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Muhammad Ali once said, “I run on the roads, long before I dance under the lights.” We cannot underestimate the value of preparation in almost any endeavor. When it comes to delivering a knockout presentation, preparation is the most crucial part. We all know the usual advice on preparing for an important presentation, which includes practicing the presentation out loud, rehearsing in front of an audience of friends or colleagues, working from an outline rather than a script, practicing piece by piece and videotaping our rehearsal to ensure that we have a good presence in the front of the room.
When we are crunched for time—as most people are—there is one important aspect of the preparation that ends up being neglected: a careful analysis of the best structure for presenting our message.The old axiom, “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them” may not be the most effective choice for every presentation. For some, such as executive level audiences, telling them what you just told them is unnecessary, is likely to bore them and is probably a waste of precious face time with a hard-to-reach audience. Rather than a rehash of what you just said, you can use that time for a call to action.
Here are 11 essential tips on how to present your message strategically to achieve your goals:
Look at the big picture.
When you recommend a particular strategy, don’t just tie it to the goals and objectives. Take a step back and think how it fits with the overall vision, especially when you are presenting to a C-level audience. While you are talking about the trees, they are most likely thinking about the forest. Take off your operational hat and adopt a strategic hat while you are crafting your message so you don’t miss that crucial part. Start by talking about the vision, goals and objectives, explain why the current situation is not aligned with the vision, goals and objectives, outline the available options, make the recommendation, and end with the call to action.
Deliver bad news upfront.
If you are delivering bad news to an executive audience, don’t waste time in preambles. As Colin Powell put it: “Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” When an audience hears bad news in midstream, it can have a negative emotional effect: The audience can feel that they have been set up, and no one likes to be caught by surprise. Get to the point quickly. Follow up with a recommended solution.
Use the three-part consultant template.
Here is a simple but powerful template that consultants often use. It presents information in a three-part format: Why there is a problem; What your client must do about it; How you are uniquely positioned to solve the problem.
Focus on the “why” for your conclusions.
When you are called upon to present an opinion or a recommendation, don’t waste too much time focusing on how you arrived at your conclusions. Focus instead on what you are proposing, and why. Scott Elbin put it best in The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success: Focusing too much on how you came to your conclusion is risking “getting labeled as someone who, when asked for the time, explains how to build a watch.” Stay on the recommendations and their implications, and abandon the mechanics of how you arrived at them. You can address this aspect if it comes up in the question or discussion period.
Use the OBN framework.
This framework is particularly effective with busy, executive audiences. It follows a formula of Opportunity, Benefits and Numbers. You quickly outline what the opportunity is, you segue to an outline of the benefits—what we stand to gain—and you follow up with the proof by showing them the numbers. This simple template reduces the complexity of your message and pares down the facts you might otherwise be tempted to add. The more you add, the more you risk diluting the power of the message. There is wisdom and impact in simplification.
Talk about them before you talk about you.
Entrepreneurs who are not sales professionals can get unwittingly derailed in a sales presentation by driving too quickly into an explanation of their product or service. Seasoned sales professionals, on the other hand, know that it is always best to start with the client’s needs or problems. Show that you have done your homework, and that you understand your client’s world. Start by asking questions to probe deeper. This attention to their story has a boomerang effect: It predisposes them to be more attentive to your followup message—your outline of your product or services and features. Unless you are presenting to engineers or other technical people, minimize the discussion of features and focus more on the strengths or benefits. Spend less time on explaining processes and more on results. You are now ready to outline a cost analysis and a call to action.
Take into account some principles of persuasion.
It pays to have a few persuasion tools in your speaking kit. For example, if you are trying to convince someone to buy your product or service, should you appeal to greed (what they stand to gain if they buy your product or service?) or should you appeal to loss (what they stand to lose if they don’t buy your product or service?) The answer is to appeal to loss. Should you include testimonials from clients who are similar in size to your prospect? Or should you refer to bigger clients to impress them? The answer is clients who are similar in size, as this taps into the principle of social proof: We tend to follow the lead of those who are similar to us. These principles of persuasion, and many more, come from one of the top scholars of persuasion, Robert Cialdini.
As you move from one section of your presentation to the next, be sure to include transitions. Transitions are connecting words or phrases that keep your story flowing smoothly from beginning to end. Transitions show your train of thought and serve as signposts that guide your listeners and maintain their attention. Practice the transitions, as they are easily forgotten in the throes of the presentation. Use this comprehensive list of transitions as a starting point.
Get ready-made help from Microsoft’s Sales Template.
Sandra Johnson, Microsoft MVP, created an easy-to-use template to help you tell your sales story. It gives you all the steps that will ensure a logical flow to your talk—including title slide; agenda; background/industry/situation/client pain; the solution (approach/philosophy;) product/service; summary; next steps, and closing slide. Give it a try.
Include the most effective supporting material.
Most presenters justify their points with a variety of supporting materials such as statistics, visuals, white papers, references, testimony, charts and graphs, or anecdotes. But one thing that is frequently neglected is providing an example. Examples are one of the most powerful supporting materials; they provide instant clarity to help the audience understand a complex issue. It’s generally best to limit yourself to brief, actual examples, rather than hypothetical ones—”what if” scenarios. Unless you have some solid information to back these up, they can be easily shot down as being merely speculative. This is another area that requires careful preparation beforehand.
Plan the order.
When you present variously priced items, should you start with the least expensive and move on to the most expensive, or the other way around? Some studies show that you can elicit more positive responses when you present the information in descending order, starting from the higher-priced. These positive responses include a higher perception of value and a higher purchase probability. The initial higher price serves as an anchor or reference point that makes the other prices appear more reasonable. As a result, the average price that consumers are willing to pay is higher than if the information was presented in ascending order. As another example, when you have various evidence to support your point, it’s not always advantageous to lead with your strongest evidence. In some cases, you may want to leave your most compelling evidence for the end. Use your judgment, but don’t leave the issue to chance. As with any influencing strategy, it needs to be used with integrity, not to manipulate people into buying what they don’t need, but to aid in closing business to everyone’s advantage.
This article first appeared in my business column at AMEX.
As the English proverb goes, “Time is the soul of business.” What are the biggest time thieves in business? Research shows that, next to conversations at the water cooler and computer and software problems, meetings are the biggest culprit. They are an insidious productivity killer for small-business owners.
Well-conducted meetings can lead to enhanced communication and greater buy-in and consensus. However, many meetings fail to achieve objectives because the person running the meeting didn’t plan the end properly. Do you do any of the following at the end of your meetings?
1. Not paying attention to the “meeting after the meeting.”
Someone who holds a meeting after the meeting, usually behind closed doors, to disagree with a course of action is hurting productivity. End with a “closing round” to give everyone a chance to comment on the meeting out in the open. Often, this unveils issues you can address to prevent them from surfacing later. As Ev Williams, co-creator of Twitter and Medium, explains, in a closing round “there is no discussion or back-and-forth allowed. People tend to talk for less than 30 seconds (often a lot less), so you could close a large, 10-person meeting in less than five minutes …The closing round is worth doing, because it gives everyone, in a sense, a ‘last word’—the chance to get something off their chests that they might otherwise carry around or whisper to their colleagues later.”
