Ira Glass:Tips on storytelling

Updated September 8, 2016


Ira Glass: What makes for a good story?
We are a storytelling animal. In fact, we are wired for story. The thing is, there is no single right way to tell a story or to use story elements in your presentations and other communications. There are many paths. The important thing is to be aware and open to the many lessons that are out there. About nine years ago I originally pointed to these four, short videos made by Ira Glass (in those days YouTube videos had to be shorter). Below are the four videos of Ira Glass, a veteran radio personality and host of This American Life, giving advice to those making short stories. There are good pieces of wisdom in there we can apply to presentation in the broader sense as well. All this time later and his advice is still valuable. If you have never seen these clips, I highly recommend you set some time aside to watch these this week. And if you have seen them, they are worth watching again. I have highlighted some of my key takeaways from his monologue.

Part 1 (on the basics...)

The old way, says Ira, looks like this: Have a topic statement then fill out the facts that support your statement. (This is not to say that logic and evidence and support are not important. Of course, they are important, but they're rarely sufficient.)

In storytelling there are two basic building blocks, says Ira Glass:

(1) The anecdote, a sequence of actions, a story in its purest form, one thing following from another (rather than just disjointed "facts").

"The Power of the anecdote is so great...No matter how boring the material is, if it is in story form...there is suspense in it, it feels like something's going to happen. The reason why is because literally it's a sequence of can feel through its form [that it's] inherently like being on a train that has a destination...and that you're going to find something..."

                                                                — Ira Glass

(1a) Raise questions. Provide the "bait." The anecdote should raise a question right from the beginning. Implied in any question that you raise, however, is that you are going to answer it. Constantly raise questions and answer them. The shape of the story is that you are throwing out questions and answering them along the way.

(2) The moment of reflection. What is the key point? What does this all mean? Why have I asked you to sit and listen for 30 min, etc. It is not just a series of facts/events. Many people get the first part, they tell an interesting sequence of events, but in the end it fails because it doesn't say anything new, it did not have meaning. And sometimes people have the reflection part and the question is clear in their mind, but they fail to put it in a sequence that compels people to follow and engage.

In a good story you need both -- you can flip back and forth between the two. The Anecdote and the Moment of Reflection are interwoven to make a story.

Part 2 (on finding great stories...)
Here Ira is talking about the importance of editing and choosing, choosing even to decide to not do something (because it is not meeting your standards, etc.). The hardest thing can be deciding to cut and even abandon, but it must be done.


     "Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap."

                                                         — Ira Glass

Part 3 (on good taste, persevering...)
If you're going to do creative work, you may go through years of producing stuff that does not meet your own high standards. The way to get better is to keep you standards high and just keep doing a lot of work and getting a lot of experience. This applies to presentations too. Guy Kawasaki, for example, said that he used to be a terrible presenter when he was young. Today he's great, but it took years and lot's of experience.


Part 4 (on finding your own voice...)

Speaking in your own voice. Good advice applicable to live presentations or making podcasts, etc.

"Everything is more compelling when you talk like a human being, when you talk like yourself."
                                                                 — Ira Glass

So are there boring subjects?

Sure, some subjects may be sexier than others, but I don't buy the notion that there are necessarily boring presentation subjects. If you're presenting then there must be an important reason why you have been chosen to do so. If not, why on earth are you going to speak? If it's important, then what is the point in just getting through it and appearing effective when in reality the audience got nothing and remember even less?

Lecture Here's an example from my undergraduate days long ago: The most boring class I ever had in college was a course called Human Sexuality. I don't know how he did it, but the stuffy, boring, rambling lecturer managed to make the subject as dry as burnt toast. I received a final score of "B" for the class. "B"! Do you know how humiliating it is not to ace a class on sex? Yet, my Economics class — a so-called "boring topic" — was fascinating to me, largely because the lecturer was passionate about the topic (and showed it) and taught concepts and illustrated them with real stories and real examples. He also had a sense of humor. I liked the class and aced it even though when I registered for the class I hoped only just to "get by" and survive in what I thought would surely be a tediously dull, difficult subject. The moral of the story for me is that any subject can be boring and any subject can be quite interesting indeed, but no subject is necessarily either. Designing a story is not easy work, but it's worth it.

How to "lecture" and keep 'em engaged (PZ)
No excuses: There are no boring topics (PZ)
No excuse for tedium: Advice on giving technical presentations (PZ)
Dana Atchley: A Digital Storytelling Pioneer (PZ)
Lessons from the Cluetrain: Imperatives for presenters (PZ)

Making a presentation in 3 minutes

Ted I am a huge fan of TED and truly appreciate their efforts to share their presentations with the rest of the world. Here are a couple of very short TED presentations (only three minutes each) which you will enjoy. Both have good content, a simple and important message, and each presenter uses visuals that evoke emotions. The presentations are not perfect; I think you could offer up several tips to each of these brilliant men that would help them the next time they do a short presentation with visuals. Still, the short presentations provide another chance to learn. Let's look first at the presentation by Richard St. John, author of Stupid, Ugly, Unlucky and Rich: Spike's Guide to Success. (The title of chapter one of the book is "My Apologies for the Title). Watch the video below or here on the TED site.

