Box of Crayons Blog


Michael Port on Stealing the Show

Michael PortMuch of life is a performance. From interviews to negotiations to first dates, we’re in high stakes situations all the time. So how do we ensure our best performance in these spotlight moments? Michael Port – actor, speaker, author and three-time Great Work Podcast guest – joins me to explore the secrets he uncovers in his latest book, Steal the Show, which was just released yesterday.

In this interview, Michael and I discuss:

  • The benefits of adopting a performer’s mindset
  • The perils of the performance paradox
  • Why it’s essential to clearly identify your objective
  • How to tell a good story
  • Why many natural communicators are only average speakers
  • The key ingredient every speech must have


Michael Port draws on his considerable expertise as an actor and public speaker to reveal how people can consistently deliver great performances – whether onstage or anywhere else. He pulls back the curtain to reveal the mysteries of how to best connect with your audience, from a party of one person, to a crowd of 1,000 (or many more).

If you are strapped for time, download it as a free podcast on iTunes and listen later or scroll below for extended notes.

Listen to my interview with Michael Port.

Full Transcript

Don’t forget to rate this podcast on iTunes.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Those of you who are long time listeners and I mean long time listeners and I’ve done I think close to 300 interviews now will know this man because this is not his first time with Box of Crayons. It’s not his second time. It is his third Great Work interview. It speaks a little to how prolific he is with his book writing and in fact he was a contributor, one of the six contributors to Do More Great Work. So I am very happy, I always am. to talk to and be interviewing Michael Port today. Now, some of you should know Michael Port. His big breakthrough book was Book Yourself Solid, which is really a masterful piece around how to think about marketing and selling yourself particularly if you’re a small business person or running your own business, thinking about how do you find your right customers and how do you bring them in so that you are just as busy as you want to be.

But he hasn’t just written about sales, he has written the Think Big Manifesto, which is truly a wonderful call to do more great work. We’re here to talk about his latest Steal the Show, which is all about how do you show up and make an impact on the stage as a presentation knowing that every interaction has the potential to be a presentation.

So I love this topic. I’ve had a glimpse of what’s in the book. So I’m excited to dig in with my Michael and kind of find out just what’s the wisdom he brings to the presenters, the CEOs and all the people he brings in to help them have that gravitas on stage. So Michael Port, welcome once again to the Great Work Podcast.

Michael Port: Thank you so much for having me.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Michael, I’ve done a random introduction as I tend to do, but is there anything you’d want to add just so people have a sense of who you are and where you come from?

Michael Port: I think the thing that I would add that many folks might not know is that my first career was as an actor. So I have a Masters of Fine Arts from the Graduate Acting Program at NYU and then I worked professionally for a number of years on shows like Sex and the City and Third Watch, All My Children, Law and Order. I did hundreds of voice overs and television commercials and then I left and I went to business. I’ve had a lot of fun since then and I feel very lucky, very blessed to get to do the work that I do, but my first love was performance and people have asked me why didn’t I write this book 10 years ago.

And I’m not entirely sure, frankly, but I didn’t want to start teaching performance to certainly public speaking until I was on the top end of the speaking circuit. I felt that I needed to really, really master that as well as master the skills that an actor employs. So after about 10 years of professional speaking, I felt I had done both and then that’s why I’m doing this work.

But Steal the Show is not just a book about public speaking, although I do think of course I’m biased, but I think it’s the best book you can read on public speaking because I approach public speaking from the actor’s perspective. But it’s also a book about stealing the show in all the spotlight moments of your life because we’re in high stake situations all the time. And the way we perform in those situations often determines the quality of our life. Job interviews, negotiations, closing a deal, even our first date is a performance of a sort and so…

Michael Bungay Stanier: So many lines there, but I’m going to step away from all of them and carry on, yeah.

Michael Port: Yeah of course, but look, you know, and the key is there is this authenticity in performance of course. There are lots of folks who are very good at manipulating others. That’s not what we’re talking about here. To me, the best performers in the world are the most authentic performers in the world.

