Beginnings and ends

Every presentation starts at the beginning and stops at the end. Unless it doesn’t. Like most presentations. (Yours?)

I mean, of course, every presentation starts and stops at some point but that doesn‘t mean that it has a beginning or an ending. It just starts and stops. It goes from the middle of somewhere to the middle of nowhere while delivering a host of facts that may or may not lead anywhere.

To see what I mean, let’s revisit what beginning and end really means. So, let’s take a step back.

Every presentation that’s necessary is about change – about changing the minds of your audience. You might need the board of directors to acknowledge a strategic problem. You might want your customers to buy your product. You might want to inspire your employees to understand where the company is going …

Whatever your change is, to make it happen you need the people in your audience to see the world differently after your presentation than before. It’s this difference that determines the beginning and end of your presentation. When the audience enters the room, they have one worldview and after the talk they have another. You pick them up at one point – the beginning – and guide them to another – the end.

It follows immediately that the beginning of your presentation isn’t about you (your CV, your company history, your achievements, organizational structure, portfolio or whatever) but about the audience. It’s not about where you are coming from but where your audience is coming from. Your audience needs to feel: She’s talking about me. This is where I’m at.

That’s the beginning – and it’s in stark contrast to the starting point of most presentations which is all about the presenter.

The end of your presentation is the point at which the change is achieved. It’s when your audience feels: “This is who I want to become. This is where I want to go. This will be me.” It’s the point of no return for your audience. They can’t unsee what you’ve made them see.

The thing is, only when you know your beginning and end can you become the guide that takes your audience from where they are to where they want to be.

Sales is all about action

… and action results from thoughts.

Presentations are about changing thoughts and therefore, if done well, presentations are a great tool to move people to take action.

Obviously, the difficult part is to find – and then change – the thoughts that trigger the action. Understanding this relationship informs us about where to start:

What do your customers do currently? What action should they take? Why would they want to? Why don’t they already? What needs to change so that they will? How can we make them see it? Even better: feel it? …

These are much more powerful questions for a sales pitch than to start with a list of all your product features that your audience already knows from your sales brochure but didn’t act on.

The Bay effect

In 2014, director Michael Bay had one of the most devastating performances on a big stage. In a Samsung press conference he totally lost it. It was heartbreaking to watch. He lost it so thoroughly that his lizard brain kicked in with a flight reaction. He literally fled from the stage after about a minute into his appearance.

What had happened? Bay was supposed to endorse Samsungs new curved TVs. Apparently, he had been instructed to just read the text from the teleprompter. But he missed a line. So he got off script and tried to improvise. But he totally failed to do so. This made him feel so embarrassed that his lizard brain commanded him to hide from further embarrassment.

Looking at the scene once again, it makes sense. Bay was trying to act as if he cared for the TVs. Saying words he didn’t believe in on a cause he didn’t believe in. But, he really didn’t care. It wasn’t his words. It was the marketing department’s words. It wasn’t his cause. It was Samsung’s. And that’s why he really couldn‘t improvise. Since he had nothing to say he didn’t know how to say it.

While that’s certainly an extreme example, it’s a similar pattern that we can observe with lots of leaders who feel uncomfortable on a big stage. It’s when they say words that someone told them “sound good” rather than say words that truly matter to them.

The Bay effect is what happens when you try to use “marketing speak” that makes things sound cool rather than speak about the things that actually are cool in words that are truly yours and come natural to you. Once I change this for my clients, time and again it’s the pivoting moment where they start to feel comfortable speaking about the things that matter to them even in front of the largest audiences.

Here’s the video from Michael Bay’s performance:

The Lucy approach

Charlie Brown knew it every time. Yet, next time he bought Lucy’s trick regardless. Every. Single. Time. It’s heartbreaking to see. We wanna shout: “Noooooooo!” We want to shake Charlie.

The Lucy approach is devilish. It’s one promise broken after another. And again. And again. But because Lucy’s joy in pranking Charlie Brown is limitless, her effort is as well. Her eloquence in tricking him once again is off the charts.

