Driving Employee Engagement in Times of Change

Let’s say that your company has made a major change in strategic direction. Or perhaps you’re changing the compensation plan. Or let’s say that you’ve acquired a new company.
If you fail to get employee buy-in and support, then the change is doomed to fail.
To discuss how to drive employee engagement on such challenging issues,  I recently interviewed Karlenne Trimble, a deputy-managing director at Manning Selvage and Lee, the public relations firm. 
Karlenne, who is based in Atlanta, has been involved in driving employee engagement for her clients for over 30 years. She is considered one of the nation’s experts on the issue. 
To listen to the podcast, click below. 
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Five Keys to Prompting Questions in a Presentation

The best parts of most business presentations are the question and answer sessions. Of course, it’s a good idea to tell your listeners to “feel free to ask questions at any time.” But there are several strategies to ensure that your audience engages in lots of Q&A. Here are five.

  1. Reserve half of your time for Q&A: If you have a 30-minute presentation, you should prepare no more than 15 minutes of “lecture.” Too often, Q&A is treated as an afterthought: “We’ll take questions at the end.”  But Q&A is when the audience can seek answers to its most important questions.  Why not give them plenty of time for getting those answers?
  2. Don’t put off raised hands: When someone raises a hand with a question, drop everything and answer it.  Even if the question deals with something that you will address later. You want to make it clear to the audience that you welcome questions. Putting off questions – such as putting them in the so-called “Parking lot”— sends the message that you consider questions a bother.  If the question is a little out of order, give a brief answer and tell them that you’ll deal with it more as the presentation goes forward.
  3. Keep the slides to a minimum: Having too many slides sends the message that the presentation is very tightly packed and that you probably won’t have time for questions.  The audience thinks, “Wow, this guy has 60 slides. If I ask any questions, we’ll never get out of here.”   If you have fewer and simpler slides, it sends the message that the presentation is “roomy” and has plenty of time for audience interaction.
  4. Look happy to get questions: Smile at the questioner and nod with interest.  The reason that you’re giving a presentation is to help the audience understand.  You should be thrilled when someone asks a question. Act thrilled.  You don’t have to say “great question.”  Just take the question seriously and not like it’s an interruption. Smiling at the questioner is like rewarding a dog for sitting on command.  Once rewarded, the chances are the audience will ask more.
  5. Ask yourself a question: Sometimes presenters will ask for questions and no one in the audience will raise their hand.  First, we recommend that you wait.  Often, if you sit silent for 10 seconds or so, people will begin to raise their hands.  But you can also “prime the pump” by asking the first question: “One of the most common questions we get is. . .”  That will often get the Q&A session going.



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Can Senator Obama Avoid the “Too Slick” Label?

While McCain is suffering from a “Presentation Gap,” Senator Barack Obama has to be careful of one of the most common pitfalls of great speakers: coming across as too slick and failing to connect with audiences.

Indeed, Obama has already been criticized as being too much of a showman.  Washington Post political commentator Robert Samuelson has written that

Obama is largely a stage presence defined mostly by his powerful rhetoric. The trouble, at least for me, is the huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.

Samuelson is one of many who have critcized Obama for being a great speaker with not much behind the rhetoric. Just this morning, New York Times columnist accused Obama of abandoning his original positions in favor of “shifts and twists and clever panders.”  

Being “too slick” is a criticism leveled at many excellent speakers, even if they’re not in politics. 

I work with a large technology company whose CEO is known for being a truly dymanic speaker.  But the CEO’s speaking style has started to wear thin with some of his team members.  One of the company’s sales vice presidents told me that he had grown tired of the CEO’s dynamic style. “Sure he’s a great speaker,” he said. “But after a while, it just seems like a little much. I mean do you want your CEO to come across as an evangelist?”

If you’re a truly gifted performer, it’s important to remember that the speech isn’t the end.  And speaking isn’t about the speaker’s ability.  Speaking is a tool to connect with people, help them, and move them to action. If you’re so slick that you don’t connect, then you’re not going to be effective.  We often advise great performers to focus less on being slick and more on connecting. That may mean ditching clever high-blown phrasing in favor of plain language that connects and is meaningful. Usually, the great style will continue to shine though.

As I said in my last post, I’m no political expert. And I truly believe that Obama is a great speaker. But he could run into trouble if he forgets that great speakers focus on helping their audience, not on putting on an award winning performance.

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How Can McCain Bridge the “Presentation Gap”?

One of the most noticeable differences between the presidential candidates is what the New York Times dubbed this weekend the “Presentation Gap.”   

Regardless of your politics, you have to admit that John McCain isn’t nearly as good a speaker as his opponent.  And with his aids working furiously to help McCain catch up to the smooth-talking Sen. Obama, I can’t help but wonder if they’re not making the situation worse.  The New York Times article noted,

Mr. McCain is working closely with aides like Brett O’Donnell, a former debate consultant for Mr. Bush, to improve his speech and performance. He is working to limit his verbal tangents and nonverbal tics. He is speaking less out of the sides of his mouth, which can produce a wiseguy twang reminiscent of the Penguin from the Batman stories, and he is relying less on his favorite semantic crutch — the phrase “my friends” — which he used repeatedly in his campaign appearances. He also appears to be trying to exercise restraint, advisers and campaign observers say, when speaking off the cuff, wisecracking in town meetings and criticizing his opponent.

