In her determined quest for the presidency, Michele Bachmann has made several statements about historical data that were later proven erroneous and corrected by the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact.com. But after getting off on the wrong foot by speaking to the wrong camera during her televised response to President Obama’s State of the Union in January, Ms. Bachmann learned her history lesson about the importance of presentation in politics.
The lesson began with the 1960 presidential debate in which the patrician John F. Kennedy won over an uptight Richard Nixon. That iconic event raised the bar for all future political campaigns, and they progressed through history in a rock-and-scissors game:
The intense Richard Nixon won over a bland Hubert Humphrey and an equally-bland George McGovern
The homespun Jimmy Carter won over a bumbling Gerald Ford
The smooth Ronald Reagan won over a homespun Jimmy Carter and a bland Walter Mondale
The dynamic Bill Clinton won over an aloof George H. W. Bush and a dry-as-dust Bob Dole
The folksy George W. Bush won over a stiff Al Gore and an equally-stiff John Kerry
The oratorical Barack Obama won over a petulant John McCain
Accentuating the personal image factor in those races, a Wall Street Journalarticle by Peter Funt, noted that the winners had a better head of hair and/or hairline than their opponents. While Mr. Funt’s article focused on male candidates, the stakes are even higher for women. The unflattering shots of a tired Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 primary campaign stood in stark contrast to the youthful vigor of her opponent, Barack Obama.
Michele Bachmann is taking no such chances; she is conducting her campaign in maximum control mode. Trip Gabriel of the New York Timesreported on the many measures Ms. Bachmann’s staff is taking to assure that she always appears as fresh as a daisy—including having had her duck offstage during the commercial breaks in her televised debate with male Republican candidates to touch up her makeup. Mr. Gabriel went on to note that she “is more controlling than most, carefully stage-managing her contacts with the news media and the public.”
In a related profile in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza reported that Ms. Bachmann’s press secretary spoke to the media crew traveling with the Bachmann party and said, “I know everything is on the record these days…but please just don’t broadcast images of her in her casual clothes.” Of course that didn’t stop the critical article from accompanying the text with a caricature of Ms. Bachmann in cargo pants. The image was drawn by Barry Blitt, the same artist who did the controversial cover of the magazine showing Barack Obama dressed in a turban and Michelle Obama dressed as a terrorist, fist-bumping each other.
Be that as it may, Ms. Bachmann is wisely taking full cognizance —as every candidate must—of the fate that befell Richard Nixon in 1960: He refused professional makeup for his televised debate, and instead tried to mask his characteristically heavy beard with a slapdash coat of a caulk stick called “Lazy Shave;” but “Lazy Shave” was not porous and Mr. Nixon perspired under the hot studio lights, revealing his beard anyway, making him look more nervous and more intense than his cool, calm and poised opponent.
...and do you really want to know?
by Jerry Weissman
is alive, a dynamically evolving and changing entity.
One of the newest expressions to gain momentum in American speech is, “Does that make sense?” The phrase is most often used by a speaker in the middle of a conversation—or a presenter in the middle of a presentation—to check whether or not the listener or audience member has understood or appreciated what the speaker has just said. Unfortunately, the expression has three negative implications:
Uncertainty on the part of the speaker about the accuracy or credibility of the content
Doubt about the ability of the audience to comprehend or appreciate the content.
The word, “sense,” which, by its interrogative formation, implies that the content in question is of dubious sense, or senseless, or completely nonsense.
“Does that make sense?” has become so pervasive it has taken its place among other filler words such as “I’m like…” and “I mean…” Most speakers are unaware that they are saying it, and most audiences don’t bother to think of its implications. The phrase has attained the frequency—and meaninglessness of:
“You know…” as if to be sure the listener is paying attention
“Like I said…” as if to say that the listener didn’t understand
“Again…” as if to say that the listener didn’t get it the first time
“To be honest…” as if to say the speaker was not truthful earlier
Every responsible speaker or presenter, in their well-intentioned effort to satisfy their audience, has every right to check whether their material is getting through and whether their audience is satisfied. But instead of casting negativity on the content or the audience, all a speaker has to say is:
Barack Obama has given several notable speeches in his career, starting with his sixteen and a half minute “Cinderella” speech at the Democratic National Convention in July, 2004 that launched him on the path to the presidency. Since that date, Mr. Obama has hit several high water marks for his oratory:
March 18, 2008
A More Perfect Union “The Race Speech”
August 28, 2008
“The American Promise” Acceptance Speech
November 4, 2008
Election Night Victory Speech
Grant Park, IL
January 20, 2009
June 4, 2009
“A New Beginning”
December 1, 2009
Speech on Afghanistan to 2010 Cadets,
West Point, NY
January 12, 2011
“Together We Thrive: Tucson and America”s
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
But the president has also hit several low water marks—the loss of his majority in the House of Representatives, resistance to his legislation, and the defection of many of his supporters—that his speeches were unable to affect. In that time, his public approval ratings dropped to a new low of 26%. The many Republican candidates who are vying for the candidacy to run against Mr. Obama next year are going after each other, but they all agree on one subject: attacking him.
