The zombies of bad advice never die.We can’t eradicate bad presentation advice completely, because these zombies are impervious to every remedy known to 21st century civilization.
When Armageddon finally comes, cockroaches and bad advice zombies will be the only survivors.
But let’s give it a shot anyway.
The process of becoming a great presenter is not so much prompting students to do something the right way. It’s getting you – yes, you – to stop doing things the wrong way.
Accordingly, I instruct students to stop what they’re doing now as a result of bad habits and bad advice. Once they stop engaging in bad habits and misconceptions about presenting, they become de facto reasonably competent presenters.
Just stop the bad habits, and what remains can be downright decent. But bad habits can be perpetuated by exuberantly following bad advice. The problem is recognizing what constitutes bad advice.
This isn’t easy, because much bad advice paradoxically masquerades as good advice, and lots of these bad advice zombies stalk the land.
Let’s Have a Look
Here are some of the most common examples of awful, vague, or incomplete presentation advice you invariably hear during your business school career from the most well-meaning of folks.
ZOMBIE #1 “Don’t Put your hand in your pocket . . . it looks ‘unprofessional.’”
This is absurd and carries the stink of oral tradition about it. From presidents to preachers, the hand in the pocket – if done properly – conveys assurance and confidence. For many speakers, it also removes one hand from the equation as an unnecessary distractor.\
Put that left hand in the pocket and you keep it out of trouble. No more strange finger-play. No more tugging at your fingers. No more twisting and handwringing. It leaves your right hand free to gesture, and those gestures themselves appear more decisive.
ZOMBIE #2 “Make eye contact.”
This advice is insidious in that it actually carries a large kernel of truth. It sounds reasonable. But it doesn’t tell you how to do it. And, yes, there is such a thing as bad eye contact. Too long, and you come across as creepy. Too short, and you come across as untrustworthy. Make eye contact with people in your audience long enough to ascertain eye color, then move on.
ZOMBIE #3 “Move around when you talk”
This gem was given to me by a student, passed on from one of his other professors. This advice suggests that you wander aimlessly about the stage in hopes that it will improve your presentation in some unspecified way. In this case the bad advice is worse than no advice at all. See my previous posts on movement for ideas on how to incorporate movement into your talk . . . and how to incorporate pauses for effect.
ZOMBIE #4 “Just the facts.”
Really? Which facts are those?
What does it mean, “Just the facts?”
Folks believe that this phrase makes them appear no-nonsense and hard-core. But a more pompous and simultaneously meaningless phrase has yet to be devised. Again, it means nothing and is arrogance masquerading as directness. “Facts” must be selected in some way, and context must be provided to give them meaning. “Facts” must be analyzed to produce alternatives and to render a conclusion. This is a euphemism for “I don’t like what you’re saying . . . tell me what I want to hear.”
ZOMBIE #5 “The numbers tell the story.”
This is a favorite of finance folks, who seem to believe that the ironclad rules of presentations do not apply to them. “We’re special,” finance majors like to say. “We don’t deal with all of that soft storytelling; we deal in hard numbers.”
There is so much wrong with this, it is difficult to locate a reasonable starting-point.
Not only do numbers, alone, tell no story at all . . . if the numbers were conceivably capable of telling a story, it would be a woefully incomplete story, providing a distorted picture of reality. Numbers provide just one piece of the analytical puzzle, important to be sure, but not sufficient by themselves.
Moreover, the business presenter who elects to serve the god of numbers sacrifices the power and persuasiveness that go with a host of other presenting techniques. Underlying this myth is the notion that you “can’t argue with numbers.” You certainly can argue with numbers, and you can bring in a host of analysis that changes completely what those numbers actually mean.
ZOMBIE #6“You have too many slides.”
How do you know I have “too many” slides?
Say what? You counted them?
I assure you that you don’t know. You can conclude nothing about my presentation by looking only at the number of slides in it.
You will hear this from folks who believe that the length of a presentation dictates the number of slides you use. Absurd on its face, people who use this believe that every slide will be shown a fixed amount of time. They likely do some sort of calculation in their heads, dividing the time available by the number of slides to yield a number they believe indicates there are “too many” slides. This is because they usually deal with folks unschooled in Business School Presentations methods.
If you follow the presentation principles laid down here in Business School Presentations, you will learn the glorious method of crafting frugal slides that pulse with power, surge with energy . . . slides that people remember, because they are smartly crafted and snap crisply, and they carry your audience along for an exciting and joyous ride.
No one can tell anything about this by the number of slides in your presentation.
Bad Advice Zombies – these are just some that will come after you. It’s probably not a good idea to argue with folks who give this sort of advice. What’s the use? Just ignore it and replace it in you own work with sound power presenting principles. You can’t eliminate the zombies, but you can outrun them and outfox them.
And continue your upward trajectory toward becoming a superior business presenter.
I advocate storytelling in your business presentations. Stories can capture powerful ideas in a few telling strokes.
Stories involve your listeners better than any other competing technique.
But in telling a story, we can sometimes veer off-course. We get 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 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! 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 build 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 MIP Permeates Your Story
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, 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’ll 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.
Do you begin confidently and strongly? Or do you tiptoe into your presentation, as do so many people in school and in the corporate world? Do you sidle into it? Do you edge sideways into your show with lots of metaphorical throat-clearing.
Do you back into it?
Do you start strong with a story, but let the story spiral out of control until it overshadows your main points? Is your story even relevant? Do your tone and body language and halting manner shout “apology” to the audience?
Do you shift and dance?
Are you like a turtle poking his head out of his shell, eyeing the audience, ready to dart back to safety if you catch even a single frown? Do you crouch behind the podium like a soldier in his bunker? Do you drone through the presentation, your voice monotone, your eyes glazed, fingers crossed, actually hoping that no one notices you?
Here’s an example
I viewed a practice presentation that purported to analyze a Wal-Mart case. The lead presenter was Janie. She began speaking, and she related facts about the history of the company and its accomplishments over the past 40 years. She spoke in monotone. She flashed a timeline on the screen. Little pictures and graphics highlighted her points.
I wondered at what all of this might mean.
I waited for a linking thread. I waited for her main point. As the four-minute mark approached, my brow furrowed. The linking thread had not come.
The linking thread would never come . . . it dawned on me that she had no point. At the end of her segment, I asked her . . .
“Janie, what was that beginning about? How did your segment relate to Wal-Mart’s strategic challenges in the case at hand?”
“Those were just random facts,” she said.
“Yes!” she said brightly.
She was quite ingenuous about it.
She was giving “random facts,” and she thought that it was acceptable to begin a business case presentation this way. I don’t say this to disparage her. In fact, she later became one of my most coachable students, improving her presentation skills tremendously, and has since progressed to graduate school.
But what could convince a student that an assembly of “random facts” is acceptable at the beginning of a presentation? Is it the notion that anything you say at the beginning is okay?
Let’s go over the beginning. Together, let’s craft a template beginning that you can always use, no matter what your show is about. When you become comfortable with it, you can then modify it to suit the occasion.
Set the Stage with Your Situation Statement
You begin with your introduction. Here, you present the Situation Statement.
The Situation Statement tells your audience what they will hear. It’s the reason you and your audience have gathered together. What will you tell them?
The audience is assembled to hear about a problem and its proposed solution . . . or to hear of success and how it will continue . . . or to hear of failure and how it will be overcome . . . or to hear of a proposed change in strategic direction.
Don’t assume that everyone knows why you are here. Don’t assume that they know the topic of your talk. Ensure that they know with a powerful Situation Statement.
A powerful situation statement centers the audience – Pow! It focuses everyone on the topic. Don’t meander into your show with chummy talk. Don’t tip-toe into it. Don’t be vague. Don’t clear your throat with endless apologetics or thank yous.
