Is there some law, somewhere, that dictates that business presentationsmust constitute a painful business ritual?
Bereft of Excellence.
Given the number of long, dull, pedantic, repetitious, confusing – bad – presentations I see both inside and outside of the business school, I suspect there must be.
This dullness seeps into the consciousness. It numbs us, and begins to legitimize itself. It’s like a business ritual . . . a ritual of pain.
Corporate America seems addicted to this ritual.
And yet a conspiracy of silence surrounds bad business presentations and those who give them.
The Ritual of Pain is Ubiquitous
Bad Business Presentations are everywhere . . . and because they are everywhere, we think that bad business presentations must be legitimate.
They must be the norm. They must be bad, because that’s just the way it is.
And this bad presentation business ritual perpetuates itself, like some kind of awful oral tradition . . . like a ritual.
You see a bad business presentation that some people praise as good. It looks like this . . .
Some Vice President from a visiting company stands in front of you hiding behind a lectern. He reads from slides with dozens of bullet points taken from a written paper and pasted onto PowerPoint slides. He alternates looking at a computer screen and turning to look at a projection screen behind him. He rarely looks at you.
A Wasteland On the Screen
Unreadable spreadsheets appear.
Legions of tiny numbers march in cadence on the screen.
The presenter reads slide-after-slide verbatim, his head turned away from you.
The slides themselves are unintelligible.
It’s a bad presentation, and you can’t remember a damn thing except the three texts you received during the presentation as you checked your iPhone between yawns.
Given this familiar exercise in bad presenting, you could legitimately ask yourself, “Is this all there is?”
If bad business presentations are the norm – if this is the business ritual – you scratch your chin and perhaps you think “That’s not hard at all.”
I can be as bad as the next person.
Just Cobble Together a Bad Business Presentation
Cobble something like that together, and you think you have a business presentation. And why wouldn’t you think that?
It seems to have all the elements: A speaker-reader of slides (you), a PowerPoint display on the screen with writing on it, some numbers, and a 10-minute time slot to fill with talk.
But what you actually have is something awful – just awful.
You don’t know what you want to accomplish . . . or why.
You have no idea what you should say . . . or why.
And you don’t view yourself as benefitting from the process in any way. Instead, you see it as something painful. Because it is painful.
The Business Ritual of Pain.
Let’s repeat, so there’s no misunderstanding . . . just awful.
This business ritual is painful and awful because of the way it’s been explained to you.
Because the explanations are incomplete. Because you never get the whole story.
Teaching you how to deliver a cogent, competent, powerful business presentation is always someone else’s job.
This can be a problem.
A problem because your career often hinges on how well you can present. And if you present badly, you needlessly handicap yourself.
I Feel Your Pain
Sure, there are “presentation”courses. But it seems that the good folks who actually provide you some sort of presenting instruction in school are often disconnected from your business courses.
They teach you “How to give a speech” or “How to introduce yourself.” But you don’t have the opportunity to engage in a complex group business presentation.
Oftentimes, these folks aren’t even in the business school. They can’t show you how to incorporate business content into your presentations – tools like the SWOT, value chain analysis, financial analysis, PEST, Competitive Intelligence, and such like.
And on occasion, professors in your business can seem indifferent to this business ritual.
For most of your professors, presenting is secondary. This makes sense, as each faculty has a specialty or functional discipline he or she is charged with teaching. Business “Presenting” is no one’s functional discipline, and so it goes un-addressed, orphaned to expediency and neglect.
It is the same in the corporate world. Your presenting woes are the same woes that scourge the American business landscape.
Boring, dull, numbing . . . all of this is equated wrongly with “serious.” We get the bad business presentation as the standard.
The Business Ritual in Corporate America
I attended a business conference on the west coast not long ago to watch the Business Ritual in all its ignominy.
Busy slides with tiny letters.
Listeners shifting in their seats.
Motionless speakers planted behind a lectern.
Aimless and endless talking with seemingly no point.
It seemed that no preparation and no practice had preceded these presentations.
Papers shuffling in the audience, because handouts were given prior to the talk.
This is more common than you might imagine. Communications consultant Andy Goodman conducted major research on the issue in 2005, surveying more than 2,500 public interest professionals and asking them to evaluate their presentation viewing experiences.
He then codified responses to this business ritual.
The average grade public interest professionals gave to the presentations they attended was C-. The average grade given to the visuals that respondents observed in presentations they attended was also C-.
When asked to recall presentations they had seen over the last few months, survey respondents said they were more than likely to see a bad business presentation as to see an excellent one.
This is the current state of presentations in corporate America and in business schools. Is it uniformly bleak? No, of course not.
Glimmers of Hope . . . Gigantic Opportunity
Generalizations are just that – general in nature. I have seen a sufficient number of fine presentations to understand that, somewhere, superb instruction holds sway.
Or, at the very least, young people whose early development has trained them for the stage have found their way to the business platform. Good for them. But for the most part, it is as I have described here.
And this presents a magnificent opportunity.
Now that you understand the situation and why it exists, it’s time for you to join the ranks of especially powerful presenters. Becoming a superior presenter means gaining incredible personal competitive advantage that is difficult to imitate.
By investing your presentations with passion, emotion, and enthusiasm, you deliver especially powerful shows with persuasive power. Presentations that are anything but dull. So . . .
Self-defeating behaviors come in many forms, but negative self-talk is one of the chief culprits.
This is especially prevalent in our business presentations. We sabotage our own presentations more often than we imagine.
We tell ourselves repeatedly that we’ll fail. We envision humiliation, embarrassment, and complete meltdown.
Negative self-talk begins with the most ubiquitous cliche in business school – “I hate presentations.” This is the chief culprit that leads to inevitably awful presentations. It undermines everything we strive for in business school presenting.
How can we construct any positive presentation experience on such a spongy foundation?
