3 Secret Weapons to Engage Your Audience
They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
— Carl W Buechner

The best presentations engage your audience on a human level. You may be the one standing in front of an audience, but that doesn’t mean you have to do all the work.

I often hear from clients that they don’t like public speaking because they feel like they’re talking AT people. If you’re talking AT people it’s not going to be fun… for anyone.

The best way to engage your audience is to involve them.

Invite them into your world, use your creativity, and show them your personality.

I was recently doing a workshop for a team of researchers and we were playing with techniques to make presentations stand out at conferences. Just because you’re presenting data doesn’t mean your presentation has to be dry.

Below are 3 secret weapons to connect with your audience so you can stop talking at people and have more fun.

Secret Weapon #1: Pictures

Pictures are worth a thousand words.

Stop putting so many words on your slides and replace them with pictures. We’ve all sat through boring Powerpoint presentations and no one wants to read them.

Pictures engages different learning styles and help bring your ideas to life.

When you don’t have slides, use descriptive language to paint a picture.

Secret Weapon #2: Props

We’re so inundated with screens that anytime you show people a real object, it automatically grabs their attention.

Some of the best TED talks include props. Susan Cain brought her suitcase full of books to the TED stage and Josh Kaufman played the ukulele during his talk.

When I was working with a client doing events for the nonprofit 826, she incorporated a can of chuptzpah into her presentation.

Not only did it highlight a product from the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store where they were holding the event, but it added humor and vulnerability to her talk and helped her connect on a human level.

Props are a great place to inject creativity into your presentation. They can provide visual interest and sound, such as a holding up a plastic water bottle and crunching it when I was talking about the perils of single use water bottles.

Secret Weapon #3: Personal Stories

Stories are memorable. They elicit emotion and engage the senses.

You can use stories to set the scene for your audience and show them why they should care about your topic.

When I teach workshops we do a storytelling exercise to get everyone’s creative juices flowing and I challenge people to think about how they can use all 3 strategies (pictures, props and personal stories) in combination to make their content come alive.

Do you have a secret weapon that you use when speaking?

Let me know what it is.

7 Life lessons from Improv

When I told a business acquaintance that I was starting improv classes, she replied “I bet you’re great at that.”

This struck a chord. She assumed that I was already great at improv or that it came naturally because I teach people about public speaking.

I felt myself tense up, for a moment believing that I should already know everything there is to know about improvising. Then I remembered why I signed up for a class.

I wanted to learn. Improv is fun, and hard, and awkward. Like anything else, it takes practice.

I get up in front of groups regularly and teach workshops, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still learning.

For some, performing comes naturally, For others, you might dread being the center of attention. But you don’t have to be a natural performer to be a great public speaker.

I just finished an 8-week Improv class at Magnet Theater and I wanted to share 7 life lessons I learned from improv:

  1. Doing silly things with strangers is fun - sure it’s awkward but it's also hilarious and it builds trust.

  2. You don't have to know everything. In fact, it's a huge relief when you realize you’re supported by a team of other people who can help you figure things out

  3. When in doubt, mirror what your partner is doing - imagine if you applied this concept the next time you’re in a situation where you don’t know the answer.

  4. Listening is vital. As a naturally quiet person, listening was already a strength but knowing you have to respond to what your scene partner is doing makes you pay attention on a deeper level.

  5. Let go of control - if you spend all your time planning what you’re going to say, it might be completely irrelevant by the time it’s your turn. You might miss the most important details, you might miss all the fun.

  6. Commit - you might be unsure but if you look certain it will be easier to get other people on board.

  7. Pretend - if you’re scared, do it anyway. Pretend you feel confident. Eventually you will.


Improv is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. It requires letting go of control (#scary) and trusting the people you’re working with.

I can recall a time when improv would have been my worst nightmare and now it feels fun.

So remember, however you feel about your presentation skills today, those feelings can change.

It’s okay to start at the beginning.

It’s okay to not know the answer.

It’s okay to still be learning.

Not quite ready for improv classes? I understand.

There are other ways to get started.

Grab 4 steps to a Winning Work Presentation to prep for presentations, even if you have no time, so you can stop freaking out and start communicating like the expert.


Public speaking is like baseball and knitting


At an event last week someone asked me whether I thought anyone could be trained to speak in public.