Let’s say your topic is the ToughBolt Corporation’s new marketing campaign. Do not start this way:
“Good morning, how is everyone doing? Good. Good! It’s a pleasure to be here, and I’d like to thank our great board of directors for the opportunity. I’m Dana Smith and this is my team, Bill, Joe, Mary, and Sophia. Today, we’re planning on giving you a marketing presentation on ToughBolt Corporation’s situation. We’re hoping that—”
No . . . no . . . and no.
Direct and to-the-point is best. Pow!
Try starting this way:
“Today we present ToughBolt’s new marketing campaign — a campaign to regain the 6 percent market share lost in 2009 and increase our market share . . . by another 10 percent. A campaign to lead us into the next four quarters to result in a much stronger and competitive market position a year from now.”
You see? This is not the best intro, but it’s solid. No “random facts.” No wasted words. No metaphorical throat-clearing. No backing into the presentation, and no tiptoeing. State the reason you are there.
Put the Pow in Power!
Now, let’s add some Pow to it. A more colorful and arresting introductory Situation Statement might be:
“Even as we sit here today, changes in the business environment attack our firm’s competitive position three ways. How we respond to these challenges now will determine Toughbolt’s future for good or ill . . . for survival or collapse. Our recommended response? Aggressive growth. We now present the source of those challenges, how they threaten us, and what our marketing team will do about it to retain Toughbolt’s position in the industry and to continue robust growth in market share and profitability.”
Remember in any story, there must be change. The very reason we give a case presentation is that something has changed in the company’s fortunes. We must explain this change. We must craft a response to this change. And we must front-load our intro to include our recommendation.
That is why you have assembled your team. To explain the threat or the opportunity. To provide your analysis. To provide your recommendations.
Remember, put Pow into your beginning to leverage the opportunity when the audience is most alert and attentive.
Craft a Situation Statement that grabs them and doesn’t let go.
But what you think you know about practice may not be quite right.
The effect 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.
The Right Presentation Practice
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 it’s absolutely essential that you practice the correct way.
This means that you practice the way you perform. This means you do not start your presentation repeatedly, as almost all of us have done at points in our presentation careers.
There is something in our psyche that seems to urge us to “start over” when we make a mistake. When we stumble, we want a “do-over” so that we can put together a perfect rehearsal from start to finish. But when we do this, what we are actually practicing is the “starting over.”
We become very good at “starting over” when we make a mistake.
Start Over? Bad 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.
Practice according to the principles enunciated here at Business School Presenting and according to the hard preparation you have conducted leading up to your presentation.
Practice it all for an especially powerful presentation.
Microsoft’s PowerPoint multimedia software has gotten a bum rap, and this unfair reputation springs from the thousands of ugly presentations given every day from folks who don’t know how to use it.
Yet, PowerPoint is a brilliant tool.
But just as any tool – say, a hammer or saw – can contribute to the construction of a masterpiece . . . or a monstrosity, PowerPoint either contributes to the creation of an especially powerful presentation, or it becomes the weapon of choice to inflict yet another heinous public-speaking crime on a numbed audience.
PowerPoint isn’t the problem. Clueless presenters are the problem.
So just how do you use PowerPoint?
This short video reviews several of my own techniques that provide basic guidance on sound PowerPoint use. Have a look-see . . .
And this is why we should be concerned about power words for business.
Power Words for Business
Words have power.
A power that is amorphous, deceptive, difficult to master, if it is at all possible to master.
It’s necessary to respect words and their function. To understand the visceral strength in well-structured phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that hang together seamlessly in such a tight formation that a reader cannot imagine them written in any other way.
While teaching writing is not my primary function, I do provide fundamental instruction of a Strunk and White nature so as to raise the bar to an acceptable level.
Before you eye-roll at such a rudimentary approach, let me assure you that today’s undergraduate students desperately need the salving coolness of William Strunk and E.B. White. If only for clarity, concision, and pith.
For the pleasure of reading Strunk and White’s masterpiece, The Elements of Style. For it is a minor joy to read.
Many young people – not all, but enough – want to be creative and innovative, to think outside of that box we always hear about. I note that they must first understand the box and what it contains before they can profitably “think outside” of it.
Because likely what they consider fresh and new and sparkling has been done before. Usually, many times before.
Cliches heard for the first time are like that.
The task is to understand how words fit together to convey ideas, notions, fact and fiction. They must understand the communicative function of words as well as their evocative power.
Power words for business can imbue a business presentation with impact and energy.
Just as power words against business have been in use for decades. So much so, they’ve become shopworn cliches.
Power Words Against Business
I urge students to recognize tendentious surliness masquerading as neutrality, entire social, political, cultural arguments embodied in single phrases – sometimes single words. Listen for those arguments that use power words against business.
They must recognize sloganeering in their own writing and arguments. If not, they face being caught short when challenged on a lack of depth or understanding.
Recognize sloganeering in your writing.
At the risk of agitation, let me detour into the realm of the classroom, where words that characterize well-hashed issues come freighted with all kinds of baggage.
Certain phrases can embody one-sided faux arguments. Anti-business arguments with no substance.
Power words against business.
“Widening gap between rich and poor” is one of those tropes. It has become a kneejerk pejorative.
Regrettably, it’s used more frequently by young people these days and some of my overeager colleagues.
They supposedly identify a “problem” that must be corrected without pausing in their feverish idealism to recognize that the gap between rich and poor is always getting wider. This happens whether an economy is strong or weak.
It’s the nature of economic growth.
The proper question to ask is this: “Is everyone getting richer and better off than before in a dynamic and thriving economy?”
Or is the situation one in which the poor are getting poorer with no chance or even hope of improvement? These are two quite different situations, conflated by the trope “widening gap between rich and poor.”
Making the distinction, however, brings more complexity into the picture than some folks feel comfortable with. The issue no longer fits on a bumper sticker.
It’s almost too much to bear the notion that “everyone is better off” while simultaneously there is a “widening gap between rich and poor.”
“Everyone is better off” is a first-rate example of power words for business presentations.
Single words sometimes embody entire arguments.
This relieves the user of the burden to make the point of the begged question. In my own bailiwick, “sweatshop” is one such politically and socially freighted word.
As in the “debate over sweatshops.” In my classes on Globalization, this “debate” is addressed forthrightly.
But in its proper terms and in its proper context.
The preening certitude of a person posturing against “sweatshops” is a sight to behold. No gray area, no moral conundrums. It seems as clear-cut an issue as anyone could imagine. It’s like arguing against “dirty dishtowels.” There is no pro “dirty dishtowel” lobby. Just as there is no pro “sweatshop” lobby.
See how easy to get on the side of the angels? Who other than an evil exploiter could possibly take a stand for “sweatshops?” Right. No one does.
A part of me envies that kind of hard-boned simplicity. It’s borne of shallow naivete.
“Cultural Imperialism” Anyone?
Hand-in-hand with “sweatshops” comes something called “cultural imperialism.”
This is merely a pejorative reaction against the introduction of goods and services and ideas into modernizing societies. Such “cultural imperialism” supposedly constitutes an attack on the “traditional way of life” and local culture.
In my lectures to Russian students in Izhevsk and in Ufa, Bashkortostan, I meet this kind of attitude quite frequently, as if someone is compelling locals to drink Coca-Cola, to smoke Marlboros, to wear Italian shoes, or to dine at Chinese restaurants.
The call for preserving “traditional” ways of life smacks of condescension of the worst type. It is, for example, an attitude that suggests that locking subsistence farmers into their pristine “traditional” circumstances as delightful subjects for exotic picture postcards is a positive.
“Traditional” is one of those power words against business. When you hear it as part of an argument, look closely for anti-business bias. You’ll find it.
Some students are angry and somewhat confused when I note that all that is offered is a choice.
Choice is one of those Power Words for Business.
A choice to work as one’s ancestors did, ankle-deep in dung-filled water of rice paddies, or to work in a new factory, earning more money in one day than the traditional villager might ever see in a year.
A choice to purchase goods and services previously unavailable.
A choice to live better.
Exploitation . . . or Choice?
A choice, that’s all.
