Summarize Seriously. Doesn’t quite have the ring of the romantic movie Love Actually, does it? But that shouldn’t tempt you to trivialize the issue that surfaced yesterday in a roomful of investors willing to plunk down anywhere from $5-100 million on some entrepreneurial business that interested them.
“Remember the 10-minute time limit for each presenting company,” the moderator of the event explained to the group of 22 hopeful CEOs prepared to win his or her share of the available funds. "We’ve hosted this event for several years. And the feedback from these investors seated around you is that they make up their minds in the first 3-4 minutes whether they’re interested or not. So the ten minutes we’ve allotted to tell your story is quite adequate.”
He paused to let the point sink in. There as a corporate advisor to my client, I nodded my “I told you so” to the team. Roger that. They were locked and loaded, ready for launch.
Evidently, many others were not.
Executive after executive of these small businesses stepped to the microphone and stumbled and stuttered their way through 4-6 minutes of their allotted ten before being able to clearly state what it is their company does. Many tried to start with how they got into the business. Some started by introducing their management team (important, of course, for a group of investors—but not for 3 minutes!). Some rambled on about how they came up with their logo, packaging design, recipe, or facilities. Several talked about differentiation. A few talked about how they’d tested their product—clinical data and analysis.
Only a handful—make that a newborn’s fist—summarized upfront ALL the key elements about their business that a group of investors would want to know.
Yet, I bet if you asked any one of these busy executives back on the job how important the ability to summarize is, they’d launch into a sermon about some pet peeve such as these:
So to develop the ability to summarize massive amounts of information well, seek out some good models. For starters, I suggest The Wall Street Journal’s “What’s News?” column.
(Readers, if you have other suggestions for great summarizers out there, please feel free to share them here.)
If you’re on the hearing end of a presentation, you may think it all looks effortless—the speaker flows with polished pearls of wisdom, parades across the platform with boundless energy, interacts spontaneously with the audience with great wit, responds to challenging questions with authority, and sways skeptics with genuine personal warmth.
But to put it in the common vernacular: “Ain’t necessarily so.”
Yesterday, I delivered a keynote for 600 CEOs of small businesses and senior executives of large corporations on one of my typical communication topics. Since it was one of those rare local events (as opposed to having to jump on an airplane), I’d dashed into the office to link up with four of our staff members, who were accompanying me to the convention center to staff the book table where I’d be autographing books after my session.
Running about ten minutes later than I’d planned, I suppose I looked a little tense. On the way out the door, Candy, our production manager, asked a question I’d not thought about in awhile: “Do you still get nervous?”
“Sure. Always.” I nodded. Even after more than 20 years on the platform, I still get nervous.
How nervous? It just depends on the stakes. What do I have to gain—or lose—by the keynote or business presentation? What’s the potential contract worth? How many potential new clients are sitting in the audience? Is there another business opportunity hanging in the balance? What’s the dollar value on that opportunity? What’s new and different about this keynote—or is just the same ole’ same ole’?
Some of these same issues may flood your mind when you stand up to make business or technical presentation to a boss or prospect or deliver a keynote for your industry meeting. What do you stand to gain or lose? What are the differences between those sit-down-around-the-conference-table-conversations and those larger presentations? How can you become more comfortable in the latter?
During the two-hour program and the two-hour networking event that followed yesterday, here are some of the comments that attendees shared with me:
“You know, I don’t mind talking in a small group. I’m fine there. But put me up on stage like you were today, and I’m very uncomfortable. I always tell my pastor-father, ‘it’s just not my gift.’”
“I’m the sportscaster on a local Fox affiliate. I’ve never thought about some of those things. I made notes as I watched. I’m doing a speech tomorrow myself, and I need to be aware of the differences. It’ll make a huge difference.”
“I always have to have a script and stand behind a podium. Always. As VP, I emcee events and introduce speakers. And we sponsor events like this all the time, where we ‘say a few words.’ But I’m just uncomfortable.”
To these people and all of you out there, here are three pointers that may help you get a kick out of keynotes—delivering, not just listening:
Understand your audience. Nothing gives you more confidence and helps you prepare better than talking to audience members beforehand. Ask them a few questions: What do you want to know about X? What are your biggest challenges in the area of X? What were you hoping I could help you with (or provide more information about)? Tell me a little more about your work—give me a “week-in-the-life-of” overview of your work. And, of course, you’ll want to ask these questions before you arrive on the scene so you have time to prepare to address these issues in your presentation or keynote.
Make your keynote both a conversation and a performance: That is, select a few people randomly in different parts of the audience and direct your comments to them. Make eye contact with them. Gesture toward them. Walk in their direction. (Everyone around them will think you’re looking at them as well.) The “conversation” mindset will relax you. But remember that you’re also delivering a performance; for that, you need energy and polished prose.
Be prepared. “Winging it” is for the birds. Nothing adds to your confidence like knowing exactly what you’re going to say—concisely, clearly, cleverly.
Keynotes can be a real kick if you feel confident. If not prepared, you’re going to want to kick yourself in the seat of the pants the day of the event.