The Lucy approach is built on a deep sense for what resonates with Charlie.

It‘s the same art and craft that gets salespeople of the Lucy-style the deal. They substitute Charlie with their customers and they have limitless joy in tricking them into the deal, not really caring for what happens thereafter.

Of course, one of the things that Lucy’s approach doesn’t earn you is trust. In fact, it erodes trust. Drip by drip. Time after time. And that is the reason why your effort will never decrease. Either you’ll need to find new customers over and over again. Or you’ll need to trick the existing ones ever more creatively.

And that’s the irony. While the Lucy approach might be fun – and likely a lot easier to get you quick wins, it’s so much more tedious in the long run.

While communication that’s built on trust gets easier each time you use it, the Lucy approach gets harder each time you try it.

The fear of focus

The fear of focus is the fear that the thing you would focus on isn’t enough.

That people would want more. And that you cannot leave out this aspect and certainly not that one.

So, you broaden your focus because if you actually left this out or that, then someone might complain.

And that’s probably true. Some people would complain.

As they always do. Yet, more often than not, it’s the colleagues who complain. Not the audience.

Audiences love focus. They love clarity. They love being able to get you.

Don’t be afraid of focus. Be afraid of lack of focus.

The 2nd priority

… is the reason why we don’t accomplish our 1st priority.

Get a good price and get the deal at all cost. Grow your business and spend more time with the family. Few production errors and the cheapest product.

As soon as we have a 2nd priority, the 1st priority isn’t a priority any more. It’s become one of two (or more) constraints. The more constraints we have, the more likely it is that we have to compromise on any of these constraints.

The same is true in communication. As soon as you have two (or more) goals for your presentation, for your meeting, for your speech, you’ll probably have to compromise on either.

Let’s say it straight: The 2nd priority is the reason we don’t go full steam on our 1st priority. Better to focus on one priority and handle any other constraints as exactly that: constraints.

Try harder?

Some skills can be improved by just practicing long enough. Let’s take running. Basically, the longer you run, the longer you will be able to run (within certain limits, of course).

Communicating is different. Your communication skills won’t improve by talking longer. In fact, the opposite might take you a much longer way. Try using fewer words to say the same thing and magic happens.

Clarity is valued a lot by our audiences. But it is probably the most underpracticed skill for speakers.

But what’s it called?

… because unless it has a name, it’s hard to talk about it.

A name is a shortcut that stands for the 15 minutes it took you to describe your idea. It’s just hard to talk about the idea that works this way and that way and that requires this and that prerequisite so that under the assumption of X we get Y and so on and so forth …

The idea is much easier to pass along when it has a name. People are much more likely to tell someone of the “Raging Barbie” project than they are to go through the hassle of explaining them 20 minutes of details behind the project.

The greatest names, of course, are those that tell the story of your idea in one or two words.

The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge is a fancy name for the phenomenon that we can’t imagine what it would be like if we didn’t knew what we know. Go ahead, try it! What’s it like to not know what a variable is?

It’s impossible. And that’s the reason why the Curse of Knowledge is so dangerous. It hides behind a feeling of clarity inside. Yet, for an outsider, what appears clear to ourselves might be totally confusing.

The Curse of Knowledge leads us to use technical terms without explaining them, to use acronyms and abbreviations that our audiences aren’t familiar with, or to just assume that our audiences know the background of an incident when, in fact, they don’t.

The problem when we don’t fight the Curse of Knowledge is that we waste everyone’s time with figuring out what we mean. Yet, that’s common practice. In a lot of settings, people are just ok with communication that lacks clarity. Somehow, it seems acceptable to have the audience figure out what it all means.

Great speakers set themselves apart by not settling with this. Great speakers have figured out how to speak with clarity so they can overcome the Curse of Knowledge. Rather than have their audiences invest the time to figure it out, they themselves invest the time to figure out how to speak with clarity.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz