The Power Presenter, Weissman explains how to tell a compelling story, and describes techniques for conquering the fear of public speaking, presenting with force and conviction, creating empathy with audiences, and integrating graphics design and animation into the delivery of a presentation.
Weissman begins by asking presenters to be “audience advocates,” to put themselves into the audience’s place and think about their hopes, fears, and passions. Presenters should consider what their audience knows about them and their message, as well as what they need to know in order to respond to the message favorably and act upon it. However, audience advocacy requires more than paying attention to how an audience responds intellectually. It is equally concerned with how an audience responds to presenters interpersonally, to their physical delivery of a story via body language and voice.
The presenter and the audience are the beginning and ending points of all interpersonal communications: the presenter is the transmitter and the audience is the receiver. The presenter transmits a set of human dynamics that can be summed up in three Vs: (1) verbal, the story presenters tell; (2) vocal, the presenters’ voices, how they tell their story; and (3) visual, the presenters themselves, their body language, what they do when they tell their story. Which has the greatest impact? According to Weissman’s data, it is the visual, followed by the vocal, and finally the verbal, meaning that body language has the greatest impact.
Former president Ronald Reagan, known for his peerless skills as a public speaker, was a master of the visual. According to Pulitzer-Prize winning television critic Howard Rosenberg, “There is a critical moment early in every Reagan speech when his physical presence begins to eclipse his words–when you begin watching more and hearing less–feeling more and thinking less. Look and mood take over completely.”
The irony is that most presenters and speakers spend most of their time and effort on the verbal content. While he does not suggest forgetting the art of telling the story and focusing entirely on delivery skills, Weissman does suggest putting equal emphasis on both sides of the equation, giving equal importance to body language and voice as to the story, and to the messenger as well as the message. Presenters are the delivery system, and the style of their presentation must support the substance of their message.
In addition to the visual, vocal, and verbal forces that influence an audience, another dynamic, empathy, also has an impact. Empathy is the shared feelings between the audience and the presenter. A direct correlation exists between what the presenter does (visual dynamics) and says (vocal dynamics) and how the audience feels about a presenter, between presenter behavior and audience perception of the presenter. Thus, when the presenter speaks and adds the verbal component to the visual and the vocal, all the dynamics compound. Gathering momentum, empathy begins to affect the audience’s perception of the presenter’s story. If the presenter appears poised and confident, the audience will perceive the content favorably; if the presenter exhibits anxiety, the audience will perceive the message doubtfully, or, worse, negatively.
In the 1996 presidential election, powerful, evocative words were crafted for the Republican Party nominee, Bob Dole, by noted writer Mark Helprin. However, there was a mismatch between the buoyant text and the reserved body language and prosaic voice of Dole. The mismatch was perceived by the electorate, and Dole remained behind through to Election Day, being no match for Bill Clinton, a more proficient speaker.
Unlike the political arena, the corporate world does not include opportunities for rehearsal. When businesspeople stand up in front of an audience to present and that “moment of truth” arrives, the adrenaline rush often causes them to exhibit negative behavior which produces a negative perception and defeats their own cause. However, when the behavior is positive, it produces a positive perception.
Human beings standing in front of an audience are barraged with internal forces that are seemingly beyond their control. These involuntary presenter behaviors–the famous “fight or flight” reactions–gather momentum in a rolling chain reaction and ultimately impact audience perception. The eyes move rapidly, the head sweeps back and forth in a harried movement, and the body involuntarily establishes itself in a defensive posture that may appear rigid or protective. In turn, this uncomfortable posture causes the air supply in the lungs to constrict, making the voice sound low, weak, or monotonous and words to be crammed into a steady flat pattern. This results in what Weissman refers to as a “data dump” that makes it difficult for the audience to separate the presenter’s ideas and which causes “umwords” (“um” or “ah”) to intrude repeatedly, making the presenter seem uncertain.
A state of anticipation builds until the presentation begins. Then, the sight of the audience elevates the body’s adrenaline flow. To diminish anxiety, presenters should take charge of their content in its preparation. Many presenters and speakers borrow material from colleagues or delay their preparation until the last moment. Both choices serve to create anxiety, and worse, both choices result in a dump of disorganized data during the presentation. Predictably, audiences will react with puzzlement, boredom, or restlessness, which, when perceived by the presenter, only creates more anxiety. The seemingly vicious circle can be broken by preparing in advance. Strong presentations require time to organize, develop, and think through the content.
