Avoid the Lectern in Presentations

Avoid the Lectern in Presentations

Standing behind a lectern while presenting can make you seem stiff, unemotional, and disconnected. A lectern creates a barrier between you and your audience—it not only blocks out two-thirds of your body, but also restricts your natural hand gestures. The lectern may even entice you to lean on or hold it, making you look tense and uneasy.

By walking around the room and getting closer to your audience, you establish a bigger presence in the room and are harder to ignore. You encourage your audience to move their heads and eyes to follow you around the room, so they’re less likely to doze off during your presentation. Your watchful eyes may also prevent them from using their tablets and phones.

Walking about can make your presentation appear like a natural conversation and thus help you overcome any public speaking anxiety. You can also better gauge your audience’s reactions.

  • Always present standing up, even if you’re presenting to an audience of one or two. Standing while presenting not only lets you make better eye contact with your audience, but also helps you breathe and project your voice more clearly. You will appear to have more influence since your audience will be literally “looking up to you.”
  • Move around naturally. Mix it up to avoid looking nervous. Don’t always walk from the front to the back or from side to side.
  • Make your movements look relaxed and confident. Do not tap your foot, rock, sway, swing, or dance on the spot. Don’t try anything over-the-top, dramatic, or flashy.
  • Keep an open posture at all times; avoid crossing your arms or creating a symbolic barrier between you and the audience. Use hand gestures selectively for emphasis—do not gesture so much that your body language poses a distraction.
  • Stop moving and pause briefly after making each important point. As I mentioned in a previous article, pauses can help you emphasize your message and gather your next thoughts. In addition, the audience gets a chance to absorb your point.
  • When responding to a question, move closer to the person who asked the question.

Idea for Impact: When presenting, walk around the room naturally and interact with your audience. Moving around the room not only helps you keep eye contact with the audience, but also emphasizes an air of confidence, openness, and authority. You’ll also look more conversational, interesting, and memorable.

Stop asking “What do you do for a living?”

How to Start a Good Conversation

I despise being asked “What do you do for a living?” when I first meet someone.

I didn’t like being asked “What does your dad do?” while growing up in India.

Many people routinely use this question as a conversation-starter with strangers. It could be argued that they intend to inoffensively learn of somebody’s area of expertise or interests and then engage them in a meaningful chat.

Stop asking 'What do you do for a living?' about indirectly sizing up people However, this question is often about indirectly sizing up the other’s socioeconomic status. People may be assessing, “How valuable are you? How much money do you make? What is your social status? What is your financial status? Are you richer, smarter, and more powerful than I am? Am I above you or below you in the socioeconomic ladder? Are you worth my time?”

Look, we live in a judgmental world where a person’s identity is at first ascertained by what he or she does for a living. Nevertheless, when becoming acquainted with someone in an informal setting, conversations shouldn’t be about inquiring after the other’s livelihood or about scrutinizing the other’s standing in society.

Chatting with somebody in “socializing situations” should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest—prospects that will all be missed if the initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations.

So, let’s try to make a conversation without seeking to interrogate one another.

If you’re looking for clues to a person’s passions or areas of interest to engage them in conversation, start with simple questions such as “how do you know Maria and Joe,” “is this your first time in Chicago,” or “what does your name mean?” Wait for personal details to flow into the conversation naturally. Or, wait further into the conversation before popping the “what do you do?” question.

How to Give Project Updates to Top Management and Ask for Help [Two-Minute Mentor #7]

Project Updates to Top Management Top management is continually besieged with information and requests from across the organization. This makes it difficult to get their attention, especially when you need their intervention on a project.

To be effective in providing project updates to top management and seeking their help, it’s important to cut to the chase, simplify your message, and be brief.