My first answer was an emphatic yes.

My second answer, was yes, provided they’re willing to practice.

As a kid, I spent the summers with my dad.

At Camp Dad, I learned how to cook and play ball.

From age 10-18, our after dinner ritual consisted of daily softball and tennis practice, and occasional, reluctant basketball practice.

I learned a lot from all those evenings taking batting practice and hitting tennis balls, and not just how to switch hit or play tennis with 2 forehands (yes, two).  

What at first felt awkward and frustrating - lots of strikes and getting hit with tennis balls - eventually became more fun.

As I became more proficient, there were fewer misses and more satisfying moments when you hear the beautiful sound of your bat or racquet connecting with the ball.

Public speaking is just like learning to play a sport.

It can be scary and nervewracking at the start. But anyone can learn and its exhilarating when you connect with your audience. That’s the good news.

The bad news is YOU. HAVE. TO. PRACTICE.

Practice builds muscle memory. The more times you do it, the less terrifying it feels.

And the less terrified you feel, the more fun it will be.

Okay, that sounds good in theory but how do you get started and move past the deer in headlights feeling?

Watching endless TED talks, reading books on presentations, and silently reading your notes to yourself are not going to cut it.

It’s like trying to learn how to play baseball by watching it on TV. Or knitting your first sweater by watching YouTube tutorials without buying any yarn or knitting needles.

At some point, you have to leave the house. You have to practice.

So the next time you have a presentation, block off 10 minutes a day for 3 days leading up to your presentation and practice OUT LOUD.

Here's how to spend your time:

Day 1 - Practice your presentation in the mirror. This might feel a little silly at first, but you want to get comfortable seeing and hearing yourself speak. Watching yourself in the mirror helps you get used to looking up and makes it easier to maintain eye contact when you’re in front of an audience.

Day 2 - Record yourself and listen to it. You can do this on video or voice memo but make sure to listen back to the recording and pay attention to your speed, volume, intonation (and posture if you're watching video).

Day 3 - Practice your presentation for a dog. Dogs make very understanding audiences and they force you to be creative to keep them engaged. If your furry friend is drifting off, try changing positions, moving locations, or switching up your volume or pitch. (Hint: These same techniques also work for humans)


Scheduling a few short practice sessions will save you the anxiety of cramming and help you make time for the #1 thing that will improve your confidence and increase your impact.

Do you have a favorite practice technique? Let me know.

Want more practice ideas? Read Practice Your Talk on the Subway


Need a Topic? 3 Ways to Figure out your Idea

Are you struggling to find your topic, or narrow down a broad topic with a specific point of view?

You might be overwhelmed with too many ideas OR struggling because you have no ideas at all.

If you’re in the second camp and writer’s block is holding you back, you need look no further than your personal experience to generate ideas.

You have a wealth of stories and life experience to draw on, but where do you start?

Below are 3 of my favorite brainstorming techniques get your creative juices flowing.  

PROMPT 1: Write down 3 things you often rant about.
For me, this is bottled water, takeout, and automatic sinks that don’t turn on when they’re supposed to.

PROMPT 2: Write down 3 things you’re passionate about that you’d like to share with your audience.

You’ll often find me talking about are cooking, gardening, and how to make communication more fun

PROMPT 3: Write down 3 things you’d like to learn more about.

If your mind is overflowing with ideas, write down all the possible subjects you’ve thought about giving a talk on. Get them out of your head and onto paper so you can free up head space for the next steps.

You should now have a list of half a dozen or more ideas and can move on to the next step.

Step 2 is to narrow down your ideas, and for some, this is the hardest part.

Circle one or two ideas that jump out at you.

Pick one and write 100 words about it. (Writing 100 words is a good litmus test on whether this is a good topic to pursue.)

Now that you have a topic, Step 3 is to define your objective.

Grab the 4 Steps to a Winning Work Presentation for an easy template.


4 Things to Read that changed my Life

There are tons of books on career-change and it can be a bit overwhelming so if you’re thinking it’s time to make a change, here are a few books and articles on my short list.

These got me through a layoff, a sprained ankle and one long summer of self-reflection.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

This book had such a big impact on my life, I gave 3 talks about it.

