got a president that is a fantastic public speaker right now. Very few, if any, of those have some slides behind it. He's just talking. If you want to look at someone that's very good, he also incorporates his own personal narratives into that a lot. He's not just saying, "These are the facts." He's saying, "I have a family," or, "I struggled with this," or, "I did this. Here's where I'm coming from." I think people have really responded well to that. He's not a machine.

Alzay Calhoun: He's not a machine. I think that's a great one line statement. He's not a machine. Sometimes-

[inaudible 00:11:31][inaudible 00:11:31]

Margot Leitman: He's not. He's a person. He's a person to all of us. No matter where you lie politically, I think everyone sees him as a person.

Alzay Calhoun: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Margot Leitman: You know?

Alzay Calhoun: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In that process, because you gave quite a bit of content just then as far as the application. How we go from preparing the story and actually delivering the story. Are there any specific exercises, routines, that you may have clients go through to help them make that transition?

Margot Leitman: Yes.

Alzay Calhoun: Please, go ahead.

Margot Leitman: I would, if you're telling a story, and when I say telling a story, I mean that in the vaguer sense. It could be working on a business presentation, whatever that means. I would run it by a friend or someone, or a co-worker. Not the second you finished it, let it sit for a little bit. Put it down, don't over-edit. People cut things that are brilliant because they've made some judgment on it without getting a second opinion. I say put it all out there, let it sit, show it to a friend or co-worker or colleague, get a response. See what they are intrigued by, where their ears perk up, and put more of that in there. Ask them, "Where did your mind wander?" Wherever it did, that's not working so well, and take it out.

I would, from that script, edit. Then I would also look at that script and go, "What is universal about this? What is the bigger idea I'm trying to say? What is this really about?" I say write your universal theme on the top of it. Meaning, is this really about, I don't know, sustainability, let's say, right? Have that drive your whole performance of what you're saying. Let that be your intention or the wish that you make when you blow out the birthday candles. You don't need to say, "Everybody, this what I'm trying to say," but that's for you and that's what drives it, right? Write that on the top.

Then from there, break your speech down into memorizable chunks. Separate it to where the speech wouldn't possibly be, if it was printed in a magazine, six paragraphs. You could break it up into memorizable chunks, it could become 20. Just like this is the moment where this happens, where this happens, where this happens, where this happens. That way, you can remember your speech. Rather than memorizing lines, just remember what happens next. Where do I have to go?

From that, I make a quick outline that's just like a page of the most important things I need to hit. That becomes my map. I call it the story map. I need to go from here to here, I need to hit these points in the middle. I might slip a little bit here or there, but as long as I get this general point across that I've written on top, which is my universal theme, I think I'll be able to drive this home. I think people ramble without that outline. I think they will go on forever or people become too inadaptable to any change or snafus or things going wrong.

I watched Steve Jobs give a speech where his clicker broke. He did have a PowerPoint and it didn't work. I watched him and I watched him instead riff a story in that moment because he was prepared for something to go wrong and he was adaptable to that. I think a lot of us in business, something goes wrong and they just freeze. They're so married to this script that they cannot think outside that box. I watched something go wrong for this huge Apple presentation for Jobs and he didn't flinch. I thought that's a good speaker. Good public speaker.

Alzay Calhoun: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There was a wonderful question that was in my mind that I have now lost. I am mad at myself for losing it. I am mad at myself for losing it, but I appreciate the application that you are describing. I wanted to make the point, I want to ask you a question. If we are preparing a 10, 15 minute story, how long does it take to prepare that story? Is it 30 minutes to prepare, a week to prepare, a month to prepare?

Margot Leitman: No, I think it depends on your skillset. If you're a natural public speaker, this isn't something, how experienced are you? For me, that wouldn't take too long, but I do this professionally. I don't know, everybody's different. I think a month is ... Yes and no, though. Because there's things that I have prepared a month for that have been really high stake that may not be storytelling per se, so I don't know. I can't give a definitive answer to that. It's when do you think you can put a piece of paper down or your slides down or your iPad down and be able to talk about this freely and adapt if someone throws a curve ball at you? Someone throwing a curve ball can be someone in the audience interrupting you in the middle of it, your slides not working. Are you familiar enough with this that you can go with it? That's what I would answer, but I don't think there's a definitive time.

Alzay Calhoun: What I do appreciate is that you explained the process.

Margot Leitman: Yeah.

Alzay Calhoun: If you can do that process, and these are my words not yours, but I'll put it this way. If you can do it quickly, so be it. If it takes a little longer, so be it.

Margot Leitman: Yes.

Alzay Calhoun: There was a process you were describing that helps you refine what you're communicating. That's what we're after, right? Is refined communication.

Margot Leitman: Yeah. I want to boil it down to what am I trying to get across here? What is this really about? I think that's a big thing. What is this really about? We look at the most famous public speeches of all time. Martin Luther King. You can go, "What was that really about," and you can identify it in a heartbeat. These famous, iconic things that we've watched, and if you look at this and you go, "What's the bigger picture here," and you have no idea, it's not good. You really need to be able to identify what is universal about this, what is the major point I was trying to get across? Let me stick with that, let me drive the whole thing. As long as I get that across, I'm okay.

Also, some things aren't going to go perfectly. That's something that's been very hard for me to understand. That doesn't mean it flopped. I've had things that I have thought I bombed and I've gotten a call the next day that I'd won them over. Vice-versa, I've had things I thought I nailed and I never heard from them again. You've got to let go of the judgment and just let it be. Let it be there.

Alzay Calhoun: Very good, very good. You may have just given us some parting thoughts. I was going to ask you is there anything you want to say to close it down? Did you just say it or is there more to say in that spirit?

Margot Leitman: I think anyone can learn structurally how to tell a good story and how to do it well. It's not like rhythm, you've got it or you don't, or you can sing or you can't. I do believe that it's something that can be taught, as long as you are open and willing to learn. I think you can learn structure and you can learn a few important principles like that universal theme. Like I said about Obama being a human being, being a little bit vulnerable. If you are willing to do those things, I think almost anyone can learn how to be a good storyteller. The problem is, there's an inability to be, for example, vulnerable, that I think it prevents people from that. Or an inability to be open, also, that prevents people from being able to really be a good storyteller.

I think if you can keep those things in mind, really, the sky's the limit for most people. I've taught thousands of people at this point and I've had very few people that I've hit a wall with and been like, "This person, I'm just not going to get through to them." Very few ever. I think that it's really where it's cool. It's not like ballet where it's like, "Not going to happen." Or basketball for me, "Not going to happen for you." I think it can happen for most people, but you've just got to be able to do the work and be open. Honestly, open, I would say is the number one thing.

Alzay Calhoun: Excellent, excellent. Is there a big project that you've got going in your business that we should know about?

Margot Leitman: Yes. The book, for sure. Business leaders all over the country and out of the country, actually, are reading my book, Long Story Short-the Only Storytelling Guide You'll Ever Need. It came out this past October from Sasquatch Books. You can buy it anywhere books are sold. There's an audio book, there's an eBook, and there's a paperback. It's being bought at business conventions all around the country in mass quantities. I believe it comes from my point of view, but it can be applied to all sorts of business. I would highly recommend it. It's in very layman's terms, it's very simply written. There's a lot of exercises for you to learn in there, to work on. It's not very long, so it's not a big commitment either. It's not War and Peace, I'll tell you that.

Alzay Calhoun: Very good, very good. If someone wants to get in contact with you, where would you send them? How should they reach out to you?

Margot Leitman: Twitter is @margotleitman. M-A-R-G-O-T L-E-I-T-M-A-N. Same handle on Instagram. My website is Again, that's Margot with a T. M-A-R-G-O-T L-E-I-T-M-A-N. .com.

Alzay Calhoun: Very good. Margot, thank you for your time today. It's been [inaudible 00:20:44].

Margot Leitman: Thank you too.

Alzay Calhoun: Thank you for bridging the disciplines and making it make sense for all of us. Thanks so much.

Margot Leitman: Thank you. Thank you.

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