There is quite a bit of consensus that business meetings and presentations are too often marked by mediocrity and tedium, and there are simply too few people calling phooey. It’s as if herd mentality got together with bystander effect and conspired to make time spent in conference rooms and boardrooms insufferable.
I’m trying to call phooey and help leaders and aspiring leaders raise the bar on business communications for themselves and their organizations.
Communication is the currency of success, it’s how we sell, persuade, motivate, collaborate and inform. It’s how we get things done. The usual organizational values of excellence and efficiency can and should be applied to communication as well, but are they?
When it comes to how organizations communicate, I am struck by how corporate leaders strive for excellence and efficiencies in so many operational areas, yet are willing to settle for merely adequate—or worse, time-wasting—when it comes to business communications. Meetings, presentations, and speeches are so often where and how business gets done, but in these settings mediocrity abounds. Many companies even subscribe to the tenets of the Lean Movement yet tolerate flab and time-wasting in communications.
Business audiences have come to expect and accept a relatively low standard. Well, what is standard in the business world may be adequate, but it’s not optimal and, let’s face it, it shouldn’t be acceptable. Think about how often you roll your eyes during meetings that are too long and, worse, pointless. Think about the boring presentations you’ve sat through—the ones in which you waited for the single valuable nugget, that one answer, that lone call to action that came at minute 52 out of an hour-long talk. Think about the speech by the CEO who was incredibly dry or who mouthed the same old-same old. A bar set at adequate or standard is far too low for organizations that expect excellent outcomes.
Don’t be part of the herd or a bystander. Do what you can to embrace good communications within your organization – and at the very least, for yourself!
[*Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World, www.jocktalkbook.com]
What do you say when you want to give a brief but impactful overview of your business and your brand?
You’ve got to go high. Or do what I call “going up to 30,000 feet and looking down.” Take the biggest-picture view you can find on your organization’s work and its value. Or, as President George H. W. Bush is known to have called it, find that “vision thing.”
The view from 30,000 feet is the exact opposite of peering through the weeds, and while most people in an organization are by definition, and indeed by assignment, stuck in the day-to-day weeds, certainly a leader is in a position—and arguably has the responsibility—to rise to a higher vantage point.
For an example of a 30,000-foot view, let’s look at one of my clients, an entrepreneurial company that manufactures super high-end sports equipment. The executives came to me for spokesperson training in advance of what they expected to be a busy season of trade shows and sport competitions where their products and sponsored athletes would attract a lot of attention. The engineering and technology that goes into the production of their equipment is as fascinating as it is dense with detail and data. Yet for the media—and for the benefit of building and promoting the brand—they needed to develop some higher-level messaging. The nitty-gritty details could be saved for the trade journals that craved them.
In a small group session with the executive team, I asked a series of questions to elicit the 30,000-foot view. Fundamentally, I was pushing and poking at them to home in and identify what their company is really all about. It’s not about the product line or producing the best equipment; it’s not about being made in America; it’s not even about satisfied customers. Those are all great attributes, but they’re closer to the ground (where weeds grow). What the 30,000-foot exercise yielded in the end was that their company is all about three things, characterized in a different way: innovation, performance, and fun.
Having a 30,000-foot view of your organization’s work in your back pocket means you’re always prepared to speak at the higher visionary level befitting a leader. It gives you a go-to point when you need to make remarks that describe your work and its value. Ultimately, it’s more memorable and communicates your brand … rather than just your product line.
[Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World, www.jocktalkbook.com]
“Go right up to that line but don’t cross it,” I say. My client, rehearsing her speech for me, says, “Okay, let me give it another try.”
The line I’m referring to is the invisible but instinctive line between what’s barely comfortable and what’s not when employing theatrics to enhance your delivery.
Don’t let the word theatrics throw you off or cause you to self-select out of reading any further. Presentation theatrics are necessary, they animate you and your content. Theatrics are the energy – voice and body – that you infuse into your delivery. They should produce a delivery that feels a bit exaggerated to you but simply comes off as energetic to your audience.
To achieve that energetic connection with your audiences, here are some tips for your voice, hands and body:
Voice. In a word, modulate. Vary and adjust your speaking pace, volume, pitch. For example, if there is a section of your speech that should sound more conversational, then you can speak at a quicker pace and with a normal tone of voice. If you have a word, phrase or sentence that warrants attention, you will want to slow down, project your voice, and essentially emphasize it orally as you would if you were writing it in boldface font.