If you think about your favourite actors, you love them because they’re such honest actors. What they’re going through when you see them perform is real for them. They are not pretending to feel upset about a situation of the characters and they actually feel it. As a result, it tells you something about that character. So all of the things that we do in our life, all of the things that we say, it tells the world something about us and we can choose how we want to be known in the world and we can choose how we perform.

Michael Bungay Stanier: So I love that first of all, you just made it really clear. This is isn’t just a book for aspiring keynote speakers, although if you are an aspiring keynote speaker, definitely grab the book, but it’s really just to say in the metaphor, It’s not always a metaphor, but often it is. This idea of a spotlight moment, which is when are you centre stage and when do you need to show up with the presence and the gravitas and get the message you want across to the audience that you have and you don’t need to be in front of a crowd of 8,000 people to need to have some of the skills that you cover off in the book.

Michael Port: Absolutely not. In fact, part 3 is a tour de force on public speaking specifically, but the first 2 parts apply to all performance situation. So the first part of the book is all about the performer’s mind set. The performer sees the world in a particular way. The performer sees themselves as adaptable. The performer sees themselves as somebody who can move through lots of different dynamics, lots of different situations, be comfortable with lots of different groups, playing lots of different roles.

So the first thing I address is finding your voice. So that you feel comfortable standing for your values, standing for what you believe in and that’s very, very important. The second thing I address is playing the right role in every situation, identifying what role is required in this given situation. Say when you’re leading a team meeting, well, how was that role different then when you are a parent in a very difficult situation with a child.

Because anybody that has children knows that you are often performing as a parent for your child because you maybe thinking, I’m going to kill this kid. I’m going to kill this kid. And yet you have to keep a very calm and loving exterior, almost a façade, but one of our performance principles, which is part 2 of the book is being able to act as if. And that’s a very, very powerful imagination tool, which then of course influences the way that we act, which of course then influences the outcome of any given situation that we’re in.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Well, let met pick up on that because this is an interesting paradox from the attention, which is this piece about the people who we respond to have that gravitas, have that authenticity that you talked about earlier. Yet so often, the way to access that to kind of step up to the level you want to be is this process of act as if. So how do you reconcile this two different perspectives?

Michael Port: To me, I don’t think, well I’ll say it this way. I’m not sure we have to reconcile that. I think we can have both of those perspectives and I think we can still very comfortably move into the performer’s mind set. There is something that, you used the word paradox, which is very interesting to me because there’s something that I call the performer’s paradox.

So on one hand, you have this great desire to go out and do great work, to do good work. To steal the show and impact others profoundly and that’s a strong intention, but then on the other hand, you have this other intention. It says don’t screw up. Don’t do anything that would get rejection. Or people would laugh at you or tell you you’re stupid.

Don’t do anything that could put you in a dangerous position. So then those two intentions, they just cancel each other out because if you are going to go out in the world and do anything in the big way, you’re going to from time to time fall down.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Disappoint people, make a mistake, yeah, all of that stuff.

Michael Port: Exactly. So one of the things that I’ve discovered as a business owner over the years is that the more responsibility I can handle, the more growth I see in the business. And sometimes I have to perform my way into that responsibility. So the performance paradox is something that’s interesting and that is something I think we need to reconcile because we better decide which is more important, results or approval. Because when you have an intention not to screw up, when you have an intention to play it safe, well that’s because you want approval, but if you have an intention to go out and do something in a meaningful way, well, that is results.

So the very first chapter of part 2, which is all about the performer’s principles is understanding how to pick and then focus on an objective. Because acting, I view this as a model for success in everyday performance situations. It’s not just a metaphor. So what the actor does when they are developing a character is they identify what the character’s objective is.

What am I trying to achieve here and once I identify that, then they can uncover their motivation and they can try every different tactic possible to achieve that result and generally, if it’s a well written script, a lot of obstacles will be put in front into that character’s way.

