To Connect with Audiences, Follow the 10/20/30 Rule

Guy Kawasaki is a technology guru and venture capitalist who listens to a lot of presentations from entrepreneurs seeking money for start-up ventures.  The overwhelming majority of the presentations he hears are, as he says, “crap.” 


And so he demands that all presentations at his business Garage Technology Ventures follow what he calls the “10/20/30 rule”.  It’s a rule that should be embraced by anyone that wants to connect with audiences.


The rule states that all presentations should be limited to 10 slides, 20 minutes, and have no words on the slides smaller than 30-point type.  I love the rule because it keeps you out of the weeds by forcing you to keep your message focused on key issues.


Limit Your Presentation to 10 slides. Too many of us create presentations by opening up PowerPoint, picking a template, and typing. Before long, we have a “presentation” with 40 slides.


I was coaching an attorney once as he prepared to speak at a bar event.  He arrived at our practice session with 60 slides for a 45-minute presentation.  Flipping through, I noted that every slide was loaded with bullet points.


“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Would you want to listen to this presentation?”


“Well . . . , ” he muttered, seeming startled. “I guess not.”


His presentation was packed with too much information.  Limiting your message to 10 slides forces you to answer the question “What do I really want to say?”


PowerPoint has no template for that question.


Speak for no more than 20 minutes.  When Kawasaki listens to a pitch for start-up capital, he allocates an hour.  Limiting the pitch to 20 minutes allows for 40 minutes of Q&A. As Kawasaki knows, all presentations improve with lots of Q&A.


Last weekend, I went fishing in Tampa with a guide named Rick. He told me that one way he markets his business is by giving presentations on how to catch fish in the Gulf of Mexico.


“I usually speak for about fifteen minutes and then take questions,” he said. “I’ve found that people have a lot more fun at my presentations when they get to ask questions.”


That’s a nice lesson in hooking an audience from a professional fisherman.


No Slides with Words Smaller than 30-Point Type.  For many people, this seems impossible. You can’t get more than five or six words on a line with 30-point type.


But all businesses should mandate this rule. Smaller type  is so hard to read that it becomes distracting.


To me, corporate America tolerates tiny type on slides in the same way that mill town residents tolerate the stench that fills their community.  It’s so prevalent that everyone just gets used to it and no one even notices anymore.


But your slides will be far more effective if you minimize your bullets and keep your type size big.


And if you follow the 10/20/30 rule, your presentations will be a breath of a fresh air.

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You Need to Be Better than the Blackberry

The New York Times today (about five years late on this one) writes about the problem of business people paying more attention to their Blackberries than the meeting.

I have a simple solution for this problem. Be better than the Blackberry.

People vote with their attention spans. If what you’re saying is interesting and relevant, meeting participants will put down their Blackberries. If what you’re saying starts out by telling them the value of paying attention, they will look up from their email. If you give them a clear agenda of points that matter to them, they won’t be texting their friends.

But if your meeting is a rambling data dump of irrelevant information, then your listeners will find better ways to spend their time.

The Times missed out on a major part of the story today. They failed to point out that the Blackberry isn’t what makes people not pay attention. People have been tuning out dull meetings for years. 

 But in the old days, people were just day-dreaming or doodling. 

The Blackberry is a technological breakthrough that allows people to do something productive during meaningless meetings.

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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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It Takes Work to Present “Naturally”

The public speaking blogs have recently had a lot to say about the importance of being “natural” when you speak. 

Indeed, one of the most common pieces of advice for speakers is “Speak to the audience like you’re having a beer with them.”  It’s advice I give all the time.

But the idea of “naturalness” is a little deceptive. When you’re standing in front of a room of listeners, you don’t feel natural. In that circumstance, you don’t feel like you’re having a beer. 

So what do you do?

First you need to know your material cold. If you don’t know what you’re going to say extremely well, then you’re not going to be able to come across as “natural.”

Next, you need to exaggerate the energy, giving more facial and vocal energy that you’d otherwise use “naturally.”  For most people, that exaggerated style will come across as “natural.” That exaggerated style will overwhelm the anxiety and come as highly connected. It won’t necessarily feel “natural” to the speaker. But it will look natural to the audience.

And it’s better to look natural than to feel natural.

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Public Speaking Tips from Passover

Tonight is the first night of Passover.  For many Jews, including me, it’s a favorite holiday because it’s a family get together. 

But it’s also a highly engaging religious service. Indeed, speakers can learn a lot about connecting with audiences from the Seder service.

First, the Seder is a lesson in the power of a story.  The entire event is centered around the story of the escape from Egypt.

Second, the Seder teaches the importance of Q&A.  One of the highlights of the event is the asking of the Four Questions. 

Third, the Seder shows the power of audience participation and interaction. There’s responsive reading and singing. There’s a mysterious open-door vigil for the ever-elusive Elijah.  There’s even a treasure hunt.

Fourth, the Seder plate is a multi-tiered lesson in the power of analogies and visual aids to help reinforce a message. 

So for your next presentation, think about a Seder. Tell stories. Leave plenty of time for questions.  Find ways to get the audience involved.  Use creative visuals aids.


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The goal is always to stand out from the crowd — but in a good way

Marketing guru Seth Godin has an intriguing post today about “Fitting in versus standing out.”     He points out that in everything you do, you need to choose whether you want to fit in or stand out.

In the public speaking and sales presentation world, I think the choice is obvious. You need to stand out.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to be fool. You need to stand out as the obvious choice, the best partner, or a clear leader.

The problem I see is that many people find that extremely scary.  “If I present like that,” one client one told me as I urged her to speak with more passion and to hone her points more, “then people are going to notice that I’ve changed.”

To which I respond, “Yes. We’re not here to help you become average. We want you stand out.”

Stand out in a good way. Stand out in a good way. Stand out in a way that makes people want to be aligned with you.

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How to Win a Pitch Against a Rival with a More Established Brand

The other day  I was conducting a workshop with a consulting firm about how to win a pitch.  A consultant raised his hand and asked “How do we win if we have to go up against IBM?”

While this was a great consulting firm, they didn’t have a brand as well-established as IBM.  As a result, they had lost business to IBM and other better-branded rivals.

 Indeed, many firms in many businesses face what I call the “the IBM problem.”  They run up against the old saying that “no one was ever fired for hiring IBM.”  In other words, if you have to decide between two closely matched potential business partners, most will go with the more established brand because it’s easier to justify your decision up the corporate heirarchy.

But that doesn’t mean that the lesser brand will always lose.  The established brand wins when everything else is equal. But that doesn’t mean that everything else needs to be equal.

You Beat the Superior Brand With Execution

You beat IBM by executing the fundamentals of the pitch better than your competition.

Fundamental # 1. Focus your pitch on solving the prospect’s business problem.  Estblished brands can get complacent and rely on the power of their brand, discussing their past successes rather than how they plan to solve the prospect’s specific business problem.  If you detail a specific plan to help your prospect and the branded rival doesn’t, then you move to the top of the stack.

Fundamental #2. Make sure that your message is simple.  If you speak in a way that is easy for people to understand, that distinguishes you from the competition. Your branded rival may not have as simple a message.

Fundamental # 3. Leave plenty of time for Q&A.  How you answer questions allows your prospect to probe your intellect. They see who you are and forget about the branding issue.

Fundamental #4. Speak with energy. A brand is a static idea that is fixed in the mind of the prospect. If you come across as exciting to work with, you can easily surpass the superior brand. On the other hand, if you speak in a flat monotone and your rival does too, then they will go with the brand.

Fundamental #5. Rehearse like crazy.  If you come in well-rehearsed, then you will demonstrate your intense interest in winning the business.  The established brand might not come off as well.

The reason that IBM has established a great brand is that they have performed at a consistently high level for many years. But that doesn’t mean that in a given pitch, you can’t outperform them.  If you execute these fundamentals, you can beat IBM.

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