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?
I have actually read a fair amount of Aristotle. Not in the original language (although, a little bit of that too). But in my graduate work in rhetoric, we had to read Aristotle. And he is really, really important. But, now, centuries later, his main ideas are usually summarized by others. And the summaries are accessible, make sense, and are profound. For many, a good summary is enough – enough information, enough to launch the thought processes that lead to real-world ideas and changes for the better.
From Aristotle, for example: to be persuasive (rhetoric is all about finding the available means of persuasion), you need logos (a good logical argument), ethos (a good ethical case/argument — true credibility on the part of the speaker/writer), and pathos (a good emotional argument – an engaging “this matters to me” by the speaker/writer). And a few others back from around the time of era of Aristotle add the power of a fourth element, mythos (the narrative appeal – this rings true to our story as a people/nation/company…). Now Aristotle wrote on many other themes, but you get the point. A person writes a book. Others read it. And with the passage of time, they are able to summarize, really effectively, the truths and principles and insights from books. And it helps us understand.
I thought of all this as I read this excellent summary of a series of recent books on the financial crisis. What Caused the Economic Crisis? The 15 best explanations for the Great Recession by Jacob Weisberg. (from Slate.com and Newsweek – I read it on the Slate site).
Though the crisis is recent, there is a large number of books proposing explanations for the economic crisis with clear themes and explanations proposed for consideration. Weisberg summarizes many of these, dividing the suggested explanations into themes and explanations, and concludes with this phrase:
But if we haven’t at least learned that our financial markets need stronger regulatory supervision and better controls to prevent bad bets by big firms from going viral, we’ll be back in the same place before you can say 30 times leverage.
I think the article is worth reading. I have perused a few of the books mentioned, and the article does a good job summarizing the key explanations. And learning these is important – we would really like to dig out of this crisis, and certainly to avoid similar crises in the future.
But the purpose of this post is more about the process of reading books and then learning something important from what we read. None of us (ok – very few of us) can remember all that we read. But we can remember key points, extract the most important principles and themes, and then allow these to inform our thinking and direct our practice. That is why we read (at least, why we read nonfiction and business books) – to learn, to keep learning.
I have learned this from my own experience from reading, and presenting synopses of, business books. In the last few months, I have read Outliers (Gladwell) and Talent is Overrated (Colvin), and learned that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, really good at something, and that those hours have to be spent in deliberate practice – practice for the purpose of getting better. I have read 10-10-10 by Suzy Welch, learning that decisions can be better made if we look at their impact in the next 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. I have read The Opposable Mind (Martin) and discovered that to make the best decisions we need to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time.
These are just a few of the “summaries” that I think of just from the last few months. Are these books worth reading in their entirety? Absolutely. But with all of the stories, supporting information and data in the books, it is the key principles that matter, that shape my thinking, and that I remember most from reading these books.