Stanley K. Ridgley, PhD is one of the country’s foremost experts on delivering Business School Presentations and is the author of the award-winning 2012 book, “The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting,” the authoritative guide to delivering powerful business presentations in the nation’s business schools. He is also the faculty instructor for the course “Strategic Thinking” in the DVD series TheGreatCourses.com.
Dr. Ridgley brings to bear the most powerful instructional techniques from one of America’s great business schools and combines them with the lessons of military leadership and high strategy learned on the front lines of the Cold War as a Military Intelligence Officer.
One of the keys to successful and confident performance of your business presentation is practice.
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 only 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.
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 experts 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.
But if we have practiced that way, what will we do when we stumble? We won’t know what to do or how to handle the situation, since we have never practiced fighting through an error and continuing on.
We have 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.
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 where you’re scheduled to present . . . in short, create as much of the real situation as possible.
To ensure an especially powerful presentation every time, practice hard and repeatedly . . . but practice the right way.
It is a privilege of mine to not only travel a great many miles to special places, but also to work with some of the brightest young people of the latest generation who constitute the business leaders of tomorrow. Take India, for instance.
India is a potential economic powerhouse, whose engine of domestic and international commerce is only just starting. With incredible knowledge resource capability and government that finally recognizes the power of individual initiative and the economic benefits that accrue from relaxing regulation, India is set for an economic renaissance that will stagger the world when its gears finally engage.
The MBA students at the Welingkar Institute of Management in Mumbai, who appear on this page, show a drive, determination, optimism, and coachability that should be the envy of the world. Inquisitive and cosmopolitan to a startling degree, these young people are poised to enter middle-management as a sage class of entrepreneurial knowledge workers, steeped in the latest management techniques and armed with the techniques of especially powerful presenting that confer unmatched competitive advantage.
I’d go so far as to say that they constitute a new cadre of global executives, a new breed of 21st Century Managers, unencumbered with outdated notions held over from the industrial revolution. A cadre imbued with the qualities of . . .
Flexibility and Adaptability
Personal and Professional Aligned Strategic Focus
The rest of the business world does need to take note. India is an economic giant that no longer sleeps.
Mumbai surely bustles – I’m unsure of the meaning of “bustle,” but if there is such at thing, then it is surely happening here. I found myself bustling across 5 lanes of traffic at Sion Circle today, in fact. Caught in the seasonal monsoons on my way to . . . well, at that point, to buy an umbrella.
And then back to my room to prepare my seminar: Global Presentation Skills
The seminar is brilliantly titled to indicate its content and purpose. In fact, I brilliantly titled it myself.
It encompasses the notion that presenting to foreign audiences can be an infuriating process, especially for those business folks relatively inexperienced in dealing with the foreign business cultures.
As your perspicacity tells you, this is a seminar designed to aid businessmen and business students in emerging markets to craft business presentations that follow the contours of the local business culture. I’ve delivered Global Presentation Skills to firms in Colombia and to groups of Middle Eastern businessmen to what I’ve heard called “much acclaim.”
And as an untapped area rich with potential for competitive advantage, it’s one reason for my presence in Mumbai. To work with Indian businessmen keen on international expansion.
What’s the benefit of Global Presentation Skills?
Americans can be pesky audiences at best, especially for non-westerners. Why not gain an advantage over competitors in selling to the American market? Global Presentation Skills are a greatly neglected link in the chain of selling? Lots of shrewd folks are saying “Why not, indeed?”
Cultural stereotypes may be ingrained in the American psyche through popular culture and news reports. Global Presentation Skills helps businessmen surmount communication difficulties that can arise from American misunderstandings of foreign cultures.
Moreover, in a kind of reverse aikido, it helps turn perceived negatives into positives. Global Presentation Skills can turn self-perceived weaknesses into strengths and transform stereotypes into launch-points for winning presentations.
So now I return to preparing for my Global Presentation Skills utilizing my three Ps – Principles, Preparation, and Practice.
Yes, I practice what is preached on my blog . . . and I hope to deliver an especially powerful presentation.
Why is so much Bad PowerPoint out there in the corporate world?
I suspect that the reason for this is mimicry and corporate incest.
In the absence of good habits within an organization, bad habits perpetuate themselves, especially if senior leadership is the culprit. If the model within a firm is average or below-par, then this becomes the norm.
We unfortunately do not license users for competence or require that candidates complete a PowerPoint safety course to ensure that they commit minimal damage. As a result, bad PowerPoint technique thrives.
Mimicry Breeds Mediocrity
The natural tendency of people is to mimic the boss. They accept his style as proper. While this may serve you well as a corporate survival tool, it stunts your personal growth. Like any principle, it can be followed mindlessly, or it can serve you well if you are judicious.
Such is the case with PowerPoint. People see “professionals” use this tool in gross fashion, and they copy the bad technique.
They think it’s “the way to do it.”
I’m certain that this is how students develop such bad habits.
Some corporate vice president or successful entrepreneur shows up at your school unprepared to deliver a talk, believing that his professional achievements are enough to impress you. He or she believes that preparation is unnecessary, that faux spontaneity can carry the day.
They feel no drive to deliver a satisfying talk.
This worthy believes that anything he says will be treated as business gospel. Who can blame you for copying him and his bad habits?
But bad habits they are, and they span the disciplines. They run rampant the length of the corporate ladder. I separate these bad habits and actions into two broad categories – 1) the PowerPoint material itself, and 2) your interaction with that material during your presentation.
Let’s look at that first point.
Especially Bad PowerPoint
Oftentimes, students throw together a half-dozen makeshift slides. They cut-and-paste them from a written report with dozens of bullet points peppered throughout.
You’ve probably done this yourself. The results are slides that confuse the audience rather than reinforce your major points and which are delivered in awful, mind-numbing presentations.
There is a cost for serving up what designer Nancy Duarte calls bad slides . . .
“Making bad slides is easy, and it will negatively impact your career. Invest in your slides, but invest in your own visual skills as well. The alternative is to inadvertently commit career suicide.”
Absent specific instruction, you might believe that it’s acceptable to cut and paste graphics from a written report onto a slide. You then project that slide onto the screen while you talk about it. Usually prefacing what you say with the words “As you can see . . . .”
The results are usually poor, if not downright heinous. This is what I call the “As you can see” syndrome: AYCSS. It’s a roadmap to disaster.
But the insidious part is that no one tells you the results are disastrous. And they do not tell you what makes your creation an abomination.
So let’s discuss the types of issues you face in assembling your show.
What Makes Bad PowerPoint?
