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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Lessons in Connecting with Audiences from My Wife

The enemy of connection is perfection.

I learn this over and over again with my clients, many of whom spend way too much time attempting to perfect their slides or their written speeches.

But this never ending attempt at perfection doesn’t really help them get better. That’s because the only thing that really makes you better at speaking is standing up and speaking. The words have to come out of your mouth.   

 I learned this once again last weekend when my wife Johanna Asher performed for the first time live at a coffee house in Oakhurst near Decatur.  She took up guitar about 18 months ago. Now she’s taking singing lessons.

O.K. So she’s not Joan Baez.  But she’s on the way.  As she says, “If you want to get good at this, you got to get out there.”

True that.


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When You Get a Good Story, Practice It

One of the keys to telling a good story is to hone it. And to do that you need to practice saying it out loud over and over again until you get it right.


 I worked with a senior executive recently who told a story about going to visit his uncle and taking a ride in his airplane.  We worked on the story in one session. When he came back a week later for another session, he told the story to me again and it was much tighter. “I had a lot of time the car this week,” he said. “I used that time to practice my story.”


The stories are the best part of any presentation. Practice them.

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“Should I Memorize My Presentation?”

I’m asked this question a lot. And the answer is no. But you should practice your presentation so much that you can say it almost the same way every time.  That’s not the same as memorization. 

Let me explain.

If you just memorize your presentation, then you’re going to deliver it like you’re just reading it. I once worked with an executive who memorized all of his speeches. Sure he didn’t use notes or a script. And that’s good. But he still sounded like a fifth grader reciting a poem from memory, speaking in a flat nervous voice as he struggled to remember every word. And if, heaven forbid, he forgot something, his speech would falter as he tried to remember his lines.   This is what happens when you memorize a speech.

That’s not to say, however, that you shouldn’t practice a lot. We tell people to memorize the few key phrases that lead into the messages that you want to make under those phrases. If you practice enough, that will be sufficient to allow you to deliver the presentation in a conversation style that connects with your audience. 

So let’s say that you’re going to deliver a section of your presentation where you discuss how you will help your listeners lower costs. Your point might be “We’re going to help you lower your costs.”  Then you will give  a three-point plan on how you will help lower costs. Then you will tell a story about lowering costs. The pattern is “Make the point, Give the Plan, Tell the story.”  Once you’re familiar with that pattern, you really only need to remember the point. The rest should flow easily, assuming that you’ve practiced.

And you won’t have to memorize the entire speech.

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Presentation Tip from Birthday Boy John McEnroe

Now thats passion! 


Now that's passion!


“What is the single most important quality in a tennis champion? I would have to say desire, staying in there and winning matches when you are not playing that well.”

That’s a quote from John McEnroe, the tennis champion and former superbrat, who celebrates his 50th birthday today.

While of course the quote has nothing to do with public speaking, I think it’s good guidance anyway.

Desire is also the most important quality in a good speaker.  

Many people ask me whether I think it’s impossible to be a great speaker if you’re not gifted in the way McEnroe was at tennis. Talent helps. But you don’t need the talent of a John McEnroe.  But you do need desire and a willingness to practice.

It also helps if you have passion. Hopefully, you’ll do a little better job than “Johnny Mac” of controlling that passion.

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Public Speaking Lesson from Abraham Lincoln

Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln. He was known as a wonderful speaker and story teller. Like all good speakers, he spent a great deal of time preparing for his speeches.

Mr. Lincoln thought his speeches out on his feet walking in the streets: he penned them in small scraps — sentences, & paragraphs, depositing them in his hat for safety. When fully finished, he would recopy, and could always repeat easily by heart — so well thoughted, shotted, and matured were they.
–William H. Herndon lecture, January 24, 1866

That quotation, by the way, comes from an interesting website describing Lincoln as a speaker.

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What Makes a Presenting Team Seem Like a Team?

One of the things that many business people say when they’re interviewing business partners is  “We’re looking for the best team.” 

So the question is this: how can you come across as a great team during a 30-45 minute presentation?

In doing many of these presentations I’ve learned a few things.

1.  It’s not something you can declare.  You can say “we are a team” all you want, but if you don’t present like a team, then you’re not going to seem like a team.  Of course, you should give examples of where you have all worked together in the past. But that is no substitute for presenting like a well-oiled machine.

2.  Be well-rehearsed.   The most import thing is simply to rehearse the presentation carefully so that everyone plays their roll well during the presentation. Good teams deliver presentations that don’t go over the time limit because one of the team members has spoken too long.   That long-winded speaker reveals that the group didn’t practice much together. How can you come across as a good team if you didn’t rehearse?

3.  Each presenter must fulfill an important and distinct role for the client.  On a football team, every player has a role. There is no duplication of purpose.  On a good presenting team, each player must address a different issue that is important to the client.  In construction presentations, often I’ll see two firm principles present because “we want to show the client that we care.”  One firm principle is enough.   The estimator should address the budget. The project manager should address the schedule. The superintendent should address issues of safety and site logistics. 

4.  Everyone should appear to like each other. While it’s  a hard quality to quantify, you want to give off the sense that everyone knows each other well.  During the presentation, everyone should be watching the other presenters carefully. You don’t want to be looking at your shoes or, worse, thumbing your Blackberry. When you hand off to a team member, you should find a nice thing to say about him. “Now I’d like to turn it over to Jack, our superintendent. Jack and I have worked together for 15 years. I call him The Captain because of the way he runs a job site. No one is better.” And smile at your colleague as you do that introduction.

5.  Everyone should speak with passion. When all the team members speak with enthusiasm, they give off a sense of unity of purpose.  If some of the members of the team are excited and others seem bored, there is the sense that some of the team members are committed when others aren’t.

6. No second guessing during Q&A. One of the easiest ways to show that you’re not a team is to second guess your colleague as they answer questions. If someone answers a question, then everyone needs to act like that’s the team answer. No second guessing allowed. Period!  If someone gives out wrong answers and you second guess them, it says a lot that’s bad about your team. First, it says that you didn’t prepare for the questions. Second, it says that you don’t really trust each other.

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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.

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What if a Prior Speaker Eats into Your Time?

When sharing the stage with another speaker, always be ready to shorten your presentation if the other guy goes too long.  Otherwise, you’re asking for trouble.


Make your presentations flexible by focusing on three key points.  For a 20 minute presentation, you can plan to give two stories per point.  If you suddenly have to give a 10 minute speech, tell one story per point.

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What Do You Do If Your Projector Breaks?

One of my favorite saying is, “It’s OK to put all your eggs in one basket so long as you watch the basket.”


With those words in mind, if you’re giving a presentation that depends on a  projector and slides, then make sure that you don’t show up with a broken projector.  Check out the projector before you leave. And if necessary, bring a backup.


But there is another approach to the “broken projector” problem.  Simply don’t ever deliver a presentation where a projector is essential. The best presentations make three points and tell a handful of personal stories.  No projectors are needed.


I flew to Dallas once for a program with a client and the projector was broken. My client panicked because she was supposed to supply the projector. But I stayed calm.


“Do you have a flip chart?” I asked.


The presentation went off without a problem. The presentation came off well because the projector was nice but not essential. I was able to deliver the presentation without slides.

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