To Brief CEO, Focus on Big Picture, Not Weeds

Focus on big picture. Let the CEO take you into the weeds.

That’s the philosophy of a strong executive briefing.  A tight, high-level message inspires confidence.  “If you can’t tell it to me quick,” one manufacturing executive told us recently, “you probably don’t have a strong understanding of the issues.” 

Long rambling remarks sound uncertain.  With that in mind, prepare relatively short messages that focus on just the most important issues. Deliver the update quickly.

“But our CEO wants to know all the details,” one of our clients told us.  

We’re not saying that you shouldn’t be ready with the details when asked.   But don’t serve up those details until you are asked.  A good waiter recites the specials and takes his cues on further suggestions from the restaurant patron.  He doesn’t read out the entire menu.  Similarly, a good briefer gives the high points and then responds to the issues raised by the CEO rather than wading into a lot of potentially unwanted detail.

Let the CEO ask for the detail she wants.  When you start at a high level, you can always go deeper.

We recommend a three point strategy:

  • Current Status
  • Key Challenges
  • Proposed Solutions

We worked with a telecom executive in charge of improving customer service. His task force had done several things to improve service and he had to report out to the CEO. He outlined his message as follows:

  • Current status: Our key customer service metrics are finally starting to move in the right direction.
  • Key Challenges: We’re still getting way too many customers calling us trying to figure out how to operate the new handsets.
  • Proposed Solutions: To solve the problem we’re going to get more involved in early development of the handsets.

When it was his turn during the meeting to speak, he quickly outlined the three key points, giving an overview in 15 seconds. An overview helps the listener get the big picture. Then he went back over the three key points, giving a couple of sentences of detail and explanation.  Then he stopped and took questions.

“Actually it was a very orderly and productive discussion that everyone was happy with,” he told us later. “We stayed on track and didn’t get too lost in unnecessary detail.”

Keeping your message high level tends to keep the discussion properly focused, leaving plenty of room for detail if needed.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Study Says Swearing at Work Helps Beat Stress

From the “language connects you with others” department, here’s a study that indicates that foul language can help you connect with others.

Researchers at England’s University of East Anglia Norwich looked into leadership styles and found that using swear words can reduce stress and boost camaraderie among coworkers. 

Professor Yehuda Baruch, professor of management, told the BBC that 

In most scenarios, in particular in the presence of customers or senior staff, profanity must be seriously discouraged or banned. However, our study suggested that, in many cases, taboo language serves the needs of people for developing and maintaining solidarity, and as a mechanism to cope with stress. Banning it could backfire.  Managers need to understand how their staff feel about swearing. . . . The challenge is to master the art of knowing when to turn a blind eye to communication that does not meet with their own standards.

As always, consider the audience.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Public Speaking Tip from Odetta

“No one can dub you with dignity. That’s yours to claim.”

Those are the words of folk singer and civil rights legend Odetta, who died this week.   If you don’t know about her, check out her obituary in the New York Times.

She wasn’t a noted public speaker. But the above quote touches on what great speakers do. Great speakers claim dignity by trusting in their own voices and speaking with passion.

Yesterday, I was in a workshop where one of the participants made a large stride in improving his ability to connect with audiences. He really was getting it. He was speaking with a kind of passion that anyone could see was real and unique to him.  And when he saw himself on videotape, I could see him getting nervous.

“I’m not sure I can do that,” he said. “Everyone is going to wonder what happened to me. It’s not what they’re used to seeing.”

But great speakers embrace how good they can be without fear. They realize that their passion is their dignity. They embrace it rather than run from it.

That’s what Odetta did.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Five Storytelling Tips From Barack Obama


When Sen. Barack Obama made history last week, I wrote a post about his skills as a storyteller.  I included the above clip from YouTube, in which he tells the story of his first trip to Greenwood, S.C. and how it produced his campaign’s signature chant “Fired Up! Ready to Go!.”

I’ve thought more about the Greenwood story and I think there are five storytelling lessons we can take away.

