“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”
Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2,
As a presentation coach, I draw an indelible line between presenting and acting; this despite the fact that my education includes a Master’s degree in Speech and Drama from Stanford University. I do this because the business people I coach—already stressed about the mission-criticality of their presentation—blanch at the thought of having to perform.
Nonetheless, I have carried forward one lesson from my studies in drama. It comes from William Gillette (1853–1937), an American actor whose claim to fame was his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes; a role he played more than 1,300 times. No presenter is ever going to tell the same story 1,300 times, but the road warriors who do multiple iterations of their pitch—to sell products, seek partners, or solicit financing—face the challenge of keeping each of those iterations fresh.
Mr. Gillette met that challenge by creating what he called, “The Illusion of the First Time in Acting,” a subject he described in his book of the same name:
There yet remains the Spirit of the Presentation as a whole. Each successive audience before which it is given must feel—not think or reason about, but feel—that it is witnessing , not one of a thousand weary repetitions, but a Life Episode that is being lived just across the magic barrier of the footlights.
One of the best examples of a pitch that presenters must deliver multiple times is the IPO road show. Conventionally, when a company goes public, the senior management team goes on the road for about two weeks, during which they visit potential investors in about dozen cities across the country (and often across the oceans as well), telling the same story several times a day, or about 30 or 40 times each week for a total of 80 or more iterations. With that kind of schedule, presenters occasionally slip into autopilot and experience the “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” phenomenon—leaving their audiences uninvolved, unmoved, and unconvinced.
Investment bankers, who have worked on as many, if not more, road shows than presentation coaches and have seen management team after management team go into autopilot, have developed a device to avoid that phenomenon. Before each presentation, they pick an unusual word and ask the presenting team to find a way to work it into the presentation. This may keep the presenters alert, but means nothing to the investors.
A more effective technique—available to any presenter—is to involve the audience. In an IPO road show, the solution is readily at hand. The investment bankers, who have arranged all the meetings with all the investors, know a great deal about each firm and share that information with the presenters before each session. Unfortunately, in the heat of battle, most presenting teams neglect to use the information.
The lesson for any presenter is to develop knowledge of the audience in advance. In the case of IPO road shows, the spadework is done by the investment bankers, their retail sales force, and their analysts; other presenters must do it on their own. That means that you must learn as much as you can about each of your audiences before you present. Scour the web for company information, read their latest press releases, see what their industry press, peers, and competitors are saying about them. Visit LinkedIn to learn about the roles and backgrounds of people you will be addressing.
And then use it—or you lose it. Pepper your presentation with the information you have gathered. Think of this technique as a tasteful, appropriate form of name-dropping.
Does this mean that you have to change your recurring presentation each time? Not at all. Just add the customized references to the core content of your narrative. You can use this very same technique for a one-time-only presentation, as well as for every presentation you ever give to every audience.
Make your last—even if it’s the eightieth—presentation as fresh as the first. And while you’re doing all that preparation, thoroughly rehearse your presentation in advance and make your first iteration as polished as the last.
Sir Winston Churchill, the great British Prime Minister, prolific author, and distinguished orator who addressed some of the most august assemblies in the world, once delivered a speech to the boys at Harrow School in Britain:
Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy
Sir Winston spoke those words in 1941and they have reverberated down through the decades as a model of an inspirational speech. But the Prime Minister was using negativity to inspire; he was telling his audience what not to do.
Negativity is difficult form of communication. It has become the campaign method of choice in politics. While it often proves effective—as we saw in Mitt Romney’s victorious primary campaign to become the 2012 Republican candidate for president—it leaves a hostile residue and a divided electorate.
In business, negativity fails to provide information. How often have you heard this statement in a presentation?
What we’re not is…
Huh? Well then, what are you? Tell your audiences what you are, not what you are not. Moreover, negative statements sound defensive.
One of history’s most famous negative statements was President Richard Nixon’s infamous defense of himself in the Watergate scandal, “I am not a crook.”
Had he framed his statement positively as “I am an honest man,” history might have remembered him more forgivingly.
Does this mean that you should never say “never” unless, like Sir Winston, you are exhorting your audience? Mardy Grothe, the author of Neverisms, a collection of quotations that begin with the ultimatum “Never,” defines Sir Winston’s technique as “dehortations,” or statements intended to advise against a particular action.
By all means, when you want to inspire, dehort to your heart’s content; you will be in good company. In an article about Mr. Grothe’s book, Erin McKean, the founder of the online dictionary Wordnik.com, extracted some famous dehortations:
“Never send a boy to do a man’s job.”
“Never speak ill of the dead.”
“Never judge a book by its cover.”
“Never count your chickens before they’re hatched.”
“Never make the same mistake twice.”