Some people, professional activists among them, just don’t like the choice being offered, even as earlier there was no choice. There was no chance for improvement.
Rather than offer their own range of additional choices, these folks harass those companies that provide economic opportunity, a chance for a better life. The chance for newly empowered local workers to earn beyond subsistence wages and to then spend money at the kiosks that quickly spring up courtesy of entrepreneurs who instinctively know how the market works.
The chance to utilize the new roads built by the foreign company as part of infrastructure improvement.
So, in my classes, I refer to Nike and other firms that manufacture abroad as establishing Economic Opportunity Centers throughout the developing world. Companies that expand the range of economic choices open to local workers.
Economic Opportunity Centers
Some students express a kind of confused disbelief that local factories contracted by Nike (Nike does not own or operate them) could in any sense of the phrase be called Economic Opportunity Centers.
But, in fact, that phrase is more accurate as to what is actually happening when compared in many cases to a subsistence farming economy that it augments.
With that point made, we shift to compromise language of a more neutral cast – Nike and many other companies that contract manufacturing with local producers are engaged in Economic Activity Abroad.
Whether that activity is in some sense “good” or “bad” depends upon whom you ask – an activist sitting in an air conditioned Washington office, hands steepled, giving an interview to National Public Radio on the evils of Globalization.
Or a young foreign worker, who now has a choice and a chance to work indoors, to earn more money than before, to better his lot and that of his family.
A choice and a chance to move up.
A choice that earlier was not available.
Power Words for Business Presentations
Now, I have dipped into the hot, turbid political waters of Globalization only because that happens to be the topic at hand for me now, daily.
I have roamed a bit, but the theme that runs through this essay, I think, is the power of words – to persuade, to deceive, to communicate, to obfuscate.
Power Words against business have been used far too long without challenge. Realize that we can harness Power Words for Business and leaven our business presentations with impact, immediacy, and positivity.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the issues I surfaced here to illustrate the theme, I believe that folks in this forum recognize more than most this especially powerful medium.
Whatever conclusions my students arrive at with regard to the debates at hand, they will have at least been exposed to the power of words for business and the subtlety of language.
Maintain a positive presentation attitude, especially where criticism of current company policy is concerned.
Especially when your team must convey bad news, for instance, that the current strategy is “bad.” Or that the current executive team is not strong enough.
In class presentations, I sometimes see that students take an adversarial attitude. A harsh attitude.
This is the natural way of college students, who believe that this type of blunt honesty is sought-after and valued.
Positive Presentation Attitude for Personal Preservation
Honesty is important, sure. But there is a difference between honesty and candor, and we must be clear on the difference.
If you say that the current strategic direction of the company in your presentation is dumb, you tread on thin ice when you convey that information. Remember that there are many ways of being honest.
You must use the right words to convey the bad news to the people who are paying you. These may be the people responsible for the bad situation in the first place, or who are emotionally invested in a specific strategy.
Anyone can use a sledgehammer.
But most times it pays to use a scalpel.
But we must remember that as much as we would like to believe that our superiors and our clients are mature and want to hear the “truth” – warts and all – human nature is is contrary. We are easily wounded where our own projects and creations are concerned.
And if you wound someone’s ego, you will pay a price.
So, if you attack the current strategy as unsound, and the person or persons who crafted that strategy sit in the audience, you have most likely and needlessly doomed yourself. Expect an also-ran finish in the competition for whatever prize is at stake, whether a multi-million dollar deal. Or simply credibility and good judgment.
It takes skill and finesse to deliver a fine-tuned presentation. Learn to deliver a masterpiece of art that conveys the truth, but with a positive presentation attitude that is constructive and persuasive without being abrasive. When you do, then you will have developed incredible personal competitive advantage through the vehicle of your presentation skills.
That is, after all, why they are called skills.
Your presentation will effervesce . . . it will join the ranks of the especially powerful.
So remember that tact and a positive presentation attitude is as important to your presentation as accuracy. Internalize that lesson, and you’re on your way to delivering especially powerful presentations that persuade more than they insult.
Recognize and accept that your presentation is a wholly different communication mode than your final memorandum or report.
Treat it this way, and your chances of winning your case competition increase dramatically.
How to win a Case Competition
If your analysis is robust and your conclusions are sound, as should be with all the entries, then a powerful and stunning presentation delivered by a team of confident and skilled presenters will win the day most every time.
The competency of most case competition teams is relatively even. If a team lifts itself above the competition with a stunning presentation, it will win.
If you have reviewed the step-by-step preparation to this point and internalized its message, you understand that you and your teammates are not something exclusive of the presentation. You are the presentation.
By now, you should be well on the way to transforming yourself from an average presenter into a powerful presentation meister. You know the techniques and skills of the masters. You have become an especially powerful and steadily improving speaker who constantly refines himself or herself along the seven dimensions we’ve discussed: Stance, Voice, Gesture, Expression, Movement, Appearance, and Passion.
Employ the Seven Secrets to Win a Case Competition
When I coach a team how to win a case competition, the team members prepare all of their analysis, conclusions, and recommendations on their own. Here are some tips how to do this. Their combined skills, imagination, and acumen produce a product worthy of victory. The team then creates their first draft presentation.
It is at this point that the competition is most often won or lost.
Powerful winning presentations do not spring forth unbidden or from the written material you prepare. The numbers “do not speak for themselves.”
The “power of your analysis” does not win a case competition on its own. You cannot point to your handout repeatedly as a substitute for a superb presentation.
Your case solution is not judged on its merit alone, as if the brilliance of your solution is manifest to everyone who reads it. It is judged on how well you communicate the idea. Powerfully and persuasively.
Each member of your team must enter the presentation process as a tangible, active, compelling part of the presentation. And you must orchestrate your presentation so that you work seamlessly together with each other, with the visuals you present, and with the new knowledge you create.
I struggle with an entire macro-profession that cultivates its jargon . . . business jargon.
The arena is academia fused with that of the larger battlefield of the business world, and the struggle is between those of us in the noble minority (of course we must posture as such) and those legions of who wear smiling faces, furrowed serious brows, and who are imbued with the best of intentions and the zeal of those who labor in the vineyards of the professions.
The struggle is for clear and original expression against the encroachment of weasel-words. The struggle is for meaningful distinctions between useful locutions and the vulgarity of “jargon.”
Every profession contrives jargon and then clutches it to its breast.
It is useful, yes. Incredibly so.
But some of the more Machiavellian among us contrive it as a second code for entry into a priesthood of the knowledgeable.
And so we have the conundrum – one man’s obfuscation is another man’s sharply drawn argument, both using “jargon.”
Who with compassion could strip a man of his outlet for facile expression, the utility of shorthand “jargon,” simply because there exist unscrupulous cads who abuse the privilege of a profession’s lexicon?
Struggling with Business Jargon
So it’s a struggle, yes, but it’s also an internal struggle.
This struggle is waged within me – I’m torn, because it is my bane to be charged with teaching the lexicon, the “business jargon” to vulnerable young minds. Minds to which the jargon sounds fresh and innovative, when it is actually already stale and reified. It’s an axiom that once something makes it into a textbook, it likely is already outdated.
But business jargon does perform valuable service. If used judiciously and properly and with clear intent to the purpose for which it was created.
If it is wielded not to obfuscate. If it is wielded not to mind-taser the listener into a kind of numb dumbness.
For those of us in the profession that is home to our jargon, it serves as shorthand for many thoughts already thought, not simply a comfortable refuge. Shorthand for many debates already concluded. Many theories already expressed. Many systems already in place.
In fact, a deep vein of rich discussion lurks beneath the glib façade of most of our, say, business jargon.
And thus “jargon” presents us with a dilemma – if it were not useful, it would not exist. And anything that is useful can be misused.
It should come with a warning label.
A Warning Label?
I provide such a warning label. But only half-heartedly.
Half-heartedly, because it is my first obligation to ensure that my charges remember the “jargon” that I serve up to them.
