Stories Made Simple

Stories Made Simple

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.

Your Best Currency

Your Best Currency

dollar-726884_640Communication is the currency of success.
When you think about it, no one succeeds alone; every single one of us needs to communicate in order to get things done, achieve goals, and ultimately succeed. We exchange words and ideas more often than we exchange money.
Good communication skills are therefore critical to organizational effectiveness. Yet very few organizations embrace excellence in communication as a value or a performance imperative.
This is my personal crusade. Excellence in communication doesn’t just happen, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured by organizations.
While the direct ROI of excellence in communication may not be easily measurable, it would be hard to argue that strong communication skills don’t yield better results whether used in selling, negotiating, client and customer service, employee relations, you name it.
Both anecdotally and through research, I have become almost painfully aware that there are three elements that make a pretty compelling case for looking more closely at how communication impacts your organization.
1. Performance Issue. Over the past couple of years, I have heard from clients that communication skills consistently emerge as the #1 area of need in performance reviews. In fact, it’s become pretty standard for me, that whenever I meet an HR person, I now ask what tops their list of performance needs, and communications skills are always at or near the top.
2. Career Maker/Breaker. I’ve also observed that communication skills are seen as something that can make or break careers – even by organizations that don’t explicitly embrace good communication skills as a performance imperative.
Anecdotally, I’ve often been hired to coach high-level executives who are either long-winded, short-tempered or not inspiring enough. These are people in the C-Suite who might be flailing a little bit or need a boost; they may be technically competent but communication-challenged. Or I’ve worked with executives who have C-Suite potential but their ability to communicate clearly and influence with confidence is just not there yet.
There’s also research that shows how recruiters and employers view and value communication skills, which impacts people’s careers:
According to a 2014 survey of 565 global employers by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the business school entrance test, corporate recruiters ranked communication skills ahead of teamwork, technical knowledge and leadership when assessing MBA graduates for mid-level jobs. They rated communication skills ahead of managerial ability by a two-to-one margin.
Also in 2014, in an online survey of 845 North American business executives, respondents identified leadership and effective communication as the two most important management competencies – as well as the two most in need of improvement!
3. Complaint. We can’t close the case for putting communication skills on the corporate values list until we look at one of the biggest complaints in the business world – and one of the biggest impacts on organizational effectiveness – which is long, boring, tedious meetings and presentations.
It is estimated that there are 25 million meetings in the U.S. per day, 30 million PowerPoint presentations per day, and that more than $37 billion per year is spent on unproductive meetings. Yikes!
C-Suite executives are estimated to spend 85% of their time with other people – largely in meetings. Upper management spends 50% of their time in meetings. And middle management spends 35% of their time in meetings.
Why do I pick on meetings and presentations? Because they are the most common and most pure vehicles for business communication. They’re supposed to be productive, but we know otherwise.
Communicating is not something people just do. When performance and success are on the line, it needs to be thoughtful and deliberate.
You all do a lot of communicating, so embrace it and get it right. Your organization’s effectiveness and success depend on it!


IMG_2194WIIFM. What’s in it for me? This is the universal question every audience member is asking themselves when they’re attending a meeting, sitting through a presentation, or listening to a speech.
WIIFM has become a popular acronym in business. It’s a reminder to business people that whatever it is they’re talking about – or let’s face it, sometimes huckstering! – they need to consider the unique needs and interests of their audience and direct their remarks so they convey the potential benefits to their audience, especially if those benefits may not be obvious.
You know from your own firsthand experience as an audience member that WIIFM runs through your own head plenty of times, that you want something in return for your time and attention, and that you feel more satisfied, more impressed (with the speaker), more “heard” and valued when you get something out of a talk.
Conscious or subconscious, people are waiting to have their self-interests met. Sometimes the “me” is more like an “us” – a collective me, as in “okay, what’ve you got to give us?” – because the group has a common self-interest. Regardless of whether it’s individual or collective, the bottom line is this: You, the speaker have a topic and an objective. The audience has a self-interest. Your work is to bring those two factors into alignment. If you can do this, it will always, always, always serve you well.
So, if you’re the speaker, here are 3 simple ways to think about addressing your audience’s WIIFM:
New. Given your topic, is there a new angle or twist? An update or a surprising bit of news? Do you have something that other people don’t know yet? Something this audience hasn’t heard or considered yet?
Useful. Given your topic, is there an application this audience could use? Can you help them sort through or think through a common problem in some way? Do you have a solution to something they face?
Beneficial. Given your topic – and, more importantly, given what keeps your audience up at night – what is it that you have that will help them? What is it about your topic that will benefit your audience? Is there a silver lining for them? A net gain?
The companion acronym to WIIFM, in SmartMouth vernacular, is IAAT – It’s all about them! No matter what, your audience’s needs and interests and experience reign supreme. Think through what you have that’s new or useful or beneficial to them, and plan accordingly for your next turn at the front of the room!