Start by recognizing that no slide show can substitute for a lack of ideas, a lack of preparation, and lack of a story to tell. PowerPoint cannot rescue you with its colors, sound, and animation.
This view is akin to Hollywood filmmakers who spend millions of dollars on dazzling computer generated special effects and neglect the story. The films flop, one after the other. Yet Hollywood does not get the message.
You can craft a winning film with a superb story and drama, but with minimal special effects: See 12 Angry Men. You cannot craft a winning film with no story or a bad story populated with people you don’t care about and who are buffeted by dangers and threats contrived by Industrial Light and Magic.
And it’s the same with your presentation.
Likewise, Aileen Pincus, a superb presentation coach, tells us that “Slides are not a magic pill; they won’t organize a disorganized presentation; they won’t give a point to a presentation that doesn’t really have one; and they never make a convincing presentation on their own.”
Start improving your slides and your use of them today. Implement the following three-step remedy.
Orient . . . Eliminate . . . Emphasize
First, orient your audience to the overall financial context.
If you take information from a balance sheet or want to display company profit growth for a period of years, then briefly display the balance sheet in its entirety to orient the audience. Tell the audience they view a balance sheet.
Walk to the screen and point to the information categories. Say “Here we have this number” . . . “Here we have this category.”
Second, eliminate everything on the screen that you do not talk about. If you do not refer to it, it should not appear on your slide. Strip the visual down to the basic numbers and categories you use to make your point.
Sure, put the entire balance sheet or spreadsheet on your first slide, tell your audience what it is to provide context, and then click to the next slide, which should contain only the figures you refer to.
Third, emphasize the important points by increasing their size, coloring them, or bolding the numbers. You can illustrate the meaning of the numbers by utilizing a chart or graph.
It is incredibly easy to do the above, if you know to do it. Most folks do not. But now you do.
Try these three simple steps, and I guarantee that your presentation improves dramatically.
The typical start to thinking about and then preparing our presentation structure 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.”
Or a “good group.” Or you “don’t have time for this.”
These are just excuses for refusing to grapple with a task that seems amorphous.
Instead, let’s make it real and vow to tackle the initial stages of presentation structure immediately.
Tackle Presentation Structure Head-on
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 implicit 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 don’t usually evaluate whether the content has been communicated clearly and effectively.*
So this is the missing component – you typically don’t analyze how or why or in what way you can present the information in a public forum, shaping it to the visual/vocal medium. Instead, you attempt to twist the medium itself to match the written analysis.
If a written paper has already been produced, this complicates your task, and the result is predictable. You end up trying to shovel 10 pounds of sand into a five-pound pail. The result is less than stellar.
Your slides are crammed with unreadable information.
You talk fast to force all the points in, so no one can possibly digest it.
You run over-time.
Let’s fix all of this right now.
This Time, Procrustes has Presentation Structure Right
To fix this problem, I recommend a radical solution. I advise that you take the Procrustean approach in crafting your business presentation structure.
This approach is named after Procrustes, a figure from Greek mythology. The Columbia Encyclopedia describes the myth thus:
He forced passersby to lie on a very long bed and then stretched them to fit it. Some said that he also had a very short bed; to make passersby fit this 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.”
The “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.
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.
The Rule of Three for Presentation Structure
We are using our mind and judgment to select what should be in our show and what should not be in our show. 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.
Now, here is your modified task:
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? Just this: 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 lose them, and you fail.
Presenting too many points is worse than presenting 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 should offer 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 don’t want the audience to remember how you massaged the data, analyzed it, and arranged it. You want the audience to remember your conclusions and recommendations.
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.
* Of course, there will be vociferous disagreement from my colleagues who do care a great deal about style and communication and who do evaluate presentations apart from the criteria they use to grade written work. These hardy souls are in the minority, and of course I do not refer to them. But the unfortunate truth is that too many business school professors do not take seriously enough the presentation process with regard to presenting as a skill. Is there hard data to back up that claim? Of course not, and I welcome suggestions as to how one might go about collecting data on professors, data that might indicate that their skills are substandard in a particular area. That won’t happen, of course. And so we must rely upon what is derided as “anecdotal evidence.” Because my contention relies entirely upon anecdotal evidence, you have my full cooperation in dismissing my comments here as unwarranted. Meanwhile, let’s learn something new.
Sensory Involvement is a powerful technique that imbues your presentation story with sensuality.
You engage the senses of your listeners so that they experience the story rather than simply hear it. Where possible, incorporate all five senses in your story.
The more senses you involve, the better.
Put Your Audience Inside the Presentation Story
This sensory technique positions the listener inside the presentation story. You invite the audience into the story. The audience becomes part of the action.
This is a fiction-writing technique. It draws the reader into the story by stimulating the audience’s sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste.
When you use color, aromas, tastes, and powerful sound and visual imagery, your presentation evokes the emotions of your listeners. It captures their interest. You convey a more compelling message.
Your call to action is more powerful than if you recite only facts and figures.
This use of multiple sensory stimulation affects your listeners in ways that they are really unaware of. They find themselves deep inside your presentation story and feeling what you want them to feel.
And they respond to your message.
Engage as many senses as you can. The audience should hear your presentation. They should taste it. They should see it. They should feel it.
They Become Part of Your Presentation Story
The sensory technique paints a mind picture. It makes that picture vivid and powerful.
It’s powerful because it pulls the listener inside the story as a living, breathing, vicarious participant. You position the listener inside the story rather than allowing the listener to loiter outside the story as a bystander.
Engaging the Senses
Use imagery. Stimulate the senses! The 1999 supernatural film The Sixth Sense illustrates the point.
In this film, the Bruce Willis character – in spirit form – moves about within the story among living people. He can observe and, in a sense, participate in the various dramas around him. Think of Bruce Willis as the audience of your presentation.
Willis feels and senses the angst, joy, anger, sadness of those around him. Yet he is not an actual participant.
Bruce Willis is as close as he can be to the dramas around him without actually being there. Likewise, your story’s vivid and emotive sensory stimulation engages your audience in a powerful way.
Position your audience inside the presentation story.
You can place them inside the presentation story, much as the Bruce Willis character is placed into the mini-dramas that unfold around him.
Employ Masterful Writing Techniques
Dean Koontz is a master thriller writer, and he advocates involving as many of the reader’s senses as possible in a story. Koontz does this himself in his own taut novels.
Koontz engages smells, colors, sounds to enliven his descriptions. He does this in unexpected ways. Not only does Koontz involve all the senses, he combines surprising descriptions, crossing from one sense to another.
For example, he describes the glow of a bulb as a “sour yellow light.”
Koontz combines taste with color to evoke a startling and memorable image.
