Power Presentations - Wednesday, February 27, 2013
by Jerry Weissman
There’s an old Show Business story about an aging vaudeville comic who is about to meet his Maker. His friends and family come to his deathbed to say their goodbyes. One of his former partners, dismayed at seeing his friend’s frail state, leans in to whisper, “Dying is hard.”
The vaudevillian looks up and says, “Not as hard as comedy.”
Seth MacFarlane tried to be funny as the host of the 2013 Oscar telecast and proceeded to lay more eggs than a chicken farm in rural New Jersey. He bombed because he broke the three cardinal rules of comedy:
He announced that he was about to tell a joke
He snickered or laughed after he told the joke
He mis-timed his delivery by pausing too long before his punch lines
His content was another matter. Content is all a matter of taste, and many critics found Mr. MacFarlane’s mockery of women, Jews, blacks, gays, alcoholics, children, and even the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, thoroughly tasteless.
Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, summed it up perfectly: “It wasn’t funny,” Mr. Foxman said. “It was ugly.”
Mr. MacFarlane, in a sense, agreed. When asked whether he would repeat his performance for the next Oscar broadcast, he said, “No way.”
Teddy Wayne, a novelist whose latest, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, was reviewed on the front pageof the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, also appeared in the newspaper on Monday with an article giving advice about public speaking. Mr. Wayne earned this prime coverage because of his reputation for comic writing. The review called his new book “more than a scabrous sendup of American celebrity culture; it’s also a poignant portrait of one young artist’s coming of age.”
But comedy might not be the best vehicle for advice on public speaking. I commented on his article:
You're a very funny writer, Mr. Wayne, and you've done some clever riffs on the apocryphal misconceptions about public speaking advice, but this is a dead serious matter. Businesses and careers can rise or fall on how a person communicates.
Another clever writer named Mark Twain once said that there are two kinds of public speakers: those who get nervous and those who are liars.
(commentary from last week's State of the Union, February 12, 2013)
by Jerry Weissman, author of Winning Strategies…
By their nature, State of the Union Addresses take the shapeless form of a laundry list. As President Obama noted in the opening sentence of this year’s—his 4th—edition of the annual event, it is his task “to report the State of the Union.” To make that report complete and accurate, the president and his speech writers send parts of the speech in advance to the various departments of the federal government for their input and confirmation. That process falls into the category of “creation by committee,” and its companion phrase, “a camel is a horse created by a committee.”That’s why most such addresses come across as a patchwork quilt—except for this year’s edition.
After a few opening sentences, President Obama stated his main theme: “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth.” He then proceeded to stay on that single subject for what amounted to 65% of the nearly 6500 word speech. In that stretch, he spoke about diverse subjects, most of them directly related to the economy such as reducing the deficit, tax and entitlement reform, creating jobs, and investing in infrastructure. He also spoke of subjects tangential to the economy but he carefully wove them back into the economy. Note how he ties each subject to his main theme (italics mine):
Climate change: “We can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change.”
High-quality education: “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on.”
Immigration: “Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants.”
Violence Against Women: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.”
This consistent back reference gave the address continuity that is rare in State of the Union Addresses
Mr. Obama also used another powerful device rhetorical device in his speech, one favored by orators since the dawn of civilization. The Greeks called it “anaphora,” or a figure speech repeated over a series of successive phrases or clauses. The most famous is Reverend Martin Luther King’s use of the phrase “I have a dream” 16 times successively in his historic civil rights speech.
At the end of his State of the Union, the president moved from the economy to gun violence and told the story of a victim named Hadiya Pendleton who was shot and killed in a Chicago. Mr. Obama repeated the same phrase five times:
Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.
Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.
It served as an emotional climax to a well-constructed speech.
Power Presentations - Wednesday, February 13, 2013
by Jerry Weissman
Mortimer Adler, the noted 20th Century professor, philosopher, and chairman of the Board of Editors at Encyclopedia Britannica, was also a scholar of the classics. In his 1983 book, How to Speak How to Listen, Mr. Adler described an invitation he received to speak at the Advertising Clubs of California:
They asked me in advance for a title. I suggested that it be “Aristotle on Salesmanship,” a title I thought would be sufficiently shocking for them. It was. No one had ever before connected the name of Aristotle with salesmanship—or with advertising, which is the adjunct of selling.
Sadly, no one connects presentations with selling either. Why else do audiences so often mutter to themselves, “What’s the point of all this?” or “…and your point is?” Such questions are prompted by a pointless story, but more often, by a lack of a call to action.