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Marie Kondo’s book came into my life at precisely the right moment. I sprained my ankle and was laid off from my job in the course of a week and  spent the better part of a month on my couch nursing my wounds. It was during this time that I became acutely aware that every surface in our home was covered with clutter.


I felt like the walls were closing in on me and I whole-heartedly jumped in to Kondo’s process of tidying up.


I unearthed a lot of forgotten treasures, among them, my prom dress, my first cell phone, a floppy disk from a job I left in 2003. I also unearthed a lot of art supplies and other remnants of past hobbies long cast aside or forgotten amidst adult responsibilities. Sorting through almost 40 years of clutter was cathartic and cleared out the mental and physical head space to make some difficult decisions.


I decided  to walk away from a 10-year career in fashion and retail because it no longer made me happy or aligned with my values. And I took a giant leap of faith and decided to start a business.


If you find yourself at a career crossroads, I challenge you to ask what you’re holding onto?


Start with decluttering. It might not seem intuitive but I’d be curious what turns up when you clear out your home (and your brain).

The Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna

Elle Luna’s blog post went viral because so many of us have dreams but we don’t have the faith to follow them.

Every time we come to the two available paths, to the place we can actually make a choice between what we should do and what we must do, we often go with what is safest. We go with should.

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Where are you saying should in your life? And what are you afraid of if you decide to pursue what you must do? Even if the must path is more challenging and scarier it is the only path that will lead to your true calling.


When it was my turn to choose I should have stuck with my career path. That was the practical choice.

That’s what my parents and most of my friends thought I should do, and most of my friends.

But I knew that I MUST start a business. The universe was telling me it was time to make a big change. It wasn’t safe, it wasn’t easy, but it was the thing I must do.

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron

A friend recommended this book to me the same summer my sprained ankle and the job lay-off led to some deep soul searching.

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The Artist’s Way is for creative’s who are feeling blocked. There are two big ideas in it, one that I have kept up regularly, and one that I think is a great idea but that I struggle with, Morning Pages and the Artist’s Date.


For Morning Pages you write 3 pages every morning. No rhyme or reason, just pages of stream of consciousness thinking. It’s a great practice to unclutter the mind so that you have space for more creative thoughts and ideas to develop.


For the Artist Date you need only make time in your calendar for fun and inspiration. You must set aside 2 hours a week, by yourself, doing something that brings you joy.

As a business owner, I find this particularly hard but every time I make time to go to a museum, stroll through the park, do a craft project, or take a bike ride, I feel refreshed.


I Could Do Anything if I only I knew What it Was by Barbara Sher

One of the most important takeaways from this book is to stop holding ourselves back with sequential thinking. I’ll do A (sign up for an art class, start looking for a job) after I do B (turn 40, get married, get promoted.)

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Do it now, fit it in on the weekend, or start with just 10 minutes a day.


I hope each of these reads will inspire you to reflect on what you can declutter in your life. What you must do. What blocks do you need to get rid of so you can take action?


Want help? I’d be happy to hop on the phone with you and help you figure out your next step. Email me at madeline@madelineschwarz.com and let’s chat.




Are you feeling stuck in your choices?

Are you feeling stuck?


Sometimes play can help you get unstuck so you can come up with new ideas.

That's why I created the Momentum Maker, a new spin on a classic game piece.

You might remember it as a fortune teller or a cootie catcher. But unlike the ones you made in grade school, this one won’t tell you who you’re going to marry or how many kids you’re going to have. Instead, it will do something far more useful.


The Momentum Maker is a conversation tool to stop procrastination
and get your team talking and engaged in a productive dialog exchange.


Check out this interview from when I was featured on The Cheerful Mind to find out how I use the Momentum Maker as a coaching tool. https://youtu.be/CRUp9Wm7jHI


Want one?

Join us at the next workshop Collaboration with Your Clients: Critical Conversation Skills To Keep Presentations On Track presented by Spark Design Professionals.


Listening is The #1 Skill
If you really want to communicate, the most important thing is to listen.”
— - Mr. Fred McFeely Rogers (Mister Roger’s Neighborhood)

There are 2 parts to communication, speaking and listening. You need both for effective communication.

It’s common to focus a lot of time and energy on organizing and preparing your talk and while those are super important for your success, so is tuning into the people in front of you.

When it comes time to give your presentation, make sure to pay attention and listen to your audience.