This is the same technique that serves powerful presenters well. It can serve you well and you should do this. For your own stories, remember to involve all of your listeners’ senses if you can – taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing – and you cannot fail to engage your audience.
Give it a try in your next business presentation story for an especially powerful effect.
Storytelling has become a powerful tool in 21st century management, and it would do you well to embrace, understand, and utilize that power to advance your own personal competitive advantage. Several of the most effective storytelling books that I recommend are: The Story Factor by Annette Simmons, Around the Corporate Campfire by Evelyn Clark, and The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling by Steve Denning. A business storytelling blog by Gabriel Yiannis is particularly valuable.
For a heroic presentation, add story moments to the mix and identify your presentation hero.
You should incorporate story moments throughout your business presentation to maintain momentum and to retain audience attention.
You make the audience the hero for the same reason.
The story moment may be no more than two sentences that breathe life into a staid exposition of facts. Or it can extend to a one-paragraph allegory that plunges your audience into the meat of your show.
This is one key to your story’s power. You select a story the audience already knows, and you populate it with characters sympathetic to the audience.
Who’s Your Presentation Hero?
As you prepare your story moment, carry in mind that every story must have a hero. That hero must be in the audience. For your audience to embrace your stories wholeheartedly, portray your audience heroically.
Remember that you determine the presentation hero of your story.
Choose a presentation hero that makes your audience feel good.
If your audience is the CEO and his senior staff, then he or she is the presentation hero, aided by trusted colleagues – he is Napoleon; she is Joan of Arc.
If your audience is the shareholders, then they are the heroes of your story. It is through their guidance and wisdom that the company is successful.
If your audience is your subordinates, then they are the heroes for providing the nuts-and-bolts of the machinery.
If your audience is your students, then they are the heroes of the subject matter as they arm themselves to slay corporate dragons. You are but the armorer, and perhaps a former warrior.
The Heroes of UPS
Speaking coach Suzanne Bates provides an excellent example of this type of Story Moment. She relates the example of a speech given by UPS chairman Mike Eskew to his employees. The occasion of the speech was a change of the company logo.
In speaking to his employees, Eskew crafted his message to make them the heroes . . . not himself.
Many CEOs believe erroneously that employees want to hear a story of the CEO’s vision and leadership. Eskew instead seized the opportunity to showcase the striving of his employees and gave a masterful show, demonstrating how a CEO can tap into the sympathies of his people.
In this case, he made his audience of UPS rank-and-file employees the heroes of the UPS story:
Our brand is all about our people and keeping the UPS promise. Just as Marty Peters . . . . Marty’s the longest-tenured active employee at UPS – out of 360,000 around the world. Marty is a fifty-seven year veteran of UPS. That’s right; he started with us in 1946 . . . and guess what . . . he still shows up at the job every day as a shifter and a customer-counter clerk in Detroit.
And there’s someone else we’ve brought to New York for this special day . . . Ron Sowder, a Kentucky District feeder driver. Ron’s been with the company forty-two years. In fact, he started in 1961 . . . the year of our last logo change. When Ron started with the company . . . he wasn’t old enough to drive. But today he carries the distinction of having the most years of safe driving among active employees in the company. In my book, Ron and Marty are UPS heroes. They not only represent the brand . . . like you – they live the brand every day.
This is a superb example of the speaker transforming the audience with a powerful story.
One moment they are employees assembled to hear a speech by the CEO on the company logo. The next moment, they are heroes in an adventure story that spans decades! Here, Eskew does it explicitly and quite deftly. The result is an especially powerful presentation moment that uses the trope of the presentation hero.
He outright calls them heroes, but it isn’t a bald bid for flattery. That kind of thing falls flat quickly.
The good news is two-fold. First, injecting a story moment is not difficult to do. Second, it is guaranteed to work. By work, I mean that it transforms your presentation into something magical.
Think of it this way.
A story is magic dust.
The President Weaves Magic into His Speeches
When the President of the United States calls for national action in time of need, he doesn’t just inform us . . . he inspires us. He alludes to the wisdom and fortitude, the strength and durability, the innovation and drive of the American people. He sometimes refers to the Greatest Generation, the generation that fought and won World War II.
The president may talk of hardy pioneers to dramatize the American sense of adventure. He may use story moments of American inventors to make his points about innovation – Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs. He ties us to these powerful stories and he makes us the hero, not himself. Who among us would not want to be the presentation hero? President Ronald Reagan was a master of the Story Moment, calling on them to craft powerful speeches.
But you need not pull out the heavy artillery every time. Use short punchy stories to launch your show or to illustrate minor points. A great source for this kind of story-telling is Aesop’s Fables.
Aesop’s Fables are narratives that can convey your point quickly and crisply. They are short, familiar, and freighted with morals. Most of them also carry heavy business relevance.
You can find a fable to illustrate most any business point. Take the familiar fable of “The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg,” which teaches that “Much wants more and then loses all.”
But the Goose fable also captures deeper lessons about discovering the true sources of wealth and nurturing the processes that create wealth. Fables can run the gamut of lessons, from betrayal to bigotry, from deceit to damnation.
Thumb through Aesop’s for your next story. You already know that almost no one does, and that’s the first requirement for discovering Blue Ocean market space. Try it, and I guarantee that something good will happen.
Your presentation is for your audience, and that’s where your business hero had better be.
As much as some of us love the limelight and the adulation of the crowd, it’s wise to remember that your presentation isn’t about you, although our self-indulgence can sometimes make it seem so.
No, you’re not in this to please yourself.
And you must get them to do what you want them to by making them think that it’s what they want.
Connect With Your Business Hero
Address the needs of the people in your audience and fulfill their expectations in language they understand, with metaphors and examples that resonate with them. Your objective must be expressed in terms of how it best connects with your audience. The folks in your audience should be the business hero, not you.
Speak to their needs and fulfill them.
The good news is that your audience’s meager expectations mean that you can likely dazzle it with a merely above-average presentation. This is because the level of business presenting is so dismally low that audiences dread listening to them as much as you hate giving them.
No one seems happy at the prospect of this afternoon’s weekly “finance update.”
But remember this – regardless of the topic of your talk, every audience wants the same basic thing. Deep down, all of us wants a chance. Everyone wants to have a chance to be a hero.
No one wants to hear from Indiana Jones . . . everyone wants to be Indiana Jones. Or at least believe that we could do great things.