My personal favorite dehortation was coined by Leroy "Satchel" Paige who, after a lengthy career in the Negro Leagues, became the oldest rookie—at 42— in Major League Baseball after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. When asked about how he was able to stay youthful and competitive, Mr. Paige said,
Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.
However, in business, negativity for negativity’s sake brings problems to the forefront and can lead a presentation into a black hole—the “Houston, we’ve got a problem!” problem.
Instead, focus on the upbeat, the potential, the road ahead, the actions you are taking, the vision that propels you.
This is not to say that you should sweep problems under the rug or ignore the elephant in the room; you must always be accountable and tell your full story. Just be sure that, if you bring up the negative, you balance it with the positive.
As the old World War II song advised, “Accentuate the positive.”
Sue Shellenbarger, the creator and writer of the Wall Street Journal's "Work & Family" column, wrote a comprehensive article here on how the quality of a person's voice can impact his or her career. Our solution is a skill called "Resonance," which helps anyone improve the quality of their voice by simply widening their throat, mouth, and nasal sinuses when speaking. You can find a full discussion about resonance along with a set of simple exercises in a chapter called, "How to Develop a Rich, Resonant Voice," in my new book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations.
Yesterday’s post, in anticipation of the third and final presidential debate of 2012, described how Al Gore agreed with his opponent, George W. Bush, seven times during one of their 2000 debates. In last night’s debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, Mr. Romney outdid Mr. Gore nearly twofold:
1.…we’re going to have to recognize that we have to do as the president has done. I congratulate him on — on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaida.
2.There was an effort on the part of the president to have a status of forces agreement. And I concurred in that and said we should have some number of troops that stayed on. That was something I concurred with…That was your posture. That was my posture as well.
3. After Mr. Obama, speaking of his handling of Syria, said, “What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go,” Mr. Romney said:
Recognize I believe that Assad must go.
4. After Mr. Obama, speaking of his handling of Libya, said, “We did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Mr. Romney said:
I don’t want to have our military involved in — in Syria. I don’t think there’s a necessity to put our military in Syria at — at this stage. I don’t anticipate that in the future.
5. After moderator Bob Schieffer of asked Mr. Obama, “During the Egyptian turmoil, there came a point when you said it was time for President Mubarak to go,” and Mr. Obama said, “Right,” Mr. Schieffer turned to Mr. Romney for his position, and he said:
I believe, as the president indicated and said at the time, that I supported his — his action there….once it exploded, I felt the same as the president did
6. After Mr. Obama said of Mr. Romney, “He’s praised George Bush as good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment,” Mr. Romney said:
My plan to get the industry on its feet when it was in real trouble was not to start writing checks. It was President Bush that wrote the first checks. I disagree with that.
7. After Mr. Obama said, “What I now want to do is to hire more teachers, especially in math and science, because we know that we’ve fallen behind when it comes to math and science,” Mr. Romney said:
Look, I — I love to — I love teachers, and I’m happy to have states and communities that want to hire teachers, do that.
8. I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel.
9.After Mr. Obama said, “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. I’ve made that clear when I came into office. We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy,” Mr. Romney said:
And crippling sanctions are something I’d called for five years ago when I was in Israel speaking at the Herzliya Conference. I laid out seven steps. Crippling sanctions were number one. And they do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy. It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions.
10. When Mr. Schieffer asked Mr. Romney about the president’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014, he replied:
Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014. And when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.
11. We look at what’s happening in Pakistan and recognize that what’s happening in Pakistan is going to have a major impact on the success in Afghanistan. And — and I say that because I know a lot of people just feel like we should just brush our hands and walk away. And I don’t mean you, Mr. President, but some people in the — in our nation feel that Pakistan (doesn’t ?) — being nice to us and that we should just walk away from them.
This is — this is an important part of the world for us. Pakistan is — is technically an ally, and they’re not acting very much like an ally right now, but we have some work to do. And I — I don’t blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained. We had to go into Pakistan; we had to go in there to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do.
12.When Mr. Schieffer asked, “Let me ask you, Governor, because we know President Obama’s position on this, what is — what is your position on the use of drones? Mr. Romney replied:
Well, I believe that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.
To repeat the George Santayana quote I cited after Mr. Obama’s flat presentation in the first debate, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Twelve years ago, during the presidential election that pitted Vice President Al Gore against then Texas Governor George W. Bush, the candidates met in three debates, just as President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are doing this year. One dynamic from the 2000 campaign could carry forward to this year: dramatic reversals in presentation style. Just as Mr. Obama made a significant shift from his listless demeanor in the first debate to what Maureen Dowd called an “alpha tone” in his second, Al Gore made significant shifts in his style between his debates.