Maybe what they’re doing will work. But I doubt it.  In my experience, it’s very hard to make someone a better speaker by suppressing their true personality. And that is exactly what Sen. McCain’s handlers seem intent on doing.

When we coach our clients, we don’t try to suppress parts of a personality. We try to identify the things that work and highlight them. So if a person has a very intense side to their personality, we try to bring that out more in their speeches. Why?  Because intensity is a great thing for a speaker.  If a person has a funny side, then we’ll try to bring that out.

McCain’s wisecracking, often self-deprecating, style is one of his most notable and likable qualities as a communicator.  That style is one of the things that got him to where he is. And as a communicator, it’s a great way to connect with audiences.

Of course, I have no political experience at all.  But I’m not alone in this view.  The Times story continues:

“I think the depressingly self-absorbed McCain campaign machine needs to get out of the way,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime friend and media adviser who has no role in the current operation but who still talks to Mr. McCain every few days. “They need to just let McCain be McCain.”

I think Murphy is right on. “Let McCain be McCain.”

That’s the goal of any good speaker. Be yourself. 


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Public Speaking Tip from Mark Twain

Mark Twain said, “No word was ever as effective as the rightly timed pause.”

In fact, the pause may be one of the most useful tools in the communicator’s tool kit.  Pausing helps you gather your thoughts, adds drama, and shows confidence, all at once.

We also recommend pauses to help people who are told that they speak too fast. In fact, it’s our experience that most people don’t speak too fast. The average speaker speaks no faster than around 150 words a minute. Listeners can perceive in excess of 300 words a minute.

Usually, the reason you’re told that you speak too fast is that you don’t pause long enough to allow the listener to process your words.

Faster talkers who throw in pauses will appear to be slowing down.

Pausing is far better than actually slowing down the rate of talking. If you’re talking too slow, you’re going to sound tentative and flat.

How long should you hold the pause?  Longer than you might expect. Three or four seconds feels like a long time to the speaker. But it will make you sound nice and confident to your listeners.

So heed the words of Mark Twain. Throw in some pauses. You’ll connect better with your audiences.

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Can Anyone Become a Great Speaker?

“Can anyone become a great speaker?  And isn’t the ability to be a great speaker something that you’re born with?”

I get that type of question a lot. I usually answer by reminding the asker of the old joke that goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

The answer, “It just takes one psychologist. But the lightbulb has to want to change.”

I do think that anyone can learn to be a great speaker. But like the lightbulb, they have to want to change, and be willing to work hard. Sure there are people who are gifted as speakers. And I suppose there are only a few people who can be as good as Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.

But that doesn’t mean that the average person can’t learn to be highly effective at connecting with audiences.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

I worked recently with a woman who is the CFO of a large company. She worked extremely hard at becoming a great speaker. She constantly sought chances to speak. She rehearsed her presentations constantly. She sought a lot of coaching.

As a result of her hard work, she’s become a terrific speaker.

There are a three key things you have to work hard at: focusing your message, telling stories, and speaking with a highly-animated personal style.

To master those areas, you need give lots of speeches, rehearse a lot and, perhaps, get some coaching.

But with practice, anyone can learn to connect with audiences and move them. 

All this talk of commitment and working hard reminded me of the famous “Rocky” sequence where our hero is running through the streets of Philadelphia and doing one-handed push-ups to the song “Gonna Fly Now.”  It’s pretty corny. But I still like it.

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Tips from Three Camp Counselors and a Maitre d’

In the last week, we have dropped our three kids off at camp.  You can learn a lot about how to greet your audience from the way counselors greet kids at the beginning of camp.  The same is true from a maitre d’ at a restaurant.

Kids are nervous at the beginning of camp. They’re leaving they’re parents. They’re also uncertain about what to expect for the next several weeks of their lives.  In those first moments, their minds are on high alert as they try to glean anything they can about what to expect. 

The camps all know this. As a result, they all do the same thing. They show lots of enthusiasm for the kids. They want to establish the feeling that “This is going to be fun.” 

When I dropped Benjamin, my 17-year-old, at Stanford (he’s spending eight weeks there studying linear algebra and computer science as well as playing Ultimate Frisbee), the kids all had to run a gauntlet of cheers, welcoming them to the eight-week program. It was fun and the kids couldn’t help but smile. Benjamin raised his arms like a victorious boxer.  It established a positive tone, the exact tone the camp was trying to establish. The other two camps (Elliott, 15, went to Clemson Tennis Camp and Annie, 10, went to Gwynn Valley in Brevard NC) did the same kind of thing.

Similarly, great speakers understand the need to establish an upbeat feeling at the beginning of a presentation.  Listeners to a speech are like campers. They don’t know what to expect. They’re a little anxious about whether the presentation is going to be a waste of their time. “I wonder if this presentation is going to stink like all the other ones,” is the unspoken context. 