Think Like a World-Class Athlete
Negative self-talk translates into bodily reactions of nervousness, trembling, faltering voice, shaking knees, sweating, and flushing. Moreover, our sour and weak attitude ensures that we aren’t the greatest source of strength to our teammates if we happen to be delivering a group presentation.
The negative spiral down guarantees that things get worse before they get better . . . if at all.
There is, in fact, no greater guarantee of failure. How could anyone succeed at anything with this type of visualization?
I work occasionally with sports psychologists and mental toughness coaches who train athletes in visualization techniques, and all of are one opinion that the mind-body connection – healthy or unhealthy – impacts performance tremendously.
Leaving aside the specific techniques for a later time and the psychological underpinnings of it that go back more than a century, let’s say here that we must at least rid ourselves of the negative self-talk so that we can give ourselves a fighting chance of succeeding at business presenting.
So why do we talk ourselves down into the morass of self-defeat?
Quite possibly, it’s the widespread ignorance of how to deliver a powerful presentation, and this ignorance means incredible uncertainty of performance.
Ignorance, uncertainty, and pressure to perform breed fear.
This fear of the unknown can drive up anxiety. So the key to reducing that anxiety is uncertainty reduction – thorough preparation and control of the variables within our power.
Preparation is the second of the Three Ps of Speaking Technique – Principles, Preparation, Practice.
Can we foresee everything that might go wrong? No, of course not, and we don’t even want to . . . instead, we plan everything that will go right, and we focus on that. We leave to our own adaptability and confidence to field the remaining unexpected 10 percent.
Envision Your Triumph
No one can win by constantly visualizing failure. Envision this, instead – you deliver a tight, first-rate presentation that hits all the right notes, weaves a story that grips your audience, that keeps the audience rapt, and ends in superb closure, a major ovation and a satisfying feeling of a job well-done.
When we take the stage, we focus mind on our intent, and we charge forward boldly and confidently, executing our presentation with masterful aplomb.
With this kind of psychological commitment, we squeeze out the doubts and anxiety, wring them dry from our psychic fabric.
The right kind of preparation allows us to deal capably with the handful of unknowns that nettle us.
Positive self-talk is an essential part of your schema for preparing an especially powerful presentation and developing personal competitive advantage.
Not many of us readily accept suggestions on how to improve ourselves, particularly when it comes to highly personal aspects of our very being that impact our presentations.
For instance . . .
There’s nothing sacrosanct or “natural” about your speaking voice. Your voice is the product of many years of development from numerous influences, many of which you may be unaware of.
Develop an Especially Powerful Voice
Why not evaluate your voice today? See if it gets the presentation job done for you.
Does your voice crack? Does it whine? Do you perform a Kim Kardashian vocal fry at the end of every sentence? Does it tic up at the end of every sentence for no good reason?
Do you lard your conversation with nonsensical filler such as “whatever,” “umm,” “totally,” and “like” hundreds of times per day?
Why not change for the better?
It’s time to recognize that your voice is not a sacred artifact, nor is it some precious extension of your very being. It is an instrument with which you communicate.
You can sharpen your communication skills by improving your voice. Simply thinking of your voice in this way will improve its quality. Working to improve it will improve its quality dramatically and build your voice into an especially powerful skill for personal competitive advantage.
Let’s consider here several things you can do to improve your voice. Nothing extreme at all. Have a look . . .
There is, in fact, one thing – one skill – you can learn that can lift you into the top 1 percent of especially powerful business presenters.
Too good to be true?
What if you discovered that this skill is something that you can develop to an especially powerful level in just a handful of weeks?
What would that be worth to you?
Worth How Much?
Would it be worth the price of a book to get you started?
Think of it – a skill you can learn in 4-5 weeks that can provide you lasting competitive advantage through the rest of your working life.
A skill that few people take seriously enough.
A skill in high demand by America’s corporations.
Companies haven’t nearly enough personnel who can communicate effectively, logically, comfortably, clearly, and cogently. This is why corporate recruiters rate the ability to communicate more desirable in candidates than any other trait or skill.
Capable business presenting is a high-demand skill.
Time to Join the 1 Percent
And this is the silver bullet you’ve always sought.
You, as a business student or young executive, gain personal competitive advantage vis-à-vis your peers, simply by taking business presentations seriously. You gain incredible advantage by embracing the notion that you should and can become an effective and capable business presenter.
In other words, if you actually devote yourself to the task of becoming a superb speaker, you become one.
And the task is not as difficult as you imagine, although it isn’t easy, either.
You actually have to change the way you do things. This can be tough. Most of us want solutions outside of ourselves. The availability of an incredible variety of software has inculcated in us a tendency to accept the way we are and to find solutions outside ourselves.
Off the shelf. In a box.
This doesn’t work. Not at all.
You cannot find the secret to great business presenting outside of yourself. You already carry it with you.
But . . .
But you will have to change.
This is about transformation.
Transformation of the way we think, of the way we view the world, of the lens through which we peer at others, of the lens through which we see ourselves.
It is a liberating window on the world. And it begins with your uniqueness.
No, this is not esteem-building snake-oil. I’m not in the business of esteem-building, nor do I toil in the feel-good industry.
If you had to affix a name to it, you could say that I am in the business of esteem-discovery.
So you are unique, and your realization of this and belief in this uniqueness is utterly essential to your development as a powerful business presenter.
But given the tendency of modernity to squelch your imagination, to curtail your enthusiasm, to limit your vision, and to homogenize your appearance and your speech, you have probably abandoned the notion of uniqueness as the province of the eccentric.
Perhaps you prefer to “fit in.”
Some truths can be uncomfortable. Often, truths about ourselves are uncomfortable, because if we acknowledge them, we then obligate ourselves to change in some way.
But in this case, the truth is liberating.
Your Shrinking World . . . Reverse the Process
Recognize that you dwell in a cocoon. Barnacles of self-doubt, conformity, and low expectations attach themselves to you, slowing you down as barnacles slow an ocean liner.