In the first contest, Mr. Gore, who was expected to dominate the notoriously language-challenged Mr. Bush, came out roaring like a lion. His statements and rebuttals were filled with aggressive and divisive words like “wrong,” “not,” “differences,” “mistake,” and “opposite.” His manner was also combative, continually punctuated by condescending sighs, derisive head-shaking, scornful frowns, and disdainful eye-rolling.
The arrogant behavior immediately boomeranged. Television broadcasters had a camera isolated on Mr. Gore for reaction shots. Their news directors took the output of this camera and edited his expressions into a rapid-cut sequence that they ran in their local and national broadcasts repeatedly. Public and media criticism rained down on the vice president.
In response, Mr. Gore made a sharp about face in the second debate and came out like a lamb. During the 90- minute event, he expressed agreement with his opponent seven times—earning him further public criticism. So Mr. Gore reversed field again and swung back to his aggressive ways in the third debate.
At one point, moderator, Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour, who also moderated the first Obama-Romney debate,asked Mr. Bush the same question he would later ask Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney:
I’d like to know how you see the differences between the two of you
Mr. Bush rose from his seat and began to address his answer to the town-hall audience
Well, the difference is that I can get it done. That I can get something positive done on behalf of the people. That’s what the question in this campaign is about...
As he continued his answer, Al Gore stood up, and started to walk across the stage, directly toward his opponent, almost menacingly. Unaware of Mr. Gore’s move, Mr. Bush continued:
…It’s not only what’s your philosophy and what’s your position on issues, but can you get things done?
In the middle of his statement, Mr. Bush turned to see Mr. Gore approaching, paused for a beat, then nodded at Mr. Gore and smiled, evoking titters from the audience.
Then, Mr. Bush turned back to the audience and said:
And I believe I can.
The audience titters gave way to laughter.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll about the effects of the debate on public opinion gave George W. Bush a seven point advantage over Al Gore.
Mr. Gore compensated for his initial aggressive behavior by being passive, and then he overcompensated for being passive by being even more aggressive. Mr. Obama compensated for his initial passive behavior by being aggressive.
As 50 million viewers prepare to watch the first of this year’s presidential debates tonight, the media is abuzz with discussions and opinions about the major issues: jobs, taxes, healthcare, Libya, Iran, Israel, abortion, immigration, and same sex marriage. For many voters, this is a single-issue election that drives them to favor one candidate or another, but all voters are driven by one factor more powerful than all the others: their gut feelings.
The feelings actually emanate high above the gut, from a group of brain cells called “mirror neurons.” As their name implies, these cells mirror feelings between people, creating an instinctive emotional bond between them. First discovered two decades ago in experiments with lab monkeys, the mirroring phenomenon became known as “monkey see, monkey do.” In humans, what people see, they feel; if we see another person wince in pain, we cringe, if we see another person giggle uncontrollably, we smile, if we see an anxious person, we feel ill at ease, if we see a confident person, we feel elated. These feelings are also called “empathy.”
Political pollsters call them “likeability,” a more sedate term than "gut" and less touchy-feely than "empathy", yet all of the terms describe the primal emotions that candidates generate in the electorate. After all, the president of a nation, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is very much like the chief of a tribe or the patriarch (and perhaps someday, the matriarch) of a clan. Followers of any leader want to feel—deep inside—that they are in good, strong hands. “Who’s your Daddy?”
Theodore H. White, the great political historian who chronicled the presidential elections of 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972, saw these primal forces at work in the seminal 1960 debate that pitted the patrician John F. Kennedy against the rumpled Richard M. Nixon. In his classic, The Making of the President 1960, Mr. White wrote thatdebates “give the voters of a great democracy a living portrait of two men under stress and let the voters decide, by instinct and emotion, which style and pattern of behavior under stress they preferred in their leader…[they] generalize this tribal sense of participation, this emotional judgment of the leader, from the few to the multitude.”
Half a century later, Mr. White’s words were echoed by Dante Chinni in a Wall Street Journalarticle anticipating tonight’s debate between President Obama and Governor Romney:
Of all the measures of a presidential candidate, the most useful may be the most basic: whether voters have “positive” feelings toward him. In every recent presidential race, the candidate with the higher positive numbers has won the White House.
Mr. Chinni’s article went on to list the likability figures for the month preceding the three most recent presidential elections and that of the most recent month this year:
Will the patrician Mr. Romney break the likability string or will the cool Mr. Obama keep it alive?