This is a touchstone principle long known to professional speakers. Kenneth Goode and Zenn Kaufman authored a book in 1939 called Profitable Showmanship, and their words resonate with stone-cold veracity over the subsequent 72 years, right up to today and the next quarter earnings briefing:
The audience is always on the screen, at the microphone, in the prize-fight, or in the pitcher’s box. You, the individual member of the audience, are the hero of the day. No selling can ever be completely successful that forgets this principle: that the prospect is the Hero of the Show. And, in fact, the only hero! . . . The minute you slide the spotlight off him, off his crazy ideas, off his pet peeves, particularly off his whims, your show is over. You may as well go home, for your audience is gone. . . . The hero of the [presenting] drama is the customer – or prospect. His vanities, his hopes, his fears, his ambitions – these are the stuff from which your plot is spun and on him – and him alone – must the spotlight shine.
Remember that the Business Hero is in your audience.
People want more than anything to be a hero, and if you give them that chance in your talk, you will be rewarded 1,000 times over.
You’ve almost mastered your voice and material. Now it’s time to build on that and incorporate essential movement.
What should you do during your talk? Where to do it? How to do it? Why should you do it . . . and when?
Today we begin to incorporate meaningful movement into your presentation – movement that reinforces your message in positive ways and helps you deliver an especially powerful presentation.
First, think about distance. Your distance from your audience significantly impacts the degree of connectivity you share with audience members.
Many speakers are unaware of the effect that distance-from-audience can have on their talk. The formal term for how distance affects the relationship between speaker and audience is called “proxemics.” This is simply lingo for your proximity to the audience – how far from your audience you stand. Altering that distance throughout your talk can enhance your message in ways you intend.
You achieve four distinct effects by varying the distance that you maintain between you and your audience. A distinguished anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, developed the concept of how these four distances communicate vastly different messages from speaker to audience.
The Four Spaces
Let’s look at the Four Spaces and how you can use them to achieve certain effects. They can animate your presentation and enhance that 3D effect I often refer to.
First, the most common space is public space, and this is a distance of more than 12 feet from your audience. Obviously, this space is necessary when you deliver a lecture to a large audience of, say, 200 persons or more.
The second space is social space.
This space is occupied by the speaker who wants to connect in a personal way with his audience. It’s the space from four feet to 12 feet from your audience. Think of a seminar of 12 students with a professor in close proximity. Here, eye contact is frequent and effective. A conversational style is possible and desirable. In fact, conversational and relaxed style is essential in this scenario.
The third space is personal space. This space begins at 18 inches from a person and extends out to approximately four feet. It is conversational space and is generally not utilized in public speaking.
The fourth space is intimate space. This space is highly personal and you must be invited into this space. Without an invitation, you invade this space at your own risk. You make others feel uncomfortable, and they may respond in any number of ways, few of which will please you.
Now, let’s script your movements.
Coordinate your movements with major segments of your talk. Script them into your presentation as if you were performing a play. For instance, follow the script below. Following each quote, the indented statements describe the actions you take:
SPEAKER: “My talk has three major points. As I share these points with you tonight, I want you to consider how each of these powerful issues affect you, personally. The first major point?”
<<Bow head and walk slowly to the left. Take ready stance. Look up at audience. >>
SPEAKER: “The first major point is Humility. In this we are the same as our earliest fathers and mothers . . . .”
<<Look to your right and walk slowly, meeting the eyes of several audience members in turn. Stop in ready position. >>
SPEAKER: “The second major point is Confidence. Surely there is not one among us who has not felt the fear of failure, of being judged unworthy . . . .”
<<Look to the center and walk slowly to center-stage. Stop and assume ready position. Gesture with both hands in supplication.>>
SPEAKER: “The third and most important point is this – Understanding of a kind that passes beyond . . . etc., etc. . . .”
The movements thus accomplished are displayed in the diagram. This type of broad movement accentuates the major points of your talk. You anchor each point at a different part of the stage:
Point 1 to the Left
Point 2 to the Right
Point 3 to the Center
This scripted movement series is a highly visual reinforcement to the organization of your talk. Coupled with the proper hand gestures and expressiveness of face and voice, this series movement invests your message with immediacy and dimensionality and increases its impact. You hammer home the three points with a visual element coupled with the aural element.
All of this carefully considered movement about the stage also conveys to the audience that you are in control. You own the stage. So act like you own it; don’t behave like a visitor who cannot wait to depart.
It’s your space, so make good use of it. Learn to be comfortable in that space and to utilize all of the space at your disposal. At the same time, apply the principles found here. Do not move, just to be moving.
The combined effect of movement, position, and spoken message connects you firmly with your audience; appropriate movement deepens the connection and moves you from 2D Presenting to 3D Presenting.
It’s a place everyone wants to be, but where almost no one wants to go. This is really the strangest thing, and it alwayss amazes me anew the reasons people concoct for not becoming powerful speakers.
The Power Zone is a metaphor for that realm of especially powerful business presenters, a place where everyone is a capable, confident, and competent communicator, where every meal’s a feast and every speech kissed by rhetorical magic.
Yes, you can go there. And almost everyone claims they want to go to the Power Zone. But even when people are told clearly how to reach the Power Zone, most don’t go. They find an excuse.
They contrive the darnedest reasons not to, from ideological to lazy.
In my presentations to various audiences, I am invariably faced with the arguer, the gadfly who knows better, sometimes vocal, oftentimes not. The person who is adamant, steadfastly against what is being said. Usually for the most spurious of reasons.
No Argument Here
And it’s an exercise in futility for the gadfly. Because the choice to enter the Power Zone is personal and completely optional. And so I make no argument against the gadfly’s objections, from wherever they come.
The latest batch of objections sprang from one woman’s ideology. She apparently believed in au courant political philosophy that dictates how people should behave and react to others based on . . . well, based on what she believed to be right and proper.
In short, rather than communicate with people in the most effective way possible, she wanted to do something else . . . and then lecture her audience if they didn’t like her way of presenting, whether based on appearance, voice, gestures, or movement. In short, she wanted to deliver presentations her way, and blame her audience if they didn’t respond positively and, presumably, with accolades.
She complained that my presentation of techniques, skills, and principles “sounds like it’s from 100 years ago.”
And I say praise the Lord for that.
I draw on 2,500 years of presentation wisdom of Presentation Masters like Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, Quintilian, Webster, Bryant, and Roosevelt, so I’m not doing my job if it sounds otherwise.
She complained that some of the gestures seemed “too masculine” and that she would feel “uncomfortable” doing them as she believed they don’t look “feminine.”
I replied to her this way . . .
Just Don’t Do it
I told her, “Don’t do them. Don’t do anything that makes you feel ‘uncomfortable.’ Don’t utilize gestures proven 100,000 times to be powerful and effective, and substitute what you know to be better.”
