(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?
In a prior blog, you read the infamous advice about handling tough questions offered by Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the controversial Vietnam War:
Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you. And quite frankly, I follow that rule. It's a very good rule.
But it’s only a good rule for government officials and politicians. While the public has come to tolerate non-answers from such individuals, most other people, in most other walks of life—particularly business men and women—can never get away with ducking questions.
Except for sports figures. Most press conferences in the sports arena are never more than an exchange of innocuous answers to innocuous questions for one very simple reason: all that matters in sports is what happens on the playing field. Talking about a game in advance or after the fact devolves into either meaningless conjecture or equally meaningless rehash.
Jim Harbaugh, the coach of the Super Bowl-bound San Francisco Forty-niners, understands the rules of the press conference game, but he makes his non-answers a form of art. In anticipation of this Sunday’s big game, Mr. Harbaugh’s artful style was captured by Kevin Clark, a sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal, in this clever article.
Jail break films have long been a staple offering of Hollywood but, in a real life reversal of form, the Los Angeles Times reported that a former prisoner of the California State Prison in Sacramento, one Marvin Ussery, attempted to break into the jail. Although Mr. Ussery claimed that he was only “reminiscing,” prison authorities suspected that he was trying to smuggle in drugs, tobacco, or mobile phones to sell to the inmates. However, a search didn’t find any contraband on him, so his motive remains a mystery.
In business, “breaking into jail” has a different connotation: offering negative information voluntarily. Revealing a liability raises doubts in the audience’s minds about a company’s viability. However, there is a very good reason for such revelations: accountability. In presentations, unlike awkward social situations: the elephant in the room cannot and must not be ignored.
In some cases, accountability is mandatory. The Securities and Exchange Commission requires that a company selling stock to the public for the first time must include a “Risk Factors” section in the Prospectus for their Initial Public Offering. But the road show presentation of the offering isn’t required to use the Draconian language of the prospectus. Nor is there such a requirement for countless other routine types of business presentations. Yet all presentations must be forthcoming about bad news, or the presenter will be perceived of as having something to hide.
The challenge is when and how to handle the revelation. The “when” has two options:
Be preemptive: Include the negative information in the body of your presentation
Be reactive: Wait until a question comes from the audience and have a prepared response ready.
Each option has a risk. Offering negative information is “breaking into jail,” or admitting guilt, and raises an issue that the audience may not have considered. Waiting until a question is asked can appear evasive or concealing.
Regardless of which option you choose—the choice is a judgment call dependent on the situation, the audience, and/or the presenter—you must then make full disclosure by acknowledging the negative. But, as soon as you do, follow up immediately with the actions that you and your company are taking to rectify the problem or to prevent its recurrence.
If your bad news is about:
a down quarter, describe your extra efforts to stimulate new sales
the loss of a key customer, explain your efforts to win a new customer
the resignation of a key executive, talk about your search outreach
a delayed product release, lay out your accelerated production schedule
a failed product trial, list the corrections you are making
a critical comment by an important thought leader, find a more positive opinion and quote that person.
This strategy is a variation of the correct method for handling the ritual “What keeps you up at night?” question. Be candid about what keeps you up at night, but immediately follow up with what you are doing about it. Be candid about your company’s bad news, but immediately follow up with what you are doing about it.
Acknowledge that the elephant is in the room, and then lead it out.
Yesterday, in his second inaugural address, President Obama eloquently expressed his future vision of America: “…it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence…” but he did so by looking back in historical context: “… to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”
In the second paragraph of the speech, the president quoted the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
He then proceeded to echo his idol, Abraham Lincoln, by embedding the famous words of the Gettysburg Address in this sentence: “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.”
And then, as a unifying theme, Mr. Obama used the immortal first three words of the Constitution, “We, the people…” as a recurring phrase at the beginnings of four consecutive paragraphs:
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.
We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still
By using repetition, the president was echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday was celebrated concurrent with Inauguration Day. Dr. King used the phrase “I have a dream” 16 times in his 1963 speech. In fact, Mr. Obama was reaching even further back in history to the Greek orators who termed the use of a repetitious phrase in successive sentences, Anaphora.
If you look back at the fourth instance of “We, the people…” you’ll see that Mr. Obama employed another rhetorical device: By restating the words of the Declaration of Independence, “the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal,” he created a bookend, an echo of his beginning.
Bookends, anaphora, and familiar quotations, are techniques any presenter can employ in any presentation.
