“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory.”
“And that’s the way it is.”
Many famous people are buried beneath Westminster Abbey. But, at Westminster Abbey, there is one plaque, prominenty on display, honoring someone who is not buried there: Winston Churchill. (Read about it here). Here’s what is on that plaque:
IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE WISHES OF
THE QUEEN AND PARLIAMENT T
HE DEAN & CHAPTER PLACED THIS STONE
ON THE TWENTY FIFTH ANNIVERSARY OF
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
15 SEPTEMBER 1965
He deserves such recognition. I’m not sure the country would have survived without him. Especially without his words.
Last Saturday, NPR’s Morning Edition Saturday aired a segment on Winston Churchill: Winston Churchill’s Way With Words by Tom Vitale.
It was a wonderful segment, with a reminder that Churchill may have saved England with the sheer brilliance (actually, “simple” brilliance) and power of his words, his speeches.
Here are some excerpts of the segment:
Winston Churchill wrote every word of his many speeches — he said he’d spend an hour working on a single minute of a speech.
Winston Churchill is best remembered as the British prime minister whose speeches rallied a nation under a relentless Nazi onslaught in World War II. But few people know that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature — in part for his mastery of speechmaking.
Now, a new exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York City, Churchill: The Power of Words, holds a megaphone to Churchill’s extraordinary oratory.
In another landmark speech, Churchill proclaimed: “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
Churchill wasn’t born a master orator — he overcame a childhood lisp by practicing enunciation.
On June 18, 1940, immediately after the fall of France, Churchill rallied the British people once more. With his characteristic Shakespearean gusto, he declared, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ “
On April 9, 1963, President John F. Kennedy summed up Churchill’s speechwriting achievements, saying, “In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone — and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life — he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
He spent an hour on a minute of speech. He used exactly the right word(s), the best word – the “simple” word. “In a word, victory.” It can’t be any clearer than that.
And he “practiced” enunciation to overcome a childhood lisp. He worked hard to be easily understandable.
That point reminds me of a specific detail about Walter Cronkite’s brilliance. He wanted to be easily understood, and so he developed the skill of speaking slowly enough to be easily understood. This is from the Wikipedia page about Cronkite (but I’ve read it elsewhere also):
Walter Cronkite trained himself to speak at a rate of 124 words per minute in his newscasts, so that viewers could clearly understand him. In contrast, Americans average about 165 words per minute, and fast, difficult-to-understand talkers speak close to 200 words per minute.
So, here are your three presentation skills tips for the day:
#1 – Learn to say what you have to say with the fewest number of clear and easy-to-grasp words. Work! on the right word choice. (Churchill took an hour to write one minute’s worth of text).
#2 – Practice your enunciation. The only test is this: are you easily understood?
#3 – Slow down in your speaking. Say your words slowly enough to be easily understood. Again, the only test is this: are you easily understood?
And, a reminder that goes without saying – getting good at genuinely effective communication is not all that easy. It takes time, and work, and long-term focus, and…
I’ve never watched Breaking Bad. Barely heard of it (though, I have heard the lead actor interviewed twice in recent days). But here is an article about how it nearly did not ever get off the ground, by the creator, Vince Gilligan: I Almost Broke Bad: The creator of the award-winning Breaking Bad explains how his show almost didn’t happen.
Here’s how Vince Gilligan described what he had to do in front of the executives, the small and select audience (in fact, an audience of two: Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, the co-heads of Sony Television) who would decide yes or no on his idea. I’ve bolded the key lines, for those of us in the communication business, those of us who have to communicate our ideas – and, don’t we all?!
I spent several more weeks expanding my 15-minute thumbnail into a full-fledged, 30-minute rundown of the first episode. This is called a “pilot pitch,” and it’s something you do verbally, acting it out for various stone-faced executives. There’s an art to it: Maintain eye contact, exude boundless enthusiasm, and never, ever refer to your notes. Have the entire thing memorized backward and forward so that you can toss it off with the aplomb of David Niven on The Dick Cavett Show. For me, that’s one tall order. But I gave it the old college try.
So, here’s your presentation tutorial for the day:
#1 — Maintain eye contact. Look your audience members in the eye – eyeball to eyeball. In order to persuade anyone of anything, you have to connect. A failure to maintain eye contact is a sure fire way to fail to connect.
