In those four words is concentrated an almost otherworldly existential power that is rarely seen in hundreds of thousands of mundane marketing messages broadcast every day.
Those four words encompass Kierkegaard and Kafka and Camus. They communicate the ultimate absurdity of the human condition and self-mock with relish our own marketing-based consumer lifestyle.
Do I wax too wildly over a mere commercial message, albeit one that digs such a deep philosophical foundation whose established lineage stretches to the 19th Century?
Yes, I probably do. After all, it’s just a line from a televised candy commercial.
Yes, candy. But what a line!
“Eat both squares, please.”
Pop Culture Immortality
It’s a line destined to go down in short-lived pop-cult history alongside “Who put the Goat in there?” [See, you already missed that one, didn’t you? Google it] You can earn lots of money on t-shirts with “Eat both squares, please” before this narrow window of opportunity slams shut.
Why is the line funny? Because of the subtlety it conveys. The commercial message is . . . taste. And shades of darkly humorous and powerful meaning is shoehorned into those four words.
It is an incredible feat of advertising acumen. An instant classic. It may not rate as highly in the pantheon of ad lore as the iconic phrase “Where’s the Beef?” but it has a far more deeply existential quality to it, a surreal aspect that taps into our imagination and allows us to play out the dark meaning of those innocent words. For it is in the innocence of the words themselves that we find their ironic power.
I can think of only one other example that has similar power, but it’s far darker; it comes from the novel Hannibal: “The skin graft didn’t take.”
All of which leads us to the the central question – What’s the source of creativity? How can we tap our own creativity to construct powerful messages that communicate with humor the points we wish to make. How can we burn our messages into the receptors of our listeners? How can creativity ignite our own business presentations, our business shows?
Commercials are presentations of a sort. They are shows in the same way that your business presentations are shows. So what makes an especially powerful commercial?
Advertising agencies and marketers get to have the bulk of the fun in business, or so it seems. Oftentimes, their efforts are quashed out of corporate fears of giving offense or going too over-the-top. But every once in a while . . .
This commercial surely substantiates the fun thesis as we can imagine the fun these folks had assembling this masterpiece. The commercial hangs together superbly in creating a mind-burning moment for the product – Snickers.
What’s that? You still don’t understand “Eat both squares, please?” You will in a moment.
Shades of Gary Larsen and his cartoon masterpieces The Far Side!
I include this ad in Business School Presenting to illustrate what great creativity can produce when unleashed from the straitjacket we usually find in Business School. In no way can I analyze exactly why this commercial is incredibly funny, except to note that it combines anthropomorphism with a modern focus group scenario.
And the commercial is played straight, and not for laughs. In other words, the focus group scenario is exactly what you find in such a venue and activity. The Kafkaesque addition of sharks gives it a kind of restrained absurdity. The combination yields 31 seconds of brilliance, and like most brilliant humor, it’s bounsd to offend someone, somewhere, somehow.
Integrating humor into your presentation can be difficult, but this is one way to do it. Certainly we cannot hit a homerun like this commercial with our own efforts every time, but if humor is a goal, this Snickers formula can work – blending the mundane with the bizarre to produce a pastiche of power that drills a concept into the audience’s collective mind.
For some reason known only to the deities of publishing, Apple’s iconic CEO Steve Jobs is considered a great business presenter.
A bestselling book by Carmin Gallo even touts The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs.
But is Steve really a great presenter? Does he really have secrets that you can use? And can you learn how to be “an insanely great” presenter from this book?
No . . . no . . . and . . .
Well . . . on that last point, you can learn to become a pretty good presenter from this book.
But not from Steve Jobs.
The Extraordinary Jobs
Steve is a visionary and an extraordinary entrepreneur many times over. He has grown tremendously since the days when he thought that his self-absorbed bombast gave him license to insult Microsoft and Bill Gates mercilessly.
Jobs emerged as a celebrity CEO, a man who loves the limelight and whose strong and quirky personality guarantee him a maniacal following among a narrow slice of the American populace.
On an absolute scale, Steve is a slightly above-average presenter. Remove Steve’s high-tech prop that the entire wonk-world is waiting to see, and remove the employee/early adopter audiences that cheer his every eye-twitch, and we are left with a shabbily dressed average sort of fellow given to aimless pacing and whose high-pitched voice grates a bit on the senses with its “ummms” and “ahhhhs.”
You and I know that there is only one reason that Steve Jobs is on that stage. Only one reason that he has a book purporting to reveal the presentation secrets of Steve Jobs.
And it’s not for his presenting skills.
The Real Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs
While Jobs himself is not someone whose presenting skills deserve emulation, he is obviously the subject of the book because of his built-in audience, and so we must deal with that. We can dismiss it, in fact.
But the book does have a gem.
