Step One for Telling a Great Story: Make a Big Promise

The first step in telling a good story is to make a promise.  And if you want it to be a great story, it needs to be a big promise.

When you make a big promise, you’re setting an expectation in your listeners’ minds.  There is tension: “will she be able to fulfill the promise?”

That’s how “Law and Order” always starts. With a promise.

At the beginning of every show, someone (it seems to me like it’s always one of two kids playing basketball) finds a corpse.  That corpse is a promise. It’s a promise that says, “If you watch the show, we’re going to tell you everything there is to know about this corpse including who did it and why.”

You pay attention to the rest of the show because you want to experience the delivery of the promise.

In a business story, it’s the same. A good story starts with a big promise. “OK team, I’m here to talk about how we can all double our bonuses next year.” It’s a promise that the listeners are interested in.  The team then pays attention because they want to hear how the promise is fulfilled.

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How to Dress for Success: Don’t Be Like Michael Jackson

In watching the continuing converage of Michael Jackson’s death, I was struck by his attire when he went to meet with President Reagan.  True to his image, the King of Pop wore a sparkling captain’s outfit that made him look like a star from a jazzy revival of “The Pirates of Penzance”.

But if you want to dress for success, you probably shouldn’t take your cue from Michael Jackson.  Unlike MJ, you want to dress in a way that doesn’t draw attention. 

If you’re proposing a new distribution system, you don’t want the audience thinking “those are the most colorful pants I’ve ever seen.”

With that in mind, to ensure that your message stands out, make sure that your attire blends in. We tell our clients to dress one step above the audience. If everyone is wearing golf-course casual, then you should throw on a blazer.

Of course, what you wear depends a lot on your body type, your personal taste, and your industry.

Here are a few keys to keep in mind.

  • Select apparel, fragrances, jewelry, hairstyle, etc. that do not detract from your professional image.
  • Make sure your hair is clean, neat and professionally styled. Avoid styles that cover over more than your forehead or one that you have to brush back.
  • Remove facial and body piercings other than single ear jewelry.
  • Visible tattoos should be covered to avoid distraction.
  • Apparel should be clean and neatly pressed.
  • Apparel should fit well and remain in place while sitting and/or walking.
  • Choose professional apparel that you like for which you receive positive feedback from people who are knowledgeable about the industry standard or specific company policy.
  • Keep your look simple and successful.
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Does Obama Give People the “Evil Eye”?

Your facial energy can have enormous impact, even at the highest levels.

In fact, White House staffers allegedly are joking about President Barack Obama’s tendency to give people the “evil eye.”

I’m not sure how much stock to put in this story because it was reported with no attribution on the conservative news/gossip blog “Drudge Report.” But we pass on the story simply to highlight the impact of facial expressions.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with giving someone the “evil eye”.

But make sure that you know you’re doing it.

A CEO once asked me to work with one of his in-house attorneys. “He’s pissing off our clients,” the CEO told me.

When I met with the attorney,  I immediately saw the problem.  When he spoke, he always gave you a nasty squint. He was unintentionally giving everyone the “evil eye.”

When I showed him what he was doing, he was surprised and immediately fixed the problem, reserving the nasty look for special occasions.

I’m glad Obama gives people the evil eye. It’s a valuable tool in the communication skills arsenal.

I just hope he’s using it with a purpose and not accidentally.  yw6jn287zh

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Public Speaking Tip from Roger Federer

Roger Federer’s win at the French Open has made me happy in a way that I didn’t expect. And it is a lesson for anyone that wants to build a relationship with an audience.

The lesson is this: if you want to bond with an audience, show your humanity to them.

I still get a little sense of satisfaction just remembering Roger dropping to his knees in tears for his 14th Grand Slam victory and his first on the red clay of Roland Garros. I’m truly happy for him.  And I’ve never met him. I’m just a fan.

I think a lot of people feel the same way. The reason, I believe, is that Roger has has shown himself to us over the last year in a very personal, vulnerable way.  When he lost to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open earlier this year and then at Wimbledon last year, he cried both times. 

While almost no one can really identify with Roger’s extraordinary skills on the tennis court, we can all relate to his frustration.  By not hiding it, we have grown to love him for more than his skills. We’ve grown to care for him as a person.

The same is true with speaking. If you want to bond with your audiences, show your real self to them.

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Can Grooming Make You a Grand Slam Champion?

It was a big French Open weekend for tennis fans like me. I was glued to the men’s final yesterday morning and the women’s final Saturday morning. Of course, Roger Federer won the men’s tournament.

But the lesson for today comes from the women’s winner, Svetlana Kuznetsova.   It seems that how you look can make you a champion. At least one very important tennis journalist, Peter Bodo of and attributes her resurgence in part to her grooming.

Here’s how Bodo described Kuznetsova’s press conference after her victory over Dinara Safina.

“But it was about her own downside that the new Roland Garros champion was most articulate when she sat before the world press, wearing a white sports jacket with some sort of sparkles embedded in the fabric, her streaked blonde hair still pulled back in that pony tail that may be the perfect symbol of her makeover. And that’s a transformation that may be deep-reaching.”

“We don’t like to put too much stock in appearances, but sometimes they tell us a great deal. And for long periods in the interim since Sveta won that first major in New York, she seemed oblivious to how she looked, to the point that she sometimes seemed disheveled, unprepared, unprofessional. This mattered because the carelessness and the lack of self-respect that it implied showed in her patchy, undisciplined game – and her results. And while the implications of all this may be discomfiting, it’s undeniable that tennis players, especially top players, are generally very fastidious about their appearance and, if anything, overly conscious of style, grooming, and fashion. Their workplace, after all, is in the public eye.”

