In the early ‘80s in New York City, in my very first job, my very first colleague was Barack Obama. We both had just graduated college. We both started at the company within weeks of each other. We both were assigned entry level editorial jobs, working on a series of international business newsletters and reference books, and we both reported to the same supervisor.
Barack was smart, smooth, and savvy then. But he was also a little aloof. While he and I were friendly colleagues, chatted daily, and periodically went out for lunch, he pretty much kept to himself otherwise. He was the only black professional at the company; the other black employees worked as secretaries or in the mailroom. It was 35 years ago. Barack’s aloofness was also, in part, his “appropriateness” at the time. He didn’t have the latitude to be the social, chatty, sometimes loud and carousing associate that I could be.
When he became President – still smart, smooth and savvy – I watched him as infuriatingly unfair things were said to and about him, insults hurled at him (and his wife), and issues he championed were trashed or quashed. I frequently remarked to myself (and to anyone nearby who would listen) how cool, calm and collected he was no matter what because he had to be, he had no choice. He was a black man, and black men cannot get angry in public, it’s too threatening to white people.
Fast forward, and here we are. Nowhere. Issues of systemic racism, implicit bias, micro and macro aggressions against people of color have made no progress … except, perhaps, the hope generated by recent protests and the renewal of active public discourse.
For those of us who are allies, but are also white, there’s a self-consciousness about our privilege and some feelings of helplessness about what to do right now – besides using our voices, voting, and whatever other forms of activism we can engage in. I, for one, can tell you I have so much heart and mind invested in helping to right the wrongs, but I am often at a loss for what, specifically, I can do to effect positive change.
I decided that, for starters, I can use my platform and communicate. I typically write this monthly piece to share tips, insights and strategies for being a better communicator and presenter. But, given current events and my despair over the dual and intertwined pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, I just couldn’t. Tips, insights and strategies seemed so trite right now … and so privileged.
Instead, I decided to write about white privilege in the conference room and how we might begin to address and redress biases and inequities in meetings and presentations.
Here’s the deal: I can be late, I can get annoyed or angry, I can tell a bad joke, I can be sassy, I can exaggerate my mannerisms, I can interrupt or talk over someone else, I can mispronounce a word or phrase, I can leave the room early — all without any consequences simply because I’m white. I’m not proud of that, but I’m aware of it. I have the same latitude to be big, take up more than my fair share of space, mess up, and even be offensive – without serious consequence – that I had in the early ‘80s. People of color haven’t and don’t have these luxuries and won’t … unless and until we force an awareness and an openness on ourselves and others. We need to take action and find ways to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the biases and inequities in conference rooms.
Here’s my starter set of suggestions:
Check yourself before you judge or speak up;
Check your colleagues when they judge out loud or speak up;
Hold a larger space for people to be different/do things differently.
Those, I would say, fall under the general heading of being tolerant. Beyond just tolerance, though, how about ways to be proactive?
Invite team members who are people of color to be lead presenters (for some reason, the lead presenter is like an NFL quarterback – more often than not, white);
Encourage directness and polite conflict, which, to date, have been more acceptable forms of communication for white people than people of color;
Learn about micro-aggressions and develop a system for imposing a “check” on colleagues’ responses to one another.
I don’t profess to have all the answers. I only have an awareness, an openness, and a starter set of suggested actions … so far. I’d love some input from readers. Please give this some thought and then share your ideas here. Thanks.
Happy New Year, I hope this year and decade bring you lots of opportunities to shine … especially at the front of the room!
On our end, 2020 marks SmartMouth’s 15th year in business – hard to believe but also very satisfying. Our client list continues to grow, and our engagements continue to be rewarding. We’ve added several enhancements to our trainings over the past two years, all of which have been well received so far. Complementing our in-person coaching and training is our app, as well as our online courses on OpenSesame and GO1. On the publishing side, my regular columns in Forbes.com join Jock Talk in helping to expand the reach of the SmartMouth approach.
In an effort to maintain balance and quality, I plan to scale back the SmartMouth blog post and newsletter to once a month, rather than twice. Starting this month, you can look for a nugget of advice on communication skills and style on the third Thursday of the month. I hope you’ll continue to follow and read!
There’s a lot of good advice out there about public speaking. Much of it is geared toward aiding the speaker. I want to throw some advice into the mix that’s helpful to the speaker and the audience: Keep your sentences short and crisp!
Speakers do best when they prepare a talk in bullet points rather than prose.