Barack Obama has endured expected criticism from Republican, Tea Party, and Libertarian naysayers who disagree with his politics; but he has also taken heat from his own supporters who have accused him of being distant and aloof. On the eve of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Maureen Dowd took him to task in herNew York Timescolumn:
Obama doesn’t like to share the stage with other politicians or even campaign for House Democrats. He thinks of himself as a singular force, a unique brand, and his narrative has always begun and ended with him. He thinks he did build it himself. But now — because of his own naïveté, insularity and arrogance — he needs Clinton
As if to drive the point home, just as Mr. Obama was about to deliver his speech yesterday, the Times published a lengthy article that analyzed transcripts of his campaign speeches and found that he used the words “I want…” 174 times in 41 speeches.
But in his actual speech last night, Mr. Obama turned the tables and the pronouns:
So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens — you were the change.
You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that.
You’re the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he’d be able to afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance. You made that possible.
You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home; why selfless soldiers won’t be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love, why thousands of families have finally been able to say to the loved ones who served us so bravely, welcome home. Welcome home. You did that. You did that. You did that.
If you turn away now — if you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible, well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void, the lobbyists and special interests, the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are trying to make it harder for you to vote, Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control health care choices that women should be making for themselves.
Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.
The shift impressed the Times’ David Brooks, who wrote:
I liked the emphasis he put not on himself but on the word “you” — the idea that change comes organically from the bottom up.
Power Presentations - Thursday, September 06, 2012
By Jerry Weissman
Last night, former President Bill Clinton returned to the scene of his original crime, the Democratic National Convention, exonerated and honored. Twenty-four years earlier, he gave a speech in the same venue—in nomination of Michael Dukakis—that ran so far over his allotted time, the audience cheered derisively when he said, “In closing…”
There was no derision last night as the seasoned warrior pulled out all the stops in a barn burner of a keynote, trashing the Republicans and making a powerful case for Barack Obama’s re-election. Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, wrote an excellent analysis of the speech here.
In 2007, Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for New Yorker magazine, wrote a comprehensive profile of Barack Obama when he was an up and coming Illinois state legislator, called “Can Barack Obama Catch Hillary Clinton?”
In 2008, Barack Obama caught Hillary Clinton and kept running—all the way to the Oval Office.
In the August 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, Mr. Lizza wrote a comprehensive profile of up and coming Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.
Five days later, on August 11, 2012, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president, announced that Mr. Ryan was his choice for his vice-presidential candidate.
Has Mr. Lizza picked another winner? Only the Election Day will tell, but both of Mr. Lizza’s choices for in-depth profiling have parallel communication qualities:
Speechmaking: In 2004, Mr. Obama wrote and delivered a Cinderella speech that took him from obscurity to rock stardom. In 1993, Mr. Ryan did his political internship as a speechwriter for former football hero Jack Kemp who, three years later, went on to become Bob Dole’s vice-presidential candidate.
Positive messaging: In 2008, Mr. Obama’s famous campaign slogan was “Yes we can!” In 2012, Mr. Ryan told Mr. Lizza:
If you’re going to criticize, then you should propose…People like me who are reform-minded ignore the people who say, “Just criticize and don’t do anything and let’s win by default.” That’s ridiculous…They don’t want to produce alternatives? That’s not going to stop me from producing an alternative.2
“Criticize and propose” represents an unusual positive strategy in a campaign that, until now, has been as negative as it gets; characterized by the New York Times as “sliding back down the banister.” Mr. Obama’s “Yes we can” has vanished—replaced with a welter of critical ads and speeches. Mr. Romney, who battled his way to the Republican candidacy by attacking and counterattacking his opponents in the primaries, has continued in the same antagonistic mode against his Democratic opponent.
Mr. Ryan’s positive strategy, if he can stay with it, in the face what looks like an unrelievedly contentious campaign, provides a lesson for any communicator.
Business people cannot make their own case at the expense of the competition because it not only casts a negative pall on the whole market; it also boomerangs back onto the naysayer. Bashing sounds defensive. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. It is far better to look at all the players in the competitive landscape and position them within that larger context.
One way to do that is with the classic comparison matrix, originated by the Boston Consulting Group, of four quadrants, charting values along the x- and y-axes. Here’s how the BCG website describes it: “This framework categorizes products within a company's portfolio as stars, cash cows, dogs, or question marks according to growth rate, market share, and positive or negative cash flow.”
Another comparison table shows all the players on one axis and how they compare in several key features along the other axis, and grades them with checks and crosses, or plusses and minuses, or what is known as Harvey Balls, in which filled circles represent full value, empty circles, no value, and partially-filled circles represent partial value:
Just imagine if, in the upcoming October debates that will pit Mr. Ryan against Mr. Biden, and Mr. Romney against Mr. Obama, the candidates were to compare and contrast each other along the lines of one of these charts. We might just have a campaign that focuses on issues rather than charges; alternatives rather than criticism.
Arianna Huffington, the president and editor-in-chief of the
Huffington Post Media Group, a nationally syndicated columnist, and
author of thirteen books wrote about the value of good story telling in her blog today.