In his seminal book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make The Leap … And Others Don’t, author Jim Collins researched highly successful companies and found that one of their practices is to unify behind decisions. No matter how heated and vigorous the debate is in search of the best answers, when they leave the meeting, people stand united regardless of parochial interests. If this is not the norm in your company, confront team members to change the culture.
2. Failing to designate responsibility.
How often have we attended meetings, or strategic retreats, where the gathering ends with a lot of excitement and decisions to pursue new directions, only to see it all fizzle a few weeks later? This is because the meeting ended with no clear accountability on who will do what. Apple has a system it calls the Directly Responsible Individual (DRI). This is assigning one individual, not a team, to be responsible for an action item.
In this video, Adam Lashinsky of Fortune magazine explains how the DRI concept establishes accountability and helps a giant company such as Apple function like a small startup. All meetings at Apple have an action list, and next to each action item is the DRI. Consider following this model so you eliminate any confusion on who’s responsible for what at the end of each meeting.
3. Not following up on action items.
A surprisingly common problem with meetings is not having a system in place to follow up on action items, making sure people do what they say they’ll do. Use Outlook’s Meeting Workspace Site to track tasks. (Here are step-by-step instructions on how to do this.) You can also use a system such as After The Meeting, which allows you to easily and effectively track action items assigned in a meeting.
4. Taking too long to share notes from the meeting.
Meeting notes are crucial to help everyone remember what was discussed and decided. Often, the designated note taker makes detailed notes but they are either distributed too late or not distributed at all. One way to get around this problem is to use a program such as minutes.io, which helps you minute your meetings easily and make notes available to everyone without delay. It’s free and you don’t need to be connected to the Internet during the meeting to use it. Two other note taking tools that will help you simplify your meeting process are OneNote and Less Meeting.
5. Not evaluating the meeting.
Ending each meeting without evaluating how it went is a surefire way to ensure that unproductive behaviors and procedures will be repeated from meeting to meeting. You show respect for people’s time and efforts when you take a moment at the end of each meeting to check in on how people feel about the meeting. A simple, “What worked well?” and “What could we improve?” can yield useful information that will save time in the future. You can even designate someone to monitor the meeting and provide a brief, verbal report at the end. Consider, as well, using a system such as Google Forms to create a survey that’s sent out periodically after an important meeting.
6. Not ending the meeting on time.
One of the worst practices in meetings is not respecting the announced ending time. Frequently, this is due to the meeting starting late, or the meeting chair letting some team members ramble on or go off topic. Take an inspiration from Google, which often has a giant timer on the wall to exert subtle pressure and prevent meetings from running off schedule. As author Carmine Gallo explains, “It’s literally a downloadable timer that runs off a computer and is projected 4 feet tall.”
7. Ending a meeting at a bad time.
Often, customers, employees or other stakeholders who work in others cities join the meeting by phone. When these individuals are in different time zones, they sometimes have to excuse themselves from the meeting just before the meeting is concluded. This can result in inefficiencies as they may miss last-minute details of what was decided concerning action items that are their responsibility. Make an effort to schedule meetings that take into account optimal times for everyone’s attendance. Use the World Clock Meeting Planner to help you in this regard.
This article first appeared in my business column at AMEX.
Have you ever noticed that many speakers end their presentation the same way a car runs out of gas? As their last bit of fuel is used up, they sputter to an abrupt stop as though they just got tired of thinking.
No matter how good your presentation is, a lackluster ending will significantly detract from your ability to influence others. The conclusion of your speech is your last chance to hammer home the importance of your message. It’s a lasting impression that listeners take away of you and, by extension, your company.
So how can you make listeners sit up and take notice as you bring your presentation to an end? One common way is to summarize your key points. Although some listeners are likely to tune out a summary because they’ve just heard what you said, provide a very brief recap, if it’s warranted, but don’t stop there.
What will make your speech stand out is to end it with a focused statement, one that really grabs your listeners in unexpected ways: It can surprise, inspire or entertain them; it can touch them emotionally or engage them intellectually. We’re talking about a punchy ending, akin to a tagline—something well-thought out and powerful that’s likely to be remembered.
12 Powerful Endings
Here are some ideas to help you create an effective final statement:
1. A surprising fact.
During his speech at Global Entrepreneurship Week, venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary outlined what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. But instead of ending with a rehash of what he just said, he chose to share a surprising fact to motivate his listeners to go where the money is. “Did you know,” he said, “that there are more billion-dollar cap companies outside North America than in it for the first time ever? … We have aging societies, and everywhere else is on fire. If I were you guys, I would get on a plane and go to Brazil.” A surprising fact has the power to re-engage the audience’s attention, which is most likely to wane by the end of a presentation.
2. A list of rolling credits.
There are times when it’s appropriate to thank people publicly for helping you prepare a dazzling presentation at an important event. You can do this in a way that adds pizzazz to your conclusion by using the PowerPoint’s Credits feature. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do this. You can also watch a video demonstration of this feature. This is so unusual that it’s bound to be noticed and remembered.
3. A cartoon.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz ends his TED presentation on The Paradox of Choice with a New York Post cartoon of a fishbowl with the caption, “You can be anything you want to be—no limits.” He says, “If you shatter the fishbowl, so that everything is possible, you don’t have freedom, you have paralysis … Everybody needs a fishbowl … The absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery and, I suspect, disaster.” This is a brilliant ending that combines many elements to engage the audience: a visual, some humor and a metaphor. Consider ending your presentation sometime with a relevant cartoon to elucidate your message. Here is a source for quality cartoons.
4. A provocative question.
Ending with a question, or a rhetorical question, is a surefire way to gain attention because questions stimulate our neocortex. As author Dorothy Leeds explains, “Our old brain runs by instinct. That’s the part that animals have. They don’t ask questions. The purpose of our ‘new brain’ is to override and challenge our old brain, and we do that by asking questions.” The minute you ask a question, listeners are generally drawn to ponder an answer. It’s even more engaging when the question is provocative, or when it touches potentially sensitive areas of our lives.
Entrepreneur and CEO Ric Elias ends his talk on “3 Things I Learned While My Plane Crashed” with a series of life questions, with the most provocative one at the very end: “And more than anything, are you being the best parent you can?” You can also ask a question and answer it. For example, “Can we afford to bail out the banks? Can we afford not to?” or “What is personal in this digital era? Nothing. Your life is on full display.”
5. A sound bite.
A sound bite is an attention magnet. It cuts to the core of your central message and is one of the most memorable takeaways for today’s Twitter-sized attention spans. Consider Steve Jobs’ famous last line at his commencement address at Stanford University: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” And here’s an example from author Steven Johnson, in his presentation “Where Good Ideas Come From.” In speaking about how innovation happens, Johnson ends with, “Chance favors the connected mind.”
Think about how you can distill your message down to a crisp, memorable statement. After you’ve crafted the statement, ask yourself: Is it tweet-worthy? Above all, does it represent your authentic voice? Does it accurately condense what your core message is about? Listeners, especially business audiences, have a radar that quickly spots an effort to impress rather than to genuinely communicate an important message.
6. The rule of three.
The rule of three is one of the most memorable patterns. Think “location, location, location”; “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; or three-word slogans, such as “Just Do It.” Here are a few examples of how speakers do it. Jeremy Gutsche, CEO of TrendHunter.com, ends his speech on innovation with three key benefits: “By leveraging viral trends and methodical innovation, you can generate ideas, harness creativity and ultimately exploit chaos.” Dianna Cohen, co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, ends her talk on plastic pollution with a three-pronged declaration: In using alternatives to single-use plastics, Cohen says, “We can save our oceans, save our planets, save ourselves.” Alan Siegel, a brand identity consultant, also uses the rule of three to end his speech on simplifying legal language: “How are we going to change the world?” he asks. “Make clarity, transparency and simplicity a national priority.”
7. An unusual quote.
A relatively easy way to powerfully end your speech is by using a quote. For this to be effective, however, the quote needs to be one that has not been heard so often that it has become cliche. Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS, quotes Einstein to sum up his thinking on the real value of money: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” If you use a worn-out quote, consider adding a twist to it, as Heather Fleming, CEO of Catapult Design, does in her talk on designing change. She mentions Gandhi’s quote: “You have to be the change that you want to see in the world” and adds this twist: “But the part that was missing for me was getting the courage to be the change that you want to see in the world. I hope that we can all engage in that concept.” This is a smart way to personalize a quotation and make it resonate with others.
To access fresh quotes, consider searching current personalities rather than historical figures. For example, a quote on optimism can come from financier George Soros: “The worse a situation becomes, the less it takes to turn it around, and the bigger the upside.” A quote on marketing can come from a contemporary businessperson: “Your culture is your brand,” says Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com. You can also research quotes for the specific industry your clients belong to so the quote has a personal impact: Here’s a sampling: automotive, aviation, real estate, branding, social media marketing, and finance & business, to name a few.
8. A touch of humility.
In a world where everyone flashes their achievements and opinions, those with an understated approach shine. Supermodel Cameron Russell ends her talk on TED saying, “If there is a takeaway to this talk, I hope it’s that we all feel more comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes and our perceived failures.” Contrast this with a bolder, “As I have proven to you, image plays a powerful role in our perceived successes and our perceived failures.” When you make a compelling case in your presentation, there is value sometimes in contrasting this with a touch of humility at the end.
9. A running clock.
Marketing and advertising executive Dietmar Dahmen ends his Create Your Own Change talk with a running clock to accompany his last statement. “Users rule,” he says, “so stop waiting and start doing. And you have to do that now because time is running out.” If you’re delivering a time-sensitive message, where you want to urge your listeners to move quickly, you can have a background slide with a running clock to add pizzazz to your last statement. Here is how you can insert a countdown timer in PowerPoint.
10. A powerful visual.
In The Power of Video, Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, says that a huge chunk of our brain power is devoted to processing visual images. “It’s how we communicate, it’s how we share information,” Kaku says. “It’s by images, pictures, videos that we understand the universe.” Make use of this power by ending your presentation with a riveting visual that ties to your take-home message. Here’s an example from architecture and design firm NBBJ’s chief marketing officer, Tim Leberecht. In the final moments of his talk on ways to usefully lose control of your brand, he displays a photo of the Mona Lisa and says, “A smile is a door that is half open and half closed … companies can give employees and customers more control or less. They can worry about how openness is good for them and what needs to stay closed, or they can simply smile and remain open to all possibilities.” The image becomes a visual metaphor that makes the message stick.
11. A return to your opening.
A standard piece of advice on closing is to return to your opening. For example, refer to whatever hook you used in starting your presentation. This can be a wrap-up of a story you started or an answer to a question you posed. It can also be a reaffirmation of your presentation title or the title of the conference at which you’re speaking. You can’t go wrong with a book-end closure.
12. One more thing.
Steve Jobs was known to end his presentations with “one more thing.” Author Chris Higgins assembled clips of every Steve Jobs “one more thing” endings. You can use the same tactic to add richness to your presentation as you wrap up. It’s the additional cherry on the sundae. Pick it with care.
This article first appeared in my business column at AMEX.
In his TED talk, author James Geary claims that we utter about six metaphors a minute. One thing we know for sure is that metaphors pervade our everyday language. Advertisers and political speech writers use metaphors to influence our thinking. In business, a metaphor can be a dynamic tool to power your communication, to persuade and inspire others to listen to you. As Geary says, “Metaphor conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions … in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation.”
The simplest definition of a metaphor is that it helps us understand one thing by referring to another. A metaphor deepens our understanding by comparing the unfamiliar with the familiar, the theoretical with the concrete, the complex with the simple. We do this unconsciously when we use everyday clichés such as “the secret sauce,” “it’s in the company DNA,” or “best of breed.” Metaphors that have turned into a cliché become worn-out language. They are better left on the shelf with other stock phrases that clutter our communication and don’t inspire. What works are fresh metaphors—they make others want to lean in to hear more of what you have to say.
Most businesspeople avoid creating metaphors because they don’t fully understand their value in drawing and maintaining attention; but above all, they avoid them because they don’t know how to use them. Here is a brief primer on how to come up with verbal gems.
1. Pay attention to metaphors others use.
Become a metaphor anthropologist by taking notice of novel metaphors you come across. If you read or hear one that grabs your attention because it’s original, write it down for inspiration when you prepare your own presentation or speech. One example is from Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch, who talks about obstacles in achieving our dreams: “But remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” Another example is from entrepreneur and author Seth Godin, a master of the metaphor. He uses the metaphor of jazz vs. bowling to show the different ways we approach work. Jazz leaves room for the imagination, for creativity, flexibility and adaptation, while bowling is more linear and “all about one number: the final score … and yet … when we get to work, most of us choose to bowl.”
2. Develop your own metaphors from scratch.
You don’t have to depend on metaphors from external sources; you can create your own. Here’s how: Choose the concept you want to spice up with a metaphor—let’s say you want to explain that without change, your organization will not progress. Think about the negative characteristics that come to mind for something that doesn’t change: It stands still, it can get run over, it stagnates, it can’t go forward, it stays behind while others are moving past it, it blocks what’s behind, it creates a gridlock. You get the idea. Now think about what associations any of these words bring to mind. For example, the word “stagnate” might bring to mind a body of water. When water is confined, it accumulates debris, and the water becomes stagnant. But when there is wind and the water is allowed to move unrestricted, there is a flow and the water is fresh and rejuvenated. Now you can develop the metaphor: A lack of change in an organization can be likened to a stagnant pool of water, littered with the debris of outdated modes and practices that hamper the flow of fresh ideas. For additional inspiration, check out this helpful article on metaphor writing.
3. Borrow metaphors from movies.
Many movies contain inspiring metaphors that can move people. For example, in Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino delivers a rousing speech to his football team. He uses a metaphor of winning by inches: “The inches we need are everywhere around us … we fight for that inch … because we know, when we add up all those inches, that’s going to make the … difference between winning and losing.”
4. Position yourself or your business with a metaphor.
Anne Miller, author of Metaphorically Selling: How To Use The Magic of Metaphors To Sell, Persuade, & Explain Anything To Anyone, explains the benefits of using a metaphor that anchors your products, service, or personal uniqueness in the minds of your clients to experiences or people they already know. For example, Cisco Systems routers promote integrated security for corporate computer systems. How does it anchor this product that shields data from hackers? The ad says, “I am a snarling pack of dobermans.” This is a powerful image of a pack of dogs that will sniff out burglars and vandals and protect your company. Another example of anchoring comes from a Web-design company: “Web design is a tricky business. You can get a beautiful looking result, but if it doesn’t work, it’s useless, like a Porsche with a faulty engine. We deliver websites that both look good and perform well.” What vivid image can you use to define your business?