The president began his counterattack with a three-day bus tour of the Midwest this week. Then as the tour wound down, White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told MSNBC that the president is planning to deliver a major speech on jobs and the economy after Labor Day. Given that those twin themes have been the primary point of assault, that speech could be more mission critical than any of the others. The New York Times’ Michael Shear is dubious. Yesterday, he asked, “Can Another Speech Really Help Obama?”
To meet the challenge, Mr. Obama will have to modulate the soaring rhetoric of his inaugural address—“In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come”—and come down to earth with specific plans to put the country back on track and Americans back to work.
His actions will have to speak louder than his words.
Tea Party darling Christine O'Donnell, who tried and failed to win Joe Biden’s Delaware senate seat last year, did what all politicians eventually do, write a book. And, as all authors do, Ms. O’Donnell set about to promote Troublemaker, as the publication is aptly titled. One of her first stops was a one-on-one interview with the heir to Larry King’s CNN throne, Piers Morgan.
Mr. Morgan, who was groomed in the now-infamous British school of aggressive journalism, went right for the jugular, quizzing Ms. O’Donnell about her own infamous statements (made for posterity—and ready playback—on television) about witchcraft, abstinence, masturbation, and gay marriage. At first, she attempted to laugh off his questions by saying, “Let’s not go there,” but as Mr. Morgan persisted, she stiffened and defaulted to another line of defense, saying that her positions are covered in the book. Undeterred, Mr. Morgan pressed on: “You keep saying, ‘It’s in the book,’ I’m bemused at why you wouldn’t just say it in an interview if you say it in the book.” But she continued to duck his questions and, true to his bulldog form, he continued to ask them. Before long, Ms. O’Donnell accused her host of being rude and, not long after that, she stood up and walked off the set in the middle of the live broadcast.
The incident sent waves rippling through cyberspace and the media. Not unsurprisingly, it also vaulted Troublemaker to #2 in Amazon’s State and Local Government category—validating the classic media axiom, “The only bad publicity is no publicity.”
But the central publicity issue in the flap was Mr. Morgan’s having called Ms. O’Donnell on the gap between writing about her position and discussing it on air. By accepting an appearance to be interviewed, she is fair game has to be prepared for all manner of questions. Surely, her handlers had to have anticipated that any interviewer worth his salt—and Mr. Morgan is as salty as they get—would pursue the juiciest subjects. Apparently, her handlers did not and so, because Ms. O’Donnell couldn’t stand the heat, she had to get out of the kitchen.
The fruit of my 11 years of research meant that I had more than 400 characters scattered over four regions... This vast mass of material was so unwieldy that I could hardly work my way through the first day of the conflict, let alone all four years.
While few presenters spend 11 years developing their stories about their businesses, they, like Ms. Foreman, have a vast mass of unwieldy material that they have to communicate to various audiences. Unfortunately, most presenters then proceed to deliver that mass to their audiences as is, inflicting the dreaded effect known as MEGO or “My Eyes Glaze Over.”
Although Ms. Foreman is a respected scholar with a doctorate in history from Oxford University, she has storytelling in her DNA. He father was Carl Foreman, on Oscar-winning screenwriter who wrote the classic film The Bridge on the River Kwai. At the end of her research, Ms. Foreman realized that, even for a story as immense and complex as the Civil War, she had too much information for both reader and writer to process. Her solution:
I plotted the time lines of my 400 characters and identified and discarded people who, no matter how interesting their stories, had no connection to anyone else in the book. This winnowed my cast down to 197 characters, all bound to one another by acquaintance or one degree of separation.
