Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category

They say first impressions are easy to make and hard to break.

Few things make a stronger first impression, or do so with more people, than your public speaking.

If, on top of that, you speak regularly to the same people (example: monthly report to management), whatever impression you have made becomes the set story on you.

She has a hard time getting to the point no matter how much time you give her.  He’s dynamic, but his presentations lack substance.  She knows her stuff, but doesn’t project confidence in front of groups.

You can complain that you have been unfairly judged and labeled, but it does no good.

You can also set out to modify the behavior that led to your reputation, but the same negative comments just keep working their way back to you through second-hand sources.  It can be quite frustrating.

One solution is to change jobs, get in front of new people, and make a new first impression.  But, that’s a drastic, unnecessary, solution

Instead, in your next few presentations, try doing more than just modifying your behavior.  Consider overcorrecting.

If, for example, you have been labeled as too low-key and unenergetic, make a point of raising your delivery pace, volume and animation to a level that makes you a bit uncomfortable.  As long as you are still in your comfort zone, it’s unlikely you are correcting enough for it to be effective.  Without getting too carried away, you want to shake up the perception people have of you.

Don’t worry; you are not suddenly going to get a new reputation for being overly energetic.  More likely, you will get the modified reputation you were originally trying for.

Think of it this way: If you have a bent, metal rod, how far do you have to bend it in order to make it straight again?  Can you just bend (modify) it back to straight?  No.  You have to “over-bend” it in the opposite direction, beyond straight, so that it will spring back to straight when you let go.  In other words, you have to overcompensate.

You’re part way through a presentation and you realize you don’t have enough time to cover everything you prepared.  If you continue at your current rate, providing the same amount of detail, time will run out before you finish.

What do you do?

Do you speed up and skim through the material, explaining things less thoroughly.  Or, do you completely skip some material?

In most cases, it is better to skip some material.  Then you can maintain a reasonable delivery rate and continue to fully explain whatever material you choose to still address.  Ideally, if possible, you don’t even let the audience know that you are skipping anything.

The alternative approach of speeding up and skimming tends to diminish the quality of the whole message.  Everything gets mentioned, but little, if anything, gets adequately covered.

Present as much as you have time to adequately cover.

I recently had a return engagement as the speaker at a business association’s monthly meeting.  Since the attendees were expected to be people who had only recently joined the association, I was asked to deliver the same message I had delivered before.

As it turned out, one person in attendance had heard me speak the previous time.  He assured me during the pre-meeting coffee time that he had not accidently signed up, but was, in fact, interested in hearing the topic again.

Afterward, this repeat listener told me that my talk was “completely different.”  I assured him that I had delivered the same message, but he was adamant.

It occurred to me on the train ride home that I have experienced this phenomenon before with people who have repeated one of the presentation skills workshops I teach.  I’ll go over the same material and they will say afterward that they appreciated all the “new” things they learned.

I’m sure part of the explanation is that I say things differently from one engagement to the next.  But I’m also convinced that people hear “new” and “completely different” things because different material stands out to them from one hearing to the next.  It’s much like the experience we get when we reread a book.  It can seem like the author secretly exchanged our old copy with a new, revised version.

A close cousin of this phenomenon is the wide disparity you find in what members of the same audience recall from a speech or presentation.  They report hearing such different things, you wonder if they were even in the same room.

This would all be nothing more than interesting observations about the way people process information if it weren’t for the serious implications it has when it’s critical everyone in an audience hears, understands, and recalls specific pieces of information (e.g., a safety presentation at a dangerous work facility).

It tells me that there are times when it’s essential that points get repeated multiple times; that multiple media are used (e.g., voice and visuals); that the audience’s understanding is continuously checked; that creative, attention-getting devices are used (e.g., props, demonstrations); that the power of stories is harnessed; that there is scheduled follow-up with reinforecement.  Etcetera.  Etcetera.

Just because you said it doesn’t mean it was successfully communicated.

I recently helped a gentleman prepare for a presentation he was scheduled to deliver at a gathering of health ministers from around the world.  These ministers were predominantly from poorer countries that have difficulty affording medicines.  His presentation was about efforts being made to improve access to life-saving drugs.

One of the many complimentary e-mails he received afterward included praise for something he said at the very beginning of his talk.  He told the conference attendees that he was there not just to talk, but to listen and learn from them as well.  The conference coordinator said this was a “brilliant” thing to say given how sensitive these ministers are about people from affluent countries talking down to them.

I wish I could take credit for this expression but it was suggested to him by a fellow executive who has been attending these meetings for many years.

Not only did it demonstrate sensitivity to the audience members’ feelings, it showed respect for them as subject matter experts in their own right.  Although I wasn’t there, I suspect they became more open and willing to learn from my client because he had expressed a willingness to learn from them.

Guest speakers will often put expressions of gratitude for the opportunity to speak and compliments about the host group at the beginning of their speech.

