Muhammad Ali and what he can teach every public speaker

muhammad ali pinball machine_i am the greatestThe world mourns Muhammad Ali; and rightly so. How many sportspeople will have the eulogy at their memorial service given by a former American president? But that is what is about to happen today in Louisville, Kentucky. At his peak Ali was one of the most famous and most recognisable people on the planet; he was loved especially here in the UK, partly for his boxing and partly when we saw his sharp wit on his famous interviews with Michael Parkinson. He may have been untutored but the intelligence was ferocious.

I’m not writing about his boxing, because it’s all been said by people very much more qualified than I. This is about his positive attitude to life and to events, which must have been a contributory factor to his success

We cannot all be boxers, or elite sportsmen of any kind. We can’t all have the ability to improvise humorous replies as fast as he could. But if you ever have to prepare for a potentially stressful occasion – a speech, a stage performance, a difficult meeting – there are two important and practical things you can learn from him.


Firstly, and famously, we remember how he talked about himself: “I am the greatest!” He started doing this before he became world champion. Later in life, when questioned about that phrase, he said: “yes, I said I was the greatest  … even before I was.” Some people – especially here in the UK – put this down at first to arrogance but now, I think, we know better than that.

In an interview, Ali said he first got the idea from a wrestler called Gorgeous George, with whom he shared a platform at a promotional event early in his career. Gorgeous George was not a particularly successful wrestler but increased his popularity by telling jokes and saying “I am the greatest!” Ali heard that and immediately began to copy it.

What’s the lesson for us, particularly if we come from a more self-effacing culture? We probably won’t say “I’m the greatest”; but we could at least avoid the ‘self-sabotage’ of saying to ourselves and others: “I’m not much good at XYZ.” If you tell yourself something often enough, your subconscious mind will start to believe it, whether or not it’s true. That’s something that the young Cassius Clay understood very well.

Predicting and visualising the outcome: creating ‘future history’

So Ali was the greatest, and he told himself so. He also used another very specific method of training his subconscious to expect the best, by creating what he called his ‘future history.’

When a new fight was arranged and he attended a press conference to announce it, immediately afterwards  he would excuse himself, go up to his hotel suite, draw the blinds, and just sit down and relax, breathing deeply, and create a mental picture of the end of the fight.  More than just creating a picture: he even used to predict in which round he was going to win; he would get into that level of detail.

And he would create this picture of the end of the fight: opponent flat on his back; referee raising his own arm; Harry Carpenter climbing through the ropes with a microphone.  Then he would freeze-frame that picture and carry it around for the next two or three months until the day of the fight. That was his version of what’s sometimes called ‘creative visualization’ but I prefer the term he himself used: ‘future history.’

So how could Ali’s method be tailored to your needs? What’s your equivalent of that knockout moment? This is where you go back and remember what is your purpose in giving the speech, or whatever performance you have to give. Then you can create your own picture of a successful outcome – by your own definition; nobody else’s. For example, if you’re speaking at a wedding, your picture could be of the smiling bride appreciating what was said, an enthusiastically applauding audience, etc. Those kinds of mental pictures can help you anticipate the day ahead with pleasure rather than dread.

A man who transcended his sport.

Me? I was never a fan of the brutal sport of boxing; but I was always a fan of Muhammad Ali. Like everyone else on the planet, I watched him every chance I got, whether he was fighting or just talking. He dominated his sport, changed attitudes to minorities, and lit up our lives.



My public-speaking blog thread is relatively new, so it is an under-populated country at present; but that will change. This morning (13 Sept) I delivered a talk to the Rotary Club of Bristol Bridge. The title was: “Thinking on your feet”. It had a positive response, which confirmed my view that this is a topic of interest to many people and many organisations. Here’s a summary of the topics I covered:

