To Inspire, Give Plan then Tell Story

I was working recently with the President of a small financial services company who wanted help in inspiring her top producers. 

“What should I tell them?” she asked me.

“If you want to get people fired up, lay out a plan for success, then tell a story about how that plan works,” I said.

And that’s what she did.  She told her team members that success this year would be to open 500 new accounts. Then she detailed a marketing plan to get there.  Then she told a story about how one of the team members had added more than 500 new accounts last year.  

“I could feel people getting excited as we discussed it,” she said.

There’s something about a proven path to success that gets people fired up.

Lectures are dying. And I Say Good Riddance.

I was speaking recently with a client about her presentation to a trade group. It was a big opportunity.  

“How long do you think I should speak?”

“Twenty minutes,” I said. “No one wants to hear anyone speak for more than 20 minutes.”

Maybe it’s because of the internet. Maybe it’s because of sitcoms. Maybe it’s because we’re used to getting everything so fast. But for whatever reason, the day of the stem winding lecture is over. I don’t care who you are, no one wants to hear you give them a lecture.  As further evidence, check out this story about how MIT has ended the era of giant lectures.

Rather than give lectures, we urge our clients to give interactive presentations, where listeners participate in the program, discussing questions, taking positions, and even solving problems.  It’s a far more effective way to connect with the audience.

Wait! I’m Not a PowerPoint Hater!

I’ve apparently been labeled a PowerPoint hater among the public speaking blogosphere. 

Fellow public speaking blogger Olivia Mitchell recently spearheaded an interesting virtual debate on the value of PowerPoint. She quoted me here trashing the value of PowerPoint.

And I admit that I’m not a huge fan. But I’m not against the use of visuals. I just think that people focus so much on visuals that they forget their value. 

PowerPoint illustrates a presentation. But it doesn’t sell an idea. That is done by the speaker by keeping his message focused and delivering it with passion.

I think that people think that endless fiddling with slides will somehow make their presentation good. But it won’t. Only a focused message and rehearsal will do that.

If you want to read all the posts in the great PowerPoint the debate, click here.

Waffle House and Your Communication Brand

How we communicate becomes part of our personal brand.

Take the Waffle House as an example.  I love the Waffle House.  The food is always good. And it’s cheap. 

But the thing that amazes me about the Waffle House is how nice people are. I’ve been to many Waffle Houses. And every time I go, the people are always so nice. And it seems like a very hard job. It seems like it would be a place where it would be extremely easy to not be nice.  There are a lot of people coming in who are not nice to the staff.  But that doesn’t seem to deter their eternally positive attitude and communication style.

And every time I bring this up with people, they all agree that the Waffle House staffers are always nice.  Niceness in communication has become a part of the Waffle House brand.

On the other hand, there was a guy at my old law firm who was always a jerk. Indeed, his brand was “the firm jerk.”

How does your communication style support your personal brand?

Novelist Lee Child on the Importance of the Audience

“It’s all about the audience. It’s the audience first, second, third and fourth. Too many writers write to impress their friends, or their colleagues, or their writing groups. They write to appear cool. That way lies failure.  It’s about the audience only.”

Those are the words of one of my favorite writers, Lee Child, who has written a dozen thrillers featuring Jack Reacher, a loner and former military policeman, who roams the United States solving crimes and meting out justice.  The most recent Jack Reacher book is “Nothing to Lose.”

I picked up the quote from Lee Child yesterday while listening on my computer to a recorded interview of Child by WNYC radio broadcaster Leonard Lopate.  Child’s quote came in response to a question about whether Child’s experience writing for television had helped him as a novelist. When Child said it, I paused the interview and scrambled for a piece of paper.

Of course, the same can be said about what it takes to make a great presentation.

The best presenters are focused solely on helping their audience and addressing their needs, whatever they may be. If you’re giving a sales presentation, then the presentation needs to address the prospect’s business problem. If you’re addressing  your company’s board of directors, then you need to help them make a good decision. If you’re addressing your direct reports, then you need to give them information that will help them move ahead in their jobs.

So often, speakers fail because they forget this simple idea that the audience is the only reason we are up there speaking.

Sales Presentation Lessons from a Shoe Salesman

When going gets tough, the tough learn how to sell shoes.


Let me explain. New business is hard to come by these days.  And if you get a chance to pitch for a piece of new business, the pressure will be high to win.  But if you want to maximize your chances, then you need to do everything you can to “rig the game” before you pitch.


