Bad leadership is on the march in the world today. The paradox of our times is that we have the best educated leaders in history, but the general quality of leadership they provide is so bad.
Let’s start with our political leadership. At all levels. Starting from the very top and going all the way down to the local level (which is an area I’ve personally been observing up close recently) appears to be rotten to the core. Sure, there have always been problems, and there has always been some endemic level of corruption, but recently we seem to be suffering from an epidemic of bad leadership. At least in earlier days, politicians had sufficient sense of shame to try to hide their transgressions. Nowadays, it’s all about winning and partisans on both sides are willing to excuse any behavior as long as their side gets more votes.
But politics is just the most obvious arena where we have a leadership crisis, business leaders are no better. In their relentless pursuit for shareholder value or a cover photo on Forbes, CEOs seem to be willing to encourage or at least pretend not to notice egregious violations of customer trust and even of the law. Get caught doing something wrong? No problem, just hire a few lawyers and PR flacks and it will soon go away.
What about religious leaders? Nope; too many of them seem to have become shills for the politicians.
Surely at least we can look up to our military leaders, right? Wrong again. According to USA Today, “Since 2013, military investigators have documented at least 500 cases of serious misconduct among its generals, admirals and senior civilians.”
Unfortunately, withdrawing is not an option, because the growing power of bad leaders will simply mean that they will intrude more and more into our lives. The only way out of our leadership crisis for each and every one of us who cares about our own small circle of responsibility, our company, or our nation to fight the problem. We need to step up and be the leaders we want to see.
The first step is to do no harm—don’t add to the problem by engaging in the same behaviors and misconduct. If you succumb to the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality, the bad leaders have won.
The next step is to take ownership. Don’t sit around saying someone should do something about ____; that someone should be you. You may not be able to do as much as you would like, but you can probably do more than you think. And the example you set for others may turn out to be your force multiplier.
The third step—and this is exponentially harder—is to actively battle the leadership crisis. Speak up against what you see around you. If someone is abusing their power, call them out. Of course you have to be smart about it, but there are ways to speak truth to power without getting yourself fired. (That’s a topic for another blog post.)
In the end, we get the leaders we deserve, so it’s up to us to ensure we don’t let the bad leaders win.
This is the time of year when many CEOs and sales leaders are planning their sales kickoffs for the next year. In a time-honored tradition, they bring everyone together to share plans for the year, provide some training and opportunities for team-building and idea-sharing, and –not least—“fire up” the troops with excitement and extra motivation.
That’s where the keynote speaker comes in. Typically an outsider, maybe famous or at least semi-famous (depending on the budget), it is someone who imparts wisdom and timeless inspiration through heroic tales of struggle, sacrifice, hustle and ultimate victory. The audience is entertained, enthralled, and inspired –for about 20 minutes. Then it’s back to business, to the mundane world of quotas and new products, and the effect quickly wears off.
That’s not completely fair. There are many documented examples of people who have been especially inspired by a particular speaker, have stayed in touch, and have made a sincere and sometimes successful effort to change. I’ve had the honor of knowing some of these, and I still get occasional emails with progress reports from some of them. My favorite is the young Chinese engineer who went on to form a Toastmasters Club in Shanghai and who still keeps in touch. But the proportion of audience members who do this is easily in the very low single digit at best. One spark is usually not enough to start a fire.
It’s not the fault of the organizer, who has simply followed your instructions. And it’s not the speaker’s fault; she or he has delivered exactly what they were hired to do. But because most speakers make a living by talking to many clients, they can’t take the time to truly study each specific company or audience they address, master the intricacies and eccentricities of your industry, get to know key people individually, and remain involved after the speech to help instill and guide meaningful change. If they did, they would truly be worth their weight in precious stones; but they would also cost
But, just as in the old Russell Conwell story, the diamonds you seek from afar may be just under the surface in your own backyard. The speaker you’re seeking who can actually do all these things is YOU: you know your industry, your company and your people, and you are there after the speech to reinforce the message and drive lasting change. (And you’re budget friendly!)
So, what’s keeping you from being your own keynote speaker and making a real and lasting difference? You may see two drawbacks, only one of which is real.
The imaginary drawback is your lack of an inspirational story. You haven’t climbed Mount Everest with your blind brother strapped to your back, you probably haven’t won a Super Bowl single-handed. That’s true, but if you are at the level where you’re making the decisions, you have probably faced and overcome adversity at some point, and it’s probably something your audience is more likely to relate to. You have a story. Even if you can’t think of one, you can always borrow examples from others who have, especially if it is an unsung hero within your own company. The stories are there if you look for them.
The other deficiency which may be real is that you don’t have the experience or the speaking skills of the professionals. That’s also true, but public speaking is one area where a reasonably competent but inspired amateur can outdo even the most seasoned professional. If your message is clear, sincere, and relevant, you can succeed. Truth trumps technique every time.
That said, you need to meet a threshold of competence and preparation, and that’s where a speaking coach can help. Someone who can help you distill your message, choose the right stories, metaphors and language to inspire and help you rehearse a strong and confident delivery.
It won’t be easy. It will take hard work on your part; even if you’re a competent presenter you may still need to raise your game to deliver an inspirational speech. It will force you out of your comfort zone, and it requires patient attention over time, but I can guarantee that the payoff will fare exceed your investment, and you will have a skill that separates great leader from good leaders. I know this because I’ve seen the effect that It has on employees when their leader accepts the challenge and personally delivers the truths they need to hear.
Leaders guide and inspire. You are a leader. Why would you abdicate that task to an outsider? Be your own keynote speaker.
That’s why I don’t like it when the person introducing me at a training event or speech asks the audience members to close their laptops and give me their undivided attention. Of course they mean well, because it can be disconcerting to a speaker when people aren’t paying attention or –even worse—are typing emails while you’re talking.
But look at what happens when they’re not explicitly asked to put away their distractors. As the class begins, maybe a bare majority of the participants close their laptops and sit up and face you. You begin with a strong opening, a few laptop lids come down; you give them the big SO WHAT for what they’re about to hear, a few more lids (laptops, not eyes) come down; maybe you challenge them or ask a tough question, move around the room a bit, use their names to engage them personally, and within minutes all eyes are industriously on you. A little later, you might notice fingers starting to twitch and eyes starting to glance at their phones, you know it’s time for a change of pace or maybe even a break.
But you only know all this because you are paying attention to their unintentional honest feedback. Their feedback allows you to modify and fine-tune and control the message to make sure you’re delivering the value they expect.
Don’t blame your audience for not paying attention. It’s like blaming your body for running a fever when it’s just a symptom of a real malady: you and/or your message is not compelling enough to make them want to close the laptop and sit up and listen for all they’re worth. If they’re not listening, they’re not buying, and they’re not buying because they don’t get the value. It’s your job to get them to see it.
However, it’s also possible to try too hard to own the entire audience. Audiences can be very diverse, and some people who are required to be there may not actually get value from what you’re saying. Or maybe someone really has a fire to put out somewhere and has to attend to it. If you work too hard to draw them in, you run the risk of losing the rest of the audience. Unless they’re distracting others, ignore them and focus on those who really care.
Blaming your audience for not listening is like blaming a customer for not buying. It may make you feel good, but it doesn’t help you improve your pitch or your product.
One of the most important sources of waste in communication is the gap between the words and actions, between agreeing and doing. How many times have you left a meeting room after a successful presentation, one in which you knew you presented a strong case and everyone seemed to be in agreement to proceed—and then nothing happened? Somehow when people went back to their desks and got to work, the warm glow wore off and best intentions evaporated like the morning mist.
The hard fact is that the effectiveness of a presentation isn’t measured in terms of applause or good feelings. In lean communication, the only true measure of value is substantive action that improves outcomes, and this article will examine ways to maximize the odds that your audience will follow through on agreements and intentions. As Alfred Adler said, “Life happens at the level of events, not words.”
Although this article focuses on presentations to maximize action, the ideas apply to any persuasive communication opportunity: you get a “hunting license” as an approved vendor, but no orders ensue; you get a subordinate to commit to an improvement plan, but nothing happens; you convince yourself to change, but tomorrow comes and you slip right back into old habits.
Depending on your intent for the presentation, you may not need any of the ideas in this article. What kind of action do you want? There are three ascending levels of agreement: compliance,
What does it take?
A presentation is a vehicle for getting things done, and every vehicle needs two things to do its job: motive power and direction. In those two factors lie the keys to ensuring that you get action. Your task is to provide a reason to act, and then a clear path to follow. That’s why the first principle of lean communication is to answer “The Question”: WHAT do you want me to do, and WHY should I do it? It’s that simple, but of course it’s not always easy, so let’s break those two factors down to see what we can do to make them as strong and compelling as possible.
Causes must precede actions, so we start with why. Most sales or internal presentations already have a solid core of sound business logic built into them, so I’m going to assume you already have that covered as your table stakes. But a business case isn’t enough, because those are real people you’re talking to. Here are three ways to make the why even more compelling.