Horse Sense

shutterstock_279819965This unusual take on overcoming nervousness comes straight from the horse’s mouth, original public speaking guru Dale Carnegie:
Students of public speaking continually ask, “How can I overcome self-consciousness and the fear that paralyzes me before an audience?”
Did you ever notice in looking from a train window that some horses feed near the track and never even pause to look up at the thundering cars, while just ahead at the next railroad crossing a farmer’s wife will be nervously trying to quiet her scared horse as the train goes by?
How would you cure a horse that is afraid of cars—graze him in a back-woods lot where he would never  see steam-engines or automobiles, or drive or pasture him where he would frequently see the machines?
Apply horse-sense to ridding yourself of self-consciousness and fear: face an audience as frequently as you can, and you will soon stop shying. You can never attain freedom from stage-fright by reading a treatise. A book may give you excellent suggestions on how best to conduct yourself in the water, but sooner or later you must get wet, perhaps even struggle and be “half scared to death.” There are a great many “wetless” bathing suits worn at the seashore, but no one ever learns to swim in them. To plunge is the only way.
Dale Carnegie, The Art of Public Speaking

On Your Own Time, At Your Own Pace

presentations-bg1-516h-2In the introduction of my book Jock Talk last year, I noted that the business world was suffering from a bad (and performance-inhibiting) case of communication neglect. This year, SmartMouth is offering a cure that can help on the large-scale organizational level or the individual level, but before we dive into that, let’s harken back to my book:
“Tolerance of mediocrity in business communication is my pet peeve. It’s not only the mediocrity itself that bothers me, it’s also the acceptance of it and the lack of action taken to remedy it. There are simply too few people calling phooey, or if they are calling phooey, they don’t know how to change things for the better—how to raise the bar.
“I believe you can start with this: Make medal-worthy communication skills a core value. Then get to work on making them a core competency. Organizations hire me to work one-on-one with executives or to train executive teams. Often they come to me with a wish list like this: They’re so long-winded, can you make them more succinct? Can you add some polish and professionalism? They need to make a better impression. Is there any way you can make them sound more commanding? I can, and I usually do. Most of the time what they have been delivering, and how they have been delivering it, has been adequate—not particularly bad, not particularly good, simply adequate. It met the low standard that business audiences have come to expect.
“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—or aim to be the best in the world.”
Under our traditional model, SmartMouth coached individuals and trained groups out of this rut – in person. But we realized that, as much as we were driven to be evangelists for change in conference rooms and boardrooms everywhere, we couldn’t reach everyone in person.
That’s why we developed SmartMouth OnDemand. Our online communication training lets us offer our insights, strategies and proprietary methodology to anyone who has an Internet connection and a device.
Presentations is our first – and our flagship – course. It is full of games and interactive segments that are only slightly modified from what we do in our in-person group sessions. Best of all, Presentations is loaded with our SpeechBuilder tool – a fill-in-the-blanks form that prompts you to outline your remarks for any occasion – and anyone who takes the course gets lifetime access to the tool. Pretty soon, we will be adding courses that dive in even deeper on topics like Visuals, Delivery and Storytelling.
Online communication training is the future of the industry. Its flexibility, low cost to the user, and effectiveness make it the obvious choice for organizations that want to enact large-scale change in how employees communicate and for individuals with busy schedules and tight budgets. 

Audience-Centricity Conundrum: Being Thorough or Getting Through?

Your topic is set. Your time is limited. You know it’s all about them – your audience – because you’ve wisely adopted the principle of audience-centricity for yourself as a communicator.

So, when preparing yourself for a presentation, ultimately the question for you is this: Which end result do you prefer? Standing in front of a group and being comprehensive, saying everything you know and covering everything in your slide deck? Or being selective and targeted and saying something— even just one thing—that actually resonates with your listeners and sticks in their minds?

Which presenter are you?

It’s your call.

Either way, let me know what you decide.

[*Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World,]