In his previous book, Presenting to Win, Weissman breaks down the seven steps in the story (content) development process, which he briefly summarizes for readers of The Power Presenter. These seven steps include:
- establishing the framework of the presentation.
- brainstorming, or considering all of the possibilities.
- finding mnemonic devices for remembering the main points.
- ordering the flow of the presentation.
- using visual aids.
- taking charge of the presentation and not allowing others to put it together.
- practicing using verbalization, speaking the actual words aloud just as they will be spoken during the presentation.
After using these seven steps to provide a solid foundation, presenters are ready to face their Moment of Truth in front of an audience. As they approach the platform, however, they must do so with the proper frame of mind. This is what athletic coaches call PMA, or Positive Mental Attitude, the ability to approach the execution of a sport affirmatively.
In Weissman’s estimation, all presenters can be power presenters with PMA–and charisma is not required. During his first run for the White House, former President George W. Bush’s chronic difficulty with the English language made him the frequent butt of jokes in the media. By the time he assumed his office, the victorious George W. Bush was a changed man, and he continued to improve throughout his presidency. Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, is often labeled a “natural” and “a gifted speaker.” This was not always the case, according to Clinton. Clinton modeled his speaking style on both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, Kennedy’s vigorous forearm and hand movement (likened since to inserting a credit card in a slot) was his trademark. Anyone watching Clinton speak today will see him using that same credit card gesture–with his thumb just a little higher.
While not every speaker may reach the heights of a John F. Kennedy, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Bill Clinton, everyone is capable of change. Changing one’s thinking is critical in controlling behavior.
At the heart of Weissman’s coaching strategy is the Mental Method, a long-established theater practice in which actors learn to use the mind to control the body. The method, developed by Constantine Stanislavski, director of the Moscow Art Theater, teaches actors to use concentration to recall sensory memories of events in their own lives to evoke feelings that help them create realistic depictions of the characters they portray on stage. The same practice, Weissman learned, would allow speakers and presenters to conquer their adrenaline rush and their audiences. The solution to the self-consciousness that so many presenters feel is to change the mindset and shift the focus from oneself to the audience. The mind is used to control the body in sports, and the same principle applies in speaking. Presenters should think outside themselves, i.e. think about the audience, which is the equivalent of keeping one’s eye on the ball in sports.
Therefore, the foundation of the Mental Method is person-to-person conversation. The challenge for presenters is to recreate the conversational mode in which most human beings are comfortable. Regardless of how many people are in the audience, speakers should choose one and then proceed as if that individual were the only person present in the room. That person then becomes the object of concentration, the object of conversation. Weissman also suggests thinking of that one person as “you,” which helps to orient speakers farther away from themselves and further into the sphere of that other person. The shift from “me” to “you” is an essential one in the Mental Method. Then, it becomes easier to continue around the room in a series of person-to-person conversations.
When this outward shift is accomplished, a powerful chain reaction occurs. Each person addressed directly will see the sincerity of the engagement and will, therefore, feel engaged. When speakers begin to move around the room focusing on one person at a time, each person will respond involuntarily, and more often than not, their response will be nonverbal. It will be manifested in facial expressions, body language, or head nods, which Weissman calls the “endgame” of the Mental Method of presenting. Head nods are always positive; they essentially say “I got it!” The presenter is getting through to the audience.
If presenters are getting head nods from one person, they move on to engage with another person. If, however, they get frowns or quizzical looks, it becomes an opportunity to do something about it, to judge the audience’s reaction and to adjust their delivery accordingly for optimal understanding and, ultimately, their audience’s approval.
Whenever people begin the process of learning new skills, they inevitably go through four clearly defined stages of learning. First, they are unaware of what they do; they perform poorly, and are unconscious of their incompetence. Next, an instructor or coach tells them what they are doing wrong so that they become conscious of their incompetence. This is followed by being conscious of their competence once they are following the coach’s advice, yet it still feels unnatural–a kind of self-consciousness about competence, until finally they perform their skill without thinking so that they are conscious of their competence.
The key in making changes is to accept the discomfort, accept that it will be necessary to step outside of one’s comfort zone, and that creates something of a paradox. To look comfortable in front of an audience very often makes people feel exposed and thus vulnerable and uncomfortable. The key, according to Weissman, is to accept this paradox. People must accept that there is a difference between the way it feels to someone as a presenter and the way it looks to the audience. Repetition over time, however, increases speakers’ comfort level because repetition reinforces habits.
