Essential tools for visual communications

David Sibbet
This is the second of a two-part report on the September 27th meeting of Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association. On Saturday we heard from two communications experts: Speechwriter Pete Weissman and visual thinking expert David Sibbet. This posting is a summary of David’s material.

David SibbetDavid Sibbet is President and founder of The Grove Consultants International, leaders in visually based services and tools that enable organization, teams and individuals to successfully envision and implement innovation and change.

He is author of the best-selling Visual Leadership book series:

Visual MeetingsVisual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity. David’s first book in the series looks at how to use visualization to support a cycle of learning and implementation in meetings. Starting with imagination, moving to engagement, thinking and enactment–it is written for anyone who runs meetings. No special graphics skills are needed to make these methods pay off.

Visual teamsVisual Teams: Graphic Tools for Commitment, Innovation, and High Performance. This builds on the meetings book and explores how a team can use visual methods throughout their work. It suggests we can gain by working like designers–using prototypes, interaction and visualization.

Visual leadersVisual Leaders: New Tools for Visioning, Management, and Organization Change. This is a guide for leaders interested in increasing their own visual literacy. There’s a valuable section on how visual tools can accelerate organizational change and enable people to think of the total organization as a system while working on the parts.

Visual meeting facilitation

Drawing on content from his books (pun intended!) David shared how he was there at the start of the meeting facilitation industry in the 1970′s with people like Michael Doyle and David Strauss. Together, they built the field of group facilitation, community visioning, collaborative problem solving, and the development and management of task-oriented groups and teams.

Putting poster-making together with journalism led to David becoming a visual interpreter of meetings. Together with Evert Lindquist he developed a map to the world of visualization:

Lindquist/Sibbet Data Visualization Map

Graphic Facilitation

Graphic recorders facilitate meetings by interactively documenting a group’s conversation on flip charts, large poster paper, graphic templates, murals, and other media. This allows everyone in the room to see and understand the flow of dialog, decisions and agreements.

The result is a crisp summary of a lengthy meeting on a single page, as in this example from an architectural firm:

DLR Vision

(Click to enlarge)

Visuals spark the imagination

Words and images connect in valuable ways. Having a picture on the wall engages the audience with a greater degree of participation. The human brain builds more meaning into a slightly “fuzzy” diagram vs. crisp clip art. Giving people enough to go on, without total clarity, encourages people to really pay attention. Using sticky notes and group drawings as part of a presentation or facilitated meeting enables the audience to see connections, find solutions, and understand the big picture.

Beyond the spoken word

Da Vinci Helicopter SketchSibbet’s work challenges us, as speakers and speechwriters, to go beyond the written or spoken word and explore new frontiers in communication. A visual language integrates words, images and shapes into a single communication unit. Geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci have used visual language as a basic tool. Why not unleash your genius and incorporate visualization into your next presentation?

How to Prepare and Present Powerful Presentations, with Patricia Fripp

Fripp Title

FrippHall of Fame keynote speaker and executive speech coach Patricia Fripp spoke to the members of the NSA Northern California Chapter Speakers Academy on Saturday. Fripp is the founder of our Chapter and a leading authority in the world of professional speaking.

Her entertaining and informative morning session touched on many aspects of her own 30-plus year career as a top speaker. She shared valuable information for aspiring professional speakers who want to prepare and present powerful presentations, including:

  • Ask: Are you practicing to improve or to reinforce bad habits? As a novice, start with best practices from the beginning.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity the Academy and NSA chapter gives us to network with others who have a passion for speaking.
  • Expect to bomb — if you’ve not failed somewhere on stage, you’re probably not challenging yourself enough.
  • Asking questions is the best education. The quality of the information you receive depends on the quality of your questions.
  • Be willing to promote yourself in an ongoing, consistent and relentless way. Refocus and redirect what you are doing.
  • To build a long-term sustainable business you need to exceed expectations, or you won’t be invited back.
  • Desire trumps talent. You must have a relentless commitment as well an interest in speaking on your topic.
  • The most powerful way to learn any topic is to teach it to others.
  • Find a topic for your speeches by looking within your experience and talent, such as the expertise you’ve accumulated in your day job. No matter how technical your field, build your speech by thinking how you would explain what you do to your grandmother.
  • Despite the fact that there’s only so much truth in the world, you have a unique point of view. Deliver that in your speeches. Don’t invalidate your life experience.
  • A great way to develop material for a speech is to become a customer of the client who books you for a speech. Be a secret shopper and report your learnings. Talk to lower-level employees.
  • Structure your speech on a strong premise or central theme that is a basis of argument, leading to a conclusion. Be sure your talking points back-up and prove your big idea.
  • Remember the first 30 seconds and last 30 seconds of any talk have the most impact. Don’t waste them with empty pleasantries.
  • Engage the audience in your subject by asking “Would it interest (horrify, amaze) you to know…”
  • Populate your presentations with flesh and blood characters other people can relate to. Stories do this.
  • Your audience will remember what they “see” in your stories.

These were among the many lessons shared by Fripp in her session. For anyone who would like to dive deeper into what she has to offer, I highly recommend her Virtual Training program. This online resource gives you access to one of the most in-demand executive speech coaches and sales presentation experts available. Fripp’s Virtual Training is engaging and fun. It is designed for ambitious professionals, executives, sales teams, and professional speakers. Heck, she’ll even give you a 7 day free trial. What’s not to like?

To hear a brief extract from Saturday’s event, where Fripp shares the secret of her own career success, click on the podcast icon below.

Visual communication with Graphic Recordings

I’ve been impressed with a number of videos on YouTube that use hand-drawn images to convey complex information.

One example from RSA Animate features Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft in the UK, who imagines what might be possible if more organizations embraced the full, empowering potential of technology and encouraged a truly open, collaborative and flexible working culture. He asks how can we get people more engaged, more productive, and happier at work? Is technology part of the problem — and could it also be part of the solution? The animation makes for compelling viewing, so be sure to watch it in full screen mode:

Graphic recording can also be used to translate conversations into organized visuals on large paper live in front of a group event such as a workshop or conference. It’s a powerful tool for bridging gaps in communication and acknowledging everyone’s point of view in the ‘big picture’.

Here’s a video from Tanya Gadsby who is a graphic recorder and whiteboard video artist based in Victoria, BC, that explains more about graphic recording:

Guest Posting: Non-Verbal Techniques in a Large Group Forum, by Theresa Zagnoli

Theresa ZagnoliTheresa Zagnoli has 28 years of experience providing practical trial expertise and communication solutions as a jury consultant, communication expert and founding CEO of Zagnoli McEvoy Foley LLC in Chicago. She counsels attorneys, witnesses, and CEOs on how to be effectively public speakers in and out of the courtroom.
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Non-Verbal Techniques in a Large Group Forum, by Theresa Zagnoli

By now most people have heard of body language and its usefulness in personal and small group business relations. Body language, better termed non-verbal communication, is often more responsible than our words for whether the audience is moved. It is often ignored when speaking to a large group. When facing an auditorium full of listeners, you have more tools to work with than your mic and the slide show.

Just as a reminder, the components of non-verbal communication are: body posture/movement, hand and arm gestures, artifacts such as accessories or clothes, facial expressions, eye contact, space use and finally, even sound or voice when not considering actual words.

Since most of us are not rock stars or preachers, we do not have a following. Our goal and obligation on stage is generally to entertain while simultaneously teaching the audience something useful about business or life, or both. That makes credibility paramount. The key component of credibility is dynamism and the root of dynamism is energy.

Therefore all non-verbal efforts in speaking to a large audience should be devoted toward demonstrating a controlled but strong aura of energy. Showing vitality is also an effective way to charm your audience. Cicero explains that all communication must start with one person’s ability to charm another in order to proceed through the other steps to successfully communicate. People are drawn to personal energy like bugs to a zapper. They can’t help themselves.

Showing energy on stage is tricky. The energy cannot be frenetic and yet it cannot be so choreographed that it appears unnatural. This is where using your entire non-verbal arsenal is advantageous.

Start with the stage itself. A confident speaker does not hide behind a podium –- use the space you are given. Watch any performer and you will see that most move from the center of the stage.

Once the safety of the podium has been left behind, the feeling of security goes with it. Now what do you do with your hands instead of allowing them to hang limply by your sides? There are two reasons to gesture: for emphasis and for demonstration. Plan gestures ahead of time by reviewing your script to look for opportunities to punch up the words with a gesture of instruction or accent.

You may think that making eye contact with 300 people is impossible. So instead you sweep your gaze across the audience thinking you are reaching everyone, while in reality you have reached no one. Watch a good comedian and you will see that he or she makes eye contact and basically has a conversation with different people in the audience. The comedian knows that he has to connect with his audience, and he has to do it one person at a time. Will he get to everyone in a venue that holds a thousand fans? No. But each person attending your speech will see that you care enough to make contact with a single person time and again. This is interpreted as caring and interest in the audience. It doesn’t matter if each person gets individual attention; it only matters that some do.

Men and women have different rules when it comes to dress and props. You can choose to follow these rules or break them. Both strategies will have fallout. For example, if you show up in what you are ‘supposed’ to be wearing you will meet the audience’s expectations but will not be doing anything to surpass their expectations. If you color outside the lines, you might surpass what was expected, showing that your are delightful and refreshing, only to find some will be immediately put off because your dress feels wrong to them. Evaluate each situation.

If you have the opportunity to read Horton Hears a Who to the third grade class, get an elephant head and feet, a t-shirt and paint your face. Showing up dressed like you are on your way to work sends the message to the 3rd grade that they are just an inconvenience on your way to the office. It shows that no energy was invested in the task.

On the other hand, if your goal is to show the properties and benefits of a new anxiety drug, a funny hat will not serve you.

While those two examples are clear, there is plenty of room in between to stretch your creativity beyond the audience’s expectations — if not in what you wear, then maybe through a prop. This year, I spoke to an organization about a legal case involving a baseball bat. I brought a bat with me to use as a prop. Four of us spoke on the same case, and I was the only one to bring props. Others brought slides or spoke dramatically and eloquently. I assume I did too, but I had a bat. They moved their arms and legs, gesturing with their hands to show how the bat was swung and what it hit — nice — but I had a bat!

Being aware of your non-verbal communication and using these tools to transmit the correct energy to your audience can make all the difference in how you are received and, ultimately, how effectively your message is delivered.

A Peridoic Table of Visualization Methods

Swiss researchers Ralph Lengler & Martin J. Eppler from the Institute of Corporate Communication (how cool is that!) at the University of Lugano have created a “periodic table” of 100 visualization methods. They describe their table in their 2007 research paper Towards A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods for Management

Data Visualization Periodic Table

(Click to enlarge)

The periodic table is broken down into data visualization, information visualization, concept visualization, strategy visualization, metaphor visualization, and compound visualization.

Their Visual Literacy website contains an interactive version of the table. Simply by hovering over each box in the table, an example appears in a pop-up window with an illustration of each of the elements.

Try it here.

Supply Demand CurveThe examples range from the simple supply demand curve (Su) with a X/Y axis to the complex sankey diagram (Sa) — a specific type of flow diagram in which the width of the arrows is shown proportionally to the flow quantity.Sankey Diagram

While their classification tool might offend the purists, this is a fun source of ideas for your next PowerPoint presentation. However, in terms of a tool that helps classify and solve problems while selling ideas with pictures, nothing beats Dan Roam’s excellent Visual thinking Codex from his book The Back of the Napkin:

Data Visualization Periodic Table

(Click to enlarge)

Thanks to George for letting me know about the visualization table.

Book Review: Hack Attack, by Nick Davies

Hack AttackHack Attack, Nick Davies’s exhaustively researched exposé – subtitled “How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch” – details how the press baron and key members of his staff pulled the levers of power in British politics and business during the six years from 2008 to 2014. While denying and lying, they slipped in and out the side-door of Number 10 for drinks with the prime minister, rubbing shoulders with the power elite who lived in fear of the ability of mass circulation newspapers to influence elections and destroy lives.

A sprawling cast of characters fill the pages of Hack Attack: the bullying editors and hapless reporters of the Fleet Street tabloid newspapers; members of the Queen’s household in Buckingham Palace; prime ministers and members of the government in Whitehall and Downing Street; petty criminals and senior policemen; wide boys and blagging operatives; movers and shakers, celebrities and philanderers; and behind it all the spectral presence of one of the world’s most powerful men – media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.