And that’s just like life. And so getting really clear on that objective is always very important at the beginning because the question is what’s more important, what’s more important, what is bigger to you? Your fear or your desire and if your fear is bigger, then performance is really difficult. If your desire is bigger, then you step into the performer’s mind set and you can use, you can employ the performer’s principles.

Michael Bungay Stanier: It’s nice. I have another acting friend who teaches acting and is a speaker himself and his statement, which it really resonates for me is make a choice, go big, keep it clean.

And it just really speaks to that, get clear on that objective. Get clear on. You make a stand for something and then be bold about that, amplify that. And stay true to that because I think so many performances I see both on the stage and elsewhere are murky, they lack kind of clean lines, a kind of clarity of thought and action and deed.

So maybe you can speak to just how do you keep your performance clean?

Michael Port: Sure. So one of the performer’s principles is choose early and often. And your friend who is the actor is pulling form the concept that when a director is choosing an actor, they’re choosing an actor who makes strong choices, even if the choices aren’t the right choices. Because then, the director knows they can work with that actor to find the right choices and they’ll have a powerful strong actor, but an actor who doesn’t make choices doesn’t get hired, just like in life.

I won’t hire somebody who is going to work in semi company who just wants us to tell him what to do. hey need to make choices. They need to early and often and this is what entrepreneurs do. So when I address this concept in the book, I’m addressing how to choose early and often in all aspects of your life.

It’s not just something that is important for a presentation on stage, but is important for so many different aspects of our life. I mean even take and you’re choosing a target market for your business. If you wont’ choose a target market, you’re going to flounder around for some time being not match to everybody as opposed to being everything to somebody. So this is a powerful concept and people who make choices are generally attractive people and that’s something…

Michael Bungay Stanier: It’s interesting.

Michael Port: You mentioned this earlier. We want to be around people that make choices. Even something as simple as a bunch of people are getting together. So I’m going out to the boat later on. And we have a group of friends and then usually in the morning, we will talk about where we’re going to go, we’re going to meet up, who is going to go where and some people just can’t make a choice.

So I said, listen, here’s where I’m going, If we see you, we see you. If we don’t, we don’t. Have a great day.

And I go and I’m there for hours before they are because they’re still putzing around the dock trying to decide where to go and they’ve lost half the day.

Michael Bungay Stanier: So Michael, one of the things that I know is about starting strong because this whole idea of performing so often that saying from the movie, you had me at hello. So often, it’s like you did not have me at hello and then you rapidly lost me shortly after that. So it’s like what are some ways that – expand that insight for me about the necessity for a strong start.

Give me some tactics about how I can actually do that.

Michael Port: Absolutely. So a strong start is important, but you don’t have to blow people out of the water. Meaning, often people get anxious about the start because they think they have to do something that is so extraordinary that will just knock people out of their seats.

But what you’re talking about is quite insightful. It’s this idea of a clean and strong start. So there is a couple of different things to consider.

Number one, this idea that you have to start a speech with a story is just an idea. In fact, it might even be a story itself. It can be very effective. There are some speeches that I give where I do start with a story. However, often when the speaker starts with a story, the audience goes, oh boy, here comes the speaker with another one of those stories. And if that story doesn’t kill, if that story isn’t extraordinary, then you get a – you kind of fizzle out and most articles you will read about public speaking, the first bullet point will say tell stories. And of course, that’s very effective. We all know how important to build and tell stories is.

However, what they leave out in that bullet point I think is the word good.

Tell good stories. So in Steal the Show, I break down the various story telling structures.

One of the most important story telling structures that we can use is the three act structure from Harris Donald. And so we always have exposition. It’s the given circumstances, it’s the time, the setting, is what we need to know about the people in the story that we’re about to tell and then we have the conflict and the conflict is usually about 80% of the story.