Ms. Foreman was tapping into a practice—well-known among professional writers—called, “kill your darlings.” In fact, a community of writers in Atlanta has adopted that name for its website. The phrase is often attributed to Nobel Prize novelist William Faulkner, but it was actually coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British writer and critic who, in his 1916 publication, On the Art of Writing, said:
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
The sentiment was echoed by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriters of Captain America, the current Hollywood action film based on the 70 year-old comic strip character. In another Wall Street Journal “Word Craft” article, the team wrote:
Adapting an existing work for film is usually a process of reduction. Whether it's a novel or a short story, a true-crime tale or 70 years' worth of comic books, the first job is distillation. If this means losing someone's favorite character, so be it. The simple fact is that we can't put everything on the screen. Darlings must die
The phrase rings true because writers, who labor over their ideas and words like expectant mothers, invariably fall in love with their offspring and are reluctant to find fault, and even more reluctant to part with them. In the same manner, presenters who live, breathe, walk, and talk their businesses, want to share every last detail about them with their prospective audiences. But audiences do not share their interest, and so presenters, like writers, must kill their darlings.
In presentations, the process begins by assembling all your story elements. A chef prepares for a meal by gathering all the ingredients, seasonings, and utensils, but doesn’t use every last one of them. Once you have assembled all your presentation ingredients, assess every item for its relevance and importance to your audience—not to you. Your audience cannot possibly know your subject as well as you do, and so they do not need to know all that you do. Tell them the time, not how to build a clock.
Delete, discard, omit, slice, dice, or whatever surgical method you chose to eliminate excess baggage. Be merciless. Retain only what your audience needs to know.
Once you have made that first cut, make another pass, and then another. Each time you do, you will see your draft with fresh eyes and find another candidate for your scalpel. Follow the advice of the classic Strunk and White’s The Elements o f Style: “It is always a good idea to reread your writing later and ruthlessly delete the excess.”
Bestselling horror novelist Stephen King—who knows a thing or two about ruthless killing—follows a similar practice. In his 2000 book On Writing, he shared a note his editor once sent to him:
You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.
Deal with your vast mass of unwieldy material in your preparation, not in your presentation; behind the scenes, not in front of the room. A gentler way of saying “kill your darlings” is, “when in doubt, leave it out.”
Footnote: Amazon lists Ms. Foreman’s book at 1008 pages. Imagine how many more pages it would have run had she not killed those 203 characters.
Thanks to Forbes’ own Quentin Hardy for his insightful comment on last Friday’s post about Tim Pawlenty’s negativity in a debate among Republican presidential candidates in Ames, Iowa. Not only did Mr. Hardy recommend what Mr. Pawlenty might have done differently—“The mistake he made, in my view, was not challenging her first in the specifics, then setting her aside to talk about his ‘real’ record,”— he also questioned the accuracy of Ms. Bachmann’s charges to which Mr. Pawlenty was reacting so negatively.
In support, Mr. Hardy pointed to Erza Klein’s article on the Washington Post blogsite:
Over and over again, Bachmann misstated basic facts. She said that Tim Pawlenty “implemented” cap-and-trade in Minnesota. He did no such thing. She said “we just heard from Standard Poor’s,” and “when they dropped our credit rating what they said was we don’t have an ability to repay our debt.” Simply not true.
S&P has never questioned our ability to repay our debt. That’s why we remain AA+. They have questioned whether political brinksmanship will stop us from paying our debt. The downgrade “was pretty much motivated by all of the debate about the raising of the debt ceiling,” said John Chambers, head of S&P’s sovereign ratings committee.
Two days after the debate, which was a prelude to Saturday’s Iowa Straw poll, Mr. Pawlenty placed a distant third in the voting behind frontrunner Ms. Bachmann and close second Ron Paul. The next morning, Mr. Pawlenty withdrew his candidacy. CNN reported that he told his staff, “We needed a boost from Ames that didn't happen."
What did happen in Ames was Mr. Pawlenty’s negative behavior in the debate, attacking Mitt Romney as well as Ms. Bachmann. What also happened in Ames was that Mr. Pawlenty tried to counter the recurring characterization that he lacks luster; a characterization implied by Maureen Dowd’s description of the Republican candidates in yesterday’s New York Times as “the sane ones are boring as spackle and the insane ones have crackle.” Mr. Pawlenty tried for crackle and end up with cranky. He tried to move beyond his natural style and overshot the mark.