Recognize that in four years of college, a crust of mediocrity may well have formed on you.
It is, at least partially, this crust of mediocrity that holds you back from becoming a powerful presenter.
Your confidence in yourself has been leeched away by a thousand interactions with people who mean you no harm and, yet, who force you to conform to a standard, a lowest common denominator.
People who shape and cramp and restrict your ability to deliver presentations. They lacquer over your innate abilities and force you into a dull conformity.
Your world has shrunk incrementally, and if you do not push it out, it will close in about you and continue to limit you.
Your most intimate acquaintances can damage you if they have low expectations of you. They expect you to be like them.
They resent your quest for knowledge and try to squelch it.
Beware of people who question you and your desires and your success. I suggest that you question whether these people belong in your life.
You are unique, and in the quest for business presentation excellence, you discover the power of your uniqueness. You strip away the layers of modern mummification. You chip away at those crusty barnacles that have formed over the years without your even realizing it.
It’s time to express that unique power in ways that support you in whatever you want to do.
Could there be a university faculty lobby in this country in favor of dull, listless, unenthusiastic classroom teaching?
Apparently so, and it has vocal adherents.
Consider, for instance, this article by Liberal Arts professor Stanley Fish.
Fish is an academic journeyman whose fortunes have waned considerably since he strode the radical academic world like a colossus at Duke University in the early 90s.
Fish wrote a piece about college student course evaluations. He contended that these evaluations have little value when it comes to assessing professor teaching skill and classroom performance.
And he received lots of feedback.
Those Pesky Evaluations
Fish’s piece received beaucoup responses from a strange sub-set of college faculty: Bad teachers who externalize the blame for their own poor performance.
Now . . . how do I know that they’re bad teachers?
Red flags abound.
1) Their responses are characterized by dismissive hubris and betray a lack of self-awareness.
2) They use the formulaic vernacular and familiar liturgy of complaints that we all hear in those interminable faculty meetings.
3) They are the first and loudest in line to criticize the legitimacy of student evaluations and yet offer no substitute evaluative instrument they believe would be more accurate.
4) They laud the length of their course syllabi as a qualitative measure of excellence.
5) And they abhor any feedback on their teaching performance.
These profs offer defensive responses that seek to explain why students, themselves, are the problem and ought to appreciate the prof’s unenthusiastic and lackluster presentations and devil-take-the-hindmost shabbiness.
Granted, problems do plague student evaluations — it’s unfortunately true that angry and unmotivated students can exert disproportionate influence on a prof’s rating. They can sometimes sabotage a professor who satisfies the majority of motivated students in a class, and this is a legitimate concern of faculty who genuinely teach well.
The “outlier” problem can and should be addressed.
But bad teachers do exist.
You know it, and I know it. And some of them believe that there is nothing wrong with their classroom manner — that if any “problem” exists, it’s the students’ fault.
This strange, aggressive subcategory of bad teachers exercises rhetorical gymnastics to explain why, in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence (and the necessarily silent collegiality of their colleagues), they actually are superb teachers.
Sloppy, Disinterested, and Dull
Let’s have a look at these persecuted folks. Here’s one sample of sourpuss opinion:
Teachers who fear (correctly) that student evaluations will determine their fate become stand-up comedians — wave your arms around, praise students excessively and “dress sharp,” advises Dr. Bob — and alter their grading policy in an effort to be liked.
The actual quote from East Lansing’s “Dr. Bob” is here:
1. Project enthusiasm (even if you don’t have any) by continually saying how interested and passionate you are and waving your arms around.
2. Call on your students by name and praise them for every little thing they do.
3. Dress sharp!
4. Be especially attentive to 1-3 on the first day of class since after that your ratings won’t change very much.
Presumably, Dr. Bob believes that unenthusiastic, impersonal, insulting, and poorly dressed professors suffer unfair discrimination in the student evaluation process.
Of course they do, and I hope they do. And rightly so.
But rather than address the issue — which is their own substandard performance — they blame the messenger.
Discrimination? Try “shame,” because it fits.
Strangely, this aversion to enthusiasm for course subject matter has supporters. Here’s another gem:
I’ve seen research that suggests that ‘apparent enthusiasm’ is the single most important component of student evaluations, overall. This is not irrelevant — an instructor’s passion can be important exactly for the kind of long-term development that Fish discusses — but clearly reflects matters of personality and self-presentation that ought to be secondary in evaluating a teacher.
“Apparent enthusiasm” for the course subject matter “ought to be secondary in evaluating a teacher?”
Unenthusiastic, Impersonal, Poorly Dressed
In the end, Stan Fish’s journalistic exercise is productive in that it surfaced a pathology in higher education . . . and it’s not the “unfairness” of the student evaluation.
The article flushed out of the cracks a bunch of folks who really ought to be working on their classroom presentation rather than boasting in the New York Times of their lack of enthusiasm and affinity for sloppy dress.
The pattern of pathology that emerges is that of arrogant faculty who apparently believe that almost any lackluster, dull, insulting, impersonal performance delivered in t-shirt, jeans, and jaunty beret should be applauded as acceptable.
This is presumably because students “aren’t capable of understanding just how good the professor truly is.”
A “truth” apparently to be realized and appreciated years hence.
I like to imagine that these characters are in a blessedly tiny minority.
So what should a teacher do? What should motivate a university professor in the classroom?
It’s no mystery. The powerful formula is buried in a book 104 years old and offers secrets to speed the heart and rivet the mind!
So, dutifully and with appropriate fanfare, here revealed are the secrets of getting great teaching evaluations . . .
The Student Evaluation Secret Code
William DeWitt Hyde, the President of Bowdoin College, offered advice in 1910 that I have found far more useful than any 100 articles by modern purveyors of classroom teaching theory or “pedagogy.”
The advice is actually an especially powerful tonic for anyone who wishes to become a powerful business presenter as well as a competent classroom instructor.
If you can answer these five questions in the affirmative, the student evaluations should take care of themselves . . .
Is my interest in my work so contagious that my students catch from me an eager interest in what we are doing together?
Is my work thorough and resourceful, rather than superficial and conventional, so that the brightness of my industry and the warmth of my encouragement kindle in my students a responsive zeal to do their best, cost what it may?
Do I get at the individuality of my students, so that each one is different to me from every other, and I am something no other person is to each of them?
Do I treat them, and train them to treat each other, never as mere things, or means to ends; but always as persons, with rights, aims, interests, aspirations, which I heartily respect and sympathetically share?
Am I so reverent toward fact, so obedient to law, that through me fact and law speak and act with an authority which my students instinctively recognize and implicitly obey?
It really is that simple.
Or maybe it’s not so simple . . . and that’s the problem.
Either to shut me up from my latest soliloquy on product differentiation . . . or as a casual pleasantry . . . or perhaps to discover what kinds of presentation books that I read (given that I’ve written my own book on presentations).
But I’ll choose to accept it as a genuine request to discover what I think are the kinds of books and stories I find most instructive for my own writing . . . and my own thinking about writing.
And my thinking on telling a good story
What’s an Especially Powerful Story?
This is not far afield from business presentations. Not at all. Because delivering an especially powerful business presentation means delivering an especially powerful story.
So . . . what do I consider a good story?
Well, I have a problem shared by many booklovers. So many books infest my shelves that, when I finally get an hour or so of quiet time, and I can pick and choose to my whim . . . I am paralyzed.
So many choices, and the selection of a single book means rejection of all the others, some possibly more worthy of attention. That’s the perpetual conundrum.
So I usually nap. Or I visit the bookstore to purchase several more great books for later reading. When I have time.
But here is a minor paradox. When I do read a good yarn, I find that I go back to it and reread it. Caress it and wonder at why I thought it so grand to begin with.
It’s akin to the man who finds a great restaurant and a great menu item and begins to settle comfortably, as with an old friend. It doesn’t mean an aversion to the new and different . . . it means appreciation of the old and proven.
So I reread old favorites. Even as I already know what happens.
Mining the Cold War for Powerful Story
With that as the obligatory throat-clearing, let me share with you two old favorites , which differ from each other in ways quite obvious, but which resemble each other in the fundamentals of good storytelling.
The first is The Spike, a cold war thriller published in 1979. I’ve read it five times in the past 28 years.
Authored by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss, The Spike is considered by some in intelligence circles to be the finest novel in the cold war CIA vs. KGB genre.
For me, it is difficult to define the particular attraction for me of this story, except to note that it has all of the elements of a good novel – a compelling lead character with strong beliefs and who changes dramatically as a result of powerful events, colorfully described. The novel has a supporting cast that is diverse and well-drawn. The stakes are high.
This novel is also obviously political and, on the extreme left, it was considered “McCarthy-esque disinformation.” Methinks the storyline simply cut too close to home for the progressive tastes of Alexander Cockburn and the folks at the Covert Information Action Bulletin. In fact, having served in Military Intelligence for eight years, I know it cut close to home.
But then, what powerful novel doesn’t have an agenda, political or otherwise?
Most stories worth the telling will call out folks who don’t want the story told, whether fictional or not. And The Spike hit a nerve with people who saw themselves limned with what might have been uncomfortable accuracy.
Limned as the bad guys.
And so it stirred considerable debate.
There’s an analog in the world of film, although much of the cold war fodder was anti-Washington and against the “Military Industrial Complex” labeled by President Eisenhower and conceptually fleshed out by C. Wright Mills.
Dr. Strangelove, Seven Days in May, Failsafe, Wargames, The Day After, Red Dawn, and The Day After Tomorrow. . . . Evil and one-dimensional military types, the exaltation of technology over human control, and thinly veiled portrayals of real-life folks.
Good yarns all, and yarns that angered certain constituencies with political proclivities differing substantially from those of the films’ themes.
Nuclear Armageddon makes for epic storytelling in the military-industrial-complex-meets-the-disaster-movie genre.
And all of these films stir debate on the issues, of course. And that is what The Spike did.
In fact, The Spike performed the same vital function as did the books Failsafe, Seven Days in May and, a decade earlier, Graham Greene’s The Ugly American. Each took a point of view, and you were bound to agree or disagree with it.
Perhaps the edginess of The Spike, then, was its attraction for me, as well as its sweep, its multifarious characters, and the tremendous stakes involved.
The other book?
There was Gatsby, and This . . .
John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra.
O’Hara’s is a decidedly different book
Appointment’s portrayal of the class structure in 1930s America and the ugly strength of some class mores is, I think, brilliant. But this has been said by more able writers than me.
From my perspective, the strength in O’Hara is his powerful characterization, particularly of the self-destructive protagonist Julian English. The sense of presence, the sights, the smells, the sounds are all original and compelling. It rivals The Great Gatsby in its capture of an era and the human behavior that is channeled by the quirkiness of a cloistered environment.
O’Hara’s characters are introspective, and yet their introspection sometimes has a hollow and self-deceiving quality . . . as does our own ersatz introspection at times. We recognize ourselves, and this recognition is uncomfortable.
At times when we believe we’re being brutally honest with ourselves, we’re truly only trying to convince ourselves of our worth, our good motives, our essential goodness. Deep thinking can be confused with revelation. Deep thinking can blind us as well as it can reveal to us.
Deep thinking is not necessarily honest thinking.
And this is what O’Hara portrays so well. At least, for me, this is the received wisdom.
The Spike and Appointment are two entirely different books, equally attractive to me for overlapping reasons.
Both share the quality of great story and compelling characters. One is introspective, involves the fate of those in a small town, and is bound temporally by several weeks. The other is sweeping, event-oriented, involves the fate of nations, and stretches over 15 years.
