Business Lessons from Military Strategy

Business lessons from military strategy can guide usIt’s always exciting to debut a new lecture, and today in Philadelphia I unveiled a new seven-hour seminar for business executives.

Three months in the crafting, the Great Battles seminar had its germination in the suggestion by one of my colleagues.

He had hired me to deliver my earlier lecture series on Competitive Intelligence, which used historical military examples and multimedia, and thought that a full-blown seminar focused on the nexus between business strategy and military strategy might be well-received.

Why not offer a seminar on business lessons from military strategy?

Why not, indeed.

And so I did.

I believe it was received well, and what follows is the gist of this powerful offering . . .

War, Conflict . . . and Business

In business, we have adopted the language of war and of conflict.

We talk of market penetration . . .  we counterattack a competitor . . . we out-flank our opponents . . . we get ambushed in office meetings . . . we form alliances and we battle against alliances . . . we conduct “hasty retreats” when facing a superior foe . . . we “make peace” with our enemies.

And we craft our strategy for our next campaign.

Perhaps it’s only natural that we should speak this way.  Ours is a world of conflict and cooperation.  And sometimes the cooperation seems only a prelude to conflict.

But rather than simply adopting the machismo of war-words, we can go beyond the surface similarities.  We can study and learn something about planning and executing business strategy from the actual techniques of martial combat.  Here, we look at some of the tactical techniques utilized by the military and codified in military manuals worldwide.

Some of techniques of maneuver and attack are familiar to most people.  Others are not so well-known.  The best strategic maneuver, of course, is one that Sun Tzu recommended more than 2,000 years ago.  Sun Tzu urged us to consider techniques that would yield bloodless victories.

He said:  “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Few of us are blessed with the kind of acumen or situation that affords us the luxury to win without battle.

And so we must suffice with techniques that can yield victory, if applied judiciously and the proper place and time.

We must suffice with  business lessons from military strategy.

Circumspection a Must

But we must be circumspect and shrewd.

We must observe certain principles, and the hallmark of a sound principle is its successful application, across time, to situations in which the terms and technology may change, but the principle still holds true.

Principles serve as a north star to guide us, to keep us going in the right direction.  In conflict situations, The Principles of War offer us guiding ideas for executing any strabusiness lessons from military strategy and great battles of historytegy against a determined opponent – Objective, Offensive, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Mass, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity.  If the point is to learn how to think strategically . . . to exert a measure of control over a chaotic world and sometimes hostile world.

All smart and successful organizations make use of war principles but call them something else.  So let’s do call them “Principles of Competition” . . . because they can be utilized by anyone involved in any conflict, great or small . . . they can be used at the organizational level . . . and they can be used at the personal level.

Many countries and many theorists have devised principles of war over the centuries.  This noble and venerable lineage stretches back to the time of Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Vegetius, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Jomini, Foch, and many other notables.

But regardless of the time and place and personality, the principles have always retained a sameness . . . They may change at the periphery, but they maintain a steadfast core character.

Principles of Competition

For this seminar, we appropriate for ourselves a set of Principles of War distilled by British Colonel John Frederick Charles Fuller during World War One and into the mid-1920s and adopted almost immediately in a slightly different form, by the United States military.  These are principles that had been handed down less formally for centuries.

The lessons learned on the battlefield can help us in the boardroom and they can help us compete effectively against a determined and equally capable competitor.

In this seminar, we examine business lessons from the great battles of history – General Pagondas at Delium in 424 BC, Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC, Lee at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in 1863, Zulu Chief Cetshwayo at Isandlwana in 1879, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg of France in 1940, the Battle of Kursk in 1943, Israel’s Raid on Entebbe in 1976, and the First Gulf War, among others.

Was today’s seminar delivered with elan and panache?  With brio?

Was it an especially powerful presentation?

One hopes, and we’ll see.

The jury is still out on this one and we await the verdict.

“I Hate Presentations”

Strive for Confidence in Your Business Presentations

If you feel reasonably confident, competent, and thoroughly satisfied with your presenting skills, then I congratulate you.

Please do pass Business School Presenting along to a buddy who might profit from the humble advice offered herein.

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 post.

One in 366 Million?

Of an estimated 366 million websites worldwide, this is the only site devoted exclusively to business school presentations.

The only site.

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.

I believe, and you may agree, that business school students need credible, brief, and direct resources on presenting  – solid information and best practices, not vague generic “presentation principles” and certainly not “communication theory.”

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 etched in stone.

Here you find answers 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 offered here is a 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.

All of these speakers 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, give me 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.

And so begins a journey on the road to becoming . . . an especially powerful presenter.

You’ll know when you arrive.

And you’ll wonder how you could have presented any other way.

Stop presentation guessing with The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.

Super-Size those McTips?

Personal competitive advantage is yours with a devotion to becoming the best business presenter you possibly can be

With regard to presentations, I deal with two large groups of people.

For sake of descriptive simplicity, let’s call these two groups “Natural Born” and “McTips!”

“Natural Born” and “McTips!” represent two extreme views of what it takes to become an especially powerful and superior business presenter.

Neither is remotely accurate.

And neither group is what might be called enlightened in these matters.  Members of both groups are frustrating and irritating in their own ways and completely self-serving.

Here is why . . .

We often look for folks to excuse us from what, deep down, we know we ought to do, or what we can do.  If we look hard enough, we find what we search for, and excuses are extremely easy to find.  Let’s look at these two excuses that hold us back from fulfilling our potential as especially powerful presenters.

The First View

The first view would have us believe that great speakers are born with some arcane and unfathomable gift, combining talent and natural stage facility.  That Bill Clinton sprang from the womb declaiming that he feels our pain.  That Ronald Reagan was born orating on lower capital gains taxes.  That Oprah Winfrey began her talk show career in kindergarten.

If the first view holds that great speakers are born with a gift, then quite logically this view leaves the rest of us to strive with middling presentation skills.

It’s an excuse for us not to persevere.  Why bother to try?  Why not, instead, hire some of these natural born speaker types to do the heavy presentation lifting?  The rest of us can skate along and pretend that we’re not actually lazy . . . or frightened . . . or disinterested . . . or unambitious.

The Second View

The second view is the opposite of the first.

This “McTips!” perspective would have us believe that delivering effective presentations is a snap.  So easy, in fact, that one of my colleagues assured me confidently and with not a little hubris that he could teach his undergraduates “everything they need to know about presenting in 30 minutes.”

He also assured me that “all that other stuff you talk about is B.S.”

Has the presentation landscape changed so much that what was once taught as a fine skill is now mass-produced in 30-minute quickie sessions of speaking “tips”?  I actually saw a headline on an article that offered 12 Tips to Become a Presentation God!  Have the demands of the presentation become so weak that great presenting can be served up in McDonald’s-style kid meals . . . “You want to super-size your speaking McTips?”

Hardly.

In the 1800s, public speaking was refined to an almost-art; “elocution” was the new science/art, and departments of elocution and public speaking flourished in universities throughout the land.  In Philadelphia, on Walnut Street in fact, the National School for Elocution and Oratory became a Mecca for would-be stars of the pulpit, the stage, the bar, and the political wars in the 1890s.

On into the first decades of next century, public speech was regarded with respect and a high-skill to be mastered with much study and practice.

The fact is that despite however much we might wish otherwise, today’s PowerPoint high-tech software multi-media offerings cannot change the fundamental truth that it is still you who must deliver the presentation.

So no . . . you cannot learn “everything you need to know about presenting in 30 minutes.”  You cannot become an especially powerful presenter at the fastfood drive-in window, unless you want to ply presenting at the lowest common denominator of mundane slide-readers that populate every business and law firm from New York to Nashville, from Boston to Baton Rouge, from Savannah to San Diego.

Ask yourself . . . if learning to deliver top-notch presentations is so doggoned easy, then why are 9 out of 10 presentations such awful forgettable bore-fests?

The Third View – The Power Zone

There is a third group, and it is destined to remain small.

This group is privy to the truth, and once you learn the truth about presenting, you can never go back to viewing presentations the same way.  Consider this pop culture analogy from the 1999 film The Matrix.

In The Matrix, humans live in a world that is not what it seems. In fact, everything they believe about the world is false. Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburn) offers to reveal the truth to Neo (Keanu Reeves) about his existence. Morpheus offers Neo a Blue Pill and a Red Pill. The Blue Pill returns him to his old state of ignorance. The Red Pill reveals the secret, and once he learns it, Neo cannot return to his old life.

The process of presentation discovery is much like the red-pill/blue-pill choice that Morpheus offers to the young computer hacker Neo . . .

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Likewise, you can stop reading this article this instant – the blue pill – and return to the righteous and relaxing world of “Natural Born” or “McTips!”  Both viewpoints allow the average presenter to remain mired in mediocrity with an excuse that sounds plausible.

One perspective means you don’t try at all, other means you offer token effort as befits a low-level pedestrian task.  So, if you decide to take the Blue Pill, close this site and go your own way.  Bon  voyage!  I wish you a hearty good-luck and Godspeed, and perhaps you will be happier for your choice.

But if you are one of the few who thinks for a moment . . .  “Hmm. What if the Professor is right?”

Then . . . Take the Red Pill

Then you can read on to the next brief paragraph – the red pill – and be forever shorn of the excuse for mediocrity.  For the truth is in the Power Zone, and once there, you will never be satisfied with your old presentation life again.

You cannot go back.

That’s the paradox, the Curse of Freedom.  It is completely within your power to seize the fruits of great presenting.  It’s your choice.

You can launch an auspicious presentation career right now, right this minute.  Or you can dismiss this site as yet another fraudulent claim to revealing secrets to you . . .  only to have it exposed as a method that requires you to actually do something.

A method that transforms you.

Choose the Red Pill.  Step boldy into the Power Zone.

The Power Zone is the province of the privileged few who understand the truth that anyone can become a great presenter, with the right kind of hard work and the willingness to become a great presenter.  To join this third group requires you to take on a new state of mind.  If you already carry this view, that’s superb.  If you don’t . . . you can decide now to adopt it or forever be relegated to the other two groups – believing you’re not good enough, or believing you are good enough when you’re actually not.

Public presentations – great presentations – require study and practice and preparation and technique.  A deep philosophical, academic, and professional history undergirds public speaking.  This history informs the very best presenters and their work.  You dismiss it only to your great loss.

No, you need not become a scholar of public speaking.  In fact, few people have that deep an interest in the subject and even fewer can claim that kind of knowledge today.

But what you can and should do is this:  Open your mind and heart to the possibilities of found treasure.

You actually can become a capable presenter.  You can become a great presenter.  When you enter the Power Zone, you are both cursed and blessed with knowledge.  This knowledge represents two sides of the same coin.

You are cursed with the knowledge that the only limitation you have is you.  You are blessed with the knowledge that you can become a good – even great – speaker.

An especially powerful presenter.

Now, you have no other real excuse.  It’s totally up to you.

For the ultimate guide to developing your personal brand as an especially powerful business presenter, CLICK HERE.

Move Like Jagger in Your Business Presentation?

Business Presentation
Your movement during your business presentation is as important to plan as your talk itself

After I delivered an incredibly inspiring lecture in a class last year – one of many, I am certain – a student approached me and shared this:

“I stand in one spot for the most part during my presentations,” he said. “But another professor told me to move around when I talk.”

Hmmm.

Move around when you talk.

“Did he tell you how?” I asked.

“Tell me what?”

“Did he tell you how to ‘move around?’  Did he tell you what it would accomplish?”

“No, he just said to ‘move around’ when you talk.”

“Just ‘move around?’”

“Yes.”

Ponder that piece of advice a moment.

Ponder that advice and then reject it utterly, completely.  Forget you ever read it.

What rotten advice.

Never just “move around” in Your Business Presentation

Never just “move around” the stage.

Everything you do should contribute to your message.  Movement on-stage is an important component to your message.  It’s a powerful weapon in your arsenal of communication.

Movements can and should contribute force and emphasis to your show.

But some people move too much.  Like the professor urged, they just “move around” because they don’t know better.  And why should they know better, when some professor urged them to start prowling the stage for the sake of it.

Just as there are those who are rooted to one spot and cannot move while they speak, some folks just can’t stop moving.  They stalk about the stage like a jungle cat, constantly moving, as if dodging imaginary bullets.

They are afraid to cease pacing lest their feet put down roots.

Business Presentation
Never move just to “be moving.” Proper movement can lift your business presentation to a higher level of effectiveness

This kind of agitated movement is awful.

Aimless pacing around the stage is worse than no movement at all.  Aimless movement usually indicates indecision, the sign of a disorganized mind.  It’s usually accompanied by aimless thoughts and thoughtless words.

“Move around when you talk.”

It’s not the worst piece of advice a professor has ever given a student, but it’s incredibly naive.

At first, the advice seems innocent enough.  Even sage.  Aren’t we supposed to move around when we talk?

Don’t we see powerful presenters “move around” when they talk?  Didn’t Steve Jobs “move around” when he presented at those big Apple Fests?

Yes, we see them “move around” quite well.

But do you know why they “move” and to what end?

Do you understand how they orchestrate their words and gestures to achieve maximum effect?  Do you recognize their skilled use of the stage as they appeal to first one segment of the audience, and then another?

Do you think that Bill Clinton or Barack Obama just “move around” when they talk?

If I tell you to “move around when you talk,” what will you actually do?  Think about it for a moment, how you might actually follow-through with that sort of vague advice.  Will you flap your arms?  Do Michael Jackson isolations with your shoulders?  Shake your fist at the crowd?

Move During Your Business Presentation, You Say?

How?  Where?  When?  Why?  How much?

Awful advice.

We will never know how much damage such well-meaning naiveté has done to our presentation discourse.  Like much of what is said, it carries a kernel of truth, but it is really worse than no advice at all.  Centuries of practice and delivery advise us on this question.  Edwin Shurter said in 1903 . . .

Every movement that a speaker makes means – or should mean – something.  Hence avoid indulging in movements which are purely habit and which mean nothing.  Do not constantly be moving; it makes the audience also restless.  Do not walk back and forth along the edge of the platform like a caged lion.  Do not shrug your shoulders, or twist your mouth, or make faces.

You are well on your to mastering your voice and to speaking like a powerful motivator.  Now it’s time to incorporate essential movement.

What must you actually do during your talk?  Where to do it?  How to do it?  Why should you do it . . . and when?

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll answer those questions and show you how to incorporate meaningful movement into your presentation – exactly the types of movement that add power, not confusion.

Interested in more especially powerful techniques for your business presentation?   Click here and discover the world of business presentations.

Grotesque Presentation Practice Errors!

presentation practice errors
Avoid Presentation Practice Errors

One of the keys to successful and confident performance of your business presentation is practice . . . and avoiding presentation practice errors.

The right kind of practice.

This is even more the case with a team presentation with more moving parts and variables in the mix.

The good effects of the right kind of diligent rehearsal is twofold:

1) your material is delivered in a logical, cogent fashion without stumble . . . and,

2) the practice imbues you and your team with confidence so that stage fright is reduced to a minimum and your team’s credibility is enhanced.

Practice strips away the symptoms of stage fright as you concentrate on your message and its delivery rather than extraneous audience reaction to your appearance.

But you reap the benefits of practice if your practice makes sense.  This means that you practice the way you perform and avoid the two biggest rehearsal mistakes.

Presentation Practice Error #1

First, do not start your presentation repeatedly, as almost all of us have done at points in our presentation careers.

There is something in our psyche that seems to urge us to “start over” when we make a mistake.  When we stumble, we want a “do-over” so that we can put together a perfect rehearsal from start to finish.

But when we do this, what we are actually practicing is the “starting over.”  We become very good at “starting over” when we make a mistake.

But is that what we plan to do when we err in our actual presentation?  Start over?

No, of course not.  We don’t get to start over after evey blunder.  But that is exactly what you have practiced.

If you’ve practiced that way, what will you do when you stumble?  You won’t know what to do or how to handle the situation, since you have never practiced fighting through an error and continuing on.

You’ve practiced only one thing – starting over.

Instead of starting over when you err, practice the gliding over of “errors,” never calling attention to them.  Practice recovering from your error and minimizing it.  Perform according to the principle that regardless of what happens, you planned it.

Presentation Practice Error #2

The second big mistake is practicing in front of a mirror.

Don’t practice in front of a mirror unless you plan to deliver your talk to a mirror.  It’s plain creepy to watch yourself in the mirror while talking for an extended period of time.  There is nothing to be gained by rehearsing one way . . . only to do something entirely different for the actual event.

Of course, you will observe yourself in the mirror as you adjust your stance and appearance to ensure that what you feel is what people see while you present on all occasions.  But you do not practice your finished talk in front of a mirror.

Why would you want to grow accustomed to looking at yourself present, only to be faced with an entirely different situation for the actual presentation?

That’s just bizarre.  Instead, practice in front of your roommate . . . or go to the classroom or auditorium where you’re scheduled to present.

In short, create as much of the real situation as possible ahead of time.

To ensure an especially powerful presentation every time, practice hard and repeatedly . . . but practice the right way.

For more on avoiding business presentation practice errors, consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.

Your Business Presentation Story

Business Presentation Story for Power
Tell a Business Presentation Story for Power and Impact

We all believe that we should weave stories into our business presentations, and who wouldn’t want to weave a compelling Business Presentation story?

But most of us rarely do.  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 Business Presentation Story?

Here’s my definition of a business presentation story, and it’s honed from a series of definitions that by their nature are slippery.  It’s like trying to define “culture.”  Most folks offer up definitions to suit the points they try to make.

A story is a narrative of events, either true or untrue, that appeals to the emotions more-so than the intellect and which features a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal.

A business presentation story is . . . well, it’s no different.

Now, why is this important?  Don’t we all somewhat believe, maybe, that stories are important in presenting?

Sure, but when it comes to “serious” presenting, many folks back off what they profess and offer up the usual tofu.  Who knows why, but that’s usually what happens.

Maybe it’s the fraud that many perpetuate that business presentations are a “soft skill” that must yield to . . . something else.

You choose that something else:  “facts,” “numbers,” “hard data.”

These substitutes for a compelling business presentations story offer false precision and faux comfort.

The Presentation Masquerade is Perpetuated

Now, science has come to the rescue.

Social science, at least.

Have a look at this 2007 book by Kendall Haven called Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story.

In this book, Haven compiles a wealth of sociological stories that inform us exactly what is meant by “story” and the source of its power.  He contends that stories work so well because our brains are hardwired to learn most effectively from story-based narratives.  “The mind-boggling and extraordinary truth is that each and every one of thousands of original sources agrees that stories are an effective teaching and learning tool.”

The results of this research are compelling and difficult to believe.  Here is a small sample of findings:

“Story is the best vehicle for passing on valuable information . . . .  Story structure proved equally more effective for teaching theorems, facts, concepts, and tacit information all across the curriculum and the spectrum of human communications.”

The bad news is that most folks remain ignorant of this power.  Not through any fault of their own, but because of the impetus in modern business thought that has erected barriers against story narrative.

The good news is the same point.  You can gain incredible power and advantage by embracing the power of a great business presentation story.

Have a look at Kendall Haven’s book, and be convinced.

For more on the power of telling a good business presentation story, consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.

 

“Earnestness” Can be Especially Powerful

The Earnest Presenter is an Especially Powerful Presenter

“Earnestness” is a word that we neither hear much nor use much these days.

That’s a shame, because the word captures much of what makes for an especially powerful presentation.

Edwin Dubois Shurter was a presenting master in the early 20th Century, and he said way back in 1903 that “Earnestness is the soul of oratory.  It manifests itself in speech by animation, wide-awakeness, strength, force, power, as opposed to listlessness, timidity, half-heartedness, uncertainty, feebleness.”

What was true then is surely true today.

Without Earnestness, Only Small Victories

And yet, “earnestness” is frowned upon, perhaps, as somehow “uncool.”

If you appear too interested in something, and then you somehow are perceived as having failed, then your presentation “defeat” is doubly ignominious.  Better to pretend you don’t care.

Predictably, the default student attitude is to affect an air of cool nonchalance, so that no defeat is too damaging.  And you save your best – your earnestness – for something else.  For your friends, for your sports contests, for your pizza discussions, for your intramural softball team . . .

But this also means that all of your presentation victories, should ever you score one or two, are necessarily small victories.  Meager effort yields acceptable results in areas where only meager effort is required.

Mediocrity is the province of the lazy and nonchalant.  Shurter was a keen observer of presentations and he recognized the key role played by earnestness in a successful presentation: “When communicated to the audience, earnestness is, after all is said and done, the touchstone of success in public speaking, as it is in other things in life.”

Wrap your material in you.

This means giving a presentation that no one else can give, that no one else can copy . . . because it arises from your essence, your core.  It means demonstrating genuine enthusiasm for your subject.

It means recognizing that the subject of your presentation could be the love of someone else’s life, whether it be their business or their product or their service – you should make it yours when you present.

Embrace your topic and you will shine in an especially powerful presentation.  Earnestness becomes second nature.

For more on the secrets to delivering especially powerful presentations, consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.

What’s What

CAVEAT:  I do not ordinarily use profanity in my writing, even as I am a former soldier who well-understands that in certain coarse segments of society, the F-bomb is considered the most versatile tool in the English language, capably performing the functions of almost every part of speech.  Nor do I intentionally offend any group.  Having said that, far below I recount parts of an actual conversation that, without its inherent offensiveness, would lose much of its meaning and impact.  You are fair-warned.

Here I sit, afflicted with acute self-awareness such that I write about that very self-awareness and its sometime creative vacuum.

It’s not that I am at a loss for words . . . it’s just that I am uncertain which words might do justice this odd notion that came to me on a subject that has fascinated me for years.

Would I want to waste precious words on it?

This subject is the notion of fitness.  The kind of good, general fitness that leads to a physical appearance that is, in my view, an asset in presenting.

Surely this is something to strive for, and there is nary a downside to it.  But in its extreme form, it is a sub-culture in many countries.

And it is uni-dimensional, at least in my opinion.  It is limiting, and in its most extreme forms it is anti-intellectual and can be physically harmful.  Yet it holds fascination for me because of the extreme discipline that it requires to live such a “lifestyle.”

I do not refer to the life of an ascetic monk.  Is that really so debilitating?  Or is that an easy way out, to isolate oneself from the tribulations most humans face in an increasingly complex and baffling modern society?

The Physical Culture Lifestyle

No.  This sub-culture is euphemistically called “Physical Culture” by its aficionados.  Years ago, I was peripherally involved in this sub-culture.

What is physical culture?

Bodybuilding.

Bodybuilding and the accompanying “lifestyle.”

Sculpting the body, straining with lead weights for hours on end each day, crafting one’s diet to weird and untried specifications (tuna, supplements, apple juice), and of course the inevitable injections of various illegal growth hormones and steroids.

And that’s about it.

That’s the entire lifestyle, as far as I can make out.

Now in this day and age of egg-walking, you criticize at your risk.  And this bodybuilding community, after all, is a clearly identifiable minority in our society.  But having been a peripheral member of that minority, oh-so-briefly (I actually won a contest in 1983—Mr. Physique in the city of what was then West Berlin), it may give me cover to offer up a few stray opinions that someone may find interesting.

Actually, I am a person who believes in the nexus between body and mind, and I cardio-up 2-8 miles each day for the beneficial health effects, but also for the endorphin release it provides.  It helps my writing.

I think it does.  It strikes me that it could be entirely unnecessary to suffer physically, drink oneself into stupefaction, or to claim a damaged past to write well.

But what about this extreme Physical Culture thing?  Are there any novel ideas lurking in the gym, hidden ’twixt the weight plates or behind the Pilates stability ball?

Think of the wealth of possibilities for an entire series of novels on this bodybuilding lifestyle.

When you come up with any, please let me know.

But let’s pause a moment and go through the exercise.  Of what might a novel about bodybuilders consist?  What sort of dialog might we be compelled to craft?  What possible plot could one contrive?

Steroid theft?

Fixed contests?

Love in the gym?

Conflict between the “good” bodybuilders and the “bad.”

Contrived Conflict

This last one is staple of film, particularly vintage martial arts films in which the conflict is between one school and another rival school (“I fight white-stomping-horse!”), one of which is invariably “evil.”

But this contrivance isn’t limited to foreign films.  I am reminded of the movie Twister in which there were “good” stormchasers and “bad” stormchasers.  Remember that somersault?

In Twister, it wasn’t sufficient to have man and woman aligned against a powerful force of nature, so a scriptwriter came up with the subplot of “competing Stormchasers.”

The bad stormchasers were well-funded by nameless corporations, and they drove black, nazi-like vehicles in a tight little convoy.  They were motivated by money, fame, and greed.  The good stormchasers were an underfunded rag-tag outfit in a little van with makeshift equipment and the usual motley collection of good souls (at least one beard) doing it for the betterment of mankind.

Never mind that both Twister groups were engaged in studying the behavior of tornadoes so to better understand and survive them.  The film required the conflict, and it gave it to us in the form of a contrived good and bad dichotomy.

But back to the gym and our bodybuilding novel:

“You look pumped, today, Jim.”

“You, too, Apollo.”

“Where you going later?”

“Home to pop a can of tuna and rest up for my next workout.”

“Very cool.  What’s on tap?”

“Quads and hams.  Maybe some glutes.”

“I’m working on bis and tris.”

Apollo flexes his arms, admiring the vascularity and bulk in his forearms achieved through weeks of contest preparation, during which he restricted his diet to protein served in five meals per day along with handfuls of supplements and various illegal substances.

“I’m over the border to Tijuana, Jim. Wanna come with?”

“Juice?”

“Yeah, heard about a new cocktail of Human Growth Hormone and Dianabol.”

“Man, I don’t know about those injectibles,” Jim said with a shake of his head sitting atop his overdeveloped trap muscles like an orange atop Pharaoh’s pyramid. “Oral’s good enough for me.”

“Poor results, dude.  No cut, no bulk, no vascularity.  Just piss-poor all around.”

“But no acne or ball shrinkage.”

Writer’s block kicks in, and I’m grateful for that.

That’s all I can come up with at the moment, and given my languor on the subject, not much else is forthcoming.

Let me go to my gym for some primary research on a Saturday late afternoon.

So I do.

I go to my gym in mid-town Philadelphia for a Saturday evening workout and maybe a story idea or two.

Not much drama taking place along the row of treadmills—just a lone walker in spandex, arms pumping, sweat flying, her eyes riveted on the monitor overhead broadcasting CNN.

Nor is there much conflict on the hard rubber mats in front of regimented racks of various sizes and weights of dumbbells.  One tattooed African-American giant is squatting with what looks like a railroad axle on his shoulders.  Whoa, now.

He does not look conversational.

The music throbs loudly, and even as this pulsing techno beat fills the gym with false energy, I find no true spirit of the steel, no bonafide discipline of the iron.

I’m out of literary luck in this venue.

I leave.  Pumped, blood flooding the muscles, endorphins raging . . . but still out of literary luck.

But then a mere 30 minutes later . . .

I stop off at Ruby Tuesday’s on the way back to my studio apartment.  Just for a single libation in the early evening, mind you.  Replenishing those carbs.

It was there I became trapped in a social situation not of my choosing.  Believe me.

The bar area was crowded with transients, located as it is near the airport hotels.  I had sat down alone, wearing my underarmor compression tee and carrying a book on Fundamentals of Strategic Management that I planned to skim for its section on ‘case analysis.’

A buzz-cut fellow at the bar kept eyeing me.  He invited himself over.  He sat down and offered his hand.

“Brad.”

Our encounter began evenly enough, even as I tried to conduct a delicate self-intervention to prevent it.

You see, Brad wore a checkered short sleeve shirt, unbuttoned to reveal an undershirt.  And tattoos.  Lots of tattoos.

Arms.  Chest.  Ugly ominous black tattoos.  No hearts or cupids or flowers in sight.

Tattoos send a message, and in my experience it is rarely a good one.

After Brad pulled off his shirt in the bar, I saw that he had tattoos around his neck as well. Chains, skulls, knives, claws . . . dark things, dead things.

Swallowing Tobacco Juice

Brad’s message was definitely not one of sweetness and light.

He was chewing tobacco.  The wad of Copenhagen dip tobacco caused Brad’s lower lip to bulge, and it left flecks of black about his lips.

“Where’s your spit cup, Brad?”

“I swallow it.”

“You swallow tobacco juice?  Isn’t that unhealthy?  I mean, aside from the cancer risk.”

“Yeah, it might give me stomach cancer but what the hell.”

Brad waved at the bartender.

“Drink up!  Beers for my man here!  On me!

He put my Yeungling on his tab.

“Um, thanks Brad.  Why the tattoos?”

He sipped his vodka tonic, obviously the latest in a long sequence of vodka tonics stretching back into the afternoon.

“I was in a gang,” Brad said. “The AB.”

“In prison, you mean?”

“Where the fuck else?  I been in for 20 years.  I just got out eight hours ago, mother-fucker.”

“Well, I thought it might be some street gang or fraternal group.”

Brad’s eyes narrowed and he tilted his head at a funny angle.

“Whaddaya mean by that?” Brad said.  “What the fuck’s a ‘fraternal group’?  That a fag outfit?”

Descent into Madness

“It’s just a club,” I said, with an involuntary throat clearing.

“No . . . AB ain’t no club.”

“What’s AB?”

“Aryan Brotherhood.”

“I see.”

“Without your brothers, you die.”

Yes, Brad’s an ex-con.

“I just got out,” Brad said.  “Did I tell you that?  Eight hours ago.  And I’m trying to get to the West coast but got stuck here ’til Monday.  Stayin’ in that ratty motel right over there.”

Brad’s got a job lined up.

He’s going to be a rep for some kind of bodybuilding supplement company, the name of which I won’t divulge.  He claims that I, too, can be a rep and receive $3,000 of free stuff each year.

Brad keeps looking at my arms and chest.  Am I nervous?

“Hey, I ain’t no fag or nothin’, man, but I see you walk in and you know what’s what.  It’s obvious you know what’s what, right?  Dontcha?”

“Huh?”

“You know what’s what!  You ain’t dumb!”

“Yeah,” I said.  What is he talking about?  “You better believe I know what’s what.”

“I thought you did!  I knew it!”

I grin stupidly and raise my beer, and I drink that beer as fast as I can.

