Anderson Cooper on the Value of Gray Hair

If you’re thinking of getting rid of your gray hair, don’t do it if you’re a man, says the famously gray-headed CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

“In the TV news business, gray equals gravitas,” writes Cooper in a funny column posted to the website. “In fact, in just about any line of work being prematurely gray is an advantage. On a guy, gray hair says, “I’m mature, stable. I can be relied on.”

Note the qualification, “On a guy.”  Cooper admits that there is a huge double standard here.

“Women don’t get a free pass,” Cooper writes, admitting that our sexist society doesn’t favor gray-haired women in the same way it favors men.

At Speechworks, we don’t take a position on whether you should color your hair or not. Plenty of men with gray hair are terrible speakers.  And plenty of women with gray hair are wonderful speakers. 

But people do judge us based on superficial things.  An accounting firm partner told us how they had lost a pitch for a new piece of business. When they asked the decision-maker why they weren’t selected, they were told, “Your expert didn’t have enough gray hair.”

Frankly, hair color is pretty low on the list of priorities for improving your speaking skills.  We say, “Be yourself and do what makes you comfortable.”

If you really want to improve your skills, focus first on improving your voice energy. Speak with passion.  Engage your listeners with more intense facial expressions.  If you’ve do those things, no one will care about your hair.

Sales Pitch Tip from A Shoe Salesman

A good friend of mine was once one of the leading shoe sellers for Parisian. And he told me a secret that could help you win your next sales pitch.

“Whenever I’d get a customer,” he said, “I would never just let him try on just one pair. I would measure his feet and then bring out several pairs. I wanted to spend a lot of time with him as he tried on lots of shoes. He’d try on shoes and we’d  chat, discussing the kinds of shoes he liked. Eventually, after spending 30 minutes with me, we had a relationship. And he would always buy something. He had to because we had become friends.”

The point is this.  If you want to win a sales pitch, you need to find a way to draw out the sale like a shoe salesman. To do that, you need to touch the prospect multiple times prior to the pitch.  Like the shoe salesman, the more time you spend with the prospect prior to the pitch, the more you build a relationship. The better the relationship, the better chance you have to win the pitch.

If someone asks you to give them a presentation, don’t just say, “Sure, when do you want me to show up?”

You need to ask for the chance to talk to them in advance. You need to find a way to build the relationship prior to the pitch.  Say something like, “I’m excited about the chance to present to you. But I want to give you the best presentation possible.  Can we set up a time to meet prior to the presentation to chat with you about your company? I want to understand your key issues.”

Even if he says “no”, you’ve started to build a relationship.

Remember the shoe salesman. He wants to spend as much time as possible with the customer because that builds a relationship. To do that, he draws out the sale.

Do the same thing with your prospect and you’ll win a lot of pitches.

Public Speaking Tip from Bill Gates

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend looking to Bill Gates for public speaking advice.  He didn’t make it to the top on eloquence.  But it’s his birthday today and I was curious about what he had to say about communication.

The answer? Nothing really.

But I did find this quote that seems relevant.

Gates said, “The vision is really about empowering workers, giving them all the information about what’s going on so they can do a lot more than they’ve done in the past.”

Of course, Gates is speaking about computers and how they can empower workers. 

But the same idea applies to good speaking. Great speakers understand that a good presentation isn’t about showing off or looking fabulous. It’s about empowering your audience, giving them the information they need so they can succeed.

A great speech lays out a simple path and points a direction toward success.

If you do that well, you don’t need to be eloquent. You can be more like, well, Bill Gates.

We Speak to Help, Not to Get Credit For Our Work

When I was in high school, my math teachers’ tests always included the following instructions: “Show your work if you want full credit.” And so we would all do our best to show the teacher all the steps we took to get to the answer.

The idea, I suppose, was that the teacher wanted to examine our thought process and not just check that we got the right answer.  A good practice for growing young minds.

Unfortunately, many people have taken that “show your work” policy to heart when it comes to presentations. And it’s killing their audiences.

The goal in a presentation is not to get credit for your work.  The goal is to give your audience direction and help them achieve their goals.

I worked with the associate of a law firm who had planned to give a presentation to a client on recommendations regarding a litigation strategy.

His presentation amounted to a detailed recitation of the legal analysis he did in reaching his strategy.

I stopped him in the middle of his presentation. 

“Why are you telling me all of this?”

He paused for a moment and then said, “I want people to know everything I’ve done in preparing this strategy.”

Oh dear, I thought. He wants credit for his work.

Once you’re out of high school, people don’t care about how much work you’ve done. At least not when they’re listening to your presentations.  They care about how you can help them.

With that in mind, focus your presentations on the key things that will help your audience do their jobs better.

I asked the associate, “What are the three things your client absolutely needs to know about the litigation strategy?”

He thought for a moment then said, “They need to know the basic strategy, the risks, and the costs.”

“Then make those points and stop.”

A presentation is not your chance to impress the audience with how much work you’ve done. It’s your chance to help your audience by giving them what they need to know to do their job successfully. Do that, and people will love your presentations.

As Banks Market “Trust”, Execs Must Connect

“The image that we are going to be trying to project for the next 10 years will be safety and security.”