They must imbibe deeply and, at some point during a seemingly interminable semester, they must regurgitate the jargon.
They must master it.
They must drink deeply from the cup of “competitive advantage.” They must feast heartily at the table of “core competency” and ladle large portions of “market failure” and “pioneering costs” along with a light sprinkling of what some might consider the oxymoronic garnish of “business ethics.”
More insidious than the standard jargon is the phalanx of “new” program buzzwords that march our way in endless columns, recycling ideas of old . . . and then recycling them yet again. “Best Practices,” “Re-engineering,” “Six Sigma,” “TQM, “Benchmarking,” “Balanced Scorecard,” and on and on . . .
For those of us who bathe regularly in the sea of “competitive advantage” and “market saturation” and “pioneering costs” and “core competencies,” we cannot exercise the luxury of contempt.
Instead, we must labor as any wordsmith must labor.
We must not ban the hammer because some use it to bash their thumb instead of the nail.
We must ensure the proper usage (use?) of our tools.
Just as any writer seeks and secures precision in language, the business writer must labor likewise to secure our business jargon from misuse and abuse. Constant vigilance is our only guarantor against the debasing of the language, and this is true in business and in academia as it is true in the high-minded world of the literati.
High-minded? It might be also useful to exercise constant vigilance that high-mindedness does not become high-handedness.
Humility and the hunger for clarity.
Uncommon qualities in the business and academic worlds? Perhaps, but surely they should be considered corollary to the business jargon that seems pervasive and inescapable and that nettles us so naughtily.
Phase 2 of your case competition preparation begins when you’re issued the case.
Recognize that the nature of this case may differ from what you are accustomed to. It could be more incomplete and open-ended than the structured cases you’ve dealt with before.
In fact, it could be a contemporary real-world case with no “solution.” It could be a case crafted especially for the competition by the company sponsoring the competition.
Case Competition First Step
Your first step – your team members read the case once-through for general information and understanding, to inventory issues, and to define the magnitude of the task at hand. You are drawing a philosophical and psychological box around the case to encompass its main elements. Here, you make it manageable prevent time-burn in discussions of unnecessarily open-ended questions.
Discussion proceeds on defining the problem statement.
At this point, your expertise and skills gained in years of business schooling should guide you in developing your analysis and recommendations.
The difference in acumen and skill sets among teams in a competition is usually very small, so I assume that every business team will produce analytical results and recommendations that are capable of winning the competition. This includes your team, of course.
Victory or Defeat?
The quality of teams is high, and the output of analysis similar. This means that victory is rarely determined by the quality of the material itself. Instead, victory and defeat ride on the clarity, logic, power, and persuasiveness of the public presentation of that material. I have seen great analyses destroyed or masked by bad presentations.
The Presentation is the final battlefield where the competition is won or lost.
And so we devote minimum time on the preparation of your arguments. Many fine books can help you sharpen analysis. This post concerns how you translate your written results into a powerful presentation that is verbally and visually compelling.
We are concerned here with the key to your competition victory.
Here is your competitive edge: While 95 percent of teams will view their presentations as a simple modified version of the written paper that they submit, your team attacks the competition armed with the tools and techniques of Power Presenting. You understand that the presentation is a distinct and different communication tool than the written analysis.
Cut ’n’ Paste Combatants
Many teams cut-and-paste their written paper/summary into the presentation, unchanged. This usually makes for a heinous presentation that projects spreadsheets and bullet points and blocks of text on a screen. These monstrosities obscure more than they communicate. It is a self-handicap and a horrendous mistake.
Sure, at times you will see winning presentations that do this – I see them myself on occasion. This usually happens for one of several reasons, none of them having to do with the quality of the visual presentation . . .
1) Substance trumps: The business analysis and recommendation is substantially better than all other entries and overcomes deficiencies in presentation.
2) Mimicry: All entries utilize the same defective method of cutting-and-pasting the final report onto PowerPoint slides, thus leveling the playing field to a lowest common denominator of visual and verbal poverty.
Don’t present all the fruits of your analysis. Too much information and too many details can cripple your initial presentation. Remember that you should hold back details for use and explication during the Q&A period.
A parsimonious presentation should deliver your main points.
Deciding what to leave out of your initial presentation can be as important as deciding what to include and emphasize.
You don’t start tuning your instrument for the first time when it’s time to perform a concert, and likewise, you don’t begin honing your presentation skills when it’s time to present. By the time of your competition, all of your team members ought to be thoroughly grounded in the principles of especially powerful presentations.
The principles offered here in this case competition guide.
This part of your competition prep should already be accomplished, with only a few review sessions to ensure everyone is sharp on the Seven Secrets: Stance . . . Voice . . . Gesture . . . Expression . . . Movement . . . Appearance . . . Passion.
Our case competition guide divides the preparation for the competition into three phases.
Phase 1: Lead-in to the Competition
You are made aware of the competition’s rules. You acknowledge and embrace the rules and what they imply. Your entire team should become intimately familiar with the parameters of the competition – think metaphorically and spacially.
Recognize that the problem has length and breadth and depth. Understand the finite limits of the context presented to you, what you can and cannot do. Think of it as an empty decanter that you fill with your analysis and conclusions on the day of the competition.
Later, upon receiving the actual Case, you will conduct the same process – recognize that the Case Problem has length and breadth and depth.
But now, prior to the competition, take stock of what you already know you must do . . . and then do most of it beforehand as the rules permit.
This includes embracing the problem situation long before you arrive on-site for a competition and before you receive the case in question. Learn the parameters of the context in which you will operate. The case competition guide breaks the competition environment into discrete elements:
Length of presentation
Total time available (set-up, presenting, Q&A, Close-out)
Number of presenters allowed or required
Visuals permitted or required
Sources you may use, both beforehand and during the problem-solving phase
You know that you will be required to provide analysis of a case and your results and recommendations. Why not prepare all that you can before you arrive at the competition?
Some competitions may frown on this or forbid it . . . fine, then do it when you can, at the first point that it is permissible. This way, you can spend the majority of your case analysis time filling in the content.
Follow the Case Competition Guide
Prepare your slide template beforehand according to the principles expounded here.
Business presentations have a small universe of scenarios and limited number of elements that comprise those scenarios. A well-prepared team that is composed of team members from different functional areas will have generic familiarity with virtually any case assigned in a competition. The team should have no problems dealing with any case it is presented.
Determine beforehand who will handle – generally – the presentation tasks on your team as well as the analytical portions of your case. The following is offered as an example of how the task might be approached:
As part of this initial process, prepare your slide template with suitable logos, background, killer graphics, and charts and graphs requiring only that the numbers be filled in.
Leading into the competition, it’s essential that your team be familiar with sources of data that you may be permitted to utilize in conducting your case analysis – market research, industry surveys, and such like. Familiarity with online databases like Business Source Premier, Mergent Online, and S&P NetAdvantage is necessary since not all schools may have access to the data sources you use most often.
No Place for the Unprepared
With respect to the delivery or your presentation itself, a case competition is neither time nor place for you to polish your delivery skills. You should have honed them to razor’s edge by now. As well, your orchestration as a team should be perfected before arriving at the site of the competition.
At the competition, you lift your performance to the next level in terms of application of all the principles, precepts, and hard skills you have applied in business school – finance, accounting, marketing, operations, strategy, analysis – and you apply them in a tightly orchestrated and professional presentation that pops.
If you have engaged the case competition guide successfully during the lead-up to the competition, then your taut case-cracking team will be ready when you are finally issued the case. A team ready to address the issues involved in the case problem.
George H. W. Bush might have called it “the vision thing.”
He beat me to it by about 20 years, and while it might have been a phrase suitable for ridiculing an uptight politician, I think it does capture its amorphous quality.
It seems that the vision thing is amorphous . . . to everyone but the visionary. To the visionary, the vision is clear, rational, bright as white phosphorus burning on a moonless night.
And quite as hot.
At best, the visionary is surrounded by lesser minds whose feeble synapses cannot loop themselves about the vision.