Ah, if I had the ability to write both types of novel!
Failing that, both books offer the novice writer magnificent instruction in how to construct scenes, how to transition between scenes, how to handle character description, how to deliver backstory, how to craft crisp and spare dialogue.
It’s all there, in both books.
In fact, what a method to “learn” how to write and to tell compelling stories, if such a thing is truly possible. Certainly, craft can be learned, and I find these two books – even in their extremes – valuable in that respect.
They are also books with especially powerful story. Books I will re-read.
Not today, and doubtless not tomorrow, for there is no time.
Make it sit up straight, snap their heads in your direction.
You can do this several ways, and it’s up to you what you choose, but it should fit your audience and the topic of your presentation.
One effective method is the use of a “grabber” line, which was a Malcolm X presentation technique.
This is a surprising and unconventional sentence or an unusual fact that immediately alerts the audience that its about to hear something special.
Not Another Canned Talk
One of the greatest public speakers of modern times was the late Malcolm X.
While his oeuvre rarely touched on aspects of business that we deal with in our presentation enterprise, his speeches serve as powerful examples of how to grab an audience and mesmerize it.
His techniques are so powerful that he deserves a category all his own, and you can captivate an audience with Malcolm X presentation techniques.
Whether you agree or disagree with him is irrelevant to the point that he was a powerful communicator who drew from a deep well of powerful presentation techniques. His charisma was unquestioned and it grew organically from the wellspring of passion that he invested in his cause and in every speech.
Malcolm’s speeches are just that – speeches – and they are written for the ear and not the eye.
They are best read aloud so as to absorb the measured beats, to feel the repetition of key phrases, and to learn the effects of certain rhetorical flourishes.
When you read sentence after sentence, you sense the power and the deep moral outrage coming through, sometimes explicit but most often through a steady recapitulation of ideas using different phrases, but key words.
You gain a sense of the gathering storm, almost hear rolling thunder in the distance.
Today, I mine his speeches for their cadences, their imagery, their use of allegory, anaphora, and turns of phrase. With respect to grabbing an audience’s attention, too many presentations and speeches today begin with routine thank-yous and ingratiation of the audience.
They sputter with routine phrases, a gripping of the podium and a squinting at notes or giving jerky backward glances at an unreadable projection screen.
Use Malcolm X Presentation Technique
Remember that a speech is tremendously different from a written document. Pauses and repetition, tone and inflection are essential with the spoken word. Let’s look at the beginning of a typical Malcolm X speech and see how he grabs his audience. Read it with his spoken delivery in mind.
This speech – Message to the Grass Roots – was delivered in Detroit on November 10, 1963. Irrespective of the time and place and circumstance, which of course will leaven our approach, note that Malcolm begins his talk by immediately establishing intimacy with the audience.
We want to have just an off-the-cuff chat between you and me . . . us. We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.
We all agree tonight, all of the speakers have agreed, that America has a very serious problem. Not only does America have a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious problem.
In the space of four sentences, Malcolm has drawn in his listeners and layed out a situation statement that, at that moment, captivated his audience.
He establishes a mood of confidentiality and rapport. He then states boldly – “America has a very serious problem . . . We have a very serious problem.”
Who wouldn’t want to hear what comes next?
No Chit-Chat in a Malcolm X Presentation
Notice that he did not engage in throat-clearing and chit-chat. No “Thank you Mr. Chairman” . . . no “So good to see so many committed activists tonight and familiar faces in the crowd.” Notice also the use of repetition of key phrases: “Very serious problem.”
Straight to the point, and a bold point it is. See what comes next . . .
America’s problem is us. We’re her problem. The only reason she has a problem is she doesn’t want us here.
And every time you look at yourself, be you black, brown, red or yellow, a so-called Negro, you represent a person who poses such a serious problem for America because you’re not wanted. Once you fact this as a fact, then you can start plotting a course that will make you appear intelligent, instead of unintelligent.
Has Malcolm studied his audience? Is he reaching out with a message that is directly relevant to his listeners?
Has he grabbed your attention?
He surely has. With a Malcolm X presentation technique that grips the audience and never lets it go.
Malcolm was expert at executing Presentation Snap, grabbing his listeners in a way that zeroed in on them.
He focused on their needs, concerns, desires, hopes.
He framed the issue in colorful language, and created listener expectations that he would offer bold and radical solutions to real problems.
For now, focus on the grabber to seize the attention of your audience. Mull this excellent example from the Malcolm X presentation and ask yourself how he contrived it . . . and how it works.
In subsequent posts, we’ll look at more examples from Malcolm X as he moves through delivery of his presentation, building to his call for action at the end.
In our battle to fight through the white noise of life to communicate with others, we often ignore the most powerful of weapons at our disposal – Business Presentation Passion.
Passion, Emotion, Brio, Energy
Sure, we pay occasional homage to emotion and to “passion.”
But more often than not, it’s only lip service.
You don’t really believe this stuff, do you? Or maybe your fear of others’ judgments pushes out thoughts of investing your talks with something interesting.
We save our presentation passion for other activities. For our sports teams and our politics and, perhaps, religion. We separate our “real” selves from our work and from our “formal” exposition in front of an audience.
Maybe we construct a barrier for the audience, to prevent an audience from seeing our vulnerabilities. Perhaps we affect an air of nonchalance as a defensive mechanism.
Regardless of the reason, by not investing ourselves in our presentation and in our narrative, we render ourselves less persuasive.
If we purge our Business presentation passion, we are less effective, perhaps even ineffective.
Nonchalance is the Enemy
Emotion is a source of speaker power. You can seize it. You can use it to great effect.
And you can learn to do this more easily than you imagine.
