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Public Speaking

Most Important Factor in Successful Presentations 

“It’s better to sweat in practice than to bleed in battle.”

 -- Ancient Proverb

 

Any professional who expects to excel at an activity must take it seriously. This is why:
 

•    Elite athletes condition themselves and practice their sport endlessly, picking up thousands of reps to build muscle memory.
 

•    Special Operations forces train on the same few actions relentlessly, often thousands of times to ingrain their instant reactions.
 

•    Emergency room doctors go deep in crisis medical training to deal with an unending line of unexpected traumas.


High-Stakes Presentations

While giving business presentations is not nearly as critical or heroic as these professions, leaders have a lot on the line with important speaking events. The ability to communicate is often the one factor that makes or breaks their careers. 


And given the stress and anxiety that many people feel during high-stakes presentations, they might actually have the feeling of life or death situations.


That’s why it’s surprising that, when it comes to giving presentations, a remarkable number of business leaders put their communications off until the last minute and will rehearse little, if at all.


Rehearsal Most Important Factor

This is sad because, in my experience over the past 20 years, rehearsal is the most important factor in building confidence, reducing anxiety and delivering successful presentations.


Working on CEO presentations and with other senior leaders, some will say that they don’t want to rehearse because it will reduce their spontaneity, being in the moment with the audience. This is a myth. 


The fact is that the more you prepare, the more you rehearse, the more spontaneous you can be. The leaders you see who seem the most spontaneous in their talks are generally those who have done the most preparation -- and specifically the most rehearsal of their material. It allows them to speak from their hearts as leaders.


When I wrote about the importance of preparation, one of our readers, the General Counsel of a Fortune 500, wrote back about how she handles rehearsals: “My rule of thumb is to rehearse the remarks at least three times. If you can do that, you will be familiar enough with your remarks that you can navigate them effectively and genuinely.” And, she added, “Obviously, the more significant the presentation, the more rehearsal.”

Here are a few recommendations for making the most of your rehearsal time:


Rehearse Out Loud
I have far too many clients who tell me that they did rehearse their presentation -- that they’ve been thinking about it over and over in their minds. I quickly dissuade them of the notion that they’ve rehearsed.


This is the rule: It is not rehearsal unless the words come out of your mouth.


Video Record Yourself
Seeing yourself give your presentation can be extremely enlightening. The General Counsel I mentioned had also written about the importance of this: “I advise folks to be videotaped whenever they can. As difficult as it is to watch yourself on tape, I think it is the single most effective educational tool there is for public speaking.”  I agree with her 100 percent.


Today, there is no excuse. You have a smartphone ready to record you in HD. If you can go to the actual room where you’ll present, then do so. Deliver your presentation, as you will that day; talk the way you’ll talk; walk the way you’ll walk; stand and deliver.


If you can’t get the actual room, set up some environment that closely resembles the space. Turn on the camera and go through your paces.


Stop Talking to the Mirror
I know a lot of people like to rehearse looking at themselves in the mirror. I recommend against this because we can't actually do two things at once: you can't give your presentation and evaluate yourself at the same time. You're constantly switching back and forth. In a way, I think it's like trying to tickle yourself. It's not that effective. ;-) 

Having said that, if rehearsing in the mirror is what you've done all of your life and it makes you feel confident, then continue. Just add in videotaping yourself as well and see which works best for you.

Audio Record Yourself
If for some reason you’d rather not see yourself on video, at least make an audio recording of yourself delivering your presentation. Listen for what you think are your challenges, but with limited time, pay particular attention to your vocal energy, your pace, and where you stumble in transition. These are high-value targets, when you’re time crunched.


Use Your Drive Time
If you have a commute, it can be a great time to practice your speech. Give it out loud as you drive. Breathe deeply and project your voice as loud as you want. Try saying certain phrases with different emphasis. I have a business leader client who was a singer in a garage rock band. He likes to sing his speeches in the car as a way of practicing. That’s got to be fun to see on the freeway.


You can also spend your time in the car listening to an audio recording of yourself on your phone. That recording could be of you delivering the speech, or of you reading your presentation. This will help you reinforce your lines, building your mental muscle memory.

Over the years, I’ve tested messaging with focus groups, a few people representative of the larger target population.