Lesson 1: Start with the Point

Like all good storytellers, Obama begins with the point. “I want to [tell] a story that some of you know. It shows the importance of one voice. It’s a story of my first trip to Greenwood.”

In addition to ensuring that your listeners get the point, starting with the “moral” creates a mystery that drives the narrative. Knowing the story’s destination, listeners pay attention to unravel the mystery of how to get to that destination.

Let’s say that you’re an attorney giving a presentations about litigation strategies. You might start a story by saying, “I want to tell you a story that illustrates how little mistakes can lose a lawsuit.”  If your listeners want to win lawsuits, they’ll listen carefully to find out how.

Lesson 2: Narrate Chronologically.

Obama allows his story to unfold as a series of chronological events.

I fly into Greenville and get in late. It’s about midnight. I get to my hotel about 12:30. I’m exhausted. I’ve been campaigning for 10 straight days and I miss my daughters. I miss my wife. I’m dragging my suitcase into my hotel room when suddenly I get this tap on my shoulder. I look back. It’s my staff person who says, “Senator, we’ve got to wake up at 6 am tomorrow.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because we have to go to Greenwood like you promised.”

Of course, Obama could have just said, “We woke up early and drove to Greenwood.” But that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as allowing the story to unfold in movie-like fashion.

Any business person can enliven their presentations with the same narrative style. You could say, “My CFO was angry.”  Or you could say, “I went in to see my CFO to discuss our budget. Sitting behind his desk, he looked angry. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’ve decided that you’re either an idiot or are trying to make me angry. Which is it?’”

The narration is more interesting.

Lesson 3: Details make it live.

Obama includes vivid details.  Once he arrives in Greenwood, S.C. he describes meeting Edith Childs, who originated the chant “Fired up! Ready to Go!”

“She’s dressed like she’s going to church,” he said. “She’s got her church hat on.” The church hat brings the story to life.

I worked with a lawyer who told a story about an emergency hearing held in a judge’s home. He grabbed his listeners by describing the living room where the hearing occurred.

Lesson 4: Reemphasize the point.


Obama ends by reminding the listeners of the point: “One voice can change the world.” Reemphasis brings finality.


Lesson 5: Practice


Obama has told the Greenwood story many times, refining it with practice. Great story tellers rehearse a lot. Stories tighten with age.


Learn to tell a story. As Obama knows, it’s a skill that can take you a long way.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Try Giving Your Next Presentation “Naked.”

Everybody has a dream. Mine is that more people will present naked.  And why not? Presenting naked takes less preparation and, if done right, blows the audience away.

“Presenting naked” is stripping away the trappings and “layers of clothing” that presenters use to hide their insecurities.  No PowerPoint. No lectern.  No notes.  Take a flip chart if you want. But nothing else.

You walk out in front of your audience — fully clothed. Stop. Wait for quiet. Then you passionately lay out a stripped-down message. The bare simplicity, relevant stories, and energy blow away audiences because most speeches are so dry and complicated.

Easier said than done?  Not really.  It only takes guts and a little know-how.  Presenting naked is easy if you know how to create a listener-focused presentation, how to rehearse, how to leave room for questions, and how to speak with passion.

How to Create Your “Naked” Presentation

Most presentations stink because they fail to focus on the audience’s true needs and interests. We’ve all sat through horrifyingly bad business presentations.  The worst I can remember was when I was a utility lawyer attending a meeting with about 50 utility executives in Birmingham, Alabama.  We were there to hear a three-hour presentation on anti-trust law by a lawyer from another firm. It was horrible.  He cited dozens of cases and delved into all sorts of economic theory that may have appealed to anti-trust lawyers and professors but had no appeal to utility executives.

I could hear the Blackberry’s clicking under the tables. No one was listening because the presenter didn’t focus on what the audience really wanted or needed to know – how to avoid jail.