Richard St. John: Why do people succeed?

Eight  Crap
Push  Mom

Spike Richard St. John's visuals complemented his talk pretty well. The simple graphics are the same ones used in his book. The playful nature of his visuals and his delivery are consistent with the look and feel of his book as well. The single biggest thing that would have improved his presentation is the use of a small remote so that he could keep his eyes on the audience and his hands and eyes off his PowerBook. The addition of a remote is a simple thing, yet it is the one change that makes a huge difference in one's ability to free themselves from the PC and the podium and connect with the audience.

Dean Ornish: The world now eats, lives and dies like [people] in the U.S.

Ornish Dr. Ornish's talk is at its best when he highlights the growing obesity problem using the US map. This kind of visual makes people sit up in their chairs and go "wow, this really is a growing problem!" Then the next image of the "devolution of humans" really hits home. The graphic makes people laugh, but they also get the seriousness of the problem (Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying). The audience got the doctor's message: (1) Diet and life-style are the leading cause of many cardiovascular diseases, (2) the problem in the US is getting worse not better,(3) the problem is spreading to other parts of the world as they abandon traditional diets, (4) an "Asian diet" is best for preventing many kinds of diseases, yet (5) other parts of the world are becoming as unhealthy as Americans. Watch his talk below or on the TED site here. Dr. Ornish is the author of several health books like this one.

The presentation would have been even better if the bullets were broken into several different visuals. It takes no more time to have three different visuals (slides) appear in order than it does to display a single slide with three bullet points.

Slide1   Slide2
You can easily imagine how the two slides above could be visually represented better in, say, six simple (and visual) slides that augmented the doctor's spoken word.

Us    Devolution
The doctor clearly got his message across while illustrating his point visually with these simple graphics.

Love thy competitor! (And it wouldn't hurt to say nice things about them either)

Steve_b An interview clip featuring an interview with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer giving his impressions on the Apple iPhone announcement has been generating a lot of buzz over the weekend. Many people who viewed the clip felt that Ballmer was "laughing at" Apple's latest product announcement. It was not really what he said (although there were some arguably misleading statements), but the way he responded (with a laugh) that to some came across as dismissive and disrespectful of a competitor (and in some cases a partner). Some felt the laughter, misleading comments, and dismissive tone were a case of "whistling in the dark." Other's felt it was a sign of either over confidence or fear. Of course, others felt his comments were fair and balanced and that the iPhone is indeed too expensive, etc. (Steve Ballmer comments on the iPhone in video below).

Should you say "nice things" about competitors?
I didn't find Steve Ballmer's response particularly egregious, though he did work hard to avoid talking about the company from Cupertino. I think his smile/laugh and other nonverbals were a sign of some discomfort with the question. Frankly, Ballmer reacted pretty much like I expected him to. I've become quite used to his talks about "capable products," and Microsoft's "agenda for driving synergy and unique innovations," etc. Nonetheless, I would have been flat-out blown away and quite impressed indeed if he had been complimentary of Apple instead of answering the question about the iPhone with a laugh about the price followed quickly by a commercial for Microsoft strategy. But it is the reaction to Ballmer's comments that I find so fascinating. It is the big response to Steve Ballmer's little comments got me thinking: Should you say "nice things" about competitors?

Good bloggers are like good presenters
Robert_1 I have said before that good presenting has many things in common with good blogging. The bloggers and corporate blogs, for example, that we trust are the ones that are not afraid to be "linky" and in fact often link to their competition or similar blogs, etc. Good bloggers operate from an "abundance mentality" rather than a "scarcity mentality." They are more concerned with being linky than being sticky. Readers trust a blog that happily points them to other cool and useful sites. Likewise, people respect someone who has enough confidence in themselves that they are not afraid to introduce you to others who are perhaps even more talented than themselves. Former Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble included this idea in his Corporate Blogging Manifesto:

"Link to your competitors and say nice things about them. Remember, you're part of an industry and if the entire industry gets bigger, you'll probably win more than your fair share of business and you'll get bigger too. Be better than your competitors -- people remember that. I remember sending lots of customers over to the camera shop that competed with me and many of those folks came back to me and said 'I'd rather buy it from you, can you get me that?'"                  
                                            — Robert Scoble

By putting a human face on the company, Robert did much to make Microsoft seem "less evil" in his three years with the company. Although he was a Microsoft employee and used and even loved many of its products, he also criticized the company and often praised its rivals. To many this made him more trustworthy that Bill, Steve B. or the Microsoft PR machine.

What about presentations?
How about in a presentation situation? If, for example, you admire a similar product from the competition, should you not say so if asked? If not, why not? If you flat out dismiss the competitor's product no one really believes you anyway as they realize you have a very obvious conflict of interest. However, if you can compliment the competition and be completely respectful of them, doesn't that give you more credibility when you later go on to say why your product/service absolutely kicks butt? Isn't it our job to explain how our product/service (or research results, etc.) is different and great on its own merits? I am not saying you should go out of your way to glorify the accomplishments of your competitor, but if the issue comes up in a live presentation, I personally have much more respect for the presenter who speaks in a tone that is respectful of the competitor.