All of which points to the vital importance in politics—and in all walks of life—of an assertive but positive style to express a clear and well-defined substance. Finding that balance is a challenge but, ever since the iconic 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate and escalating in importance ever since, presentation counts.
The road to November 6, 2012 will be paved with many lessons.
In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew famously said,
"In the United States today, we have more than our share of the
nattering nabobs of negativism.” Mr. Agnew was referring to the liberal
media and their contentious relationship with the Nixon administration.
Since then, driven by the broad reach of cable news channels and
websites on both sides of the political fence, the contentiousness has
escalated by an order of magnitude. With the presidential election 15
months away, we can only anticipate—and dread—how negative the campaign
will be between Republicans and Democrats.
But the negativity has already begun within the Republican Party.
Last night, in anticipation of Saturday’s straw poll in Iowa—and what
will be the first direct indicator in the campaign—eight declared
candidates met for a televised debate at Iowa State University. As
expected, President Obama was the primary target of attack, but so were
the Republicans at the other lecterns. In what the New York Times report characterized as
“a burst of incivility,” the candidates went after each other. Most
pointed was the one minute exchange between Tim Pawlenty, the former
Minnesota governor and current Minnesota Representative Michele
Bachmann. Standing next to him, she cited three of his actions as
governor that “sounds a lot more like Barack Obama.” Mr. Pawlenty’s
counterattack included the following accusations:
“record of misstating”
“making false statements”
“The American people are going to expect more and demand more”
“She said she’s got a titanium spine; it’s not her spine we’re worried about, it’s her record of results.”
“If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you’re killing us.”
Negative statements have a way of taking on a life of their own.
Spiro Agnew is long gone, but his words linger. So do the words of his
running mate, Richard Nixon, and his infamous defense in the Watergate
scandal, “I am not a crook.”
What if Mr. Nixon had said instead, “I am an honest man”?
End Not with a Whimper but a Bang
by Jerry Weissman
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
The famous last line ofNobel-Prize winner T. S. Eliot’s 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men,” has become a modern catchphrase in both its original form above and its converse, “not with a whimper but a bang.” Mr. Eliot’s original intent was to express his view of the futility of life after World War I, but many other writers have since used the converse version in popular culture, in literature, music, art, and especially in politics to describe weak resolutions—as Dana Milbank did in his Washington Postline-by-line deconstruction of President Obama’s response to Standard and Poor’s downgrade of the U.S. credit rating:
“No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a AAA country,” Obama said, as if comforting a child who had been teased by the class bully.
[H]e revisited the same proposals he had previously offered to little effect: extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, and spending more on infrastructure projects. This, he said, is “something we can do as soon as Congress gets back,” along with further deficit reduction. “I intend to present my own recommendations over the coming weeks,” he said. Over the coming weeks? As soon as Congress gets back?
“There will always be economic factors that we can’t control,” Obama said. Maybe. But it would be nice if the president gave it a try.
And as Maureen Dowd did in her New York Timescolumn:
Obama’s response on Monday to Friday’s Standard & Poor’s downgrade and to the 22 Navy Seal commandos and 8 other soldiers killed by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan was once more too little, too late. It was just like his belated, ineffectual response on the BP oil spill.
Seeking bangs not whimpers, Mr. Milbank and Ms. Dowd are echoing the critical sentiments of another former supporter of the president, Drew Westen, the subject of this previous post.
The quest for assertiveness as it pertains to writing was articulated by James J. Kilpatrick, a well-respected newspaper editor, columnist, author of several books, including The Writer’s Art. As reported by Ben Zimmer in his New York Times “On Language” column:
Kilpatrick’s appreciation of language was an aesthetic one. In his waning years, he gave Garner [Bryan Garner, the author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, and a stickler about language] this advice on ending a column: “End it on an accented syllable, preferably with a long vowel.” In other words, not with a whimper but a bang.
The aesthetic lesson for presenters is to end every phrase of your narrative by dropping your voice, the spoken equivalent of an accented syllable in writing. Dropping your voice in speech is the vocal equivalent of a period in writing. If you do not drop your voice, your forceful statements will sound like dubious questions—or like “Valley Girl Talk,” the subject of a prior blog. If instead, you drop your voice at the ends of your phrases, your statements will sound strong and assertive.