Let me begin by saying how honored and grateful I am for this opportunity to speak at your annual awards dinner.  I have always been impressed by the work of the XYZ Foundation.  The programs you sponsor have given hundreds of families new hope.  Most notably…

I once heard a speechwriter say that putting these comments at the beginning of a speech is the best placement because they give the audience a chance to settle in before the meat of the talk begins.

Although this reasoning makes sense, Winston Churchill believed that such placement was not a good idea.  As he saw it, audience members consider such beginning comments as perfunctory, and, therefore, not particularly sincere.

Churchill recommended that speakers wait until later in the speech when they can be inserted as an aside.  Speaking of great accomplishments, let me take a moment to say a few words about the extraordinary work of this Foundation.

Churchill reasoned that such an aside would be perceived as more sincere because it was not the typical and expected thing to do.

There is this inevitable question when you coach speakers: How many improvement recommendations do you give them?

You may think it’s a no-brainer.  Tell them everything!  The more opportunities for improvement they are aware of, the better.

Maximum feedback would seem to be the way to go.  You have limited time to work with them and you want to work as much value into that time as possible.  In addition, an extensive analysis will demonstrate your insightfulness.

It all makes sense until you factor in the need for real, observable improvement that lasts.  Challenge someone to change too many behaviors and you risk generating no change.  Either they stop listening or become discouraged.

If you are working alone on becoming a better speaker (i.e., being your own coach), don’t overload yourself.  Pick one thing you want to change and stay focused on it until you are satisfied the change has taken hold.  Then move on to something else.  Over time you will get significantly better, and the improvements will last.

In my last post I talked about a strategy for getting started when you are asked to speak without prior notice (i.e., impromptu speaking).

Another impromptu speaking strategy—one that is essential—is to quit while you are ahead.  In other words, stop talking before you get into trouble.

Typically, when people are speaking on an impromptu basis, they keep trying to think of additional things to say no matter how much they have already said.  The quality of their comments inevitably deteriorates until they are speaking about trivia.  When they finally exhaust all their ideas, they sputter and stop like an engine running out of gas.

This can all be avoided by making it a personal rule that you will stop talking once you have made three—maybe four—points.  You don’t have to make that many points, but once you have, you know anything more you say is probably not going to be important.  So you make your third or fourth point and then finish.

If the people you are speaking to want to know more they can always ask you questions.  The important thing is that you ended your initial thoughts on a strong note.

When we get asked without warning to speak about something, the first few things out of our mouth can be no better than babble.  Eventually, we get focused and say something intelligent, but we wish we could go back and make a better first impression.

If only we could start out sounding immediately thoughtful while buying ourselves some time to get mentally up to speed

One tried and true way to do this is to lead off with some historical or background information.

Let’s say, for example, we are in a meeting that is supposed to only be about Project X, but the person in charge asks us to talk about the current status of Project Y.  We might start out by saying a couple of things about where Project Y was when the group last met.  You may recall that last month we were having some delivery problems with critical parts.  Two of our sub-contractors were running into raw material shortages.  They were being forced to shut down their operations for several days at a time.

Then, having gotten our mind focused on Project Y by talking about the past (i.e. old news), we could move into comments about its current status (what we were asked to talk about).  I’m happy to report that these problems have been solved.  Our sub-contractors found new sources for their raw materials and they are delivering our supplies on time.  Our deliveries are now on schedule and we are looking at a couple of new opportunities to bid on.

A few pieces of background information may not sound like much, but that’s usually enough to get our minds focused on the topic.  And, as long as we keep it to just a few lines, no one is going to get impatient waiting for us to get to the main point we were asked to address.  The important thing is that we didn’t babble when we first started talking.

Entertain questions at the end of sections.

Your audience members want to ask questions any time during your presentation.  They prefer not to have to wait until the end.

You, on the other hand, may want them to wait because time is an issue or you are concerned about getting off track.

One possible solution—if your presentation has distinct sections—is to entertain questions at the end of each section. 

That ends the market research portion of my presentation.  Before I move on to our strategic options, are there any questions about the research?

This approach can be a reasonable compromise between your presentation-management needs and the audience members’ desire not to have to wait all the way until the end of the presentation to ask questions.

A consulting team I worked with was getting ready to present at a convention.

The official purpose of the presentation was to educate interested listeners on a technology issue of growing importance in their industry. 

Of course, the underlying motivation for the team was to create an interest that might lead to new consulting opportunities.

The presentation they brought to our first session showed they had made a classic mistake.  They had created something highly complex with the belief that the audience would be: 1) impressed with their knowledge, and 2) convinced they should be hired because of the complexity of the technology.

This strategy is a mistake because it makes it hard for audience members to carry the message back to their respective companies.  The impressive complexity limits what they can confidently repeat.  Their time in the presentation doesn’t lead to a “buzz” outside the convention.

When you do a presentation like this you want your audience members to enthusiastically talk it up after they leave.  Instead of blowing them away with what you know, significantly increase what they know.  Then they will be able to lead others back to you.


Steele Presentation Coaching