Tomorrow, I judge a series of presentations in a business case competition.
This is where students bring to bear all of their business acumen in a public demonstration of their abilities to collaborate across a range of sub-disciplines in business.
This includes finance, marketing, operations, accounting, and strategy.
It is a tough but necessary rite of passage for the best of students. I look forward to the presentations and will review them in this space later in the week.
As a precursor, let me explain the concept of a business case competition and its parameters.
The Business Case Competition
The business case competition is an event in which business teams deliver business presentations, competing against other teams in front of a team of judges. Teams display how quickly, thoroughly, and skillfully they can ingest a case, analyze it, and then present their conclusions and recommendations to a panel of judges.
Business case competitions vary greatly in the details, and they are quite similar to business plan competitions. They do have a standard format and purpose.
The idea behind such competitions is to provide a standard case to competing teams with a given time limit and then to rate how well the teams respond with analysis, recommendations, and a presentation of same.
Each team is judged independently how well it handles the assigned case and presents its analysis and recommendations.
All teams compete under the same conditions of time limit and specific rules.
Competitions can be internal to the Business School or involve teams from several different schools.
At times, teams engage in several rounds of competition, with the final round typically judged by outside company executives.
No Time for Modesty or Mediocrity
The Case Competition is your chance to demonstrate a wide range of corporate business skills in a collaborative effort. You receive recognition, valuable experience, sometimes monetary reward, and perhaps an open door to corporate employment. The competition is a showcase for your skills.
You can also win anywhere from $1,000 to $75,000 in a single business case competition.
You can improve your speaking voice to become a first-rate business presenter, but you must first accept that you can and should improve it.
Some folks get skittish and think the voice they have now is somehow “natural” and should not be tinkered with.
No, your voice isn’t “natural” in any meaningful sense. In fact, its qualities are likely the result of years of chaotic development and influence from many factors.
Why not seize control of that development process and begin to improve your speaking voice today?
Improve Your Speaking Voice
Face it – some voices sound good and others sound bad. And all sorts of voices fit in-between.
Here are some of the most awful and yet ubiquitous problems that plague speakers.
Let’s call them “verbal tics.” They are nothing more than bad habits born of unconscious neglect and chaotic voice development over years of influence from sources as disparate as television, radio, parents, and peers.
They eat away at your credibility. Recognize them as corrosive factors that leech your presentations of their power. They are easily corrected.
Here are four deal-breaking verbal tics . . .
Vocal Fry – This unfortunate verbal gaffe comes at the end of sentences and is caused by squeezing out insufficient air to inflate the final word of the sentence. The result is a grinding or grating sound on the last word.
Primarily a phenomenon that affects females, its most famous male purveyor is President Bill Clinton, whose grating voice with its Arkansas accent became a trademark. Clinton was so incredibly good along the six other dimensions by which we adjudge great speaking that he turned his vocal fry into an advantage and part of his universally recognizable persona.
This tic is likely a manifestation of 1970s “valley girl” talk or “Valspeak.” Vocal Fry is manifested by a creaking and grating on the last word or syllable.
It actually appears to be a fashionable way to speak in some circles, pinching off the last word of a sentence into a grating, grinding fade. As if a frog is croaking in the throat. As if someone has thrown sand into the voice box.
When combined with “cartoon voice,” it can reach unbearable scale for an audience.
Verbal Down-tic – This is also called the “falling line.” This is an unfortunate speaking habit of inflecting the voice downward at the end of every sentence, letting the air rush from the lungs in a fading expulsion, as if each sentence is a labor.
The last syllables of a word are lost in breath. The effect is of exhaustion, depression, resignation, even of impending doom.
The Verbal Down-tic leeches energy from the room. It deflates the audience. In your talk, you have too many things that must go right than needlessly to create a gloom in the room.
Verbal Sing-Song – The voice bobs and weaves artificially, as if the person is imitating what they think a speaker ought to sound like. Who knows what inspires people to talk this way, usually only in public speaking or presenting.
It’s an affectation, and if you find yourself affecting a style or odd mannerism because you think you ought to, it’s probably wrong.