Hands. Use them as props in your play. Think Charades. You can literally animate your speech by using gestures that go with your words. For example, to welcome your audience or when talking about “all of us here in this room,” use outstretched arms to make a large, open embrace. If you are talking about something personal or touching or emotional, put your hands to your heart. You can clap (yes!), punch your fist in the air (victory!), offer an exaggerated shrug (who knew?!), put the back of your hand to your forehead (ugh!). Talking with your hands is a-okay.
Body. Unless you are forced to stand behind a podium due to a fixed microphone, you want to use your body also. Nothing distracting (like pacing), but some movement across the floor or stage helps to keep your audience’s attention. For example, if you’re talking about making a change or a move, literally walk a few feet across the floor. Move to get closer to different sides or sections of the room. Take a giant step forward to illustrate progress or a step backward to illustrate a setback. Act out your words.
Regardless of how you animate your speech and which tactics you use, just know that you will be pushing yourself and using your whole body, head to toe. Keep it authentically you, but an exaggerated you. Push it to the point where you feel like you’re putting on a show … because you are.
“Vision trumps all other senses.”
Those are the words of Dr. John Medina, a renowned molecular biologist. I have been fascinated by his book, “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School” for a while now.
According to Medina’s work, we remember pictures. He claims that if we hear a piece of information without a picture as visual support, then three days later we’ll remember only 10% of it. However, if we hear a piece of information with a picture to support it, then three days later we’ll remember 65% of it.
Medina also asserts that we remember pictures much better than we remember text, because our brains see words as lots of little pictures, making the reading part less efficient than simply looking at a picture.
The implication for business presentations? Images beat words. Those dense text slides you’re using or seeing might not be providing the “visual support” benefit you were hoping they would have.
Try images – pictures, simple graphics, or even one-word slides. It takes some forethought and advance planning, but your audience will better remember what you were trying to impart.
And, if you spare them the multi-bullet-pointed slides that have become ubiquitous, they are likely to thank you.
Nothing informs the future of business communication more than the need for brevity in meetings and presentations.
In fewer than 500 words, let’s look at the case for brevity and then at how to achieve it. Feel free to read this as a call to action – for yourself, your team and/or your organization!
The Case for Brevity
Clearly, brevity in presentations is a trend. Of the most popular formats, TedTalks, which typically share deep insights and are capped at 18 minutes, are the longest. There are also presentation events like Pechakucha – 20 slides at 20 seconds per slide – which have become almost a club sport in some cities.
In online training, the rage is microlearning – nuggets of material delivered in only 90 seconds or two minutes, consuming very little of the user’s time and attention but delivering something of value.
Audiences are demanding more of these brief formats. It’s not just that attention spans are shrinking – according to research, they’ve always been limited – it’s that the combination of a device and a WiFi connection is a formidable competitor.
Finally, let’s face it, we all crave brevity because we’re tired of wasting time in unnecessarily lengthy meetings and presentations.
How to Achieve Brevity
Brevity isn’t simply about shortening the time by talking and moving through your material faster, it’s about homing in on what’s meaningful about your content and getting to the point sooner, with less mess. It’s about delivering the meat without a lot of side dishes obscuring it. Brevity is efficiency in communication.
So, what does it take to be brief?
You need to plan, prioritize and package your material.
First, life and attention spans are short. Serve dessert first. In your opening, deliver your call to action or the ultimate takeaway of your presentation. Don’t wait until the end.
Second, go modular. Prepare your presentation not as a narrative but in chunks that are linked by transitions. Break down the chunks into big fish and little fish.
Your big fish are your main points, and you state those first. If your presentation is informative, big fish statements will sound like a summary that captures the importance of a section of material. If your presentation is persuasive, your big fish statements will sound like a statement conveying value or benefit for your section(s) of material.
Your little fish are the background information and detail – evidence, if you will – that support your big fish. Little fish are subordinate to big fish and come second.
Delivering a presentation that is front-loaded with information (little fish) can be overwhelming and confusing to your audience. Packaging your information inside of a main point (big fish) and delivering that first helps to set context and foster greater understanding and retention. Information, or too much information, is the enemy of brevity. Be selective and prioritize information based on your audience’s appetite and interests.
Communication is the currency of success, and brevity is the future of individual and organizational effectiveness.