Do we have some success stories out there? Let us hear about them.
Have you ever lain awake at night—almost all night—and replayed a conversation in your head over and over and over and over? For a long while, I thought I was the only one who did that. Then I heard other women admit they did it, too. Then yesterday I heard a male doctor friend of mine admit the habit to a group of colleagues.
You hear the entire exchange in instant replay—but not exactly. Your part of the dialogue changes. You redraft your responses. They get better, wiser, funnier, more cavalier, spontaneous, more patient, firmer, less aggressive, more resigned. Finally, they’re tuned to perfection. Then you ache for the opportunity to redo the dialogue in real life.
Most of the time that second chance never comes around—at least, not in exactly the same circumstance with the same person. But that doesn’t mean the all-nighter wasn’t worth the thought. Why?
The basic business act of 2008 is communicating. Search on the single word communication and Google will turn up 320,000,000 results. In the workplace alone, your success at almost any endeavor correlates to your ability to communicate well, so you—and I—need all the practice we can get.
Communication—all of it. Unless you climb poles to repair power lines or toss pizza all day, it’s difficult to think of doing many jobs that don’t require core communication skills. Communicate well and you can master a job, influence a team, persuade a boss, win a client, build a business, create wealth, serve humankind, and move from success to significance.
Communicate poorly and your life fills with stress and unresolved problems just as surely as if you tried to patch a flat tire with bubble gum.
Make improvement intentional. With every conversation, every meeting, every presentation, analyze and evaluate: Ask yourself: What went wrong? What went well? Why? What could or should I have said differently? What is the communication lesson learned?
Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I try to stay clear of politics in these posts—except as candidates or issues themselves illustrate communication issues. Here’s one of a handful posted in the last year that meet that criteria—above the fray, illustrative, inspiring.
While watching an interview with presidential candidate John McCain last week, I was struck with the power of self-effacing comments to 1) make someone likeable 2) stem the tide of opposition 3) have “underdog” appeal and 4) engender trust in someone’s integrity.
The talk-show host commented to Senator McCain, “In the Vietnam war, you were a real hero. I didn’t learn until recently that the VietCong offered to release you to come home because you were the son of the Admiral but that you refused because your comrades wouldn’t be released as well. Is that true?”
McCain brushed aside the comment, obviously meant as a compliment to his character, with a nod and a little humor. “Unfortunately, I didn’t know the war would last a few more years at that point.”
Later the interviewer commented on his physical pain in having both his arms broken and the lack of medical attention for his other injuries, saying he himself [the interviewer] could not have endured such suffering. McCain’s response: “Sure you could. Anybody would do the same thing in the same situation. You love America. Many have given sacrifices far greater than I.”
When asked about the little known fact of his two sons serving in Iraq and his sacrifice and commitment to America as a parent, McCain responded, “I’d prefer not to discuss my sons and have always tried to leave my sons out of it.”
When baited with the subject of Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s comments and the link to Barack Obama, the interviewer gave him every opening to cast doubt on the character, values, and judgment of his opponent in the presidential race and tout his own better judgment. Instead, McCain replied, “You can’t blame others for comments made by supporters who endorse them. Just because they agree with you doesn’t mean you agree with them. I know Obama personally and believe he’s a loyal American.”
Politics is not the only playground for promotion. Everyday we encounter websites, radio and TV ads, résumés, sales pitches, and project plans that scream…
....the leading provider of X....
....the world’s number one Y....
....the only one on the market that....
....the first and only....
....has given more to charity than....
....one of the world’s foremost authorities....
....the city’s most prominent philanthropist....
In a world where everyone is blowing their own horn, it’s occasionally refreshing to hear modesty about accomplishments, sacrifice, charity, and even goodwill for opponents. Am I alone out there in thinking the world could use a little more humility?
Warning: I’m about to make a sweeping generalization that will offend many MBAs and PhDs out there. I have no survey data to back it up other than résumés collected during the past 27 years at my company—and writing samples collected from participants in our writing training programs.
But here’s my conclusion: There’s very little correlation between someone’s writing ability and their formal education. But there IS a strong correlation between their thinking ability and writing skill. Clear writing represents clear thinking.
What’s worse than putting convoluted thinking on paper for the world to see? Touting it in a résumé when you’re trying to land a job. Every week 3-5 résumés land on my desk—sometimes more. When we’re interviewing to fill a current vacancy, as we’ve been during this past month, I review piles of résumés.
Consider the logic and awkward wording of some of the following excerpted statements. Some read as if written by someone who speaks English as their third or fourth language. Yet clearly from the transmittal email or letter, the applicant has been educated in English in the good ole’ USA.
I’m always chagrined to glance at the “Education” section of the résumé and see “BA" or "Master’s Degree," major in journalism or English literature, GPA 3.5 or better. (Why the surprise? Higher expectations. Engineers and others from a technical background frequently crack jokes in our workshops about their inability to write.)
