Archive for the ‘Message’ Category

Common question on a public speaking discussion board: What is the secret to being a dynamic speaker?

Common answer: Speak on something you’re passionate about.

Sounds good.  But what if your audience members are not passionate about the same thing you are?  What if technology excites them and consumer behavior is your thing?  Will tapping your passion be enough?

It might be enough if a dynamic performance is your only goal.  But if successfully connecting with your audience members is also a priority (as it should be), their passion is equally as important—if not more.

The best speakers draw energy from their own passions but put the passions and interests of their audience members first.  If there’s a difference—even a large one—they strive to find a point of connection or intersection.  In my earlier example that might be the role of technology in gaining new and deeper understanding of consumer behavior.

Your passion alone is not enough.  Their passion is important too.

A story can be a powerful addition to your speech or presentation—if the audience members get the point you intended to make with the story.

Let’s say you tell a story about someone being forgiven for something they did wrong.  Your intention is to communicate the power of forgiveness; however, many people in your audience think your main point was that certain crimes don’t deserve punishment.  Your story may have been engaging, but it failed to accomplish what you intended.

Even if the point of your story would seem to be obvious, say what it is anyway.  As you can see, forgiveness has the power to heal a broken relationship.

Don’t worry; a simple statement about the story’s point is not going to insult the intelligence of your audience members.  It’s just going to make sure you succeed in communicating what you intended to communicate.

Reading Seth Godin’s blog post entitled “But you’re not saying anything,” reminded me of something.

Early in my career, I worked for an ad agency that was occasionally called on to create an annual report for a corporate client.

Inevitably, the client would want something that was great looking, with exceptionally high production values.  After all, the company’s image was at stake.  Page after page of gorgeous photography, custom artwork, colorful charts and beautiful typography would be printed on the highest-quality paper.

What I could never get over was how the whole effort would also yield paragraph after paragraph of beautiful-sounding prose—that said absolutely nothing!  You could read any page and not remember a single thing you read.  But it sounded good!

This vacuous copy was not the agency’s fault.  The agency’s copywriters always presented the client with a strong, meaningful first draft.  But then the copy would go through multiple rounds of reviews with multiple executives at the client company.  Each time, any word or phrase that wasn’t absolutely safe would be watered down or taken out all together.  Anything that had to be included but might somehow raise an issue, would be so obfuscated you could read it multiple times and not get a clear sense of what was being said.

Is there any lesson from this experience that could be applied to presenting or giving a speech?

One lesson I take from it is that obsessive polishing that is motivated primarily by image and safety, will ultimately render a piece of communication that is void of substance.

It will have no impact.  It will stimulate no thinking.  It will persuade no one about anything.  It will generate no action.  But it will look good and sound nice.

Senior executives don’t want surprises and don’t want people using up their limited time.

These “don’ts” are understandable and reasonable.

What is not always reasonable is how these “don’ts” lead to inflexible rules that subordinates have to follow when presenting to senior managers.

Two common ones are: 1) you must turn in your completed presentation days before you are scheduled to deliver it, and 2) you have to say, up front, on the first slide, what you are proposing.

These rules might eliminate surprises, and force presenters to “get to the bottom line” right away, but they also lead—very often—to subordinates not being given an opportunity to present their full message.

They carefully plan their explanation of a complex proposal but, before they can go through it, managers jump straight into questioning and criticizing out-of-sequence points and the conclusions.  Subordinates are forced into a defense of their ideas without first being given an opportunity to develop them.  Then, to add insult to injury, they are criticized afterward for not having delivered a well-reasoned, persuasive argument.

Yes, executives should demand clear, concise presentations that don’t waste time.  And, yes, they should not be hit with anything they should have been warned about in advance.  But, no, they should not routinely deprive subordinates of an opportunity to go through the full message they have worked so hard to develop.

Give them a chance to make their case.

The word pretentious refers to someone putting on an air of importance, usually undeserved.  If clothes are part of the image, it has traditionally meant that the person is overdressing, most likely without good taste.  The goal is to get attention and come off as special.

After observing a few speakers show up at relatively formal business occasions dressed in Saturday-afternoon casual, I have decided that a kind of reverse pretentiousness has come into vogue.

Under the guise of not dressing to impress, someone practicing the new reverse pretentiousness sets out to be impressively casual.  The unspoken message is that they are so cool, confident, and important, they can dismiss the dress code expectations of others.

I understand that casual attire has become much more accepted and, to some extent, the norm in many environments.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about casual attire in places, and on occasions, when it’s not the norm, not acceptable, and intended to make a statement.

Pretentiousness is off-putting in whatever form it takes.

Successful salespeople live by the axiom: “Features tell.  Benefits sell.”

They know they can’t just talk about the various features of their product or service; they have to translate these features into benefits for the prospective buyer.  If they don’t stress the benefits, they won’t make the sale.

