For the more than two decades I have been a presentation coach, the question most frequently-asked of me has been, “What do I do with my hands?” So frequent, I devoted a prior post to answering it. But that was then and this is now.
Of late, the most frequently-asked question is, “How do you deal with audiences who are fixated on their smart phones?” The question, asked by distraught presenters, refers to a chronic malady known as “CrackBerry Addiction.” Compounding the problem, those very same presenters, when they become audience members themselves, proceed to exhibit the same severe symptoms of the disease. The addiction is at epidemic proportions.
Quite frankly, I’m stumped for an answer. I’ve tried every technique I know—pregnant pauses, steely stares, provocative questions, innocent questions, polite requests, forceful demands, gentle nudges, outright pleas, periodic breaks, and even making a demonstrative point of shutting down my own smart phone—to no avail. The addiction persists.
Therefore, I’ll approach the problem from a different angle; instead of trying to help presenters, I’ll cast a wider net by recommending how anyone can escape the hypnotic allure of those glowing LCD screens. Admit it, you know that you are hooked, too. My hope is that if I can help move the needle only slightly, clearer minds might become more attentive audiences.
Professional writers, for whom concentration is critical, are often derailed by the double-edged sword of the Internet: they use it to find material, but they often go off on search sidetracks that interrupt their creative process. In an article for the New York Times Book Review, travel writer Tony Perrottet described one of his lengthy web detours, and added that he is not alone in literary circles, “everyone I know acknowledges the problem of digital distraction.” Mr. Perrottet then went on to note that some writers “have made gestures toward enforced self-denial,” and gave the example of author Jonathan Franzen who wrote his bestselling novel, The Corrections, “in a dark room wearing earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold, and confessed to blocking his Ethernet port with Super Glue.”
Extremes measures, but not as extreme as those of Rolf Dobelli. Mr. Dobelli, the driving force behind the popular business book summary website getAbstract, is a writer in his own right. In an online essay titled, “Avoid News,” he recommends going cold turkey:
Make news as inaccessible as possible. Delete the news apps from your iPhone. Sell your TV. Cancel your newspaper subscriptions. Do not pick up newspapers and magazines that lie around in airports and train stations. Do not set your browser default to a news site. Pick a site that never changes. The more stale the better. Delete all news sites from your browser’s favorites list. Delete the news widgets from your desktop.
As admirable as Mr. Dobelli’s goal is, it is also unrealistic. Ever since Adam, humans succumb to temptation, and so are virtually incapable of going cold turkey. Why do you think there are so many diet books on the bestseller lists?
A more realistic approach to CrackBerry Addiction is to follow the model of other established substance abuse solutions: one step at a time. Mr. Perrottet tells of two authors, Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius)and Nora Ephron (I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections),who use a computer program called Freedom that blocks Internet access for up to eight hours. Just as airlines require passengers to turn off their mobile devices for the duration of the flight, the withdrawal is confined to a limited period.
This is the first step toward self-control, and if self-control ever catches on, perhaps your next audience will take their eyes off their CrackBerries and focus on you.
By any measure, Vinod Khosla is one of the most influential people in business today. In his long and distinguished career, Mr. Khosla has contributed to the growth of hundreds of companies, primarily in his role as a venture capitalist; first at the renowned KPCB, and then, since 2004, at his own firm, Khosla Ventures. Among his notable successes are Sun Microsystems, Nexgen/AMD, Excite, and Juniper.
On their way to maturity, each of the many companies Mr. Khosla touched came under the scrutiny of his expert eye, assessing their business plans, balance sheets, strategic relationships, marketing materials, and especially their presentations. During his 25 years in venture capital, Mr. Khosla has seen as many—if not more—presentations than a presentation coach. Most of them were on Mondays, the day Silicon Valley venture firms traditionally allocate to screening pitches from new companies. Then, once the companies make it into the portfolio, Mr. Khosla continues to monitor and critique the presentations they develop to pitch to their potential customers and partners.
For each of them, he applies his five-second rule: he puts a slide on a screen, removes it after five seconds, and then asks the viewer to describe the slide. A dense slide fails the test—and fails to provide the basic function of any visual: to aid the presentation.
By applying his simple rule, Mr. Khosla is addressing two of the most important elements in presentation graphics: Less is More, a plea all too often sounded by helpless audiences to hapless presenters; and more important, the human perception factor. Whenever an image appears on any screen, the eyes of every member of every audience reflexively move to the screen to process the new image. The denser the image, the more processing the audiences need. At that very moment, they stop listening to the presenter. Nevertheless, most presenters continue speaking, further compounding the processing task. As a result, the audience shuts down. Game over.