James Albert Winans was a Presenting Master early in the 20th century, and he offered this beautifully crafted description of passion’s power. Brilliant discovered words from 1915:
A speaker should feel what he says, not only to be sincere, but also to be effective. It is one of the oldest of truisms that if we wish to make others feel, we ourselves must feel. . . . We know we do not respond with enthusiasm to an advocate who lacks enthusiasm. And quite apart from response, we do not like speakers who do not seem to care. We like the man who means what he says.
Do you mean what you say? Do you even care? Or do you sleepwalk through your assignments? Reading from a note card, reading from the slides behind you, oblivious to why you are up there?
Now, one purpose of this counsel is not simply for you to display powerful emotions in service to a cause. You are not simply “being emotional” for its own sake when you incorporate business presentation passion into your show.
You want to evoke emotions in your audience. You want them to think, yes, but you also want them feel.
You want to establish a visceral connection with your audience.
Don’t Purge Business Presentation Passion
Sometimes it may seem as if you must purge all emotion from your presentations, especially your business presentations.
It’s as if you are instructed to behave like a robot under the guise of looking “professional” or “business-like.”
We can find that we respond too readily to these negative cues. We think that if A is “good,” then twice as much of A is twice as good. And three times as much of A is even better.
And without presentation passion, our business presentations suffer.
So, let’s accept right now that emotion and professionalism are not exclusive of each other. Conversely, shun indifference.
The opposite of earnestness is indifference. An indifferent man cares no more for one thing than for another. All things to him are the same; he does not care whether men around him are better or worse. . . . There are other opposites to earnestness besides indifference. Doubt of any kind, uncertainty as to the thought or to the truth, a lack of conviction, all these tend to destroy earnestness.
You know the indifferent man or woman, delivering a presentation that obviously means nothing to him or her. Perhaps you’ve done this.
Haven’t we all at one time or another?
Unknowing of emotion, believing that we cannot show we care?
Do you just go through the motions? I understand why you might cop this attitude. Layer upon layer of negative incentives weigh down the college student.
Adding to your burden is the peer pressure of blasé.
It’s perceived as “uncool” to appear to care about anything, to actually do your best. Certainly to do your best on schoolwork of any kind.
Understand from this moment that this is wrong. No, it is not a matter of opinion . . . it is not a “gray area.” It is incontrovertibly wrong.
If you don’t care, no one else will. And if you don’t care, you will lose to the presenter who does care.
Lose the job you want to someone else.
Lose the contract you want to someone else.
Lose the promotion you want to someone else.
Lose the influence you want to someone else.
Win with Business Presentation Passion
Does this seem too “over the top” for you? Of course it does!
That’s because you’ve likely been conditioned to look askance at the kinds of rich, lusty pronouncements that embrace emotion rather than scorn it.
And that is a major part of the B-School Presentation Problem.
When was the last time a business professor criticized you for showing too much emotion in your presentation?
Have you ever heard anyone criticized for it? For giving a presentation with too much feeling? Or for being too interesting?
For actually making you care? For actually being memorable for more than a few moments?
Now, think for a moment of the incredible power that might be yours if you embrace emotion and Business presentation passion when no one else does.
The wonder and delight of this is that it is entirely within your grasp to do so.
I often judge presentations in business case competitions, and I never fail to be impressed at the high caliber of students competing.
Versed in the intricacies of wealth-building and savvy in the ways of Wall Street, the next generation of business leaders is well-armed for the competitive battles of tomorrow.
And case competitions are the way to display those skills.
Case Competitions Worldwide
In my last post, I described the crucible of case competitions and how they can lead to increased opportunities in the business world.
If it interests you (and it always interests the best), then review this site that was recently passed to me. Appropriately enough, it’s called www.studentcompetitions.com, and its motto says: Compete. Show Your Skills. Get Awarded.
The site features a constantly updated database of student competitions worldwide. As of this writing, 334 contests and competitions are listed.
So if you are serious about bringing to bear all of your business acumen in a public demonstration of your abilities to collaborate across a range of sub-disciplines in business, then go now to http://studentcompetitions.com and see what awaits you.
No Time for Modesty or Mediocrity
The Case Competition is your chance to demonstrate a wide range of corporate business skills in a collaborative effort. You receive recognition, valuable experience, sometimes monetary reward, and perhaps an open door to corporate employment. The competition is a showcase for your skills.
You can also win anywhere from $1,000 to $75,000 in a single business case competition.
The business case competition puts you in front of Corporate America in naked competition against the best students from other schools.
No hiding behind a resume.
No fast-talking a good game.
No “national rankings.”
Just pure performance that puts you in the arena under lots of pressure.
Business Case Competition as Crucible
In case competitions, your business team delivers a business presentation in competition against other teams in front of a panel of judges.
Teams display how quickly, thoroughly, and skillfully they can ingest a case, analyze it, and then prepare their conclusions.
They then present their recommendations to a panel of judges.
Business case competitions vary greatly in the details, but they do have a standard format and purpose. The idea behind such competitions is to provide a standard case to competing teams with a given time limit and then to rate how well the teams respond.
There is, of course, no direct competition between teams. Rather, each team is judged independently how well it handles the assigned case and presents its analysis and recommendations. There is a time limit and specific rules.
All teams operate under the same conditions.
Business Case Competitions Far and Wide
Competitions can be internal to the Business School or involve teams from several different schools.
Sometimes there are several rounds of competition, with the final round typically judged by outside company executives. The teams prepare a solution to the case and deliver a written report.
Teams then prepare a presentation of their analysis and recommendations and deliver the timed presentation before a panel of judges.
The judging panel sometime consists of executives from the actual company in the case.
The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business is good about this in its renowned Global Business Case Competition. Twelve to fourteen schools from around the globe compete in this week-long event. Its 2013 competition featured a case on Frog’s Leap Winery, which is known for its commitment to sustainability.
Frog’s Leap Winery produces high quality wines using organically-grown grapes and was a leader in adopting an environmental management system for production.