This truth isn’t just important to salespeople.  Anyone who wants to speak persuasively has to stress the benefits their audience members will enjoy if they buy in.

But what if all your experience is in telling, not selling?  How do you learn to translate features into benefits?

Start out by watching one of the shopping channels on television.  You may have no interest in buying a roaster oven that cooks whole turkeys or jewelry that changes colors, but you can get a first-rate lesson in how to emphasize benefits.

The hosts on these shows are constantly challenged to come up with as many benefit statements as they possibly can in order to move the merchandise.  With thousands of hours of practice, they get quite good at it.

Am I suggesting you sell a financing plan to your board of directors the same way you might sell kitchen utensils on TV?  No.  The style would be inappropriate.

However, observing this skill practiced in a highly-obvious way is helpful for understanding the mechanics of it.  Once you have that understanding, you can modify the approach to fit your particular circumstances.

In a March 28 post to his “Manner of Speaking” blog, John Zimmer does an excellent job of analyzing the video of a talk delivered by lawyer and author, Philip Howard.  Zimmer, a lawyer himself, dissects Howard’s message, showing step-by-step how Howard crafted a persuasive argument.

To Zimmer’s analysis, I would like to add an observation.  Howard’s talk is a good example of how a strong message can make up for shortcomings in delivery.  Howard’s delivery is not dynamic.  As Zimmer points out, he doesn’t move around despite a generous stage, and he seems overly dependent on his notes.  I would add that he could benefit from greater vocal animation.

Yet, he receives a standing ovation that appears to surprise him.

It didn’t surprise me because his message was so strong.  It had what speaking guru William Safire would have called “high purpose.”  Also, together with well-crafted design, it delivered that rare value called revelation.  Legions of speakers promise it; few deliver.

I’m not suggesting delivery is unimportant.  Mr. Zimmer’s talk would have been even better with a polished delivery.  What I do want to emphasize, however, is what an exceptional message can accomplish.

Contrary to what many would say, strong delivery does not save a weak message.  But a strong message can compensate for less-than-dynamic delivery.

A few days ago I watched a video claiming to reveal the “secrets” behind a well-known business speaker’s success.  The host would show a brief segment from one of this speaker’s presentations and then excitedly explain the “secret” that had just been demonstrated.

It was all quite silly.

Every “secret” was a basic concept in public speaking.  And, surprisingly, this famous speaker was not doing a great job of executing these basic concepts.

One “secret” was transitioning between the main sections in a presentation.  The famous speaker’s approach was to announce the end of a section and the beginning of a new one.   That ends x.  Now I want to talk about y.

Transitions are a non-secret requirement for maintaining a narrative flow.  And, announcing the end of one section and the beginning of another is only marginally better than no transition at all.

The best transitions create a narrative that is so seamless that a listener would have to be consciously listening for them to even notice.  In other words, one section naturally flows into the next, carrying the audience along, as in a story.

For example, a presenter who has been talking about competing economic forecasts might transition to a section on investment strategies by saying: “Each one of these economic forecasts suggests a different investment strategy.  If we were to choose to go with the most pessimistic forecast, a defensive strategy similar to what you see here (new slide) would be appropriate.”

The goal is not to obscure section changes, but to create a single, unbroken narrative.

In a way it’s like wallpaper.  When it’s hung well the patterns match and you don’t notice the seams.

On Monday I wrote about a sales manager who delivered an inspiring message using the speaking technique called anaphora.  

If you go back and read the examples I gave from her speech you will also notice the affirming quality of her message.  She was communicating in a powerful way how special her team members were.

Great leaders affirm the people they are leading.  In other words, they make them feel good about themselves.  And, they do this even when things are not going well.  In fact, they make a point of it when things are not going well.

Former CEO of Monolithic Memories, Irwin Federman, put it well when he said: “Those you have passionately, gladly, zealously followed . . . have made you feel like somebody.”

Any leader going to the front of the room to “speak to the troops,” needs to keep this in mind.

A few days ago I spoke at a networking program.

I offered tips for succeeding in a group interview.  The plain vanilla title was “Presenting Yourself.”

After my talk I was given the opportunity to sit in on a meeting that featured personal “elevator” speeches from approximately three dozen people.  They each took a couple of minutes to tell the group about their professional experience and job-search focus.

I observed that the best messages shared two, closely-related characteristics. 

First, they emphasized what distinguished the person from others with similar career stories.  The best messages emphasized just two or three significant distinctions.  The speaker didn’t try to stand out by resume length.

Secondly, we didn’t just hear what the person’s experience was; we also heard the benefit that experience would bring to an employer.  As the sales adage goes: features tell, benefits sell.

 Saying as much as possible with the hope that something will make an impression is not an effective strategy.  Focus on dominant distinctions and most-valuable benefits.


Steele Presentation Coaching