  • “The lion story”. (Sorry, no room here: but it is a good one. Book me to speak at your club or business and you can hear it!).
  • My subtitle: “What make a good presentation?” (not “good presenter”, as even good ones sometimes underperform)
  • Kipling’s key questions: What, Why, When, How, Where & Who.
  • Where and When are already known (that’s part of the problem), which leaves:
    • What are you going to say?
    • To Whom are you going to say it? (what do you know about them?)
    • Why are you going to say it? (Type of presentation? Desired outcome/s?)
    • How are you going to say it? (“the $64,000 question”)
  • These basic questions produce 12 “elements of a good presentation.” We focused on three:
    • Knowing your audience in advance (the why and the how thereof)
    • Speaker aids / resources on the day
    • Confident delivery, how to achieve / develop
  • Backgrounds & expectations of listeners?
  • Expectations ditto? Is there a fit?
  • Meet the meeting arranger / facilitator?
  • Get attendee list: e-mail them with mini-survey: their wants and needs from your presentation.
  • Script: OK as comfort blanket and template for next time but …
  • Don’t read it!
  • Visual aids: helps re multiple learning styles
  • PowerPoint? Limit no. of slides & amount of info per slide
  • Cue cards: my previous default but use registry tag in case of drop!
  • Mind maps: now my default aide-memoire.
  • PA: can you avoid by better projection?
  • If can’t avoid PA (size of room / audience), avoid handheld microphones.
  • Strong start & strong finish; memorise both, use cue-cards and /or mind maps for the “meat” in the sandwich.
  • Stress management, create positive expectations via two methods of visualisation:
    • Muhammad Ali and “future history”
    • NLP: method of “anchoring” positive past experiences
  • Move, and focus on audience, while speaking: both help reduce tension
  • Improvisation skills? If not, rehearse rehearse rehearse!
  • Last-minute prep: can we learn from other types performers (When and Where are known)? e.g. popular singers: Chris Martin, Stevie Nicks, Robert Plant, Leonard Cohen; finally …
  • Elvis Presley and the thousand-yard walk
  • Arrive early; set up resources; ensure water available; walk round the block.

Last word: “Most people will forget what you say; even what you do. But they will never forget how you made them feel.” How will you use that fact? How will you inject feeling, not just facts?

WANT TO KNOW MORE? If you ‘d like more information about my talks, or would like to discuss booking me for your organisation, please send me a message through this site or e-mail me:


“Previously, on this subject …”

About thirty years ago, I was lucky enough to get some great advice about public speaking, which has stayed with me ever since.

I was at an industry conference in the States, where most of the presentations were on technical or business subjects; but I’d discovered previously that US conferences often have a motivational speaker of some kind too. This one was no exception; it had a football coach, who was renowned as a motivator; but it also had a man who was a million miles from being a football coach, as you will read, but was a motivator extraordinaire. His name was Kenneth Wydro …

Now read on …

In my last post I mentioned some of the tips Ken Wydro gave for terrified (and even experienced) speakers. His talk was so powerful it kick-started me on a 30-year career as a speaker, so it’s clear to me that some more of his wisdom is worthy of recycling here.

“All those eyes”

Ken has trained and consulted at many large corporations in the States. He tells the story of a senior executive who said: “I was perfectly composed … before I took the platform. I was confident, prepared … until I saw all those eyes. Then the lights went out. I went blank … embarrassed myself terribly. I was cold and sweating at the same time. My mouth was dry.” Ken’s experience has told him what a challenge this is for so many people; I venture to say that’s it’s sometimes even worse presenting to six colleagues or a small board than to hundreds of conference delegates.

Last week, at a UK meeting, the head-hunter and personal branding guru John Purkiss used a very dramatic comparison when talking briefly about this particular challenge. He said: “many people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying.”

So Ken Wydro, John Purkiss and scores of other experts know what a problem this is. How can we minimise the potentially scary effect of “all those eyes”?

 Push your own buttons: learning to relax

Ken Wydro says that if we are to push our own buttons, we must learn techniques for relaxing ahead of any stressful event, especially public speaking. His book contains some good tips on this and I recommend it.

You may already know that meditation, affirmations, visualisation, NLP (neurolinguistic programming) techniques, hypnotherapy, all have a place. I have known speakers who successfully used Valium to counter the pre-speech nerves. It’s a question of finding what works for you; what reduces the butterflies yet still leaves you with enough of nature’s fight-or-flight adrenaline to give you an energy boost and let your brain be a few words ahead of your tongue, which is the way I think of the beneficial effect of adrenaline.

On this blog I will be discussing a variety of techniques to handle the “all those eyes” problem; because unless we can do that it’s pointless talking about the other important aspects of public speaking, including the more practical aspects of preparation; structure; delivery, etc. You may or may not know that Muhammad Ali is not only the most famous boxer in history but was also a great exponent of using visualisations and affirmations to manage his subconscious mind before a big event. Yes, the events were boxing matches, but the principle is the same.

I shall also be inviting some successful speakers to share their thoughts as guest bloggers or as interviewees.

Watch this space!



To get up-to-date info on US author Kenneth Wydro, click here.

For info on his book “Think on Your Feet”, click here.

To find out more about my talks; or to book me to speak to your club, group or business, click here.



Previously, on this blog …

My daughters used to laugh about the fact that I always seemed to find a parking space, because I always believed I would (nowadays I don’t run a car, so I don’t need a parking space). My explanation was that because I believed I’d find one, I was relaxed about it, thus when a space became free I’d see it quickly. It’s said that if you are stressed (even about something relatively trivial, such as a parking space) part of your brain shuts down; it’s part of the so-called “fight or flight” reflex.