Great speakers seek to dispel that anxiety. And they do it by establishing a positive tone even before they open their mouths.  They walk into the room with a spring in their step, making eye contact and wearing a postive look on their face. They’re “wearing their boots and spurs” as we like to say at Speechworks. That upbeat approach tells the audience that the speaker is confident that everyone will find the next 30 minutes of their lives valuable. It gets the audience in a positive frame of mind. Everyone relaxes.

On the other hand, you establish a far different tone when you greet your audience like the maitre d’ greeted us yesterday at the brunch spot in Brevard, NC. 

We walked in around noon. The place was crowded.  “We’d like a table for four,” I said.

She didn’t look at me. Instead, she looked down at her clipboard and said, “Well, you’re going to have to wait. It’s probably going to be 30 minutes.” Her tone made her sound like we might never get served.  We decided to go somewhere else.  Why bother with something that was starting out so negatively?

Many people start their presentations with the same low energy and sense of forboding. It’s a mistake. It makes people nervous and makes them want to leave.

You have a choice at the beginning of a presentation. You can act like an upbeat camp counselor greeting a nervous camper. Or you can act like an overworked maitre d’.  From my point of view, the decision is easy.

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How to Thank People at the Start of a Speech

Several years ago I attended a speech by the president of a major industry association.  He was speaking at a Rotary Club about the state of his business. After being introduced, he spent the first five minutes of his 20 minute speech thanking people for inviting him.  That’s a quarter of his speech!  And it went downhill from there.

It was a nightmare.

The problem, of course, is the “Thank yous” are wasted time for the overwhelming majority of the people listening. They want to hear what you have to say, not who has helped you along your way.  

We used to tell people to dump all “Thank yous.”  You’re there for your audience. Give out your “thank yous” personally in private. That should be enough to show your gratitude.

But we’ve modified that advice based on the fact that so many people ignore it. The fact is that speakers want to give some “thank yous”.

So here’s what we say now: Thank people for 10 seconds. Pause. Then begin. If you can’t thank everyone in 10 seconds, you simply have too many people to thank. You pause because it gives the audience a clear sense that the real speech is about to begin. The pause says “So we’ve got that out of the way. Now let’s start.”

I love marketing guru Seth Godin’s idea on this subject, which he posted about this week.  He recommends taking photos of all the people you want to thank and projecting them up on the screen in your auditorium prior to your speech. It will save you from having to formally thank them during the speech itself.  As much as I love this creativity, I’m not sure how practical it is for most speakers.

Of course, thanking people in speeches can be appropriate, such as when you’re accepting an award. But those speeches are usually incredibly boring. Think about the Academy Awards.

 Speaking of Academy Awards, here’s the “Thank You Very Much” musical number from the 1970 movie “Scrooge”.  In the song, the people of the town are celebrating the death of Scrooge, the miserable old miser. The song was nominated for best original song but ultimately lost to “For All We Know” from the movie “Love and Other Strangers.

Of course this “Thank You” speech works wonderfully. So you can ignore the above advice if you put your “thank yous” to music. Otherwise, keep it tight.

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Practice the Golden Rule of Presenting

Working with a lawyer recently, I sat in silence as he labored through a a painful presentation on “Recent Developments in Corporate Law.”

“Tell me the truth,” I said, when he was done with his rehearsal. “Would you want to listen to this presentation?”

He paused a moment and seemed a little taken aback. But then his shoulders sagged a little and confessed, “I guess not.”

That incident and many others have led me to posit what I call “The Golden Rule of Presenting:”

“Present unto others as you would have them present unto you.”

If you want to be a good presenter, put yourself in the shoes of your listeners.

How many points would you like to listen to?

How many slides would you like to sit through?

Would you rather hear stories or lots of data?

Would you rather have someone read you their presentation or deliver it extemporaneously with lots of energy?

Would you like to see someone who comes across as well-rehearsed or not?

What would you want to take away from this presentation?



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Speaking Lesson from Our GPS “Theresa Brown.”

When we rented a car for our San Francisco trip, we splurged and got a Garmin GPS system which we named “Theresa Brown.”  Unfortunately, Theresa Brown makes the same mistake that so many public speakers make: she doesn’t put the information in the context of her listeners’ lives. 

When we asked Theresa to take us to Berkeley, she began instructing us through the surface streets of San Francisco. The problem is that she asked us to turn left where there was a “No Left Turn” sign. She asked us to turn down one way streets. She asked us to go straight on a street when there was a barrier forcing us to turn right. 

Theresa has a map that may be technically correct. But she often doesn’t understand our real world enough to truly help us. 

So what did we do? We asked directions.  That usually solved the problem instantly. We asked a homeless man how to get to the highway and he told us “Go down two blocks and turn right.” 

I see so many presenters that are more like Theresa Brown than the homeless man. They deliver lots of technical information.  And it’s certainly accurate. But these “Theresas” utterly fail to truly help the listeners by telling them what it all means to them and what they need to do next.

As presenters, our first job is to help our audience, not deliver data.  

By the way, when you ask for directions in the city, be careful as this YouTube clip will show. 


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