But do that with the full knowledge that you leave the competitive advantage you might gain just sitting on the playing field for someone else to pick up. They’ll be happy you did.
Comfort? You don’t feel “comfortable” utilizing certain gestures? Since when did our “comfort” become the sine qua non of everything we try? Who cooked it up, and when did it gain currency? Has any greater cop-out ever been devised?
Of course you don’t feel “comfortable” doing something you’ve never tried before.
A baby feels anything but comfort as it springs from the womb and is forced to breathe air instead of amniotic fluid and faces the cold of a delivery room. A child feels anything but comfort as he learns the periodic table and the multiplication table or riding a bike or a new sport or meets new people and is forced to hear contrary opinions. An athlete feels discomfort as she trains to develop skill, power, speed, and strength in the gym so as to perform at a superior level.
Does it feel “comfortable” to push forward and extend our capabilities into new and desirable areas? Likely as not, it’s a difficult process, but we certainly don’t accept “discomfort” as a reason not to do something necessary to achievement of a goal.
“I just don’t feel comfortable.”
Of course you don’t feel “comfortable” speaking before a group if you’ve never done it before or done so with no success. That’s the whole point of especially powerful presenting – expanding the speaker’s comfort zone to encompass powerful communication techniques that lift you into the upper echelon of business presenters.
And drawing upon 25 Centuries of wisdom and practice to do so.
But some folks scowl at this. It requires too much of them. Or it conflicts with the way they think the world ought to work. Or the Seven Secrets for Especially Powerful Presenting aren’t mystical enough for them. Secrets ought to be . . . well, they ought to have magic sparkles or something, right?
So . . . if you find this somehow unsatisfactory and unsatisfying or in conflict with your own ideology or philosophy . . . if you believe the answer should somehow be more mystical or revelatory or tied to the high-tech promises of our brave new world, then I say this to you: “Go forth and don’t use these techniques.”
There is no need to fume over this or that nettlesome detail. It’s completely unnecessary, because no one compels you to do anything. And this is what is so infuriating for the habitual naysayers – complete freedom. The freedom not to travel into the Power Zone.
I show you the way to the Power Zone, where you can be one of the exceptional few who excels in incredible fashion . . . but you can choose not to go.
If not, good luck and Godspeed with your own opinions and philosophies and endless search for presentation excellence located somewhere else. Let 1,000 presentation flowers bloom!
But if you elect to draw upon the best that the Presentation Masters have to offer . . . then I extend congratulations as you step onto the path toward the Power Zone, toward that rarefied world of especially powerful presenters.
There are two pernicious myths regarding business presentations out there that refuse to be swatted down. Well, probably more than two, but two big myths that persistently burden folks.
These myths influence two large groups of people. Without knowing it, these folks subscribe to two schools of presentation thought . . . Birthers and McTips.
The first group – the “Birthers” presentation school – believes that superb public speakers are “born that way.”
Folks in this group believes that it’s nature-not-nurture and that natural talent wins the day. Since it’s an ability you either have or you don’t, well there’s no need to even try. Just sit back and marvel at those outstanding public speakers who make it all look so easy, but who actually utilize a host of techniques to charm and dazzle you.
Techniques that would be available to you if you would only set aside the self-defeating notion that you can’t develop especially powerful presentation skills.
Supersize Those McTips?
The second group – the “McTips” presentation school – believes that public speaking is both easy and easily learned. Folks here believe that following a few presenting “McTips” or easy “McSteps” can turn them into tremendous speakers. “Make eye contact” . . . “Move around when you talk” . . . “Use your hands” . . . Presto.
This McTips view is so pernicious that it does more damage than good. It’s like a get-rich-quick scheme that scams people. And who wouldn’t want to believe that there’s a painless shortcut to one of the most universally despised activities in corporate America?
One colleague told me a while back, his fingers steepled in front of him, “I can teach my people all they need to know about presenting in 30 minutes . . . all that other stuff is just B__ S___.”
Really? And if becoming a great presenter is so incredibly easy and the product of a few tips or steps, then why does the bar stay so low with regard to business presentations? Why does our business landscape resemble a wasteland strewn with mind-numbing PowerPoint slides and populated with droning executive automatons?
Both views are not only wrong, but they can stunt your development as a top-notch business presenter.
Great presenters are neither born, nor are they easily made.
Anyone can become an especially powerful, capable speaker . . . but it takes work, practice, and courage.
We hear in some circles that nonverbal communication – your body language – comprises more than 50 percent of your message. Some studies contend that it comprises more than 70 percent.
For no other reason than this, we should be concerned with the messages we transmit with our posture, our expressions, our gestures. Yes, body language is critical to conveying your message.
But it is essential for another equally important reason.
It’s a reason not generally well-known or understood, and it constitutes a secret that I’ve utilized with my presentation students for years to invest them with confidence and new-found presentation power. Its core idea stretches back well more than a century, to one of the world’s first theories of emotion: James-Lange Theory.
William James and the Danish physiologist Carl G. Lange developed the theory independently of each other in the 1880s.
Here’s a taste of the real thing from Mr. James himself:
“My theory … is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect … and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble …
Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.”
And if you aren’t satisfied with the narrative of a 19th Century social scientist you never heard of, then take the theory of Charles Darwin, who in 1872 was one of the first to speculate that your body posture can have an effect of generating emotions rather than simply reflecting them.
The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it. On the other hand, the repression, as far as this is possible, of all outward signs softens our emotions . . . . Even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.
So what does this have to do with powerful business presenting?
We generally believe that our emotions affect our body language, and we ourselves have experienced the effects of stage fright. Emotions influence the way you stand, the way you appear to your audience. They influence what you say and how you say it.
So if we feel stage fright and lack of confidence, our body language telegraphs that. Moreover, once we become conscious of the effects of our fears, they worsen, and we get caught in a downward spiral of cause-and-effect.
But what if we could reverse that cause-and-effect? What if we could, say, strike a confident pose and suddenly find ourselves infused with confidence? Impossible, eh?
But James-Lange Theory suggests that very thing, that you can reverse the process.
Turn Negative Energy into Positive
You can use your gestures, movement, posture, and expression to influence your emotions. You can consciously affect body language associated with the emotion you want to experience – namely, confidence – and so gain confidence.
This means that we should lay the groundwork for our emotions to reflect our body language and our posture. Consciously strike a bearing that reflects the confident and powerful speaker you want to be.
This may sound too easy and leave you asking “what’s the catch?”
No, there’s no catch. And now that recent research has scientifically confirmed the dynamic I just described, the secret is out.