Back to the excerpts I've been reading this past couple of weeks:
"I strive to be a trendsetter and provide the best professional customer service in any profession that I obtain. While being a trendsetter trying new tasks and welcoming many challenges has been a success for me.” (How’s that again?)
“Looking for full or part-time work that will exemplify my upbeat demeanor, communication skills, and tenacious attention to details.” (The work will exemplify his demeanor?)
“Objective: To obtain a position which would utilize my business, legal knowledge and accounting skills, as well as my ability to build good people relationships.” (The position is going to use these skills? And what other kinds of relationships are there besides people relationships?)
“To obtain a challenging position within a company for advancement with the use of my skills and ability to multi-task.” (I guess, maybe?)
“I am currently seeking a professional, developing opportunity for growth where I can learn and excel in every aspect of the workplace. I openly welcome a career that will strengthen and enhance the knowledge in which I’ve already acquired, while creating new challenges for me to overcome.” (okay, well, then.)
Such résumés make us chuckle. Then they make us sad for the state of our education system. Then they make us really worry about any family members and friends with such poor writing skills who are looking for jobs because they have huge hurdles to overcome before they'll ever get the chance to tell a prospective employer what they can do otherwise.
And finally, such résumés should make you exuberant if you yourself write well and are job hunting. Your résumé should stand out like a floodlight during a blackout.
Maybe you’ve seen this commercial already for theladders.com, the online job site exclusively for $100K candidates looking for $100K jobs. (www.theladders.com)
The commercial opens with a tennis match in progress. But soon you discover the two players on the court can’t return the ball to each other because random people start running onto the court and getting in their way—very unsuitable people, inappropriately dressed for the game, overweight and out of shape, without the proper tennis equipment, unfocused and, in fact, some putting on makeup in center court. Random balls are bouncing to and fro across the net. Hundreds of would-be players are slamming into each other, swinging rackets and briefcases in all directions, trying to hit odd balls every which way.
The real players stand aside, amazed at the chaos on the court.
In about the last 10 seconds of the commercial, the voice-over says, “If you think about it, this is the trouble with most job search sites: When you let everyone play, nobody wins.” The website address appears on the screen, along with the text: “The most $100K+ jobs.” Fade to end.
Classy. Clear. Concise. Memorable. The tennis scene says it all. Exactly what a presentation visual should be.
The next time you’re creating a presentation and tempted to resort to a bulleted word list, keep this commercial in mind.
Okay, I can’t remain silent any longer about the Obama craze. Every media pundit you turn to is analyzing, forecasting, mimicking, or scratching their heads about this junior senator from Illinois. What is it about his communication style that causes 20,000 people to turn out to hear him as if he were a rock star when they’ve never cared about politics before?
Sure enough, on my radio interview yesterday with The Entrepreneurial Moment, http://www.preciseselling.com/Radio.htm, we weren’t ten minutes into the show when the inevitable question surfaced from host Brian Sullivan: “So can you comment on Obama’s style—what is it that makes him so charismatic as a speaker? Let’s hear your analysis when we come back after the break?”
That was the teaser. So I had 60-seconds to think about it. Sure, as a communication specialist, I’ve watched all the presidential hopefuls over the last several months and analyzed their strengths and weaknesses during more debates than most. But typically when I’m doing press interviews, they expect me to spit out a 20-second sound-bite. Here was a talk-show host giving me the freedom of about five minutes to elaborate on Obama’s style—and with 60 seconds to think about it.
So I decided that I’d just pass my analysis on to you. Here’s what I’ve called Obama’s 5 S’s of Speaking Style:
Smile: It’s hard not to be attracted to someone’s smiling. (Most people are surprised to discover how dour they look all too often when speaking—especially when tense and especially when presenting on sensitive subjects. Cameras also have a way of emphasizing negative facial expressions.)
Stature: He’s tall. How many times have you heard someone comment on candidates who “look presidential?” Survey after survey shows that tall people are thought to be smarter, more attractive, more capable, and more successful than shorter people. Tall people command attention more quickly than short people; it’s just a fact of life. (As someone who’s only 5’4” myself, I'd like to know if anyone out there has a supplement for this condition.)
Smooth Gestures and Movement: (This learned skill is the next best thing if you can’t change your height.) He walks purposefully and gestures with large graceful movements. None of those short, chop-through-the-air John Kerry gestures we saw in 2004. You know the kind I’m referring to—those when your mother wagged her finger in your face and said, “Johnny, how many times do I have to tell you not to leave your bike in the driveway?” Obama’s hands and arms have the opposite effect—open, warm, inviting, inclusive.
Syntax: His speech is fluid. He thinks well on his feet. No rambling. Few word fillers.
Soothing Words: His word choices are uplifting. He likes to focus on positive word choices. He prefers to talk about “change” rather than “problems,” about “solutions” rather than “the mess we’re in.” Audiences walk away with “hope” rather than a “we’re heading toward doom” feeling.
This year’s race is one of the most exciting in many years—if for nothing else than to see a contrast in communication styles and how the public reacts from day to day as the candidates shape, reshape, and measure the responses to their message. As the great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”