How to Focus a Message

Naked presentations focus like a laser on audience interests.  Here’s how to quickly focus a message. On a blank sheet of paper, write down the three most important questions that your audience needs answered. Choose your questions carefully because they are the heart of your naked presentation.  Simplify your questions as much as possible.

If you’re delivering an anti-trust presentation to utility executives, you might focus on these questions:

  • What can you say to your competition?

  • What can you do to your competition?

  • And can you say in internal e-mails about your competition?

Determine the answers to your questions

Fill out your presentation by answering the questions and telling stories to illustrate your answers.

Here’s how it might sound.

I’m here to talk about anti-trust issues in the utility business. And I’m going to talk about three things:

  • What can you say to your competition?

  • What can you do to your competition?

  • And what can you say in internal e-mails about your competition?

Let’s talk about the first issue. What can you say to your competition? 

Then write on the flip-chart two or three things that you can and can’t say to your competition.  Tell stories illustrating your point. Move on to point two.  After point three, recap the core ideas.  Leaving time for questions, you shouldn’t speak for more than 20-30 minutes.

Applying the Model to Sales Presentations

While this model won’t necessarily work for everything, it can be far better than most presentations.  How about a sales pitch? I worked with a senior vice president of sales for a large distributor of airplane parts. He had a meeting to pitch an airline on the idea of outsourcing the airline’s parts-management process to his company.  The natural tendency for many sellers is to begin the presentation with a description of the company and the service offering.  Usually those presentations are deadly boring.  

In helping him with his presentation, I asked, “What are the three simple questions that your prospect would most likely ask?”

My client thought for a moment then came up with three questions his client would have.

  • Why can you do this better than us?
  • How can this save us money?
  • How can this generate more revenue for us?

“That’s your presentation,” I said. “Just tell him that you’re going to give a presentation about how you can make his company more competitive. Then outline the three questions and answer them, telling stories about how you’ve done the same for other airlines.”

That’s what he did and he blew them away.

That’s what a great “naked presentation” does. It gives what the audience wants, nothing more. Strip it down. Tell stories. Take questions.   Dump the theoretical crap. Dump the company history.  No one cares.

Leave Plenty of time for Audience Q&A

Too many presenters leave just a few minutes at the end of their presentation for questions.  In fact, many of my clients have confessed that they limit the time for questions because they’re afraid of being stumped, embarrassed by a question, or losing control of the presentation. 

But naked presenters understand that the goal isn’t to control the audience but to help them. Questions aren’t to be feared. They’re to be embraced.  There’s no better way to connect with an audience than to allow them free rein to ask as many questions as they want.   A good “naked presentation” allows at least half of the allotted time for questions. 

Jack Welch, one of corporate America’s best communicators, sometimes will go further than that.  Sometimes he will speak at executive roundtables and deliver what I consider the ultimate “naked presentation.”  Rather than delivering a speech, he will walk into the conference room, sit down at the front and say, “So what do you want to know?” And he fields questions for the entire period. 

He gets raves for his “naked” approach.

Rehearse and Deliver with Energy

“Naked presenters” also know they must do more than inform; they must sell ideas.  That means speaking with passion. And that means rehearsing out loud.  Rehearse until you can deliver like you’re having an animated dinner conversation with a close friend. Practice strong eye contact. Record yourself and make sure that you sound excited, like you’ve just discovered something wonderful.

Naked presenting is simple and authentic. It’s just you, chatting passionately without props and telling stories about the stuff that matters most to your listeners. 

Maybe someday everyone will present naked. That’s my dream.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

CEO Must Remember that “It’s Connection”

“I’m worried about accidentally saying something that the analysts will pounce on. As a result, I speak slowly and have lots of “uhs”. I know I sound tentative. But I don’t know what to do about it.”

Those are the the words of the CEO of a $1 billion-a-year publicly traded company. I was working with him last week in preparation for a major presentation to analysts. 

Speaking in meetings, he is charming and engaging.  He smiles and is highly animated.