There is a more scientific demonstration of the power of positive expectations, which is sometimes called “The Harvard Experiment” because, although it was carried out in California, it was devised by a Harvard academic, Robert Rosenthal.

The power of positive expectations

The Harvard Experiment demonstrates the value of positive expectations; of ourselves and of others.

This is because our interactions with others reflect our beliefs about ourselves; other people, if they are perceptive, pick up quickly what we think of ourselves and what we expect to happen. Surprising as it seemed when I first heard this theory, they will often try to behave consistently with what they perceive our expectations of them to be.

There is other evidence of this so-called “expectations theory” in the psychology literature: the serious as well as the more popular versions. In case that kind of stuff is not your favourite bedtime reading, this summary of the Harvard Experiment is practical proof: something which sets an example that should be (but is not) followed in every school in the world.

Dr Rosenthal conducted the experiment in 1968, in a school in the San Francisco Bay area. His theory was that children could become brighter when expected to by their teachers and he conducted a study to test the theory. All of the children in the study were administered a nonverbal test of intelligence, disguised as a test that would predict intellectual “blooming.”

There were 18 classrooms in the school, three at each of the six grade levels. Within each grade level, the three classrooms were composed of children with above-average ability, average ability, and below-average ability, respectively.

 Within each of the 18 classrooms, approximately 20% of the children were chosen at random to form the experimental group. The teachers of these children were told that their pupils’ scores on the “Test of Inflected Acquisition” indicated they would show surprising gains in intellectual competence during the next eight months of school. The only difference between the experimental groups and the remainder was in the minds of the teachers.

At the end of the school year all the children were retested with the same test of intelligence. Overall, the children from whom the teachers had been led to expect greater intellectual gain showed a significantly greater gain than did the children in the control group. (if you want more info, you can do a search under Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

Rosenthal’s work showed that having high expectations of others can influence their performance in a positive way and to a significant degree.

However there is one further point worthy of repetition. The only difference between the experimental group and the remainder was in the minds of the teachers. That “experimental group” of students, as Rosenthal calls them, was chosen at random. When this fact was revealed to the teachers at the end of the experiment, they were amazed because not only were the measurable results better, but they also reported other benefits, e.g. “behaviour was better; no disciplinary problems; it was a pleasure to teach!” The teachers then assumed that the remarkable results were because of their previously-known teaching performance. “No doubt,” said the principal, “but you were chosen at random too.”

Have the important role models in your life had high expectations of you? I hope they have. I was lucky to have three very positive role models in my younger life; my father Patrick MacMahon, my headmaster Fr Peter Murtough and one of my first bosses, Peter Mossop. All three had high implicit and explicit expectations of me, so I am sure that my behaviour reflected that (well, sometimes, anyway). All are now, sadly, dead. But whenever I am faced with a tricky situation I can ask myself: “what would PM have advised?”

Muhammad Ali and the power of positive expectations

The corollary of this is that I believe that the things that happen in my life are very much influenced by what I expect to happen. Muhammad Ali was famous for saying, “I am the greatest”, but he used to say it even before he was the Olympic champion, before he turned professional and became world champion. We in theUK are more reticent about proclaiming our talents, our strengths, our virtues, but there is a lesson to be learned from Ali.

The moral is this: I believe that if you expect something good to happen, it is more likely to happen, especially if that outcome depends to any significant extent on your interaction with others… as most outcomes do.

A traveller arrived at the gates of a city in the 14th century.

Before entering, he asked the gatekeeper: “What are the people like here?”

The gatekeeper replied: “What were they like where you came from?”

“They were wonderful people: they were friendly and generous and would share their last crust of bread with you”, said the traveller.

“You will find them the same here.”

A second traveller arrived and asked the gatekeeper the same question.

“What were they like where you came from?” said the gatekeeper.

“They were terrible people: they would steal from you at the slightest chance.”

“I am afraid you will find them the same here” replied the wise gatekeeper.

“Act as if …”

 An extension of this story is that while you are negotiating with your creditors, if you show that you expect to be debt-free in a given time, and that you’ll do whatever it takes to get there, and if you are persistent in acting that way, eventually you’ll find people who will help you. They may be employees or managers in the very companies to whom you owe money; they are just people doing a job, after all.

Why not decide what you want and act as if it were already a reality? Then three things could happen. One, you attract people who can help, as said above. Two, you get where you want, faster. Three, and most importantly, you preserve your health and sanity.


To be continued …

The above is an extract from “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”. [LINK]