Once speakers master the essence of the Mental Method, once they master the verbal component, i.e., the story they are telling, then they are ready to address the high-impact visual and vocal dynamics. The Mental Method remains the foundation, however, and drives the visual and vocal aspects of a presentation.
Each time speakers choose a person in the audience with whom to have a “conversation,” they must look at that person at least until they feel him or her look back at them, until there is eye connection between the speaker and that audience member. It is also important to nod when making eye contact. Nodding builds on the Mental Method. If the audience member is not nodding in response, then presenters need to react by adjusting their delivery.
Speakers’ postures, likewise, should be balanced; when the body is balanced, the mind also becomes balanced. Does this mean that one must rivet oneself in place and not move? Not at all, according to Weissman. There is nothing wrong with moving, as long as it is purposefully moving to a destination, and when the destination is reached, stopping–in a balanced stance.
What to do with one’s hands and arms is one of the most frequently asked questions in regard to presentations. The answer is to do what most people do with their hands in conversation: gesture to illustrate. Gesturing, then, becomes a kind of reaching out, reaching out to “you,” the audience. This reaching out gesture can be interpreted as saying, “Let me show you.” “Why am I telling you this?” “Do you see what I mean?” and “What’s in it for you?”
When speakers make eye contact and reach out by means of physical gestures, they animate all their visual dynamics. Extending the arm out from the chest compresses the lungs and animates the voice. Thus, the two brief linked actions, eye contact and reaching out, or gesturing, generate an extended chain reaction that animates the visual as well as all the vocal components. Eye contact animates the facial features without speakers even having to think about it, and sets a positive series of actions in motion. In other words, engagement equals expressiveness, and expressiveness, as Weissman indicates, is what got Ronald Reagan millions of votes. This series of actions can be summarized with the acronym ERA: eye contact; in conjunction with reaching out (gesturing); which results in animation. ERA brings the visual, the vocal, and the verbal dynamics together as one force.
Once speakers establish ERA, once they feel the click with the person with whom they are “conversing,” it is necessary to establish the cadence of the conversation. Cadence in speech is the equivalent of rhythm in music. Speaking in a clear, coherent cadence makes it easy for an audience to follow a presentation. Cadence is the result of mastering the phrase and the pause. Phrases are what Weissman terms “the irreducible unit of spoken language” and are complete in themselves, whether long or short. The vocal equivalent of a written punctuation mark is the pause, and together the phrase and the pause come together to make a powerful tool. Notes and rests in music correspond to phrases and pauses in speech; each member of the pair contributes equally to the overall cadence.
While phrases vary in length, it is important to stay with one person for the entire logic of the phrase–regardless of its length–and then speakers should drop their voices. Dropping the voice at the end of every phrase is what Weissman calls completing the arc. Not dropping the voice at the end of the phrase converts the statement into a question, and a question indicates uncertainty, the complete opposite of what every presenter seeks to achieve. The pause, then, between phrases should take as long as it takes for the eyes to move from the eyes of one audience member to the eyes of another.
As noted earlier, former President George W. Bush overcame his chronic difficulty with the English language by making improvements in his delivery style over the course of just a few months. One of the most important factors he changed was his cadence. All presenters can develop effective cadence by employing the key dynamics of phrase and pause. Combine these two steps with the Mental Method of presenting and consider every presentation or speech as a series of person-to-person engagements in which speakers have individual conversations, thus making every conversation a complete conversation.
These skills are especially important with the growing popularity of Web-based presentations (such as Microsoft’s LiveMeeting and Cisco Systems WebEx). In these situations, the voice is the prime conveyor of content. To deliver important messages, it is necessary to give audiences vocal punctuation with the vocal content by delivering crystal clear cadence by means of completing the arc. Speakers should let their eyes sweep the room as they begin. Once this has been accomplished with some very simple introductory or welcome remarks, stop. Speakers should then set their eyes on those of an audience member and begin with the first phrase of the presentation.