#2 – Exude boundless enthusiasm. This is not what you would call new advice. Aristotle referred to pathos, what speech teachers commonly call “the emotional appeal,” as one of the three primary means of persuasion. (The other two, from Aristotle, are logos – the logical appeal, and ethos – the ethical appeal, referring to the character, and especially the credibility of the speaker). Others added mythos – the narrative appeal to the ancient formula). It boils down to this: if you’re not enthusiastic – very! enthusiastic — about what you are proposing, how can you expect your audience to be enthusiastic?
#3 — Have the entire thing memorized backward and forward… In other words, know your material so well, so thoroughly, that it’s beyond second nature. It is practically “first nature.” This message is actually you! – you in a message, presenting a presentation coming from the depths of what is deep inside of you. This is you speaking — the real you , the “authentic” you. If you are just “presenting a presentation” rather than speaking from the depths of the inside of you, it will come across as a “job,” a job to present “this presentation.” And such a “job, presenting a presentation,” comes across as a distant second to the person who is able to speak from the depths of his or her very being.
Oh, and by the way, did you notice?: Vince Gilligan did not mention PowerPoint at all. It was him: his body, his words, in front of a very interested audience. Nothing else. If you insist on Powerpoint, make sure that it is just an aid. You – yes, you yourself – are the presentation!
Quite a challenge — and quite a tutorial, don’t you think?
So, Apple had their newest big roll out yesterday. (Watch the WWDC keynote here). I am an Apple fan, but really only barely use my Apple devices (I have three; iMac, iPad, iPhone) to their capabilities. But I loaded the Macrumors live blog of the event, glanced at it frequently, and followed along. (And I kept looking for the announcement of the latest iMac, but, alas, it did not arrive. My son assures me it is coming soon).
From the moment that Siri started it off, to the multiple announcements, the faithful seemed more than satisfied with the latest good news. Here are two obvious lessons from yesterday’s event. And, yes, they are obvious. But the fact that they are obvious does not mean that other companies and organizations have figured out how to match Apple.
Lesson #1 – keep improving, keep tweaking, and keep innovating. Make your really great products and services even greater. Again and again. From the devices to the software to the operating systems, what is insanely great about Apple now is better than what was insanely great about Apple a year ago, and we all know that by this time next year it will be even greater and better and cooler and “must have” all over again. They give us great stuff now, and will keep on giving us greater stuff tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
I don’t even understand all of the ways they make it better. But I know it revolves around the entire package, the full constellation of offerings and capabilities – design, speed, (“faster, faster, faster, faster” – this was one of the mantras from yesterday) power, look, resolution, “retina display.” Apple just keeps making every part of Apple, everything that is Apple, and everything that works with Apple, better.
But most of us do not learn this lesson in our work. It took me way too many years to realize that while I talked about and spoke about constant improvement, I practiced very little of it. Here’s an example: for the first 13+ years of the First Friday Book Synopsis, my handouts for my synopses looked exactly the same: a plain, boring-looking, Word document, with no design appeal at all. Not too smart of me! I finally realized it was time (way past time) to make some changes on my handouts. We found a great designer to raise the look of our handouts to a new level. And I think they look terrific. And now, I have to figure out “so what’s next?” to keep getting better. And, all along, I have to ask “how can I do my work better?” It really is never ending.
Lesson #2 – Communicate very well to all of your intended audiences. Call it what you want: learn to market; learn to sell; learn to call attention to; learn to create anticipation. Though the current crop of Apple messengers cannot match the brilliance of Steve Jobs, (who could?!), they have clearly learned some major lessons from the master. And yesterday was a sold-out, live-blogged, extravaganza of a show. With videos and slides and demonstrations and team-presentations and multiple awe-inspiring moments for the faithful, Apple still seems to be at the top of their game.
You can read all you want about the need for better hard skills. And many who write about those hard skills tend to almost look down on the place of those soft skills.
That is a really big mistake!
Apple’s success revolves around these two realities; they make great products, and they sell them even better. Yes, this was part of the brilliance of Steve Jobs. But isn’t it interesting that no other company has come close to matching this aspect of Apple’s approach? Apple gets this – why don’t the rest of us?
Let me put it simply and bluntly – if you do not know how to communicate what you do, what you have to offer, clearly and compellingly, with excitement and great passion, then your great product just may go undiscovered by a whole lot of folks.
Lesson #1 – keep improving, keep tweaking, and keep innovating.
Lesson #2 – Communicate very well to all of your intended audiences.
How are you doing?
There are two kinds of speakers. The first kind – the far too frequent kind – is the kind that is afraid of the microphone, afraid of the audience, almost afraid of their own shadow. (Yes, I am overstating this to make a point). These speakers are simply too tentative. They approach the microphone slowly, tentatively, almost as if they were saying: “Is it okay if I speak to you now? Are you sure it’s okay? I’m not sure. I’m a little uncertain about all this…”
The other kind strides to the podium, grabs the microphone, and says, in attitude and almost in words, “Listen up. I’ve got something worthwhile to say; something that will be valuable for you to hear. I promise not to waste your time. So, let’s get going.” This speaker oozes self-confidence. This speaker is assertive, almost aggressive. Yes, he or she can cross the line into arrogance. But there is a self-confidence in this approach (and/or maybe it is not an approach; maybe it is close to attitude; maybe even “personality”) that grabs an audience by the throat and makes people want to listen.
This is the approach you want to aim for.
So, here is your model. I remembered this from years ago, in an interview with Joaquin Phoenix, as he prepared to play the role of Johnny Cash in the movie Walk the Line. Here’s a paragraph that describes it, taken from Cinema Review Production Notes:
From the minute he got the part, Phoenix began carrying a guitar.
Phoenix knew if was going to get inside the soul of Johnny Cash, he would first have to get inside the soul of the musician. Cash’s stage mannerisms and guitar style had to become an organic part of Phoenix’s performance. Recalls Mangold: “One of the things John told me about whoever was going to play him was, ‘I just hope they know how to hold a guitar. You don’t hold it like it’s a baby and you’re frightened it’s going to break. You grab it by the neck.’ So I knew that Joaquin had to approach his guitar like it was something he had lived with all his life and that’s what he did.”
“You don’t hold it like it’s a baby.” You grab it by the neck… You own that guitar; you grab the microphone; you own that microphone… And when you own that guitar, when you own that microphone, you have a shot at owning that audience.
(All of this assumes, of course, that have prepared your music/your speech well).
Was Johnny Cash arrogant? Maybe. But when he sang, he was certainly not tentative. He was in his element. And that’s what a good speaker is. Not tentative, but in his element.
On NPR’s Morning Edition this week, the incomparable Susan Stamberg presented a look at the upcoming HBO movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn: Power Couple, Covering War (And Waging Their Own). Among others, she interviewed Clive Owen, who plays Hemingway. Here is the excerpt:
Preparing for the role, actor Clive Owen read all the Hemingway he could find.
“It’s so economical, it’s so concise,” he says. “He can, in just a few sentences, create whole worlds and whole relationships. It was such a lesson in sort of discipline and economy.”
Economical; concise…discipline; economy.
Say what you have to say. Say it with just a few sentences. This is the communication tip of the day month year; make that the communication tip of a lifetime.
Here is a problem – a big problem – in the high-tech, digital world we all function in. E-mail, and other forms of digital communication, have trumped conversation.
And that is a mistake.
So, recently, I ran across this phrase, which is attributed to Peter Block. (I heard it from Mark Israelson, who works for the city of Plano, TX). Here is the phrase:
“Connection before content.”
Notice the wording: not “connection instead of content,” but “connection before content.” It is okay to send your message forth in an e-mail blast. It is okay to make a request, deliver a message, ask a question through e-mail. But it is not okay to think that that is as effective as a good old-fashioned “conversation.”
John Wooden, in Wooden on Leadership, wrote: “Don’t hastily replace the old fashioned with the new fangled.” We do live an era of constant, perpetual, and ever-so-shorter-lived change. But maybe there are a few practices that should not be jettisoned in this hyper-connected world. And one of those is actual face-to-face conversation.
Connection before content. This is what makes content more readily received, and then acted on.
Quite some time ago, I saw the movie Temple Grandin, and wrote this blog post. It still pops up on our “most-viewed” list: Ten Lessons about Business and Personal Success from Temple Grandin (the person, and the movie). Temple Grandin is not capable (literally, with her autism, not capable) of the kind of leisurely “get to know one another” conversations that help precede content delivery. But she learned to do at least the minimum amount of connecting. Here’s the paragraph about this from my earlier blog post:
Success requires “suck-up” skills. (phrase borrowed from Carville and Begala). Because of her autism, Temple Grandin did not understand the value of sucking up, and it did not come naturally to her. Apparently (this is assumed more than stated or demonstrated in the movie), her mother and aunt had drilled into her the value of simple, polite manners. (“My name is Temple Grandin. Pleased to meet you.” And then, right away, she would launch into her real question or message). And though she sounded impersonal in her use of such everyday politeness, she made herself do it. What a testament to the need to develop what we now call networking skills.
So, the next time you get ready to send that e-mail, ask yourself, “have I connected with this person?” before you hit the send button.
Connection before content.