  • Tell them where you are now in relation to the goals of your project. Don’t expect the big bosses to ferret up-to-date information about your project. Anticipate their questions and be ready with supporting data.
  • Tell them where you’re headed. Present your plans and tell them where you stand in relation to those plans.
  • Tell them how you’ll know when you’ve arrived at the goal.
  • Tell them how you plan to get where you’re going. Provide enough context to help the big bosses understand the challenges you face.
  • Tell them where you need their help and intervention. “Boss, we have conflicting customer specifications. I need your guidance about setting priorities.” Mention your recommendations and seek agreement. “Here is our recommended approach to the problem. Do you concur?”

How to Speak Persuasively and Influence Others

How to Speak Persuasively The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conducted this study on how different speech characteristics influence an audience’s decisions during telephone surveys. The conclusions of this study suggest certain patterns of persuasive speech.

  • Those who talk fast are seen as fast-talkers out to pull the wool over our eyes.
  • Those who talk slow are seen as not too bright or overly pedantic.
  • Those who use pauses in their speech are seen as more persuasive than those who were perfectly fluent. However, those who pause too much are seen as inarticulate.

Idea for Impact: The results of this study suggest that to persuade others, you need to speak moderately quickly, pause often, and not be too animated. In addition, you need to speak slowly and clearly to sound more thoughtful and less nervous.

Lessons from Amazon: ‘Mock Press Release’ Discipline to Sell an Idea

If you have a brilliant idea at work, the modern workplace demands that you distill your ideas into a killer PowerPoint presentation to enlighten, entertain (with animations and special effects,) and convince your audience.

As I mentioned in my previous blog article, presentations may make ineffective communication tools. They tend to promote “a seductive laziness of thought that is anti-rigor, anti-elegance, and—most damaging—anti-audience.”

'The Everything Store' by Brad Stone (ISBN 0316219266) Amazon’s corporate culture agrees. In Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, former Amazon executive Jeff Holden commented that “PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism. It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.”

Instead of PowerPoint presentations, Amazon uses a narrative format called the ‘Mock Press Release.’ According to this disciplined approach, for every new feature, product, or service that employees intend to pitch within their divisions, they must produce a press release-style document wherein a hypothetical Amazon customer would first learn about the feature.

Amazon contends that if something isn’t interesting enough for a customer and can’t be eloquently expressed in a mock press release format, Amazon probably shouldn’t invest in the idea. Brad Stone’s The Everything Store mentions,

Bezos announced that employees could no longer use such corporate crutches and would have to write their presentations in prose, in what he called narratives. … He wanted people thinking deeply and taking the time to express their thoughts cogently.

Bezos refined the formula even further. Every time a new feature or product was proposed, he decreed that the narrative should take the shape of a mock press release. The goal was to get employees to distill a pitch into its purest essence, to start from something the customer might see—the public announcement—and work backward.

Amazon’s famously customer-oriented culture argues that this disciplined innovation forces all ideas to be rationalized from the customers’ perspective. Therefore, Amazon encourages it’s employees to write these mock press releases in what’s internally called “Oprah-speak” (how the idea would be explained plainly on The Oprah Winfrey Show) rather than in “geek speak.”

Jeff Bezos of Amazon

Rather than have employees present their ideas using PowerPoint decks, attendees receive copies of multi-page narratives (as opposed to the one-page format used at Procter & Gamble) and study the ideas before ensuing debate and decision.

On Quora, former Amazon executive Ian McAllister argued the advantages of this narrative form:

We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. While working backwards can be applied to any specific product decision, using this approach is especially important when developing new products or features.

McAllister also provided a sample outline for the Amazon mock press release,

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary – Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem – Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution – Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • Quote from You – A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
  • How to Get Started – Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote – Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
  • Closing and Call to Action – Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

Also see:

Lessons from Procter & Gamble: ‘One-Page Memo’ to Sell an Idea

In effective communication, less is often more. Brevity can communicate ideas more clearly.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) Logo Based on this idea, Procter & Gamble (P&G)’s corporate culture uses a powerful discipline called the ‘One-Page Memo’ for clear and concise communication.

