Does Your Presentation Sound Like Voice Mail Hell?

January 29th, 2015
Can I just get a live person, please?

Can I just get a live person, please?

I did not receive a newspaper this morning, which was inconvenient. But placing the call to register a complaint was worse. I knew what I wanted to hear, but I had to endure a (to my mind) convoluted series of questions and choices before I finally received the verdict: “We are not able to deliver your paper today.” I was utterly unable to reach a live person.

What does this have to do with anything? It reminded me of many sales presentations I’ve seen. The presenter is chained to a long and mostly irrelevant slide presentation. Maybe they put it together themselves and are proud of every animation, bullet point or slick picture. Worse, it might have been something produced by their marketing department to tell “their story”, and which they’re not allowed to deviate from.

It reminds me of the time a guy came to my house to sell me an alarm system. He had one of those old-fashioned notebooks with slick graphics that he tried to force me to listen to page by page. I told him to speed it up and just answer my questions, and he said that if he did that, I would not buy—because I had to understand everything to make the right decision. He was right about one thing—I did not buy, because it was more fun to tell him to pack up his notebook and leave.

Is your presentation an algorithm or a hypothesis?

These types of presentations are like algorithms, where a pre-defined process, followed exactly, should lead to a pre-determined result. There are two problems with this: sometimes things happen during the presentation which throw the process off track, and even when everything proceeds properly, the audience may feel like they’ve been manipulated, like objects passing through an assembly line.

Think of your prepared presentation as a hypothesis, and your delivery as an experiment. Your hypothesis is about what this particular customer needs to hear at this particular time to make a decision that will be of particular benefit to them. Like any hypothesis, it needs to be validated, so the presentation itself is an experiment. If you’ve done the right kind of work, the hypothesis should be fairly close to the truth, but you will not know for sure until you’ve gathered data in the form of reactions, questions, and objections from the audience, and made adjustments accordingly.

You may end up validating your hypothesis completely; in some cases you will mutually agree that the hypothesis was wrong; the most likely result is that there will be some audience-driven adjustments which will make the presentation and the solution better. Regardless of how it turns out, people will feel like they were heard, respected, and empowered to make the best decision for themselves.

The irony is that the surest path to this level of flexibility and responsiveness in a presentation is thorough preparation. Preparation will make you learn your message and your material so that you can have the confidence to deviate, without being worried that you’ll lose your place on the slides. It will enable you to look your listeners in the eyes while speaking, rather than reading your words off the screen behind you. It will give you the depth to answer drill-down questions. In short, preparation will give you the freedom to be yourself, and give your audience the gift of speaking to a live person.

Motivation is for Amateurs

January 26th, 2015

scalatoreTommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently completed an astonishing free-climb of the Dawn Wall, a nearly sheer 3,000 foot face of granite in Yosemite, one that is only slightly rougher than the granite countertop in my kitchen. It took them 19 days, and at one point Jorgeson tried and failed 10 times to make the crossing of Pitch 15. After the tenth try, he contemplated giving up but instead rested in his tent on the rock face for two days to let his fingers heal, and then made it on the eleventh attempt. Think about the magnitude of that—the incredible skill, sheer physical effort and the courage it took just to complete one section of 32.

At that point, was it motivation that got him through? I don’t think so. But who cares what I think? Here’s what Jorgeson said in a TV interview on the morning after: (it’s not an exact quote because I didn’t write it down) “What got me through was resolve. I would not accept failing.”

This wasn’t bravado after the fact—here’s what he said while still on the climb:

“After 11 attempts spread across 7 days, my battle with pitch 15 of the Dawn Wall is complete. Hard to put the feeling into words. There’s a lot of hard climbing above, but I’m more resolved than ever to free the remaining pitches.”

There’s that word again, resolve. How is it different from motivation?

  • Motivation gets you to the base of the mountain; resolve gets you to the top.
  • Motivation gets you through the first few weeks in January; resolve keeps your resolutions through December 31.
  • Motivation keeps your spirits up; resolve doesn’t care how you’re feeling.
  • Motivation is a glittering veneer that soon wears off under hard use; resolve is the iron core that remains.
  • Motivation can be fragile; resolve is antifragile because it gets stronger under pressure and duress. Like the calluses on a climber’s fingers, it gets stronger with use and challenge.

When I say motivation is for amateurs, it’s not that motivation is bad. Motivation will get you started, and an occasional refresher will recharge your enthusiasm. But when you’re attempting something truly difficult and worthwhile, there will be times when you hit a spot where motivation will not be enough, where all the best intentions you have won’t keep you going. That’s when you need good old-fashioned resolve. That’s where the pros come in.

Resolve may be easier to summon up when you have no choice, such as what Rob Konrad, a former Dolphin player who fell off his boat and swam 16 hours to shore, had to do. But the paradox is that you can choose to have no choice, if that’s possible. Jorgesen said he would not accept failing, and that choice left only one avenue open to him, to keep going until he succeeded.

There are plenty of motivational speakers, but no “resolve” speakers. That’s because resolve is not something you can have or show just by listening to someone else. It only comes from that voice inside you that refuses to let you quit. Resolve is what Kipling was referring to when he wrote:

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them, Hold on!”