Engage their emotions. No one ever charged up a hill waving a spreadsheet. Logic is a powerful vehicle for gaining compliance, but commitment requires a different currency. For that, you need to engage the heart as well as the mind. A wonderful story I’ve told before from John Kotter’s book The Heart of Change is about a group that had failed to get traction in its efforts to change the company’s purchasing practices despite a $1 billion business case. They finally got attention—and action—by creating a “mountain” containing 424 pairs of gloves available in their purchasing system! Aristotle called it pathos, and it is just as much at home in business presentations as its counterpart logos. You can beef up your pathos by adding stories, analogies, visuals and examples to your “hard facts”.
Tap into intrinsic motivation. Emotion gets attention, but it also wears off, so you also need to inspire your listeners’ intrinsic motivation, so that they will contain within themselves the motivation to act when the time comes. RAMP up your appeal by couching the action in terms of Relationships, Autonomy, Mastery or Purpose.
Make it personal. As Stalin said, “When one man dies it is a tragedy; when a million die it is a statistic,”, which is why fundraisers know that it’s far more powerful to put a face on a victim than to cite impressive statistics. In your pitch, show how the problem is affecting someone they care about—even better, tie it to the specific personal motivations of the individual decision makers in the room.
The next step to clinch their motivation is to answer why now—to show them why it doesn’t make sense to wait. Prospect theory tells us that people are more willing to act or take risks to avoid losses than to strive for gains, so make sure you bring out the consequences of not solving the problem. In fact, in my own training I observe that people tend to spend too much time on touting the benefits of the solution and not enough on the nature and impact of the problem. Especially when your audience is risk-averse, such as in a “we’ve never done it this way” mindset, you can reverse the risk by showing them how inaction is riskier than action.
Scarcity is another powerful persuader which you can invoke by putting time limits on action (as long as they are true and believable). Better yet, is to add a little competitive juice by making it clear that someone else may beat them to it.
Even when the why is obvious and undisputed, the how can trip people up, as the millions of people who want to lose weight can attest. There’s a great story in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath about how researchers in West Virginia solved the problem. They suggested one single change, asking people to buy low fat milk instead of whole milk. They made the point that a single cup of whole milk contains as much fat as five pieces of bacon, and suggested that people reach for the low fat milk when they went to the supermarket. This simple and clear change raised the market share of low-fat milk from 18% to 41% in the communities where it ran. The campaign worked because it made the intended action clear and easy.
There are potentially dozens if not hundreds of ways to “reduce calories from fat”, but the sheer range of choice can paralyze action. It’s not only psychologists who know the value of clarity. A study of the GE Work-Out program found that, “…when ideas were presented that were focused and tangible, they were much more often accepted than vague and general recommendations.” So, for example, instead of recommending that you to be clearer in their recommendations, I might suggest that you word your ask in specific and measurable outcomes that a high school sophomore could understand and repeat back to you.
Your listeners must be absolutely clear about what you’re asking them to do. This starts with being clear in your own mind about your presentation purpose before you go in, especially the specific actions you want them to take. While it should go without saying, let me be clear about one more thing: make sure there is no doubt about your ask. Make your ask up front and be sure to repeat it in a confident and assertive manner in your call to action at the end of your presentation.
Make it easy
One of the major contributors to the success of Amazon was its development and patenting of one-click ordering in 1997. You may not be able to make it that easy for others to act, but you should strive as much as possible to reduce barriers to action. Chip and Dan Heath call this tactic “shrinking the change”.
The flip side of this is to make it harder for them to resist. That’s why you should welcome tough questions and objections from the audience; in fact, if you don’t invite them you leave smoldering pockets of resistance and possibly resentment that will flare up after you’re gone.
Another tactic is to get individuals to commit publicly to act, which increases compliance in two ways. First, it puts their credibility at risk if they change their minds and don’t come through and second, it taps into the Cialdini’s consistency principle. But make sure that they commit to something specific, not a vague generality.
Give them control
Most of us hate to be sold, even if we don’t mind buying, so do everything you can to make it the other person’s idea to do what you want them to do. Here I’ll contradict slightly what I said about being very clear about your ask. Even if you’ve made an excellent case for one choice, it helps to have another possible but less attractive choice, or go one step further and use Goldilocks framing to make taking action feel just right.
So here’s my call to action for you: you can be seen as a master of getting things done, unless someone else does it before you do, so next time you present, strengthen your why, your how, or both—it’s your choice!
 I wonder how many of the approved vendors of those gloves would have benefited from reading this?
 I didn’t say SMART goals, because five adjectives is too difficult to remember—and therefore less likely to happen.