Invariably I hear this lament, or something akin to it. A plaintive whine, really.
“The audience shouldn’t care how I dress/sound/gesture/move/squint/laugh inappropriately/show bad slides. The audience should adapt to my style . . . which, frankly, is just fine.”
“The audience oughtto appreciate a gender-enlightened method of speaking!”
I have actually heard this.
Elaborate explanations follow as to why the audience should do this or be that, or simply doesn’t appreciate what the speaker has to offer in the way it’s offered. Self-righteous and even haughty explanations follow.
And of course, all of this springs from premises as rotten as a plank in a 19th century waterfront pier.
The Audience Marketplace Judges You
The marketplace is a wondrous place with much power seething below the surface.
It gives feedback with ruthless honesty.
It doesn’t give a damn what anyone learned in a philosophy course as a grad student. It thumbs its nose at the idealism of what “ought” to be.
If you have a product that nobody’s buying, no amount of hectoring will change that.
Knowing that marketplace means know your audience.
And know your audience means inspiring your listeners, not hectoring them. It means giving them a chance to be a hero. Every audience wants and needs that, and it’s your job to give it to them.
Not to lecture them on their sins and on your supposed superiority.
They don’t want to hear from Indiana Jones. They want to be Indiana Jones.
One of the greatest public speaking instructional films available is A Time to Kill, based on the novel by John Grisham. The film is filled with presentation examples and powerful scenes that illustrate great presentation techniques.
“Know your audience” is exemplified in a powerful scene toward the end of the film, the night before the closing arguments are to be made in a murder trial. The defendant, Samuel L. Jackson, urges his lawyer Matthew McConaghey, to get inside the heads of the jurors.
Jackson reveals to McConaughey the key to the case – emotional involvement of the jury, and this means know your audience.
Here is the powerful Jackson monologue, urging McConaughey to know your audience when the stakes are life itself:
America is a wall and you are on the other side. How’s a black man ever going to get a fair trial with the enemy on the bench and in the jury box? My life in white hands? You Jake, that’s how.
You are my secret weapon because you are one of the bad guys, you don’t mean to be but you are – it’s how you was raised. Nigger, Negro, black, African-American, no matter how you see me, you see me different, you see me like that jury sees me, you are them.
Now throw out your points of law Jake. If you was on that jury, what would it take to convince you to set me free? That’s how you save my ass. That’s how you save us both.
View the entire film for a powerful lesson in speaking and in knowing your audience. The trailer appears here . . .
Corporate Recruiters have their pick of recent graduates with similar backgrounds, similar experience, similar ages, and similar education.
That’s the group of undistinguished candidates clustered at the bottom of the graph to the right.
Nothing makes these candidates stand out . . . they all look the same.
Same age, same experience, same education.
None of them appear in the High-Demand Skill Zone, where corporate recruiters seek their stars.
The High Demand Skill Zone
The key to career success for every graduate is to position himself or herself in the High Demand Skill Zone. You do this by crafting a prudent personal career strategy and then implementing it over a prolonged period.
A personal career strategy is a plan – a blueprint – that charts your course and explains not just where you want to go, but how you will get there.
The idea of incorporating strategy into business was broached more than 40 years ago and was defined as “the goals of the firm and the pattern of policies and programs designed to achieve those goals.”
Likewise, your personal career strategy can be loosely defined as “Your goals and the patterns of policies and programs you design and implement to achieve those goals.”
So what advantage do you gain by crafting a personal career strategy and then pursuing it?
The Advantage of a Personal Career Strategy
Well, first understand that you must determine your mission and your objectives in life. These are issues that require deep thought and consideration. Then, and only then, can you craft a meaningful professional strategic plan.
Whatever your professional goals, recognize that you need a personal career strategy to succeed over the long term. As such, you will find yourself pursuing one of four generic strategies. The details of each, of course, vary from person to person. . . but these four strategies run the gamut of what is available to you.
The four generic strategies are: Low-Cost, Niche Low-Cost, Differentiation, Focused Differentiation. These personal strategies closely parallel the strategies available to businesses competing for customers in the open market.
No single universal strategy satisfies everyone’s career needs and wants.
This is because the same job market presents different opportunities for different people.
Any of the above strategies for business and personal success can be more effective than others in helping you reach your ultimate goals in life, depending on your ambition.