And to do that you need to learn a lesson in relationship building that the best shoe salesmen have always known.  The lesson is this: the more time you spend with a customer before the pitch, the greater your chance of making a sale. It’s a lesson that the best sellers all understand. And it can help you win your next new business pitch.


I first learned this idea from a friend who is a star salesman for a major consulting firm in Atlanta. When he makes a sale these days, it’s worth millions. But he learned to sell working as a teenager in the shoe department at Parisian in Birmingham, Alabama.


“When someone would come in to the shoe department, it would be my goal to have them try on as many shoes as possible,” he said. “If they asked for a certain style, I’d bring out that style in two sizes. I’d also bring out some similar styles. I’d also bring out some outrageous styles.”


“More than anything else,” he explained, “I wanted them sitting there trying on lots of shoes for a long period of time.”


“Why?” I asked.


“Because the more time they spent with me, the more they got to like me,” he said. “Also, the more time they spent trying on shoes, the more invested they got in the process. All of that time made them more likely to buy shoes. It worked every time.”


Selling legal services is a lot like selling shoes. Like the shoe salesman that wants you to try on lots of shoes, the best sellers want to spend a lot of time with the prospect before the pitch.


Let’s say that you’re going to compete for a chance to represent an architecture firm in a building collapse case.  You’re invited to give a “beauty contest” presentation and compete for the work.


Now you could use the standard approach. You show up and give a presentation, detailing your firm’s capabilities and hope for the best. We call this approach, “What Losers Do!”


Or you could use the shoe salesman approach. You could seek to spend as much time as possible with the prospect prior to the final presentation. You might say, “We’d love to give you a presentation that will be as helpful as possible. Can we chat with some of your team members before the presentation to get a sense of the challenges?”


Many times the prospect will say yes. Why?  Because they don’t want to waste their time. They want the best solution possible. They understand that the best presentations are those that are based on good information.


Of course by spending time interviewing the prospect prior to the presentation, you learn where to focus your presentation. Just as importantly, like the shoe salesman, those pre-pitch interviews allow you to build a relationship with the key players. Those relationships increase your chance of winning the business.


So in these challenging times, take a tip from the best shoe salesmen.  Spend as much time as possible with your prospect before you deliver the final pitch.

How to Put Lipstick on the PowerPoint Pig?

Presentation skills coach and fellow blogger  Olivia Mitchell has asked me and many others to comment on what, in our business, apparently passes for a controversy: how can we make PowerPoint better?  You probably missed this controversy if you are part of the following group: business people who are trying to accomplish things.

Let me summarize this distracting tempest in the graphic design teapot.  For several years, a group of graphic designers have been rightly trashing PowerPoint and the busy slides it tends to produce.

Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen, Nancy Duarte at Duarte Design, and Edward Tufte (the granddaddy of PowerPoint haters)  have been hammering on the misuse of PowerPoint for years.   Many graphic artists have pushed for a minimalist approach using big pictures and very few words. These slides are quite attractive and it’s easy to see why artists love them.  They’re very “arty” looking. 

Now comes the inevitable backlash to this minimalist approach from writer and internet marketing consultant Laura Bergells. On her PowerPoint blog, Maniactive she wrote: 

The current PowerPoint design fashion vogue is overly simplistic, and panders almost completely to the right side of the brain. Since one of our chief presentation objectives is to persuade, why is this a problem?

Using only right brain techniques to persuade is emotionally manipulative. Oh, it’s highly effective, all right, but it’s propaganda, nonetheless! Appealing only to the right side of the brain is less than truthful — it lies by omission of key facts. 

Audiences are getting more savvy.  We’re getting more suspicious. We’re asking harder questions. We’re tired of lying, half-truths, and crass emotional manipulation by corporate leaders, politicians, and news media outlets.

So there you have it. First there is a well-deserved backlash against PowerPoint’s tendency to get too complex.   Now comes a backlash to the backlash arguing that we’ve gotten too simple.

When it comes to PowerPoint, I suppose I come down in the “simpler is better” category.  And I do think that visuals are helpful. We help our clients with slides and flip charts when they are appropriate.  I use them myself in my presentations.

But ultimately my position on PowerPoint is this: it’s largely irrelevant to whether you accomplish your goals. That’s because PowerPoint and other visuals, now matter how graphically pleasing, don’t inspire audiences, sell ideas, or win business. That’s done by the speaker. If he or she has a well-crafted message that focuses simply on the listeners’ needs, and if it’s delivered well, then the presentation is going to be a success regardless of what slides you have. 

