The 40th and 44th Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, were two men whose politics are poles apart, but who share one common touch point that serves as a lesson for any presenter.
Although their speaking styles also differ—Mr. Reagan, the genial former actor from the Midwest, who overwhelmed audiences with his underplaying, and Mr. Obama, the cool former Ivy League attorney, who rouses audiences with his dynamic voice and elegant bearing—both men use their individual styles in the service of their outstanding ability to tell human interest stories.
Mr. Reagan almost singlehandedly invented the anecdotal game. The Great Communicator rarely missed an opportunity to tell a tale about a brave soldier or a dedicated student. Readers of Presentations in Action will recall the story of how, in 1983, Mr. Reagan honored the courageous act of a federal employee named Lenny Skutnik by recounting the details of the act during the State of the Union Address—while Mr. Skutnik sat next to Nancy Reagan-establishing a precedent that every president since has followed.
Mr. Obama appreciates Mr. Reagan’s talents. In his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, Mr. Obama frequently referenced his predecessor. “I understand his appeal,” Mr. Obama wrote, referring to Mr. Reagan’s ability to spark Americans to “rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism and faith. That Reagan’s message found such a receptive audience spoke … to his skills a communicator.”
Mr. Obama took his appreciation of Mr. Reagan along with him during his 2010 holiday vacation in Hawaii in the form of a book. At the slow news periods like holidays, media interest sometimes turns to what the president is reading. That year it was a biography called President Reagan, by Lou Cannon. In it, Mr. Obama read a statement Mr. Reagan made just after he left office:
Some of my critics over the years have said that I became president because I was an actor who knew how to give a good speech. I suppose that’s not too far wrong. Because an actor knows two important things—to be honest in what he’s doing and to be in touch with the audience. That’s not bad advice for a politician either. My actor’s instincts simply told to speak the truth as I saw it and felt it.
Little did Barack Obama know how meaningful that statement would be. Shortly after his return from that vacation, on January 8, 2011, a deranged Jared Lee Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen other people during a public citizens’ meeting held in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. Four days after that tragic event, Mr. Obama flew to Tucson to address a stunned nation and the families and friends of the victims at a memorial service at the University of Arizona.
After a brief formal opening of condolences including a passage from Scripture, Mr. Obama began to talk about each of the victims. In simple, but eloquent words, he painted a warm human picture of each person’s life—especially that of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green whose story he extended as a role model for the nation:
Imagine -- imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
I want to live up to her expectations.
The passage could have been taken right out of the Ronald Reagan style manual.
Validation came from the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, a former speech writer for Mr. Reagan and a frequent critic of Mr. Obama. In her postmortem of the Tucson event, she wrote, “About a third of the way through, the speech took on real meaning and momentum, and by the end it was very good, maybe great.” She attributed the pivot to “when Mr. Obama started to make things concrete … specific facts about real human beings.” (F29.5)
“Specific facts about real human beings,” is sound advice for any speaker.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Sue Shellenbarger, the creator of the
"Work & Family" column for the Wall Street Journal, did a piece last week on the importance of good
grammar in the workplace. The column quickly became the most popular on the
newspaper’s website. Ms. Shellenbarger identified the challenge at the
beginning of her column: “looseness with language can create bad impressions
with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communications errors.”
The rest of her column is just as good,
so I’ll step out of the way and let you read
P.S. Be sure to try your hand at the 22
test questions by clicking on the "interactive graphics" tab directly
under the title.
No presenter in his or her right mind would want to see an audience yawning, right?
Of course not, but there is an aspect of yawning that is desirable: Empathy, the involuntary sharing of feelings between human beings. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of one person’s yawn producing a contagious chain of yawning in other people in the room. But I’m not talking about putting your audience to sleep; I’m talking about provoking a positive empathy as contagious as yawning.
Empathy occurs in specialized brain cells called mirror neurons. Studies have shown that mirror neurons cause us to mimic the physical behaviors and emotional states that we observe in others. What we see, we feel.