P&G’s corporate culture requires any idea or proposal to fit onto one side of one piece of paper and must follow a predictable format. According to Charles Decker’s excellent book Winning with the P&G 99, the one-page memo consists of the following narrative elements:

  • Statement of Purpose: An introductory sentence that concisely and succinctly states the reason for the recommendation. Provides a context for the memo as a whole.
  • Background: Factual analysis that connects the purpose of the memo to the strategic objectives of the company or the brand. Also provides facts in relation to the problem the recommendation is supposed to address.
  • Recommendation: The specific proposal on how to solve the problem or exploit the opportunity detailed in the background section.
  • Rationale: The reasons for the recommendation, and the logic by which the recommendation was reached.
  • Discussion: Details of the recommendation, anticipated questions or areas of concern, risk assessment, identification of other alternatives, details of the recommendation.
  • Next Steps: Who will be following through on the recommendation, what target dates they would be working towards, what actions they would be taking to execute the recommendation.
  • Supporting Exhibits: Other supplementary information as applicable.

The last item, the supporting exhibits, provides additional data to validate the rest of the one-page memo.

Charles Decker states, “If you can learn to write a P&G memo, you can learn how to think. The memo becomes a knowledge codification tool, a way to present ideas, arguments, and recommendations in a language and style everyone at P&G understands.”

Winning with the P&G 99 also quotes an advertising agency executive: “P&G seems to have figured out that if you structure information certain ways, people will readily understand it, good ideas will emerge, and bad ideas will be exposed. I really think that is what has made them so successful. They make fewer mistakes because they find mistakes before they happen.”

Additionally, P&G’s renowned salesforce uses a Persuasive Selling Format (PSF) narrative that is structured along similar lines.

Presentations are Corrupting per Edward Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”

Presentations are one of the most frequently used methods of communication in the modern workplace. However, Edward Tufte argues that they reduce the analytical timbre of communication. In other words, presentation slides lack the resolution to effectively convey context, “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.”

Tufte, an American statistician and academic, is renowned for his work The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, a bestselling text on data, statistics, graphics, visualization, and information.

'The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint' by Edward Tufte (ISBN 0961392169) In his cranky pamphlet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Tufte offers a sharp-tongued criticism of presentations as a communication format. He argues that we treat slides more as a medium for self-expression than as a medium to connect with our audiences. His most revealing examples of how presentations corrupt our elegance of expression are his critique of NASA’s slides from the Columbia shuttle disaster and a parody of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address condensed into a PowerPoint deck.

By forcibly condensing our ideas into bullet point-statements, phrases, and slides, Tufte contends that we break up narrative flow and flatten the information we’re trying to convey. In particular, he claims that presentations’ bullet points can’t signify logical relationships well and thus dilute the audiences’ thought process. The resulting message is watered down, lacks proper emphasis, and doesn’t communicate the context very effectively.

Tufte favors well-structured memos that convey ideas comprehensively, clearly, and meaningfully. In agreement, I’ll offer two articles next week about Procter & Gamble and Amazon’s use of these memos as a communication discipline.

How to Stop Rambling

How to Stop Rambling Poster: Keep Rambling and Annoy All

Some people are natural ramblers. Others are prone to ramble when they feel impassioned about a topic and have a propensity for going off on tangents. Others tend to blather because they feel jumpy and insecure when asked to talk about something they don’t totally understand. Still others feel compelled to talk just to make themselves heard or when they don’t want to lose the floor.

Whatever the reason you may ramble, here are some ideas to help you be short and clearer in your conversations with others.

Follow the “Traffic Light Rule”

Career coach Marty Nemko offers a “Traffic Light” rule of thumb to keep conversations short:

  • During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: your listener is probably paying attention.
  • During the second 30 seconds, your light is yellow—your listener may be starting to wish you’d finish.
  • After the one-minute mark, your light is red: Yes, there are rare times you should “run a red light:” when your listener is obviously fully engaged in your missive. But usually, when an utterance exceeds one minute, with each passing second, you increase the risk of boring your listener and having them think of you as a chatterbox, windbag, or blowhard.