Several theories later and after many attempts to debunk James-Lange Theory, the most recent research at Harvard University and the Kellogg School of Business would seem to give Mr. James and Mr. Lange the proverbial last laugh.
A 2010 Harvard study substantiated James-Lange Theory and found that power posing substantially increases confidence in people who assume them while interacting with others. The Kellogg study early this year yielded the same findings.
In short, the way you stand or sit either increases or decreases your confidence. The study’s conclusion is unambiguous and speaks directly to us.
Our results show that posing in high-power displays (as opposed to low-power displays) causes physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes consistent with the literature on the effects of power on power holders — elevation of the dominance hormone testosterone, reduction of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases in behaviorally demonstrated risk tolerance and feelings of power.
This finding holds tremendous significance for you if you want to imbue your presentations with power. In our 21st Century vernacular, this means you should stand the way you want to feel. Posing with power – “I feel especially powerful today!” – improves your entire presentation delivery tremendously and in ways you’ve likely not imagined.
Power Posing can flood your system with testosterone and can suppress stress-related cortisol, so you actually do invest yourself with confidence and relieve the acute anxiety that presentations sometimes generate.
The lesson here is to affect the posture of confidence. Square your shoulders. Fix a determined look on your face. Speak loudly and distinctly.
Extend your arms to either side and take up lots of space.
Seize the emotional energy flow and make it work for you.
The cartoon voice is more prevalent than you might imagine. Several reasonably-known celebrities have cartoon voices, and they usually dwell in the wasteland of daytime television.
One cartoon voice belongs to someone called Kelly Ripa, who participates on a show called “Live with Regis and Kelly.” This ABC Network television program, an abysmal daytime offering, serves up Ms. Ripa not for her voice, but for other attributes.
This show is worth watching, once, if only to hear Ms. Ripa’s slam-on-the-brakes whine.
Two other champions of the squeaky, whiney cartoon voice are people who appear to have achieved a degree of questionable fame for all of the wrong reasons: Kim Kardashian and Meghan McCain, who appear on television for some reason unknown to all but the producers of the shows they inhabit. Commonly called “divas,” their voices are barely serviceable for even routine communication.
Granted, these young women are not delivering business presentations, but their negative influence has infected an entire generation of young people who do deliver presentations. They embody all that is wrong with regard to delivering powerful presentations. If this sounds harsh, it is meant to be. They exhibit habitual pathologies of the worst sort.
Where do these people learn to speak this way, in this self-doubting, self-referential, endlessly qualified grinding whine?
One culprit appears to be the Disney Channel, inculcating a new generation of young folks into the practice of moron-speak. As well, numerous other popular young adult shows occupy the lowest rung of the speech food chain, passing on lessons in weak voice and poor diction.
Reality TV Infests Everything
Most anywhere, you can hear people who talk this way. They surround us.
Next time you stand in line at the convenience store, listen to the people around you. Focus on the voices. Listen for the trapped nasal sound, the whine of precious self-indulgence. Or the sound of a voice rasping across vocal cords at the end of every sentence. A voice that has no force. No depth.
A voice you could swat away as you would backhand a fly.
I often hear this cartoon voice in the elevator as I commute between my office and classrooms. Elevator conversations are often sourced from lazy, scratchy voices. These voices are ratcheted tight in the voice box with barely enough air passed across the vocal cords. What do I mean by this?
Let’s have an example. Two young ladies entered my elevator the other day (any day, really), and one chattered to the other about her “boyfriend” and his despicable antics on “Facebook.” It was heinous.
I shifted eyes to the owner of this raspy voice whose favorite word in the English language was quite evidently “like.” Everything was “like” something else instead of actually it. And apparently “totally” so. Ya know?
“Like. Like. Like. Totally! Like. Like. Like. Totally! It was like . . . ummmm. . . okay . . . whatever. Ya know what I mean?”
She fired them out in machine-gun fashion. A verbal stutter and punctuation mark, apparently unsure of anything she was saying. Her voice was a lab experiment of bad timbre. It cracked and creaked along, word after squeaky word.
A pickup truck with a flat tire flopping along to the service station.
The air barely passed over her vocal cords, just enough to rattle a pile of dry sticks. Not nearly enough air to vibrate and give pitch and tone. No resonance came from the chest. The voice rasped on the ears.
Every sentence spoken as a question.
Dum-Dums . . .
Two major problems surface here. First, the cracking and grinding sound, which is at the very least, irritating. Second, the primitive infestation of what I call “dum-dums.”
Dum-dums are moronic interjections slipped into virtually every sentence like an infestation of termites.
“Like. Totally! Ya know?Ummm. Like. Totally! It was like, okay, you know . . . ya know? Ummm. Whatever.”
Dum-dums right off the Disney Channel.
Be honest and recognize that adults don’t speak like this. And if you choose to speak like this, you will never be taken seriously by anyone of import considering whether to give you responsibility. Cartoon voice peppered with Dum-dums gives the impression that you have nothing worthwhile to say, and so you fill up the empty air with dum-dums.
Dum-dums are the result of lazy thought and lazier speech. It started on the west coast as an affectation called “Valley Speak” and has seeped into the popular culture as relentlessly as nicotine into the bloodstream.
Exaggeration? No, it’s a voice you hear every day.
Listen for it. Maybe it’s your voice.
Your Ticket to Failure or a Chance for Redemption
In the abstract, there is probably nothing wrong with any of this if your ambitions are of a certain lowest common denominator stripe.
If you’re guilty of this sort of thing, in everyday discourse you can probably get by with this kind of laziness, imprecision, and endless qualifying. The problem arises when you move into the boardroom to express yourself in professional fashion to a group of, say, influential skeptics who are waiting to be impressed by the power of your ideas and how you express them.
Cartoon Voice infested with Dum-dum words – this debilitating pathological combination destroys all business presentations except one – a pitch for yet another moronic reality TV show. You cannot deliver a credible business presentation speaking this way. You are toast before you open your mouth.
Badly burned toast.
You’re on the express train to failure with a first-class ticket.
But the good news is that all of this is reasonably easy to correct – if you can accept that your voice and diction should be changed.
If you recognize that you have Cartoon Voice and that you pepper your speech with dum-dums, ask yourself these questions: Why do I speak like this?
Why can’t I utter a simple declarative sentence without inserting dum-dums along the way? Why do all of my sentences sound like questions? Do I really want and need to sound like this – a ditz – just because the people around me can’t seem to express themselves except in staccato dum-dums with a cracking voice?
Sure, You Can Hang on to that Bad Voice!