Deliver to a Focus Group

You can do the same thing with your presentation. Why not gather a few of the people who will be the audience for your delivery, especially if you’re using new material. 


I’ve done this myself before major new presentations. I ask them to come listen to my talk and we have lunch brought in for everyone. 


Instead of having hundreds of people, I’m presenting to 5 to 10 people around the boardroom table. I give my talk and use my slides in exactly the way I intend to on the Big Day. 


Then I ask for specific feedback, with substantive questions like “What is the main message?” “What am I asking you to do (call to action)?” “Did you feel any specific emotion during the talk?” “Do you remember any stories?” Then I’ll ask for one positive comment and one challenge that I could improve on. 


Sometimes with a group of people, I’ll actually put together one page of questions like this, so that they will feel more comfortable answering and they won’t influence each other with group think.


This helps a lot because you’ll get feedback to improve your presentation and you’ll also feel more confident because you’ll already have given the talk to the audience, just in a smaller setting.


Put it on the Calendar
Finally, and possibly most important, schedule your rehearsal. As you know, anything that is critical has to go on the calendar, or it will never happen.


Make communications a priority. With deliberate rehearsal, you’ll feel and project confidence as you present yourself and your message to your most important audiences.


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How to Build Your Confidence in Public Speaking

Nervousness. Anxiety. Fear.

It happens to all of us when we think about public speaking of any kind. Some people get more nervous than others but in one way or another we all experience some version of this, even with CEOs doing presentations.

One of the major contributing factors, based on my coaching and training with thousands of clients over the years, is the fear that your mind will go blank – that you will forget what you were saying. And you have no idea what to say next. That would be embarrassing! Humiliating! Career ending!

These are some of the terms my clients use to describe this situation. Sometimes they laugh when they say these things, but it’s a nervous laugh that masks the fear we all have.

Paralyzed by fear and public speaking anxiety

This is serious fear that paralyzes many people, so they are not as successful as they want to be because they avoid opportunities to voice their ideas. Their anxiety about public speaking stops them cold. They’ll let someone else give that outline of the project’s success or they’ll let others speak up in meetings.

It’s often surprising to hear this fear because it’s often voiced by people who are experts in their fields. If you ask a question about their work in simple conversation, they’d be able to give you eloquent answers with as much information as necessary. They could go on all day.

But for some reason, standing in front of a group or looking around the table in a simple meeting make peoples’ minds go blank. In a second, I’ll give you a simple tool to help with this problem to help you build and maintain your confidence.

Prepare and rehearse your presentation

But first let me say, the ideal answer takes a lot of work. To fully address this problem, you should spend the time preparing and rehearsing your presentation so that you know it inside and out.

When working through a process like that, I recommend beginning with a full written text of the remarks you intend to make, if that makes you feel more confident, or go straight to bullet points. Then take that text and boil it down to bullet points. Then, take those bullet points and turn them into simple phrases.

This works especially well with material that you know and which is in your area of expertise, or that you have presented before. With new material, you may need to keep some bullet points or other support in front of you.

Build your confidence

But I promised a “simple” solution. This is what I recommend to my clients and what I use myself: a confidence card. This is an index card that contains the key ideas and flow of your presentation or your response in a meeting.

I use a card like this myself for my keynote and training workshops. I used a confidence card recently in a 45-minute presentation on “tapping the power of storytelling.” I could use this card to speak from 15 minutes to 60 minutes, depending on the need.

While this is a simple solution, it still takes a lot of work. As Mark Twain said, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Confidence card

It takes time to lay out your topic and to create a brief version that will keep you on track. I’ve been successfully using this confidence-card concept for many years. I even use this on CEO presentations.

It’s great for your meetings with the boss, a client or with groups. It allows you to simply and clearly map out what you’re going to say and in what order.

Sometimes you want to have this card in front of you, but more often I recommend simply keeping the card in your pocket. Use it as needed. I put mine in my breast shirt pocket if I have one, so it’s close to my heart and I feel the confidence. ;-)

I’ll just take it out if I’m completely lost. There’s nothing wrong with pulling out the card and telling people, “I want to make sure I covered everything I want you to know.”

I always say that your greatest confidence comes from being well prepared and rehearsed. A confidence card will help you feel you have a path to find your way home if you get a little lost when speaking.