Uptalk – This heinous affectation is also called the “rising line” or the “high rising terminal.” Uptalk is an unfortunate habit of inflecting the voice upward at the end of every sentence, as if a question is being asked. If you could choose only one thing to change to improve your speaking voice, this would be it. Uptalk is so corrosive to credibility that correcting this one pathology can transform a weak presentation and how it is received by a skeptical audience.
It radiates weakness and uncertainty and conveys the mood of unfinished business, as if something more is yet to come.
Sentence after sentence in succession spoken as if questions.
You create a tense atmosphere with the verbal up-tic that is almost demonic in its effect. This tic infests your audience with an unidentifiable uneasiness.
At its worst, your audience wants to cover ears and cry “make it stop!” but they aren’t quite sure at what they should vent their fury.
In certain places abroad, this tic is known as the Australian Questioning Intonation, popular among young Australians. The Brits are less generous in their assessment of this barbarism, calling it the “moronic interrogative,” a term coined by comedian Rory McGrath.
Speech coach Susan Miller superbly describes these speech pathologies and offers remedies for both vocal fry and uptalk here.
These are the tics and gaffes that destroy our presenting. Recognizing them is half-way to correcting them
I advocate storytelling in your business presentations, and your story should embody your presentation’s Most Important Point.
Stories are powerful tools of communication that can capture complex ideas in a few telling strokes. They involve your listeners better than any other competing technique.
They can serve you well and confer personal competitive advantage over your entire business presenting career. And they can convey your Most Important Point better in masterful fashion.
But It Takes Practice
But in telling a story, we can sometimes veer off-course. We become so enamored with our own words that they build a momentum of their own, and they draw us along with their own impetus.
That’s why it’s imperative that we stay tethered to our main point.
Professional storyteller Doug Lippman calls this the Most Important Thing. I like to call it the MIP – the Most Important Point.
Christopher Witt is a competent coach for today’s executives, and he makes a powerful point about a story’s MIP. He calls it the Big Idea:
A good movie tells one simple, powerful story. If you can’t sum it up in a sentence or two, it’s not a good story – and it won’t make a good movie. The same is true for a speech. A movie tells one story. A speech develops one idea. But it’s got to be a good idea – a policy, a direction, an insight, a prescription. Something that provides clarity and meaning, something that’s both intellectually and emotionally engaging. It’s got to be what I call a Big Idea.
What is your Most Important Point? Your MIP?
Decide and make that point the focus of your story. Rivet your attention on that salient feature! Let this be core of your story and weave your tale around it.
I urge you to focus on one point, because our tendency as business people is to include everything initially, or to add-on infinitum until the story collapses under its own weight. The military calls this “mission creep,” and we can call it “story creep.”
Simple awareness of story creep is usually sufficient guard against it.
Your Most Important Point
Your MIP should run through your story, both directly and indirectly. It informs your story and keeps you on-track as you prepare your presentation. At each stage of your presentation preparation, ask yourself and members of your group if the material at hand supports your MIP. If it does not support your most important point, then it does not belong in your story.
Telling a story does not mean reliance upon emotion only. You must have substance. There must be a significant conclusion with each supporting point substantiated by research and fact and analytical rigor.
This should go without saying, but I decided to say it anyway. Actually, Ralph Waldo Emerson said it much better than I can:
Eloquence must be grounded on the plainest narrative. Afterward it may warm itself until it exhales symbols of every kind and color, and speaks only through the most poetic forms; but, first and last, it must still be at bottom a statement of fact. The orator is thereby an orator, that he keeps his feet ever on a fact. Thus only is he invincible. No gifts, no graces, no power of wit or learning or illustration will make any amends for want of this.
In the absence of clear instruction, we can develop a bad presentation habit.
Or two . . . or three.
As with every craft, there is a correct way to gesture . . . and a wrong way. For instance, without a clear notion of how gesture can enhance our business presentations, we’re left with aimless ejaculations that distract and leech away the power of our message and the audience’s confidence in our competence.
Accordingly, here are a few of the more common examples of bad gesturing involving just your fingers. These are so common that I cannot but believe that someone, somewhere is training folks in these oddities, and it’s the equivalent of self-sabotage.
Control Those Fingers!
Under no circumstances engage in “finger play.” This nervous habit can destroy your professional presence, can weaken your confidence, can take you down a dark road of mediocrity.
This bad presentation habit many people develop unconsciously as they try to discover what to do with their hands.
You know you should do something with your appendages, but no one has told you what. So you develop these unconscious bad presentation habits.
Many different activities come under the heading of “finger play.”
Tugging at your fingers. I suspect that we all carry a “finger-tugging” gene embedded deep in our DNA that is suppressed only with difficulty.
Bending your fingers back in odd manner. This is a ubiquitous movement, universally practiced. It consists of grasping the fingers and bending them back, as if counting something, and then holding them there for a spell. It’s almost a finger-tug, but more pronounced.
Waving your hands around with floppy wrist movement. This is not only distracting, but the wobbly wrist action creates a perception of weakness and uncertainty.
Simply by eliminating these commonplace pathologies from your own presenting, you strengthen by subtraction.
Stop Bad Presentation Habits!
Why would you want to “gesture?” Aren’t your words enough?
We gesture to add force to our points. To demonstrate honesty, decisiveness, humility, boldness, even fear. A motion toward the door, a shrug, a lifted eyebrow – what words can equal these gestures?
While its range is limited, gesture can carry powerful meaning. It should carry powerful meaning; this form of nonverbal language predates spoken language.
Gesture, within its limitations, is an unmistakable language, and is understood by men of all races and tongues. Gesture is our most instinctive language; at least it goes back to the beginning of all communication when the race, still lacking articulate speech, could express only through the tones of inarticulate sounds and through movements.
Imagine the powerful communication you attain when, at the proper moment, your voice, your gestures, your movement, and your expressions combine.
You attain a powerful communication moment when your voice, your gestures, your movement, and your expressions combine and align with the message and your visual aids to wash over your audience, suffusing them with emotion and energy. Be spare with your gestures and be direct.
So let’s add the power of gesture to our words to achieve superior messaging. And, if we’re good, improve our personal competitive advantage by way of especially powerful presentations.
What’s a Presentation Gesture?
Gesture is too important to leave to chance. Certainly too important to dismiss with the airy “move around when you talk.”
Let’s understand what it means.
In 1928, Joseph Mosher defined gesture in a way that guides us even today:
“Gesture may be broadly defined as visible expression, that is, any posture or movement of the head, face, body, limbs or hands, which aids the speaker in conveying his message by appealing to the eye.”
A wave of the hand. A snap of the finger.
A stride across the stage with arms outstretched to either side. A scratch of the chin. Crossed arms. An accusatory finger.
A balled fist at the proper moment.
These presentation gestures can either enhance or destroy your presentation. Yes, destroy. Herky-jerky moves, odd nervous dancing, strange finger-tugging, aimless pacing, injudiciously timed gesticulations – all of these can undermine an otherwise outstanding verbal performance.
Especially Powerful Gesture
Professional presentation coaches understand that much of the information transmitted in a show is visual.
This results from the presence of the speaker. Because of this, an audio recording of a talk is not nearly as powerful as an actual live presentation.
Executive coach Lynda Paulson is spot-on when she notes the power of gestures to persuade an audience . . . or to alienate an audience. She contends that “at least 85 percent of what we communicate in speaking is non-verbal. It’s what people see in our eyes, in our movements and in our actions.”
We can quibble over the exact parsing of how much communication is verbal and how much nonverbal. But there’s no doubt that gestures inject energy and accent to our business presentations.They add power, emphasis, and meaning to our words.
Presentation Gesture in History
Throughout the history of public speaking, the finest communicators have known the importance of the proper gesture at the proper time. Entire books, in fact, have been penned about gesture and the power it can bestow. But most of this knowledge resides in the recesses of libraries waiting to be rediscovered.
See, for example, Edward Amherst Ott’s classic 1902 book How to Gesture.
Ott contends that gesture in your presentation should be natural. It should flow from the meaning of your words and the meaning you wish to convey with your words.