Deciding to change one’s voice is a bold move that takes you out of your current cramped comfort zone, but you don’t have to do it! Nope, don’t change a thing!
If you recognize that you have Cartoon Voice, and you are comfortable slathering your speech with Dum-Dums, and you see no reason to change just because someone recommends it, well then . . . keep on keepin’ on! Sure, it’s okay for your inner circle of chatterers. Relish it. Hang onto it, and don’t even give a backward glance.
Let 1,000 dum-dums flourish!
But do so with the clear-eyed recognition that Dum-Dums make you sound like a moron.
You make a conscious choice. Dum-Dums make you sound like a reality TV show lightweight unable to utter an original thought or even speak in complete sentences. You sacrifice personal competitive advantage so that you can continue to . . . do what?
Recognize that if you want to succeed in an intensely competitive business climate, you should consider leaving Disney Channel behind.
When you want to be taken seriously in a business presentation . . . speak like an adult.
Do you ever consider how you actually appear to people with regard to your facial expressions?
Many folks seem oblivious to their expressions or to a lack of expressiveness, their faces dull and lifeless.
In your business presentation, you communicate far more with your face than you probably realize. And this can be an especially powerful source of personal competitive advantage.
Your facial expressions can reinforce your message, confuse your audience, or detract from your message. Yes, there exists something called bad expression, and at its worst, it can generate hostility in your audience.
Your Especially Powerful Communication Tool
Expression is sometimes discussed in conjunction with gesture, and indeed there is a connection. The power of expression has always been recognized as a vital communication tool, reinforcing words and even, at times, standing on their own.
Joseph Mosher was one of the giants of the early 20th Century public speech instruction, and he dares venture into territory rarely visited by today’s sterile purveyors of “business communication.”
Mosher actually addressed the personality of the speaker. These are the qualities that bring success.
[T]here is no one element of gesture which furnishes as unmistakable and effective an indication of the speaker’s thought and feeling as does the expression of the mouth and eyes. The firm-set mouth and flashing eye speak more clearly than a torrent of words; the smile is as good as, or better than, a sentence in indicating good humor; the sneering lip, the upraised brow, or the scowl need no verbal commentary.
Consider these expressions: A curl of the lip to indicate disapproval . . . or even contempt. The raising of one eyebrow to indicate doubt . . . or skepticism. Sincere furrows in the brow to indicate sincerity . . . or great concern.
Expressions Increase Power . . . or Weaken Your Message
These expressions, coupled with the appropriate words, have a tremendous impact on your audience. They increase the power of your message. They ensure that your message is clear.
Facial expressions can erase ambiguity and leave no doubt in the minds of your listeners what you are communicating. The appropriate facial expression can arouse emotion and elicit sympathy for your point of view.
Our expressions can enhance our presentation . . . or cripple it, and thorough knowledge of how our expressions can lift our talk or derail it is essential to becoming a powerful business communicator.
Oftentimes, we don’t consider that our physical appearance transmits messages to those around us.
Most certainly, the appearance of a speaker before an audience conveys non-verbal signals. This happens whether you are conscious of it or not.
Your appearance sends a message to your audience, and you cannot decide not to send a message with your appearance.
You cannot tell an audience to disregard the message your appearance transmits. And you can’t dictate to an audience the message it receives.
What message does your appearance transmit to people?
Are you the “Ageless Rebel” battling the “Man”?
That you don’t care?
That you’re confident?
That you are attentive to detail?
That you care about your dignity, your physique?
Is your appearance one big flip-off to the world because you fancy yourself an ageless rebel, shaking your fist at the “man” and refusing to “conform” to the “rules?” If so, then you pay a dear price for so meager a prize.
That price comes in the form of ceding competitive advantage to your peers, who may want to spend their personal capital for more luxurious rewards.
Many young speakers seem unaware of the messages that their appearance conveys. Or worse, they attempt to rationalize the message, arguing instead what they believe that the audience “ought” to pay attention to and what it “ought” to ignore.
Dress for Your Destiny
You simply cannot dress for lazy comfort and nonchalance and expect to send a message that conveys seriousness, competence, and confidence.
This is the lesson that so many fail to grasp, even on into the middle management years.
“I’m a rebel and exude confidence and independence!” you think, as you suit up in the current campus fashion fad. The message received is likely much different: “You’re a slob with no sense of proportion or clue how to dress, and I’ll never hire you.”
The best public speakers understand the power of appearance and mesh their dress with their message.
Take President Barack Obama, for example. He is a superb dresser, as are all presidents. On occasion, you will see the President speaking in open collared shirt, his sleeves rolled up in “let’s get the job done” fashion. And that’s usually the message he’s trying to convey in such dress: “Let’s get the job done . . . Let’s work together.”
Politics, Schmolitics . . . He’s a Sharp Dresser
You will never see President Obama address the nation from the Oval Office on a matter of gravity with his jacket off and his sleeves rolled-up. The messages must mesh.
The lesson here is that your dress ought to reinforce your message, not offer conflicting signals.
Here are some basic suggestions for ensuring a minimum pleasing appearance . . .
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, presentation gesture can carry powerful meaning. It should carry powerful meaning. Speaking Master James Winans noted in 1915 that 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.
Gesture is part of our repertoire of non-verbal communication. You have many arrows in the quiver of gesture from which to choose, and they can pack your presentation with power. And on rare occasion, can imbue your business presentation with majesty of epic proportions.
Yes, I said “majesty of epic proportions.”
Your careful, thoughtful presentation gestures increase your talk’s persuasiveness and lend gravitas to your words. In fact, gesture is essential to take your presentation to an especially powerful level, a level far above the mundane. You limit yourself if you do not gesture effectively as you present.
Presentation gesture offers a powerful means to enhance your presentation’s depth and meaning, communicating with far more power than words alone.
You communicate far more with your face than you probably realize, so you should be aware of how expression in presentations can enhance or degrade your business presentation.
Your facial expressions can reinforce your message, confuse your audience, or detract from your message. Yes, there is something called bad expression, and at its worst, it can generate hostility in your audience.
Look no further than the accompanying photo to absorb the lesson of how our expressions can enhance our presentation . . . or cripple it.
A thorough knowledge of how our expressions can lift our talk or derail it is essential to becoming a powerful business communicator.
The problem of bad expression has plagued speakers for centuries. Some of our earliest writers on oratory lamented the poor expressive skills of the folks who take to the stage to speak.
Quintilian was a great Roman teacher of oratory in his time. He’s influenced many generations of public speakers ince the recovery of his classic manuscripts in the 15th Century.
Perhaps you’ve not heard of Quintilian? It’s time you did.