The simple solution to this pervasive problem is one that readers of my books will recognize: use television news programs as a role model. With vast high-tech graphics resources at their disposal, all the broadcasters show is a simple image composed of a picture and one or two words to serve as a headline for the story that the anchor person tells. In presentations, consider yourself as the anchor person, and design slides that pass Mr. Khosla’s five-second test to serve as the headline for your story.
The italicized “more” in the title of this post signifies a greater degree of meaninglessness in words rather than an increase in their occurrence. In an earlier blog, you read about several innocuous phrases that have crept into our daily language, each of which casts doubt on the competence of the presenter or the audience. Another group of phrases and words casts doubt about the content itself:
These phrases have taken on the frequency of fillers, empty words that surround and diminish meaningful words, just as weeds diminish the beauty of roses in a garden. Most speakers are unaware that they are using fillers, and most audiences don’t bother to think of their implications.
Sometimes, these words can have a purpose. In a New York Timesarticle about author David Foster Wallace, writer Maud Newton noted that “Wallace’s nonfiction abounds with qualifiers like ‘sort of’ and ‘pretty much.’” But she also noted that his use of these meaningless words was intentional, a “subtle rhetorical strategy” to make a critical point and defuse it with irony. As a prime example, she cited the title of one of Mr. Wallace’s collected essays: “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think.”
Presenters do not have the luxury of indulging in irony or—with all due respect—the literary talent, to engage in such artful wordplay. Qualifying words lessen the importance and the value of the nouns and verbs they accompany. Those nouns and verbs represent the products, services, and actions of the business—the franchise—that the presenter is pitching, and a presenter must not diminish their worth. Parents do not describe their children as “sort of cute.”
Instead, follow the advice of the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style: “Use definite, specific, concrete language.” To accomplish this you must diligently delete meaningless words and phrases from your speech, a task easier said than done because of their pervasiveness. One way to kick the habit is to capture the narrative of your next presentation with the voice record function on your smart phone, then play it back post mortem and listen to your own pattern. (You’re in for a surprise in more ways than one.) You will have to repeat this process several times before you start correcting yourself, but do it you must.
Ms. Newton put the challenge perfectly at the end of her article:
Qualifications are necessary sometimes…But the idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately.
Against the backdrop of the shifting sands of public opinion polls
that show former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain’s numbers surging and
Texas Governor Rick Perry’s falling, the gloves came off in last night’s
Republican Presidential debate in Las Vegas, broadcast live on CNN. Mr.
Cain and Mitt Romney, the current front runner, were the primary
targets in what degenerated into a grudge match.
The attacks came from all sides. At first, all the candidates went
after Mr. Cain and his 9-9-9 tax plan. Then Rick Santorum, trailing the
pack in last place, went after Mr. Romney and his health care plan. Soon
after, Mr. Perry, who was trying to regain his momentum and to counter criticism
of his weak debating style in previous debates, went after Mr. Romney
on immigration policy and conservative position, and he did so with a
vengeance. Mr. Romney gave back as good as he got, but their sharp
exchanges—expressed with aggressive verbiage and gestures—were charged
with animosity, personal attacks, and repeated interruptions. Moderator
Anderson Cooper could barely control the cross talk, let alone the
Today’s Wall Street Journalreview of The Rare Find,
a new book about the search for skilled people, describes the
importance of “serenity in the face of adversity.” That quality is also
an aspect of “presidential,” but the adjective was not applicable to
the candidates vying for that office last night. Even Newt Gingrich, the
former House speaker and perennial presidential candidate, who has been
there, done that, said in his closing remarks that “maximizing
bickering” was probably not the best way to get to the White House. John
King, the CNN political analyst, took Mr. Gingrich’s observation one
step further. In his post mortem commentary, Mr. King said that the
clear winner of the debate was Barack Obama.
Yesterday was not a good day for Governor Rick Perry in his quest to be the Republican candidate for president. He awakened to the news that he had dropped to third place in the NBC News/Marist public opinion poll for the Iowa Republican Presidential Caucus, 15 points behind front runner Mitt Romney; and even further to a distant fifth place in the same poll for the New Hampshire Republican Presidential Primary, a whopping 38 points behind Mr. Romney—and this only hours before he was to meet Mr. Romney and the other Republican candidates in that state’s debate.
Compounding Mr. Perry’s woes, later in the morning Mr. Romney received the endorsement of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the man who, until his withdrawal from the race last week, was considered far and wide to be a serious candidate himself.