It’s what we get excited about. It’s where the stakes are raised, tension continues to develop and it’s usually one action, then another action, then another action, all of these different elements. There is usually an inciting moment and then it’s followed by one activity after another, one activity after another and it keeps building and building and then there’s a conclusion and that’s the resolution in act free.

And it’s not always a happy ending, but it ties it all together and that resolution needs to be very powerful and the longer the story, the more powerful that resolution needs to be.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Oh, that’s interesting.

Michael Port: Of course. Like if you tell a story that takes 10 minutes to tell, but the resolution kind of goes… Then they go out. I waited for that box what I waited for. But if it’s a really quick little story, the resolution can be not such a big deal, but they get the point you move on.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Nice.

Michael Port: And then if the resolution if quite powerful, but you don’t give enough exposition, so that when we get into the conflict, we don’t know what’s going on. You never even watch the movie where you get into and like wait, who’s what. And so it wasn’t enough exposition for you or you get it, you watch a movie where there is so much exposition and like, something is going to happen at some point and so you’re waiting for that conflict. So you’re trying to find the balance.

So it’s the act 1, act 2, act 3. Act 1 is exposition. Act 2 is conflict. Act 3 is resolution. Now, that’s story telling in a nutshell.

Here is the thing about openings. Often the people who think they’re natural communicators stay average for most of their life as speakers or performers or presenters because they think they’ve got the natural gift of gab so they can wing it. And they might be okay because they’re clever and they can tell a good joke, but they’re average. Often what I find is the people who don’t have that natural ability are often the ones who work harder, they prepare more and they are often more effective on stage because they are better prepared.

What often happens, someone will walk out on stage and they will say, hey, I’m really happy to be here. You’re the seventh person to say you’re really happy to be there.

Michael Bungay Stanier: And why would I care.

Michael Port: Yeah. Well here is the thing. My feeling is, of course, what’s the alternative. That you’re pissed off that you’re there. So I say we show them.

We can also do a way with saying, okay, let’s get started. Because if you do that, if you say let’s get started, it means that anything that you have said previously was irrelevant. Just like if you say at the end of the speech, if you say okay if you just take away one thing from this speech… Take away – well that suggests to me that you could have just told me that one thing. And I didn’t need to sit there for 60 minutes.

Michael Bungay Stanier: What was that other 93 minutes about then.

Michael Port: Exactly. So these are habits that we pick up because we hear other people do that. And they’re habits that we pick up because we’re often nervous and not very well prepared. Additionally, in the beginning, it’s very, very important that the bio is well constructed. Oh, I so agree with that because I find most speakers biased. They’re a combination of tedium and kind of bravado. It’s like I’m going to make you feel inferior, whilst also boring you about my list of accomplishments. What the hell? How does that engage your audience?

Michael Port: Sure. So generally, we find that the best known people have the shortest bios. You don’t need a bio for Bill Gates.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Right.

Michael Port: Ladies and Gentleman, Bill Gates.

So the longer your bio, generally, the less you have accomplished because… If you think you need to prove that much, then the audience feels that you must not be that accomplished. Now, here is the thing, the audience needs to know that you know what they want to know.

The audience needs to know that you can deliver on the promise of that speech and the promise is inherent usually in the title of it and the description of it etc. If they feel okay, this person has some expertise or some experience, okay, I’ll pay attention because if they don’t know that, they might spend the first 15 minutes trying to decide whether or not they should trust you.

So that’s where it starts and in my contracts, my bio is to be read word for word and I get to have some time with the person reading the bio prior to the event to make sure that they can read it well because…

Michael Bungay Stanier: That’s really interesting.

Michael Port: Absolutely because and this is not for me, that’s the thing, then I tell all the meeting planners, this has nothing to do with me. The reason the bios are important is because you want the audience to pay attention right away.

We want to create the best experience we possibly can and we need to deliver on the result then I’m here to deliver. So if the bio is screwed up, then the audience doesn’t know that you pick the right person to come here and often a sponsor is reading the bio. And they don’t really care about your bio.