At worst, they are idiots and obstructionists.
Our Visions . . .
Of course, we all have visions.
To us, our own visions are clear. They are indeed rational, bright as white phosphorus burning on a moonless night.
And yes . . . quite as hot.
These are exciting visions, and visions that are bound to disappoint us as we make others aware of them.
For no one else understands. Because . . . communicating that vision may be as difficult as confecting it in the first place.
For every sympathetic ear lent to you by a fellow visionary who has been put through the meatgrinder of negativity, there are 100 naysayers eager to turn the crank on your vision.
No . . . 1000 naysayers.
Not that naysaying is always bad, mind you. All visions are not created equal, and some can be downright nasty.
The man or woman with a vision could easily be an artist or architect, or could well be a developer scarfing up land to lay down asphalt for a superhighway or to lay foundations for a new Trump Tower.
Or it could be an entrepreneur — wild-eyed, committed, driven by a vision.
Driven to Create
Or a would-be novelist with one good plot in him . . . or her. Or a dozen plots seething and straining at release from the prison of our poor imagination. A would-be novelist, driven to write. Or driven to distraction.
Is there so much difference between an entrepreneur and a writer? For novelists are entrepreneurs. Each time the bold writer casts a blank page upon the screen to begin a new tale, it is a fresh project, new to the world and unlike anything that has gone before. One hopes.
The endeavor requires a particular set of attributes. Determination, patience, acumen, imagination, education of a sort (not necessarily formal), experience in life, literacy. The ability to communicate . . .
This last, of course, is the trick.
For words are the medium most of us use to convey our vision, whether a novel or an idea for a product that does not yet exist. A product that meets a need that we do not yet know we have. A story that resonates with feelings we have not yet explored.
Even the painter must use words to “explain” his art to those unable to grasp its subtlety or significance — such explanation, by its very nature, is usually a forlorn exercise.
The vision thing. Our visions can be great or small, creative or mundane.
In my classes on business strategy, I talk about the vision thing in oblique terms. I actually broach the concept of businessperson as artist. The artistically inclined in my courses (and some liberal arts folks do slip in) look askance at the idea, and most of the fact-motivated business-inclined in my courses don’t seem to care.
Or, even if they were to care, simply do not understand the point.
The notion is not warmly received. Perhaps the point is nonexistent. Or strained. Or ludicrous.
Perhaps it is a futile exercise. Maybe it is something that I see that others do not. Even so, it is possible that this thing that I alone see does not necessarily have value.
No Boundaries to Creativity
But I do believe that there are no disciplinary bounds that contain creativity. Many of the products of advertising agencies abound with creativity – at least in their initial stages before the corporate leavening process strips away edginess and originality and anything which might prove too startling for public sensibilities.
For corporate leavening is designed to package knowledge in comprehensible, digestible bites. It is designed to link information seamlessly into the already-known world of popular culture, more to massage viewers with familiar verities and comfortable genuflections than to stimulate thought. It is the proverbial cooks spoiling broth.
So it is with business generally. There is an art to business, but it is never described as such lest such creativity be hooted from the room.This is the realm where ideas are “run up flagpoles” and such like, where outside-the-box thinking receives the obligatory tip o’ the hat, but where genuine “outside the box thinking” is neither expected nor appreciated.
The articulation of true thinking outside the corporate box is risible, if anyone unschooled in the unwritten corporate rules dares to give voice to such heresy.
This is the conundrum. The paradox.
Now, we all engage in pop-psychology from time-to-time, and this allows us to speak of the “average person’s” attitudes, beliefs, and reactions as if we, ourselves, are free of this “average person’s” afflictions. But indulge this hubris for a few more moments.
The conundrum is that when the artist, the visionary, thinks outside the box, it leaves others feeling threatened and insulted that they, themselves, are perceived as restricted to thinking inside this box.
Likewise, the average person tends to interpret his own inability to understand a vision as the other person’s quackery . . . whether the artist is a painter, composer, writer . . . or businessman.
There is a balance to be struck here.
Those of us without calluses on our fragile psyches can be wounded by the mass rejection of our vision, such rejection leaving us questioning our sanity and ability. Conversely, those of us informed by our own arrogance and too callused may be deaf to legitimate criticism or to gentle suggestion.
Thus, the conundrum of the vision. Visions are difficult.
Conundrum of the Vision
I said that not all visions are created equal. Not all are salutary or benign. Some are unsavory, insidious, dangerous, cold.
Others are just boring, derivative, smug, pale.
But I desire not to judge a man’s vision. Not hereabouts, anyway.
These problems of distinguishing good vision from bad are worth essays and books in their own right, essays and books that are perhaps beyond this scribe’s abilities to pen.
Rather, at this point, I call attention to the angst and anguish of the man who perceives that his vision cannot be grasped by others. His impatience with naysayers, his irascibility, his inability to compromise, his propensity to scoff rather than to explain. Ultimately, his resignation that any explanation will not be enough.
For if it were explicable to the average mind, then the average mind would have long ago seized upon the vision and made it corporeal.
That is yet another conundrum for the entrepreneur, the artist, the visionary. Perhaps it has always been this way, and it is not necessarily restricted to those of genius stature.
If the vision itself, indeed, is true art – an assemblage of something truly unique, then of course it will not be immediately apprehensible to the hoi-polloi.
And so not to sound haughty, perhaps it could be better said: “immediately apprehensible to us of the hoi-polloi,” to those of us not privy to the vision’s intricate fabric, the obscure linkages, the high concept that informs the few.
Beware the Sneer of the Wise
Let me issue a caveat that complicates the issue.
There are those in our lives who exhibit a raft of negative characteristics – irascibility, inability to compromise, the sneer of the wise – without the saving grace of having a vision or anything resembling it. But shrewd and clever folks are afoot, and they know the trappings of the visionary, the finery of the thinker, the vernacular of the annointed.
But he is hollow. And how to spot this poseur?
Again, I digress in the interest of clarity and refinement. Back to the point-of-the-moment, and that point is this:
Communicating the vision is incredibly difficult. It is difficult because of snags all along the communication chain. It is difficult because of flaws inherent in the visionary, in the medium, and in the those receiving the message. Given this, it is a wonder that useful communication occurs at all.
Think of the equation: An irascible, haughty, driven, and quirky entrepreneur attempts hurried and imperfect communication with an unresponsive, suspicious, and fallow audience.
For inevitably, the recipient of a fresh, new, insightful, electrifying, unique confection of art, vision, or theory will respond in predictable manner.
The recipient of this revolutionary information responds to the truly new by filtering the information through sensors that massage and mold it into images and words and reality that are already known. For it all has been heard before, seen before, considered before, and catalogued before.
Nothing is truly new . . . especially to the clever man, who for the most part has no personal stake in recognizing and processing novelty.
If perchance, an idea takes root, a theory is accepted, art recognized for its texture, nuance, and universalism . . . well, the problem of communication is instantly forgotten after the fact.
We’re All Geniuses . . . After The Fact
After the fact, of course, it is all different. We all recognize novelty, genius, the great idea after the fact. Long after the fact. It becomes “obvious.”
The unserious novels of Charles Dickens. The absurd notion that people might appreciate a service that provides overnight delivery, a service with the ridiculously stuffy name “Federal Express.”
In each of these dramatically different cases, an entrepreneur recognized something that others, perhaps much like us, could not or would not.
Entrepreneurs and novelists are usually driven people. I tend to believe that they are one and the same. Would-be authors are entrepreneurs. In fact, they are repeat performers, whether crafting fiction or non-fiction . . . every new book is an entrepreneurial effort.
They visualize what is not there, what others cannot see. Or can see only through a mist of reality that clogs the imagination. Imaginative and single-minded, they embrace their mission with religious zeal (and I do believe that those two words, religious and zeal, are joined at the hips, much as to “redouble one’s efforts”).
