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What’s the One Thing That Will Make You a Better Communicator?

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Paul gets a hammering from his boss

Paul was 5 minutes into his presentation and the room was dead. Paul wasn’t a great presenter, but he was good at his job, and he knew his stuff. He was pitching for investment to his boss, a high-flying CTO at a UK financial services company. He’d spent weeks getting his presentation together. He knew his stuff backwards. His boss, Steve, a notorious bully, stopped him with a regal wave of his hand, like Simon Cowell interrupting a terrible singer on ‘The X-Factor’,

“I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yes” said Paul, nervously.

“What the **** is this presentation about?”

Paul said “Errr, what do you mean? I’ve just told you, haven’t I?”

Boss said, “No, you haven’t.”

Paul said, “Yes I have, it’s about the new voice recognition software…”

“Why should I care about that?”

“It’s really good at detecting lies…”

“So what?”

“It’ll help us spot fraudulent insurance claims and proposals…”

“So what?”

“It’ll save us £5 million in the next 3 years.”

“How much does it cost?”

“£800,000 over the same period.”

Boss said “When were you going to tell me that?”

Paul said, “Slide 44…”

If Paul had got to the point at, or preferably before, slide 1, he’d have had his boss’s attention. Then the rest of the time could be spent showing how it was to be done, and how much support he’d need from his boss to get there. Then all concerned would have had a much more pleasant time, and Paul would have looked like a capable, commercially minded professional. What he ended up looking like was a man who didn’t know much about the value of the really valuable proposition he was making.

His boss may be a bully sometimes but he’s no fool. All he was asking for, in his artless, brutal way, was the same as all of our audiences ask as we step, sweaty-palmed, to the podium. ‘Why does this matter?’ ‘How does it help me?’ What’s your POINT?’

And as Nancy Duarte says in her book ‘Slidedocs‘:

“…you’d be surprised by how many pieces of communication are distributed without the author ever thinking, “What exactly am I trying to do here?”

 

What is the point of your presentation?

Most presentations are a confused collection of thoughts about a subject, rather than the coherent presentation of a case. This confusion starts at the beginning. Most speakers (and writers) start the creative process by gathering content and shaping it into some kind of order, rather than by deciding what they want to say and then assembling their material in support of their case.

 

Think like the editor of a national newspaper

My colleague at The Message Business, Philip Collins, is a speechwriter and journalist. He writes a weekly column for the Times of London. Before he writes a word, he has to send the editor a single sentence to summarise the point that he is trying to make in the article. The editor will then respond with comments, usually to reject the idea, or to ask for a clearer, stronger proposition. Only when his proposition is clear does he begin to write.

If you can’t explain what you want to say in a single sentence, you don’t know.

 

Remember that you’re always arguing for or against something

A presentation, however narrow in focus, is always arguing for something. The presenter is always ‘selling’ something, whether it’s an idea, a product or a service.

Think about the ‘sale element’ in the following, common types of presentation:

A sales presentation

Your job as the sales person is to make the following case – This product is right for you, worth the money and better than the competitor’s products.

A quarterly business update

You’re ‘selling’ the case – We’re on track, and in control whatever the last quarter was like.

A piece of scientific research

Here’s the purpose, value and current status of the research.

A key account presentation to clients with good news

Your hard work has paid off, you’re amazing, and here are three things you can do to build on your success.

A key account presentation to clients with bad news

Here are the facts, and here’s what you can do to build from here.

A year end ‘all hands’ meeting after a bad year

Thanks for your efforts this year, we’re in control, we have a recovery plan, and you can help us to be even more successful.

A year end ‘all hands’ meeting after a good year

Thanks for your efforts this year, you’re amazing, here’s what we’re doing to be even more successful next year than this.

 

Build a compelling proposition

A proposition is a statement that expresses a judgement or an opinion. It has a purpose and, for your presentations to work for the audience, you really have to tell them what your information means to them.

There’s no such thing as ‘I’m only presenting data’: your data does have meaning but, for it to work as a part of the presentation, it has to be put in context of something to have any sense at all.

If you’re a Finance Director, sharing the last quarter’s sales figures at a quarterly Board Meeting, you understand that the data tells a story. It’s either a good story, a neutral story or a negative story. So for the data to have meaning you have to understand the kind of story you’re telling, and how the audience will use it.

If the sales numbers are down for the period, you’ll have to understand the past (How we got here), the present (What it means for the business), and the future (What needs to be done to put it right). That last bit, the future, is the point of your presentation.

 

Write your proposition in a single sentence

Now you’ve got an idea about what you want to say, if you want to create a simple, coherent presentation, do what journalists do. Describe your argument in a single, short sentence.

Let’s say that the downturn in sales figures in the previous quarter was down to two factors: a shortage of product due to the bankruptcy of a supplier; and a shortage of sales people after a couple of resignations.

Also, let’s suppose that the CEO and the Sales Director are clear on what they want to do, and are confident that, despite the setback, they will return to sales growth over the next quarter.

Your first attempt at that single short sentence will probably be rubbish. Something like this:

‘I’m going to talk to you about the numbers for Q2. There’s been a bit of a setback in the US sales figures, supplier performance has let us down, and we’ve lost our top 2 salespeople, so we have work to do to get on track…’

When I get people to do this exercise in the ‘real world’ their first response is often like this. Overlong, generalised and not very exciting. Why? Because almost every professional person knows what they do, and they know how they do it. But as Simon Sinek says in his ‘Golden Circle’ schtick:

…your audience doesn’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

In the example we’re using, the only point of the data is to help the Company make the best decision it can in this case. Why? Because the Board wants to ‘get back on track’. The purpose of the presentation is the recovery plan, the return of hope, confidence and certainty, not the data that proves that we have a problem.

Your second attempt then might look like this:

‘This presentation is about getting us back on track for Q4. I’ll show you the numbers, explain the reasons for our setback, and then show you the plans that we have in place to hit our annual sales targets that we’ve promised to investors…’

That’s better isn’t it? It starts with the point (Why), follows up with the ‘How’ we’re going to do it, and ends with the ‘What’ will be delivered.

 

Start with Why – it’s where the relevance is…

So many business presentations focus on the ‘How’ and the ‘What’ at the expense of the ‘Why’. This means that the presenter often seems detached from the audience, because the people in the red plastic chairs tend to live with reality every day. These presenters, however skilled and well-intentioned, show the audience that they don’t really understand their priorities, their hopes and fears and their day to day problems.

I work with hundreds of presenters every year. Each one of them wants to do a great job and be well regarded in their field. They are all doing important work that makes a difference. What they fail to do, however, is communicate the value of what they do (The Why) to their audiences. I see:

  • HR people talking about processes and procedures when their audiences want skilled, motivated and happy people in their teams.
  • Finance people talking about numbers, when the people working on the shop floor just want to know if their job is safe until the end of the year.
  • CEO’s talking about their vision and passion when all the investors want to know if the business is healthy, growing and likely to make the promised profit this year.
  • Sales people waffling on about product features that have no value to the customer when the customer only wants to know if this product is better than the one they’ve already got.
  • Scientists explaining reams and reams of research data when the CEO really only wants to know whether the project is worth pursuing in the long-term.
  • Technical sales support people explaining how the algorithm works when the client’s marketing director wants to understand how this will double click-through rates in their next digital campaign.

 

What’s the Big Idea?

As we learned in Paul’s trial by fire at the hands of his boss, when somebody asks what your presentation is about, what they’re really asking is “Why should I care?” So the best presenters make sure their key message tells them that and soon.

You can also think a little harder about the ‘Why’. Developing this useful idea into a ‘Big Idea’. This is the next level of skill for those people who want to leave the strongest impression with their audiences. And if you get just a little better at it, it will help you add much more power and relevance to all of your communication. Here’s a story, attributed to Michelangelo, probably apocryphal, to illustrate.

The stonemason…

Michelangelo, while supervising the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, was walking the site as his builders made his design come to life. He watched three stonemasons, each in their own way do their part. The masons were each working huge slabs of granite into bricks, blocks and tiles to line the glorious building. It was hot work and the labourers were labouring in the heat of the day.

The first stonemason seemed unhappy at his job, distractedly chipping away at his task, looking tired and disenchanted with his lot. The architect of the building and the mason’s toil approached him and asked what it was that he was doing, the mason responded, curtly, “I’m breaking rock. I can’t wait ’til 5 the sun sets I can go home to my wife and family.”

The second mason seemed more interested in his work, working his stone diligently and, when asked the same question, answered, “Well, I’m shaping this block to be used to construct a wall in the edifice. It’s not bad work, but I’ll be glad when it’s done.”

The third mason was working with complete focus, touching, carving, examining his results and taking time to stand back and admire his own work. He shaved away the smallest of pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. Michelangelo was fascinated. He watched him for minutes unnoticed.

“My son”, he said, “Tell me what you are doing that diverts you so…”

The craftsman, stopped, gazed back towards the half-finished chapel and said, “I, sir, am building a cathedral!”

 

People are moved by a higher purpose

All people have aspirations: dreams that their work matters, that their lives matter. One of the principal motivations for most people is the drive to find a higher purpose in what they do. The third stonemason in this story is motivated by the fact that his sweat and toil might someday mean something; that the stone that he cuts today might be his memorial tomorrow; that his work will live on, long after him. If the story is true, he was right. His hard days in the sun resulted in a cathedral of such majesty and beauty that people travel from all over the world to see it 600 years after he himself became dust. They see his work.

If we deny an audience the right to see how their hard work is linked to a higher purpose, we deny them the right to real satisfaction. If we do this accidentally then we deserve to be ignored. The ‘Big Idea’ asks us to understand and state the importance of the stuff we’re talking about today in the context of the longer-term, more important stuff. Some examples:

Martin Luther King – I have a dream

In this speech he linked his ordinary demands for jobs, opportunity and education  for African Americans, to the higher purpose of freedom, equality and fairness. The speech moves effortlessly between the mundane requirements of everyday life to the soaring ‘mountain’ top of justice, and is stronger for both elements.

 

 

William Shakespeare – The strangers’ case

Shakespeare, through the voice of Sir Thomas More, appeals to the violent, hateful crowd, objecting to immigrants in their midst, to think about the principles of justice, fairness and pity and how they would feel if, suddenly they found themselves defenceless at the hands of a mob.

 

 

John F Kennedy – Think not what your country can do for you

Kennedy, in his inaugural address as US President, asks his fellow Americans to rise up and serve the greater good rather than simply serving their own ends. Reminding them how lucky they are to be Americans and that that luck carries responsibility too.

 

 

Steve Jobs introduction at the iPhone launch presentation of 2007

Steve Jobs starts the whole presentation with a shameless ‘Big Idea’ pitch where he looks back at how Apple has ‘not just changed computers and music, but changed the whole computers, music etc. industries’. And uses this Big Idea of ‘revolution’ as the platform for ‘Now we’ve done it again with the iPhone’…

 

 

So how does all this this help our Finance Director in his speech?

All that the FD has to do now is put this message in the context of the higher purpose that will help unite the people in the room behind the ‘Big Idea’ and the actions that he is proposing. Then, when he starts the speech like that he can go on to explain his proposition (the one sentence proposition we discussed earlier) and he will start with a bang, not a whimper. Like this:

“We have been in business for 10 years. In those 10 years we have grown hugely and been successful. We should all be proud of that. But the thing that I am most proud of in all of that time is how we have behaved when we have had setbacks. Each time we’ve gone off track (examples) we have made tough decisions, for the right reasons, and at the right time, when the easy thing to do would have been to change direction.

Today we need to talk about the sales collapse in the last quarter; but more importantly we need to tell you the the things we have done to make sure we are back on track by the end of the year, and what we’ve done to make sure that we never get into this position again. We haven’t taken the easy path. We’ve made tough decisions just like we have always done when we needed to…”

 

And right back to Paul in the first example…

Paul forgot the higher purpose of the work that he was doing, and he forgot the real value of the work. Those mistakes, which many well-meaning professionals make when they speak made him look narrow, naive and uncommercial. It also took power away from his words. What would you have had him do differently to make sure that his boss was engaged and impressed rather than just pissed off? Here’s 2 things:

  • Identify the higher purpose of the work he was doing – why this was a good thing on every level, not just business
  • Be really clear about the case that he was making – why this investment was worth doing

Here’s what he could have done:

“…Insurance premiums have gone up 35% over the lat 5 years. 70% of that increase is down to the cost of fraudulent claims. Rising insurance premiums mean that the poorest people in our society are unable to cover themselves against the risk of fire, theft and loss. Insurance fraud hurts society, and it damages our business. Last year we paid out £200 million in fraudulent claims…

This presentation is about fraud prevention. And for £800,000 investment that I am recommending, we can install voice recognition software that will reduce our exposure by as much as £4m over a 3-year period…”

 

So what’s the one thing that you can do that will make you a much better communicator?

Understand the value of what you are saying, and what it means in a broader context, before you go on to tell your story. That’s all.

 

If you liked this you might also like

How to…Start with Why

How the Ladder of Abstraction Can Help the Public Speaker

Data Needs Context

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is a serial entrepreneur and the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps international and FTSE 100 companies sell themselves, and their products more effectively. Jim has many years of experience speechwriting, presentation coaching and motivational speaking, all over the world.
Jim Harvey
1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John Zimmer

    John Zimmer

    24th October 2018 at 11:18 am

    When the audience understands the “Why”, the “How” and the “Where” and the “When”, etc. become a whole lot easier to understand and digest.

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