The gem of the book is the author. The author of the Jobs book is Carmine Gallo, who is an extremely polished and superb presenter and presentation coach, and he embeds solid presenting nuggets throughout the book.
Carmine is, in fact, a much better presenter than Jobs. You can judge for yourself by watching the video here.
But even Carmine is not perfect. He begins by gushing at Jobs’s stature as a presenter that is almost embarrassing in its lavish excess: “Steve Jobs is the most captivating communicator on the world stage . . . He is the world’s greatest corporate storyteller!”
But . . . well, we’re selling books here, and hype is understandable. I’d probably gush, too, if given a similar opportunity, so let’s give Carmine a pass on this one.
But at the end of the video Carmine gives advice that I believe is just flat-out wrong.
He says that you, the presenter, are the hero of the presentation. That you, your product, or your service is the hero.
All of us would like to be the hero of our presentation, wouldn’t we? And we are sorely tempted to put the focus on our product and ourselves.
No. Don’t do it.
Your Audience is the Hero
There is room for only one hero in the presentation, and that hero is not you. The hero is in the audience, and you are there to help your audience become heroic.
As with all presentation instruction, you can ignore or accept what you choose, and this point is no different. You can try to be the hero. Or, you can focus on your audience and its needs and its desires.
In sum, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs offers a reasonable exposition of presentation methods that can benefit us all, but recognize that these methods have nothing to do with Steve Jobs and they do not help us become “insanely great” presenters.
But there is good news for you on the presentation front. The best news in all of this is, in fact, great news.
With dedication, coachability, and the right method, virtually anyone – and I mean anyone – can become a better business presenter than Steve Jobs.
One of the most important job interview tips for college students that I give involves business presenting.
The job interview is likely the most important business presentation you will ever give. This is because in the interview, you present for your most important client – you.
And the question I’m asked most frequently with respect to how you present your accomplishments is this:
“How do I talk about myself and my qualifications in a way that is honest and forthright and yet does not sound like braggadocio?”
The Best of My Job Interview Tips for College Students
Few people like to boast. Instead folks go the opposite extreme of false humility. But neither boasting nor meekness is the answer.
Instead, try this . . .
Understand that you are not in the interview to talk about your resume. Your resume got you through the door and into the interview.
Now, the recruiter is looking for something more. And that “something” is often indefinable.
The recruiter evaluates you for intangible qualities, such as corporate fit, personality, working intelligence, verbal acuity. Many times, the recruiter doesn’t know what he or she is actually looking for.
But the recruiter does know what is unacceptable and is thus conscious of disqualifiers.
For the young or mid-level candidate, the atmosphere can feel akin to a minefield. Some candidates feel that if they go tightlipped, they cannot make a mistake. And so they weigh each word carefully, triangulating what they believe the recruiter wants to hear. But it is not enough to simply survive without making a slip . . . or a “mistake.”
This approach comes off as stiff, artificial, weird.
Instead, go into your interview to make the presentation of your life about you, not what you think the recruiter is looking for. The constitutes the most important of my many job interview tips for college students.
When it comes time to talk about yourself – here is exactly how to do it.
Talk about what you learned or what you discovered about yourself.
Digest that for a moment.
Yes, it really is that simple. But it’s not easy, especially if you aren’t accustomed to talking about yourself this way. It takes practice.
Talk about a difficult group project or a difficult task that required you to adapt and use your unique skill set. In, say, a group work setting, tell of your learning about the importance of time management, of punctuality. Translation:
I have a great work ethic and I’m punctual.
Tell how you learned to deal with people from different cultures and backgrounds and to value difference. Translation:
I get along with a wide range of people.
Tell how you discovered that you gain a sense of satisfaction from helping others do their best, drawing out their best qualities and backstopping them where they are weak. Translation:
I’m a team-player who subordinates my ego to get the job done for the company, recognizing that others may need help on occasion, help that I freely give.
Tell how you learned about different work styles and of the different ways of tackling problems. Translation:
I’m flexible and adaptable to a variety of work environments and people.
For an Especially Powerful Interview
Can you see how it works?
You don’t talk about your strengths . . . you talk of what you learned about yourself during the course of a project or task. So think of a major project you’ve tackled in the past. Build your story around that.
For example, you could say something like this:
“I worked on a major three-month project in my International Business Capstone involving a multicultural team, and in the project, I learned a great deal about myself as well as others. I believe that I grew not only as a professional, but as a human being. This gave me a great deal of satisfaction, especially as I saw others developing their skills as well.”
Or, if you are a young professional, you could say:
“We received a last-minute project and it was dumped on us without warning, which made us work through the weekend. That was pivotal. It was then that I learned that this is the nature of business – chaotic, demanding, unforgiving, unpredictable – and how I respond to the challenge makes the difference between a win and a loss. That experience forged me, and I’ll always be grateful for it.”
With that statement, you have conveyed a wealth of positive information to the recruiter.
Of course, it all must be true, so you must adapt your story particulars to your own work life. And all of us have these moments and experiences, so mine your recent past for them.
Your resume itself has at least a dozen stories, and it’s up to you to find them. When you do find them, craft them, practice them, and use them. Do this, and you achieve an important personal competitive advantage.
So always remember these key words . . .
Let me share with you what I learned about myself.
But most of us rarely do, and this might be a result of simply not knowing how.
Admit it . . . most of us think we’re pretty sharp – we all think we know what a story is, don’t we? But do we really?
What is a Presentation Story?
A story is a narrative of events, either true or untrue, that appeals to the emotions more-so than the intellect.
Let me emphasize – the appeal is primarily to the emotions. Here’s an example.
The 1995 legal thriller A Time to Killis a superb storytelling film that exemplifies how a deep appeal to emotion and to the heart can overcome an appeal to logic and reason.
A Time to Kill is the story of the rape of a little girl and the subsequent killing of her rapists by a heartsick father and his trial for murder. The story takes place in racially divided Mississippi and the interracial struggle for justice and understanding is the centerpiece of the narrative.
It is really several stories. A young lawyer’s struggle, Jake (Matt McCanaughy). A father’s struggle, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson). And a town’s struggle for its soul.
At the end of the film, Jake tells Carl that he’s going to lose the case. That he should bargain with the prosecutor for a lesser charge to gain life in prison rather than the death penalty.
Carl rebukes his lawyer, Jake. He urges him to “think like the jury.”
Know the Audience for Your Presentation Story
This is actually one of the keenest lessons on “know your audience” that I have ever witnessed.
“You’re one of the bad guys, Jake,” Carl says. “That’s why I picked you. You’re one of them white folk. You think like them. That’s why you can set me free. Throw out all your ‘points of law’ and talk to them like one of them.”
How does Jake respond?
He responds with the Power of Presentation Story.
Jake prepares a closing argument without his “points of law.” He appeals to the emotions of the jury instead of their logic or sense of duty to the laws of man. He appeals to their humanity, and to do this, he must tell a presentation story.
It must be the most compelling story of his young legal career.
Jake first apologizes to the jury for his ineptitude due to his inexperience. He waves away any appeal to “points of law.” He pauses. Jake then places his hand in his pocket, and he gestures with his other hand . . . gently, firmly.
He approaches the jury box. Simultaneously, he utters the magical words, almost like an incantation.
“Now I’m gonna tell you a story.”
His Words Transform the Courtroom
Everyone in the film leans forward. The prosecutor. The defendant. The members of the jury.
All of them. You feel yourself lean forward. Perhaps you shift in your seat with expectation.
Because everyone loves a story. A story that touches emotions. A story that makes them laugh.
In this case, a sad and heinous story that makes them weep.
Why does Jake do this? Because stories touch the emotions in ways that straight exposition cannot. Jake wants the jury to feel, not just to think, and this scene of Jake pleading for his client’s life is a masterful demonstration of story’s power.
The armor we wear against fact and logic is porous and vulnerable to the gentle probing of a story. As Jake weaves his spellbinding and horrible story of rape and trauma, the stolid men and women of the jury begin to crumble. Eyes glisten. Hard swallowing.
Even the most callous and racist man on the jury is affected by Jake’s tale.
Perhaps even you are moved by the heart-rending summation.
Despite your best efforts to energize the audience, to convey yourself in authentic and enthusiastic terms, to laser your talk with über focus . . . in spite of all of that, you can’t gain traction.
Here is when you reach into your quiver and pull out your Golden Arrow.
An arrow guaranteed to hit your target every time.
The Golden Arrow
When you find yourself adrift, pause thoughtfully, eye your audience with sincerity, and say this . . .
“Let me tell you a story.”
You immediately rivet attention on yourself. Why? Presentation Master J. K. Horner shares the reason with us from 1929:
Probably everyone has experienced the universal interest and attention which results in a dull and abstract lecture when the speaker says, ‘That reminds me of a story.’ Like a dog at the back door waiting for a bone, an audience will prick up its ears at the approach of the speaker with a story or illustration that arouses mental imagery.
Because such stories are concrete, the opposite of abstract, and tend to arouse pictures which vivify an idea, setting it out in relief with bold colors against a background of drab and hazy abstractions.
Six Most Powerful Words for Business Presentations
“Let me tell you a story” are the six most powerful words you can utter in a business presentation. If your goal is to grip your audience, entertain them, persuade them, and move them to action, you always generate interest with these six most powerful words: Let me tell you a story.
“Let me tell you a secret” is just as compelling, but when you think about it, it’s really the same storytelling device worded in slightly different fashion.
The story is a powerful communicative tool. Let me say it again: It puts incredible power in your hands, on your lips.
This power of story has been known for ages. Stories are “windows that let the light in.”
And the story is an incredibly versatile tool.
Presentation Master Katherine Cather observed that its emotive effect is akin to what one finds in high art: “Because the story has power to awaken the emotions and to enlarge the range of experience, it is a tool of universal adaptability. Its appeal is like that of music, sculpture, or painting.”
We live in the 21st Century age of dazzling kaleidoscopic multimedia. Right now, a kindergartener has at his disposal more computing power in a laptop than did Neil Armstrong in his lunar module when he landed on the moon in 1969.
In such an age, why speak of an anachronism like “storytelling?”
Just this . . .
A Timeless and Powerful Tool for the 21st Century
Stories still serve as our main form of entertainment – we see and hear stories every day from many sources.
Newspapers are filled with “stories.” Films, television shows, novels, even technical manuals regale us with stories. You tell stories all the time.
Stories are as old as man and still hold fascination for us.
In an age of pyrotechnic special effects that boggle the mind, film producers have found that without a strong story populated with sharply drawn and sympathetic characters, the film flounders. And fails.
Some stories are more interesting than others, of course. But even the most pedestrian of tales keep our attention far better than dry exposition of facts delivered in a monotone. Unlike straight exposition, stories appeal to the emotions. This is the secret of their power.
And it is incredible power.
The Six Most Powerful Words
If you search for a verity in the human condition, a key that unlocks the power of persuasion, then this is it – the appeal to emotion.
Katherine Cather was a master storyteller of her generation, and her masterpiece written in 1925 captures the universal appeal of this mode of communication. We seem to have left it behind in favor of cynicism and wry gimcrackery at one end of the scale and a barren “newspeak” at the other end. Said Ms. Cather:
Human emotions are fundamentally the same in every country and in every period of history, regardless of the degree of culture or the color of the skin. Love and hate lie dormant in the human heart; likewise gratitude, and all the other feelings that move mortals to action. They manifest themselves according to the state of civilization or enlightenment of those in whose souls they surge, but the elemental urge, the motive that actuates men to right or wrong doing, is the same now as it was at the beginning of time.
The story has power to nurture any one of the emotions . . . . What is the secret of the power of either the spoken or written tale to shape ideals and fix standards? Because it touches the heart. It arouses the emotions and makes people feel with the characters whose acts make the plot. Mirth, anger, pity, desire, disdain, approval, and dislike are aroused, because the characters who move through the tale experience these emotions.
So use the story device to leaven your presentation with color and spice. Hook your audience and enthrall them with the Six Most Powerful Words in the English language.
Remember that this secret is powerful because it hearkens back to an almost primal urge we have as humans to share experiences with each other, and this is the ultimate source of its appeal.
When you tap the power of story, you tap into a wellspring of history and practice as old as mankind itself. So pull the Six Most Powerful Words from your quiver when you desperately need to hit your target.
Whether the finance presentations class is in Philadelphia . . . or Mumbai . . . or Cali . . . or Chennai . . . I hear the same universal and eerie refrain from finance students –
“Finance Presentations are different.”
“We don’t do all of that soft-skill presentations stuff.”
“For us, the numbers tell the story.”
Finance Presentations Mysteries
Numbers seem to enchant business-people in deep and mysterious ways, as if numerical constructs are somehow less malleable than the English language. They seem less subject to manipulation.
In a chaotic world, a spreadsheet exudes familiarity, a firm valuation offers comfort. An income statement serves as anchor.
For some, numbers convey a certitude and precision unavailable to mere rhetoric. This illusion of certitude and precision exerts influence on finance folks to believe that, well . . . that the laws of human nature that stymie the rest of us do not apply to them in the coldness and hardness of objective numerical analysis.
But this is an illusion. And the result is 2D presenting, full of voodoo and bereft of nuance and subtle analysis.
Where business presentations are concerned, finance folks are not different, special, unique or otherwise gifted with special powers or incantations denied the mere mortals who toil in marketing or human resources.
We are all subject to the same demands placed upon us by the presentations beast. These demands that nettle us equally and indiscriminately during the business presentation process.
As with most things, there is bad news and good news in this slice of life provided here.
The Bad News
The bad news is that modern finance presentations are a vast wasteland of unreadable spreadsheets and monotonous, toneless recitations of finance esoterica. It seems that there must be a requirement for this in finance.
In fact, many finance presentations devolve into basic meeting discussions about a printed analysis distributed beforehand, with the group of presenters merely standing while everyone else sits and interrupts with strings of questions. Several presentation cliches guarantee this sorry state of affairs a long life . . .
“Just the facts”
Exhortations of “Just the facts” serve as little more than a license to be unoriginal, uninteresting, and unfocused.
“Just the facts”
Folks believe that this phrase gives the impression that they are no-nonsense and hard-core. But there is probably no more parsimoniously pompous and simultaneously meaningless phrase yet to be devised.
It achieves incredible bombast in just three syllables.
What does it mean, “Just the facts?” Which facts? Why these facts and not those facts?
Events are three-dimensional and filled with people; they require explanation and analysis. Mere “facts” are flat, two-dimensional, unemotional, and unsatisfactory proxies for what happens in the real world. “Just the facts” masks much more than it reveals.
“The numbers tell the story.”
This is a favorite of folks who seem to believe that the ironclad rules of presentations do not apply to them. “We don’t deal with all of that soft storytelling,” finance majors often tell me. “We deal in hard numbers.”
There’s so much wrong with this that it’s difficult to locate a reasonable starting-point.
Numbers, by themselves, tell no story at all. If numbers were conceivably capable of telling a story, it would be a considerably incomplete story, giving a distorted picture of reality.
The end result of these finance presentations shenanigans is an overall level of mediocrity and outright bad presentations. If firms want nothing more than a group discussion about a handout, with the only thing distinguishing the “presenters” from the audience is that they are standing, then so be it.
It may be useful. It may be boring. It may be morale-building. It may be team-destroying. It may be time-wasting.
But whatever else it is, it is not a business presentation.
“Cut ’n’ Paste”
This is the heinous data dump that all of us inevitably see. PowerPoint slides crammed with data in tiny, unreadable font.
The display of these heinous slides is accompanied by a sweep of the arm and the awful phrase: “As you can see . . . ” The cause of this pathology is the rote transfer of your written report to a PowerPoint display, with no modification to suit the completely different medium. The result?
Slides from Hell.
The Good News
In every obstacle exists an opportunity.
Because the bar for finance presentations is so low, if you invest your presentations with the powerful principles that apply to all business presentations, your own shows will outstrip the competition by an order of magnitude. This, of course, implies that your content is rock-solid. It should be. Your ratio analysis, your projected earnings, your sophisticated modeling should all reflect the superb finance education you have received.
But how you present that content is the key to presentation victory.
All of the presentation principles that we discuss here apply to finance presentations, particularly the parsimonious display of numbers and the necessity for their visual clarity. If anything, finance presentations must be more attentive to how masses of data are distilled and displayed.
A situation statement must be given.
A story still must be told.
Your analysis presented.
Conclusions must be drawn.
Recommendations must be made.
And external factors must be melded with the numbers so that the numbers assume clarity and meaning in an especially powerful 3D presentation.
If you do the above, and nothing more, then your finance presentations will outshine the hoi polloi with ease.
But if you delve even more deeply into the masterful techniques and principles available to you, learning to use your tools skillfully, you can rise to the zenith of the finance presentations world precisely because you are part of the tiny minority who seizes the opportunity to deliver an especially powerful presentation.
Let’s say that you are assigned the ToughBolt business case. Now, you must present before the directors of the Toughbolt Corporation.
Your group has produced a written analysis. It’s finished.
How do you “prepare?”
Apply the sound method of correct Preparation – the second of the Three Ps.
Your task is clear. You must present your conclusions to an audience. And here is where I give you one of the most important gems of wisdom necessary to giving a first-rate show.
Your presentation is a completely different product than your written report. Let me repeat that, because it is so misunderstood and ignored.
Your presentation is a completely different product than your written report.
It’s a completely different mode of communication.
Do you wonder how this is possible, since you create your presentation from a written report? Since you are creating an information product from a case, how can the product be different, simply because one product is written and the other visual and vocal?
It is different in exactly the same way that a film is a completely different product than a novel, even if the story is supposedly the same. It is different in the way that a play read silently from the page differs from a play acted out on stage.
You operate in a different medium.
You have time constraints.
A group is receiving your message.
A group is delivering the message.
You have almost no opportunity for repeat.
You have multiple opportunities to miscommunicate.
In short, you are in a high-risk environment and you are vulnerable, far more vulnerable than you might be in a written report, where the risk is controllable. Have a look at the chart below.
These many differences between written and oral reports are, to many people, invisible.
Many folks believe that there is no difference.
And this is why those same folks believe that delivering a presentation is “easy.” It consists of little more than cutting and pasting a written report’s points onto a half-dozen cramped slides, and then reading them in public.
As absurd as this might appear in print, it actually has currency. People believe this, because they’ve not been told otherwise.
Finance people are especially prone to this habit, believing that the “numbers tell the story.” The more numbers, the better. The more obtuse the spreadsheet, the tinier the font, the more complex the chart, the more stuff packed on each slide, the better.
Such a vague, incomprehensible, numbers-heavy mess seems to be the currency of many business presentations.
It’s totally wrong, and it’s totally unneccessary.
Part of your preparation is the crafting of clear, compelling, and on-point graphics that support your message . . . not obscure it. Rid your presentation of chart junk. Zero-in to achieve what I call über focus.
