“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?
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.
“In industry, we pretty much suck at it.”
— a participant at my last training session, a department head at a major company, commenting on the presentation skills of far too many people.
I make a lot of presentations. I teach speech. And I study speech and presentation skills. If I have areas of expertise, this is one of them. Yes, there are people better than I am at this – far better. But I work at this, pay attention to this, care about this…
I just completed two days of intensive presentation skills training, for six people in a large company who have to get up in front of people on a regular basis. It is easy to get better as a presenter. (Not quick – but “easy,” if you put in the time, and “pay attention”). You can get better as a presenter. But not without work. Quite a bit of work. Over the long haul.
Now, let’s start with a bit of honesty. You may not be able to move from awful to world-class. Awful to world-class may be too much of a stretch. But awful to much less awful is very doable.
There are people who are just really good in front of people. They are the “naturals.” But “natural” only carries you so far. Natural + work gets even better. And awful + work gets less awful – maybe even all the way to “good.”
So, how do you do it? You work at two things. Develop good content. And, develop better delivery skills. (Invention + Delivery is what Aristotle called it – read this blog post: 2 Ways to Guarantee a Failed Presentation).
The content area requires a lot of study, and experience – and quite a bit of work at writing, editing, organization. If you really don’t know how to write a good sentence, and then a good paragraph, and then a good page of text – and if you don’t know how to use parallel structure, and if you don’t understand the value of repetition in a speech/presentation — then go take a class in English and another one in Speech. (You probably took these classes earlier, in your college days. But you may have “forgotten” too much – or, you may have not paid very good attention at the time). “Interview your teachers,” and pick teachers who can teach you these disciplines. When you prepare your content, start with a “hook,” then your thesis, then your main points, then a clear call to action in your conclusion. Prepare it in advance – thoroughly. There is no substitute for good preparation of your content.
And, only speak about what you care about deeply enough to speak about it. The audience really can tell if you are disinterested in your own material. And if you are not interested, trust me, your audience won’t be interested.
For the delivery aspect, tackle one portion of the challenge at a time. But start with these five:
#1 – Stand with good posture. Poor posture oozes a lack of self-confidence. And self-confidence is critical for good delivery.
#2 – Look your audience members in the eye (eyeball-to-eyeball) – and keep your eye contact balanced across the room.
#3 – Never – NEVER, NEVER! – speak “to the screen” with your back to the audience. Look your audience in the eye – don’t turn your back to the audience. If you are using slides (PowerPoint/Keynote), keep your eyes facing the audience – eyes front!
#4 – Move. Don’t stand still. Move your arms (above the waist). Move around the room a little. (Don’t pace). Expend energy – it keeps you awake, and it keeps your audience awake.
#5 – Work on your voice. I think this is the most important of all! Vocal variety, verbal punch – Never speak in a monotone. Never! Record yourself. (Digital recorders are very affordable). Listen to the audio of your presentations. If you are not loud enough to be heard, speaking clearly enough to be understood, with genuine vocal variety, punching key words deserving of emphasis, you will be “boring” and not understandable. Practice! Read aloud. Read poetry, or scripture, or song lyrics, or any text; read text out loud, to practice saying words. Start by speaking one.word.at.a.time. Then go to speaking one.phrase.at.a.time. Get better at speaking words and phrases with verbal variety and verbal punch. Vary, vary, vary… This is beyond critical!
In our training sessions, we video tape each participant, and evaluate ”privately.” (This is why we only train a handful of people at a time). The participant and I go into a room, alone, and we watch the video together. It can be tough! People don’t like watching themselves speak on video. I don’t like watching myself speak. But we catch all sorts of mistakes, and develop a list of challenges to work on. It is the only way to get better. It is “easy” – but it requires work. “Deliberate practice,” working on speaking in order to get better. This is the only way to move from “awful to less awful to good.”
There are enough presenters who “suck at it.” Don’t be one of them. You can get better – so get better.
Poor presentations, bad presentations, are costly. They are ridiculed, they waste time, people listening don’t learn much… People don’t get better at presenting without work; they just don’t. If you are in a company with too many bad presentations, take action! Hire us. Seriously. We can help. Just click the “hire us” tab at the top, and get in touch. This is very valuable, useful training.
I haven’t yet seen Melancholia. I intend to. It is clearly a provocative film.
Kirsten Dunst, who has been acting since she was 12 (actually, since she was about 3 or 4), has apparently given the performance of her life. She won the Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her role. Here’s a paragraph from the article Kirsten Dunst on ‘Melancholia’ and Lars von Trier: Dunst gives the performance of a lifetime in the bleak new film by Richard Rushfield (from The Daily Beast)
Before arriving on the set—an estate in a remote Danish village where she and the crew would camp out for a month and a half—Dunst took several weeks preparing to confront the morose character she was to play. She trained for Justine like a prizefighter trains for an opponent, studying her every decision from inside out. “I work with somebody, and we do extensive preparations. I went on vacation and she came with me. We spent day after day on it. It feels like I’m going to therapy. Sometimes we deal with imagery. Sometimes I work with my dreams as well. What it does for me is it really creates an inner life for the character that I really understand and that I know better than anyone else. My script pages are covered with notes. I created an emotional bible for myself. It gives me confidence when I go to the set. I refer to it before I do every scene. And then when you film out of order, it makes my performance make sense.”
Notice this especially: “My script pages are covered with notes. I created an emotional bible for myself. It gives me confidence when I go to the set. I refer to it before I do every scene. And then when you film out of order, it makes my performance make sense.”
In other words, she prepares thoroughly, and then refers to her written preparation note reminders before every “scene,” every part of her “presentation.”
We really should have learned this by now. In the acting arena, the great actors prepare, and prepare some more, and then prepare some more. Daniel Day Lewis, for just one other example, is beyond legendary with his preparation habits/rituals.
In the field of great presenters, the great ones rehearse, and then rehearse some more, and then rehearse even more. Steve Jobs, the presenter, was a legendary preparer.
As I have written earlier, all good presentations boil down to this: have something to say, and then say it very well. Preparation is key for each of these two parts of a successful presentation.
So, here’s the presentation tip of the day – be thorough in preparation, and then, “refer to your carefully prepared notes” before every “scene” – every “presentation.”
I have always liked Andy Rooney’s essays. They were so well-written.
“I’m a writer who reads what he’s written.”
This is your presentation tip of the day.
This is what Andy Rooney did. His 60 Minutes ending segments were essays “delivered” orally – spoken – but, they were clearly written, word for word, in advance.
Though there is a lot to be said for a fully “extemporaneous” style, “extemporaneous” does not mean “unprepared.” The reality is that every word we say, we write first – even if we write it in our heads just a split-second before we say it. It really is better to write it “in advance.”
The greatest speeches were all fully scripted. Written, then edited, then re-written. The trick is to then deliver these pre-selected words and phrases in a conversational, engaging manner.
(You might want to check out this earlier blog post, where I show images of the process of editing from President Reagan and President Obama. Writing a good speech is “work,” and requires plenty of thoughtful preparation).
And, how many times have speakers gotten in trouble for words that they wish they could get back? Andy Rooney himself experienced this – in some pretty unscripted moments.
It is the “advanced decision making” – the “I intend to say these things” work, before you speak, that makes for an effective and memorable presentation.
Write, in advance, and then rehearse, so that it sounds “unscripted.” This is the key.