A touch of the maniacal, the obsessive, the glassy-eyed dreamer, the take-no-prisoners, uncompromising drive. The determination that compels one to rise each day to face the idea that no one understands, to embrace yet another day alone in one’s belief.
An attitude that says “do not tamper with this vision.”
This is, of course, the only way for entrepreneurs to succeed. If they were any other way, they wouldn’t be entrepreneurs.
Which brings me to the final point that is not so disentangled from what has gone before to be a standalone.
I have waxed on about communication and its difficulties. The word has become almost a cliché in that everything these days can be labeled a “communication problem,” even when the problem is not lack of communication, but rather too much accurate communication.
The “communication” conundrum I refer to afflicts anyone who would write to inform others, who would convey thoughts and notions and concepts.
In fiction, and even in non-fiction, I have noted a disinclination on the part of many undergraduates and some graduate students to edit their work. As if such editing is equivalent to the “corporate leavening process” I mentioned earlier.
They confuse the goal of clarity with senses-dulling censorship.
In their classic Elements of Style, Strunk and White touched upon this, and where Strunk and White are sometimes looked upon as too basic, their insights provide a solid technical foundation that many young writers would do well to absorb. Strunk and White observed a tendency among young writers to confuse spontaneity with genius, to affect a breezy, careless, even world-weary style.
I believe the modern vernacular for this is the “been there, done that” posture.
But of course, such an attitude leads to ambiguity and sloppiness in writing — whether one is conveying exactly a child’s appropriate emotion in a funereal scene, or whether one is conveying the impact of various liquidity ratios on a novel business model.
Invariably, what is communicated on the page is not what the writer believes he or she is conveying. First drafts are always afflicted with a primitivity of communication. Yet, ironically, the first draft carries for many writers an aura of spontaneity and genius that resists change.
First Draft for Spontaneity . . . Edit for Power
The solution? Editing.
If there is a single act that can improve this communication issue, it is careful and ruthless editing. Only through editing can clarity, focus, and especially powerful meaning be teased from the morass of words. This is a lesson taught on Storytellers many times, but it demands repeating.
The daily difficulties of communication abound. When the subject is new or the product unique, the obstacles increase dramatically, for all the reasons I have listed in such disorganized fashion. Through the act of editing, perhaps we can at least overcome one obstacle in the difficult task of communicating our vision.
The problems lie all along the communication chain – in the personality of the visionary, in the unique nature of the vision itself, in the inadequacy of the medium with which we communicate, and in the prejudices of the recipient.
Is there a formula to address all of these issues along the communication chain? Probably not. I certainly do not have the answer.
But at risk of sounding like the cookie-cutter b-school professor, let me iterate that the good news is that awareness of a problem and its proper identification is a giant step toward its resolution in our personal strategic planning process.
The more rarefied the vision, the more intractable and personal the issues we must deal with.
And as a result, I suspect that each of us must define our own problems and search out our own answers to our communication issues.
For only we can grapple with them and, ultimately, deal with them.
The business case competition puts you in front of Corporate America in naked competition against the best students from other schools.
No hiding behind a resume.
No fast-talking a good game.
No “national rankings.”
Just pure performance that puts you in the arena under lots of pressure.
Business Case Competition as Crucible
In case competitions, your business team delivers a business presentation in competition against other teams in front of a panel of judges.
Teams display how quickly, thoroughly, and skillfully they can ingest a case, analyze it, and then prepare their conclusions.
They then present their recommendations to a panel of judges.
Business case competitions vary greatly in the details, but they do have a standard format and purpose. The operative idea behind such competitions is to provide a standard case to competing teams with a given time limit and then to rate how well the teams respond.
There is, of course, no direct competition between teams. Rather, each team is judged independently how well it handles the assigned case and presents its analysis and recommendations. There is a time limit and specific rules.
All teams operate under the same conditions.
Business Case Competitions Far and Wide
Competitions can be internal to the Business School or involve teams from several different schools.
Sometimes there are several rounds of competition, with the final round typically judged by outside company executives. The teams prepare a solution to the case and deliver a written report.
Teams then prepare a presentation of their analysis and recommendations and deliver the timed presentation before a panel of judges.
The judging panel sometime consists of executives from the actual company in the case.
The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business is good about this in its renowned Global Business Case Competition. Twelve to fourteen schools from around the globe compete in this week-long event. Its 2010 competition featured a case written especially for the competition on the Boeing Corporation.
Executives from Boeing acted as judges.
One excellent aspect of case competitions that are judged by outsiders is that they provide a truer indication of the competitors’ mettle.
For the most part, they are far removed from the internal politics of particular institutions, where favored students may receive benefits or rewards related more to currying favor than to the quality of their work.
In some competitions, additional twists make the competition interesting and more complicated.
For instance, Ohio State University CIBER hosts an annual Case Challenge and creates teams from the pool of participants (i.e., members will be from different schools) instead of allowing the group of students from each school to compete as a team.
In this case, once students are assigned to teams, there is a day of team-building exercises.
The key to doing well in case competitions is to differentiate yourselves beforehand. This is much easier than you might imagine. Start with the Three Ps of Business Presentations. They provide a steady guide to ready you for your competition.
Principles . . . Preparation . . . Practice.
In subsequent posts, we deconstruct the business case competition to help you and your team prepare to your potential and deliver an especially powerful presentation.
Most finance folks believe that the finance presentation is king.
I’m skeptical of this hubris, but . . .
Financial analysis of the firm is essential, and there are few occasions when financial data do not make their way into a presentation.
With financial data, you can discover the firm’s profitability, general health, and potential. You can get reasonable answers to the question: “How are we doing?”
But . . .
. . . and it is an especially powerful but.
The results of your financial analysis invariably constitute the ugliest section of a presentation.
There is something about a spreadsheet that mesmerizes students and faculty alike. A spreadsheet splayed across the screen gives the impression of heft and gravitas.
A spreadsheet seems important.
It appears substantial. It gives the illusion of precision. Everyone nods.
As a presenter, you stare back at the screen behind you, at the phalanx of figures. You wave your hand at the screen with the words “As you can see –”
And then you call out seemingly random numbers. Your classmates or colleagues in the audience watch with glazed eyes.
It’s almost mystical.
Your professor sits sphinx-like. Some folks shuffle papers, actually digging through a handout you mistakenly distributed beforehand. Some check email, heads canted downward to their smartphones clasped below table-level.
No one has a clue as to what you’re talking about or how it actually relates to the real world.
You get through your finance presentation, finally, and you’re relieved.
And you hope that you were vague enough that no one can even think about asking a question. This is common.
And it’s Ugly Finance Presentation
There is a best way that makes things easier for everyone.
Three Steps: 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 display the 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 will not talk about. You strip the visual down to the basic numbers and categories you use to make your point.
Third, emphasize the important points by increasing the size, coloring them, or bolding the numbers. You can illustrate the meaning of the numbers by utilizing a chart or graph.
If you follow this basic advice, you can improve the finance portion of your presentation immensely and be on your way to an especially powerful presentation.
After reading about the symptoms and hearing so much about handwringing over stage fright, if you weren’t fearful of business speaking before, you certainly are now.
When we speak of stage fright, we are really talking about the battle within ourselves as we prepare to deliver our presentation. It’s self-confidence versus self-doubt.
Confidence is one of those elusive qualities. It’s almost paradoxical. When we have it, it’s invisible. When we don’t have it, it’s all too apparent to us.
Confidence in public speaking is hard to come by. Or so we think. Let’s back into this thing called confidence.
Take the Trip Test
Have you ever stumbled on the sidewalk, your toe catching an impossibly small defect in the concrete, enough to trip you up? You stumble and stagger a bit. And then . . .
. . . and then do you glance quickly around to see who might be looking? Do you feel shame of some sort? If not shame, then . . . something that gives you to mildly fear the judgment of others? Even strangers. Or do you stride purposely forward, oblivious to others’ reactions, because they truly don’t matter to you?
Recognize this “trip test” as a measure of your self-confidence, your conception of yourself. Recognize that you don’t need the validation of others in what you do.
