From bad to good to great speakers

What separates a good teacher from a bad one? Here’s Keith Johnstone’s take – one of the pioneers of improvisational theatre:

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.

The same applies to speaking in general.

What’s interesting is this: Whether you are a good or a bad speaker in Johnstone’s sense is not so much about whether your audience liked your presentation. You can give exciting speeches and still destroy your audience. For example, you can point in the right direction and at the same time discourage to follow it. You can speak in a motivating way and your audience feels pumped after your speech, yet can’t put it into action and feels bad because of it.

The important question to ask is in what way are Taylor and Casey and Kim transformed by your speech. Do they see the world with different eyes? Can they act upon what you made them see? Can they do it on their own?

This is what separates good from great speakers. Good speakers make their audience see. Great speakers enable, even empower their audience. Bad speakers, on the other hand, do not just waste their audiences’ time. They crush the audience by misleading them and treating them with ignorance.

How can you move your audience to action? How can you empower them?

Tips to conquer the fear of public speaking

Here are a few tips if fear of public speaking is holding you back from achieving your goals:

First thing I’d ask you is this: How much do you practice? Because what often happens when people are afraid of doing something, they also hide from practicing. Yet, practicing is among the most effective ways of countering anxiety. Because the more you practice, the more often your brain recognises: “Oh, this didn’t hurt, actually.” And then you can extend this by imagining you standing in front of an audience. Do this as vividly as possibly and as often as possible. Think of it as watching a movie of yourself doing the speech. Do everything like you would do it live, only in your imagination. The more often you do this, the more you’ll get used to it.

Second thing I’d ask is this: Are you saying what you mean? Or did you prepare some “artificial speech” which is not really what you want to say but some form of how “one speaks in public”. If what you say doesn’t feel right, then this will reinforce anxiety. On the other hand, just saying what you mean (and don’t even thinking about using slides) frees a lot of people of the chains they felt when sticking to a script. So, in a way, just speak from your heart. Presenting really means talking to people. It’s just that you are the one talking a bit more than the others. In fact, in a way, I do believe that the most satisfying speeches are the ones where you feel like being part of a conversation.

Third, I’d suggest to look out for every opportunity there is to speak (or rather, talk to a group of people). First, do it in small groups. Look consciously at how you act among a group of friends. How do you speak there? Then try to transfer this to when you are the one doing the talking. On a birthday, say a few words to thank the guests and what it means to you. Pick every possibility there is. If there’s a Toastmaster’s close by (find one), go there. It’s an excellent and very forthcoming community that is there to help you. It’s a great atmosphere where you can practice “in private” while getting lots of encouragement.

(PS: feel free to drop me a note for a personal conversation and setting up a safe space.)

Reading list 2020

Here’s a list of books I enjoyed recently which you might find useful as a communicator: four novels loosely arranged around the topic of empathy, three non-fiction books on ideas and how they spread and one essay on silence and where to find it.

Novels around empathy

In Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan drags us into an alternative reality where robots have become largely indistinguishable from humans (e.g. they pass the Turing test). It’s a great exploration into the boundaries of rationality, morality and emotions. (deutsch: Maschinen wie ich)

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells explores how we become who we are and how our experiences stand in the way of understanding others as well as our true self. (deutsch: Vom Ende der Einsamkeit)

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a phenomenal exploration into how we form our realities and how who we want to be has a huge impact on how we act and in turn how others perceive us. (deutsch: Die Lügnerin)

The Rosie Result is the conluding third book of the Rosie series by Graeme Simsion. The final part of the series sees eccentric genetics professor Don Tillman live with his eccentric son and along the way understand profound truths about himself. The book is an important look into how fragile the boundaries between different, special, and weird can be. (deutsch: Das Rosie Resultat)

Ideas – where they come from, how they spread, and how they spread

Where Good Ideas Come From is a fascinating read by Steven Johnson and investigates how to build yourself an environment in which great ideas thrive. (deutsch: Wo gute Ideen herkommen)

Contagious by Jonah Berger examines how ideas spread. If you need to make your ideas go viral, this books has some interesting findings.

