Bravo to Seth Godin for his post,
“Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Stories,” in which he complains about public
speeches—and by extension, presentations—that are “based on sentences. At the
end of each sentence, the voice goes up a bit, the speaker pauses, as if
waiting for an applause line…It's my least favorite part of the Techstars pitch
Seth is wisely counseling against "choreographing"
the voice and words. Other forms of “pitch training” choreograph gestures to go
with the words. Choreography is in the realm of performance, and business men
and women are not performers. I don’t know many business persons who had to audition
for their job. If the presenter gets too many detailed instructions, it becomes
an overload, just like a bad golf lesson: “Head down, straighten the legs, bend
the elbows…” Worse still, it forces the presenter into unnatural behavior.
Seth recommends that the presenter speaks in stories. “The
storyteller naturally engages our attention, and she matches her emphasis and
cadence to the rhythm of the story.”
To which I add the Power Presentations approach: be conversational when
you tell your story. Consider every presentation as a series of one-to-one
Power Presentations - Wednesday, September 04, 2013
by Jerry Weissman
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal published an article about grammar that is quite relevant to presenters. The author, Mark Goldblatt, who teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York, considers good grammar vital to success in life. He wrote, “Nothing prolongs the socioeconomic struggles … more than an inability to communicate effectively with the broader culture.”
Read the whole article for his indisputable reasoning—you’ll be amused as well.
“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.
Leah Garchik, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes mostly about social events, but this week’s column provided two important lessons for presenters. See if you can find them in the text of her column below; and while we’re posing questions, see if you can identify the three authors Ms. Garchik references:
“She could do with a little less training,” said an observer who attended a book lecture last week by a modern feminist member of high-tech royalty. The author, whose homage and how-to about having it all is being snapped up by women everywhere, and is atop the best-seller list, seemed to be so media-coached that instinctive charisma had been replaced by repetitions of the phrase ‘in my book.’ In consultant's terms, this is called “staying on point.” In real life, this is called “tedious.” “I think she wants to run for office,” said the spy.
And then there's the savvy entertainment mogul whose onstage chronological account of his career was peppered with "in Chapter 2," then "in Chapter 3," and so on. We were there to pretend we were chatting with him one-on-one, as if he were sitting across the kitchen table; no one was going to look up citations. Sharing celebrity foibles is interesting, but signing a contract does not an anecdote make.
Finally, my neighbor at a fundraising luncheon a few months ago said she'd heard the main speaker a few days before, at another luncheon for another cause. This was a much-admired national hero whose name has become a household word. At first shy and somewhat stumbling in the media glare, over the past few years, as he's been on the TV and luncheon circuit, his sentences have become more grammatical, his points more polished. In fact, they are so shiny nowadays that his remarks sound as though they were learned in Motivational Speaking 101.
Bravo to all three for the feat of sharing their stories. But too much storytelling practice doesn't always make perfect.
The first presentation lesson resides in Ms. Garchik’s sentence, “We were there to pretend we were chatting with him one-on-one, as if he were sitting across the kitchen table.” One-on-one is the approach every presenter should use in every presentation. As a coach, one of my consistent challenges is to get presenters to be conversational rather than attempt to be performers. Business people are not auditioned for their jobs; they are chosen on the basis of the impression they make during their intake interviews—and those interviews are conversations and not presentations. A simple solution is to make every presentation a series of person-to-person conversations.The second lesson comes from Ms. Garchik’s observation about the excessive repetitions of the phrase “in my book,” which makes the exchange “all about me”—and not about the listener. Substitute “audience” for “listener” and you can see the problem: a one-way street. Just as salespersons who sell features rather than benefits fail to make the sale, presenters who disregard their audiences fail to make the connection. Or as the line from the classic Paul Newman film, Cool Hand Luke, has it, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Make it all about them.
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.
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.”