“Brad, what can I say?  You know what’s what, too.”

“Damn right, I do!” he said, and he smacked the table.

“What you got?  Nineteen?”  He nodded at my arms.

“Beg pardon?”

“Come on, man, you know what’s what!  Nineteen inches?”

“Almost seventeen.”  I said.

Brad nodded approvingly.  He held up a hand.

“Hey, I ain’t no fag or nothin’, but I’m just sayin’ you got what’s what.  Just admirin’ the truth, y’know.”

“Thank you.”

Brad keeps claiming that I’m “on the juice.”  That’s bodybuilder talk for steroids.  Deca, Dianabol, Equipose.  That kind of thing.

“You tellin’ me the truth, Stan?  You’re natural?  What the fuck, man!  You know what’s what!”

“All natural!  I know what’s what!”

“I thought so!”

Hepatitis Can Slow a Man Down

Another long sip on his vodka tonic.  Brad grabbed his side.

“Can’t drink too much of this with this Hepatitis C.  Bad for the liver.   Tomorrow I’m gonna feel like a fuckin’ brick right there.  Hey, you know I just got out of the pen.”

Long pause during which I know I better say something or this fellow might get nervous.  What do they say in the movies?

“I guess that’s why you know what’s what.”

“Damn right.”

“So, what were you in for?”

Brad leaned in close.

“I was in their highest level of custody,” he said, leaning closer and showing me his bureau of prisons inmate card.  A red and white plastic card with Bureau of Prisons on it, I think.  That’s what it said on the card: “Inmate.”  With a number.

“I used to have one of my brothers guard me when I went to the john,” he said. “A man outside the stall. A man guardin’ me when I took a shower. It’s hard in there, man. You got to be hard. Got to watch your back all the time.”

He nodded over his shoulder.

“See that guy there?  If he puts his hand on my shoulder, I’ll break the fucker.  I’ll snap that fucker’s arm.  I’ll put this in his fucking neck.”  He held up a pen he was using to write down the name of his supplement company for me.  He shakes it at me.  “I’ll put this in his neck right into his brain stem.”

“You just bought that guy a drink, Brad.  I don’t think he wants trouble with you.”

“I don’t care man, you gotta take care of yourself.”  He looked around.  “See these people in here, I mean I could kill anyone in this place.”

I nod.

“I believe you could, Brad.”

Brad’s Rap Sheet

I raise my glass and give a tight little grin.  What else can I do while listening to a man just out of the pen, locked up for bank robbery and boasting of three murders while in lock-up?  Challenge him?  Set him straight?

“Well, what were you in for?”

Brad sat back.

“I was in for bank robbery.  Twenty years.”

“Were you framed?”  Isn’t that what you always ask these folks?

“Nah, man, I did it!  I just got caught.  Twenty years on the inside.  Man I’m forty-four now.”

He wiped his mouth and lowered his voice.

“I did three murders, too, but that was on the inside, so they don’t count.  They were inside jobs and they don’t care nothing ’bout that. Don’t give a shit ’bout that. Those murders don’t count.”

I drained my beer.

“Uh, I have to go now, Brad . . . lots of work to catch up on.  Thank you for the beers.”

“Don’t let me hold you up.”

“Is that a joke, Brad?  Hold me up?’”

Brad points at me and offers, I think, a smile.

“Ha, ha—you’re a funny man.”

I offer my hand, and he takes it, his little finger jutting at an odd angle from a break doubtless suffered in a long-ago fight over stakes that didn’t matter.  Save survival.

“I wish you luck, Brad.  You might want to stay mellow tonight.  I don’t think anyone here will jump you, so please don’t break any arms or stick that pen into anyone.”

Brad looked at me.

“You know what’s what, man!  They arrest you for fighting, not loving.  I’m gonna be a lover from now on.”

I pointed at him and nodded.

And, blessedly, I left.

And I do not feel good having dipped my toe into that morass that grips much of humanity and turns it inhuman.  Three murders that don’t count?  Aryan Brotherhood?  In my apartment, I felt like I wanted to take a hot psychic shower to rid myself of certain images.

But there is dramatic grist here.

That man has a story.  Brad is out of the pen, he’s hawking bodybuilding supplements between vodka and tonics and is living a lifestyle now that I cannot begin to fathom.  Lord only knows how this man will spend his day tomorrow . . . and the next . . . and the one after that.

He has a story, but I just don’t know if I could stand to hear it.

Could you?

I mean . . . do you know what’s what?  Because I surely do not.