After more than a decade of denials, Lance Armstrong finally admitted in yesterday’s televised interview with Oprah Winfrey that that he used performance enhancing drugs. His denials had been so vehement, Gail Collins, the Times satirical columnist,said that they “made ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ sound like a confession.”
One Wall Street Journal story speculated that Mr. Armstrong’s motive was to “figure out a way to compete again;” another quoted “ESPN writer Don Van Natta Jr. [who] posted on Twitter, ‘You don't go on Oprah to confess. You go on Oprah to be forgiven.’”
Motives aside, Mr. Armstrong’s admission provides a larger communication lesson; it is what every human being must do in every exchange: take responsibility and be transparent.
In a prior blog, you read how Rupert Murdoch, when confronted with charges that his newspapers had engaged in phone hacking, ducked his responsibility by issuing an apology in the passive voice: “We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred.” But the passive voice is the opposite of transparency.
As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, “at the length truth will out.” Evidence mounted in the phone hacking scandal, and a year later, the United Kingdom Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee issued a report that called Mr. Murdoch irresponsible. In response, he apologized and he did so in the active voice, “We certainly should have acted more quickly and aggressively to uncover wrongdoing. We deeply regret what took place and have taken our share of responsibility for not rectifying the situation.” (You can read the full account in my latest book, Winning Strategies for Power Presentations.)
The truth came out for Lance Armstrong. Last year, the United States Anti-Doping Agency barred him for life from Olympic sports and stripped him of his seven Tour de France medals. His major sponsors such as Nike, Oakley, and Discovery Channel dropped their endorsements. And so Mr. Armstrong finally took responsibility when he told Ms. Winfrey, “I viewed this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times.”
Transparency counts. Its vital importance was best expressed by Meg Whitman, the CEO of HP. In a video interview on the Journal’s CIO Network earlier this week, she spoke about her company, but her words have universal applicability: “One of the things that I think is so important, I will tell you in some ways I learned this in the governor’s campaign, which is transparency of communication. Say what you mean, mean what you say and deliver along the lines that you say you will deliver.”
Full Disclosure: I've been through the author's 3 day introductory course and am a huge fan of his insight and lessons.
Winning Strategies for Power Presentations tackles a problem endemic to our current times: short attention spans. In fact, Chapter 54 is about the difficulty of presenting to a crowd lost in their Crackberries. Ironically, it's the only topic where Jerry admits trying a lot of techniques and not finding one he likes.
Well, never mind, because the other 74 chapters offer sound advice for many challenges in communicating effectively in presentations. Each one takes a problem and in anywhere from 2-5 pages gives practical advice distilled from several of his other books. As usual, he's informative, entertaining, and quite insightful.
If you're new to Power Presentations, this is a great book to start with. However, if you're really serious, you will want to move on to his other works where the chapters are longer and the advice is more detailed. Think of this book as the appetizer. When you're done, you've got several great full courses in front of you.
If you've read any of his books before or taken one of his courses, this book is a great reminder of his advice. I caught myself reverting to 2-3 old habits recently and this booked snapped me right out of that.
Finally, Jerry has a keen eye for really good and really bad examples of public speaking. Although he refers quite often to politicians both in this book and in his courses, he also pulls material from many other fields of endeavor. He's not afraid to show examples of people who contradict his advice and can get away with it (e.g., Ronald Reagan not moving his hands when he speaks.) This book is a thought provoking, quick read, that should make you want to read everything else he has written. There is no one else like Jerry Weissman.
In his nearly two decades as the host of the CBS “Late Night” show, Mr. Letterman has made his nightly reading of his “Top Ten” list a social ritual of American culture. While he uses his list for comic effect, you can use the same approach to create a structure for your presentations.
Authors Stephen R. Covey and Deepak Chopra used the numbering technique for the structure of their respective bestsellers, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. The popular Politico website regularly calls out the Top Five takeaways from the political events that they cover; how-to newspaper and magazine articles add sidebar boxes that summarize their main tips with a total number; and the help desk web page of product and service companies summarize their customer FAQs with a total number.
In the fast and furious business world where presentations are often hastily cobbled together with a disparate collection of begged, borrowed, or stolen slides and delivered by a presenter who is the only one in the room who can understand what on Earth one slide has to do with another, the numbering technique can be emergency CPR. Simply organizing the different elements into a clear order makes it easy for both the presenter and the audience to follow.
