Last week, my church brought in a guest pastor from out of state who delivered a technically perfect sermon. Her message was strong and well-organized, she had great stories, her delivery was enthusiastic with excellent vocal variety and gestures that perfectly choreographed with her key points.
And I didn’t care for it at all. There was something missing. The message made sense intellectually, but I wasn’t touched at all on a personal level. She did not connect with me; she did not tap into a feeling that I could relate to.
Similarly, I watched the presidential debates last night, and one candidate in particular piqued my professional admiration for his technique—but quite frankly he also gives me the creeps. That’s because I can’t tell whether he actually believes or feels what’s coming out of his mouth.
As I analyzed why I reacted this way to both of these examples, my first thought is that too much perfection is a bad thing. But as I reflected further, I don’t think it’s that. After all, Churchill, King and Reagan were also technically perfect, and they deeply touched millions.
I believe the pastor and the candidate missed the mark for two different reasons. The first can be cured with hard work, the second is probably terminal.
I think the pastor truly believed in her message, and genuinely cared about whether the audience benefited from it. Her intentions were pure, but she fell short in her technique. It wasn’t too perfect, it was just one step shy of perfection. Perfection is not only doing everything just right, but making it seem so effortless that it doesn’t call attention to itself. She gave off the impression that she was so proud of her skill that she wanted everyone else to notice it. The problem with that is that she succeeded: I was so busy watching the performance that I missed the message.
That can be cured by working on the technique even more, and getting it to the point where it’s truly unconscious and effortless competence. Here’s a practical example: most people don’t realize it, but natural gestures actually precede the words they support by a few milliseconds. When people are thinking about the gesture they want to use, it comes out at the same time as the words. The difference is so minuscule that we don’t consciously notice it, but something in our minds registers that it’s not right. So, how do trained actors get away with it? They “become” the person they’re portraying, and it becomes real. When you’re so good that it’s a part of who you are, the real you can come through, and that’s where connection begins.
The second reason is less about technique and more about character, which is why it might be terminal. Besides working on their craft over decades, the great speakers had something else that all the practice in the world won’t give you: they started from a place of genuine conviction and feeling and then honed their craft to improve their delivery. They did not work on delivery for its own sake. One got the sense that they cared how their message affected the listener, not how their delivery made them look. Reagan actually alluded to this when he said, “In all of that time I won a nickname, ‘The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things…”
I am not against working on your style and delivery—after all, I make a living by helping people improve on those things. But I am against working only on style and delivery; I am against thinking that outer perfection can make up for inner conviction. If you don’t truly believe in your message, if you don’t truly believe that the product you are selling will help your listener, there is no amount of technical perfection that will help you in the long run.
You’ve just finished your important presentation, and opened up the floor for questions. What’s your mindset? Are you anxious to get through the Q&A safely; are you hoping that you won’t get tough questions; are you praying that the blockers will keep quiet?
If so, you’re playing not lose, rather than playing to win—and you’re less likely to get your wish.
What sets the great performers like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady apart from the merely excellent, is that when the game is on the line in the closing minutes or overtime, they want the ball in their hands. They trust themselves above all others to bring home the victory. Above all, the greats play those crucial minutes to win, while others may simply play not to lose.
I submit that the same dynamic applies to great presenters. If you view the Q&A as an afterthought, and as merely an obstacle to complete before you’re done, you are already in trouble. I’m not referring to ordinary presentations, where the decisions are routine and little change is expected. I’m referring to crucial presentations, where the audience is going to make a decision that entails major change; it could be a major purchase decision, or a strategically important project.
In those presentations, the presentation itself is not enough. In fact, it often serves just to set the context for the real discussion among the various people involved in the decision. The presentation is important because it can frame the discussion, and help to define the limits of the discussion that will take place, but it’s during the interaction after the presentation when minds will be made up and intentions will be formed.
Here are three specific reasons that the Q&A is crucial:
It surfaces real attitudes and concerns. If your blockers keep quiet, it may be because they’ve been convinced by your airtight logic and eloquence—or it may be that they’re just waiting for you to leave so they can open up about everything they think is wrong with your proposal. You want your blockers to bring their concerns out in the open while you are there and at least have a chance to address them.
It allows you to show your mettle. If you have a polished and effective presentation, people may be impressed, but they also know that you had a lot of time to practice. Before entrusting their money or their reputation to you personally, they may want to see how you react unscripted and under pressure. For example, senior decision makers may not know enough about the technology to judge your claims during the presentation, so they like to “scratch beneath the surface” to test your knowledge and conviction…
It enables you to facilitate the real discussion. In The Challenger Customer, we’re told that the key task in major purchases is to align the diverse perspectives of the 5.4 (on average) stakeholders. Your Mobilizer can do that for you during the sales process, but when you have all the stakeholders in one room, you have a unique opportunity to guide the discussion, to stimulate open and productive debate in the room. That’s a scenario that most salespeople would rather avoid, but the Jordans and Bradys of the sales world will relish the challenge.