And then evening fell, and so did Mr. Perry’s fortunes. The New York Times coverage of the debate reported that:
In the days leading up to the debate, Mr. Perry aggressively challenged Mr. Romney and accused him of waffling on conservative principles. But he brought almost none of the criticism to the debating stage and went for long stretches without being recognized by the debate moderators or trying to insert himself into the conversation.
When moderator Charlie Rose did recognize Mr. Perry with a question about his economic plan, he replied,
… it doesn't make any difference whether it's "Obamacare," whether it's Dodd-Frank, or whether it's the tax burden, a president, particularly with the plan that I'm going to be laying out over the next three days -- and I'm not going to lay it out all for you tonight. You know, Mitt's had six years to be working on a plan; I've been in this for about eight weeks.
A participant in a debate, particularly a candidate for the highest office in the land—but also anyone in business—cannot defer answers to the burning question of the moment; nor can that person claim insufficient time to prepare. Readiness to act and willingness to go the extra mile are essential elements of leadership.
Governor Perry then punctuated his non-answer with this digression:
But clearly, we're going to be focused on initially the energy industry in this country and making America again independent and clearly the place where domestic energy needs to be produced from.
All of which prompted AlexCastellanos, the Republican analyst for CNN, to observe in his debate post-mortem commentary:
Obviously, his campaign decided that we’re going to simplify things for our candidate. We’re going to give him one idea: energy equals jobs, and we’re going to let him be quiet the rest of the time and get through the debate that way.
The last debate, the excuse was made, well, he was standing up all the debate long and he got tired. So this debate should’ve been his debate, he was sitting down. I think next time, he’s going to have to get a mattress…
Then Mr. Castellanos added,
…because there was no energy, no fire
Leadership also requires high energy and a fire in the belly.
As you read earlier, Mr. Perry’s poor responses to questions in the previous debate cost him his lead in the public opinion polls. The reversal was a hollow echo of the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 and its reverberations in 2011that the Wall Street Journaldescribedas “a Michele Bachmann bounce and a Tim Pawlenty plunge, a Herman Cain climb and a Rick Perry plummet.” Last night’s performance could cost Mr. Perry even more.
The rollercoaster race for the Republican nominee for president in the 2012 election has produced dizzying rises and precipitous falls for Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry. Although struggling to right their listing campaigns, they are both still in play—along with Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and last week’s candidate du jour, Herman Cain. With no clear leader, however, the GOP faithful and the media are looking for yet another fresh face. This week’s candidate du jour—after a rousing rally-the-party-and-bash-Obama speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California—is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Mr. Christie has yet to declare officially, but this has not stopped a deluge of opinions and advice from diverse factions within the party, from the other candidates, and from the media. These opinions range from serious considerations about Mr. Christie’s positions on major issues to silly prattle about his weight. Sitting in the middle of these two polar opposites is the more urgent compressed time factor. In the next two weeks, there will be two more nationally-televised debates among the declared candidates. In three months, with three major holidays intervening, the first primary elections will take place. Mr. Christie has yet to develop position papers, assemble a funding committee, or build a campaign organization.
All these risk factors have prompted Mr. Christie’s supporters—among them Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House press secretary—to urge him not to run. In a blog post on CNN, Mr. Fleischer identified several pitfalls—each of which has application to business and to presentations. Mr. Fleisher’s words about Mr. Christie are in italics, the lessons for you are in regular font:
Does he know the issues? Debate preparation is time-intensive -- and that means time he's not raising money, returning calls, or hitting the campaign trail.
Presentation preparation is time-intensive, too, yet presenters all too often relegate theirs to the eleventh hour, after their email, phone calls, and meetings.
One False Step: Everything he does will be magnified by the media, turning small stumbles into giant falls. Just as they're hyping his candidacy now, the press will overhype his (inevitable) mistakes the moment he declares.
In this day and age of Sarbanes-Oxley, the market and the media are unforgiving of corporate mistakes. One small misstep can tank a stock. On the other hand, slips in presentations are forgivable. It’s the human factor. When a presenter stumbles, the audience—who has been there, done that—can relate and be accepting.
He didn't return my call: In the aftermath of an announcement, he'll get flooded with calls from important people who want to talk to him and his not-yet-existent campaign staff…But when no one returns their calls, because there is no organization and no time, it won't take long for grumbling to begin.
Just as politicians must be responsive to their supporters and the media, so must presenters. But unlike politicians who are not always responsive to questions, every presenter must answer every question from every audience member.
He gave his word: Christie has already said he won't run. If he changes his mind now, what does it say about his willingness to change his mind on other issues, once his word is given?
Politicians—and lovers and shoppers—can get away with changing their minds, business people cannot. Consistency of message is critical.