Stories – or anecdotes, examples, case studies – are the absolute best way to illustrate a point, even in a business presentation.
When crafted well, they illustrate and support your messages better than anything else. Stories make an emotional connection to your audience that sticks with them long after you finish talking.
Here are 3 rules of thumb that apply to using stories in your communications:
1. STORIES NEED TO DIRECTLY SUPPORT A POINT. In other words, you may have a favorite story that you love to tell, and that’s great, but it must be constructed in a such a way that it works its way to a “punch line” that reinforces the message point you are trying to support. You can’t assume the audience will make that connection on their own, you have to spell it out and tie it together for them.
2. PREPARATION IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Rather than simply reminding yourself to tell a certain story during your presentation, you need to map out the story to avoid getting lost in the details while telling it (every story has more details than you have time to share!). I have watched too many speakers derail a perfectly good 15-minute presentation by telling a story that went on and on until – before they knew it – an additional 10 minutes of air time had been consumed.
3. SIMPLE IS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN COMPLICATED. This is true of most communications but certainly true of stories – despite the temptation to “spin a yarn” for your audience. Unless you’re a comedian or a professional storyteller, you’ll want to keep your stories simple.
Keeping them simple means paring down and prioritizing the detail. Think about composing your stories in this 3-3-3 format:
3 sentences describing the situation;
3 sentences revealing the dramatic tension (e.g. something unexpected, complications, competing factors); and
3 sentences outlining the resolution, which should help you tie back – in that punch line kind of a way – to the point you were illustrating.
And finally, be sure to cue your audience when you’re beginning and ending a story. For those in the audience who might not be paying close attention, you have the opportunity to reignite interest with your own appropriate versions of “Once upon a time” and “The end” – those timeless story cues that signal the open and close of something special.
When you prepare for a presentation, can you picture it in your mind’s eye? Do you know the elements of your opening or how you’re going to transition between your main points? Can you see it in your head, or do you need your notes?
A presentation isn’t as much a seamlessly flowing narrative as it is a deliberately well-constructed set of building blocks. For our discussion purposes here, let’s call those building blocks “chunks.” If you can chunk your material, then you have something modular, which is more easily abbreviated if your audience runs out of time and also easier for you to remember and deliver.
So what would the critical chunks of a presentation be and how would you construct them? I’m glad you asked!
First, you’ll need an opening chunk. This might include a question that stimulates the audience’s thoughts and connections to your topic. Or it might include a story that illustrates the importance of your topic. Or it might just be a simple introduction to the topic. Either way, your opening also needs to include a one-sentence focal point, in which you tell the audience what you want them to do (call to action) or to take away (impression, piece of knowledge) by the end.
Next, you’ll need to identify up to three key points. By “up to” I mean one, two or three points – and not three and a half, four or five. Yes, this means you’ll have to prioritize. You’ll be lucky if your audience can remember three, or two, or even one. So if you’re presenting with the intention and hope that your audience will retain what you say, then set a maximum of three key points. Each of your key points then becomes its own chunk, which means that with the opening chunk and up to three more, you have a maximum of four things to remember so far and you’re almost done!
Here are the ingredients of each of your “key point” chunks:
- A message statement that captures significance and/or conveys benefit for this section of your material.
- Some information points (data, detail, background) that support the message statement and that are prioritized and chosen based on your audience’s needs and interests.
- For good measure, and as a springboard to transition to your next chunk, each key point chunk should conclude with a reinforcement of the opening message statement.
Finally, your last chunk is your closing. Closing elements can include a recap of key point message statements; a story that illustrates the importance of your talk; and a circling back to your focal point to ensure that the audience knows what to do or think when they leave the room.
If you have the ability to picture five bullet points in your mind, you can see the chunks too. Try it and let us know how it goes!
10. You know this: Do your homework. Nothing drastic, just prepare ahead. If you think through your material rather than wing it, it will show and reflect well on you.
9. There’s no right or wrong, but there is better and worse. When in doubt, make decisions about your content, your visuals and the amount of time you’ll take based on your own experiences as an audience member. In other words, do unto others …
8. No one likes a windbag. Share the floor. Figure out ways to engage your audience and create opportunities for dialogue. Present, don’t broadcast.
7. Whatever you think is noticeable and distracting about you – your voice, hair, nose – it’s not. Unless you’re a paid spokesmodel, the audience isn’t paying attention to your specific physical features or your voice quality. They want to feel your confidence and hear your content.