I hope you will never need resolve, because you only need it when times are tough—almost desperate. But let’s leave Jorgesen with the last word:

“I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”

Making Meaning through Service to Others

January 14th, 2015

andyImagine waking up one day with a little tingling in your toes and the tips of your fingers. You might wonder a little about it, but shrug it off. But if a few days later you began noticing a weakness and a bit of klutziness in your limbs, you would definitely be concerned. Fast-forward a few days, and you’re lying in a hospital bed unable to move any muscle below your neck, and the doctors tell you there’s a chance your lungs will shut down too, and you would be terrified.

That’s what happened to Andy Coan a few months ago. Before that, he was a tremendously fit man in his mid-fifties, who looked like he could still swim a 100 freestyle in world-record time, just as he did as a high-schooler in 1976. His body had totally failed him, and he had absolutely no idea what to expect from this strange and savage disease called Guillain-Barre, which attacked his nervous system. Fortunately, he remembered that another swimmer, Rowdy Gaines, had gone through the same ordeal years before. We were able to track him down, and Rowdy gave Andy two things: useful information about what to expect, and–more importantly—hope.

That hope is what sustains him in his fourth month with the disease as he makes his slow and arduous comeback. He can move his legs somewhat and is relearning how to walk with a lot of support. His arms are all but useless. He can move his shoulders slightly, which is what he’s doing in the picture. When I visited him today, he was on the phone with a fireman who went through an even worse version of the disease (he spent four months on a ventilator because his lungs did shut down). The fireman told him that when he began his recovery, he could barely lift a three pound weight, and yesterday he benched 300 pounds!

That’s the kind of stuff that someone like Andy needs to hear, but it took a lot of trouble and some luck to find people who could help him like that. Now, besides his number one goal of getting better, Andy has another project in mind which sustains him. He wants to find a way—maybe through videos, a blog, and so on—to make it easy for others to get the information and the hope they need as quickly as possible if they ever get into the same situation.

What’s wonderful about listening to Andy describe his project is hearing and seeing the enthusiasm he has for helping others, and when he’s thinking about others, his own troubles are the furthest thing from his mind. To be clear: he knows he will get better eventually, but he doesn’t know how long it will take, and his rehab sessions are as tough as any workout he had back in the good old 10,000-meters-a-practice days when he was training for the Olympics. It’s not easy by any means, but there’s no feeling sorry for himself—because he’s focused on something bigger than himself.

Someone at the hospital today said “Everything happens for a reason.” That’s a cliché, and I don’t know if it’s true in the metaphysical or religious sense. But I am definitely sure that it can be true in a practical sense. Because when something devastating happens to you, you can choose to give it the meaning that you want to give it, and the service of others is about as fine a meaning as you can choose.

The list of ordinary things that Andy can’t do right now is long; but the list of extraordinary things is even more impressive. He can teach, and he can inspire, and that’s also about as fine a list as you can choose.

Note: If you have ideas for how Andy can spread the word and reach out to others who may be facing the terror of Guillain-Barre, please let him or me know, or share this with someone you think can help.

Focus on Others to Get What You Want

January 13th, 2015

MichelCatalanoWhen an idea hits me from three different directions at once, I should probably pay close attention—or at least write a blog post about it.

Last weekend, in reading The Obstacle Is the Way, by Ryan Holiday, I noted his advice that one way to make your personal fears and worries diminish is to focus on others. On Monday morning, I also read Mike Kunkle’s blog post about the servant approach to selling, in which he quoted Zig Ziglar’s line that “You get want you want in life by helping enough others get what they want.”

But the real kicker came when I read the morning paper, and came across a real-life demonstration of the power of focusing on others in a life-or-death situation:

Michele Catalano was at his print shop outside of Paris, when he noticed the two brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack approaching. He quickly told his employee, Lilian, to hide, and went to meet them. During the hour he spent with the terrorists, he managed to keep calm even as they asked him three times whether there was anyone else in the building. As he told the AP: “I stayed an hour with them. I was never scared, because I had only one idea in my head: ‘They should not go to the end (of the hallway) to see Lilian, that’s all.’ That’s what kept me calm.”

I don’t know if Mr. Catalano reads motivational books or blogs, but he instinctively took the best possible course he could have in deadly circumstances. Besides saving his employee, his cool demeanor is probably what led his captors to release him after an hour, so by focusing on keeping someone else alive he managed his own survival.

Hopefully none of us will ever face a situation like that, but the idea of getting what you want by focusing on others has immediate application in sales and in presentations. In sales, focusing on what you can do for the customer rather than on what they can do for you will put you in the right problem-solving mode and make it easier for you to come up with good answers. One reason is that it’s generally easier to think clearly about someone else’s situation than on yours.

Focusing on others is also helpful in delivering presentations, especially if you suffer from pre-presentation jitters. Take the attitude that you have an important message that will help your listeners get what they want, and that outside focus will take your mind off your own internal state and make you more confident at the same time.

Terrorism is the ultimate selfish act—being so wrapped up into your own goals and twisted passions that you are willing to hurt and kill innocent people. We may never understand what drives some people to commit such heinous acts, but fortunately we each have the power within us to be part of the response—to think more of others and less of ourselves.