Eric Benhamou, the former Chairman of 3Com Corporation (acquired by HP in 2010), did so under rather trying circumstances.
Mr. Benhamou was invited to deliver a keynote speech at a dinner given by the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce, an organization as diverse as the more than 7000 miles that separate those two centers of business. The event, which was held on a mid-week night at Silicon Valley’s large San Jose Fairmount Hotel, began with a cocktail hour that ran for far more than an hour. When the ballroom doors finally opened, the several hundred guests rushed in to find seats at tables they had to share with strangers. After the usual rubber chicken meal, the Masters of Ceremonies presented awards to individuals who were familiar only to Californians, and some who were familiar only to Israelis. Each of the recipients then proceeded to give an acceptance speech that made Academy Award acceptance speeches seem abrupt by comparison. When Mr. Benhamou’s turn came, it was nearly nine o’clock.
How would you like to have to deliver a speech in those circumstances?
The quality that earned you your present job--as well as all of your previous jobs--is the same quality that impedes your ability to answer questions effectively: you are a results-driven person.
To determine how good and--just as important--how fast you are at producing results, your employer undoubtedly assessed your resume, your references, and your character during your intake interview. Having demonstrated your proficiency means that you spend most of your time on your job (and most likely, the rest of your waking hours) ready to pounce on problems and find solutions. As a result, whenever you get a question, you are primed to provide an answer instantly.
Unfortunately, if you are too quick with your response, your answer might be wrong--because you did not understand the question. You will have fallen into the "Ready, Fire, Aim!" trap.
Being a good listener, as you learned from Johnny Carson in a prior blog, is important, but that is only the first step; it is just as important to take a beat before pulling the answer trigger; to put the aiming in its rightful place--before the firing. Pause before you answer a question.
But pausing is difficult during a mission-critical presentation because you are acting under the influence of a double speed whammy: the adrenal overdrive of being on the spot, and the DNA of a trigger-happy problem-solver.
Apple Computer understands trigger-happiness. The company, which is well-known for carefully guarding its product development, makes a practice of keeping all but a few select senior executives from answering questions from the press. In Inside Apple, a book describing what the subtitle calls its "secretive" practices, author and Fortune Magazine Senior Editor Adam Lashinsky quotes an Apple product marketing executive: "The challenge with those guys is that they are super smart and they know a lot of details, but...they haven't learned how to gracefully avoid answering."
Apple's competitor, Google, also understands trigger-happiness. Their Gmail has a feature called "Undo Send." Once you hit "Send," Gmail will hold your email for five seconds, during which time you can stop the email from going out.
The most sensitive trigger-happy arena of all is television and radio. Broadcasters employ a seven-second delay in live programs to monitor and edit undesirable material. Think of the wardrobe-malfunction at the Super Bowl or an excited blurt of profanity during a live Academy Awards acceptance speech. The most common example of the seven-second delay is the frequent sound of beeps during broadcasts of Jon Stewart's bawdy "The Daily Show."
Author Frank Partnoy extols the benefits of delay in his book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, with examples of a baseball batter waiting for the perfect pitch to hit, a comic waiting a beat before delivering a punch line, and a matchmaker counseling a blind date to suppress snap judgments.
Because presenters do not have the facility of an "Undo Send" button or a seven-second video delay, they must create their own beat in real time--with a verbal pause. That is not a contradiction in terms; a verbal pause is none other than the old reliable paraphrase. Readers of In the Line of Fire will recall that the paraphrase--a reconfiguration of a question--serves as a buffer. For our purposes, let's consider the paraphrase as the presentation equivalent of the seven-second video delay.
For instance, suppose an irate customer was to ask, "Where do you get off charging so much for your product?" The hair trigger answerer might say, "It's not that expensive when you think of all the features you get..." or "You have to consider the long-term cost of ownership." Each of those rapid responses accuses the questioner of being wrong. If instead you paraphrase by saying, "Why have we chosen this price point?" you remain neutral--and you take that vital verbal beat.
Having bought the time, you can then go on to describe the features and/or the long-term cost of ownership, but you will do so without--to extend the metaphor--the crossfire.
Hair trigger answers are old habits, as unproductive a habit as procrastination. Old habits die hard, but die they must because each of them--one more extension of the metaphor--backfires. Replace them as you would any bad habit, with positive action: listening and paraphrasing--and get positive results.