Tom Peters: Loving your enemy is good business
Tom Peters had a great post in December about this very same issue. Tom's point? It's simply good business to embrace the competition and to help others in your field succeed:

"I think that when one badmouths one's competitors or tries to limit their activities, the 'word gets around.' And one develops a reputation as prickly and egocentric—and, well, as a selfish jerk."    
                                                 — Tom Peters

Management guru Tom Asaker took a little different take on this. Asaker said that the truly successful ones are too busy focusing on their own customers and products to even care much about the competition including "bad mouthing" them:

"The word competition literally means, 'seeking together,' and 'choosing to run in the same race.' Great people and great brands don't care about their competitors. They don't define themselves by competitive movements. They are simply not on the same track (mentally)."                           
— Tom Asacker

Japanese culture and humility
Bow_1 Many of the ideals of the way of the Samurai or Bushido (way of the warrior) are still very much a part of Japanese culture today. Yes, there are egotistical business people in Japan just as anywhere else, but it is generally considered very bad form to speak disparagingly about your competition or rivals. Good advice for presenting in Japan — and I think it applies globally — is not to speak ill of your competitor in a public forum. Perhaps you could get away with this if you are already well known and trusted, but if you are new and still in "the trust me phase," verbally disrespecting your rivals is a red flag for those evaluating your potential as a partner.

A dose of humility goes a long way
Only the ignoble (and foolish) man would disrespect an opponent, let alone publicly disrespect one's rival or competitor. If one bad mouths a competitor in Japan they shame not only themselves but the group to which they belong. One who speaks poorly of others is not to be trusted. Speaking ill of a competitor, especially a smaller one who may not (yet) be at your level, shows a lack of humility. A wise man (or woman) knows that "ten thousand things become my teacher." We can learn from anyone or anything if our eyes are not clouded by pride, arrogance, or fear. Once we think we have arrived, the old saying goes, we have already begun our descent to failure. Humility keeps us aware and grounded in the real world. Tenets of humility include respect, politeness, compassion, self-discipline, etc. When one remembers that there is no end to mastery — that one can and must be better the next day and the day after that (and the day after that) — then it is foolish indeed to ever look down one's nose to anyone, especially our rivals. Ultimately, the real rival is within us anyway.

Update: Yes, this goes for Apple too
My aim in pointing to the Steve Ballmer video was not to get into a whole Apple vs. MS thing, nor was my point really to criticize Ballmer (as if he were somehow the only CEO to dismiss the competition). My main point was to suggest rather that it is far better if we, in a similar situation, respond differently.

And yes, Steve Jobs (and other Apple execs) have recently taken some pretty good verbal jabs at Microsoft (e.g., ’06 Developers Conference). Those jabs play well to many in the Mac community, but I personally would rather they not make fun of Vista, Zune , etc. publicly. You could say that it is OK for them because they after all are the "David" to Microsoft's "Goliath." Apple is just a very odd company (mostly in a good way) and its products have a way of making users evangelical supporters. I mean what other tech company has attractive young women singing love songs for their products and putting them on YouTube? Nonetheless, I think keeping to the high road is always a good rule of thumb. The problem with Apple is that they may respect Microsoft's business expertise but do not respect Microsoft's ability to make insanely great products (see this older video for example). Maybe Jobs can simply remember what all our mother's told us: If you don't have anything nice to say about someone, say nothing at all. That's one I have to remember too.

Words matter, but the message is King

Sj We know that the greatest assembly of words in the world does not matter much if it does not register with the audience, if it is not meaningful to them. But what of the words and the sentences themselves? Does it matter how many "difficult" words you use, how long your sentences are, and so on? Words matter of course, but it is the message, the structure, the delivery, the story, the connection, etc. that matter more (usually). Still, Seattle PI has an interesting post comparing the recent keynotes by Steve Jobs at Macworld and Bill Gates (and Michael Dell) at CES using an analysis of their respective keynote transcripts.

The results are not particularly surprising, though frankly they are a bit meaningless. It's fun to look at the results (man, Gates sure did say "Windows" and "Vista" a lot, and Jobs sure said "iPhone" and "Phone" often...hardly surprising since that was the focus of the keynote). If you look at the average words per sentence, lexical density, number of words with three or more syllables, etc. then it appears Steve Jobs had a much simpler talk. So Jobs' popular presentation was so interesting, memorable, enjoyable, etc. because the language he used was relatively simple? Is there a correlation between simple, easy-to-understand language and impact on an audience? Most communication experts say to keep the language as simple as possible (but not too simple). Here are a few quotes on simplicity with regards to writing or speaking (go here for more):

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." — Thomas Jefferson

"The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words." — Hippocrates

"The trouble with so many of us is that we underestimate the power of simplicity." — Robert Stuberg

"Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind." — Cicero

"Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius-and a lot of courage-to move in the opposite direction." — Albert Einstein

Mlk_1 However, I can think of at least one popular speech that was easy to understand by a mass audience — it even moved a nation — but that is "more difficult" than the presentations by Jobs and Gates (and Dell) if one analyzed only the written transcripts. Obviously this is a long-winded way of me reminding you that today is the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr., the man behind one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history, "I Have a Dream." If you just read the transcript of Dr. King's speech you may be moved or you may not, but I don't know how anyone can watch the entire speech on video and not be absolutely blown away. It is indeed the meaning of the words and the importance of the content, but it is the power of the conviction and the sincerity of the delivery and the amazing connection Dr. King made with the people that makes this a legendary speech.

