Public speaking is the number one fear in America. Death is number two. From sweaty palms to cracking voices, speaking in public can be terrifying, yet it is a crucial skill to have in the agency world. As agency owners, our speaking skills are in the spotlight, be it in presentations, pitches, at conferences or just in front of your kid’s school. No matter how many people you’re in front of or how long you have to talk – every presentation matters.

Tamsen Webster believes passionately in the power of human-to-human communication and has made it her life’s work to see to it that you become a better speaker. She coaches TedTalk speakers, business leaders and teams on how to get the audience to focus and relate to your ideas and feel connected to you in the process.

Join Tamsen and I as we flesh out how to use presentations and speeches in a strategic way to grow your business. We cover:  

  • Why speaking is the best tool for convincing someone that your agency is the best agency for them
  • Why you need to make your speeches about your audience and not about you
  • Mistakes that agencies make in pitches all the time
  • How to structure your new business presentations so that you win the business
  • Why you want people to remember the one big idea of your presentation — not specific tactics
  • How to develop a thought leadership presentation
  • Why niched presentations are a lot more effective than broad ones
  • “Why,” “what now,” and “how” talks: what’s different about these kind of presentations
  • How to structure a talk when you are given a general topic that you have to speak on
  • Why you should stop before the sell when you’re presenting to gain awareness for your business
  • Why creating an event is a great way to get good at speaking
  • How to find other speaking engagements
  • Why you need to grab testimonials from speaking engagements and video of your speeches
  • How to unravel a failed speech to make sure it works in the future

Part “idea whisperer,” part message strategist, and part presentation coach, Tamsen Webster helps people and organizations like Verizon, State Street Bank, Ericsson, Johnson & Johnson, and Disney find and communicate the power of their ideas. She is the Executive Producer of TEDxCambridge, one of the oldest and largest locally organized TED talk events in the world. She is also Executive Communications Coach with Oratium, a messaging consultancy. In former lives, she worked in both agencies and at nonprofits heading up brand, marketing, and fundraising communication strategy, along with a brief but enduring turn as a change management consultant. She’s also also a retired Weight Watchers leader and an accidental marathoner.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. The Value of Public Speaking for Your Business
  2. Thinking Through & Better Constructing Presentations
  3. How to Use Public Speaking to Grow Your Business
  4. How to Find Speaking Opportunities
  5. How to Get Better at Public Speaking & Presenting (Action Steps)

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25-plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew: Hey, everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. So today’s topic is one that I chat with many agency owners about all the time. The whole idea of, how do you become a thought leader? How do you get in front of folks? And how to use public speaking to grow your business. Without overtly selling and helping them understand how good you are, how smart you are, and how you can actually help them solve their problems. And we’re gonna talk about that today. How to use presentations and speeches in a strategic way to grow your business.  

So, my guest today is Tamsen Webster. Tamsen is part idea whisperer, part message strategist, and part presentation coach. She has helped people and organizations like Verizon, State Street Bank, Ericson, Johnson & Johnson, and Disney find and communicate the power of their ideas. She is also the executive producer of TEDxCambridge, which is one of the oldest and largest locally organized TED Talk events in the world.  

She is an executive communications coach and she also consults with corporations, agencies around better speaking practices and skills. She works with teams, she works with individuals who are gonna give presentations. So today, we’re gonna focus on how agencies can use presentations and speaking, in all forms, to grow their business. So, Tamsen, welcome. Welcome to the podcast.  

Tamsen: Thanks so much for having me, Drew.  


The Value of Public Speaking for Your Business

Drew: So, speaking is one of those things that everybody thinks they should be better at, and they are both excited about and terrified of. Talk to us…

Tamsen: They are.

Drew: Talk to us a little bit about your vision of the value of an agency owner or the face of an agency, A, being a polished speaker, but B, using it to leverage the growth of their organization.  