ABC Science of Australia reported on a study on empathy made by Atsushi Senji at the University of London’s Birbeck College. In the study, two groups of children, one with and one without autism—a developmental condition that severely affects social interaction—watched video clips of other people yawning. The researchers found that the children with autism yawned less than the other children, leading the researchers to conclude, "It supports the claim that contagious yawning is based on the capacity for empathy."
In other words, empathy is intrinsic. Your audience perceives and responds to your emotions on a very fundamental level. If you appear poised and confident, they will feel your confidence and you will win them over.
But how can you be poised and confident when you get up on stage, the bright lights hit you, and your adrenaline starts flowing? The only method I’ve found successful is to do the groundwork first.
As a producer of corporate meetings and events, I’ve seen the full spectrum of efforts when it comes to presenters. Some prefer to be spontaneous and just “wing it.” Others inherit a slide deck from their boss or a colleague and try to shoe-horn it into the context of their presentation or speech.
Effective presenters first get their story straight by brainstorming, determine the key elements, the benefits for the audience, establish a logical order for their story, and then develop slides that support their message. But most importantly, they are the ones I see showing up for rehearsals!
No one can completely eliminate the adrenaline rush that occurs when you are on stage. But if you’re well-rehearsed, you own your own story, and tell it in a logical order, the adrenaline rush will be greatly reduced. You will feel more poised and confident, and your audience will feel it too.
And I guarantee they won’t be yawning!
Thanks to Chad Hall of Ioxus and Eli [Oleg] Pozniansky of CSR Technology (formerly Zoran) for their contributions to this post.
In a previous post, you read about how self-centeredness is an obstacle to all communication, extending all the way from social conversations to our focus, presentations. To remove that barrier, to put the “co-” in “communication,” the effective communicator adds interaction to interpersonal exchanges, but more important, adds benefits for the listener—whether that listener is the other person in a conversation or the audience for a presentation.
But that leaves open the question of why any person in his or her right mind would allow a failure to communicate to occur in the first place. There are two answers: one scientific and the other a pervasive misconception that has taken on the status of a legacy in the world of presentations.
Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir and her Harvard colleague Jason Mitchell conducted a series of experiments to explore why people like to talk about themselves. The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said:
Here, we test recent theories that individuals place high subjective value on opportunities to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others and that doing so engages neural and cognitive mechanisms associated with reward. Five studies provided support for this hypothesis. Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area.
The mesolimbic dopamine system just happens to be the same part of the brain in which pleasurable sensations occur. Meaning that, as the Wall Street Journalstory about the study summarized it, “Talking about ourselves—whether in a personal conversation or through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money.”
This places a very high barrier to being able to interrupt the party bores who monopolize conversations; and the only solution I can offer is to repeat what I wrote in the previous blog: excuse yourself and head for the bar to refresh your drink.
Presentations are another matter. As a coach, I have spent the greater part of my career urging presenters to include benefits in their pitches. But the need to remind them still persists. Presenters continue to sell features and/or blow their own horn. The reason they do—and this is only conjecture—goes all the way back to the dawn of the presentation universe when some sage decided that presentations should begin with a “snapshot” that introduces the presenter’s company. This usually results in an initial slide that, depending on who creates it, is a hodgepodge of disparate facts that include (but is not limited to):
year of founding
number of employees
This step gets the presentation off on the wrong foot for a number of reasons: the slide attempts to tell the whole story, the story is not apparent at a glance, the focus shifts attention away from the presenter, the presenter is forced to read the slide…the list goes on. But worst of all, it’s all about you and not about the audience and, to paraphrase the title of the 2004 bestselling book, they’re just not that into you.
Make the front end of your presentation about your audience. Focus on their issues and concerns and tell them what your company can do for them. Pivot from your point of view to theirs. This pivot is best illustrated by the story of Theodore Leavitt, a professor at Harvard Business School who told his students not to try to sell customers a quarter-inch drill, but a way to make a quarter-inch hole. Tie what you do to your audience’s needs.
Consider the snapshot as boilerplate that is best left to the handout materials. If you still feel the need to include information about your company within the presentation, shift it to later in the deck, after you have shown them how well you understand them.