But when he stands to speak about his company to Wall Street, his voice is flat and tentative. He sticks to a script all costs. As a result, he doesn’t sound confident. Of course, that’s not what you want when you’re the CEO of a $1 billion-a-year company.

I understand his dilemma. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to make a mistake and allow the analysts to pounce. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to sound dull and uncertain.

What’s a poor CEO to do? 

My advice was to loosen up and rehearse like crazy. 

He clearly needed to speak with more animation, something he could do with no problem. In fact, when we worked together, I told him to get more excited and put away his notes. He sounded highly engaging. It was an incredible transformation.

Of course, he didn’t deliver his presentation perfectly. He made a few mistakes. But his mistakes weren’t catastrophic.  And with more rehearsal, he will make even fewer mistakes.

Too many people over-rely on notes in an attempt to get the words perfect. The problem is that the search for perfection makes you come across as tentative.

Better to loosen up. Remember the goal of speaking isn’t perfection. It’s connection.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Would You Rather Speak like Palin or Obama?


 In the car recently, my kids played a game called “Would you rather?” They’d ask silly, yet oddly compelling, questions like, “Would you rather have a pencil sharpener built into your nose or a ketchup dispenser built into your belly button?”  I went with the ketchup dispenser.


So here’s one. Let’s say that you’re about to hear a presentation from one of your partners on a proposal to grow your law practice. Would you rather he speak in a style resembling Sen. Barack Obama or Gov. Sarah Palin?


I have to go with Palin. We can learn much from both candidates about the power of speaking and how to connect with audiences. But Palin has a more user-friendly style. Her “chatting over beers” approach builds relationships and wins business.


Palin and Obama Both Show the Power of Speaking


The most fundamental lesson we can learn from both Palin and Obama is that speeches produce leaders. Obama burst onto the national scene with a speech to the 2004 Democratic convention. Palin did almost the same thing.  I was in Goldberg’s Deli when CNN announced that McCain had selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate.


“Who is Sarah Palin?” I said. A couple days later, Gov. Palin gave her speech at the Republican Convention. Now everyone either hates her or loves her.


Want to be a leader? Take a lesson from Palin and Obama. Give a great speech.


Both Speakers Rely on Personal Stories


Obama and Palin rely on speaking fundamentals that we all should apply. For example, they take positions. One of my pet peeves is business presenters that won’t take a stand. Don’t be a wimp by just laying out the facts and letting me decide.


Obama and Palin also make deft use of personal stories. Obama often discusses being the son of mixed-race parents. And Palin, in her speech, told her own story as a “hockey mom” who prays as her 19-year-old son Track, an Army infantryman, leaves for Iraq.


The best speakers in politics and business personalize issues and tell stories. I worked with the hiring partner of a law firm who told new associates about his first day as a lawyer. Personal stories are the highlight of any speech.


The biggest difference is in style


A key difference between Obama and Palin is style of delivery.  Both speak with passion we should all imitate. But Obama is the eloquent law professor while Palin is the chatty friend you meet for beers at the local tavern.


Obama’s baritone voice could make the contents of a bottle of Nyquil sound interesting.  And he has mastered the classic rhetorical flourish of repeating a catchphrase. Martin Luther King Jr. used the same device in his “I have a dream” speech.


But while Obama’s oratory can be inspiring, personally he can seem distant. One comedian quipped that he sounds like he’s running for a spot on Mount Rushmore.  His style would sound overblown in a corporate conference room.


In business, the goal is to connect with audiences in a personal way and build relationships. Highfalutin rhetoric doesn’t win clients.


By contrast, Palin, in her speech, relied on a style that we could all model. She was chatty and plainspoken. Her most quoted line was, “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?  Lipstick.”  You just know that she’s used that one with friends in casual conversation.


We tell our clients to speak like they’re having an animated dinner conversation with a friend. That “chatting over beers” style helps you connect in a personal way and build the relationships that build businesses.


Both Palin and Obama are wonderful speakers. But if you’re looking for a style to help you connect with audiences and grow your business, Palin’s the one.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email