When I worked my way up the ranks of tae kwon do years ago, one of our tests at every stage was to break a board (or several), with various punches or kicks. We were taught to aim not at the board, but about an inch beyond it. Hitting that target meant that a broken board was a foregone conclusion. It’s the same way with persuasive communication: a small but critical shift of your target can make a world of difference.
One of the most common bits of advice for speakers who are about to make a big presentation is to envision success. Imagine what it would feel like at the end of a successful presentation: walking out of that room knowing that you accomplished what you wanted; you got the agreement you sought, the kudos that came with it, the respect of the listeners—maybe even the financial satisfaction of a big commission from the sale. Think about reporting back to your boss how well it went, and the words of gratitude and praise you would get in return.
It’s a great vision, isn’t it? “Envision success” is great advice because it shifts your focus your fear and onto your excitement, and that can carry over to your entire performance.
But what if there is an even better
Envisioning success for your listeners will help you in three ways. It will force you into outside-in thinking, because the only way to envision their success in credible and concrete detail is to truly understand what your listeners will care about and what they are most likely to respond to. If you have trouble doing it, you know you have more work to do. Second, it will take your focus off yourself, off that little bundle of nerves and voice of doubt that nags at the back of your mind; when you’re truly focused on others it’s hard to be worried about your own concerns. Finally, your intentions will show through in your talk; if you’re excited for them, you will communicate that excitement.
Have you ever prepared for a one-hour presentation only to find out that someone is running late and now you only have fifteen minutes? I’ve seen people respond to this situation either by talking real fast, or by going ahead with their prepared remarks until they run into a hard stop, neither which is very effective.
They are incapable of flexing off their original presentation, because they are more focused on the content than on the plan. They are like the subordinate who encounters something unexpected and can’t improvise without instructions from above. They just have to show that cool graph they worked on for hours, and they have to talk about each one of the seven bullet points on each slide, because presentations are about content. Content is something you create beforehand and deliver faithfully.
A plan is less about content than about intent. An intent is a goal and a strategy to achieve it. In a sales plan, your intent is simple: what do you want the customer to do and why should they do it? During your sales call, your intent does not change, but your content almost always does, because the audience has a vote.
When you see your presentation as a plan, it forces you to have a clear idea of your intent: the what and the why, and a transparent structure for your presentation, which is your general strategy for achieving the intent. This way, it will be like having a map of the terrain in your head, so that if you run into a roadblock you can quickly figure out an alternative route to the same destination. The map is not the terrain, but it does give you situational awareness, so that you can have the confidence to flex and scale your content up and down as necessary.
Here’s a test you should be able to pass before any sales presentation: If I took away your slide deck, could you summarize your main point and supporting arguments in sixty seconds? Could you write down your key points on a whiteboard if the customer asked you to? If you can, it’s because you have a clear conception of the structure of your logic, and that will serve you well when you have to improvise. By having these guidelines clearly in your mind, you’ll be able to ensure that all your critical points are covered, while having the confidence to skip some information or slides that are not integral or important to your argument.
This is one of the benefits of the inverted pyramid presentation structure; journalists have learned to write stories in such a way fully expecting that an editor short on space may cut some out, or a reader with a short attention span will stop reading before the end. They make sure that their entire story is encapsulated in the first paragraph, with additional detail expanding the base of the pyramid. Your sixty-second summary is like the first paragraph of an inverted pyramid story. The great thing about building a pyramid from the to-down is that no matter when you’re stopped, it still looks like a respectable pyramid, instead of a pile of bricks with a flat top.
Take the same idea and apply it to your slide presentations so that they are easily scalable. Have an agenda slide up front, and then a slide containing each of your main points after that. The detailed supporting information goes in your backup slides, and you can always pull them up or leave them out depending on how much time you have. In fact, if you really want to prepare for the possibility of being cut short, have two versions of your slide presentation: the expected and the short one.
Here’s one more small hint: always prepare your presentation for less time than is allotted. If they’re interested, they’ll easily fill the time with their questions, and if they’re not, well, no one ever complained that a presentation was too short.
When you’re hit unexpectedly with a request to shorten your presentation, your attitude is critical. If you view it as an obstacle or an inconvenience, it will color the way you come across to the audience. If instead you view it as an opportunity to demonstrate your command of your message, that will also come across. (Some of my best sales presentations have resulted when things went off the plan, and customers have made a point of complimenting my preparation.)
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: I am not telling you to skip the careful preparation of content in detail; don’t use this as an excuse for cutting corners. But do keep the intent and the strategy uppermost in your mind at all times. That way you will be able to combine the wisdom of planning with the wisdom of knowing when and how to change your plan.
I’ve been very worried about the state of American democracy recently. I see the general quality of the candidates for President and wonder if this is the best we can do. I hear the tone and content of their public speaking, and marvel at how dumbed-down and personal it has become.
But last night, I had a reminder that American democracy doesn’t just take place every four years in a circus side-show; it takes place every day at the state and local level as well, help
I attended a Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting specifically to speak against a development proposal that was up for a vote. The meeting room was packed with roughly 200 people, with an overflow crowd accommodated on another floor. Anyone who wanted to speak could register their name and be put into a queue.
And what a queue it was. No exact figures were released, but certainly well above 100 people signed up to speak. Those of us speaking were granted 3 minutes each. My wife got called past midnight, and I finally got my turn past 1am. (In true lean fashion, I only used 2 of my allotted 3 minutes.)
We finally left after almost 8 hours in the meeting, and it still was not over and the room was still substantially filled with people either waiting their turn or listening to the speakers. I can’t believe I spent almost a full work-day equivalent, but it was not a chore at all. I was fascinated by the entire process and came away with a few observations about the state of public speaking and democracy in America:
Although passions ran high—especially among the anti-project side—for the most part every speaker avoided ad hominem attacks or a strident tone. They were able to argue for their own side with both cogency and conviction without explicitly tearing down the other side. The incivility and incoherence at the national level has thankfully not yet trickled down to the local level.
I got the impression that “expert” speakers get paid by the word.
I was pleasantly surprised by the general quality of the ordinary citizen’s public speaking skills. The area of the city under discussion is generally affluent and well-educated, so this may have been a factor, but in general I rated them higher than some of the business audiences I face regularly.
I know a lot of the speakers had stage fright, but it was astounding to see how many confronted their own fear and went ahead anyway.
Although I’m not generally a fan of reading speeches, it’s a good idea if you’re not experienced. Those who read their own prepared remarks had clear messages while still being able to convey their authentic feelings.
One concern I had was how few young people attended. I don’t know if it’s because the topic is not one they care too much about, or a more general lack of interest in the political process.
The most impressive thing to me about last night’s meeting was the fact that so many people signed up to speak. It shows that people in America still believe their voice counts. At least at the retail level of politics, they can speak directly to their elected representatives and sway their opinions. In fact, in the end we did sway their opinions: they did not approve the developer’s plans. It’s an exhilarating feeling to participate and to make a difference, which is why I love public speaking so passionately.
If we can get that spirit to trickle up to the national level, the state of American democracy will be just fine.
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 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.