6. Your content may be amazing, but your audience can only digest and retain some of it. Please prioritize all that great knowledge and information of yours so that you deliver something useful and memorable to your audience.
5. Present, the verb: to give something. Present, the noun: a gift. Figure out what you can give to your audience that would be a good gift – i.e. something new, useful, beneficial, valuable. Give them something good in exchange for their time and attention.
4. Your nerves are just adrenaline. They are your body’s way of surging positive energy for you to do a good job. Not to worry, studies show that nerves begin to dissipate after two minutes – that’s only 120 seconds.
3. Don’t dread your presentation, as if it’s some unpleasant obligation. Find your ambitious self and embrace your presentation as a great opportunity to advance – yourself, your organization or a goal. Go for it, don’t shrink from it.
2. Be organized: know your audience, know the lay of the land (number of people, room set-up, mic or no mic) as best you can, and know your desired outcome for the presentation. The first two help you envision what to expect. The third helps you know – if you prepare nothing else – how to set the audience’s expectations and where you need to get them by the end.
– and –
1. It’s all about them, it’s not about you. Your audience’s needs and experience supersede your own. Plan your presentation around them, not around yourself or your deep knowledge and expertise. Success is in the eye of the beholder, and that’s your audience. Make them #1.
Grateful for your continued support of SmartMouth and wishing you the very best for 2019,
If there were ever an invitation to “wing it” in public speaking, it would be when you’re invited to speak on a panel.
Or would it?
I think this is worth discussing …
For sure, the glory/work quotient of participating on a panel is high. On the glory side, panels are great public speaking opportunities. You’re usually matched with other notables in your field, sometimes with those more notable. You get great exposure and access to a new audience. And you get to share your best nuggets of genius without bearing full responsibility for filling the time.
On the work side, the heavy lifting is typically low. Except in cases where the panel is structured, and specific subsections of the topic are assigned, most panels tend to flow freely once introductions and perhaps opening remarks are made. They’re often moderated or facilitated, there are plenty of prompts to remind you exactly what to talk about, and there’s always someone to bail you out or fill an uncomfortable silence if you trail off, forget what you were about to say, or have only a few words to offer. Sweet!
So, prepare or wing it?
To answer this dilemma, I think you need to ask yourself why you said yes in the first place. What drew you? Was it a close colleague or friend who invited you? Was it the location of the event? (ProTip: Say yes to panels in Hawaii.) Maybe it was the opportunity to get in front of a particular audience? Or maybe you said yes because the topic is so near and dear to you, speaking about it on a panel would be a breeze, almost second-nature.
Your motivation for accepting the invitation informs but shouldn’t really affect your decision to prepare or not. Would it do you great harm not to prepare? Probably not. Would it benefit you greatly not to prepare? Probably not. In other words, there’s a decent probability that not preparing has a net neutral effect. You don’t really lose, you don’t really gain.
But let’s be honest here. Net neutral is not the typical effect you look to have in your career, is it? You spend a lot of time building – your network, your reputation, your expertise, your visibility. It’s probably fair to say that if you’ve said yes to a panel invitation, there’s some net gain you’ve identified. Therefore, at least some preparation is warranted.
To that end, let’s look at some ways to prepare that don’t take a lot of time but may pack a lot of punch:
Must-air points. Given the topic, there are likely points you do not want to forget to share with the audience. Think of it as a collection of your most important thoughts on the topic – your “greatest hits” – and jot them down in bullet point form.
Differentiators. Surely you have ideas, theories, discoveries, concepts or philosophies that are unique to you/your work and would distinguish you with the audience. Decide which ones you want to share and add them to your bullet points.
Stories. You most definitely have stories – examples, anecdotes, and/or drama-filled sagas – you can share. Pick your best ones and add those to the bullet points as well. Two tips on stories: 1) unless you identify and shape/practice them in advance, you’re unlikely to conjure up and tell the perfect story on the spot; and 2) stories need to be matched up with a point you’re making, in which the point becomes the punchline to the story.
The risks associated with winging it – rambling, hemming and hawing, searching your brain for the right things to say, losing your train of thought – are too great. Being prepared – with a definitive beginning and end to your points and good stories to illustrate those points – conveys confidence, command and polish. All you need is a few bullet points and you can post your next panel in the gain column!