Made to Stick by Dan & Chip Heath is one of my favorite books on communication for more than a decade. It explains what makes great ideas stick in the minds of your audience.

Silence

Silence by Erling Kagge makes a striking case for the power of silence and how you don’t need silent surroundings to find inner silence. Highly recommended. (deutsch: Stille)

The future, now!

Many people think of pitching as the act of selling an idea or a product. It’s not. Because pitching is not about you making a profit. It’s about the other party making an even greater profit. The more they benefit, the better! Pitching is the act of selling the future.

When my wife and I sold our first license in the US toy market, we left out everything that most people would consider the core of a pitch: no praise, no cheering, no profit forecasts. All we did when we pitched the product was to spark imagination. We crafted a story that made our partners visualise how they could turn our idea into a profit. We made them see the final product. We made them see children wanting that product. We made them see people falling in love with the product. We pulled the future into the present by having them visualise their future profits by looking at our present idea.

How can you shift your perspective from what you want to what they desire? How can you make them visualise the future now? What will using your products or investing in your idea mean for them?

(PS: “The Art of Pitching” is now open for the public. We’ll craft the story for your pitch. A few sessions are still available in June, but hurry, they are selling fast.)

Fixed worldviews

When we listen to someone, a basic process that happens in our brains (in very simplified terms) is that we compare what we hear with what we know and then – if necessary – adapt.

Yet, there are two extremes in how people do this:

On the one extreme are people who fit what they hear to what they know. These people will default to adapt new information to confirm what they already believe. If people like this believe that their business partner is cheating on them, everything they learn about that new deal will reinforce this perspective.

On the other extreme are people who fit what they know to any new information. These people will frequently adapt what they believe to new information. If an “expert” offers them her opinion, they will frequently adapt this as a fact.

Both, of course, have an utter deficit in critical thinking. The former judge any information by their existing worldview – it’s what ideologies are made of. The latter shy away from trusting their own assessment and avoid any judgement of their own.

What’s surprising at first sight (at least to some) is that the former group is just as easy to manipulate as the latter. Demagogues excel at this. They manipulate their followers by attaching to people’s beliefs. Knowing that these people will approve of anything that reinforces their worldviews, demagogues craft their story in a way that does exactly that.

The way to react to this is not by trying to convince these people that their worldview is wrong. They will dismiss any attempt at this simply because their worldviews are closed. Any new information will be judged against these worldviews. The way to react – probably the only one – is to acknowledge their worldview, understand it on a deeper level, and then – if possible – attach to it in a way they can approve. You need to speak their language, give them a feeling of being heard and seen and of being in control.

As someone being capable of critical thinking, ask yourself: What’s right from their perspective? Why do they believe what they believe? What might have led them to believe it? What do they really care about on a deeper level? What are they afraid of? How can I acknowledge their fears? What would need to be true for them to accept a fact or a point of view while staying true to what matters to them?

It’s easy to dismiss different perspectives. It’s easy to laugh at people who just seem to not get it. It’s easy to rant about this or that worldview. But it doesn’t help very much. It’s much more helpful to acknowledge different perspectives, try to understand them, and act accordingly – not by manipulating but by offering a balanced, ethical perspective to attach to.

Who’s gonna decide?

When you have an awesome product, it’s tempting to decide for your customer. To just assume that if only your audience knew what you know it would be a no-brainer to choose you, right? And so it’s no wonder that many communicators act as if the information itself was a good enough reason to choose you.

It’s not.

It’s not sufficient to provide all the good reasons to convince the audience. Because it’s not even about the good reasons at all in the first place.

If you’re trying to convince someone, you have already decided for them. You act as if you know the truth and as if they need to agree with you.