Davies is the reporter on the left-of-center Guardian newspaper who ran the first stories about the practice of phone hacking. His well-written report reads like a thriller. It is a compulsive page-turner. His bravery in pursuit of the truth is quite startling. One suspects that in any other country than Britain he would have been “disappeared” for dishing the dirt as he has. The scope of the cover-up he exposes makes Woodward and Bernstein, in an earlier era, seem bush league. They had Deep Throat. He has anonymous sources he code-names “Sapphire”, “Ovid” and “Jingle”. They had a cover-up about one crime, the Watergate break-in. He has a decade of systematic illegal activity by reporters and editors who illegally “hacked” the mobile phone voicemails of anyone and everyone who could provide source material for their stories. They hacked the Royal Family, they hacked members of the British Cabinet, sports stars and everyday citizens. Most notoriously, they hacked the cell phone of a murdered teenage schoolgirl. The private messages they listened to were material for news reports, most often in the now defunct News of The World, a Murdoch paper closed as a direct result of Davies’s investigative journalism. Davies uncovers the secrets and lies and reveals how the police in Scotland Yard kept a lid on it for years.

Hack Attack is a must-read for anyone who lives in the UK and wants to hear how they were lied to by the establishment, or, as in my own case, resides in the USA and wonders about the corporate morality of Murdoch’s henchmen on the Wall Street Journal and those who deliver “fair and balanced” reporting on Fox News.

Guest Posting: Communicating at Virgin Atlantic, by Adam Schair

Adam SchairAdam Schair is Vice President, Human Resources Communications at Thomson Reuters in New York and a member of the Thomson Reuters Internal Communication & Engagement Council. He manages a team of human resources communications specialists. This post appears with his express permission.

Fortune Favors the Bold: Communicating at Virgin Atlantic, by Adam Schair

Virgin AdI recently went to a highly entertaining and informative IABC Westfair talk given by Jenna Lloyd, Virgin Atlantic Marketing Director, about communications at a company borne from Richard Branson’s innovative mind, created with the sole purpose of shaking up an industry. Although Jenna focused on external communications, she made it clear that Virgin’s internal and external communications are treated with the same tone and goal of challenging the status quo and creating the unexpected.

In fact, Jenna’s talk was called “Flying in the Face of Ordinary to create a communication culture.” Flying in the Face of Ordinary was not just the name of her talk, but Virgin Atlantic’s mantra; it’s north star. They call it FITFOO, and she recounted that in their many brainstorming meetings, when a person suggests an idea that is on the more mundane side, someone will inevitably say, “That idea is not FITFOO enough.”

The following is a summary of the five points of her talk, which were categorized by paraphrased quotes from Richard Branson himself. This all may make you slightly jealous of the Virgin Atlantic communications culture, but I saw it also as presenting an exciting challenge as we try to create an innovative culture (of course, I doubt we will be offering rides to outer space any time soon).

1. Being Brave is Part of our DNA

Jenna started with a quote from Simon Sinek, who some of you may know wrote the book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and is a frequent TED talker, “People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it.”

She said that this quote really captured the essence of how they approach communications at Virgin Atlantic. To prove it, she then read from their principles, for lack of a better term, which contains phrases as:

  • We zig while others zag
  • We’re the antidote to dull
  • We do red where other’s do beige
  • And Richard Branson’s employment philosophy: Don’t just play the game; change it for good.

She took us through some their campaigns to illustrate how they not only use the unexpected to prove a point, but, going back to Simon Sinek’s quote, demonstrated the “why” as well as the “what.” Here are links to a few, if you want to read more:

2. Don’t think what’s the cheapest way to do it or what’s the fastest way to do it; think what’s the most amazing way to do it

When they make decisions at Virgin Atlantic, they do with the mission to make people feel good. It is simple in concept, difficult in practice. But many of their campaigns live up to this idea. Here are a few:

  • Twitter rewards campaign: the team scoured twitter and found people who made statements indicating they were having a “grey day.” They would then send a team to cheer the person up.
  • Anti-Mundane Squad: The team would identify mundane experiences (e.g., the local DMV) and brighten it up by bringing red velvet cupcakes.
  • No Ordinary Park Bench: The replaced a park bench with an experience similar to sitting in first class on the airline.

Of course, all of this was picked up in social media and went viral. An interesting (and I guess consistent) point about Virgin Atlantic and social media is that when they measure success, they measure sentiment first and reach second. Usually, it is the other way around.

Jenna summed it up in a quote from Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

3. Screw it, just do it

That is a direct Richard Branson quote, and he says it a lot. It speaks to creating a culture where there is no fear of failure when you try new things. It also speaks to the tongue-in-cheek tone that pervades their communications.

London EyeThe great example of this was when British Airways landed what seemed to be a marketing coup of being the primary sponsor of the London Eye. The story goes that at first, they had difficulty in raising the giant Ferris wheel into place. When Richard Branson heard this news, without hesitation, he hired a blimp to fly over the scene of the construction. I’ll let the picture (left) tell the rest of the story.

In this case, as Jenna quoted, “Fortune favors the brave.”

4. The way you treat your employees is the way they’ll treat your customers

I cannot imagine any of my communications colleagues would argue with this statement. Richard Branson is a strong believer in this, and that is why they try to treat their employees like rock stars. They make the work environment fun, and encourage a healthy work/life balance.

One example Jenna gave of creating a bit of glamour and fun was how they transformed their employee newsletter for their crew into a glossy magazine called Runway that provides glamour tips.

5. Bring it to the customer

Many of you have seen pictures of Richard Branson serving drinks on his airline. That iconic picture speaks to Virgin Atlantic’s Philosophy. They are always thinking of ways to proactively make their customers feel good. Examples Jenna gave included giving their customers that had to fly from home on Valentine’s Day a little gift to cheer them up, and sending cocktail shakers on Admin’s Day to executive administrators who book travel for their executives. The cocktail shakers came with a note that said, “thanks for keeping things together, now shake things up!” I am sure a lot of executives began finding themselves booked on a lot more Virgin Atlantic flights after that.

Parting advice

Jenna concluded by summarizing her learnings at Virgin Atlantic in the following seven points:

  1. Know your story; know your why
  2. Challenge convention
  3. Make people feel amazing
  4. Opportunity favors the bold
  5. Treat employees like customers
  6. Surprise & delight people
  7. Have fun

Every one of those points applies just as much to internal as external communications. Let’s shake things up!

Same Same … But Different

SameA recent discussion in the National Speaker’s Association Facebook Group addresses the problem of the lack of originality in many speeches. The discussion was prompted by a LinkedIn article by Richard A. Moran which highlights the repetitive use of the same case studies by speakers at business events. The author requests:

Let’s broaden the conversation and stop talking about the same companies – usually Apple, Zappos and Southwest Airlines.

Instead of the same old stuff he wants:

…to be motivated, not sorry I don’t work somewhere else. I want to know how I can improve, not how a brilliant leader did it a few years ago somewhere else. And, I want genuine advice that might include some practical tips about how to be better and what pitfalls to avoid.

Professional speakers and speechwriters are in total agreement. Their comments show they understand the importance of delivering content that is unique, different, and ensures their message will be heard above the noise. (Since the NSA Group is a closed one, the names of the contributors have been removed.)

  1. The problem is a global one – same old stories, same old case studies, same old messages. We need to use our own stories, our own research, and if we must talk about companies, use current news stories.
  2. It’s best to tell stories from our own experience. It’s what I do in my own talks and it’s what I encourage executives to do when I’m helping them with their speeches. Not only are those stories going to be original, the speaker is going to be more connected to them.
  3. Speakers must bring us a very different idea or way of doing something we’ve not heard before. I can honestly say few exist per my life’s experience. The same ingredients in a food processor still yield pretty much the same outcome–no matter what order you add them. Real Thought Leaders make us think long after the book, podcast or event. I believe great speeches have a beginning, a middle and a definitive end. I also know there are three presentations happening simultaneously: the one you planned, the one you executed and (most importantly) the one they take away. Our own stories and the lessons we share keep our content fresh and unique, as long as we continue to study how to connect the dots in a way the audience most relates to.
  4. As a speech writer for others, I want to take their experiences and create a speech based on them, not on what can be found in college business textbooks. Not all case studies are as they seem.
  5. We live in an age where everything changes quickly — we have so many examples to share.

Guest Posting: How Not to Introduce a Speaker, by Adam Grant

Adam GrantAdam Grant is Wharton’s youngest full professor and single highest-rated teacher. He has been recognized as one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors, one of the world’s 40 best business professors under 40, and one of Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite social science writers. Previously, he was a record-setting advertising director at Let’s Go Publications, an All-American springboard diver, and a professional magician. Adam is the author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. This post was first published on his LinkedIn Influencer page and appears here with his express permission.

How Not to Introduce a Speaker

by Adam Grant

When I attend a presentation, the first thing that captures my attention isn’t the speaker or the material. It’s the person who introduces the speaker.

After giving a few hundred speeches in the past year, I’ve been struck by the variety of ways that different people introduce the same speaker. Some introductions energize me and seem to leave the audience excited to hear from me. Other introductions inadvertently make it more difficult to deliver a successful speech.

In my experience, the best introductions avoid three mistakes:

1. Don’t read the speaker’s biography. Much of the time, introducers walk up to the stage with a written biography, and proceed to read it verbatim. This is a mistake for several reasons. First, it’s boring. Bios are usually written to inform, not fascinate. Second, a typical bio is far too long to hold the audience’s attention. The goal is to pique the audience’s curiosity, not cover the speaker’s entire life history.

Third, even if introducers are armed with a short, punchy bio, they usually trip up when trying to read the words. This often happens to me when I’ve tried to read introductory remarks, leaving me mystified: why can I give a 45-minute speech from memory without missing a beat, but stumble through reading a few words that are right in front of me? (One explanation comes from classic research by psychologist Robert Zajonc: the presence of an audience enhances performance for well-learned tasks, but hinders performance when we’re novices. We’re used to reading silently, not out loud in front of large groups, and the arousal interferes with fluent processing.)

Instead of reading a bio, I like it when introducers highlight a grand total of three or four interesting tidbits about the speaker. Here’s one of the best intros I’ve ever received: “Adam Grant is a Wharton professor who has advised leaders ranging from Google to Goldman Sachs to the U.S. Air Force. He’s the author of Give and Take, and he used to perform as a magician.”

2. Don’t give away the speaker’s content. On numerous occasions, during the introduction, I’ve watched presenters turn white as a sheet. The introducer steals the thunder of the speech by giving away a punch line, a surprise, or a memorable quote. This has happened to me several times recently. One of my most requested speeches introduces three styles of interaction: givers (helpful), takers (selfish), and matchers (fair). I poll the audience: which group is least successful, and which is most successful?

Then, I reveal an unexpected conclusion from a decade of research across multiple industries. Givers are more likely to finish last… but they’re also more likely to finish first. It was a bummer when the CEO of a Fortune 500 company introduced me by announcing that I would be speaking about how good guys finish first.

Goodbye, element of surprise! Goodnight, audience interaction. Hello, pivot!

My rule here is clear: introducers should avoid the content altogether. It’s fine to explain the relevance of the talk to the audience. Just tell us the purpose of the presentation, or the topic of the speech, without divulging the message or the conclusion. You can also create a curiosity gap, as described by Chip and Dan Heath inMade to Stick. Pose a question that the speaker might answer, and the audience will be intrigued to find out more. For my speech, it works well when introducers simply say, “Today’s speaker will challenge our assumptions about what drives success” or “Adam will ask, ‘Is giving the secret to getting ahead?’”

3. Don’t make the speaker sound superhuman. I’m thrilled to share this idea with you, because the next paragraph is going to be the most profound argument you’ll read this week.

Many introducers wax poetic in superlatives about the speaker. This is a good idea in principle: extensive evidence shows that whether the speaker is a teacher or a leader, high expectations can fuel self-fulfilling prophecies. When the introducer emphasizes what’s impressive about the speaker, audience members are more likely to be smiling at the edge of their seats. This can enhance the speaker’s confidence and reduce self-doubt, and then a virtuous cycle ensues. The audience is more likely to engage with her insights and laugh at her jokes, further enhancing the speaker’s confidence and ability to command attention. If something goes wrong, the audience will be more forgiving.

Yet an over-the-top setup can lead to what social scientists call a self-negating or self-disconfirming prophecy. In a nutshell, if the audience’s expectations are too high, there’s a greater risk of a gap between anticipation and reality. If the introduction is too glowing—like my tongue-in-cheek opening sentence above—the speaker will have a hard time living up to it. To paraphrase one of my mentors, Jane Dutton:

It’s better if the introducer under-promises, and the speaker over-delivers, than vice-versa.

Guest Posting: Speaking Up – Surviving Executive Presentations, by Rick Gilbert

Rick Gilbert is the founder of PowerSpeaking, Inc. and the primary developer of PowerSpeaking (the workshop), HighTechSpeaking, and Speaking Up: Presenting to Executives. He is the author of Speaking Up: Surviving Executive Presentations and has authored articles in over 100 national publications on communication. Before starting PowerSpeaking, Rick held management positions at Hewlett-Packard and Amdahl. Before that he was a psychologist and a university instructor. His PhD is in Humanistic Psychology. This article is reprinted with his express permission.

Speaking Up: Surviving Executive Presentations

by Rick Gilbert

Speaking Up CoverYou are a smart, high-potential middle manager rocketing up the corporate ladder. Your team is working on a project that could catapult your company ahead of the competition. All that remains is to convince senior leadership to give you the funding to make it happen.

You walk into the C-level presentation room with your 30 PowerPoint slides. Almost immediately, a full-blown executive food fight starts. You look to your sponsor for help, but she isn’t paying attention. The executives drift off agenda as you fumble with your slides. You wonder, “What the hell just happened,” as you are politely dismissed from the room. Leaving the building, your dream of corporate stardom fades quickly.

If you are in middle management, you live with daily ambiguity, lack of control, and even chaos. To get anything done, you must present your ideas to people up the chain, and those presentations can be brutal. Careers and projects can come unwound in a matter of minutes if a presenter at the top level doesn’t know the rules.

Like an anthropologist in some mysterious far-away land, for the past ten years I’ve been working to discover the secret rules that govern the C-suite. Doing interviews with over 50 C-level executives, I’ve pieced together this puzzle. What we’ve learned in this research could save your career, your project, and even your company. So, what are the rules?

The good news: the rules are simple and easy to learn:

  • You have 30 seconds to get to the point;
  • You must present with confident (not slick) style, lately called “executive presence;”
  • Present like a jazz musician: improvise;
  • Dump the slides and have a discussion.

Unfortunately a staggeringly high number of mid-level people (67%, actually) march right into top-level meetings and shoot themselves in the foot by:

  • Not saying what they want at the beginning;
  • Being too aggressive or too passive in their delivery;
  • Rigidly sticking to their scripts;
  • Having too many PowerPoint slides.

The cost of a 67% failure rate is staggering. If you are presenting to the top five people in a mid-sized company ($6 – $8 billion in revenue), the executives around that table are costing the share holders about $30,000/hour. Do the math. Two or three meetings a week at a failure rate of roughly $20,000/meeting, can cost hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars/year in lost productivity. These stats come from the executives we’ve interviewed.

As you walk to the front of the room and take your place at the head of the oval mahogany table, you better know the dynamics and history of that C-level group. It is not your meeting. You are a guest at their meeting. They can treat you with respect, or callous disregard. In surveying middle managers, we’ve learned there are “Seven Deadly Challenges” you need to be prepared for:

  • They cut your time
  • They get distracted with their devices
  • They have an executive food fight
  • They change the topic without warning
  • The key decision maker walks out
  • They engage in side-talk
  • They have a fast-moving energetic discussion

Executive Presentation Survival Tips

Know the culture. Check it out with your sponsor. Talk to others who’ve presented to this team. Keep in mind the reality of the stressful world top-level people live in. They are very bright, time pressured executives with little job security. Their average job tenure is 23 months. They are under huge financial performance pressures. At the end of the first year on the job, if the stock price goes down, there is a 73 percent chance the new CEO will be fired, according to a report in the Harvard Business Review. However you are treated in the brief moments of that critically important presentation, whether with appreciation for your contribution, or with disrespect, it is not about YOU. They have bigger issues to deal with.

As one HR executive put it:

I’m a tool of management. My job is to give senior executives information, lay out a set of options, or maybe ask for a decision . . and then leave. I’m not there to be their buddy or to get pats on the back. A presentation isn’t a personal development opportunity or a chance for increased visibility. I’m there to do a job. And that job is to help prepare the executives to make the best possible decisions for the company.

Seeing your presentation in the cold hard light of day will help you be successful. It is not about a promotion. It is not about being friends with the executives. It is about helping them be more effective.

If you follow these tips, the chances of getting what you want and being someone they trust go way up. You will be seen as having “executive presence.” Since you will get the funding, you will become a hero to your team. Your career prospects will brighten. Good luck.

For a peek inside the book and to hear from some of the people who have been through Rick’s workshop and senior executives he has interviewed, take a look at the video below.

Speaking Up Book Release Party from Rick Gilbert on Vimeo.