Listening to some of the best locker room speeches can motivate you when you’re preparing to speak to your staff or at an event where others look to you for inspiration, especially in difficult times. Almost always, these speeches make use of metaphors to fire people up, or to celebrate a win. Watch, for example, Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano as he gives a post-game speech to his team. He says: “… you guys were living in the vision, and you weren’t living in circumstances … you refused to live in circumstances, and you decided consciously, as a team, as a family, to live in the vision. And that’s why you bring things home like you brought home today.” Juxtaposing the vision to circumstances is a powerful reminder to people to keep their eye on the ball—on what matters—and not to let whatever is going on around them derail them.
7. Use visual metaphors with care.
Visual metaphors enliven your slides and grab attention. However, many speakers use visual metaphors that have become clichés. For example, a visual metaphor for the importance of thinking outside the box might predictably show a man coming out of a box. Compare this with an image of a cubic watermelon or a skeleton X-ray with a lock. Don’t use the first visual that comes to mind, as it’s likely to be what everyone else would do. Search for more abstract or imaginative images as metaphors. Don’t use an image just for decoration; choose an images that says something.
8. Adapt the metaphor to your audience.
Just as a golf pro picks and chooses clubs based on the demands of the shot, when you use a metaphor, consider which metaphor is appropriate for your particular audience. For example, with some groups, war metaphors have a strong impact, while with others, family metaphors may have a greater impact. Metaphors also have a cultural meaning that may not be readily understood by those outside the culture. When it comes to metaphors, one size doesn’t fit all. Think of your listeners and select the metaphor that best highlights the concept you want to amplify and is the best fit for that audience.
9. Vary your metaphors.
No matter how successful a metaphor is, guard against becoming a prisoner of one or two recurring metaphors that you use often in your presentations or speeches. Metaphors can quickly become stale from overuse. Continue to update your metaphors. It will pay lifelong dividends for your career.
This article first appeared in my business column at AMEX.
“When you advertise fire-extinguishers, open with the fire,” says advertising executive David Ogilvy. You have only 30 seconds in a TV commercial to grab attention. The same applies to a presentation. The first 30 seconds of your talk is crucial. This is the time your listeners form an impression of you, and of what’s to follow.
Like a fine thoroughbred, you need to hit the ground running by starting strong. Instead, many presenters are more like old, tired workhorses—they start weak by wasting those first precious seconds with platitudes and pleasantries. Brain research shows that we don’t pay attention to boring things. Surprise your listeners with a hook that immediately grabs their attention.
The key is to make sure that the hook is brief, well-rehearsed and pertinent to your topic. What follows is 12 hooks that will grab your audience’s attention—and keep it.
1. Use a contrarian approach. Make a statement of a universally accepted concept, then go against conventional wisdom by contradicting the statement. For example, a market trader starts by contradicting the commonly held advice of buying low and selling high. He says: “It’s wrong. Why? Because buying low typically entails a stock that’s going in the opposite direction—down—from the most desired direction—up.” This is a provocative opening that engages the audience right away.
2. Ask a series of rhetorical questions. A common way to engage the audience at the start is to ask a rhetorical question. Better still, start with a series of rhetorical questions. A good example of this tactic is Simon Sinek’s TED presentation. He starts with: “How do you explain when things don’t go as we assumed? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example, why is Apple so innovative? … Why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement?” A series of rhetorical questions stimulate the audience’s mind as they ponder the answers.
3. Deliver a compelling sound bite.Use a catchy phrase or sound bite that has pungency and watch how the audience perks up. Innovation expert Jeremy Gutshe opens his talk with: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast. This is a sign that is on Ford’s strategy War Room. And the lesson from it is not how good your PowerPoint slide deck is, what it really boils down to at the end of the day is how ready and willing your organization is to embrace change, try new things and focus in when you find an opportunity.” To be effective, the sound bite needs to be brief, interesting and compelling.
4. Make a startling assertion.A surefire way to gain people’s attention is by starting with a startling or amazing fact. Take the time to research startling statistics that illustrate the seriousness of what you’re going to talk about. For example, a presentation about conservancy can start with: “Every second, a slice of rainforest the size of a football field is mowed down. That’s over 31 million football fields of rainforest each year.”
5. Provide a reference to a historical event. There are times when the day that you present may have some significance in history that can be tied to the subject of your presentation, as an opening gambit. You can easily look up what happened on any day in Today In Sport or a more general site such as This Day In History. You never know what pertinence it might have that will add some pizzazz to your presentation. It’s worth a look.
6. Use the word imagine. The word imagine invites the audience to create a mental image of something. Ever since John Lennon’s famous song, it has become a powerful word with emotional appeal. A particularly skillful use of the word occurs in Jane Chen’s TED talk.
She speaks about a low-cost incubator that can save many lives in underdeveloped countries. Chen opens by saying: “Please close your eyes and open your hands. Now imagine what you could place in your hands, an apple, maybe your wallet. Now open your eyes. What about a life?” As she says this, she displays a slide with an Anne Geddes‘ image of a tiny baby held in an adult’s hands. There is power in asking the audience to conjure up their imagination, to play along. This tactic can easily be adapted to any topic where you want the audience to imagine a positive outcome, or a vision of a better tomorrow. It can be used, as well, to ask them to imagine being in someone else’s shoes.
7. Add a little show business. According to research, 100 percent of Americans quote movies, primarily comedies, in conversation. One of the primary reasons is to entertain. Movies occupy a central place in most people’s lives and a well-placed, pertinent movie quote at the start of a presentation can perk up your audience. Here are a couple of examples: “There’s not a lot of money in revenge” (from The Princess Bride) and “The first rule of leadership: everything is your fault” (from A Bug’s Life.) And here are a couple of sites for movie quotations to start you off: Best Business Quotes From The Silver Screen and The Best Business Wisdom Hidden In Classic Movie Quotes.
8. Arouse curiosity.You can start with a statement that is designed to arouse curiosity and make the audience look up and listen to you attentively. Bestselling author Dan Pink does this masterfully in one of his talks. He says: “I need to make a confession, at the outset. A little over 20 years ago, I did something that I regret. Something that I am not particularly proud of, something that in many ways I wished no one would ever know, but that here I feel kind of obliged to reveal. In the late 1980s, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, I went to law school.” Curiosity here leads to some self-deprecating humor, which makes it even more effective.
9. Use quotations differently.Many speakers start with an apt quotation, but you can differentiate yourself by stating the quotation and then adding a twist to it. For example, “We’ve all heard that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. But we need to remember that a journey to nowhere also starts with a single step.” You can also use a quotation from your own life. For example, in a presentation on price versus quality, I have often used a quote from my grandfather, who used to say: “I am not rich enough to buy cheap.” There are innumerable sources for online quotations, but you might also consider The Yale Book of Quotations, an app that brings together over 13,000 quotes you can adapt to your purpose.
10. Quote a foreign proverb. There is a wealth of fresh material to be culled from foreign proverbs. Chances are your listeners have never heard them so they have novelty appeal. Here are some examples: “Our last garment is made without pockets” (Italy); “You’ll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind” (Ireland); “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down” (Japan), and “Paper can’t wrap up a fire” (China). Here is a site for foreign proverbs.