I hope you can take a few moments today and watch this video of the "I Have a Dream" (March on Washington) speech from 1963. The video is 17-minutes long. If you are short on time, please at least watch the last three minutes. Amazing.

Steve Jobs at Macworld: "We come from different worlds"

Steve_2 Steve Jobs gave one of his best Macworld keynotes Tuesday in San Francisco in spite of a very minor technical glitch — a clicker problem that he recovered from well — and a seven-minute snoozefest by one of his honorable guest speakers. I've broken my comments on Steve's latest keynote into at least two post. I will not comment on the content of the presentation except to say that Steve was smart to limit his keynote to essentially one topic, the new Apple iPhone. Many presenters fail before they even start because they include too much information or cover too many topics. This is true whether the presentation is a 90-minute Macworld keynote or a 5-minute status report. You can go deep or you can go wide; it's nearly impossible to do both well. Choosing what to focus on and completely letting go of the rest (for that moment at least) is one of the hardest things to do.

A Singularly boring presentation
As Steve Jobs often does in his Macworld keynotes, he asked execs from a few key corporate partners to come up on stage and say a few encouraging words. This year there were three. First up was Google's CEO, Dr. Eric Shmidt, followed soon after by Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang. A bit later Cingular CEO Stan Sigman took the stage. Both Schimdt and Yang were enthusiastic and energetic speakers who kept their comments upbeat, simple, and brief. When Stan Sigman came up on stage, however, the atmosphere soon changed. Stan Sigman strolled slowly across the stage, hands in his pockets, in a manner you might expect from, say, a legendary football coach from the SEC about to face the press before the big game. He spoke slowly with a friendly laid-back manner, and at first he spoke from the heart. Then the cue cards came out, the head went down, and it was all down hill after that.

Watch the Macworld keynote in Quicktime on the Apple website. (Go to the 1:34:40 mark in the video to watch Stan Sigman's speech, or catch Mr. Sigman's speech in this ten-minute clip on YouTube.)

Above: One of these presenters is not like the other. (Sometimes the nonverbal cues can tell you the whole story.)

How effective was Sigman's talk? One way to determine his effectiveness is to see what reporters covering the event live in San Francisco typed on their keyboards as they attempted to quickly summarize the key points as they occurred. Here's what the reporter for MacDailyNews pounded out on his laptop for each of the three guest speakers:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt takes stage: "If we merge the companies we can call it Applegoo, but you can actually merge without merging." Working well together...
Jerry Yang - Yahoo! - onstage: wants an Apple iPhone
Stan Sigman, CEO of Cingular, onstage... blah, blah, blah, and blah...

It's a bad sign when people summarize your speech in four "blahs." Here's how other news sites responded as the speech was occurring live:

Engadget: "Man this guy is a total snoozer...We've immediately dropped back into cue card keynote mode, stats on Cingular, stores, distribution, yada yada... Huzzah, he's off stage!"

MacUser: "...being treated to a very long and not particularly scintillating speech from Cingular's CEO."

Macobserver:  "His speech is painfully bad...."

Rex Hammock: "He introduces Stan Sigman who demonstrates how truly bad a CEO can blow a presentation by pulling out 4 x5 cards and reading the worst canned speech of all time — whoever at Cingular let this guy on the stage should be fired."

Shortly after the keynote ended, I received this note from Michael Amend, a PZ reader in Germany:

"Garr -- I'd like to point you to a remarkable event: the keynote of Apple introducing the iPhone. What makes it remarkable though is not the (unbelievable) product announced by Apple, but the incredible and noteworthy nosedive the overall performance took as soon as the CEO of Cingular, Stan Sigman, was on the stage...."

Even Seth Godin is wondering why Mr. Sigman was so unremarkable (or remarkably bad).

Just a case of "Old School" vs. "New School"?

StevenessAfter the Cingular CEO was done Jobs thanked him for his time on stage and then said that "We come from pretty different worlds..." Jobs was referring to the two very different industries that Apple and Cingular/AT&T come from. Yet Jobs could just as well have been talking about their two different communication styles as well. The approaches of Schimdt (Google) and Yang (Yahoo) were a good fit with Jobs' style. Having the Cingular CEO follow those three Silicon Valley fat cats provided quite the juxtaposition in communication styles...and it was not pretty.

Stev_stan I am tempted to call this the difference between "old school" business presentations (stiff, dull, cue-cards, etc.) and "new school" business presentations (passionate, interesting, conversational, etc.). But that would be a mistake because what seems like a "new school" approach is really not new at all. And what appears to be merely a conservative "old school" approach has never been recommended. Even Aristotle, for example, thought a presentation (speech) was effective only if it connected with the audience at a visceral level. Emotion (pathos) was one of the necessary conditions for an effective speech.