Tamsen: Well, if you think about it, there is so much out there that’s cluttering how people find and choose and really make decisions for themselves about which agencies to go with. And all of that. And whether you’re talking about content shock, where… I think the latest figure I saw was that there’s three million blog posts a day put up. A lot of agencies have this question about, how can people quickly understand that we’re the right agency for them? My perspective on that is there’s nothing that can replace the value of seeing somebody from that agency, how they talk, how they act, hear them speaking from their own personal experience and, in a lot cases, their own personal passion about why they do what they do, how they do what they do, and how all of that translates to the work of their agency.  

In other words, I think there’s no more differentiating thing that any agency or agency owner or spokesperson can do than to leverage the truly unique qualities of human to human communication. And whether that’s one-to-one or one to many, it’s just one thing that nobody else can copy the same way that you, as an individual, do.  

Drew: Well, and it gets sort of to the essence of the… There are lots of people… There are lots of agencies who are good at what they do, but the sort of unique DNA of any agency is the chemistry of that agency. And oftentimes, that’s sort of personified in the owner or the spokesperson. And you know, when we’re talking new business with agencies, and when we go out into the field and we talk to CMOs about how and why they selected an agency, so often they revert back to the…

Tamsen: Chemistry.

Drew: The chemistry thing. “It’s not tangible, but I just connect with them or I like them, or I think I would like to work with them.” And what you’re saying is, and I think you’re right, it’s the how do you talk and what are your mannerisms and how do you connect? Whether it’s you’re standing behind a podium or you’re sitting across the table from somebody.

Tamsen: Exactly. Well, there are these things that we as humans send out, they’re called honest signals. There’s some fascinating research that came out of the MIT Media Lab about this, that within seven minutes, we have all the information we need about somebody else. And that goes well beyond, just those first impressions. But within seven minutes, how we speak, how we talk, how we hold ourselves, whether or not we unconsciously or consciously mimic the other person, how much we over-talk, how much we interrupt people, how slow we talk, how… All of that comes out in ways that we can’t fake.

And yet, even though none of it is stuff we consciously do, we as audience members can recognize and react to that instantly. And that is what chemistry is. Chemistry is honest signals. For some people, that creates this problem, of course, which is, “Well, how do I create that?” And the answer is, you don’t. You can’t fake it. So the only thing you can do…

Drew: How do I fake being honest?

Tamsen: How do I fake being honest? The only thing you can do is find what to speak about and a way to speak about it that is so true to who you are that what they connect with, what those honest signals send out, is 100% you. And if there is not a connection at that point, then there never would be. And so that’s a lot of what I counsel clients on, is much of what a good agency counsels others on, which is, not everybody’s for you. You wanna find the right match. And being true to that, being true to those honest signals is the best path.


Constructing & Thinking Through Your Presentations

Drew: Yeah. Yeah. So, I know that one of the premises of your background and the way you coach and teach is, sort of, the construction or thinking through the presentation. And I think a lot of agencies, especially in new business pitches, and we can get into that in a second, but I think… Regardless of the setting, I think a lot of agencies rush to the sell. Or rush to trying to make themselves look buyable. Talk a little bit about that and maybe a different way to think about constructing a presentation with the audience more front and center.

Tamsen: Well, as you can probably already tell, I love figuring out why we do the things that we do. And one of the controlling concepts of human communication is something that’s called self-orientation, which is…or sender orientation. It’s basically a fancy word of saying we’re incredibly self-centered. And it makes sense, is that’s the instinct that keeps us alive, it’s what keeps us tracking on what is gonna make us happy, it’s how we pursue those things that will bring us success.

The challenge for us as communicators is, while we as speakers are sender oriented, while we’re very self-centered, the audience is too. And so when we’re talking to potential clients, one of the chief mistakes that agencies and truly, though, any speaker makes, is that they forget to put the client or the prospective client or the audience at the center of what they’re talking about and that, ultimately, everything that you’re presenting needs to be thought through their eyes.  

Now, if you think through that to its logical conclusion, you’ll realize pretty quickly that a lot of the things that makes sense to us as ways to lead off a presentation, “Here, let me tell you why I’m here. Let me tell you why this is the right strategy for us to go after. Let me tell you about our approach. Let me show you a NASCAR slide of all the clients that we’ve worked with,” that… Think about what the client is doing there. The client is desperately waiting for you to say something that is relevant or more specifically about them.  

And so, when it comes to pitches, what you really wanna think through is, what do they really wanna know? Right out of the gate. Not, what do we really wanna tell them, right out of the gate? But what is it they really wanna know? And if you flip that, then oftentimes the pitches can look radically different.

Drew: Yeah, it’s interesting. One of the speakers that we often have at some of the AMI network meetings is an agency search firm. And they talk about the mistakes that agencies make in the presentations, and without a doubt, one of the biggest that they cite is… If an agency has 60 minutes, they spend their first 20 minutes talking about themselves and haven’t even gotten to the client at all. And often if they run out of time, it’s the client-centric stuff that gets sort of squeezed out, rather than the agency chest-pounding part.

Tamsen: Yeah, I had a… I mean, the examples are legion. I had an agency as a client and we went in and asked them for two things. We went in and asked them for an example of a pitch that they had won, and an example of a pitch that they had lost. And the pitch that they had lost was for a typical 60-minute finals meeting, was 118 slides. And the first mention… I mean, just even think about the math there. You were not getting…

Drew: Staggering. Right.

Tamsen: I know. But take a wild guess at which slide was the first mention of the client.

Drew: 59.

Tamsen: Yeah, it was 62. It was bananas. Yeah. And we wonder sometimes, I mean… When we step back and look at these things, we can say, “Of course, that’s crazy. Of course, we made that client probably wait close to 40 minutes.” Because there’s no way they’re covering those slides one per minute, or one per 30 seconds. We probably made that client wait 40 minutes before we told them anything about why are you here, what are the challenges that you’re facing, here’s what we think the answer to that is. And then why now, after we’ve told you that, why do we think this is a good idea.  

And that’s the biggest shift that I’ve seen when I work with agency pitches, but also I do a lot of work with entrepreneurs and investor pitches. A lot of times you need to tell them right up front, “What are you doing?” And not as much time on everything else. It’s basically the giant… It’s like Tinder writ large. You know how it is. You go and you present something, you know pretty quickly whether or not somebody’s saying yes or no to that idea. Whether they’re swiping right or swiping left.  

And if they’ve made that decision quickly, that “This isn’t what I’m seeing from you,” this idea, even if it comes 40 minutes in, if they don’t love it on sight, there is no amount of strategy that you could’ve told them ahead of time that is gonna change their mind once they finally see the creative. Like, that’s just not gonna happen. I find that that’s one of the biggest flips that people can make, is to take a minute and stop and say, “Wait, what would the client… What does the customer… What are they looking for? What are the things that they want to say yes to so that I can present those things right away?” And otherwise, they’ll say no. And we can’t afford that, as agency owners.  

Drew: Yeah. You know, as I’m listening to you talk, I’m thinking about the way we…the way agencies typically structure presentations. On the one hand, we talk about, “Oh, we want this to be a dialogue,” and blah-da, blah-da, blah. But we don’t actually give them anything to react to until three-quarters of the way into the presentation.  

Tamsen: Right. And basically, what we’re asking them is, “Do you love it?”

Drew: Right. Right. While we’re nodding our head at them. Yeah. You love this, don’t you? So when you coach agencies, how do you help them flip the presentation? And how do they… And, it’s easy to say, “Oh, put your big idea for the client first.” But how do they, A, get out of their own way to do that, and B, what’s the sort of mental process one has to go through to get there?

Tamsen: Well, the biggest thing that I like to start with is, what is it specifically that you want to have happen as a result of that particular communication? And that is honestly one of the places where many people go wrong. Because if it’s early in the communication, like let’s say it’s a creds meeting or a capabilities meeting, a lot of times, some agencies I’ve seen go in and try to make the sale there. Well, that’s not gonna happen. That’s not what’s… What you’re really asking for is, how can I get to the next stage? At the finals meeting, at the pitch, absolutely, that you’re hoping for, “Yes, we wanna go with you.”  