Benefits of Listening:

  • Presentations feel more conversational when you actively engage your audience, and stop talking at them (not to mention it’s more fun!)

  • When your audience feels heard, they’re more likely to trust you (and your ideas)

  • When you listen intently you can respond to your audience in the moment and find common ground


Listening is the single most important skill to get your ideas seen, heard and respected. It’s one of the best ways to ensure your audience receives your message in a language they understand.

When you prepare for your next presentation remember to make time for listening. And if you find yourself in a tense conversation, here are some tips:

  1. Acknowledge and validate what the other person is saying

  2. Be curious about their point of view

  3. Ask open-eded questions

Learn more about these techniques at the next workshop:

Collaboration with Your Clients: Critical Conversation Skills To Keep Your Presentations On Track

DATE: Tuesday: May 14, 2019

TICKETS: http://sparkdesignprofessionals.org/event/collaboration-your-clients-critical-conversation-skills-keep-your-presentations-track







What To Do When You Stumble

One of the participants at a recent corporate workshop asked this question:

How do you recover from a presentation blunder?

Here are a few options to help you gracefully handle those unplanned moments:

  1. Ignore it and keep going, chances are no-one else will notice.

  2. Acknowledge it. You might say: “I forgot to tell you something important so I’m going to back up for a moment.”

  3. Use humor. Humor can go a long way to bring your audience along with you so don’t sweat it. You might say “That might have looked like a mistake, but I actually planned it that way.”

  4. Improv. Find a creative way to incorporate the blunder into your talk.

  5. Be kind to yourself. You’re allowed to make mistakes and being human gives your audience permission to do the same.

Some tips to help ward off some common fumbles:

  1. Print your notes so you have a backup if technology fails.

  2. Pause if you lose your place, forget a word, or need a moment to think about your answer. Get comfortable with silence.

  3. Remember that your audience is cheering you on so treat them like friends, not the enemy.

Want more tools. Get 4 Steps to a Winning Work Presentation.

Practice Your Talk on the Subway

This might sound crazy, but the subway is a perfect place to practice your

public speaking.

What?! Yes, that’s right!


I practice while I’m commuting and I encourage clients to practice on the train, in the car, or while you’re walking to work.

This is my favorite life hack for all those folks

who don’t think they have time to practice.

Imagine how productive your commute could be if you used 10 or 15 minutes of your travel time to practice a presentation instead of scrolling through social media.

People often ask if I’m worried about looking crazy. NOT at all.

This is New York City and there are far weirder things! No one is paying attention.

If you’re self conscious, put in your headphones – people will think you’re listening to music.

This is a great technique to get used to distractions. You can even record yourself practicing while you’re on the subway or waiting at an empty section on the platform.

Want a few more practice ideas you may not have thought of?

  1. Take an Improv class. Magnet Theater, UCB and The PIT all offer classes. Read about my experience taking improv in 7 Life Lessons from Improv

  2. Go to a city council meeting and talk about an issue in your neighborhood.

  3. Host a dinner party and give a presentation for your friends.

  4. Check out Toastmasters. Find a club here and find me at Heights Toastmasters twice a month.

  5. Practice for your neighbors. It’s a great way to get to know people.

  6. Practice for your dog, or your cat or your lizard. It’s #3 in 7 Practice Strategies to Ace Your Presentation.

Want more practice ideas?

Download 7 Practice Strategies to Ace Your Presentation.

How Practice Makes TED Talks & Great Talks

One of the creative directors in my Speak with Impact Lab shared a story about seeing an early iteration of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. Over a few years, the talk that launched Simon Sinek to fame and became the third most viewed TED Talk of all time started out as a presentation for 8 people in someone’s living room.


The moral of the story?
Your talk doesn’t need to be perfect at the outset.

In fact, it’s almost certain that it won’t be.

Perfection should not be your aim, but practice and feedback are essential.


The more you practice the closer you’ll get to a presentation that delivers what you want it to. There may be countless iterations and living room talks before the big talk you want to give, and that’s perfectly okay and part of the process.

Need an audience?
Here are some ways you can get one.

  • Have a dinner party and give your presentation for friends

  • Practice for your housemates

  • Practice for your children

  • Practice outside as people walk by


Want some help putting your presentation together. Check out Polish & Pop: Presentation Power Hour.