So, how do you keep notes?

What do you do to stay on track?

If you want to let me know how you handle this or if you have a story to share, reach out to me on our contact page and I’ll get right back to you.

How to Stop Saying 'Um,' 'Like,' and Other Filler Words 

How to Stop Saying 'Um,' 'Like,' and Other Filler Words

Working with a group of emerging leaders recently, we got into a discussion about filler words like, well, “like.” One young man was surprised when I had his table partner count the number of times he said “like” in his three-minute presentation (27!). He’s not alone.
 
We've all been there. Sometimes, in a meeting someone asks you an unexpected question that you don’t immediately know how to answer. As your mind searches for something to say, your mouth begins to speak.
 
If you were to listen to a recording of your response, it would likely include a few “ums” and “uhs” as you pieced together a response.
 
Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end, listening to someone give a presentation that is littered with “ums” and “uhs.”
 
These are known as filler words. These are the occasional hiccups in language we find in everyday conversation. They happen because, linguists tell us, people speak 120 to 150 words per minute — or two to 2 1/2 words per second — in normal speech.
 
With that speed, it’s normal to have glitches in our sentences. Studies find that 6 to 10 percent of spontaneous speech has some kind of garble, including filler words.
 
Filler words in every culture
In fact, this is a common phenomenon around the world. Researchers find all languages have their own versions of “um” and “uh.” If you’d like to add a foreign flair to your next stammer, consider Spanish "eh" and "pues," French "eu" and "em," or even Japanese "etto" and "ano," to name a few. ;-)
 
Whether you have occasionally dipped your toe in the filler-word pool, or are completely submerged, and don’t even realize you’re wet, it’s in your interest to prevent these phrases from permeating your language.
 
Negative effects of filler words
That’s because the overuse of “ums” and “uhs” and "like" and other filler words may have negative effects on your communication, including:

  • Giving the perception that you are uncertain and lacking in confidence, thus reducing your credibility.

  • Distracting people from your message. They often end up counting the filler words or being so annoyed they tune you out.

  • Making you seem to have a limited vocabulary, like you don’t have the words to express what you want to say.


So, how do you learn to control these filler phrases?
 
1) Develop your awareness
It starts with developing awareness. Many people don’t realize that they rely on these filler words.
 
Others know they’ve adopted filler words but don’t realize how often they are saying them. You know these people. They use “like” and “right” and think they are using them sparingly, but in fact are literally (another of those words) using them like.every.like.other.like.word.
 
To bring this to people’s consciousness, some speech coaches will drop pennies in a metal can, hit a spoon on a glass, or use a clicker like those used in dog training. These noises are meant to bring awareness to the person while they are speaking.
 
In very severe cases, I may briefly employ this method. But in general, I find this negative reinforcement doesn’t correct the problem and undermines confidence for the speaker.
 
For more long-term success, I prefer a method I’ve used for years that is also employed in Toastmasters Clubs. Rather than constantly interrupting the speaker, someone simply counts and reports the number of filler words used.
 
A video or audio recording should accompany this so the person can hear when and how often filler words surfaced. It can come as a shock.
 
Working with the president of a large, Fortune 500 company, I once sat in the audience as he spoke for 20 minutes, without slides, to employees. I counted 46 times that he asked, “right?” He did not recall one of them!
 
Once you’re aware of the problem, here are some solutions:
 
2) Slow down
Learn to become comfortable with a moment of silence. We often use filler words as a crutch to avoid silence. When you’re under pressure a pause can feel like an eternity, but it’s not. A pause after a point gets the attention of your audience and allows them to take in what you said. It also lets them catch up with you and take a breath to get ready for your next idea.
 
3) Think before you speak

Some researchers theorize that we blurt out answers to questions because when we were kids, that’s what we did. We had to answer a question from an adult teacher or parent immediately, so we gave fast, unfiltered responses. As adults, we have to be more diplomatic and sometimes feel like we have to be perfect, so filler words appear.
 
To counter this, I coach my clients to do these three things, in this order: Pause. Think. Speak.
 
It may sound like I’m being funny or simplistic, but too many of us don’t do these. Most might skip a pause and start speaking while they are thinking, hoping that their minds catch up with their mouths. Then filler words appear.