How to be Concise and Retain your Audience’s Interest

If you have nothing to say, say nothing at all. Don’t skirt around the topic, “fake the funk,” or seem indecisive. Simply say, “I am not educated about this topic.” If you’re asked something you should know about but don’t, it’s acceptable to say, “I don’t know, let me get back to you.” Do your research and follow-up with the audience.

If you have lots to say about something,

  • First take a few moments to think about what you want to say and structure your answer. Pausing before you give an answer will make you look more thoughtful and intelligent than if you crudely blurt out an unstructured response as soon as a question is posed. If necessary, buy some time: “Give me a moment to gather my thoughts.”
  • Once you’ve thought of your answer, simply state it. Do not add new details as you speak. Stick to your planned details and structure; you will be able to provide a consistent, concise, and well-reasoned answer.
  • Avoid littering your conversation with irrelevant or trivial details. Often, it’s more important to be articulate than accurate. Keep your sentences brief and to the point. Don’t wander from your point.
  • If you have more to say than you can say in a minute or two, realize that even though your audience may be interested in listening to everything you have to say, their attention may quickly dissolve into disinterest. Limit yourself to a minute or two and use that brief time to provide the most important points or a summary. Then ask, “Would you like me to expand?”

Sometimes you can defer a question by saying, “I’d be interested in what others think about this.” However, you will look devious if you use this technique too often.

Prepare and rehearse. Before attending a meeting, event, or gathering, think about the likely topics people may want to converse with you about. Think about the message you want to get across and rehearse your responses.

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Email, instant messages, and alerts have evolved into our primary mode of communication. From project management to socializing, everything at work and in our personal lives centers on electronic messages. Many of us have found the unending tide of these messages unmanageable.

Research has shown that checking messages just a few times a day can help reduce stress and prevent the feeling of being incessantly ‘invaded’ by emails.

If you feel weary, annoyed, and unproductive from a daily deluge of messages, try the following techniques to regulate your electronic communication.

  • Turn off alerts on all your devices. Productivity studies have shown that people take 15 minutes on average to return to serious mental tasks (thinking about a project, writing reports, or debugging computer code, for example) after being interrupted by an incoming email or an instant message.
  • Maintain a zero inbox, i.e. consistently process all incoming email and get your inbox to zero messages. See my previous article on this productivity technique.
  • Set up and use subject-specific folders to hold your incoming and sent messages. This makes it easier to retrieve emails later.
  • Relieve Inbox Stress and Email Overload Do not check emails continually throughout the day. Instead, process only three times a day: once in the morning, once during lunch, and then again before going home. Don’t waste the most productive hours of your day doing email.
  • Reserve time to focus on email. Set a time limit on your activities and blast through the messages without interruption. Stop when the time runs out. (Remember Parkinson’s Law: work will expand to fill the allotted time.)
  • When you process email,
    1. If you can respond to a message in less than two minutes, do so right away.
    2. If a response may need more than two minutes or you must look up information, defer it. Leave the incoming email in your inbox or file it in a ‘Draft’ folder. Dedicate the last email session of a day to respond to such emails and clear the Draft folder.
    3. Delete, file, or delegate.
    4. Process all emails and fully clear your inbox by the end of the day.
  • Tell people you correspond with the most (your boss, employees, peers) that you check email only a few times a day. Let them know that if they need to reach you immediately, they could come over to your desk or call you. If possible, encourage them to follow your email discipline.
  • Limit off-the-clock correspondence. Don’t make a ritual of catching up on work email after dinner or during the weekends.

Idea for Impact: If your inbox is driving you crazy, some discipline can help you process—not just check—emails and mitigate some stress.

Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”

Don't Say 'Yes' When You Really Want to Say 'No'

Most People Never Learn to Say “No”

Consider the case of Anna, a manager in a large accounting firm. Anna is a great team player and readily pitches in when her team’s workload gets heavy, especially during the tax season. She covers for peers when they have other commitments—personal and professional—and often stays late. Anna is a people-pleaser. She’s also one of those people who can’t say “no”: she spends too much time and energy working on others’ priorities while setting aside her own personal and professional priorities.