This doesn’t mean to act in ways immature and self-indulgent. It means charting your own course with your internal moral and professional compass and having the strength of mind and purpose not to yield to kibitzers, naysayers, and kneejerk critics.
Now, bring that strength of mind and purpose to the realm of business presentations.
For many, the audience is your bogeyman. For some reason you fear your audience. But understand that they are not gathered there to harm you . . . they are gathered to hear what you have to say. And 99.9 percent of them mean you well. They want you to succeed, so that they can benefit in some way.
Yes, even your fellow students want you to succeed. They want to be entertained. Please entertain us, they think. They are open to whatever new insight you can provide. And they know, for a fact, that they will be in your same place many times during their careers. They are fellow-travelers in the business school presentation journey.
So confidence is yours for the taking.
Confidence is not a thing. It cannot be grasped or packaged or bought. It’s a state of mind, isn’t it? It’s a feeling. When we get right down to it, it really is just the mental context within which we perform. What does it really mean to be confident? Can you answer that direct question? Think about it a moment.
See? We can’t even think of confidence outside of doing something, of performing an action. Our confidence – or lack of confidence – provides us the context of our activities.
Is it certitude?
Is it knowledge?
Is it bravery?
Is it surety?
Think of the times when you are confident. You might be confident at playing a certain sport or playing a musical instrument. It could be an activity.
Why are you confident?
Paradoxically, it’s the absence of uncertainty. For it’s uncertainty that makes us fearful. That, and the dread of some consequence – embarrassment or ridicule.
It should be recognized that many people do fear speaking before an audience. It is so universal and it is so pervasive that we must come to grips with it. This fear has made its way down through the ages. It has afflicted and paralyzed thousands of speakers and presenters who have come before you. Generations of speakers have tackled this fear. George Rowland Collins is a speaking master who recognized the phenomenon in 1923 and its awful effect on the would-be presenter . . .
The very first problem that faces the average man in speech-making is the problem of nervousness. To stand up before an audience without a scrap of paper or a note of any kind, to feel the eyes of dozens and even hundreds of people upon you, to sense the awful silence that awaits your own words, to know that you must depend upon yourself and yourself alone to hold the audience’s attention is as trying a task as it is possible to undertake. Most men find the task too great and shun it religiously. Those who do attempt it, voluntarily, or involuntarily, testify to the severity of the physical and mental suffering it involves.
The solution? How have centuries of speakers successfully tackled this bete noire of stage fright?
Reduce your uncertainty.
Reduce your uncertainty by applying the Three Ps: Principles, Preparation, Practice. Through these, you achieve a wealth of self-confidence, and we’ll talk about the Three Ps in days and weeks to come. They are so utterly essential to Power Presenting that they bear repetition and constant reinforcement. They are the cornerstone upon which you build your style, your confidence, your performance pizzazz.
Principles, Preparation, Practice
The 7 principles of presenting offered here at Business School Presenting™ – the “secrets” of the masters – are grouped under Stance, Voice, Gesture, Movement, Expression, Appearance and Passion. Each of these deserves its own chapter and, indeed, has its own chapter in my forthcoming book The Official College Guide to Business School Presenting. Prepare your talk, then practice your talk at least 4 times, exactly as you will deliver it – without stopping.
When you apply the Three Ps, you reduce uncertainty. You are in possession of the facts. You are prepared. You know what to expect because you have been there before, and because you practice. You rehearse.
There is, of course, an element of uncertainty. There is uncertainty because you cannot control everything or everybody, and this causes a tinge of anxiety, but that’s fuel for your creative engine. By controlling the 90 percent that you can, you are more than ready to handle the 10 percent of uncertainty that awaits you.
So the key for you is to control what you can and to dismiss your fear of the rest. Recognize that this fear is what makes you human, and it is this humanity that gives us commonality with all the public speakers and presenters who have come before us. It is their advice that we heed to our improvement. For instance, master J. Berg Esenwein from 109 years ago:
Even when you are quaking in your boots with the ague of fear, and your teeth fain would beat “retreat,” you must assume a boldness you do not feel. For doing this there is nothing like deep stately breathing, a firm look at the dreaded audience . . . . But do not fear them. They want you to succeed, and always honor an exhibition of pluck. They are fair and know you are only one man against a thousand. . . . Look at your audience squarely, earnestly, expressively.
Whether the presentations class is in Philadelphia . . . or Mumbai . . . or Cali . . . or Chennai . . . I hear the same universal and eerie refrain from finance students.
“Finance is different.”
“We don’t do all of that soft-skill presentations stuff.”
“For us, the numbers tell the story.”
Numbers seem to enchant business-people in deep and mysterious ways, as if numerical constructs are somehow less malleable than the English language, less subject to manipulation.
In a chaotic world, a spreadsheet exudes familiarity, a firm valuation offers comfort, an income statement serves as anchor.
False Certitude, Faux Anchor
For some, numbers convey a certitude and precision unavailable to mere rhetoric. And this illusion of certitude and precision exerts influence on finance folks to believe that, well . . . that the laws of human nature that stymie the rest of us do not apply to them in the coldness and hardness of objective numerical analysis.
But this is an illusion. And the result is 2D presenting, full of voodoo and bereft of nuance and subtle analysis.
Where business presentations are concerned, finance folks are not different, special, unique or otherwise gifted with special powers or incantations denied the mere mortals who toil in marketing or human resources.
We are all subject to the same demands placed upon us by the presentations beast, demands that nettle us equally and indiscriminately during the business presentation process.
As with most things, there is bad news and good news in this slice of life provided here.
The Bad News
The bad news is that modern finance presentations are a vast wasteland of unreadable spreadsheets and monotonous, toneless recitations of finance esoterica. It seems that there must be a requirement for this in finance.
In fact, many finance presentations devolve into basic meeting discussions about a printed analysis distributed beforehand, with the group of presenters merely standing while everyone else sits and interrupts with strings of questions. Several presentation cliches guarantee this sorry state of affairs a long life . . .
“Just the facts”
Exhortations of “Just the facts” serve as little more than a license to be unoriginal, uninteresting, and unfocused.
“Just the facts”
Folks believe that this phrase gives the impression that they are no-nonsense and hard-core. But there is probably no more parsimoniously pompous and simultaneously meaningless phrase yet to be devised. It achieves incredible bombast in just three syllables.
What does it mean, “Just the facts?” Which facts? Why these facts and not those facts?
Events are three-dimensional and filled with people; they require explanation and analysis. Mere “facts” are flat, two-dimensional, unemotional, and unsatisfactory proxies for what happens in the real world. “Just the facts” masks much more than it reveals.
“The numbers tell the story.”
This is a favorite of folks who seem to believe that the ironclad rules of presentations do not apply to them. “We don’t deal with all of that soft storytelling,” finance majors often tell me. “We deal in hard numbers.”
There’s so much wrong with this that it’s difficult to locate a reasonable starting-point. Not only do numbers, by themselves, tell no story at all . . . if numbers were conceivably capable of telling a story, it would be a considerably incomplete story, giving a distorted picture of reality.
The end result of these presentation shenanigans is an overall level of mediocrity and outright bad presentations. If firms want nothing more than a group discussion about a handout, with the only thing distinguishing the “presenters” from the audience is that they are standing, then so be it. It may be useful. It may be boring. It may be morale-building. It may be team-destroying. It may be time-wasting. But whatever else it is, it is not a presentation.
“Cut ’n’ Paste”
This is the heinous data dump that all of us inevitably see. PowerPoint slides crammed with data in tiny, unreadable font. The display of these heinous slides is accompanied by a sweep of the arm and the awful phrase: “As you can see . . . ” The cause of this pathology is the rote transfer of your written report to a PowerPoint display, with no modification to suit the completely different medium. The result?
Slides from Hell.