4) Practice with intention
Try this with someone you trust. Put your phone on record and have the person ask you any questions they want. Pause as long as you need to, think of your answer, then speak.
 
At first, you may pause 30 or 40 seconds, but with practice, your mind will adopt this discipline and over time you’ll only pause for a few seconds before you come out with a well-constructed sentence. Listen to the recordings to continue to improve.
 
Think about great public speakers who effectively use the pause. It will seem awkward to pause in the beginning. But using this method after a while will train your mind to follow this pattern and the pauses will grow shorter, the thinking will grow clearer (and faster), and your speaking will be stronger and more confident.
 
5) Talk about an object
Another exercise I’ve used with success with my clients is to find an object wherever you are and talk about it for 30 seconds. Again, record yourself with your phone.
 
Try this: Spot a random object, like your computer mouse, and talk about it for 30 seconds. You can say whatever you want – but no filler words. If you have to pause, that’s okay, but keep talking about that thing. Keep doing that with other objects, too. You can do it in the office, at home, or anywhere. Listen to the recording and find where you’ve used the fillers. Keep practicing and you’ll notice your language will begin to flow more smoothly.
 
Now, think about yourself:
Are you prone to use filler words?
 
Or does someone you know use them and annoy you to no end? It takes courage to tell someone they suffer from filler-word syndrome.
 
There’s hope. We can all overcome our filler words with awareness and intentional practice. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.
 

I love hearing your stories. Send me a note on my contact page so we can, like, talk directly. ;-)

How to Speak from Your Heart

Speak your heart. If they don't understand, the message was never meant for them anyway. 

— Yasmin Mogahed


Whenever I speak, I make sure to practice what I preach: I tell stories to connect with people. I speak from my heart.

Speaking to a workshop of five hundred people in Las Vegas recently, I shared a story of a powerful experience I had twenty-five years ago when I was leading media relations for an insurance company in California.
 
Part of my role was to go to the scene of disasters and work with the media, which over the years took me to hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and other tragedies.
 
Hell on Earth
My first major disaster was a scorched-earth fire that destroyed more than four hundred homes in the beautiful seaside town of Santa Barbara. It’s usually heaven on earth, but this day it looked like hell on earth – as if a meteor had struck the side of the mountain.
 
To learn the business, I accompanied a claims representative to the destroyed home of one of our customers. He was an elderly widower who had lost everything – all of his family photos and other possessions – in the devastating fire.
 
During my presentation, I choked up and had to pause while telling this story. I still feel his loss, all these years later. Because of the lights in my eyes, I couldn’t see all of the people in the audience, but I saw glistening eyes in the first few rows. A woman in the front row was dabbing tears.
 
I realized we had connected. My heart had spoken to theirs.
 
Winning hearts and minds
We often use terms related to body organs to describe how we communicate with other human beings. We are of like minds, we trust our guts, and our hearts go out to people.

Of all of those, I believe our hearts are the most powerful in making a connection with another human being.
 
That’s why, for leaders, we talk about winning peoples’ hearts and minds, not their minds and hearts.
 
With this in mind, I’ll offer a few tips for speaking from your heart to make a deeper connection with people:

Share yourself. We have to be open and risk vulnerability to receive the same from others. Be authentic. People want to know who you are. What experiences shaped you? What brought you here? What motivates you? In sales, we talk about developing feelings of trust as “know, like, and trust.” “Know” starts with sharing yourself.

Be personal. Talk like a normal human being. So often during talks, leaders will shift into “presentation mode,” being formal and stiff. Learn to control your jargon and relate to people in a way that shows you are real and open. In a world where so much is contrived, people appreciate sincerity and authenticity.

Show your passion. What do you love in your life or your work? Sharing that and displaying your enthusiasm will go a long way toward showing people your humanity. We can sense when people are excited about something, and we get excited, too.

In high school in Southern California, I had a history teacher who was an aviation enthusiast with a focus on WWII. He had small model planes hanging throughout the room. Though it was the last thing my friends and I would typically care about, by the end of the semester we were going to aviation shows.
 
Our teacher’s passion and stories won us over. I still love planes today. (He followed his passion and left teaching years ago. He hunts for historical planes that were lost and has made significant discoveries.)