They don’t.

And you don’t need them to. Not if your product is actually that good.

Instead, lead your audience to the point of no return. The point where they see and feel what your idea means for them so that they are able to make a conscious decision – no matter what their truth is, no matter how they see the world and what’s important to them.

If you’ve done your homework and your idea is actually good, they will decide for your idea. Even if their truth is totally different than yours. Even if they don’t care for the good reasons at all.

It’s a much more satisfying experience for your audience when you let them decide. When you respect their truth. Their worldview. Their perspective.

Do the right thing. Make it obvious. Let them decide. That’s how servant speakers treat their audience.

It’s their time

At the time I published this post your day had 900 minutes left. When you finish reading, it will be down to 899 minutes.

Why did you choose to invest your time in reading this? What else could you do? Will you feel like the time was worth it? Because you’re not going to get it back.

How about your audience? Why did they choose to invest the time to listen to you? What else could they do with the 60 minutes they are investing in you?

It’s a privilege to get access to their time. We should treat this privilege with respect. With the respect of keeping it short and relevant. So that every minute they invest is worth it to them. So that they feel that there wouldn’t have been a better investment of their time than spending it with us.

Servant speakers respect the time of their audience.

What your audience cares about

… is not you, but themselves. A few of the more obvious things they might care about:

  • They want praise and recognition from their boss.
  • They do not want trouble with their colleagues.
  • Less hassle.
  • They want to save money.
  • Or make money. Big time.
  • Close that deal.
  • Scale their business.
  • They don’t want to take any risks.
  • Not decide for themselves so they can shift the blame if it fails.
  • Have someone tell them what to do.
  • They want to live a healthier life.
  • Feel good.
  • Impress their friends.
  • They want to be promoted.

Any of these result from constraints and demands, from experiences and desires that sometimes have a lot, but just as often have only very little to do with your product. And yet these aspects determine how your audience hears what you say.

The often overlooked reason why pitches succeed

The most overlooked reason why someone wins a pitch is that their product is actually good.

If your competition won and you didn’t, it’s easy to assume that they were “better salesmen”. And maybe they are. So, sure, become a great salesman.

Yet, it’s far more likely – and far more healthy – to assume that your competition, as well as the decision makers, are just as smart as you are so that your competion’s offering is actually that good.

With a twist: it’s good subjectively – not objectively. Because there is no objectivity. An offering is always for someone. I’ve seen many pitches fail not because the idea wasn’t great but because it was great from the wrong perspective, focussing on aspects that were important to the developers rather than the decision makers or the users.

To understand the needs, wants, and desires of that someone makes it so much more likely to build a product that appeals to your audience and then to be able to communicate it in a way that resonates deeply. This is what great salesmen do: They take a great product and let it shine.

The final hurdle

Too many great ideas, products, and projects fail at the final hurdle if the pitch doesn’t convince the decision maker. This is kind of frustrating when you’ve invested so much into building this idea. You’ve given it your all, you’ve thought really hard about making it the best it can be. And likely it would even be in the decision maker’s interest to choose to go for it. Yet, she doesn’t.

If you build a remarkable product it sometimes feels like the best salesmen have an unfair advantage because it’s them who catch the big fish even when their product is inferior.

Time for a change. Time to craft the story of your pitch so that decision makers will decide for the right thing. They won’t be blinded by some sneaky sales techniques, but be able to see the beauty of your idea. The value of your product. Or the impact of your project.

Time to make it irresistible. To take this last hurdle and turn a remarkable idea into reality. To give it your best and deliver a pitch that nails it.

Today, I’m launching a new 1:1 service that is designed to do just that. With a proven process that is the result of more than 12 years of pitching, coaching, and analysing thousands of presentations we’ll craft a story that matches the quality of your idea.

As a reader of my blog, you get early access and a special offer until registration opens to the general public on May, 11th. Check out the details on priority access for The Art of Pitching.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz