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Communications Grok: Total Recall
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - well, Atlanta - I asked an audience what their boss had said the day before during his 90-minute speech.
They couldn't remember.
He's a very big cheese at a very big company. The jobs of every audience member in the room depended on him; they had a huge incentive to hang on his every word.
And he blew it.
When a leader speaks for 90 minutes, perhaps using a seemingly endless parade of PowerPoint slides, and his or her speech does not have a clearly defined point, it's not the fault of the audience if they don't "get it."
Oh, it's a tempting excuse. "The audience just didn't understand what I was trying to say," a leader might argue. "They probably don't get the nuance of my language; they likely aren't as familiar with all aspects of the business; they have short attention spans; they aren't strategic thinkers."
Utter nonsense. All of it.
These are lame excuses, and oh so common. It's the No. 1 responsibility of a speaker, any speaker, to deliver a clear message. It takes a lot of thought, a lot of work and a lot of rehearsal to accomplish. But it can be done.
Less is definitely more here. Executives are always tempted to go longer - often because no one will tell them to shut up. But if John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural speech ("... ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.") is just 15 minutes long, does the boss really need 90 minutes?
Try this next time you speak. Let's say you present on a Tuesday morning to 20 sales people. On Tuesday afternoon, have someone send them a short e-mail - something like, "Thanks for attending the presentation this morning. What do you remember as the speaker's main message? Also, please provide your candid, confidential, anonymous feedback on the speaker so he/she can improve for next time."
That's it. Someone aggregates the responses and forwards them to the speaker. And whether the speaker is the CEO or a mid-level manager, he or she will know two things, 1. If the major message was, indeed, clearly delivered and 2. What they're doing right and wrong in terms of communicating effectively.
Getting better at speaking entails a lot of things, but one of the key elements can often be asking your audience if they actually understood what you said - because you can work backwards from that input to adjust your presentation for next time.
Because wasting 90 minutes of your time speaking without a discernible point should be a crime, because it also wastes 90 minutes of your audience's time, because you probably don't need 90 minutes to begin with and because what you need is total recall.
p.s. I periodically contribute to a CEO newsletter called "Build Your Business" written by people a lot smarter than me who are experts in things like improving cash flow, international development and raising money. If you'd like to peek at a sample, click on this link: http://app.cooleremail.com/v.pl?01d6c314b2336d88fee40194bac49edb
Joe Biden: two wrongs and a right
I've always been a Joe Biden fan. I'm a presentation coach and he's historically provided me with a treasure trove of what-not-to-do examples. But he's an enormously likable guy and his focus on working families makes a lot of sense to me.
On Oct. 19, 2010, I wandered into a rally where Biden was speaking in support of re-electing Washington Sen. Patty Murray. Being human, and being Joe, Biden did one thing right and two things wrong.
RIGHT: He started with a story, relating how he was with President Obama during the Presidential Daily Briefing when they received a note saying that Murray wanted to see them. Biden said he told Obama, "Just say 'yes' Barack." Obama did, and Murray walked in, pointed a finger at the Treasury Secretary, and immediately questioned why the administration wasn't doing more to help community banks.
The (partisan) crowd ate it up. If you want to see how it looked and sounded, I've posted the first 90 seconds of the video I shot using my phone on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiaZxamFiZE
So many speakers waste so much time at the beginning of speeches thanking people and essentially making meaningless small talk. A good story pivots a speaker right into the meat of a speech - and if done right can illustrate the speaker's broader point (in this case: re-elect Patty Murray). Tell your best story in the first two minutes of any speech.
WRONG: He went too long. This is classic Biden. With 700 or so people standing in a small auditorium Biden spoke for roughly 50 minutes. That's probably 25 minutes too long. From my back row vantage point I could see people tuning out, and some older members of the audience left or asked for chairs.
Knowing when to shut up is a key skill. Biden has been in DC since the Stone Age and can seemingly speak for hours on end. But that's not always helpful. For him or for you.
WRONG: He has a verbal tic. When transitioning between thoughts, Biden likes to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen." Unfortunately he over uses that particular way to bridge between thoughts. I didn't count from the beginning of the speech; just from the time it started to annoy me. But from that point, I counted at least 26 uses of, "ladies and gentlemen."
A lot of speakers have verbal or visual tics. Common verbal tics includes use of non words like "um," "er," "so," and "you know." Common visual tics are crossing your hands in front of your crotch (the infamous "fig leaf"), fiddling with your hair, touching your nose or playing with your wedding ring.
We all have tics. But the key question is: do they rise to the level of distraction? In Biden's case on Oct. 19, the answer was "yes." If you want to be a good speaker, removing any distractions is a key element
Being from England I don't get to vote in U.S. elections. But being a presentation coach I'm free to cast my ballot in favor of telling great stories, keeping speeches short and avoiding any distracting tics.