They just wanted to get up there and talk about their company and I get that and then they may not be very comfortable or they didn’t even look at it before end and they like my second book was called Beyond Book Solid. I can’t tell you how many times in the past someone would call it Book Beyond Solid. I was called Michael Porter once by this CNN anchor who was emceeing the event and then I got to the point, I said, no, no, no. This all has to be organized. This should be rehearsed because… Every single thing that happens is a reflection on the speech.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Well I’ve been called Michael Banging Spaniel so quite frankly. I see a Michael Porter and I crush it with Michael Banging Spaniel.

Michael Port:You raised it by a thousand with that one. That is absolutely brilliant. So the speech starts when your bio is read even before they see you, very important. Now, there are four other things that need to be inherent or needs to be built into all of our presentations, whether it’s a message- based speech or curriculum-based speech because there are really two kinds of speeches.

Number 1, I mean, the curriculum is obviously a how to type speech, but there is message in it. There is philosophy in it of course. But in message speech, it is not usually a how to, but it’s here’s an idea and I want you to think about this idea and I want you to change the way you see the world based on this idea. But whether you’re doing a curriculum based speech or a message based speech, we first need to make sure that we have a big idea. And the big idea doesn’t need to be different to make a difference. That’s very important.

Sometimes, we get hung up because we think our idea is not different so who’s going to listen to me. Our ideas are not that different. But what we bring to it, the energy, the passion, the intellect, the heart, that’s what connects with people specifically and there are certain people you’re meant to serve and others that you’re not and your job is to do everything you can to reach the people you’re meant to serve. So if you have a big idea, that big idea is the through-line that runs throughout the whole presentation.

Now, if you have a big idea, then number 2, you can deliver on a big promise. Because every speech needs to have a promise, that’s absolutely essential. So everything you’re doing design wise in your content is delivering on that promise.

Number 3. So every story you tell, it’s not you don’t tell a story, just tell a story because it’s a funny story. It needs to be supported by that big idea. And help get your closer to the delivery of that promise and then number 3, we need to be able to articulate, demonstrate the consequences of not adapting this new world view.

Because if they don’t know the consequences of it, it may not hit them.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Well, it kind of connects back to that story structure you’re talking about with a story without a conflict is no story. It’s just a statement and you’re going, let me show you the promise land. Let me show you the drought that falls over the promise land if this is not achieved. So there is a price to be paid.

Michael Port: And that’s the fourth element is that is the promise land is the rewards. Of adapting with world view because here is the thing, think about this. We believe so strongly in what we do. We go give a speech. We expect other people to believe so strongly in it because we do, but you may be asking people to change the way they see the world.

You may be asking them to change a long held belief, something that they have held on to and has been a part of their persona for a long, long time and first time they’ve seen you is when you walked on stage and you’re asking them to change this. That’s a big ask.

So we want to do everything we can to connect with them so they know, we know how the world looks to them… Right now. So we get that and we don’t come out of the gate asking too much of that. So I think that what we’re asking of an audience and take audience interaction for example, what we’re asking of an audience should be directly proportionate to the amount of trust that we’ve earned. So we don’t come out and sometimes, speaker will come out and ask a question at the beginning, I tend to stay away from this, but people – but it can work certainly, but it doesn’t work very well if you ask them something that is potentially embarrassing.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Right. There is a risk to getting it wrong because then you just humbled and humiliated in front of everybody who wants that?

Michael Port: Absolutely. That end, it’s a question like so raise your hand if you’re in debt. Raise your hand if you’re an alcoholic.

Michael Bungay Stanier: You have a criminal record. Yeah, that’s me, yeah.

Michael Port: Right, but sometimes, somebody is giving a speech on say building wealth or something and they might want to demonstrate how dangerous debt is etc. And so they ask this question, but people on the audience don’t want to respond because that’s kind of embarrassing in front of other people that you don’t know, etc.