So the first thing is, what is it that you really wanna have happen? What’s the change you wanna effect as a result? And then from there, it’s a pretty straightforward process that I like to use. Which is thinking through, once you’ve had… I mean, we have to remember that, as an agency, and if you’re presenting, let’s take a finals pitch or even take a capabilities pitch, there’s something new coming in. There’s an idea that you’re trying to get across. And that’s all you.  

And that’s good because you need to know what that is or else you’re gonna just wander all over the place and the client isn’t gonna leave knowing why they should hire you. At the same time, though, that can’t be the only thing. So we have to figure out, how do we essentially message from the middle? How do we find that intersection point between what we want them to understand about us and that knowledge of how they’re gonna get that?  

So the process that I like to use is to say, once we know functionally what the idea is and what we wanna have happen as a result, then we start looking at everything through the client or the prospective client’s eyes. And that starts with understanding, well, what is it that they’re trying to achieve? What is it they’re trying to achieve globally, but what is it they’re trying to achieve out of this particular communication? And that often falls into one of two categories. One, there’s the known thing that they’re looking for, which is we need to hire an agency to do X.  

But there’s probably also something that’s a little bit more personal. So, it’s maybe they’re trying to look for validation of their role as CMO. Maybe they’re brand new, for instance, and they wanna make sure that they’re showing that they are…they get the brand. One, you gotta understand what that goal is, then you can start to think about the problem that they’ve got that’s getting in the way of that goal. And a lot of times that’s the problem that they came to you with. I mean, typically, that’s how most pitches start, is, “Hey, we’ve got this problem and we wanna solve it.”  

And this is an opportunity, this is probably one of your first opportunities as an agency, to show your mettle as being different than other places. Which is to say, you say you have this problem. And we see that and we see all the results of that and the consequences of that. But ultimately, we think your problem has more to do with something else. There’s a real problem going on that you probably…

Drew: Something underneath.  

Tamsen: Something underneath that you probably don’t realize. And this is where any agency with a good strategy shop, probably is already getting to. The challenge I find is oftentimes they’re burying that…they bury the lead under all the methodology and all the things they found out. Just tell them what the real problem is. And when they go, “Really?” And then you’ve… Hey, A, you’ve got an opportunity for a dialogue, and B, now you’ve got them asking for the information. Not just patiently sitting through it. So you’ve got the goal…

Drew: And now you actually have a shot of having a real dialogue, right?

Tamsen: Right. Right. I mean, at each point where you’re establishing these, I like to call them the skeletal sentences of a pitch or a presentation.  You know, the goal is one, the problem is another. It’s an opportunity to stop and say, “How does that look to you? Is this right? How is this feeling?” And if you’ve done your homework ahead of time, you’re most of the time not gonna be surprised with them going, “Yeah, that’s not it at all.” In the best case scenario, even, they’re saying, “Yes, that’s it. And here’s this additional information that we didn’t tell you yet.”  

But it helps you make an even better recommendation or make even better steps towards solving their problem. So we’ve got the goal, we’ve got their problem, then we need to say…then we need to frame the idea of the pitch or the idea of what we as an agency bring to that particular client, in the form of a single message. Now, what is the thing that you need to understand, either about us or about this project or this initiative or this approach, that will help you solve now this problem that we’ve identified, this real problem? And that idea is key.  

Because that idea… And this isn’t anything that any good marketer, advertiser, communicator doesn’t already know. That idea is the thing that people will say, when people ask you, “Well, why should we go with them?” Or, “What was the pitch really about?” The idea is the answer to, well, if you do this, then we will get this goal. And it’s not the actual… It’s not the actual creative, it’s what does that creative represent?

Drew: Or tactics.

Tamsen: Yeah. It’s not the tactic. It’s the process, it’s the approach, it’s the idea. And this is where, I think, there’s a real opportunity, because so many places don’t do this well, for great agencies to set themselves apart. Because we wanna give people a handhold on how to talk about us. And that idea is that. From that idea, then you say, okay, if this is the thing that helps us understand why we have the problem, then we now also have, in the idea, the path to solve it. And so then there’s this change, which is the thing that you want them to do. In other words, that’s the original thing you said you wanna have happen as a result of the communication. And then you can talk about the actions that that…that would get you there.  

So that means, we’re gonna deploy across content and social, or we’re gonna do some outdoor whatever, or there’s this digital solution, etc. So those five things are the goal, and that’s the audience goal that they would readily agree they have. The problem, which is probably something they don’t understand they have. The idea, which is the one thing we need to understand in order to solve the problem. The change, which is the thing they need to do to achieve their goal, and it’s the thing you want them to do. And then the actions, which is the tactics of how to achieve it.  

Just that, understanding that arc, A, clarifies internal thinking and therefore it’s a lot easier to get people within the agency on board with what are we trying to do in this particular presentation. And B, it has the added benefit of backing you into a really solid outline for how to present the information.  

Drew: You know, I am grabbing onto, no pun intended, this whole idea that the idea is the handle or the one sentence summary, that when they’re sitting around talking about the presentations afterwards… You know, agencies often try to, sort of, gamify it by going first or last, or bringing in food, or, you know, having some presentation gimmick. But very few agencies, I suspect, say, “If they had to describe our presentation in one sentence, what would it be? And what do we want it to be? And then how do we build the whole presentation to make sure that that’s the pinnacle of what we talk about?”

Tamsen: Right. Because what you don’t want them to do is to walk away going, “Oh, we loved this particular deployment,” or, “We liked that particular idea.” Because all of us who’ve ever spent any time in agencies know that in the work… You know, just the nightmare thing can happen where they go with some other agency and then they cherry-pick your ideas out of the pitch. Now, of course, that’s not supposed to be what they do. But we’ve all seen it happen where they’ll cherry-pick the ideas. I don’t mean the big idea, I mean they’ll cherry-pick the tactics.  

The reason why I hammer so hard on understanding what this one big idea is, not only does it come from all the TED work that I’ve done, but it comes from this perspective that or this knowledge that we as humans are not rational decision makers. We’re rationalizing decision makers. So that gut decision about where we go, whether or not we have the chemistry with this agency that’s coming in, whether or not we like the idea, we like the creative, that’s real. And I’m not gonna deny that. And that’s where going first or last can kind of gamify it to some extent.  

But ultimately, you know that that first reaction is something that’s important to them but then they go and sit around a table with all the pitch books, or whatever you left them at…or the boards or whatever you left them as the relic of the interaction. And then they make a much more rational decision. And if what you leave behind doesn’t 100% deliver on the rational decision making, then you’re not gonna win. But just imagine the power, if not only are you connecting with them in the moment, but then what you leave behind, they’re like, “All right. All these other present… You know, they’ve got this stuff, they’ve got this stuff. I see their boards, it’s an interesting idea. But this agency, this agency, they’re the ones that help us understand that if we just do this, then we get to this goal that we’re looking for.”  

Drew: Yeah. You know, your mention of the TED Talks, again, part of why we love TED Talks is because they’re so singular in their message. And yet, I don’t think we think about that when we are constructing our own presentations.  

Tamsen: No, and it’s the hardest… I will tell you that when I work with clients, it is the hardest thing for business presenters to come to. Because we’ve been so trained by conference organizers or ourselves, or PowerPoint, frankly, to “What are the five actionable takeaways?” Like, everybody wants the learnings, they want the tag… And I’ve been at conferences that said, “Well, I don’t see your takeaway slide.”  

And like, trust me, A, everybody gets a handout. Whenever I present, I always give a handout. And B, that handout’s gonna be way better than your takeaway slide. But C, this is the thing that I tell people I work with, “You can still give people actionable takeaways, you just need to wrap them in a big idea.” Increasingly, of course, conferences are going to 20 minute…they’re going to TED-style presentations. Which is just a nightmare for the average person because the average person is used to having 45 minutes to wander their way to their point. And in 20 minutes, what happens is that people just try to jam a 40-minute talk into a 20-minute slot, and it just does not go well.

Drew: Yeah. That’s ugly for everybody.  

Tamsen: It’s ugly for everybody. So it becomes so much simpler on everybody, and first and foremost, on the presenter, to say what is the one thing? And once you know what’s the one thing, it takes the pressure off the actions. It’s not that they don’t have to be there, but you say, “Listen, what this all comes down to is creating,” to use an example of a client I was working with yesterday, it’s about creating lifelong relationships with the customers. In order to do that, we need to make sure that we’re making long…we’re taking long-term actions with them. Right?

Now, how can you do that? You know, she’s got some specific examples that she’s using. But at the end… She does have three clear actions that people can take. But she’s summing up by saying… But really, whether those are the right actions for you or not, what it comes down to is, are you using long-term actions to get long-term relationships? And the additional benefit, then, that you get, is that… when you sell people on the idea, you open up many, many more avenues for them.  

Drew: Right.

Tamsen: I think we’ve all had that experience as an agency too, where people said, “You know, we didn’t actually love the creative, but we loved what you were trying to get at. And we think that you can still get there for us.” And that’s the gold. Because then they’re looking at you as a partner, and not as a vendor.

Drew: And they love your thinking, rather than just your creative. It’s just sexy. Yeah.

Tamsen: Right. And from an agency pricing standpoint and value creation, yeah, you don’t… And then you don’t end up being just executors of tactics, then you are now in that catbird seat of being able to say, “Remember this thinking? This is the idea that we’re trying to go with.” And once you’ve got an idea, the idea can just…can spin out in so many different directions.

Drew: Yep. Okay, this has been awesome. I wanna take a quick pause and when we come back, what I wanna talk about is… Now, not so much the new business pitch, but more of a, “I’ve been invited to speak at a conference and industry trade show, that sort of thing. How do I construct a presentation that sells without selling?” So let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and dig into that.

I hope you’re finding this content really helpful. I just wanted to take a quick pause and remind you that on top of the podcast, we also do a lot of live workshops for agency owners, agency leaders, and account service staff. If you’re interested in the schedule, check it out at Let’s get back to the show.


How to Use Public Speaking to Grow Your Business

Okay, we are back. Okay, Tamsen, so we’ve talked a little bit about the new business pitch. But much more likely for agencies, in terms of their sales process and in terms of sort of what I set up in the beginning of this podcast, is this idea of thought leadership. Agency owners, particularly, or spokesperson for an agency, are looking for opportunities to be presenters, especially if they have a specialty industry or niche, or a core skill set, or something like that, to use that as a door-opener for new business opportunities. So, talk to us a little bit about how that sort of presentation, is it exactly the same as what we’ve been talking about? Is it different? And how does an agency owner know what to talk about, and equally important, when to stop talking so they don’t give away the farm?

Tamsen: Oh, such good questions. The core of what I was talking about is true and is the same. But I will recast it from the perspective of how do you develop a talk for raising awareness or thought leadership? But by way of explanation, the reason why that basic structure of figuring out the goal and the problem and the idea and the change and the action, is that it is the way that we, as humans, think. It’s how we process information, whether we know it or not.  

We unconsciously are always in search of something, as people. We’re looking constantly to get rid of any barriers in our way. And we’re looking for how to solve those problems. And so, when things are framed that way, we are going to much more quickly understand them, and the benefit from the speaker’s standpoint, we’re gonna be able to get an idea to transfer from my brain to yours with as little friction and as little loss as possible. “So that’s great, Tamsen, but how does that turn into a presentation?”

Well, the first