The competition teams, which act as outside consultants, were asked to make recommendations in three areas: (1) the next sustainability initiative that Frog’s Leap should undertake, (2) identification of two potential markets outside the US, and (3) marketing plans for those new markets.
With 48 hours to craft a case solution and presentation, Concordia University won that 2013 competition against a range of international competing universities.
Testing Your Mettle
One excellent aspect of case competitions that are judged by outsiders is that they provide a truer indication of the competitors’ mettle.
For the most part, they are far removed from the internal politics of particular institutions, where favored students may receive benefits or rewards related more to currying favor than to the quality of their work.
In some competitions, additional twists make the competition interesting and more complicated.
For instance, Ohio State University CIBER hosts an annual Case Challenge and creates teams from the pool of participants (i.e., members will be from different schools) instead of allowing the group of students from each school to compete as a team.
In this case, once students are assigned to teams, there is a day of team-building exercises.
The key to doing well in case competitions is to differentiate yourselves beforehand. This is much easier than you might imagine. Start with the Three Ps of Business Presentations. They provide a steady guide to ready you for your competition.
Principles . . . Preparation . . . Practice.
In subsequent posts, we deconstruct the business case competition to help you and your team prepare to your potential and deliver an especially powerful presentation.
When you deliver a presentation, one of the most important factors that figures into the success of your talk is whether you take the command presentation position.
Don’t follow the example of most afterdinner speakers or professors, who hide behind the lectern, shuffling notes, looking down, gripping the edges of the podium with white-knuckled fervor.
This is grotesque.
It induces your audience to doze, to drift, to check out.
Instead, seize the metaphorical high ground of the presentation terrain . . . the Command Presentation Position.
And this means that you shun the lectern.
The Abominable Lectern!
The lectern is an abomination.
If you happen to be a liberal arts student who drifted here by mistake, think of the lectern as The Oppressor or The Other. It puts a barrier between you and those whom you address.
For many students, the lectern is a place to hide from the audience.
I recommend using the lectern only once, as a tool . . . and this is the occasion to walk from behind it to approach your audience at the very beginning of your talk. This is an action of communication, a reaching out, a gesture of intimacy.
Do not lean upon the lectern in nonchalant fashion, particularly leaning upon your elbow and with one leg crossed in front of the other.
Fix this now.
Move from behind the lectern and into the Command Presentation Position. In today’s fleeting vernacular, occupy the command presentation position.
The Command Position is the position directly in front of a lectern and 4-8 feet from your audience. It extends approximately 4 feet to either side of you. You are not a visitor in this space.
As a presenter or speaker, this is your home. You own this space, so make it yours. You must always perform as if you belong there, never there as a visitor.
Occupy the command presentation position now for democracy, social justice, and an especially powerful presentation.
Two pernicious myths pervade the landscape of business presentations, and these myths refuse to be swatted down.
Well, probably more than two myths are circulating, but these two big myths persistently burden folks.
These myths influence two large groups of people.
Without knowing it, these folks subscribe to two schools of presentation thought . . . Birthers and McTips.
The first group – the “Birthers” presentation school – believes that superb public speakers are “born that way.”
Folks in this group believes that it’s nature-not-nurture and that natural talent wins the day. Since it’s an ability you either have or you don’t, well there’s no need to even try.
Just sit back and marvel at those outstanding public speakers who make it all look so easy, but who actually utilize a host of techniques to charm and dazzle you.
Techniques that would be available to you if you would only set aside the self-defeating notion that you can’t develop especially powerful presentation skills.
Rocket Science Presentations? No . . . just reachable goals accessible through dedication and practice.
Supersize Those McTips?
The second group – the “McTips” presentation school – believes that public speaking is both easy and easily learned.
Folks here believe that following a few presenting “McTips” or easy “McSteps” can turn them into tremendous speakers. “Make eye contact” . . . “Move around when you talk” . . . “Use your hands” . . . Presto.
This McTips view is so pernicious that it does more damage than good.
It’s like a get-rich-quick scheme that scams people.
And who wouldn’t want to believe that there’s a painless shortcut to one of the most universally despised activities in corporate America?
One colleague told me a while back, his fingers steepled in front of him, “I can teach my people all they need to know about presenting in 30 minutes . . . all that other stuff is just B__ S___.”
Rocket Science Presentations!
And if becoming a great presenter is so incredibly easy and the product of a few tips or steps, then why does the bar stay so low with regard to business presentations?
Why does our business landscape resemble a wasteland strewn with mind-numbing PowerPoint slides and populated with droning executive automatons?
Both views are not only wrong, but they can stunt your development as a top-notch business presenter.
Great presenters are neither born, nor are they easily made.
What’s this bookending and why is it so important to audience response?
Bookending brings your audience full circle, in a sense. You first hook your audience with an intense introduction, and at then at the conclusion of your presentation, you recapitulate.
This provides a sense of closure and completion for the audience.
Presentation Structure Begins with This
The First Bookend.
This means to start your presentation with an anecdote, cue, or visual image that hooks your listeners into the narrative. This is your “grabber.”
It can’t be a gimmick, or the audience will feel cheated.
Your grabber must startle and delight your audience. An interesting fact, a controversial statement, a powerful phrase.
And then you follow with your situation statement, which flows naturally from your grabber.
Your clear situation statement of only one or two sentences tells the audience exactly what they are about to hear, start to finish.
One of the best grabbers/situation statements I’ve ever heard was this pithy formulation:
“There’s a deal on the table. Don’t take it. Here’s why.”
That grabber is direct and is almost enough for a situation statement as well. It pulses with power. If you’re the one associated with the “deal on the table,” how could you not want to hear what comes next?
In fact, it encompasses the entire presentation in three especially powerful sentences.
That’s your first bookend.
The Middle of Your Presentation Structure
Then you offer your major points of your presentation, usually three major points.
Because of the Rule of Three that I have spoken of in this space so many times. We seem to be hard-wired to receive information most efficiently in threes. Whether it’s a slogan or a fairy tale, when information is grouped in threes, we respond well to it and we remember it better.
This three-part presentation structure can serve you well as a framework for most any presentation.
As you wind to a conclusion, you then construct your second and final bookend.
Recapitulation of your Presentation Structure
You say these words: “In conclusion, we can see that—” Then . . .
Repeat your original situation statement. Hearken back to the original introductory anecdote, cue, or visual image that launched your presentation.
Finally, say: “We believe that our presentation substantiates this.”
You come full-circle, so to speak, and the audience gains a sense of completeness. This recapitulation of your theme knits together your segment into a whole. Your audience appreciates the closure.
Rather than a linear march, where nothing said in your presentation seems to relate to anything that came before, you offer a satisfying circularity. You bring your audience home.
You bring you audience back to the familiar starting point, and this drives home the major point of your talk in two especially powerful ways: 1) the outright repetition of your theme, cementing it in the minds of your listeners, and 2) the story convention of providing a satisfying ending, tying up loose ends, and giving psychological closure.
It’s an elegant technique that can pay big dividends in terms of audience response.
Oftentimes, we don’t consider that our presentation appearance transmits messages to those around us.
Most certainly, the appearance of a speaker before an audience conveys non-verbal signals. This happens whether you are conscious of it or not.
Your presentation appearance sends a message to your audience, and you cannot decide not to send a message with your appearance.
You cannot tell an audience to disregard the message your appearance transmits.
And you can’t dictate to an audience the message it receives.
Your Presentation Appearance . . .
What message does your presentation appearance transmit to people?
That you don’t care?
That you’re confident?
That you’re attentive to detail?
That you care about your dignity, your physique?
Is your appearance one big flip-off to the world because you fancy yourself an ageless rebel, shaking your fist at the “man” and refusing to “conform” to the “rules?”
If so, then you pay a dear price for so meager a prize.
That price comes in the form of ceding competitive advantage to your peers, who may want to spend their personal capital for more luxurious rewards.
Are you the “ageless rebel” battling the “Man”?
Many young speakers seem unaware of the messages that their appearance conveys. Or worse, they attempt to rationalize the message, arguing instead what they believe that the audience “ought” to pay attention to and what it “ought” to ignore.
You simply cannot dress for lazy comfort and nonchalance and expect to send a message that conveys seriousness, competence, and confidence. This is the lesson that so many fail to grasp, even on into the middle management years.
“I’m a rebel and exude confidence and independence!” you think, as you suit up in the current campus fashion fad. The message received is likely much different: “You’re a slob with no sense of proportion or clue how to dress, and I’ll never hire you.”
The best public speakers understand the power of presentation appearance and mesh their dress with their message. Take President Barack Obama, for example. He is a superb dresser, as are all presidents.
On occasion, you will see the President speaking in open collared shirt, his sleeves rolled up in “let’s get the job done” fashion.
And that’s usually the message he’s trying to convey in such dress: “Let’s get the job done . . . Let’s work together.”
Politics, Schmolitics . . . He’s a Sharp Dresser
You will never see President Obama address the nation from the Oval Office on a matter of gravity with his jacket off and his sleeves rolled-up. The messages must mesh.
The lesson here is that your dress ought to reinforce your message, not offer conflicting signals.
Here are some basic suggestions for ensuring a minimum pleasing appearance . . .
“They don’t get it . . . they never will . . . and that’s good for me.”
That’s what one young man said to me after a talk during which two young ladies walked out in a huff.
They walked out, and Ron was utterly delighted.
They left, because I called them out on their rudeness of continuously and ostentatiously texting during a presentation.
“Their ignorance . . . My Competitive Advantage”
They walked out, because I wasn’t speaking to “their needs,” and the seminar was a “waste of time.”
They walked out for the same reason that some women walk out when they hear a talk by legendary CEO Jack Welch. Generally speaking, this type of walk-out isn’t there to learn anything new to begin with, but rather to get confirmation for what they already believe they know.
Again, generally speaking, this type of walk-out wants validation for what they already believe . . . they want a familiar sermon that externalizes blame, that places the onus for their self-perceived status as somewhere outside themselves.
So they search for someone who tells them what they want to hear. And for a sermon that likely will do them no good whatever.
And in this case, they walked out, because I wasn’t saying what they wanted to hear.
Likewise, if folks in my audience think they’ve “heard all this” and “this goes against everything I’ve learned about public speaking,” well then off you go!
Good Luck and Godspeed!
Good luck and Godspeed to you in whatever other 90-minute activity that will remain memorable for the rest of your life.
“They don’t get it,” Ron said. “They’ll keep on doing what they’re doing, never improving. That cuts the competition for me. And that is good for me.”
You see them in every walk of life . . . folks who stop learning. Folks encrusted with cynicism. Folks who cannot grant that perhaps their hauteur is not warranted, who cannot see that their grandeur is not as lustrous as they believe, who lost their last shreds of coachability in high school and who elevate mediocrity to a virtue.
Folks who just don’t get it.
We don’t have nearly enough time to cater to them, to “have a conversation” about presenting.
If folks believe they already know how to present . . . already believe that there is nothing left to learn . . . believe that their actual performance matches what they believe they already know . . . then I encourage people not to attend my seminars, or to leave if they stumble in by mistake.
Again . . . Good luck and Godspeed!
Negative Energy May Leave Now
I’ll even pay them a dollar at the door as they exit. Off you go! The sooner, the better.
Because their time is valuable and they should not waste it in activities they believe won’t benefit them. Fair enough.
And we can proceed without the burden of angry cynicism and negative energy in the room. That’s fair as well.
We who remain learn much about the business presentation enterprise. And we achieve that sublime seminar state where naysayers and crabby folks have taken their troubles elsewhere and the atmosphere is more malleable and capable of producing the magic that occurs in what I call “good gestalt.”
Great things happen when smart people gather for a common purpose.