On using notes
Dale_carnegie Reading from notes like Mr. Sigman did on stage is usually a very bad idea. Abraham Linc
oln warned against using notes. "They always tend to tire and confuse the listener," he said. Another "old timer," 20th century communication guru Dale Carnegie, preached against the very same mistakes made by the Cingular CEO. Carnegie's advice from the 1930s is not new but it's as valuable today as it ever was. For example, Carnegie listed the following dangers to using notes (cue cards) in front of your audience (from page 62 of Public Speaking for Success):

Notes destroy fifty percent of the interest in your talk.

Notes prevent contact and intimacy with the audience.
Notes create and air of artificiality.
Notes make the speaker look less confident, less powerful.
Make lots of notes in the preparation of your talk, but use them only in the event of a total emergency.
If you must use notes make sure the audience does not see them. That is, "...endeavor to hide your weakness from the audience."

At any time Steve can glance at the current slide (large monitors) and the next slide (smaller monitors). In this way the slides on screen are visuals for the audience and the same image on the monitor are cues for the presenter. If you know your material well this is actually not difficult to pull off smoothly. Demoing is a different animal, however. In the case of a demo, it is a good idea to have notes to yourself (which the audience can not see) to keep you on track so you do not leave something out. These are not notes about how to use the product (you surely know that or you would not be on stage) but rather on the what's next or "don't forget to show this," etc. Steve referred to notes at various times while demoing, but you could hardly tell unless you were watching for it (most people are looking at the screen during a demo). Spymac has high-rez pictures of the demo "cue cards" used by Steve at Macworld. (Thanks André).

Does it really matter?

Stan_sigmanYou might say it does not really matter. So he's a boring speaker, that does not mean he's a bad CEO, right? Of course not. Stan Sigman is surely a smart, talented man, and a nice guy to boot. He may indeed be a model CEO, but he certainly is not a model public speaker. Mr. Sigman does not yearn to be in the public eye nor does he fancy himself a great communicator. "I would rather show what I can do rather than talk about what I can do," he said in an older interview. Fair enough, but don't business leaders also have to be great communicators? I respect his no-nonsense approach to the job, but killer presentation skills is not a frivolous thing. It matters.

My only point in highlighting his short speech was to show what the rest of us must never ever do. Like it or not, our customers, employees, and colleagues judge us in part on our ability to stand and deliver a successful talk. Stan Sigman's performance was a wonderful textbook example of what not to do. We must find our own voice and our own style, of course, but we must never make the same mistakes made by Mr. Sigman.

Most Apple customers did not know who Stan Sigman was before Tuesday. Now they know, and the first impression was not a great one. The difference in communication styles between the two CEOs is indeed worlds apart. According to an article from Reuters, this has some just a bit worried. (Below: excerpt from Will iPhone spark tech civil war? on the CNN International page). stiffly from a script, pausing awkwardly to consult notes. By contrast, the silver-tongued Jobs wore his trademark black turtleneck and faded blue jeans...Jobs is one of the best showmen in corporate America, rarely glancing at scripts and quick with off-the-cuff jokes.

Business experts say such contrasts may extend to the broader corporate cultures of Apple and AT&T, straining the tight collaboration needed to launch such a significant product.

"When you try to put together two companies with very different operating styles, you open up a Pandora's box for executives to miscommunicate or disagree," said Charles O'Reilly III, Stanford University professor of management.

I hope the Apple and Cingular/AT&T deal is a match made in heaven and that the iPhone is a smash hit (I think it will be). But Stan Sigman did not do anything on stage at Macworld that made me feel more confident about the deal, in fact, if anything I feel less confident. And who says presentation does not matter?

Next: "Jobs, Gates, and Burns." Until then, see Bert Decker's blog for more on the Steve Jobs keynote. Also checkout this post called "Who advised Stan?" on DC-Connect.

CNN's Richard Quest: world traveller and presenter extraordinaire

Richard_garr Last week CNN's Richard Quest was in town filming for the December episode of the CNN Business Traveller show to air in mid December. I was invited to join Richard along with a Canadian expat executive and one of his Japanese staff for the filming of an interview over lunch downtown. It was fun and a real pleasure to have lunch with Richard and swap stories (his are better). If I had any lingering illusions that the life of an international TV news anchor was all "fun and glamour" those have been completely
dispelled now. What Richard does is a lot of work. The entire process of filming the lunch took about two hours, and while Richard and the CNN crew were very friendly and even funny, the filming was a very serious, focused affair.

Richard_table I have admired Richard's unique abilities as a TV presenter for years. In my book, he's one of the best. Richard's voice, style, and delivery does not appeal to everyone, but it appeals to me. Frankly, if no one hates your style (or your product, brand, company, etc.) then probably no one is a big fan either. There is a high price to pay for being average. In any event, I could not let this opportunity go by with out asking this world-famous presenter his tips on making a live business presentation or speech. So, during some of the breaks in filming I asked Richard what he would say to a group of business people hoping to improve their presentation skills. He was very keen to give me a thoughtful answer and went on in detail for quite some time in spite of the hectic schedule. Sure, nothing he said is necessarily new to you or me, but it means a lot to hear it coming from someone of his experience and talent. Below is a summary of some of the tips he shared with me in our conversation.

• It's a performance. Like it or not, he said, if you are giving a speech or a presentation, you are performing. Of course, people like Richard are at an advantage compared to the rest of us, he admitted, since he does this for a living. Still, it is useful for all presenters to remember that they are, for that moment when they have the floor at least, performers.

• You've got to grab 'em by the grapes...
Richard was adamant, animated, and colorful about this tip. Forget the thank yous and small talk at the beginning, you can work that in later he said. At the start you immediately have to grab them and bring them in. Many people he said start their presentations off weakly, meekly. Open with a bang and remember to end your talk by tying the big finish back in with that dynamic opening.

• Engage your audience. Ask questions, look them in the eye, get them involved.

• Slow down, you are in control. This is your show, your stage. Use your voice to emphasize certain crucial points. Don't just rush through talking points, etc.

• Pay close attention to your audience. Have some empathy for your audience. If they are not getting it or if it becomes clear that you have prepared too much or the wrong material, then switch gears, cut it short, whatever the situation calls for. Good presenters can read the nonverbal cues and act accordingly.

• Tell stories, give plenty of examples.
You don't have to make 14 points. Make a single big point. Most people try to include too much information not too little.

Richard_auckland Again, this is nothing you have not heard presentation experts recommend before. Still, it was good to hear it, not from a presentations coach or consultant, but simply from someone in the field who has made quite a name for himself in broadcasting based largely on solid speaking skills, among his other talents. And in case you were wondering, yes Richard really does talk like that even over lunch when the cameras are off, although his presence and intensity increase just a notch when the cameras are rolling. I think Richard is a great guy and certainly one of the most dynamic and popular anchors on CNN. I'm honored to have had the chance to spend some time with him while he was in Osaka.

You can watch a sample video segment from Richards show from the CNN Business Traveller website. Look under "On The Show" on the right side of the page.
Richard Quest's blog.

Presentations and Word of Mouth Marketing

Womm_book Over the weekend I read my review copy of Andy Sernovitz's Word of Mouth Marketing. I loved it. If you are an entrepreneur, business student, business leader, or involved with marketing on any level, this is a must read. This book is a good complement to other books I have read on the topic such as The Tipping Point and many of the books by Guy Kawasaki or Seth Godin, etc. Overall I think Andy Sernovitz does a very good job of nailing down this often-misunderstood idea of Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM). There is nothing really new about the idea of WOMM, Sernovitz says, but what is different today is that because of easy-to-use internet tools WOMM is more plannable, actionable, and trackable. The internet has made things easier and made word of mouth more powerful, but as the author points out, most word of mouth still happens off-line.

Here's Sernovitz's definition of WOMM:

"Giving people a reason to talk about your stuff *and* making it easier for that conversation to take place."

In other words, Says Sernovitz, WOMM is "...everything you do to get people talking."

WOMM is about joining the conversation and participating *with* the market (your customers, community, groupies, etc.) not just talking *at* them. If Word of Mouth Marketing is about participation and conversations, then, obviously there is a potential for presentations of all types to play a large part in that mix. Of course, you have your sales presentations, your executive speeches, trade show demos, etc. Those are important. But there are many other ways presentations can be used to promote your brand, even if you're a one-man/-woman firm and that brand is YOU (in fact, WOMM is especially important if you're on your own).

Presentation opportunities outside the usual channel
Cow_slide So besides the usual sales presentation route, look for opportunities to make presentations and speeches in your local community, at schools, universities, conferences, etc. about something you have expert knowledge in. Look for opportunities to "give it away" freely without expectations for anything in return except the good feeling that you get from teaching or sharing something you believe in or care about. If you make a presentation worth talking about, even if it was not specifically about your product or company, this reflects well on your organization and your brand. In fact, because you volunteer your time to "give it away" and share your time without a sales pitch, your audience may find your time with them even more memorable and worthy of discussion.

Get them talking or get them signing on the dotted line?
When you volunteer to present and teach, share, inspire, etc. with no motive except to be in that moment and do your honest, transparent best for the benefit of that particular audience, the result is often actually more "sales" for your "stuff" in the long run. The traditional way of thinking of marketing and your customers is to "get them to sign on the line which is dotted!" But in many cases — especially when we're talking about WOMM — it is not always about getting people to sign on the dotted line.

Doing it wrong
Talkabout Here's an example of doing it wrong. A few years ago I attended a computer user group meeting in Osaka. The group agreed to give representatives from a large wholesaler a chance to talk up their grand opening at the end of the meeting. They were given 15 minutes. When they took the stage they said they brought membership registration forms and were hoping to get a lot of user group members to signup on the spot. They made this request about one minute into their presentation. When the audience showed no interest in signing up on the spot (one can always signup at the store in future) the presentation stalled. Their approach was awkward and ill-prepared. They clearly thought they could just show up and let the famous wholesaler name speak for itself. It was clear that they were there to get bodies to sign on the dotted line. But there was no passion in their voice and they could not explain what made the store so cool. What's worse is that they were visibly disappointed that no one signed up. Because their only measure of success was "to get people to sign on the spot" rather than to tell their story and get the conversation going, to make connections, and participate in that conversation, they wasted a great opportunity. Their presentation should have been the start of the conversation and the start of a relationship, but they looked at the talk as a chance to pitch, sign, and bring the conversation to a close...and move on to the next target.