And we never gesture idly, without a point to make.
Typically, the emotion and energy in a talk leads us to gesture. Without emotion, gesture is mechanical. It is false. It feels and looks artificial.
Communicating Without Words
You have many arrows in the quiver of gesture from which to choose, and they can imbue your presentation with power. Gesture forms a substantial part of our repertoire of non-verbal communication, and on rare occasion, can imbue your presentation with majesty of epic proportions.
Yes, I said “majesty of epic proportions.”
For if you do not begin to think in grand, expansive terms about yourself and your career, you will remain mired in the mud. Stuck at the bottom.
Proper gesture increases your talk’s power and lends emphasis to your words. You limit yourself if you do not gesture effectively as you present.
In short, gesture is essential to take your presentation to a superior level, a level far above the mundane.
What is there left to say? After two or three posts?
Doesn’t that cover it?
That’s the attitude of many young people, including my daughter, who ought to know better.
One of my former colleagues even believes he can inculcate adequate presentation skill in, as he says, “30 minutes.”
Such is the myth of the soft skill.
Adolescent Attitude Toward Business Presentations Skills
One of the conundrums of business presenting is that it’s what is known in the parlance as a “soft skill.”
This suggests that skill at business presenting is somehow “softer” than, say, accounting. It therefore needs less attention or development.
It must be somehow “easier.”
That it’s something that can be “picked up along the way.”
Many people believe this. It can damage the early careers of young people, who form a wrong impression of the craft of speaking publicly.
Public Speaking – excellent public speaking – is tough. Delivering a superb business presentation is one of the tougher tasks, because it often requires coordination with others in a kind of ballet.
The Reality of Business Presentation Skills
And it requires practice, just like any other discipline.
But invariably, the “soft skill” label moves it down the priority list of faculty and college administrators and, hence, of the students they serve.
I can quickly gauge the attention on business presenting skills at an institution by simply watching a cross-section of presentations. To be generous, student business presentations are usually poor across a range of dimensions.
They come across most often as pedestrian. Many are quite bad.
But this is not to say that they are worse than what passes for presenting in the corporate world. They’re usually as good – or as bad – as what is dished out in the “real world.”
The Great Embarrassment
The great embarrassment is that the majority of business students have untapped potential for becoming competent and especially powerful business presenters. But they never realize that potential because they never progress out of the swamp of poor business presentation skills.
Some students pass through the business school funnel with only cursory attention to business presentation skills. Perhaps I’m too demanding, and the degree of attention I’d like to see just isn’t possible. But . . .
But the craft of business presenting needs only the proper focus and priority to transform young people into quite capable and competent presenters.
And some institutions get it right.
I’m blessed to serve an institution that takes business presentation skills seriously. My school’s winning results in case competitions demonstrates this commitment to preparing business students to excel in the most-demanded skill that corporate recruiters seek. A coterie of professors, particularly in finance, have recognized the power bestowed by sharp business presentation skills.
And they emphasize these skills far beyond the norm in most schools.
Administrators, too, insist that students pass through rigorous workshops that inculcate in students the presenting skills to last a business lifetime.
Business Presentation Skills Build a Powerful Personal Brand
The results can be phenomenal.
Merely by exposure to the proper techniques, students gain tremendous personal career advantage.
By elevating business presentation skills to the same level of the sub-disciplines of, say, marketing, operations, or risk management, B-Schools can imbue their students and faculty with the appropriate reverence for the presentation enterprise.
One result of this is the creation of young executives who tower over their peers in terms of presenting skills. And especially powerful business presentation skills are in high demand by corporate recruiters.
This highly refined skill of delivering stunning business presentations becomes part of a powerful and distinctive personal brand. A brand that cannot be copied easily and so becomes part of a personal competitive advantage that can last a lifetime.
So, back to the original contention of folks who wonder what could one possibly write about in a “business presenting blog” . . . just as there is much to be learned, it means there is much to write about.
There is much to be distilled from 2500 years of recorded presentation wisdom.
The wisdom is there. It remains for us to seize it and make it our own for enhanced personal competitive advantage.