The Good News
In every obstacle exists an opportunity. Because the bar for finance presenting is so low, if you invest your presentations with the powerful principles that apply to all business presentations, your own shows will outstrip the competition by an order of magnitude. This, of course, implies that your content is rock-solid. It should be. Your ratio analysis, your projected earnings, your sophisticated modeling should all reflect the superb finance education you have received.
But how you present that content is the key to presentation victory.
All of the presentation principles that we discuss here apply to finance presentations, particularly the parsimonious display of numbers and the necessity for their visual clarity. If anything, finance presentations must be more attentive to how masses of data are distilled and displayed.
A situation statement must be given.
A story still must be told.
Your analysis presented.
Conclusions must be drawn.
Recommendations must be made.
And external factors must be melded with the numbers so that the numbers assume clarity and meaning in an especially powerful 3D presentation.
If you do the above, and nothing more, then your finance presentations will outshine the hoi polloi with ease.
But if you delve even more deeply into the masterful techniques and principles available to you, learning to use your tools skillfully, you can rise to the zenith of the finance presentation world precisely because you are part of the tiny minority who seizes the opportunity to deliver an especially powerful presentation.
I offer this superb business presentation tip – bookend your presentation or presentation segment to give the audience a satisfying experience.
What is bookending?
This means to start your presentation with an anecdote, cue, or visual image that hooks your listeners into the narrative. This is your “grabber.”
You follow with your clear situation statement of only one or two sentences.
Then you offer your major points of your presentation, usually three major points. As you wind to a conclusion, you hearken back to the original introductory anecdote, cue, or visual image that launched your segment.
A Powerful Business Presentation Tip
When you have finished your presentation message and are ready to set your second bookend that concludes your presentation, call on these magic words.
You say these words: “In conclusion, we can see that . . . .” Then – repeat your situation statement.
Then say: “We believe that our presentation substantiates this.”
You come full-circle. The audience gains a sense of completeness.
This recapitulation of your theme knits together your segment into a whole, and your audience appreciates the closure.
This technique offers much more than a linear march, where nothing said seems to relate to anything that came before. The satisfying circularity of bookending brings your audience back to the familiar starting point.
It drives home the major point of your talk in two especially powerful ways. First, the outright repetition of your theme cements it in the minds of your listeners. Second, the story convention of providing a satisfying ending ties up loose ends and gives psychological closure.
It’s an elegant business presentation tip that can pay big dividends in terms of audience response.
“The young speaker can do nothing better for himself than to fix firmly in mind that public speaking is a dialogue and to emphasize constantly the part of the audience, anticipating and watching for its response.”
This speaking basic also runs under the tag of Know Your Audience.
Know Your Audience = WIIFY?
To achieve its greatest effect, your story must focus on the needs and interests of your audience. At its best, your presentation should focus on the deepest desires of the audience, but should do so subtly and with great skill.
Your story should fulfill a need in the audience with regard to your presentation topic and the stories you choose to illustrate that topic.
Ask yourself these questions: Why have they come? What is it that motivates these persons to gather in one place to hear me? How can I speak to the audience as a group, and yet speak to each person individually?
WIIFY? Be a Hero!
How can I make the persons in the audience feel like a hero?
The hero of your story must be in the audience. The CEO. The Stockholders. Employees.
The people who are praised, instructed, lifted, motivated, excited must be the heroes of your story.
Aim your story at them and ask the question WIIFY. Make them feel good about themselves, and they’ll surely feel more disposed to feel good about your message.
Speak with them as individual people, not as a group. They do not attend your talk as a group, so do not address them as a group. They attend your business presentation as individuals, because they have goals and aspirations and hopes. They hope that your talk will benefit them in some way as an individual person.
Moreover, you must understand your audience. You must understand their wants and needs, interests and desires.
Find what motivates them.
Find what shames them.
Find the common thread among them, then speak to that common thread as they are individuals.
Many folks do not realize that the skill set of business presenting can serve them well in many situations outside the formal business presentation.
I am compelled to write about this now, as I sit in the Hong Kong International Airport, because of a recent and amazing online exchange.
Just when I think that most folks get it, something happens to explode those high hopes. Here, I refer to how you present yourself to the outside world in professional venues – especially those venues that hold possibilities for professional advancement. Language, dress, attitude, grammar, even-keeled composure . . . all of it make much more of a difference than you can possibly imagine.
This would seem common sense.
But no, some folks get so wrapped around the axle, get so absorbed in themselves that they forget that they are on display for the world to judge. Now, if you don’t care what the “world” thinks, great!
But if you recognize the linkages, possibilities, unseen treasure, then you won’t alienate folks with . . . Well, with untoward behavior that leaves folks entertained, but wondering at your grip on sanity.
More later as I flesh out the breathtaking self-absorbed and unselfaware commentary I’ve been privy to . . . now, the battery on laptop gets low, my flight to Singapore is about to board, and my greetings to you for success and prosperity go out now until I find time to post from the City of the Lion.
For some reason known only to the deities of publishing, Apple’s former CEO Steve Jobs is considered a great business presenter.
A bestselling book by Carmin Gallo even touts The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs.
But is Steve Jobs really a great presenter? Does he really have secrets that you can use? And can you learn how to be “an insanely great” presenter from this book?
No . . . no . . . and . . .
Well . . . on that last point, you can learn to become a pretty good presenter from this book.
But not from Steve Jobs.
The Extraordinary Jobs
Steve is a visionary and an extraordinary entrepreneur many times over. He has grown tremendously since the days when he thought that his self-absorbed bombast gave him license to insult Microsoft and Bill Gates mercilessly. He has emerged as a celebrity CEO, a man who loves the limelight and whose strong and quirky personality guarantee him a following among a certain segment of the American populace.
On an absolute scale, Steve is a slightly above-average presenter. Remove Steve’s high-tech prop that the entire wonk-world is waiting to see, and remove the employee/early adopter audiences that cheer his every eye-twitch, and we are left with a shabbily dressed average sort of fellow given to aimless pacing and whose high-pitched voice grates a bit on the senses with its “ummms” and “ahhhhs.”
Only One Reason
You and I know that there is only one reason that Steve Jobs is on that stage and one reason that, now, he has a book purporting to reveal his presentation secrets.
And it’s not for his presenting skills.
While Jobs himself is not someone whose presenting skills deserve emulation, he is obviously the subject of the book because of his built-in audience, and so we must deal with that. Dismiss it, in fact. But the book does have a gem.
The gem of the book is the author. The author of the Jobs book is Carmine Gallo, who is an extremely polished and superb presenter and presentation coach, and he embeds solid presenting nuggets throughout the book. Carmine is, in fact, a much better presenter than Jobs. You can judge for yourself by watching the video here.
But even Carmine is not perfect. He begins by gushing at Jobs’s stature as a presenter that is almost embarrassing in its lavish excess: “Steve Jobs is the most captivating communicator on the world stage . . . He is the world’s greatest corporate storyteller!” Really? Really?
But . . . well, we’re selling books here, and hype is understandable. I’d probably gush, too, if given a similar opportunity, so let’s give Carmine a pass on this one.
But at the end of the video Carmine gives advice that I believe is just flat-out wrong. He says that you, the presenter, are the hero of the presentation. That you, your product, or your service is the hero.
All of us would like to be the hero of our presentation, wouldn’t we? And we are sorely tempted to put the focus on our product and ourselves.
No. Don’t do it.
Your Audience is the Hero
There is room for only one hero in the presentation, and that hero is not you. The hero is in the audience, and you are there to help your audience become heroic. As with all presentation instruction, you can ignore or accept what you choose, and this point is no different. You can try to be the hero. Or, you can focus on your audience and its needs and its desires.
In sum, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs offers a reasonable exposition of presentation methods that can benefit us all, but recognize that these methods have nothing to do with Steve Jobs and they do not help us become “insanely great” presenters.
But there is good news for you on the presentation front. The best news in all of this is, in fact, great news.
With dedication, coachability, and the right method, virtually anyone – and I mean anyone – can become a better business presenter than Steve Jobs.