Doing it right
Here's an example of doing it right. Last year a buddy of mine, a successful entrepreneur in Japan, gave a free presentation for my design group about what it was like to design and open a new high-end café in the city. It was quite an interesting ordeal with valuable business and design lessons for the audience. He prepared a highly visual, well-planned presentation that was entertaining and educational. At the end of his talk he also gave out nicely wrapped samples of his teas and sweets to every member of the audience.  Although he surely made some new customers that night, he never tried to sell or talk up his cafes. He told his story and made a connection, but he was not making a pitch. There is a time for pitching, of course, but when you're presenting in the spirit of sharing and "giving it away" anything resembling an infomercial undermines credibility. In this case the presenter's credibility went up...and so did the buzz surrounding his product.

Make it easy for people to talk about you
Makeiteasy A point Sernovitz makes in the book is that we must make it easy for people to talk about us (i.e., our firm, our brand,, etc.). For example, Apple gives registered Apple User Group leaders access to many free tools such as downloadable Keynote presentations that they can use to give live talks in their communities (though Apple does not do nearly as well as they could with the user groups these days, but that's another story for another day). What makes groups like Apple user groups so special is that their word is more credible than the company's largely because they do not profit personably from endorsing the products they so enthusiastically use. "Happy customers are your best advertising. Make people happy," says Sernovitz.

The idea of "giving it away" or "pooping" (a term borrowed from Guy Kawasaki) is a key philosophy to embrace in an era when customers do not believe advertising and do not want to be sold to. Customers, as Sernovitz says, prefer to listen to and get their advice from "people like me." There are many ways for companies, organizations, and entrepreneurs to get closer to their markets and engage with them in a real, honest, genuine human voice. Taking advantage of speaking opportunities and volunteering to "get out there" (where it's risky) and make presentations and have conversations is just one very small part of Word of Mouth Marketing.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Manifesto
At the beginning of chapter three Sernovitz lists twelve points in his WOMM Manifesto. These four below are good to keep in mind when you're mulling over the idea of going "out there" to present naked in your community.

   • Negative word of mouth is an opportunity. Listen and learn.
   • People are already talking. Your only option is to join the conversation.
   • Be interesting or be invisible.
   • If it's not worth talking about, it's not worth doing.

Guy Kawasaki's post on the WOMM book
PZ post on spreading the word
Word of mouth Marketing Association

Bam! Boom! Onomatopoeia!

Bam_1 Onomatopoeia is not a word you use everyday, yet hardly a day goes by that we don't use several onomatopoeic words and phrases in daily conversation. Onomatopoeia refers to words that imitate the sound they represent such as "kerplunk" or "boing" in English or "doki doki" in Japanese. We might not hear onomatopoeic words used in formal written speeches so often, but we certainly hear them used in everyday conversation. I am not a linguist (so please chime in if you are one; love to hear from you) but perhaps this is one reason why informal "naked presentations" or good impromptu or extemporaneous speeches are often more interesting or engaging than speeches which are merely read word for word from a script. In the U.S., celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse is famous for punctuating his presentations — in his case entertaining cooking demos — with the onomatopoeic phrase "Bam!". Emeril's use of "Bam!" is well documented and has become a signature of sorts for him. I do not have a video of him actually using "Bam!" but this promo video for his show gives you an idea of his presentation style on the show. Of course, this guy was know for this onomatopoeic phrase long before Emeril.

Boom I knew of Emeril's "Bam!" but was unaware of Steve Jobs' "Boom!" I had never noticed that Jobs peppered his speech with "Boom!" in his demos, though I certainly have noted here many times that his tone is almost always informal and conversational. Jobs is using the onomatopoeic word, probably unconsciously, to emphasize the quickness of a process or the ease of a task: "Step one, step two, and Boom! — There it is!" At other times Jobs seems to use "Boom!" as a kind of "voilà!" or "presto!" or "ta-da!"

There is really nothing educational about this post of mine today. I just thought you would enjoy watching Steve Jobs say "Boom!" in myriad ways. So there you have it — boom! Enjoy the video below:

Onomatopoetic English-Japanese Dictionary

Bill Clinton and the art of speaking in a "human voice"

Good presenters are like good bloggers — both speak "in a human voice." Those who speak in a human voice are not afraid to show some emotion. Good presenters emphasize logic, reasoning, and evidence, but they never forget that both they and their audience members are emotional beings. What got me thinking about this (again) was a post on my buddy Sebastiano Mereu's blog. Seabastiano has a video of Bill Clinton laughing it up at the podium with Boris Yeltsin in 1996. As Dan Pink points out in A whole New mind, true laughter can have an amazing impact. Says Pink,

"Laughter is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys empathy and that is even more contagious than the yawn..."
                                                — Dan Pink

This video clip below is a true example of that. I have shown this clip to a few groups now and each time it causes the room to crack up.