Expression in Presentation for 1,900 Years
Quintilian published his monumental Institutes of Oratory at the end of the 1st Century AD, and it continues as a powerfully influential treatise on presentations today. It’s rich with insight and practical instruction. Take this passage on expression:
[The teacher] will have to take care that the face of his pupil, while speaking, look straight forward; that his lips be not distorted; that no opening of the mouth in moderately distend his jaws. That his face be not turned up, or his eyes cast down too much, or his head inclined to either side. The face offends in various waysl. I have seen many speakers, whose eyebrows were raised at every effort of the voice. Those of others I have seen contracted. Those of some even disagreeing, as they turned up one towards the top of the head, while with the other the eye itself was almost concealed. To all these matters, as we shall hereafter show, a vast deal of importance is to be attached. For nothing can please which is unbecoming.
Would that our modern instructors of presentations would take a moment to share even the most modest of insights offered by great orators such as Quintilian. He remains relevant and incisive after 1,900 years. On the need for coordinated and thoughtful expression, and a great many other timeless techniques.
That’s staying power. And a heckuva personal brand.
And as he notes with respect to expression, nothing can please which is unbecoming. Your facial expression should reflect your spirit. It should reveal your heart and your soul, and if it does, you will be in no danger of appearing “unbecoming.”
Your face should transmit sincerity and earnestness consonant with your words. So I urge you in your presentations to smile often . . . frown sparingly . . . stare never . . . question occasionally . . . and show sincerity throughout.
“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 excellent 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. 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.
Cool and Careless?
And so, 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. Earnestness becomes second nature.
You see it in the after-dinner talk, finance brief, or networking breakfast address.
While unrelenting positivity is probably the best approach to presentation improvement, it helps at times to see examples of what not to do. This is especially true when the examples involve folks of lofty stature who probably ought to know better.
The Emperor’s Bad Business Presentation
If they don’t know better, this is likely a result of the familiar syndrome of those closest to the boss not having the guts to tell the boss he needs improvement.
The speaker stands behind a lectern.
The speaker grips the lectern on either side.
The speaker either reads from notes or reads verbatim from crowded busy slides projected behind him.
The lectern serves as a crutch. The average speaker, whether student or corporate VP, appears afraid that someone might snatch the lectern away.
Many business examples illustrate this, and you’ve probably witnessed lots of them yourself.
Let’s take, for instance, Mr. Muhtar Kent, the Chairman of the Board and CEO of Coca-Cola.
Video rated PG-13: violence done to speaking skills
Mr. Kent appears to be a genuinely engaging person on occasions where he is not speaking to a group. But when he addresses a crowd of any size, something seizes Mr. Kent. He reverts to delivering drone-like talks that commit virtually every public speaking sin.
He delivers excruciatingly bad business presentations.
He leans on the lectern.
He squints and reads his speech from notes in front of him. When he does diverge from his speech, he rambles aimlessly.
In the video below, Mr. Kent delivers an October 2010 address at Yale University. He begins badly with a discursive apology, grips the lectern as if it might run away, does not even mention the topic of his talk until the 4-minute mark, and hunches uncomfortably for the entire 38-minute speech. Have a look . . .
Successful C-Suite businessmen and businesswomen, such as Mr. Kent, are caught in a dilemma – many of them are terrible presenters, but no one tells them so.
No one tells them, because there’s no upside in doing it. If you worked for Mr. Kent, would you tell him so? Of course not.
Moreover, many business leaders believe their own press clippings. They invest their egos into whatever they do.
It becomes impossible for them to see and think clearly about themselves. They tend to believe that their success in managing a conglomerate, in steering the corporate elephant of multinational business to profitability, means that their skills and judgment are infallible across a range of unrelated issues and tasks.
Such as business presenting.
And this is why you see so many bad business presentations by so many smart and powerful people.
Mr. Kent is by all accounts a shrewd corporate leader and for his expertise received in 2010 almost $25 million in total compensation as Coca-Cola CEO and Board Chairman. But he is a poor speaker. He delivers a bad business presentation, but . . .
But he has great potential that will probably never be realized.
And this is tragic, because many business leaders like Mr. Kent could become outstanding speakers and even especially powerful advocates of their businesses.
The Bad Business Presentation Curse
As it stands now, executives such as Mr. Kent exert an incredibly insidious influence in our schools and in the corporate world generally.
Let’s call it the “hem-of-garment” effect.
Those of us who aspire to scale the corporate heights imitate what we believe to be winning behaviors. We want to touch the hem of the garment, so-to-speak, of those whom we wish to emulate.
Because our heroes are so successful, their “style” of speaking is mimicked by thousands of young people who believe that, well, this must be how it’s done: “He is successful, therefore I should deliver my own presentations this way.”
You see examples of this at your own B-School, as in when a VP from a local insurance company shows up unprepared, and reads from barely relevant slides.
He then takes your questions in chaotic and perhaps haughty form.
Who could blame you if you believe that this is how it should be done? The bad business presentation is, after all, the unfortunate standard.
But this abysmal level of corporate business presenting offers you an opportunity . . .
You need only become an above-average speaker to be considered an especially powerful presenter.
A presenter far more powerful than Mr. Muhtar Kent or any of 500 other CEOs.
We are all familiar with the droning voice of the numbing speaker who rarely varies pitch, tone, or pace of a talk and who quickly loses us in monotony.
In like fashion, it is possible to be visually monotonous.
Visual monotony – either of constant repetitive movement or of no movement whatsoever.
We know well the “rocker” and the “swayer.” We know Mr. “busy-hands” and the “Foxtrotter,” who quicksteps in a tight little dance.
And we know the statue, who moves not at all and hides behind a lectern, gripping it white-knuckled.
Go ahead and move, but . . .
Yes, incorporate movement. But before you begin hopping about the stage willy-nilly, recognize that you should incorporate movement into your presentation for specific reasons. Your movements should contribute to your presentation by reinforcing your message.
At the risk over over-alliterating, you should mesh your movements with your message.
Remember that every single thing you do onstage derives its power by its contrast with every other thing you do. If you move all the time, like a constant pacing jungle cat, it becomes the equivalent of white noise, and your movements contribute no meaning whatever to your presentation. In fact, your movements become a distraction, leeching energy and attention from your message.
It’s a form of visual monotony.
Likewise, if you remain stationary 100 percent of the time, the result is visual monotony. You lull your audience into inattention, especially if you combine verbal and visual monotony in a single presentation – The Kiss of Death.
So, think of movement as one more tool in your repertoire to evoke feeling from your audience and to convey a powerful and persuasive message. Watch this video for basic advice on movement in your presentation . . .