So we have to be careful about those kinds of things especially the opening because we may be asking people to change a long standing belief. So one of the things we can watch out for which is very helpful is trying to stay away from absolutes. It can be difficult to do and every once in a while, I catch myself too, but I catch myself and I’ll adjust.

So absolutes are things like everybody feels this way. Or it’s always this way or you have to do this.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Or never ever, ever use absolutes.

Michael Port: Exactly. And just like all generalities are false. So you’re the first person to get that right away. I think that’s fantastic. That’s brilliant. So what it does interestingly enough even though some might think that it makes us appear stronger and our information more important. What it does potentially is create holes.

In our argument because if I said to you Michael, look nobody likes earwax flavoured ice cream. You might say, you know what, I knew this kid named Zachary in grade school and he used to pick his ears and eat it. I bet as an adult, he might like earwax flavoured ice cream. Now, the likelihood is very small, but the point is, there maybe somebody out there.

So what happens is they start thinking about it. Does anybody like that? That’s not that point.

They should be focusing on something else. So you can change your language slightly and it creates an opening for other options and I think speakers that offer other options are often very powerful speakers.

Michael Bungay Stanier: What is interesting, I mean, I think it’s a question of being audience-centric going how do I best serve the people who are in this audience. And part of my line of thinking as the more I can give you to stay engage with me, the better chance you have of seeing my idea, perhaps a document perspective, perhaps understanding the price and the punishment of following this up.

There are some people who I’m willing to say, no, I don’t agree with that idea, but I want them to say no on the right basis, not no because I’ve accidentally set up a reason why they can’t turn me down, which isn’t really legitimate reason. Earwax ice cream, that’s not central to my idea. I don’t want you to say no to me because of that. I want you to say no to me because here is the choice I’m giving you. Give me a yes or give me a no to that.

Michael Port: Yes. That’s a wonderful perspective. I really, really like how you put that and if somebody doesn’t want to adapt your perspective because it’s challenging for them. Even if they’re wonderful people, gracious people, beautiful people, it’s challenging for them, they are more likely to try to find a way out. And so we want to do our best not to give them that easy out as you say.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Right. What I mean is our brain is wired to be asking the whole time, five times a second, is it safe here or is it dangerous. And the balance is to say if I’m not sure, it’s probably dangerous. So why give people the opportunity to slip away accidentally.

Michael Port: Yeah.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Give him a clear exit and say this is your exit if this doesn’t work for you, but don’t let them escape how to wings by accidentally showing up in a way that offers them that opportunity to slip out before you even know they’ve gone.

Michael Port: Indeed, indeed, well said.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Michael, speaking of slipping out, our time is up. So I want to ask you, people will be curious about the book, they’ll be curious about you, how do they find out more about this book, how do they get into some of this wisdom that you want to share?

Michael Port: Of course, anywhere books are sold. Steal the Show is available. We have lots and lots of goodies, bonuses, giveaways at and we’re always incentivizing people to give the book a chance and I always say this, I say, if you buy Steal The Show and you don’t love it, just shoot me an email. I’ll buy you another book of your choice and send it to you.

Michael Bungay Stanier: That’s fantastic. That’s a great offer.

Michael Port: That’s always my policy. Yeah, that’s always my policy and I’ve only sent out a few over the years, but I’ll send it to anybody that doesn’t like it.

Michael Bungay Stanier: And if you don’t like his book, ask him to buy you a copy of Do More Great Work or my upcoming book, The Coaching Habit, because then we both win out on that. Michael, it’s lovely to talk to you. I know you’re a master on the stage and I know that in this book, there is a great deal of stuff for people who want to be on the stage, for people who want to be in front of an audience. But just to take us back to what Michael started, this isn’t just for keynote speakers, it’s people who run meetings, it’s people who have conversations. Anytime you want a message to get across, there are lessons in Michael’s book that will serve you well.

Michael Port: Indeed and it’s for spotlight lovers and wallflowers alike.

Michael Bungay Stanier: Very nice. Michael, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you.

Michael Port: You’re welcome. Thank you so much for having me.


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