Those were the words yesterday of the senior vice president for external communications for a major bank.  I was meeting with him to discuss a program to help his senior executives improve their ability to give presentations to community groups.

Since I’m in the business of training executives to give speeches, of course, I found his words particularly interesting.  But his words also seem to point out that with the financial services industry melting down, banking executives in coming years will have to dramatically improve their image.

The financial services industry, more than any other, sells trust. If the public won’t trust a particular bank or investment firm with its money, that institution can’t function.

So how are financial institutions going to rebuild trust after the current debacle? True regulatory reform will obviously play a major role. And I’m sure that marketing and advertising will have a role.  

But a firm’s brand, contrary to what many think, is not the responsibility of the marketing organization.  Ultimately, the most important bearer of the brand are the executives and employees themselves.

If a financial services company wants to build trust, then their people are going to have to inspire confidence. Part of the way you do that is by learning to communicate with your customers, business partners, regulators, and prospects in a way that connects.

Do Good Looking People Earn More Money?

From the “first impressions count” department, here’s a study that indicates that good looking people earn more money.  According to research published in the Journal of Labor Economics, Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle determined that attractive people earn about 5 percent more in hourly pay than their average-looking colleagues, who in turn earn 9 percent more per hour than the plainest-looking workers.

Here’s my response to that.

Bill Gates. 

Of course looks matter. But they don’t matter that much.

Have the Courage to Focus on a Single Hot Button

During a presentation yesterday to a group of about 150 economic developers from communities across the country, I made the point that the best way to start a sales pitch is to detail what you understand as your prospect’s single biggest challenge.  “Then you promise to help them find a solution to that challenge,” I explained. “The rest of the presentation delivers on that promise.”

As I said it, there was a man seated in the front row who squirmed uncomfortably.

“I just don’t agree with that,” he said, interrupting me. “That’s dangerous.”

I love being challenged during a presentaiton. It’s a chance to liven things up.

“Why do you disagree?” I said, smiling patiently.

“There are usually many hot buttons,” he said. “You risk missing the other ones if you just focus on one.”

He was right. You do risk missing one if you narrow your focus. But it’s a risk that you should take.

Of course prospects have lots of problems.  But you’re job in a pitch is to find out the single biggest one that you can help solve and focus on it. 

You have a limited amount of time in your sales presentation, usually only 30-45 minutes. A good pitch offers a solution to a prospect’s business problem. But no one can credibly propose a good solution to four or five major business problems in a single short presentation.

Of course, picking a single major problem can be scary.  The gentleman seated in the front row today was scared of picking the wrong one.

Here’s my response. “Don’t pick the wrong one.”

The best sellers hedge their bets with due diligence, working the phones and building the relationships.  That allows you to be confident in judging the prospect’s key problem.

And of course you can touch on other key issues as you go through your presentation.

But the best pitches propose a solution to a single key business problem.

If Audience Yawns, It May be A Compliment!

Next time you’re giving a speech and you see people yawning, you shouldn’t immediately be offended. It may be a compliment, a sign that your listeners are so fascinated that they’re trying extra hard to pay attention.

That’s the conclusion of State University of New York at Albany researchers Andrew C. Gallup and Gordon G. Gallup Jr. in a study outlined in the May 2007 issue of Evolutionary Psychology.

The psychologists, who studied yawning in college students, concluded that yawning is a way of cooling the brain and making it operate more effectively.   The brain burns up to a third of the calories we consume, and as a consequence generates heat.  According to Gallup and Gallup, our brains, like computers, operate more efficiently when cool.  Yawning enhances the brain’s functioning by increasing blood flow and drawing in cooler air.

“Since yawning occurs when brain temperature rises, sending cool blood to the brain serves to maintain optimal levels of mental efficiency,” the authors wrote.  “So the next time you are telling a story and a listener yawns, there is no need to be offended – yawning, a physiological mechanism designed to maintain attention, turns out to be a compliment.”

On the other hand, if your audience is actually snoring, you probably need to get some coaching.

Public Speaking Tip from Singer Ray LaMontagne

My wife and I went to see Ray LaMontagne this weekend at The Tabernacle in downtown Atlanta.  We had fun and Ray sounded great. The band was, as they say, “really tight.” He brought the house down with perfect renditions of his hits “Trouble”, “Hey, Me, Hey Mama,” and “Jolene.”

But I have one caveat to my endorsement of the show.  Ray didn’t look at the audience once during the entire performance.  And it bothered me.

He had his band arrayed around the stage in a semi-circle.  He stood off to the right and faced stage left.

The result was that he looked like he was singing to his steel guitar player. 

Now I suppose I understand what he was trying to do. I guess he felt like “It’s all about the music man.”

And I agree his music was great. And the joint was rocking.

But I get his music from his albums.  When I come to a concert, I want something more than music. I want to feel a personal connection with the artist. And part of that connection comes from him simply looking at me as he sings. 

Sure it’s about the music. But it’s also about the connection . . .  man.

Bad (But Funny) Analogies from High Schoolers

One of the best ways to connect with audiences is with analogies.  Just don’t use any of these which are taken from high school student essays.

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a ThighMaster.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.