Listen to people. When we are present in the moment, when we listen fully to others, our words will flow more naturally. For some reason, maybe because our subconscious takes over, it’s much easier to speak freely and fully when we’ve listened to what people want and need in the moment. I’ve found this to be true across the board – from large audiences to one-on-one conversations.

Tell your story. Perhaps the easiest and most effective way to speak from your heart is to tell your story.  This is why great leaders tell stories. As humans, we are hardwired for telling and hearing stories. They convey who we are, they teach us lessons, and they build trust. Stories connect us as people.

Sharing your story will build trust with the people who are most important to you and your success, and building trusted relationships is the key to success.
 
It’s not easy to risk vulnerability, to speak from your heart. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s kind of the point. Anything that takes you out of your comfort zone takes courage.
 
Or, as they say, it takes heart. So speak from your heart.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Just visit my contact page to share with me.

How to Use Pauses During Presentations and Other Communication

Working with a group of leaders in Washington DC recently, I had a woman and a man, who I gave the same advice to, but for different reasons:

–– He came across as dominating the room, continuing to talk endlessly, even after he made his key points. He talked so much, it made people tired of listening to him.

–– She was making great points and was very concise. But she sped through her comments breathlessly. It was hard to listen to her words because you almost felt like you wanted to breathe for her.

While I gave each of them deep advice on their individual presentations, on one point I gave the same tip: please pause during your talk. 

Common problem
This is a common problem for my clients. Most of us fear pausing while communicating with others. That's because a pause of three seconds in front of a room full of staring eyes can feel like three hours.

It's a truism that when preparing for an important presentation, meeting or conversation, most of us focus on what we’re going to say. Few of us plan for a pause — the intentional space when we will stop “saying” and, simply, wait.
 
This is critical because what you don't say can be as important, or more important, than what you say.
 
This is the art of the pause.
 
Artists, graphic designers, and interior designers call this “negative space.” That’s the space that is not filled in a painting, for instance, that gives emphasis to the person or object that is the focal point.
 
Songwriters, too, use a rest — a beat or two of silence — to draw in the listener and to create a sense of anticipation for what comes next.
 
The same is true in your communication: when you strategically pause you give emphasis to what you do say.
 
Effective listening
I’ve stressed the importance of listening and pauses are a critical underpinning of effective listening. If you’re purposely pausing, you’re either giving others the chance to fully understand what you said, or you’re giving them the opportunity to speak so that you can listen to them.
 
I know this advice runs counter to your instincts. When you’re nervous, you often don’t want to stop talking. You’re thinking, “Let’s get this over so I can sit down and breathe again.” Any pause can be frightening. It can seem like an eternity.
 
Trouble is, we have a natural tendency to want to fill the gap — to keep talking.

Human Instinct
I do a lot of executive media training and I warn leaders about reporters using this human instinct to lure people into giving answers they normally wouldn’t dream of saying.
 
I warn them, when doing a media interview, to avoid giving in to the temptation of filling in the gap when they finish answering a reporter’s question.
 
It goes like this: a reporter will ask you a question, you answer it, and the reporter remains quiet, looking at you. Most people will think, “maybe I didn’t give the right answer, maybe she expects me to say more,” and they’ll keep talking. In fact, many people will start to modify their answers to find something acceptable to the reporter.
 
This gives power to the reporter and usually ends badly for the executives when they inevitably go way off of their planned messages.
 
Instead, I have the executive smile and ask the reporter, “Do you have any other questions?” The reporter usually will give a knowing smile and move on.
 
You may never do a media interview, but you’ll face similar opportunities to pause for more effective communication. I want to raise your awareness of the importance of creating space in your communication.
 
You’ll start to notice other situations where a pause might help. Here are a few tips for using pauses effectively in varying circumstances:

Presentations  
In your presentations and meetings, think about how you can strategically place pauses in your talks. For instance, to stress the importance of something, make sure to pause. That might seem obvious, but few of us actually put it into play. 

Pausing at an important point lets people soak up the meaning of what you said. If you’re a fast speaker you should also pause.

Stop and take a breath to give people the chance to catch up with you.
 
Your material might also dictate the need for pauses. Too many speakers, particularly in technical fields, will force-feed their audiences with way too much data.
 
The best policy is to carefully limit your data to the most important information and make sure to pause intermittently to ensure your audience understands what you’re saying.
 