Bill Clinton and the art of the connection

No matter your political leanings or what part of the world you may be from, there is no denying that former US President Bill Clinton is one of the most gifted communicators on the planet. There are many reasons why Mr. Clinton is so effective at the podium. Some of the aptitudes that make him so effective are his engaging, "naked," human style, his verbal presentation of clear logic and evidence, as well as his solid storytelling skills such as providing clear examples and painting pictures with his words. Whether it is a speech or an interview, he comes across as articulate and extremely intelligent but without being aloof or pedantic. His style is his own. I am not suggesting you copy his approach or his style, but I am suggesting that you speak in your own natural "in a human voice."

Ideas matter. Evidence matters. Thinking and reasoning matter.
Last week Mr. Clinton gave a speech at his alma mater Georgetown University. You can watch the entire speech in QuickTime on the Georgetown website or watch an excerpt below on YouTube. Here you'll find the transcripts of the talk as well as a link to a longer YouTube version.

What I like here is Clinton's style of speaking from notes rather than reading. The notes keep him on target yet allow him to speak from the heart in "a human voice" while giving many short stories and examples along the way. Those interested in debate or politics, etc. may be interested in the content of the Georgetown talk. As my undergraduate degree was in Philosophy, I am particularly fond of this quote:

"We believe in a politics...dominated by evidence and argument. There is a big difference between a philosophy and an ideology on the right or the left. If you have a philosophy, it generally pushes you in a certain direction or another. But like all philosophers, you want to engage in discussion and argument. You are open to evidence, to new learning. And you are certainly open to debate the practical applications of your philosophy."

"The problem with ideology is if you got an ideology, you already got your mind made up, you know all the answers, and that makes evidence irrelevant and argument a waste of time, so you tend to govern by assertion and attack. The problem with that is that discourages thinking and gives you bad results."
— Bill Clinton

Keeping your cool under fire
Take a look at this short interview between a Fox News interviewer and Mr. Clinton. After the interview the media focused on Clinton's irritation, characterizing Clinton as being "furious" and of "losing it" and "having a complete meltdown." So I watched the entire interview to see what all the fuss was about. But I could not see any evidence of a man letting his emotions (anger) getting the best of him. Yes, he got emotional, but did he "have a complete meltdown"? The loaded question was designed to provoke. “Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were president?” he asked. This question assumes guilt and is a very different question than, say, "Do you think you did enough?" or "What would you have done differently?" etc. Clinton clearly was not happy with the implied assumption of guilt in the reporter's question (among other things) and he showed his emotions. He's human (what a shock!). But he also gave lucid, clear logical answers. Frankly, I was amazed he could remain so articulate, frank, and informative while being clearly provoked. Watch the interview and decide for yourself. The majority of the interview is in the two parts below:

Clinton interview part I

Clinton interview part II

The sad thing is that the American media did not focus on the content of Clinton's answers, only the "fact" that he "went nuts." Jon Stewart provides some perspective on the fox interview (see the video) as does an editorial piece on MSNBC (see the video).

Jerry Weissman has a great book and DVD with useful tips for keeping your cool under fire. Many of Weisman's video examples are from the world of Washington politics. If you like examining the good and the bad communication styles of US political figures, you may enjoy Weissman's DVD, In The Line of Fire (the book has the same title).

Finally, you may enjoy this Bill Clinton interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show from a few weeks ago. Bill Clinton is truly one of the great, engaging "presenters" of our time.

Grande Presentazione Italiana

Marco_1 I received a note the other day from Marco MontemagnoBlogosfere CEO. Marco shared a recent 10-minute presentation he made in Italy on the evolution of blogging there. Marco told me he was inspired by the Presentation Zen website and mixed in the methods of Dick Hardt, Lawrence Lessig and even a little "Takahashi Method."  I'd say there is a little "Jobsian Method" in there as well. Even if you do not speak Italian, you will enjoy this presentation. This is a highly visual presentation with a good mix of images, simple (big) text, animation, and video. And Marco is obviously a personable figure. My friend and band mate Sebastiano ("Sebi") Mereu, an Italian living in Switzerland (currently in Japan), watched this presentation with me. Sebastiano said the presentation was exellent and could have been even better with 12-13 minutes rather than 10. "The information was great, the slides were informative and funny, and his voice was good. I have to admit, we Italians tend to speak fast without stopping anywhere, and Marco covered a lot of info in 10 minutes. Do it in 12 minutes with a little more variation in tempo and stress and it would have been even more awesome!" (See the video.)

For those who do not speak Italian
If you do not speak Italian, then you may want to read
these summary notes (pdf) from the talk. A big thank you to Sebi for jotting down these notes while listening to the presentation. There may be some typos or some small errors in there, but this is just to give you a better idea of Marco's verbal message. Obviously his vocal and visual you can pick up on pretty well.

(Speaking of Italy, an Italian business student of mine did a great presentation (in English) in the Apple Store a while back on the issue of color, design, and brand identity in Italy and Japan.)

Beppe Grillo (In English and Italian)
Marco Montemagno's blog