The appropriate personal career strategy must be matched against the type of goal you’ve set for yourself and the type of compensation you believe most appropriate for you, whether money, time, or psychic or spiritual satisfaction.
Let’s plot these four strategies on a 2×2 matrix and combine them with the axes of Supply and Demand. This indicates the types of majors that can be found in each quadrant.
Hire Me . . . I’ll Work for Less.
Most candidates reside in the bottom left quadrant – the Low-Cost Strategy. This is the default strategy that engages many young graduates, who believe they cannot move into the other, more attractive quadrants.
Graduates here compete for positions with other similarly aged, educated, and experienced candidates and thus compete with other candidates on price (salary) . . . someone equally qualified is always available in the recruitment pool who will take less salary.
In fact, that is the implied mantra: Hire me, I’ll work for less.
When you’re trapped in the Low Cost quadrant, you are a commodity. You’re a generic product who differs little from your competitors.
You are like wheat, or cement, or aspirin, or corn, or a cheap watch.
As a commodity, you must compete on price, and this is a terribly unprofitable place to be. Obviously, this is not a strategy that anyone willingly pursues unless you are, as they say, doing what you love to the neglect of every other consideration.
You can move out of the Low Cost quadrant in one of two directions. Let’s look first at the Niche Low Cost Strategy.
Niche Low Cost Strategy: because positions in this quadrant typically pay less, are in less demand, and are tightly focused on a candidate’s specific qualities and skills that uniquely qualify a candidate for the position. Typical majors that fall in this quadrant might be Latin, Ornithology, Greek Philosophy and such like.
Earning potential is not generally increased by such a strategy, but the rewards can be great in other areas.
But doing what you love does not necessarily eliminate the possibility for you to become financially successful. If your goal is to become a competitive candidate and to combine personal and professional satisfaction with the highest possible financial remuneration, then there is a particular strategy that you ought to pursue.
Let’s look at the options.
For you to increase your earning potential, you must change from a Low-Cost strategy. And the first step is to differentiate yourself in some way from your competitors that is also in high demand by our society, particularly potential employers.
You want to re-position yourself in one of the two right-side quadrants by pursuing a Differentiation Strategy. If we were talking about products, you would want to transform yourself from a Timex to a Rolex
What are some ways to move into this quadrant?
Your goal, of course, is to separate yourself from the pack of your competitors and mark yourself as a premium candidate. You want recognition as differentiated in a spectacular way that increases your value to a firm and, thus, your earning potential.
Not just any differentiator will do.
It should be 1) a quality or skill that appeals to you, and 2) a quality that puts you into the quadrant that provides you with the greatest reward, however you define that reward.
But it stands to reason that not all differentiators are created equal. Some skills increase your earning potential. Others do not.
You could position yourself in ways that are unusual but not in great demand by the job market. This means you are pursuing a Niche Low Cost strategy, which is the upper left quadrant. This means that your acquisition of unusual skills does not change your commodity status.
Simply because a skill is unusual and rare does not make it, de facto, a high demand skill. A skill may be difficult to obtain, require lots of study and training, be in a state of low supply, and yet still be in low demand.
Examples of this type of differentiating skill or college major might be a facility with Greek Philosophy, Latin, or Ornithology. The supply of candidates with such skills is low, but they also remain in low demand as well.
Again, forms of compensation other than monetary can rightly influence the decision to pursue a Niche Low Cost strategy. The psychic rewards of working for a good cause motivates some people far more than monetary compensation.
Emotional satisfaction or the satisfaction provided by lenient and flexible work hours cannot be underestimated.
From another perspective, military personnel often forego lucrative careers in the private sector and receive compensation in the form of giving sacrificial service.
But if your goal is financial gain as well as the rewards of a particular type of work, then you must pursue a Differentiation strategy or its variant, the Focused Differentiation Strategy. Each strategy arms you with valuable skills possessed by fewer candidates. The Differentiation Strategy puts you into competition with others possessing similarly differentiated skills that are in high demand by recruiters. Your chances improve greatly at obtaining the position you desire at an attractive salary.
But for you to become a highly sought candidate in the rarefied atmosphere of the High Demand SkillZone, you should pursue a Focused Differentation Strategy. The numbers of candidates is few and corporate demand is high. You can do the math.
Your goal is to pursue a course of action that puts you squarely in the corporate recruiter’s High-Demand SkillZone.
Many graduates mistakenly believe that now, at the launch of a career, it’s too late to differentiate themselves. Perhaps even you believe that all of the methods of differentiation are closed to you because of choices made long ago.
Some folks differentiated themselves four years ago by matriculating at a “name” school, which pays off at graduation as a point of differentiation that at least some corporate recruiters believe is important. That choice was made years ago and cannot help you now.
Nor would you want to rely upon it, since its effect dissipates quickly, like ice cream on a hot sidewalk.
Choose your Personal Career Strategy Carefully
Folks who rely on school reputation as a differentiator soon find that school reputation is a superficial point of difference that pales beside other more substantial differentiators such as High Demand Skills and Qualities.
There are ways to differentiate yourself now in meaningful ways. In fact, the most important differentiator is at your fingertips.
And the only obstacle to your acquiring it is you.
You can pursue a Differentiation Strategy right now, because there is one highly sought skill that you can obtain rapidly. And it’s exactly what corporate recruiters want.
Outside of narrow functional specialties, corporate America wants graduates with superior presenting abilities more than any other skill – more than strategic thinking, work ethic, analytical ability, or leadership ability.
The ability to present well is rare in the business world. This is true for many reasons, not least of all ignorance, hubris, and ego.
Put it all aside, open your mind and heart, and you can become the superior presenter you were meant to be.
It’s what this website, and this book, are all about.
That potential has been squandered out of corporate fear, ignorance, egotism, conformity, and simple habit.
Lynda Paulson describes the unique qualities that a business presentation offers, as opposed to a simple written report.
What makes speaking so powerful is that at least 85 percent of what we communicate in speaking is non-verbal. It’s what people see in our eyes, in our movements and in our actions. It’s what they hear through the tone of our voice. It’s what they sense on a subliminal level. That’s why speaking, to a group or one-on-one, is such a total experience.
Here, Paulson describes the impact of Professional Presence.
It’s the tangible contribution of the messenger to convey a convincing message. A skilled speaker exudes energy, enthusiasm, savoir faire.
The true differentiating power of a presentation springs from the oratorical skills and confidence of the speaker. That, in fact, is the entire point of delivering a presentation – a project or idea has a champion who presents the case in public.
Without that champion – without that powerful presence – a presentation is even less than ineffective.
It becomes an incredibly bad communication exercise and an infuriating waste of a valuable resource – time.
The Secret of Professional Presence
Today we are left with the brittle shell of a once-powerful communication tool. Gone is the skilled public speaker, an especially powerful presenter enthusiastic and confident, articulate and graceful, powerful and convincing.
Gone is Quintilian’s ideal orator: “The good man, well-spoken.”
We are left with an automaton slide-reader in a business suit.
This is surely a far cry from how we imagine it ought to be – powerful visuals and a confident presenter.
A presenter commanding the facts and delivering compelling arguments.
A presenter using all the tools at his or her disposal.
This vast wasteland of presentation mediocrity presents you with a magnificent opportunity.
Your choice is to fade into that gray background as yet another corporate mediocrity mimicking the herd . . . or to seize the moment to begin developing your presention skills to lift yourself into the rarefied atmosphere of the High Demand Skill Zone.™
Isn’t it time you decided to become an especially powerful business presenter and seize the incredible personal competitive advantage that professional presence provides?
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 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 Powerful 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.
Presentation Storytelling is a Powerful Tool
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 personal competitive advantage.
Presentation storytelling is so powerful, in fact, that anti-business folks don’t want you to use it.
Anti-business folks are angered that we in the corporate world have discovered and have begun to harness business presentation storytelling to the ends of wealth creation. See Christian Salmon’s frantic Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, which claims that business has “hijacked” the creative imagination.
In actuality, storytelling is now no longer the province of the anti-business worldview. Can there exist any better reason to embrace storytelling for your own business ends?
To get to the point where we can improve the speaking voice, we first must accept that there’s nothing sacred, sacrosanct, or “natural” about your speaking voice.
Your voice is the product of many years of development from numerous influences. Many of these influences might well have been unconscious acquisitions. Perhaps adaptations of which you may be unaware.
Why not evaluate your voice today?
Film your presentation, then watch with critical eye and listen with critical ear. Listen with an ear to how to improve your presentation voice.
See if it gets the presentation job done for you. Does it?
Does your voice crack? Does it whine?
Do you perform a Kim Kardashian vocal fry at the end of every sentence? Does it tic up at the end of every sentence with a bad case of uptalk, turning your sentences all into questions?
Do you lard your conversation with nonsensical filler such as “whatever,” “umm,” “totally,” and “like” hundreds of times per day?
It’s time to recognize that your voice is not a sacred artifact, nor is it some precious extension of your very being. It’s an instrument with which you communicate.
You can sharpen your communication skills by improving your voice.
Simply thinking of your voice in this way will improve its quality. Working to improve it will improve its quality dramatically and build your voice into an especially powerful skill for personal competitive advantage.
Let’s consider here several things you can do to improve your voice.
Can there be such a thing? How might it differ from “regular” charisma?
Yes, there is such a thing as business charisma. And it differs not at all from our generally accepted expectations.
In fact, charisma is a quality accessible to everyone who determines to possess it.
Who would not want to acquire the qualities of personal magnetism, a seeming aura that radiates enthusiastic goodwill, a mesmerizing speaking style, and a kind of restrained hyper-kinetic internal fuel cell that you sense could move mountains if unleashed?
Business charisma is charisma in the service of a particular set of goals outside of the expected set of occupations usually associated with charisma – acting, television personalities, rock stars, flamboyant sports personalities, and effusive lecturers whose material seems more tractable to audience interest.
But Business Charisma?
Business Charisma – Yours for the Taking
The caddish among us might believe it oxymoronic for those of us in business to exude charisma. Or that it’s at least so rare as to be hailed as an outlier when it appears . . . read: Steve Jobs.
But . . . Business is the natural soil for charisma to grow and thrive. We have drama . . . conflict . . . power . . . wealth . . . empire . . . generosity . . . deception . . . good versus evil . . .
The great issues of the day often turn on business. And on its leaders.
Business charisma is yours for the taking, and you can do many things to develop your own charismatic style.
See this fine book by Olivia Fox Cabane, for instance.
“I’m just not comfortable doing that. It’s just not me.”
This is what passes for sage wisdom in some quarters in reaction to new ideas, new methods, different techniques, and sometimes just good advice.
What if we were to apply this to another field . . . say, sports?
Think of players with enormous potential.
Players with the raw material to become great, if they would apply themselves.
Look at the big offensive lineman, who could end up starting for the football team, perhaps even take his performance to the next level of competition.
So the coaching staff schedules his training regimen designed to turn that potential into high performance results. He responds:
“I’m just not comfortable with all these exercises. It’s just not me.”
You won’t hear that comment often in the locker room or on the battlefield, but we hear it all the time in other venues of life.
Hokum, yes . . .
I think you know that the future isn’t bright for the player or soldier or businessman with this kind of precious attitude.
Of course not.
Developing new skills, new abilities, new strengths is uncomfortable. It means changing our behavior in sometimes unfamiliar ways. And instead of meeting the challenge by training hard, we can find ourselves taking a short cut.
We redefine our goals to encompass what we already do, so that we no longer have to stretch or strive to meet the original tough goals. We may find ourselves redefining what it means to excel. We lower the bar so as to meet our lower expectations rather than strive to excel to achieve a lofty and worthy goal.
We move the goal posts closer.
Several years ago, I was delivering a lecture on how to develop charisma. A young woman, who was surely not a charismatic speaker offered this gem “What about people who have quiet charisma?”
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“I mean people who don’t exhibit these characteristics you’ve been talking about, but show a quiet charisma.”
Those characteristics that I had referred to are personal magnetism, an almost tangible aura that radiates enthusiastic goodwill, a mesmerizing speaking style, and hyper-kinetic energy.
This person expressed that she was extremely “uncomfortable” with the techniques that, in fact, would help her become more charismatic in delivering her presentations. But rather than experience that discomfort, she chose instead to appeal to me to redefine charisma to include her own behavior.
Unambitious Goals . . . and a Lower Bar
Her behavior, of course, was the exact opposite of charismatic. She wanted to move the goalposts closer. She wanted to lower the bar.
Oxymoronic “quiet charisma.” Charisma on the cheap. Easy charisma.
There’s no such thing.