The rhetorical lesson for presenters is to punctuate your presentation with clear calls to action. Don’t assume that your audience will respond favorably to your pitch just because you give it. Be specific. To use the mantra of salespeople, “Ask for the order.”
The metaphorically-minded Mr. Eliot would be pleased to know that his famous phrase provides a double lesson for presenters.
Last month, a Swiss group calling themselves the Anti-PowerPoint Party launched their efforts—complete with a bright red octagonal STOP sign logo—and took their place in a long line of detractors that stretches back to 2003. The formal start of the criticism was the publication in Wired magazine of an article called “PowerPoint Is Evil: Power Corrupts, PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely” written by Edward R. Tufte, the noted graphics guru and professor emeritus of political science, computer science and statistics, and graphic design at Yale University.
Readers of this site will recall that I’ve often challenged Mr. Tufte’s opinions, most recently here, but the beating of PowerPoint goes on. My argument, simply and repeatedly stated, is to blame the penmanship, not the pen. A bad presentation is the fault of the user, not the tool.
To be flair, the Anti-PowerPoint Party does not fully advocate what its name implies. In fact, its goal, as stated on their home page is much more aligned with my argument:
We do not want to abolish PowerPoint*; we only want to abolish the PowerPoint*-CONSTRAINT.
We want that the number of boring PowerPoint* presentations on the planet to decrease and the average presentation to become more exciting and more interesting.
Nevertheless, the hue and cry of the Anti-PowerPoint Party was echoed by Lucy Kellaway, who writes the respected “Business Life” column for Financial Times. In her article on the launch, Ms. Kellaway advocated that “the APPP needs a terrorist faction, which would advocate cutting the wire in the middle of the table that connects the laptop to the projector…Better still would be to campaign for an outright ban.”
Even better still would be to campaign for a correction of user errors by banning the use of PowerPoint for anything but presentations (not send-aheads or leave-behinds) and to subordinate its use during presentations to support and illustration of the presenter’s narrative.
Joining this approach was a letter to the editors of Financial Times in response to Ms. Kellaway’s article. The letter was sent by Michael Baldwin, a presentation coach in New York who wrote:
In print cartoons, there is a dynamic relationship between the image and the caption that makes them—the good ones—both inseparable and unforgettable. With proper training, presenters can employ this same dynamic to produce memorable and convincing presentations.
Heed Mr. Baldwin’s metaphorical advice or your presentation will become a literal cartoon.
As a presentations coach, I show archival videos as positive and negative role models to demonstrate what participants should and should not do when they present. Although most of my participants are business men and women, most of the videos are of political figures, such as The Kennedy-Nixon debate and public appearances by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both Presidents Bush, and Barack Obama.
This often prompts a question about how many politicians I have coached. My answer is, “Zero,” which often prompts a follow-up question, “Why not?” My answer to that question resonates with today’s headlines, and particularly with President Obama. “In order for any speech or presentation to succeed, it must have a single, well-defined, and clearly stated goal. My job as a coach is to help speakers and presenters define and express their goals; but it is difficult to do that with politicians because they are obliged to satisfy different constituencies and often end up compromising their messaging.”
Over the past weekend, two political commentators—one from the right and one from the left—took the president to task for that very shortcoming in the way he handled the debt crisis. Peggy Noonan made her critique in her weekly Wall Street Journalcolumn:
The power of the president's oratory was always exaggerated. It is true that a good speech put him on the map in 2004 and made his rise possible…But speeches aren't magic. A speech is only as good as the ideas it advances. Reagan had good ideas. Obama does not. The debt-ceiling crisis revealed Mr. Obama's speeches as rhetorical kryptonite. It is the substance that repels the listener.
As a conservative columnist and a former speechwriter for President Reagan, Ms. Noonan’s position is understandable; but her opinion was echoed in the New York Times by Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University who identifies himself as, “a messaging consultant to nonprofit groups and Democratic leaders.” In his Op-Ed article, Professor Westen draws a distinction between the president’s acknowledged superior speaking style and the substance of his actions:
[H]e ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.
Professor Westen went on to chastise President Obama because “history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise,” and urged him to take a strong, clear stand, just asPresident Franklin D. Roosevelt did in similar contentious economic circumstances:
Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right…In a 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, he thundered, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
As a presentations coach, I urge you to take a stand whenever you speak or present. In the sales arena, this is known as, “Ask for the order!”