While not every speaker can reach the heights that Ronald Reagan attained, all speakers can use his array of conversational skills as a model and adapt them to their own delivery style. In fact, that is just what Barack Obama did. While Obama may not share Reagan’s political ideology, he does express admiration for Reagan’s gifts, adopting Reagan’s warm, relaxed communication style in his own journey to become president of the United States. Obama, a relatively unknown state legislator with limited experience, rose to the Democratic nomination and then the presidency largely because of the electorate’s positive response to his outstanding speaking skills, the positive audience perception of his powerful presenter behavior. Obama uses a set of quite accessible techniques that all speakers can use.
While national leaders and politicians usually speak from prepared texts or carefully vetted and rehearsed position statements, in virtually every other walk of life Microsoft PowerPoint has become the medium of choice for presentations and speeches. It is, therefore, important to consider how to integrate slides with a speaker’s delivery skills. Delivery skills and PowerPoint slides combine in a vitally important skill Weissman calls graphics synchronization.
Graphics synchronization is closely related to graphic design. Design is what is shown, what the audience sees displayed by the PowerPoint slideshow; synchronization is what the speaker does (eyes and body language) and says (voice) when the slides are shown. Graphics synchronization is the integration of slides with the visual and vocal components. Speakers should adapt the classic skill set: (1) tell them what they will be shown, (2) show them, and (3) tell them what they have been shown.
There are many tools of the presentation trade, including screens, microphones, lecterns, projectors, computers, and remote control devices. All must be carefully integrated with each presenter’s or speaker’s graphics synchronization skills. While it is tempting to bypass these aspects of a presentation, it is essential not to because, unheeded, these factors can aggregate to make it difficult for the audience to focus on and absorb the presentation. Make it easy for the audience, and they will make it easy for the presenter.
One of the most commonly held false beliefs about presentations is that if the presenter turns to look at the screen, they appear not to know their own material. In reality, however, if the presenter does not turn to look at the new slide, but continues to look at the audience, the audience will become conflicted. Presenters should turn to look at the screen the instant a new image appears; in fact, they should turn to look at the screen with every click on every slide. Every time they do so, the movement leads the audience to look where the presenter is looking so that both the presenter and the audience arrive at the identical point in the presentation in synchronization. Presenters should display the slides and pause as they do so; then, they should turn and look at the slide as if they have never seen it before. Then, turn back to the audience and find both eyes of one person.
Presenters should look at each new slide in its entirety. Weissman calls this overview ‘title plus.’ While the slide title serves as the headline, there are additional elements: perhaps a bar chart, pie chart, timeline, map, or set of bullets (these are the plus). As an inbound slide appears, it should be described by the presenter to the audience; for example, “This slide represents the strong growth of our product revenues over five years.” By using the title plus strategy, presenters have to say less about the slide itself and can instead add value beyond the information shown on the slide. They can interpret, analyze, offer supporting evidence, cite case studies, or make a call to action.
Presenters should never read the slides verbatim. Instead, they should paraphrase, use synonyms, or juxtapose the key words in the title; then they may add the other words for the plus. For instance, if the title reads “Cost Reduction Results,” the title plus could be, “Here’s how our company’s operational efficiencies have reduced our costs over the last six quarters.” Central to all of the preceding, of course, is the pause. The audience needs the pause to take in the slides. Another way to look at graphics synchronization is that it is less about what presenters do and more about what they do not do.
The elements of a winning presentation can be thought of in a pyramid shape. The foundation is a solid story that is illustrated by the graphics of the slide show. Content should be organized so that it is relevant, focused, and has a logical flow. Every story has a clear objective, either a call to action or a benefit. The speaker or presenter should be the focus of the presentation; graphics are present only to support the presenter, and graphics should be designed with the less is more principle in mind In turn, these elements are delivered by the presenter’s body language and voice, all supported by the tools of the presentation trade. What presenters say is impacted by how they say it and what they do when they say it. They should deliver their stories to one person at a time in phrases that complete the arc and are accompanied by eye contact and gestures; all of which combine to produce animation.
Presenters should use the Mental Method of presenting to interact with their audiences by noticing the audience’s reactions and being prepared to adjust their content and delivery. They should position themselves and their tools so that their audiences can easily see them and their graphics. These dynamic elements all orbit around a central unifying nucleus–the pause. The entire presentation is then subject to the scrutiny of the audience’s questions, which presenters must handle with complete assurance and credibility.
The conclusion that Weissman draws is that a presentation does not exist on the screen alone, in the presenter alone, or in the audience alone. A power presentation combines all of these elements into a living entity that changes each time a speaker presents.