The answer to those questions may be that, because salesmanship is held is such low esteem in our culture, asking for the order is considered pushy. In a book called The Art of the Sale, authorPhilip Delves Broughton points to two Pulitzer prize-winning plays, Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" in 1949 and David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" in 1984, as having marked salesmen as archetypically unsavory characters. Mr. Delves Broughton goes on to describe current salesmen as people who are “goaded to perform and reined in when they sell too hard. They are patronized as 'feet on the street' by those who prefer to imagine that business can be conducted by consultants with dueling PowerPoint presentations.”
The solution is to go beyond PowerPoint and make your point crystal clear, make an unmistakable call to action. That is the mark of effective salespersons, effective presenters, and, effective people in all walks of life. As L. Gordon Crovitz, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, wrote in his review of Mr. Delves Broughton’s book:
We all engage in sales of one sort or another. Parents sell the idea of eating vegetables to their children; reporters sell their latest story idea to editors; university presidents sell their institution's neediness to potential donors.
But asking for the order is only part of the solution to effective salesmanship; the other is to provide benefits to customers in sales, and benefits to audiences in presentations. Failure to give benefits in each arena is anathema.
Which brings us right back to Aristotle. 2300 years ago, the great philosopher proposed that, to be persuasive, a speaker must provide the holy trinity of Ethos, or credibility, Logos, or evidence, and Pathos, or benefits. In the 21st Century, the first two are givens. Given the curiosity and speed of our media, no speaker or business person can get away with unethical behavior or shoddy evidence—for very long. Consider the current parade of exposed politicians and executives whose misdeeds make the sleazy salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross" look like kindergarten pranksters.
But pathos is still sadly missing. So if you take away only one lesson it is this: load every presentation you ever give with benefits for every audience. And do it with this simple rule of thumb: pause every couple of minutes in the forward progress of your story, and start this sentence, “The reason this is important to you is…” and then finish it with a benefit to that specific audience. Or pose this rhetorical question, “What’s in it for you?” and answer it with a benefit.
Only then can you make your call to action; only then can you make the sale.
In my constant effort as a coach to persuade business people to remember that a picture is worth a thousand words and to avoid the dreaded "Presentation-as-Document Syndrome," presenters often protest, "But I’m not an artist!"
Cast adrift from their familiar text slides, presenters are reluctant to try alternatives. However, you don't have to go out and buy a painter's smock and beret to break the mold of an endless parade of boring bullet slides.
Begin with overarching concept that the primary—and sole—purpose of your PowerPoint is to illustrate your narrative. Remember my often-repeated (because it still hasn't taken hold) recommendation that your business slideshow should follow the example of television news broadcasts: the anchorperson tells the story and the graphics serve as a headline that captures the essence of the story.
Then design your presentation headlines as "infographics" or "data visualizations." Visual.ly, the world’s largest community for sharing infographics, defines these terms as follows:
…Infographics are images created to explain a particular idea or dataset. They often contain beautiful graphics to increase their appeal and help catch your attention. Many of them use data visualization.
Data visualizations represent numerical data in a visual format. They can be anything from a simple bar chart to a complex three dimensional CAT Scan representation.
But go beyond the usual charts and venture into more vivid images to communicate and illustrate your story. You have at your disposal a number of resources to convert text into images, and to inspire your thinking visually:
Google and Bing: Each of these powerful search engines has an "Images" feature. Just go to the search bar on either site, type in a keyword, and you'll see a broad array of photos, clip art, and line drawings. You can also search for synonyms of a key word. For instance, "jail," "prison," and "penitentiary" will bring up multiple variations of incarceration images. Moreover, as soon as you type in a key word, each site offers a pull down menu with other variations. "Jail" brings up "jail bars," "jail cell," and "jail house," and each of them brings up even more images—all in the interest of getting your creative juices flowing to think outside the plain vanilla text box.
Be aware, however, that many of the images on these sites may require payment for high resolution copies and/or royalties. Below is a list of ten websites where you can find free or low cost images.
Visual.ly: Visit the excellent graphic community site and see what they call their "data visualization enthusiasts" have created. Browse the site and sample the many impressive infographics their members have posted. They will inspire you to think visually. The site also provides a tool to step you through the creation of your own infographic.
Microsoft PowerPoint: The industry standard presentation software itself offers multiple ways to turn plain vanilla words into interesting graphics. Just click the "Insert" tab on the top Ribbon and another tab opens with the following graphical choices: Table, Pictures, Clip Art, Photos, Shapes, Charts, and SmartArt. The latter provides an almost infinite array of shapes, colors, and textures to enhance the look and feel of your text. Look at the difference that embedding text in simple shapes and shading can make with the identical text in the figure below.
Now, with your palette of four different options—Google/Bing, Free Images, Visual.ly, and Microsoft PowerPoint—are you ready for your artist’s smock and beret?