Does anyone remember the Barack Obama’s slides?  Colin Powell’s?  Ronald Reagan’s? What about Steve Jobs? Sure he uses a minimalist slide approach. But the reason he’s so good has nothing to do with his slides.  He’s great because he knows how to tell a story and deliver it. Take away his slides and he is still great. If you don’t agree, check out his much praised graduation speech at Stanford.

This debate is a symptom of a larger problem. That problem is that business people waste too much time crafting slides rather than doing what will really make their presentation succeed: seeking to understand the audience, telling a good story, and rehearsing.

Here’s what I’d like to see going forward. Let’s start creating presentations by taking out a blank sheet of paper and writing down what we want to accomplish and what our audience cares about. Then let’s decide what our core message is, deciding what three key messages we really want our audience to remember. Then let’s see if we have some interesting and relevant stories to support our points. 

Then let’s spend a little time thinking about whether slides are even necessary. If they are, then let’s spend a little time creating slides.

But let’s also keep in mind that slides don’t grow businesses. Connecting with audiences and colleagues and business partners and customers is what grows businesses. And to do that you need a clear message, a style that connects, and lot of rehearsal.

Caroline Kennedy: Sen. You Know, D-NY?


I guess the apple fell a long way from the tree.

Caroline Kennedy, who is pursuing the US Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, is being rightly criticized for her horrendous speaking skills.  Her father, John F. Kennedy, who was a legendary speaker, might not be too impressed.

According to the New York Daily News, Ms. Kennedy used the words “you know” in her interviews more than 400 times since Friday with several media outlets.

Here are the “You know” counts:

  • New York Times: 130 times
  • NY1: 80 times
  • Daily News: 200 times

To reduce filler words, Kennedy needs to learn how to pause.  Close  your mouth instead of uttering the  filler word.

Great Speeches Give a Bold Point of View

Herbert Bayard Swope

The point of their presentation was simple: they wanted to kill a high profile program that had been a costly failure.

The problem was that this costly failure was a pet program of one of the executives that would be listening to the presentation.  So rather than clearly state that the program had to be killed and then explain why, the presenting team wanted to lay out all the reasons why the program should be scrapped and hope that the listeners would reach the “correct” conclusion.

Here’s what I told them. “You just need to ‘cowboy up’ and make your point clear. Start by telling them that the program needs to go. Then give your supporting reasons.”

Few things are as powerful in a presentation as boldness.  Make your points without ambiguity.

Remember the words of Herbert Bayard Swope, a St. Louis newsman who was the recipient of the first Pulitzer Prize for Reporting in 1917 and whose birthday was yesterday. Swope said, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure — which is: Try to please everybody.”

Great presentations make bold points. Take a position.

New Year’s Resolution for a Great Sales Pitch

If you want to make a single resolution this year to improve your sales presentations, then make it this: Focus your sales presentations solely on your prospects’ needs.

I’ve said those words thousands of times. And every time I say them, I get knowing nods from my clients. Everyone seems to agree that the key to a great sales pitch is to do nothing other than address the business problem that the prospect faces.

In fact, “focusing on the prospect” is so universally accepted that it’s almost a banality.  It’s sort of like saying, “Being nice to people makes other people feel better” or “Feed your dog because otherwise he’ll be hungry.” 

It’s common sense. The problem, as my grandfather used to say, is that common sense isn’t particularly common.

While most people agree that sales presentations should focus on the business need of the prospect, most business presentations fail to address the business problem. Instead, they start by saying, “I know that you have some serious issues in your business. And we will address those. But first, I’d like to start by telling you a little about our company.”


That is not focusing on the business problem of the client.

A good sales presentation follows a simple pattern.

Step 1: Show that you understand the prospect’s problem. By that, I mean you should detail exactly the challenges that your prospect faces as best as you can.

Step 2: Lay out you solution.  Detail exactly how you’re going to help the prospect overcome the challenges that you detailed in step one. Provide examples of how your solutions have helped others with similar problems.

But don’t we have to talk about our company?  Usually not. If you’re invited to come to a presentation, usually they know about your company already. And if they don’t, they will figure it out by listening to your solution to their problem.

But shouldn’t we talk about our experience?  Yes. But only in the context of how it addresses the prospect’s problem.

If you want to win more business this year, make a New Year’s resolution. 

Focus your presentation solely on your prospect’s business problem.