I told her to do what she pleased. But what she described did not constitute charisma, and no amount of wishing or redefining would make it so.
To reach a worthy goal, we may have to step outside of what is sometimes called our “comfort zone.” I prefer to think of it as enlarging our comfort zone rather than stepping outside of it.
Any time we begin to rationalize and redefine our goals, it is time to pause and reflect. Are we selling ourselves short?
Are we fooling ourselves?
Are we telling ourselves that we possess “quiet charisma” instead of doing the hard work and practice necessary to achieve the real thing?
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 to your audience.
You can’t tell an audience to disregard the message your appearance transmits. And you can’t dictate to an audience the message it receives.
The “Ageless Rebel” Battling the “Man”?
What’s you message? That you don’t care?
That you’re confident?
That you’re 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?” Do you offer an unprofessional appearance to make a statement of some sort? If so, then you err grossly. You pay a dear price for so meager a prize.
That price comes in the form of losing competitive advantage to your peers. To your competitors, 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. Here is an example of how important professional appearance can be to an organization.
Professional Appearance for Credibility
You can’t cannot dress for lazy comfort and nonchalance and expect to send a message that conveys seriousness, competence, and confidence. A message that emerges from a powerful presence.
This is the lesson that so many fail to grasp, even 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 professional appearance and mesh their dress with their message.
Take President Barack Obama, for example. He’s 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. Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, was also a sharp dresser. Most presidents are, because image consultants know the power of a professional appearance.
All of us sabotage our own presentations more often than we imagine. And we do it through self-defeating behaviors.
These self-defeating behaviors come in many forms, but negative self-talk is one of the chief culprits.
We tell ourselves repeatedly that we’ll fail.
We envision humiliation, embarrassment. Complete meltdown.
We Set Ourselves Up for Bad Presentations
Negative self-talk begins with the most ubiquitous cliche in business school. That cliche is “I hate presentations.” This culprit leads to awful presentations. It undermines everything we strive for in business school presentations.
How can we build a positive presentation on such a spongy foundation?
Negative self-talk translates into bodily reactions of nervousness, trembling, faltering voice. Shaking knees, sweating, and flushing.
Moreover, our sour and weak attitude can infect our teammates if it happens to be a group presentation. The negative spiral down means things get worse before they get better. If at all.
There is, in fact, no greater guarantee of failure. How could anyone succeed at anything with this type of negativity?
Do You Think Like a World-Class Athlete?
The world’s elite athletes train the mind as well as the body. Visualizing success is a technique they use to prepare for competition. I work occasionally with sports psychologists and mental toughness coaches who train athletes in visualization techniques.
All of these experts agree that the mind-body connection – healthy or unhealthy – impacts performance tremendously.
Let’s leave aside the specific techniques and the psychological underpinnings of it that go back more than a century. Let’s just say now that we must at least rid ourselves of the negative self-talk. Let’s give ourselves a fighting chance of success at delivering a good presentation. Even a great presentation.
So why do we talk ourselves down into the morass of self-defeat? It could be the widespread ignorance of how to deliver a powerful presentation. This ignorance means uncertainty of performance.
This ignorance and uncertainty breed fear.
It’s this fear of the unknown that drives up anxiety and can result in a bad presentation. So the key to reducing that anxiety is uncertainty reduction.
And we can reduce uncertainty through preparation and by controlling the variables within our power.
Preparation is the second of the Three Ps of Speaking Technique – Principles, Preparation, Practice. Can we foresee everything that might go wrong? No, of course not, and we don’t even want to . . . instead, we plan everything that will go right, and we focus on that.
We rely on our own adaptability and confidence to field the remaining unexpected 10 percent.
Envision Your Triumph
No one can win by constantly visualizing failure.
Envision this, instead – you deliver a tight, first-rate presentation that hits all the right notes. It weaves a story that grips your audience, that keeps the audience rapt. And it ends in a major ovation and a satisfying feeling of a job well-done.
When we take the stage, we focus. We charge forward boldly, presenting with masterful aplomb and professionalism. With this kind of psychological commitment, we squeeze out the doubts and anxiety. We wring them dry from our psychic fabric.
We eliminate the bad presentation.
The right kind of preparation allows us to deal with unknowns that nettle us.
Positive self-talk is essential to preparing an especially powerful presentation and developing personal competitive advantage.