Consider also the case of Chuck, a selfless project manager at an engineering business. He not only passively gives in to requests to train new engineers, but also accepts all of his peer-managers’ unwanted assignments. Chuck reluctantly accedes to whatever work his boss imposes even if the task has little relation to Chuck’s span of responsibilities.

The problem with Anna and Chuck is that they cave in easily. They cannot assert themselves, stick to their guns, and bring themselves to saying “no.” Their inability to utter the simple two-letter word when they must and can makes them feel like they have no control over their life. They feel burned out and are often on the fast track to an emotional meltdown.

Learning to Say “No” Can Get You Ahead

There are many reasons people struggle with saying “no.” Some feel bound by obligation or by fear of hurting others’ feelings. Some want to be liked or be seen as team players. Yet others believe they really can do it all. Whatever the reason, this inability to say “no” can have several personal consequences.

  • Not being able to say “no” leads people into doing things they don’t respect themselves for doing. Saying “yes” becomes wrong when they want to say “no” and it is in their best interest to say “no,” but instead they resign and say, “OK, I’ll do it.”
  • Not being able to say “no” distracts people from their priorities and tasks that they really want to get completed. They become so encumbered doing the things they don’t want to do that they have neither the time nor the energy for the things that are most important to them.
  • By feeling like an overcommitted, selfless martyr and allowing other people to exploit them continually, people who struggle to say “no” may build up resentment. Often, after a long stretch of saying “yes” and doing things they don’t want to do, they may end up losing their temper and bring about an inappropriate emotional outburst.

Nice Ways to Say 'No'

Nice Ways to Say “No”

The key to saying “no” is to say it firmly, succinctly, and without an overlong explanation. Here are two examples.

  • Imagine you’ve been working on the organizing committee for an employee recognition event. Even though you’ve put in more time than anyone else on the committee has, the committee’s chair comes to you with another request, “Mark, I’m really fortunate to have you on the organizing committee. Can I count on you to go collect the recognition plaques from the store?” You could say, “No, chief. I have already done more than my share. Perhaps you should give that job to someone who hasn’t done his/her share.”
  • Sometimes, you don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. Try to defer your answer when faced with a request that you cannot accept immediately by saying, “Give me some time to think about it” or “Let me get back to you in 15 minutes.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the requester doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he/she appreciates knowing you’ve seriously considered the request.

Easy and Effective Ways to Say “No”

Here are more simple and direct ways to say “no” for you to practice.

  • “No. Let’s find another way to get it done.”
  • “No, I can’t do it on such short notice. I have something else scheduled for that time.”
  • “No, not now. I don’t feel like doing that today. I’d rather do something else.”
  • “No, I don’t know this topic well enough to do a decent job.”
  • “No, I don’t want to take on anything that I can’t fully commit to doing well.”
  • “No, I’d be happy to help in some smaller capacity. Make me a member of the committee, not the chair.”
  • “No, I have a personal policy about not working on Saturdays or not missing my evening workout.”
  • “No, it’s impossible for me to do that. Please try someone else.”
  • “No.” Sometimes the best way to say “no” is to simply and directly say “no.” Per the old adage, “Never apologize. Never explain.”

Idea for Impact: Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”

Have no regrets about having to say 'no' Have no regrets about having to say “no.” Don’t allow pangs of guilt to dictate your personal or professional life.

By asserting yourself in a decisive, direct, polite, but firm way, you can be selective about saying “yes” to your own needs and priorities. Practice saying “no.”

In an NPR This I Believe essay, Jessica Paris reflected, “sometimes saying ‘no’ is easier than saying ‘yes’ … when I need it, my strength to say ‘no’ is bolstered by knowing that every ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something else.” In other words, almost every misplaced “yes” is really a “no” to yourself. So, don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no.”