“How come I never get assigned an interesting topic?”
Perhaps you’ve said that? I’ve certainly heard it.
“How come I never get assigned an interesting topic?”
Now, whether any topic is inherently interesting or not is irrelevant to your task. It’s your duty to craft a talk that interests the audience. Cases are not assigned to you so that they will interest you. Your tasks as a project manager or consultant don’t come to you on the basis of whether they interest you. No one cares if they “interest” you.
That’s not the point.
We all would love to be spoon-fed “interesting” topics. But what’s an “interesting” topic?
I have found the following to be true:
The students who complain about never getting an interesting topic actually do get assigned inherently interesting topics. They don’t recognize them as interesting. And they invariably butcher a potentially interesting topic and miss every cue and opportunity to craft a great presentation.
Moreover, it is your job to presenting an especially powerful and scintillating presentation, regardless of the topic.
Face it. If you don’t take presenting seriously, then you won’t prepare any differently for an “interesting” topic than you would for a “boring” topic. You simply want an interesting topic for yourself . . . not so you can do a bang-up job for the audience or client.
Let’s shed that attitude.
Great presenters recognize the drama and conflict and possibilities in every case. They invariably craft an interesting presentation whether the topic concerns tenpenny nails or derivatives or soap.
Crank up Interest
How do you generate interest? Public speaking master James Winans provides several suggestions:
[I]nterest is, generally speaking, strongest in old things in new settings, looked at from new angles, given new forms and developed with new facts and ideas, with new light on familiar characters, new explanations of familiar phenomena, or new applications of old truths.
Let’s go . . .
The typical start to a presentation project is . . .
. . . procrastination.
You put it off as a daunting task. Or you put it off because you believe you can “wing it.” Or you lament that you don’t have an “interesting topic.”
Let’s say that your task is to provide a SWOT within the body of a group presentation, and your time is 4-5 minutes. What is your actual task here? Think about it. How do you usually approach the task? How do you characterize it?
Here is my guess at how you approach it.
You define your task as:
“How can I fit X amount of information into this limited time?”
In your own mind, the objective is not to communicate clearly to your audience. Your only objective is to “fit it all in.” And if you “achieve” this dubious objective, then in your mind you will have succeeded.
Unfortunately, your professor might agree with you, since many b-school professors look only for “content.” They do not evaluate whether the content has been communicated clearly and effectively.
And this is what is missing – you don’t analyze how or why or in what way you can present the information in a public forum.
If a written paper has already been produced, this complicates your task. You feel the irresistible allure of cut ’n’ paste.
The result is less than stellar, and you end up trying to shovel 10 pounds of sand into a five-pound pail. The result is predictable.
Your slides are crammed with information.
You talk fast to force all the points in. You run over-time.
You fail. You fail to deliver a star-spangled presentation for lack of proper preparation.
This Time, Procrustes has it Right
Take the Procrustean approach. This approach is named after Procrustes, a figure from Greek mythology. The Columbia Encyclopedia describes the myth thusly:
He forced passersby to lie on a very long bed and then stretched them to fit it. If they were too tall to fit his bed, he sawed off their legs. Using Procrustes’ own villainous methods, Theseus killed him.
Surely Procrustes was a villain, what with sawing off people’s legs or stretching them to fit an arbitrary standard. In modern-day parlance, it has retained its negative connotation with the term “Procrustean solution.”
“Procrustean solution” is the undesirable practice of tailoring data to fit its container or some other preconceived stricture. A common example from the business world is embodied in the notion that no résumé should exceed one page in length.
But in this case, let’s give Procrustes a break.
Your Procrustean Solution
Let’s take a Procrustean approach and make a better presentation. Consider this:
We have no choice in the length of our presentation. It’s four minutes. Or five minutes. That’s our Procrustean Bed. So let’s make the most of it and manipulate the situation to our benefit and to the benefit of our audience.
We’re not stretching someone or something. And we’re not hacking off legs.
We are using our mind and judgment to select what should be in our show and what should not be in our show.
And if you find the decision of what to include too difficult, then let’s do even more Procrustean manipulation. Pick only three major points that you want to make.
Pick three points to deliver in 4-5 minutes. If you must deliver an entire SWOT, then select one strength, one weakness, one opportunity, and one threat.
Why do we do this? Here’s why:
If you try to crowbar an entire SWOT analysis into a four-minute presentation, with multiple points for each category, you overwhelm your audience. They turn off and tune you out. You will lose them, and you will fail.
Presenting too many points is worse than only one point. If you present, say, a total of 5 strengths, 3 weaknesses, 4 opportunities, and 3 threats, no one remembers it. None of it. You irritate your audience mercilessly. Your presentation presents the results of analysis, not a laundry list of facts on which you base your analysis. The SWOT is, in fact, almost raw data.
You want the audience to remember how you massage the data, analyze it, and arrange it. You want the audience to remember your conclusions.
You take information and transforming it into intelligence.
You winnow out the chaff and leave only the wheat.
You reduce the static and white noise so that the communicative signal can be heard.
You are panning for gold, washing away the detritus so the nuggets can be found. When you buy gold, you don’t buy the waste product from which it was drawn, do you? Do you buy a gold ring set in a box of sand? Of course not, and neither should you offer up bucketfuls of presentation sand when you present your analytical gold to your client.
Your job is to sift through the mountains of information available, synthesize it, compress it, make it intelligible, then present it in a way that is understandable and, if possible, entertaining.
Digest these Preparation tips, try them out in your next presentation, and watch yourself produce and deliver the most powerful presentation of your young career.
Much more can be said about Preparation . . . Consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.
Elsewhere, I have characterized these principles as “secrets.” They are secrets. In fact, they are likely the most open secrets that mankind has ever known.
But they are difficult secrets. They are difficult, because they require you to actually do something. I think that perhaps when we think of a secret, we tend to equate it with magic. We automatically believe that there is some magic involved that will help us circumvent hard work. But that’s just not so.
The good news is that these secrets actually are secrets that truly work. They also constitute the dimensions along which we can gauge our speaking ability and judge how much we improve. This is the most important aspect of these secrets – they allow us to tear away the veil from those who pose as merely talented and to understand this beast called The Presentation.
Now, let’s plot our dimensions on a 7×7 Chart.
Take, as an example, the chart below, which is labeled across the top with our seven dimensions and along the vertical axis with a seven-point scale of value: Unacceptable, Below Average, Average, Good, Very Good, Superior, Professional.
The chart plots the seven dimensions against a seven-point scale and provides a thorough evaluation of the presenter’s level of skill. From the chart, we can see that this speaker carries a professional-grade stance and is superior with his gestures. All other dimensions indicate work is needed. The advantage of this chart, is that it disaggregates your various speaking tasks so that you can manage them. It separates them out, so that you can identify your weaknesses in a logical and comprehensive way. It also informs you of your strengths, so that you may build upon them.
The upshot is that his First P of Especially Powerful Presenting – Principles – guides us to master the Seven Secrets, to transform ourselves into truly adept presenting instruments, at home in front of any audience and able to connect across a range of subjects and and in a multitude of venues. Elsewhere, I have addressed the Seven Secrets in detail, and I’ll revisit them again soon.
For now, let’s remember that the especially powerful presenters of the past 50 years have used these Secrets – Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. They don’t announce that they’re using secret techniques and tricks of the trade, of course. They simply let you believe that they were gifted with special talents. Not a chance.
Don’t assume that you know what I mean by preparation and practice, because we likely have different conceptions of both, and I’m betting you’ll like the results you get from my approach.
So, settle in . . . and for the next couple of days, we will explore the Three Ps and how their assiduous application can transform you into the Especially Powerful Presenter that you always knew you could be.
If you feel reasonably confident, competent, and thoroughly satisfied with your presenting skills, then I congratulate you and suggest that you pass Business School Presentingalong to a buddy who might profit from it.
But if you are like most of the 1.3 million English-speaking business school population worldwide, you doubtless have issues with your business school and its treatment of presentations, which is why you’re reading this now.
One in 260 Million?
Of an estimated 260 million websites worldwide, this is the only site devoted exclusively to business school presentations.
I could be wrong about that, and I hope that I am.
Even if this is a lonely outpost today, we know that as quickly as the online community responds to the needs of its users, that could change tomorrow.
I trust you’ll let me know, so that I can link to these nooks and crannies of the web that may hold secrets that we all need. But right now, this instant, I do believe that this is it.
Business school students and young executives need credible and direct resources on presenting – solid advice and best practices, not vague generic “presentation principles” and certainly not “communication theory.”
In short, you want to know what works and why.
You want to know right from wrong, good from bad.
You want to know what is a matter of opinion and what, if anything, is carved in stone.
You want to know how to deliver an especially powerful presentation.
Here you find answers here to the most basic of questions.
What is this beast – the business presentation?
How do I stand? Where do I stand?
What do I say? How do I say it?
How do I reduce 20 pages of analysis into a four-minute spiel that makes sense and that “gets it all in?”
How should we assemble a group presentation? How do we orchestrate it?
Where do I begin, and how?
How do I end my talk?
What should I do with my hands?
How do I conquer nervousness once and for all?
How can I tell “what the professor wants?”
How do I translate complicated material, such as a spreadsheet, to a PowerPoint slide so that it communicates instead of bores?
2,500 Years of Presenting
Business School Presenting answers every one of these questions and many more that you haven’t even thought of yet.
You may not like the answers. You may disagree with the answers. Fair enough. Let a thousand presentation flowers bloom across the land. Listen, consider, pick and choose your pleasure. Or not.
But you should know that I offer here the distillation of 2,500 years of public speaking and presentation secrets, developed by masters of oratory and public speaking and refined in the forge of experience.
Cicero, Quintilian, Demosthenes, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama – all find their places in the pantheon of the most powerful presenters of all time.
They all have drawn upon the eternal verities of presenting, and in turn they have each contributed their own techniques to the body of wisdom. You find those verities here.
On the other side of things, I’d like to hear your own presentation stories from your campus that illustrate challenges particular to your school and academic concentration.
The various subdisciplines in business – finance, marketing, accounting, human resources, and such like – have their special needs, even as they are all tractable to the fundamental and advanced techniques of powerful presenting.
If you could have only one business presentation book to help you with your presentations, what would it be?
You have many from which to choose. Too many, in fact.
Hundreds of them.
So this question is part rhetorical and part genuine inquiry to discover what motivates, trains, and aids students and young executives in their development into capable presenters. No, not just capable presenters . . . especially powerful presenters.
I have my own answer to this question, of course, and I’ll share it with you in a moment. It’s based on reviewing a skein of presentation and public speaking books published over the course of 2,500 years. All of ’em? Close to it.
It’s an esoteric subject with a tightly circumscribed group of recognized and established authors and scholars. The mid- to late 1800s was the golden age for modern oratory and presenting. This was when Philadelphia was host to the National School of Elocution and Oratory, and departments of public speaking flourished in universities across the land.
Business Presentation Books
Today, we have “communications” courses that offer tofu and tedious texts. They offer impractical and vague suggestions that are often impossible to put into practice.
Today we have The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs supplanting the rich and powerful books of speaking masters who offer the soundest and most-proven presentation instruction in all of recorded history. This is not to harshly criticize The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. I don’t imply that it isn’t useful at all. The author, Carmine Gallo, is a delightfully engaging and powerful public speaker himself. He pens a superb column for BusinessWeek.
And sure, this book has a pocketful of useful tips.
But the book, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, is more about Steve Jobs than about you. It’s more about Steve Jobs than about presentation secrets that you can actually use.
Let’s put it this way: Steve Jobs’s #1 presentation “secret” is to speak only at Apple product launch extravaganzas populated with early adopter evangelicals and to ensure that he is unveiling the next generation high-technology gadget that has been hyped in the world press for the previous 12 months. In such a scenario, you and I could paint our faces blue and dress like Jack Sparrow and deliver a successful and quite powerful presentation?
Of course we could. That is Steve Jobs’s actual “secret.”
Jobs is an above-average speaker with a distinctive style. His public appearances are highly orchestrated, and his speaking competition in America’s C-Suite is abysmal.
In short, Jobs is a celebrity CEO armed with a built-in audience poised to cheer his every word. That’s surely a “secret,” but it’s not helpful to the average presenter.
So, will you learn anything from Mr. Gallo’s book? Sure, but it has nothing to do with Jobs or what he does.
Mr. Gallo laces enough fundamental advice throughout the book to help a neophyte improve his presenting in several aspects. But the question I asked at the beginning is this:
If you could have only one book to help you with your business presentations, what would it be?
Not that one.
In fact, I could recommend a dozen books that are utterly superb, none of which published after 1950, that far outstrip today’s pedestrian offerings. Business presentation books that offer a wealth of powerful and mysterious techniques to transform you into the most dynamic speaker you possibly can be. Business presentation books to stretch you to your utmost limits, books that propel you to fulfill your fullest presentation potential.
Single books that are worth any 10 “business communication” texts costing more than $1,000.
But if I had to choose one . . . and only one . . .
It would be this book . . . a book first published in 1913.
This Business Presentation Book
Subsequent to its original publication, this incredible tome went into more than 58 editions and was constantly in print until 1962. In that year, it was revised and given a different title, and it went into another 28 editions, the last one I can find published in 1992. Its title was again revised and a new edition published in 2006.
It remains in print today. Many reprint editions are available and are quite inexpensive. Like diamonds upon the ground that no one recognizes.
And of all the more than 1,000 business presentation books I own, dating from 1762 to the present day (and reprints back to 430 BC), this is the one book I commend to you. You can search it on Amazon.com and purchase an inexpensive copy today.
Post-1962, the book is called The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Public Speaking, an edition revised by Carnegie’s wife [I dislike the new title, because it gives the mistaken impression that great public speaking can be “quick and easy,” an addition to the original book added much later, but I’ll not cavil on that point here].
Of course, Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business doesn’t mention the PowerPoint software package, for obvious reasons. Instead, it focuses on the most important elements of any business presentation, whether delivered by Pericles to the Athenians in 430 BC or by you to your Global Business Policies course in 2011. It focuses on you . . . your message . . . your audience.