11. Take them through a “what if” scenario. A compelling way to start your presentation is with a “what if” scenario. For example, asking “What if you were debt-free?” at the start of a money management presentation might grab your listeners’ attention as it asks them to look forward to a positive future. It can intensify their desire for your product or service. Using a “what if” scenario as an opening gambit is easily adaptable to almost any presentation.
12. Tell them a story. Stories are one of the most powerful ways to start a presentation. Nothing will compel listeners to lean in more than a well-told story. Science tells us that our brains are hardwired for storytelling. But the story needs to be brief, with just the right amount of detail to bring it to life. It must be authentic and must have a “message,” or lesson, to support your viewpoint. Above all, it must be kind. As Benjamin Disraeli said: “Never tell an unkind story.”
Journalist and entrepreneur Mitch Racliffe said, “A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history—with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.” Even when you haven’t made any mistakes, the unexpected can, and usually will, occur at the most inopportune time: when you’re delivering a high-stakes presentation to a prospective client, or at an event such as a trade show.
Don’t be caught off guard. Here are some helpful tips and tools to help you deal with these potential problems so you can focus on your company message.
1. Know how to recover a corrupt PowerPoint file. Just before your presentation, you might discover that you’re unable to open your PowerPoint file. This can easily happen with very large files. Echo Swinford, Microsoft MVP, provides step by step guidelines on what to do if this happens to you. Print the article and keep it with your presentation material, as you never know when you might need it. There are also third-party recovery tools that can help you if you’re unable to recover a corrupt PowerPoint file, including Kernel PowerPoint Repair Software, Stellar Phoenix PowerPoint Repair, and Unistal PowerPoint Repair Tool.
2. Pack a PowerPoint Viewer. If you’re not using your own laptop for the presentation, make sure that the presentation laptop supports the version of PowerPoint you used to create your presentation. A simple way to avoid any unpleasant surprises is simply to download the free PowerPoint viewer onto a flash drive to take with you.
3. Don’t rely on Internet connectivity. Internet connections aren’t bulletproof. If you need to display information from your website, or any other website, be prepared in case the Internet connection is interrupted during your presentation. A simple solution is to create a few slides with screenshots of all the pages you need for the presentation. One of the easiest ways to capture screenshots is by downloading Skitch, a powerful, free program. Skitch will even allow you to annotate the pages to add useful information (and it provides a video demonstrating how to use the program).
4. Know which movie file formats to use. It pays to become knowledgeable about which file formats don’t work with PowerPoint so you can convert your video file to avoid a nasty surprise. This list from Microsoft tells you which video file formats will work with PowerPoint. If the file format is not there, you will need to convert your movie file to a format that PowerPoint supports. One quick way to do this is to use a free file converter such as Zamzar. Upload your movie file and convert it to an acceptable format such as MPG.
5. Eliminate color illegibility. You may be surprised to discover that the font color you used for your presentation doesn’t display well on a projector. This is often the case when marketing departments use, for example, pale color fonts to match the color of the logo. You can use the Color Contrast Calculator to find out if the colors you’re planning to use on your slides provide enough contrast to be clearly seen by the audience.
6. Avoid animations. You may find yourself running out of time and having to speed up your presentation. In that case, the complex, slow animation you had planned will slow you down. We look foolish standing there watching for an animation to take its course. Better to limit the use of these animations or avoid them altogether.
7. Use your own remote. It’s surprising how many people still advance slides by using the down arrow on the computer. A remote gives you power to move around and focus your eyes on the audience rather than on your laptop. Invest in a remote you can carry with you. When they rely on whatever remote is at the venue, speakers often fumble, go backward instead of forward, and fiddle with it until they get used to it. This chips away at your presence. Don’t forget to pack extra batteries for your remote.
8. Know the electrical voltage and outlets used abroad. If you’re presenting abroad, come prepare with the right adapter or plug. Electrical Outlet gives you a handy list of electrical outlets used worldwide.
9. Disable notifications and sleep mode. Even though we’re all aware of this, it’s easy to forget this step. Deactivate screen savers, Skype, instant messages, email alerts and other pop-up windows. They make you look unprepared. Also, disable the sleep or standby mode on your laptop. This WikiHow article will show you how to disable automatic sleep. If you’re using Windows 7, you can also use the Windows Mobility Center to adjust your settings to Presentation Mode. With one click, you’ll prevent your laptop from going dormant in the middle of a presentation and all system notifications will be turned off.
10. Beware of labels on DVDs. If you plan to show a DVD that you borrowed from the library, don’t. The adhesive label is more than likely to create problems. The same applies to a DVD you create. Use appropriate markers for writing on DVDs and know where to write to avoid problems.
11. Use several backup methods. It pays to be paranoid when it comes to backing up your important presentation: Don’t rely on just one backup method. Use two flash drives to back up the PowerPoint file, as these devices aren’t infallible. Consider also backing up your presentation online by using an online storage program such as Dropbox, iCloud or SlideRocket.
Murphy’s Law of Thermodynamics tells us that “things get worse under pressure.” We can relieve this pressure by knowing how to stop presentation demons in their track.
Samuel Butler said: “Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.” We all have an inner voice that tells us when we need to have a difficult conversation with someone—a conversation that, if it took place, would improve life at the office for ourselves and for everyone else on the team. But fear drowns our inner voice. It induces us to procrastinate having the conversation for fear that it might elicit a negative reaction. Meanwhile the offending individual continues to provide substandard performance, missing deadlines and the like; or having interpersonal conflicts, and exhibiting toxic behavior.
The consequence of not facing these issues head-on is costly. A CPP Inc. study of workplace conflict reveals that employees in the U.S. spend roughly 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. 33% of employees report that the conflict led to personal injury and attacks, and 22% report that it led to illness and absence from work. 10% report that project failure was a direct result of conflict. A similar study by Psychometrics in Canada, showed that 32% of employees have to deal with conflict regularly. More alarming is a recent study by Accenture revealing that, even in this challenging economic climate, 35% of employees leave their jobs voluntarily because of internal politics.
Substandard performance and unmanaged conflicts will adversely impact your bottom line. Businesses are losing billions of dollars because leaders have not stepped forward to deal with these difficult workplace issues decisively before they get out of hand. One way to step forward is to have the difficult conversation early on before the problems escalate and damage morale, and the business.
If you are unsure how to best approach this crucial conversation, here are some tips to guide you:
1. Be clear about the issue.
To prepare for the conversation, you need to ask yourself two important questions: “What exactly is the behavior that is causing the problem?” and “What is the impact that the behavior is having on you, the team or the organization?” You need to reach clarity for yourself so that you can articulate the issue in two or three succinct statements. If not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation and end up having an unfocused discussion. The lack of focus on the central issue will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions.
2. Know your objective.
What do you want to accomplish with the conversation? What is the desired outcome? What are the non-negotiables? As English philosopher, Theodore Zeldin, put it: A successful conversation “doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.” What are the new cards that you want to have in your hands by the end of the conversation? Once you have determined this, plan how you will close the conversation. Don’t end without clearly expressed action items. What is the person agreeing to do? What support are you committed to provide? What obstacles might prevent these remedial actions from taking place? What do you both agree to do to overcome potential obstacles? Schedule a follow up face-to-face meeting, phone call, or email to evaluate progress and definitively reach closure on the issue at hand.
3. Adopt the right mindset.
Spend a little time to reflect on your attitude towards the situation and the person involved. What are your preconceived notions about it? Your mindset will predetermine your reaction and interpretations of the other person’s responses, so it pays to work on approaching the conversation with the right mindset. The right mindset is one of inquiry. A good doctor diagnoses a situation before reaching for his prescription pad. This applies equally to a leader. Be open to hear first what the other person has to say before reaching closure in your mind. Even if the evidence is so clear that there is no reason to beat around the bush, we still owe it to the person to let them tell their story. A good leader remains open and seeks a greater truth in any situation. The outcome of adopting this approach might surprise you.
4. Manage the emotions.
Most of us were likely raised to believe that emotions need to be left at the door. We now know that this is an old school approach that is no longer valid in today’s work environments. It is your responsibility as a leader to understand and manage the emotions in the discussion. The late Robert Plutchik, professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, created a Wheel of Emotions to show that emotions follow a path. What starts as an annoyance, for example, can move to anger and, in extreme cases, escalate to rage. We can avoid this by being mindful of preserving the person’s dignity—and treating them with respect—even if we totally disagree with them. In some cases, you may have to respond to a person’s tears. In the video “How To Handle Tears At Work,” Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, provides several strategies. These include acknowledging the tears rather than ignoring them, offering the person a tissue to give them a chance to gather their thoughts, and recognizing that the tears communicate a problem to be addressed.
5. Be comfortable with silence.
There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. Don’t rush to fill it with words. Just as the pause between musical notes helps us appreciate the music, so the periodic silence in the conversation allows us to hear what was said. It gives us an opportunity to reflect. It lets the message sink in. As Susan Scott says in Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success At Work And In Life One Conversation At A Time, “let silence do the heavy lifting.” A pause also has a calming effect and can help us connect better. For example, if you are an extrovert, you are likely uncomfortable with silence as you are used to thinking while you are speaking. This can be perceived as steamrolling or overbearing, especially if the other party is an introvert. Introverts want to think before they speak. Stop talking and allow them their moment—it can lead to a better outcome.
6. Preserve the relationship.
A leader who has high emotional intelligence is always mindful to limit any collateral damage to a relationship. It takes years to build bridges with people and only minutes to blow them up. Think about how the conversation can fix the situation, without erecting an irretrievable wall between you and the person.
7. Be consistent.
Ensure that your objective is fair and that you are using a consistent approach. For example, if the person thinks that you have one set of rules for this person and a different set for another, you will be perceived as creating favorites. Nothing erodes a relationship faster than perceived inequality. Employees have long-term memories of how you handled situations in the past. Aim for consistency in your leadership approach. We trust a leader who is consistent because we don’t have to second-guess where they stand on important issues such as culture, corporate values and acceptable behaviors.
8. Develop your conflict resolution skills.
Conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Managing conflict effectively is one of the vital skills of leadership. Have a few, proven phrases that can come in handy in crucial spots. For more tips on how to handle conflict, read my article: No Batteries Required: 8 Conflict Resolution Tips.
9. Watch your reaction to thwarting ploys.
In a Harvard Business Reviewarticle, Sarah Green lists nine common mistakes we make when we conduct a difficult conversation. One of these mistakes is how we handle thwarting ploys, such as stonewalling, sarcasm, and accusing. The best advice is to simply address the ploy openly and sincerely. As the author says, if the ploy from your counterpart is stubborn unresponsiveness, you can candidly say: “I don’t know how to interpret your silence.” Disarm the ploy by labeling the observed behavior.
10. Choose the right place to have the conversation.
Calling people into your office may not be the best strategy. Sitting in your own turf, behind your desk, shifts the balance of power too much on your side. Even simple body language such as leaning forward towards the person rather than leaning back on your chair, can carry a subtle message of your positive intentions, i.e.: “We’re in this together. Let’s problem solve so that we have a better workplace.” Consider holding the meeting in a neutral place such as a meeting room where you can sit adjacent to each other without the desk as a barrier. Don’t exclude the coffee shop.
11. Know how to begin.
Some people put off having the conversation because they don’t know how to start. The best way to start is with a direct approach. “John, I would like to talk with you about what happened at the meeting this morning when Bob asked about the missed deadline. Let’s grab a cup of coffee tomorrow morning to chat.” Or: “Linda, I want to go over some of the issues with XYZ customer and some concerns that I have. Let’s meet tomorrow morning to problem-solve.” Being upfront is the authentic and respectful approach. You don’t want to ambush people by surprising them about the nature of the “chat.” Make sure your tone of voice signals discussion and not inquisition, exploration and not punishment.
12. Train other leaders on how to handle the difficult conversation.
Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy, but ultimately, it requires the courage to go ahead and do it. The 19th century American politician, William Jennings Bryan once said: “The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you.” The more you get into the habit of facing these issues squarely, the more adept you will become at it. It will take your leadership skills to the next level.
How successful we are at selling ourselves, our products and our services depends on our ability to stand up and be heard. What often prevents us from telling our story successfully is not our inability to articulate what we do, or how strongly we believe in the value of what we offer. Instead, it is simply the fear of speaking in front of an audience. Being nervous while presenting can put a dint in your credibility and have an adverse effect on achieving your business goals.
To manage the fear of speaking in public, you need to first understand the root cause of the fear. One of the best explanations comes from Scott Berkun, in Confessions of a Public Speaker. Berkun says: “The design of the brain’s wiring—given its long operational history, hundreds of thousands years older than the history of public speaking . . . makes it impossible to stop fearing what it knows is the worst tactical position for a person to be in.” That worst tactical position is standing alone, in an open place, with no place to hide, without a weapon, and facing a large group of creatures staring at you. As Berkun puts it: Being in this situation, “meant the odds were high that you would soon be attacked and eaten alive. . . Our ancestors, the ones who survived, developed a fear response to these situations.”
Understanding that our brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat (a pack of wolves about to attack you) and an imagined threat (a group of your peers watching you present) is the first step to overcoming the fear. This awareness can help you manage the “false alarm” that happens in the absence of real danger. How so? As you feel your heart racing when you first start your presentation, you can consciously and deliberately interrupt the fear response with a quick deep breath and a rational thought: “This is just a false alarm.” The more you get into the habit of interrupting the fear response as soon as you feel it happening, the quicker you will prevent it from being your default response every time you present in front of a group. You must ingrain in your mind the thought that the fear of public speaking is simply a misfiring of the caveman “fight or flight” fear response and that you can overcome this.
Here are some practical tips to help you manage performance anxiety so that you can focus on your key messages:
Re-frame the questions you ask yourself. When you worry before a high stakes presentation, you may have a tendency to ask yourself negative questions, such as “What will happen if I forget my material?” or “What if I mess up?” This form of self-talk is like throwing gasoline in a room on fire. All it does is heighten your anxiety. Replace these negative questions with positive ones. Take an inspiration from Seymour Signet, a specialist in helping people overcome public speaking anxiety. He advises to ask yourself: “What will happen if I knock it out of the park?” You can view more of Seymour’s tips in his video “Ask Yourself Good Questions.” Give this a try; it will calm the noise in your head.
Practice as if you are the worst.When you know your material well, there is a tendency to get sloppy when practicing a speech: you might flip through the slides, mentally thinking about what you are going to say, without actually rehearsing out loud exactly what you plan to say. This results in a presentation that is not as sharp as it could be and might cause you to be nervous once you have 100 pairs of eyes staring at you. You can also forget some important sub-points and key sound bites. Avoid this by practicing out loud and verbalizing your complete presentation. For a high stakes presentation, do this at least five times, at spaced intervals, to encode your material in long-term memory.
Practice your transitions. It is also crucial that you practice your transitions—the words that link one idea in your presentation to the next. These are easy to forget if you don’t practice them and you end up with a staccato presentation. Transitions are the silken thread that guides your listeners through your story. Here are some examples of transitions: “Now that we have established. . .”; “This leads us to. . .”; “My next item is particularly crucial. . .”. If you don’t practice correctly, you will end up practicing your imperfections from one presentation to the next.
Memorize the sequence of your slides. Knowing the sequence of your slides so that you can anticipate and announce a slide makes you look in control. This will increase your composure as you know where you are going next. Nothing erodes your credibility faster than having to look at a slide to know what you have to say next. Being perceived as credible boosts your confidence and reduces your anxiety and the fear of failing.
Create a back up slide for some of your answers. One reason people often experience anxiety before a presentation is the fear that they will be asked questions that might be difficult to answer. Don’t get caught off guard. Think carefully of what potential questions might arise and rehearse your best answers. Go one step further by creating slides for some potential questions about complex issues. You can include in your slide important information, numbers, stats, or even a pertinent graph or pie chart that would be helpful to the audience. If such a question arises, it is quite okay to say: “I anticipated that you might be asking this question. Let me display a slide that will clearly show. . .” Rehearse some of your answers to questions with the same care as you rehearse the presentation.
Visualize Your Presentation. A study at Harvard University showed the value of visualization in developing a skill: Two groups of volunteers were presented with a piece of unfamiliar piano music. One group was given a keyboard and told to practice. The other group was instructed to just read the music and imagine playing it. When their brain activity was examined, both groups showed expansion in the motor cortex, even though the second group had never touched a keyboard. Visualization is a powerful mental rehearsal tool that peak sports performers use regularly. Einstein, who is credited with saying that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” used visualization throughout his entire life. Take advantage of this tool and visualize yourself successfully delivering your presentation. Concentrate on all the positives of your presentation, and visualize the entire talk, in detail, from your introduction to your conclusion.
Stop seeing your presentation as a performance. Instead, as Jerry Weissman puts it “. . . treat every presentation as a series of person-to-person conversations.” The more you remind yourself of this, the more you will be able to shift your focus away from the fear-inducing thought that you are required to perform.
Take some deep breaths. This simple advice cannot be emphasized enough. When you are nervous, you breathe rapidly and shallowly. This is telegraphing to the audience that you are not confident. Slow and measured breathing is a sign that you are in control. Before you go to the front of the room, concentrate on taking a few, slow breaths. Repeat this a few times. When you start to speak, remember to pause and breathe after you make a point. Psychiatrist, Fritz Perls, said it powerfully: “Fear is excitement without the breath.”
Try ‘power posing’ before the presentation. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy discovered that simply holding our body in an expansive pose for as little as two minutes results in a higher level of testosterone in our body. Testosterone is the hormone linked to power in both animals and humans. At the same time, the expansive pose lowers our level of cortisol, the stress hormone. In her TED video presentation, Cuddy shows a number of expansive poses, such as spreading your legs, placing your hands on your hips, or striking the CEO pose: legs resting on desk, and arms behind your head. You can apply this advice before a presentation to lower your stress level and give yourself a boost. Instead of hunching over your notes or Blackberry, find a spot where you can have some privacy and adopt an expansive pose: make yourself as big as you can by stretching your arms out and spreading your legs, or stand on your tiptoes with your hands in the air. Give it a try.
Pause Frequently. In “The King’s Speech,” a movie about the true story of King George VI, one of the successful strategies the speech therapist uses to help the king overcome his stuttering is the use of pauses. Pausing helped the king regain his composure whenever he was gripped by anxiety. The same strategy can help you. When you feel anxious while presenting, consider pausing more frequently. A few strategic pauses between points have a calming effect.
Come to terms with audience expressions. Your anxiety level is increased when you misinterpret the audience’s facial expression. In normal conversation, we are accustomed to getting feedback from the listener: a nod or a smile, here and there, that signal approval. But when we present, audiences listen differently. They are more likely to give the speaker a blank stare which does not mean that they don’t like what they hear; more often than not, it simply means they are concentrating on the message. This is especially true of members of the audience who have a preference for introversion.
You can access further tips for managing presentation anxiety in my book, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques For Effective Presentations. There is a Japanese proverb which says: “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” Put your mind on developing your key company messages and crafting your story. Replace time expended on worrying with time spent on preparing thoroughly for your presentation by knowing your material cold, and practicing it beyond the point of pain. Then go out there and win them over.
The ability to speak in a way that creates an emotional bridge that connects us to others is one of the most admired qualities of leadership. A person who has mastered this is said to speak in “the leader’s voice.” The leader’s voice is captivating: it makes the audience want to lean in to listen to every word that person has to say. What does it take to be that voice in the room, to speak in a way that qualifies as authentic leadership communication?
This article will provide some of the core principles for elevating a speech from a mere recital of facts into a more powerful communication. Recently, we saw a good example of this in the brief, 5-minute speech that President Obama delivered to his campaign staff the day after the election. The purpose of the speech was to thank the campaign workers for their efforts in helping the President win the re-election. Rather than the perfunctory “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or “you were a great asset to winning the campaign,” Obama delivered a thank you speech that was evidently straight from the heart. What exactly did he do that makes this an exemplary piece of leadership communication?
Authenticity, Humility, and Optimism.
First, there were three enduring leadership qualities that came through loud and clear: authenticity, humility and optimism. All three are hallmarks of any effective leadership communication:
Obama’s authenticity shines as he talks about his early days as a community organizer and his desire to make a difference: “I didn’t really know how to do it. . . a group of churches were willing to hire me. . . and I didn’t know at all what I was doing.” Authentic, personal communication is vital for any leader who seeks to connect with his constituents.
Humility is a very attractive trait in a leader. It is the antithesis of hubris, the excessive, arrogant pride which often leads to the derailment of some corporate heroes. Mark W. Merril said: “Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It just means you think more of others.” That’s precisely what Obama illustrates in his speech. He tells his audience: “You are so much better than I was. In so many ways, you’re smarter, and you’re better organized, and you’re more effective.” He goes further by stating that “the work that I did in those communities changed me much more than I changed the communities.”
Leaders are purveyors of hope. They can see around the corner and instill in people the hope and belief that tomorrow is better than today. That’s precisely what Obama does several times in his short speech. He says: “I’m just looking around the room and I’m thinking wherever you guys end up, you’re just gonna do great things.” He expresses an optimistic view of the future that awaits his staff long after their work as his campaign staff has ended: “And whatever good we do over the next four years will pale in comparison to what you guys end up accomplishing for years and years to come.”
Speak on Three Channels.
In Voice Lessons: Applying Science to the Art of Leadership Communication, Ron Crossland tells us that the most effective communicators use three channels to boost the impact of their communication: the factual, emotional and symbolic. Too often, leaders speak only on the factual channel, but facts alone rarely inspire. It is the emotional and symbolic channel that powers a leader’s communication and helps him or her convey important leadership messages. Obama’s speech is a particularly good example of a leader who is gifted in using the emotional channel, in an authentic manner.
Communicating on the emotional channel is a two-part process: first, a leader needs to speak about his emotions, about how he feels about his topic. We admire those who are cool under fire, but we don’t connect with a leader who is dead cold. A poker face is good for poker, not for inspiring others. People want to know what their leader feels; it creates transparency, it brings us closer to those we lead and engenders trust. The emotional channel dominates Obama’s speech to his staff. He expresses his own emotions which center around confidence and admiration for his staff, and genuine gratitude for their efforts and loyalty: “I am absolutely confident that you are going to do just amazing things in your lives;” “I am really proud of you;” “You guys won’t disappoint me.”
The second part of the emotional channel is your constituents’ emotions. It is having the empathy to understand and recognize the emotions of others in the room. On that score, Obama refers to their hard work and shows that he genuinely understands who they are, what they have done, (“you all are just remarkable people”) “and most important, what they will accomplish in the future: “Your journey is just beginning…You’re just starting.”
The symbolic channel taps into the power of symbols (or metaphors,) and storytelling. Here too, Obama’s speech fits Ron Crossland’s framework nicely. Obama uses several metaphors: He refers to the indomitable spirit of people as “the grit . . . of ordinary people.” He also borrows a metaphor from Robert Kennedy when he refers to the “ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in a lake.” This is a particularly apt metaphor that would resonate in a roomful of young people. He also honors his audience by making them the wellspring for his own hope and fortitude. He refers to them as “the source of my strength and my inspiration.” He tells them that they had an uplifting effect on him as he grappled with difficulties: “You’ve lifted me up, each and every step of the way.” Another powerful metaphor.
Storytelling, a major component of the symbolic channel, is a powerful leadership tool. This is echoed by Terry Pearce, in The Mastery of Speaking as a Leader. Pearce provides three rules for powerful leadership communication: speak on topics you really care about; incorporate personal experiences that have formed the basis for your beliefs, values and convictions, and structure your speech as a story. One could say that Obama’s entire short speech is a personal story about his dream to make a difference—starting from his efforts as a 25-year old community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, during the Ronald Reagan era, to where he is now: “I felt that the work that I had done, in running for office, had come full circle. . . , because what you guys have done . . . means that the work that I’m doing is important.”
Finally, throughout his speech there is a sense of history: “What you guys have accomplished will go on in the annals of history, and people will read about it, and they’ll marvel about it.” As Terry Pearce says in his book, Leading Out Loud: Inspiring Change Through Authentic Communication, “leadership communication is about growth and change, words that contain a past, a present and a future—a story line.” We can clearly follow the thread of this story line in Obama’s speech. He adds meaning to their work and this is another requisite for a successful leadership communication: leaders need to connect the dots for people and help them see the greater purpose for their work.
In today’s climate, especially, it is important for leaders to speak in a way that connects with people, a way that engenders loyalty and commitment. Authentic, personal experiences, empathy, a hopeful vision, stories and metaphors are powerful weapons in a leader’s arsenal. They are the megaphone for the leader’s voice.
Meetings may be the number one complaint in today’s workplaces. More and more people view attendance at meetings as a form of time theft that they have to endure. This mind-set causes some to show up at meetings in person, but not in spirit. Woody Allen’s often quoted words that “eighty percent of success is showing up” works in reverse here—it is better not to attend a meeting at all, than to show up as a potted plant. Emotional disengagement in meetings leaks through and this is not in anyone’s best interest.
Meetings are a prime opportunity to show leadership in the room. Whether a meeting is well run or not, as a participant, you can stand out from the crowd by doing your share to contribute to the success of a meeting. Here are some pointers:
Be a front-seater.
Don’t sit in the back of the room, waiting to make a speedy exit. Get out of the shadows and choose a seat right opposite the leader, if you can. This will increase your visibility and opportunities for engagement.
Don’t be the first to leave.
Stay behind, speak with the meeting leader. Offer your feedback if the meeting was helpful to you. Make a genuinely appreciative or constructive remark. Thank someone for their contributions.
Build on the ideas of others.
Honor a colleague’s idea by referring to it and adding your perspective. Acknowledging someone else’s contribution is rarely done and is the mark of a leader.
Criticize ideas not people.
Arguing against an idea is fair game but attacking people in the process attracts negative attention. Personal attacks, especially in a meeting with others, are emotional violations. Replace statements such as “I don’t follow your logic at all” with “Jim, help me understand how you arrived at this conclusion.”
Make positivity your hallmark.
There are those who pride themselves for being “The Devil’s Advocate.” Research shows that these individuals snuff the life out of innovation. Be the voice in the room that infuses the meeting with positivity. Leaders value those who adopt a positive stance and help others see what’s right and what works, rather than focus on what’s wrong. A study showed that senior executives use positive words four times as often as negative words. That’s one way to genuinely boost your executive presence.
Be brief to be heard.
One of the most frustrating issues in meetings is individuals who ramble on and, often, take the meeting off track. State your issue succinctly and get to the point quickly; if this is a problem for you, think through the sequence of your ideas before the meeting, paring down unnecessary details. Master the 30 second answer—this is especially important if you are meeting with C-level executives. Meetings are expensive: don’t use the meeting for discussions that are best handled in a one-on-one meeting.
Above all, learn to notice the silent messages your peers are giving you when you stray from the topic and waste their time. You know the signs but you may have developed a habit of ignoring them: do they avert their eyes, drum their fingers, seem restless, speak with a neighbor, check the time or catch up on their Blackberry messages? Do too many people start to take bathroom breaks? Catch yourself: acknowledge that you digressed, go back to main topic and briefly reiterate your main point.
Learn to build rapport.
First meetings, especially, are crucial for developing rapport that can lead to a successful business relationship. Knowing as much as you can about the person you are meeting is now a lot easier and faster with Noteleaf; this is a novel Google application that creates a mobile profile of your meeting. It includes the photograph of the person you are meeting with, the LinkedIn profile, work history, mutual acquaintances, and tweets. This application will make your search for rapport building topics easier.
Nowhere is rapport building more important than in the first sales meeting with a prospective customer. In the video, Rapport Building, Ian Gilbert, president of Third Core, provides some useful advice on how to accomplish this successfully. It involves a sincere desire to understand what is important for the client as well as knowing what questions to ask. Start the discussion by asking them what they would like to get out of the meeting. Aim for the right tone: as Gilbert states, “too much reverence… or too much salesman like behavior… creates the wrong kind of bond.” You want to create as near a peer relationship as possible based on the value that you may be able to bring to the meeting. This enhances your meeting presence.
Tom Peters, business author and speaker, once said: “Meetings are the # 1 leadership opportunity. Like it or not, meetings are by definition the principal stage for exhibiting leadership.” While Peters’ statement is directed at leaders, it applies equally well to meeting participants. Choose every meeting opportunity to showcase your leadership abilities. It will set you apart from the crowd.