Preparing by writing a long prosaic document is problematic for a couple of reasons. For starters, speakers tend to get attached to the words, phrases and sentences they’ve composed. This is dangerous! It means the speaker is likely to feel compelled to read at the podium – which is bad for obvious reasons – or to memorize, which runs the risk of producing robotic delivery. Being conversational and staying connected with your audience, even if your presentation is imperfect, are still preferred.
On the other side of the podium, audiences need pace and rhythm and patter.
For audiences, long, wordy sentences become a maze for the ears, something to get lost in. Preparing for a speech or presentation by writing a lengthy, thorough, fully accurate script for yourself produces something that readers, not listeners, would be willing and able to digest. Listeners need things to keep moving along at a clip. They need the speaker to start and finish a thought quickly in order to hang in there and actually get it. Speakers, don’t forget: you’re the subject matter expert, you’re steeped in your stuff, but it’s the audience’s first time hearing your material.
Move from script to bullet points.
You can always begin your preparation for a presentation by writing out a full-text script. It can help you establish order, organization, and some of your key phrases. But then you would be wise to use that script only as a practice tool. As soon as you can, switch over to bullet points and then rehearse your talk from those. But watch yourself – keep a lid on those long-winded, run-on, multi-clause sentences. Set a standard and a pace for yourself that requires you to make your sentences short, crisp, distinct units.
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.
Lately, I have worked with several clients who need to share the floor or take the stage with a colleague. Each speaker rehearsed and knew their section of the presentation but, as I observed and coached them, there’s a lot more to achieving a smooth, seamless co-presenting performance than just knowing your part.
Here are 3 important agreements you and your co-presenter should discuss and make in advance:
Avoid the awkwardness of not knowing where to put yourself or what to do when it’s not your turn. When your partner is speaking, you, in effect, become a member of the audience. You turn your attention to the speaker versus staring straight at the audience while you wait. You’ll want to choreograph yourselves so that each of you, when not speaking, takes a position that defers attention to the speaker and doesn’t interfere with the screen (if using visuals). Rehearse this in the presentation space itself or block it out in a space that’s comparable.
Transitioning from one speaker to the next requires forethought and finesse. Discuss and know ahead how you will pass the baton – and practice it – as if in a relay race. Please be more interesting, engaging and collegial than merely saying, “… and now Ashley will cover the budget.” Script in some banter or repartee, or make an astute comment to summarize the link between your and your co-presenter’s material. Or, if the presentation involves a consistent back and forth every few minutes or every few slides, then make sure Speaker A’s final sentence lines up with Speaker B’s opening sentence for each transition. Avoid the duplication of effort (and tedium!) of Speaker B feeling the need to say, “… so, as Speaker A just talked about …”
Interjecting is a relief to some, undermining to others. One of the most important agreements to discuss is whether each of you prefers for your co-presenter to interject comments or questions … or not. If you forget a chunk of your material, do you want your co-presenter to chime in? Would that be helpful or would it throw you off? Are you okay fielding spontaneous comments and questions from your co-presenter to help relieve nervousness and/or to make the presentation seem more casual and collaborative? Or would that make you lose your train of thought? When I work with a co-presenting team, I always think I know who will have which preference … and I am often wrong! You never know, so discuss and agree on this in advance.
There are so many benefits to co-presenting – the change in speakers is stimulating to the audience, presenters get to share the floor and Q&A with someone who has complementary expertise, and it can be more fun for the speakers and audience alike, to name just a few. Nevertheless, because it involves two (or more) people, there’s more material, more logistics and more dynamics to consider. Discussing and agreeing on the three points above is a great way to get ahead of the game.
Bottom line: Audiences are attending one presentation, not two, so treat it that way in your planning and delivery.
I wish I’d had this training 20 years ago. It would have changed my career. I will never do a presentation the same.
I attended one of Jim’s first meetings since his training last week. I couldn’t believe this is the same person! Everyone on the call noticed, especially his greatest critic, our lead subject matter expert. I am truly astounded and so very, very pleased. This is going to be career changing for him.
Thank you so very much for developing a session that really met our specific business challenges. If the session is only effective for one person (but I know for a fact others loved it, and heard someone call it “life changing”), it will have been worth the investment.
Thank you for an effective, inspiring workshop. It exceeded my expectations (which were high, as you came well-recommended). I feel like this is essential training for leaders and professionals.
Beth provided wonderful, impactful examples of being a gracious, empathetic, confident speaker and facilitator.