Why I Now Want to Attend Cal Berkeley

I want to be a Golden Bear. And my 17-year-old son Benjamin may want to also.

Yesterday, we toured the University of California at Berkeley. Benjamin is a rising senior at North Springs High School in Atlanta and he’s looking at colleges. Berkeley is on his list.

It was a beautiful day. A gorgeous campus. Perfect day to take a tour. But the real reason we were sold was Jenn, our tour guide, a third year student and terrific speaker. 

Now let’s be clear. She wasn’t particularly polished like someone who had been in business for years.  She was young, like an enthusiastic cheerleader. She had a few “likes” and “you knows” in her speech.

She wasn’t perfect. But she knew how to connect.  She was truly passionate about her school and it came through with her smile and her overall enthusiasm.   She grew on you. She was, as they say, irresistible. You couldn’t not like her.

In addition to her enthusiasm, she did another thing that great presenters do, she told stories.  As she took us around the campus, we learned about the plaque on the ground that you couldn’t step on because it’s bad luck.  We learned she is going to be studying in Chile next spring because “I’ve loved Spanish since I was in eighth grade. I want to be fluent so I’m going abroad. Now let me tell you about our study abroad program.  . . .”

We learned about which library is the best place to nap between classes. We learned about “Berkely Beach” where everyone works on their tans. We learned about the food and how “when my friends visit from other schools, they all tell me that our food is the best.” 

She also told about her favorite professors and how they have opened up her way of thinking.  We learned about the special parking spots reserved for the Nobel Prize winners. 

She didn’t mention the fountain where Benjamin Braddock sat while waiting for Elaine Robinson in “The Graduate.” But I guess that was before her time.  Benjamin Asher didn’t know about that either.

Of course we did learn about the special axe that is the trophy won by the annual Stanford-Cal football game.  “It’s a fun rivalry,” she said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t win this year. But football season is lots of fun.”

Jenn showed that you don’t have to be a particularly polished to be effective and persuasive.  Just tell stories and be enthusiastic. 

Jenn got me so fired up that I went on YouTube to find a clip of the famous last minute football play in the 1982 Cal-Stanford game. I’ve probably seen it 50 times. But it’s still fun to watch. Go Bears.

On Saturday, we’re going to visit Stanford.


Public Speaking Tip from Alcatraz Prison

The wind is blowing. We’re freezing. Our legs ache from a day of walking. And I look down at my daughter Annie and I’m amazed.  Is this 10-year-old about to start complaining about wanting to go home?  Not at all. She’s riveted by the speech she is listening to.

That’s right. My 10-year-old daughter, along with about 50 other tourists, was riveted by a speech. The speech was at Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay and was being delivered by a park ranger (Alcatraz is a national park).

He was telling the story of John Giles’s attempt to escape on July 1, 1945. Having worked in the miliary laundry, Giles had disguised himself as an Army officer and calmly boarded a military launch off the island. Unfortunately for Giles, he boarded the wrong boat. His ride was headed for nearby Angel Island, then a military base, instead of to San Francisco. He was caught and sent back to Alcatraz.

Despite the freezing cold (San Francisco is surprisingly cold this time of year), everyone, my daughter included, was riveted. This is just another example of the amazing power of stories to hold an audience.  This ranger didn’t need PowerPoint. He didn’t need handouts. He had no flipcharts. 

All he had was the story of a prisoner trying to escape. 

Think about the best presentations you’ve ever heard. They almost always have stories.

If you want to give a great presentation, tell a story.

Here’s a newsreel clip about the 1962 escape that was the subject of the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz.”


Great Sellers Put a Dumpster in the Driveway

About three years ago, my wife and I decided to renovate our house.  We were going to add a new master suite, renovate our kitchen, replace the deck, replace the driveway, and re-landscape our front yard. It was going to be expensive.

We obtained three bids from contractors. The first two bids were almost the same. The third bid came in about five percent higher. The high bid was from Mark.

Arriving home from work one day, I was astonished to find a big blue construction waste dumpster right in the middle of my driveway. From my car, I called my wife.

“Are you aware that there is a dumpster in our driveway?”

“I know nothing about it,” she said. “Call Mark.”

I have no idea why she wanted me to call Mark. But I did.

“Mark,”  I said. “Are you aware that there is a big blue dumpster in our driveway?”

“I put it there,” he said without blinking.

“Don’t you think that’s a bit presumptuous?” I said. “We haven’t picked you yet.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “But I know that you want to finish the major parts of the job before the end of the summer. So we’re going to need to get a quick start. If you pick me, then I’m starting tomorrow. If you don’t pick me, then I’ll get rid of it and it won’t cost you a thing.”

I was stunned. I guess I could have looked at this as a high pressure sales tactic. But I saw it differently. Mark had decided to take a risk. He was going to expend his own resources to start solving our construction problems before we had even hired him.

And that’s what great sellers do.  They begin to solve the prospect’s business problems prior to being hired. The sales pitch presents the proposed solution to the prospect for free. The prospect should think, “Wow. I would have paid them for that analysis.  But I got it for free as part of the sales pitch. That’s impressive.”

If you’re a lawyer, the pitch should raise the key legal issues and begin to propose legal solutions.  If you’re a contractor, you should identify key construction challenges and propose how to solve them. If you’re a software salesman, you should lay out  a plan for reducing the prospect’s costs.

That’s putting a dumpster in the client’s driveway.


Tim Russert Taught Us Much about Communication

The shocking death today of NBC newsman Tim Russert is a great loss for many reasons. But from my perspective it marked the loss of a wonderful communicator. 

Of course, he had a positive conversational style that made you want to watch him.  But I thought one of his greatest contributions was his ability to explain relatively complex stuff. This is particularly hard to do on television when time is very short. 

One of the things he was best known for was using a hand-held whiteboard to explain election numbers.  In the following clip, he did a great job of breaking down why Barack Obama had eliminated Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidential nomination.  He started with the simple point that no Democrats thought Hillary had a chance. Then he used his trademark whiteboards to go through the numbers.  Then he ended by restating the point that Hillary can’t win.

He could have used more sophisticated television graphics. But the handwritten whiteboards made things seem so simple.


A Treasury of 2008’s Commencement Wisdom

So many commencement speeches. So few cliches. 

J.K. Rowling, Carl Bernstein, Bill Nye and many others gave speeches to college graduates this graduation season.  As a public service, The Wall Street Journal summarized many of the speeches in this story.

None of the speakers asked me for my input. But if they had, I would have directed them to my recent post on how to give a great commencement speech.

Here is “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling’s speech to the Harvard graduates on the “benefits of failure.”


Can Anxiety Be a Compliment to Your Audience?

“Appearing nervous is fine. It conveys to the audience that you care about how well you perform in front of them; that they matter.”

Those are the words of Bill Lane, former speechwriter for GE CEO Jack Welch.  Lane has written a new book entitled “Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE Into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company.”

I’m not far into the book. But he has already delivered some nice insights about speaking. I’ve never really thought about the idea that being nervous can actually be a compliment to your audience. But it seems right.

People will forgive nervousness. As Lane says, it shows that you care. But make sure that you also show you care about rehearsing like crazy.  If you’re nervous and deliver a totally unfocused, poorly prepared message, your audience won’t be very forgiving.


Write Your Next Speech on a 4X4 Inch Post-it Note

Here’s a radical idea. The next time you have a create a presentation. Try creating the entire thing on a single Post-it note.   It takes some discipline. But you can do it. And it might turn out to be the best presentation of your life.

Step one: Get a Post-it note. The 4X4 inch note will do fine. But go bigger if you like.

Step two: Come up with a “hook” that will go at the beginning that illustrates the business problem your presentation addresses. If sales are down and you’re trying to help your sellers do better, you might tell a story about making dozens of calls but closing only a few deals. Just jot down a few key words that illustrate the idea for the story. You might write “Closing rates are down. Brief personal story.”