How we look impacts how we feel about ourselves and how we perform.

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Communication and Leadership Lessons from Capt. James T. Kirk

“A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”


Those are the wise words of James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, and hero of “Star Trek,” the latest revival of the space exploration adventure franchise.  Captain Kirk had apparently endured many boring presentations by Federation colleagues.


In honor of his revived fame, here are more Kirk quotations relevant to communication skills, persuasion and leadership.  These quotations are from the 1960s television program.


“Conquest is Easy, control is not.”


Roaming the universe, the Starship Enterprise crew was always dealing with issues of conquest and control.  But this quote also goes to the heart of what great communication is about. It’s about the challenge of exerting influence over others.


Great presenters influence others by focusing on value to the listener. If you want a client to comply with a set of expensive regulations, you’ll have more success if you can show that compliance will increase revenues, reduce costs, or increase competitiveness.


“The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”


This quote sounds like an exchange with Mr. Spock over a chessboard.  But it also touches on the idea that one of the true tests of a leader is the ability to make complex things simple.  This is particularly true in business today where the economic and regulatory environment is becoming increasingly complex.  


Here’s a question you can ask yourself before your next speech that will allow you to simplify any topic: “Assuming that my listeners won’t remember everything, what are three things I really want them to remember?”


 “We humans are full of unpredictable emotions that logic alone cannot solve.”


Kirk was always teaching Spock, the ever-logical Vulcan, about human emotion. And one of the most important ways to influence an audience is with emotion and passion.  Great communicators don’t rely solely on logic. They show passion to build a personal connection with the listener.

Let’s say that you must pick one of two excellent firms to help your firm navigate a complicated financial transaction.  Both firms have excellent reputations.  How do you decide?  Part of the calculus will simply be who you connect with better on a personal level.


“Genius doesn’t work on an assembly line basis. You can’t simply say, ‘Today I will be brilliant.'”


The same is true with speaking. Becoming a great speaker takes sustained effort over many years. Over time, you develop stories and a style that connects with audiences.


Three years ago, I started working with an executive at a huge Atlanta company. For the first speech we worked on together, he did a nice job.  Since then, he has worked at his speaking skills, seizing opportunities to give presentations.  Just this week, I saw him speak again.


“I’m amazed at your progress,” I told him.


“It’s funny how practice really works,” he said.


“We’ve got to risk implosion. We may explode into the biggest fireball this part of the galaxy has seen, but we’ve got to take that one-in-a-million chance.”


Many people, when they get up to speak, fear that the universe will explode. But if you want to be a leader, you must face that fear.  The key to managing the fear of public speaking is to rehearse your presentations extensively.


“No more blah, blah, blah!”


No explanation needed on that one.

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Public Speaking Tip from Malcolm X

Today is the birthday of Malcolm X who was known for his ability to move an audience with his passion. He said, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

And it’s a good point about public speaking. All this talk about public speaking is for nothing if you don’t use it as a tool of leadership.  We speak because we’re trying to connect with people and move them somewhere.

So when you’re speaking, take a position and defend it. 

I once heard a Senior Vice President for a large company rehearsing for a presentation. He was laying out the reasons why a particular program for a company needed to be cut off.  But he was avoiding saying “Let’s end this program.”

I said, “I sounds like you think they need to end this program.”

“Yes,” he said.

“But you never explicitly say, ‘Let’s end this program.'”

He said he was worried about the political implications of taking such a stand. He wanted to lay out the problems with the program and hope the audience members would reach the conclusion on their own.

I understand how he feels. Leadership takes courage. Good speaking takes courage.

Malcolm knew that.

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If Your Child is Speaking This Graduation Season

I’ve been asked by my son’s high school to help the speakers at the various graduation ceremonies.  And I’m happy to do it.

Here’s what I’m going to tell them. 

Your audience goes to graduation ceremonies  because they are excited for their kids. They are filled with hope for the future. They want to connect with that sense of hope.

So here’s what you can do to connect.

1. Tell stories.  Think of all the best speeches you’ve ever heard. They all have stories. Don’t give me of platitudes.  Tell me one key thing that you’ve learned. Then tell me a story that illustrates the point.

2.  Don’t read your speech.  Too many students get in front of their classmates with a text and read it.  But when you read your speech, you utterly fail to connect with the audience. If that’s what you’re going to do, then just print it out and send the speech to everyone via email.

3. Speak with passion.  You’re a new graduate!  Sound like one!

4. Practice. If you practice a lot, then you will be able to deliver the presentation despite your anxiety.

5. Have fun.

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How To Know if You’re the Office Jerk

Do you speak solely in buzzwords?

When you ask questions in meetings, are they preceded by long monologues?

Do you make provocative statements to “foster dialogue” or needle others?

If so you might be the office jerk and not know it, according to a CareerBuilder.Com quiz to determine whether you are an annoying co-worker.  I find the quiz interesting because half of the 20 questions on the quiz involve communication issues.

According to the quiz’s author, Kate Lorenz of, there are some easy things to do to ensure that you’re not the office jerk. 

“Ask your boss and colleagues for feedback and be ready to listen,” writes Lorenz. “If what you hear doesn’t fit your self-image, ask them to help you understand what they are saying by giving examples.  You might say: ‘Tell me more about what I do that leads you to believe that.’ Then listen, without arguing, defending or justifying your actions.”

In working with our clients, we have found that the best way to endear oneself with colleagues is simply to be interested in them. 

Indeed, to our mind, Barbara Walters has the best advice for avoiding being tagged as the office jerk. Said Walters, “The best way to be interesting, is to be interested.”

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