Crucial conversations
When you have these heavy talks, maybe when you have to give bad news, it’s important to create space in the conversation. Give the person an opportunity to react and give feedback.  Help them to comprehend the gravity of your words.  

Of course, pauses are extremely useful in everyday conversations when you want someone to open up. It’s your job to create the space for them to hear you and respond or share themselves.

Sales 
The best salespeople know that you need to make your strongest pitch, ask for the sale, and then be quiet. Let the person fill the vacuum. These closers also avoid the rookie mistake of continuing to talk after the person has said “yes.” In business and in life, once you’ve made the sale, stop selling!

You should look for pauses in communication all around you: Are you pausing appropriately?

Watch how people around you operate: Do they pause, or rattle on forever? Consider conversations where you might benefit from creating space.
 
You’ll be an artist. You’ll be practicing the art of the pause.
 
How do you use pauses in your communications?
 
Hit reply and let me know how you employ pauses or if you have a story about pausing to share with me.

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How to Introduce a Guest Speaker

I'd like to introduce a man with a lot of charm, talent, and wit. Unfortunately, he couldn't be here tonight, so instead . . .

–– Melvin Helitzer


One of the most frequent requests I get is for tips on how to introduce a guest speaker. This is understandable because we are so seldom asked to perform this ritual and an introduction is so easy to mess up.

We’ve all seen it:

  • The introduction that seems to last longer than the speech
  • The person who reads word-for-word a long biography exactly as it is printed in the program
  • The introducers who make it more about themselves than the speaker 

These are just a few examples of how the simple act of welcoming someone to the stage can go awry.
 
With this in mind, here are a few tips to help you next time you’re called upon to make an introduction:

Do your research
You may have the speaker’s bio, but you should still do some homework before the event. Go online or talk to people who know the guest. Your goal should be to learn what is most interesting about this person.
 
If possible, talk with the person ahead of time. You’ll not only make a connection, but you can ask how the person would like to be introduced.

If the biography is in the program, point that out and then cover a few highlights that you believe are most relevant and compelling to your audience.
 
Make it personal
You may receive a bio or a written introduction for some speakers. As a professional speaker and trainer, I have short- and medium-length introductions ready to go.
 
If you receive one of these for a speaker, it’s most effective to personalize it based on your experiences. It could be from your research, from a colleague who has praised this speaker, or from your own interactions with this person. A brief story can have a huge impact in effectively kicking off the talk.

I always appreciate it when I’m introduced with a personal touch. This helps me to develop an intimate relationship with the audience more quickly.
 
Don’t steal the show
While it’s good to make the personal connection with the speaker, it’s also important to avoid making it about yourself. You can talk about your personal experience briefly, but then quickly transfer attention to the speaker.
 
Keep it brief
Your job is to set the tone and to transition the person to the audience. Your introduction should be clear, concise, and focused. In most cases, 60 to 90 seconds should be your goal, with some introductions shorter and some longer depending on the situation.
 
Practice your intro
It’s good to rehearse your introduction, making sure that what reads well on paper sounds good when spoken. Practicing out loud will help you feel comfortable and confident. I tell my coaching clients that reading is not rehearsing. It doesn’t count unless the words are spoken from your lips.
 
Critical tip: Make sure you have the correct pronunciation of the speaker’s name. Few things will be more embarrassing for you, and awkward for the speaker, than mispronouncing the person’s name.
 
Establish the speaker’s authority
It’s important for you to establish the speaker’s credibility as an expert on the topic and the relevance to this audience. Whether you’re in a small meeting or at a convention, it’s critical to connect the audience’s needs and interests with the speaker’s talk. People always want to know, “why should I care about what this person will say?”
 
Show your excitement for the speaker
How you introduce a speaker can set the tone not only for the speech but for your entire event. Too many introductions are lukewarm, merely going through the motions.
 
If you’re excited about what comes next, you need to let people know, through your voice, your body language, and your facial expressions. Bring some energy to your introduction, ask for a warm welcome, and lead the applause.
 
Stay focused with your eyes and body toward the speaker and smile and welcome that person like an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time.
 
The art of the introduction is not easy, but with some planning and practice, you can create a warm welcome that makes all the difference.

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