Speaking with a Stacked Deck

By Ennio Vita-Finzi

The speaker sat at the head table, between the Chamber of Commerce president and the program director. Breakfast was almost over and both had asked many questions about his favourite subject, the topic of his forthcoming presentation. The last two months had been busy trying to fit in several meetings with Chamber staff, requests for more details on his CV, two stressful meetings with the Chamber’s promotional department and his first experience with a professional photographer’s “green screen”. The last exchange the day before had been to talk about his preferences for a lectern, spotlights and a choice of lapel-mike or upright stand.

HE TOOK A sip of coffee to calm his rumbling stomach and brushed his jacket to ensure again that his stack of two-inch by four-inch cards was still nestled in his inner pocket. The Chamber president then went up on stage and started talking about him in glowing terms. He swallowed, shocked at the sudden swell of applause and then heard his name called out – it was time to step up to the lectern.

Stacked deck

The expression “stacking the deck” usually refers to dishonest card players who pre-arrange the sequence in a deck of cards in order to win a game. Therefore when a situation is said to be “stacked against you”, the belief is that there is usually little chance of winning. However, speaking in public is not like gambling and playing cards at the casino. When an executive is invited to speak, the deck is usually already stacked in his or her favour.

Searching for a Speaker

Speaking events vary from semi-formal onespeaker-presentations to major conferences with many speakers. The organization planning the event always has a program director or an event committee whose job it is to plan these activities.

Considerable work goes into the preparation of an event featuring one or more speakers. Chambers of Commerce, Business and Service clubs, Social and Charitable organizations all relies on programs for members that help the organisation to continue growing. Companies also often invite subject-matter experts to talk to staff; as a result, once the speaking program has been chosen, the person in charge will seek a suitable speaker. This is usually done through a personal referral, a Speakers’ Bureau or an internet search based on the conference’s theme. The organiser will be looking for someone with a related reputation, an established expertise on the topic as well as appropriate qualifications.

Commitment and promotion

Once the speaker has been picked and officially booked to perform, the “commitment phase” begins. Everybody in that organization wants the program to succeed and therefore every effort will be made to ensure the speaker’s success. The circulars, phone calls, posters, mailouts, press releases and other promotional activities revolve entirely around the speaker and the proposed speech. Since the organization’s reputation (and where applicable, future memberships) depends on a successful program, considerable effort will be made to ensure a successful event.


Before the event, the audience learned a lot about the speaker from the program’s promotional material. On the day of the event, the person introducing the speaker, who is always an important person in the organization, will enthusiastically provide even more information about him on stage, adding details of his background. At that point he will hand over the mike (and therefore the audience) to the speaker.

Most people don’t realize that unless a speaker is really awful, members of the audience are simply waiting for the opportunity to applaud his or her efforts, partly because few of them would want to be on stage themselves. They chose to attend the presentation because the topic interests them and they want to be entertained, informed, moved, educated or motivated. They are therefore looking forward to listening to an individual talk about his favourite subject and are subconsciously ready to enjoy what they hear and to applaud enthusiastically when it is over.

A standing ovation

It has been said that next to dying, most people’s greatest fear is speaking in public. While never discussed or admitted openly, many executives will go to great lengths to avoid speaking to groups of people, forgetting that this talent is often a corner-stone of success in business, Therefore, when asked to make a presentation, it is worth remembering that by the time the speaker stands on stage ready to present, every possible effort has been made to ensure his success.

The speaker is now free to relax, take a sip of water, adjust his mike, whip out his two-inch by four-inch cards and concentrate on his topic, letting his passion and enthusiasm move him towards a standing ovation.

Ennio Vita-Finzi is a retired motivational speaker, teacher and trainer. e.vita-finzi@sympatico.ca