Step three: Write down three key “bumper stickers” that you really want your listeners to remember. These should be the three simple ideas that absolutely must stick in your listeners’ heads. If you’re giving a presentation on how to increase sales, your bumper stickers might be “We’re chasing too many prospects.” “Let’s narrow our prospect lists” and “Fewer total calls but more quality calls.”

Step four: Come up with some stories to support your three points. So if your first point is “We’re chasing too many prospects”, give a story illustrating the idea.  A real story from your own experience is best. Just jot down a couple of words to identify what the story is about. Let’s say that the story is about how one of the sellers last month made 50 prospect calls but only three of them were well qualified to buy. Your notes would say “50 prospect calls but only three good ones.”

Step five: Come up with a call to action.  What is the next step?  Do you want everyone to submit a sales plan in the next week?  Ask for something from the audience.

Step six: Start practicing. As you practice, you start by detailing your “Hook.”  “Today we’re going to talk about the problem we’re facing with dropping sales. In the last six months we’ve dropped to 50 percent of our plan. I’m going to talk about how we’re going to get sales back up.”  Then preview your three points by stating your three bumper stickers. Don’t go into detail yet. Just give a table of contents. Then go into detail for each of your points, telling stories you’ve noted.  As you practice, fill out the stories. Practice telling your stories over and over so that you can get them just right.  Then recap your three points and give the call to action.   Practice it five times.

This Post-it approach requires that you narrow your message to what is really essential and then bring it to life with stories. The practice will ensure that your delivery is strong. 

A clear three-point message. Stories. Strong delivery. How can you go wrong?

Here’s Jobs’s iPhone Speech From Yesterday

As I was playing this speech for the first time this morning in my hotel room, my wife looked over my shoulder and said, “He’s so arrogant.”

Maybe. But he ain’t dull.

As usual, Jobs is passionate. He uses visuals that are incredibly simple. And his speciality — fun demonstrations — is on full display. In this clip he does a little demo on downloading of documents. These demos comprise the kind of little stories that make a presentation fun.

Let me know if you agree with my wife.


Steve Jobs’s Great Speeches Are Part of His Brand

Steve Jobs gave another speech today, introducing the upgrade of the iPhone in San Francisco. And sure enough, it’s a huge story in the the New York Times.  Jobs’s presentations have become a kind of “must see” corporate theater. 

Why?  Of course, part of it is that he announces cool stuff.  But there are plenty of corporate announcements of new products that don’t garner such publicity. 

Jobs gets so much attention because his presentations are reliably fantastic.  As I write this post, I haven’t been able to see today’s presentation.  It hasn’t been posted on YouTube yet. 

But when you sit down to hear Jobs give a presentation, you expect something exciting.  He’s passionate. He tells stories. He does cool demonstrations.  Part of the Steve Jobs “brand” — what you can reliably expect from him — is that he’s a great presenter.  Every time he stands up, everyone knows that he’s going to deliver something exciting.

What gets me excited is that anyone can learn to make “great presenter” part of their own brand. You don’t have to have an iPhone to unveil to develop the reputation as a great presenter.

In fact, most companies that I’ve worked for have people who are known throughout their organization as great speakers.  They get that way by working hard on their presentations and not settling for the usual boring stuff.

Like Steve Jobs, they usually do four things.

  • Keep the message simple and focused on issues that the audience cares about.  Jobs always keeps things simple and easy to follow. 
  • Tell stories.  Jobs is always telling stories and giving demonstrations, which are stories in their own way. 
  • Speak with passion. Jobs seems to truly be having fun.  
  • And rehearse. Jobs practices a lot.

 Do those four things consistently and your name will become synonymous with “great presenter.”

Here is the introduction of the iPhone from last year.  As soon as today’s speech is posted, I’ll put it up.