Of course, simply having a positive, opportunistic attitude is not enough. It has to be grounded in reality; Jordan and Brady earned their killer instinct through countless hours of preparation and practice so that they could execute at the right time. I share tips on Q&A preparation and execution in this video:
Supposedly, Abraham Lincoln was asked how long a man’s legs should be, and he replied: “Long enough to reach the ground.” I’m reminded of this story whenever people ask me how long presentations should be, although my answer is, “long enough to make your point.”
That’s true, but—like Lincoln’s answer—not completely helpful, so I suggest two additional rules:
- Shorter than you think
- Shorter than the time allotted
Shorter than you think. In my classes, I usually require participants to prepare a seven minute presentation. There’s no special magic in that exact length; it’s driven by time considerations in the class. Several years ago, I was explaining this requirement to a group of mid-level executives in Rome, and they told me that I was delusional, that what they had to say was much more complicated than could be squeezed into seven minutes. I told them to humor me, and try to do it anyway.
On the following day, their presentations went so well that the senior person in the room told me they would henceforth institute a seven-minute rule in Europe for their presentations.
Others are slightly more lenient, but not by much. Bill Lane, who was Jack Welch’s speechwriter at GE for two decades, suggests ten minutes. “Ten minutes is more than enough time to present effectively on most subjects, if you think it through and extract every non-contributing thought or word.”
Interestingly, ten minutes is the time limit suggested by psychologist John Medina in his book, Brain Rules. He tells us that audiences begin to check out at that point, so you have to shake things up or move to a different point to keep their attention.
At a normal speaking rate of 125 words per minute, the amount of information that can be packed in to a ten minute presentation is equal to about five double-spaced pages of writing. If you can’t say what you need to say in that time, you’re probably not thinking clearly enough about what your key point is, or you’re trying to do too much. When you consider that Winston Churchill used to require every memo sent to him not to exceed one page no matter how big the topic, you can see how it’s possible, especially since you’re not fighting a world war.
Shorter than the time allotted. Parkinson’s Law does not have to apply to presentations; your message does not have to expand to fill the time allotted to it. I know you might think that this is your one big chance in the limelight to be noticed, but taking too much time is one of the best ways to ensure that it is your only shot. If they give you 30 minutes, plan for 15-20 (if that). If they give you ten, plan for seven. There are two reasons for this. First, if what you’re saying has any interest at all to the audience, they will interrupt you with questions, especially the higher up in the organization. You want questions and dialogue, but if you have too much stuff prepared you’re going to feel forced to get it all out. Second, no one will ever complain if you take less time than was on the schedule—in fact you may not have a choice, because chances are anyone on the agenda before you did not prepare as well as you did and has already eaten into your time.
At any rate, I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll stop here. Any questions?
Years ago, FedEx ran this commercial which poked fun at the fact that someone could steal another’s idea just by expressing it more forcefully. The lower ranking team member makes a sensible suggestion, which is ignored. Seconds later, the offending executive repeats the idea, but with a strong knife-hand gesture, and all but gets a standing ovation.
The video is funny and instructive, but for me, what is most revealing is reading the comments. They are almost all negative, and they lambaste the “blowhard” who steals the idea. It’s obvious that they think it’s totally unfair that something as superficial as one’s body language could determine the acceptance of an idea. They have no doubt had a lot of experience in the real world seeing people move ahead in the organization and develop greater influence just because of the confidence in their talk and their walk.
There are countless studies that verify this unfairness. Ideas expressed in a confident manner do carry greater weight—and good-looking people get their way more often. It’s a superficial world we live in, and shrinking attention spans are probably making the problem even worse, as nobody takes the time to dig beneath surface appearances.
But is it really unfair? I’ve written often enough about how important critical thinking and sound content are to ethical and effective persuasion efforts, so I should be adding my voice to the chorus of complainers.
But look at it this way: If you are blessed with a high IQ, you want to derive the most advantage you can from it. If you’re blessed with good looks and a confident demeanor, you also have a right to try to derive the most advantage you can from that. In fact, it’s much easier for a smart person to learn how to use confident body language than it is for a good-looking person to learn how to be smarter. So, where is the unfairness? We’re all born with strengths and weaknesses, and we all have the opportunity to work hard to correct weaknesses and develop strengths. Nothing unfair there.
That said, it’s important to keep in mind that the confident person got credit for a good idea. If he had received credit for a bad idea, that would have been unfair. But there is nothing unfair or wrong about using better body language to improve the perception of your ideas or proposals. It’s reality. We are hard-wired to consider the forcefulness and confidence of someone as one of the factors in assessing what they tell us. People don’t decide solely on the logical content of our ideas, so if you want to be persuasive, it’s incumbent on you to use all available means to get your point across.
If you’re one of those people who refuse to adjust your approach or presentation style to make sure your ideas are presented in the best possible light, kudos for sticking to your principles, but good luck with that. It’s your choice, you can whine about it, or you can learn how to use your body language to help you instead of holding you back. I suggest starting with the knife-hand.