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Presentation Skills

How to Use Numbers in a Presentation

Numbers numb, stories sell. We don’t deal well with numbers, [they tend] to suspend our sense of emotion, but we respond very, very well to stories. Individual stories will almost always trump a litany of statistics.  
 

– Edward Maibach 

 
Sooner or later you're going to have to make a presentation to convince people to support you, your ideas, or your projects.

You’re often going to have to present data – numbers – to make your case. And in some jobs, numbers may be the bulk of your presentations. I’m looking at you, CFOs, CMOs, actuaries, investor relations and financial experts.

The problem in talking about numbers is that human beings are not naturally gifted to understand or relate to numbers. Data quickly becomes white noise. Instead, as humans we are hardwired for telling and hearing stories.

As my friend Kent Stroman, a conversational fundraising expert for nonprofits, likes to say, “numbers numb, but stories store.” Kent calls him self a "recovering accountant" and has effectively learned to seamlessly blend stories and numbers. (Kent's latest book is called The Intentional Board: Why Your Board Doesn't Work ... and How to Fix It.)

You’ve probably experienced the fact that numbers numb, but stories store yourself. You might sit through an hour-long presentation of data and not remember a thing, but if the speaker had one good story, you’ll be able to recall it immediately.

With this in mind, here are a few tips for communicating with numbers:

Tell your story
First, and most important, remember that numbers don’t stand alone. They are meant to support a larger narrative. Never lose sight of your story.

For instance, at the highest level, your organization’s big message might be: We’ve had some challenges, but we’re moving in the right direction. Your job is to highlight and emphasize the numbers that support this argument.

Less is more 
As an analytical person your instinct will be to give more and more data to support your case, but the truth is that the more numbers you present, the less effective and persuasive you will be. You are no doubt familiar with the concept of diminishing returns. In a world of information overload and minute attention spans, less truly is more.

Hide numbers in a story
As I wrote previously, Stanford Business School research concluded that data included in a story is 22 times more likely to be remembered than data on its own.  And you want your numbers to be remembered, don’t you?

Simplify 
In line with telling a story, you should pare your numbers presentation to a manageable set. Consider using a photo to illustrate your point or a slide with only one key number blown up large. Help them understand why this number is so important in the context of your organization’s story.

Think like a teacher 
By focusing on presenting fewer numbers in a more meaningful way, you develop opportunities to educate your audience on key concepts.

Consider taking the time to drill down on a meaningful idea. For instance, you might ask, “Why are we pushing so hard to reduce expenses?”  Show the effects of each dollar saved in context. Talk about what it means to your stakeholders and the impact it will have on those in the audience.

Your listeners always want to know, “What’s in it for me?” You're much more likely to get support when people understand your rationale, the "why."

Show your personality 
I know you have a lot of interests, but your colleagues may not. Bring your personality to your presentation. Do you run marathons? Use a running analogy: You’ve heard the old sprint versus marathon metaphor. Talk about race times and how your financials compare. “It’s our personal best!”

One of my clients is a CFO who is wicked smart but also has a dry sense of humor that he seldom shared in presentations. I coached him to start slowly to reveal more of himself. When he started opening up and sharing himself, he got great feedback and improved his reputation inside and outside the company.  He told me he felt “liberated” by being himself on stage and in meetings.

Career differentiator
There are also other benefits to becoming a better presenter of numbers. In addition to engaging your listeners more effectively, you will position yourself for greater success. In any organization today, the ability to communicate is the career differentiator.

Too many CFO’s and other “number crunchers” don’t get top jobs because they don’t inspire other people. They are “crunched” by their numbers if you will.

The leaders of your organization are looking for people who not only have technical skills but also leadership and communications skills. If they have to choose between two “numbers people,” the one who can communicate effectively will win every time.

Also, I know it might be hard to believe, but you’ll start enjoying your presentations and feel more confident when you know you’re engaging people.

If you want to talk with me or want to share your experiences with presenting numbers, please contact me.
 

How 3 Billionaires Make Money with Communication

If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential. You have to learn to communicate in life – it’s enormously important.

–– Warren Buffett

 
Many people are curious as to how wealthy, celebrated leaders – such as self-made billionaires – achieved their success. While there may be untold secrets of the rich and famous, one of their secrets is on display in the public realm: a focus on clear, effective communication.
 
Warren Buffett, widely regarded as one of the most successful investors in history – currently the third-richest person in the world – considers communication skills priceless. 
 
Speaking to Columbia Business School students in 2009, Buffett made a semi-serious offer to invest in the students’ careers for 10 percent of their projected lifetime earnings. He told them he believed they could increase their lifetime earnings by 50 percent through learning effective communication skills.
 
One way to improve your own communication skills is to study the communication styles of successful leaders.
 
Let’s take a look at three billionaires at the top of their games in business and examine their perspectives on communication. All three, Buffett, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, clearly value communication and its role in business leadership. By examining their personal philosophies and techniques, we can gain insight into how their communication as leaders brought their visions to life. 
 
Warren Buffett: Be clear and transparent
Buffett is an advocate of using plain, clear language to explain finance to everyday investors and anyone wanting to understand the financial marketplace. Many industries, from finance to medicine, remain obtuse and confusing in their wording; often it seems to mask the truth. 
 
It can also be plain laziness that prevents succinct writing. If you’ve ever tried to compress a long document into a few hundred words, you know that simplicity takes hard work. 
 
Tell the truth
In 1998, Buffett wrote the preface to A Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents: "I've studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I've been unable to decipher what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said."
 
He added, “In some cases, moreover, I suspect that a less-than-scrupulous issuer doesn’t want us to understand a subject it feels legally obligated to touch upon.” 
 
Buffett is renowned for writing frank and entertaining annual letters to shareholders that document successes but also prominently highlight investment failures by Buffett and his team.
 
Buffett lives his message of clarity and transparency in business communication.

Elon Musk: Kill the bureaucracy
Elon Musk is the revolutionary thinker and leader behind SpaceX and Tesla. I consider him our modern day Thomas Edison. From promoting sustainable energy to pursuing a human colony on Mars, he is a man of vision and action.
 
Musk believes that bureaucracy stifles action. In a memo to all Tesla employees a few years ago, Musk decried the corporate hierarchy that slows progress in most big companies, and encouraged employees to buck the chain of command at Tesla:
 
Instead of a problem getting solved quickly, where a person in one dept talks to a person in another dept and makes the right thing happen, people are forced to talk to their manager who talks to their manager who talks to the manager in the other dept who talks to someone on his team. Then the info has to flow back the other way again. This is incredibly dumb. Any manager who allows this to happen, let alone encourages it, will soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.
 
Musk said this archaic approach enhances the power of the manager but degrades the power of the company to serve its customers. So Musk declared that:
 
Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager's manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else's permission.
 
Like Buffett, Musk also believes that plain, precise language is critical for success. Musk urges employees to avoid the jargon that prevents straightforward communication.
 
Drop the jargon
In a recent email to Tesla employees about plans to improve Model 3 production, Musk cautioned, “Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software, or processes at Tesla. In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla.”  
 
Jeff Bezos: Stop the PowerPoint
Jeff Bezos is the founder and CEO of the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.  While a New York Times article recently referred to him as “a brilliant but mysterious and cold-blooded corporate titan,” it is evident that there is a method to his madness, making him currently the richest man in the world.
 
Bezos is known for his annual letter to shareholders as well as Amazon's innovative leadership principles. In his 20th anniversary letter published this year, Bezos shared his preferred method of communication during meetings: well-reasoned memos. But they aren’t just any memos, they are narrative essays.
 
Write your narrative
In fact, Bezos has banned PowerPoint and slide presentations at Amazon meetings. Instead of relying on the crutch of slides, an executive must create a six-page “narratively structured” document spelling out a proposal or issue. The memos are read silently at the beginning of executive meetings as a type of “study hall” for 30 minutes before beginning the discussion. Not surprisingly, some of the memos are excellent, while others are lackluster. 
 
After acknowledging the difficulty of pinpointing the exact details that create an exceptional memo, Bezos came to an interesting conclusion:
 
Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more!
 
As with any thoughtful communication, a great narrative requires a concerted effort. It’s like the story from Mark Twain – he apologized to his friend for writing a long letter because he “didn’t have the time to write a short one.”
 
It takes writing, rewriting, and more editing to create an effective narrative.
 
Excellent communication also takes time, effort and focus. I’ve worked with CEO’s and other senior leaders who put communication at the bottom of their priority list as they pursue activities with what they perceive as a “higher ROI (return on investment).”
 
Yet the truly enlightened and successful leaders I work with realize that communication is fundamental to the success of their businesses and their careers. As the president of one company said to me recently, “We can have the perfect strategy but if no one understands it, it’s worthless.”
 
So true. Bezos, Buffett, and Musk illustrate the importance of continuous improvement in your leadership communication.
 
Your communication
How about you?
 
Do you recall a time when you heard yourself saying, at work or at home, “that’s not what I meant!”?
 
Do you and your team use clear language or do you tend to use jargon? 
 
Do people in your organization maintain the hierarchy, or are they free to communicate with anyone that can help to solve a problem?
 
Your answers to these questions might not make you a billionaire, but you’ll be on your way to better results through clearer, more effective communication.

Just use our contact form to let me know what communication obstacle you run into in your organization.

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How to Introduce a Guest Speaker

I'd like to introduce a man with a lot of charm, talent, and wit. Unfortunately, he couldn't be here tonight, so instead . . .

–– Melvin Helitzer


One of the most frequent requests I get is for tips on how to introduce a guest speaker. This is understandable because we are so seldom asked to perform this ritual and an introduction is so easy to mess up.

We’ve all seen it:

  • The introduction that seems to last longer than the speech
  • The person who reads word-for-word a long biography exactly as it is printed in the program
  • The introducers who make it more about themselves than the speaker 

These are just a few examples of how the simple act of welcoming someone to the stage can go awry.
 
With this in mind, here are a few tips to help you next time you’re called upon to make an introduction:

Do your research
You may have the speaker’s bio, but you should still do some homework before the event. Go online or talk to people who know the guest. Your goal should be to learn what is most interesting about this person.
 
If possible, talk with the person ahead of time. You’ll not only make a connection, but you can ask how the person would like to be introduced.

If the biography is in the program, point that out and then cover a few highlights that you believe are most relevant and compelling to your audience.
 
Make it personal
You may receive a bio or a written introduction for some speakers. As a professional speaker and trainer, I have short- and medium-length introductions ready to go.
 
If you receive one of these for a speaker, it’s most effective to personalize it based on your experiences. It could be from your research, from a colleague who has praised this speaker, or from your own interactions with this person. A brief story can have a huge impact in effectively kicking off the talk.

I always appreciate it when I’m introduced with a personal touch. This helps me to develop an intimate relationship with the audience more quickly.
 
Don’t steal the show
While it’s good to make the personal connection with the speaker, it’s also important to avoid making it about yourself. You can talk about your personal experience briefly, but then quickly transfer attention to the speaker.
 
Keep it brief
Your job is to set the tone and to transition the person to the audience. Your introduction should be clear, concise, and focused. In most cases, 60 to 90 seconds should be your goal, with some introductions shorter and some longer depending on the situation.
 
Practice your intro
It’s good to rehearse your introduction, making sure that what reads well on paper sounds good when spoken. Practicing out loud will help you feel comfortable and confident. I tell my coaching clients that reading is not rehearsing. It doesn’t count unless the words are spoken from your lips.
 
Critical tip: Make sure you have the correct pronunciation of the speaker’s name. Few things will be more embarrassing for you, and awkward for the speaker, than mispronouncing the person’s name.
 
Establish the speaker’s authority
It’s important for you to establish the speaker’s credibility as an expert on the topic and the relevance to this audience. Whether you’re in a small meeting or at a convention, it’s critical to connect the audience’s needs and interests with the speaker’s talk. People always want to know, “why should I care about what this person will say?”
 
Show your excitement for the speaker
How you introduce a speaker can set the tone not only for the speech but for your entire event. Too many introductions are lukewarm, merely going through the motions.
 
If you’re excited about what comes next, you need to let people know, through your voice, your body language, and your facial expressions. Bring some energy to your introduction, ask for a warm welcome, and lead the applause.
 
Stay focused with your eyes and body toward the speaker and smile and welcome that person like an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time.
 
The art of the introduction is not easy, but with some planning and practice, you can create a warm welcome that makes all the difference.

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Master Moments That Matter

No, I ain't much of a poet but I know somebody once told me
To seize the moment and don't squander it
'Cause you never know when it all could be over tomorrow.

Eminem, “The Monster”

 

How you communicate can make or break your career and can make a huge difference in every area of your life.

If you look back over your life, you’ll identify a few key moments that mattered most to your success – a pivotal job interview, a critical presentation, a major sale or even the first meeting with your life partner.

How we communicate in these high-stakes moments can be turning points in our lives. There are also day-to-day and weekly communications that in total can have just as much if not more impact on our success.

And all of these moments can produce huge stress – physical, emotional and mental.

Deep stress
Working with clients in Chicago last week, we talked about how that stress feels: we have that deep anxiety, pounding heart, sweaty palms, thoughts racing.

Research tells us that we also produce hormones that harm our bodies, including high levels of cortisol released by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight response.

Despite this importance, many leaders and other high achievers make their presentations or crucial conversations the last thing on their agenda.

They may actually increase their stress by throwing together slides, missing breakfast and rushing to the meeting to make a key presentation.

The result is predictable: They feel super stressed before and during the presentation and they come off as unconfident and nervous. The results are also predictable: They don't get the promotion, don't make the sale or don’t get their project approved.

Be a presentation athlete
This is why I recommend to my clients a different mindset: Think of yourself as a Presentation Athlete.

Consider your presentations and other communications as being athletic events – the moment when you must perform at your highest level. You must be peaking in your energy and focus.

With this in mind, let me offer these tips on showing up to be your best when it matters most. Taking these steps will reduce your stress and build your confidence.

Prepare yourself
First and most important is to take the time to plan your communications and be prepared. Know what you are trying to achieve with your presentation and organize your messages to meet that objective.

Rehearse your presentation
Rehearsal is the key to feeling confident in the moment. When you practice your presentation, your mind begins to feel you’ve been here before and are simply repeating the same process. I wrote about this more extensively in Please, Rehearse Your Presentation.

Get some sleep
It’s hard to perform at your best when you’re exhausted. Yet, most of us get to that point and it has become an epidemic, especially among high-performing adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says “insufficient sleep is a public health problem” and recent polls suggest Americans are getting 40 percent less than the recommended sleep. If you can’t always get enough sleep, try to at least plan to get more sleep before your major moments.

Sweat it out
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the effects of stress hormones. Again, if you can’t exercise regularly, try to do some physical activity before your presentation to release some of your stress and level off your hormones.

Eat something
Anxiety has a way of reducing our appetite. You should fight that feeling and get some solid food in your stomach.

One of the most important factors in feeling right is your blood-sugar level; many people will drink coffee and go without food before a presentation. While the caffeine may help to wake you up, the lack of food will drop your blood sugar and make you crash way too early. While you’re eating, make sure you stay hydrated as well.

Breathing and more
Proper breath can be a superpower in controlling your anxiety. The morning of your presentation, try sitting quietly while you focus on your breathing. Take five or ten minutes to calm yourself and visualize showing up as your best, strongest self when you reach that moment.

These are some of the techniques I recommend to my clients and that I use myself before my keynote speeches and training sessions. They work.

The point is this: You are preparing for a critical event, just like a major athletic event, so you should be prepared physically, mentally and emotionally.

That’s how you can make the most of the moments that matter.

How to Use Your Hands In Presentations

One of the most frequent questions I get on presentations and other talks is “what should I do with my hands?”

The simple answer is: Do what comes naturally. Use your hands as you would in conversation, though adapted to your environment.
 
This question, like many others, comes from people thinking about what they will do when it’s time to get into “presentation mode.”  This makes them self-conscious and distracted.
 
Some presentation coaches promote this artificial behavior by calling a presentation a “performance.” They direct people to gesticulate a certain way or to hold their hands in some odd position. For most people, it feels awkward to them and their audience.
 
You can immediately spot public people who have been coached, or, more to the point, overcoached.
 
The first President Bush was a great example. Known for lacking animation in his body language, Bush had obviously been coached during his re-election campaign to use a forceful chopping with his hands to show his passion.

Unfortunately, it was not natural for him, so it looked as if the video of his rally talks had gotten out of synch with the audio as he chopped at the air just offbeat, emphasizing the wrong moments.
 
This is why I say we should stop giving presentations and start having conversations. In a conversation, you never think about your hands. You should free your hands to move as naturally as you would in a conversation appropriate to the environment.
 
Here are some strategies for showing and using your hands in communicating:

Show your hands as often as possible
Why do we want to see people’s hands? Trust. Every person we meet, we first evaluate for trustworthiness. Some researchers speculate that humans are hardwired for suspicion, courtesy of our cave-dwelling days.

We didn’t know then if someone approaching us would do us harm or steal our limited resources. To ensure our safety and survival, we learned to watch hands and read body language.
 
True or not, it certainly became a practice as hand weapons evolved. The modern gesture of shaking hands is said to stem from an ancient tradition of showing that our hands did not contain knives or other weapons.
 
Turn your palms to the audience
A simple application of this in your talks is to show your audience your open hands; basically, show them your palms. This simple gesture has incredible power. It indicates our openness to people and connects us.
 
I’ve used this often in my training workshops. When an executive is using closed body language, I’ll have him or her try again with this simple change – hands open to the audience. Co-workers, who weren’t aware of the change, reported feeling more positively but didn’t know why until we revealed the open hands.
 
Shake hands often
When we shake hands we build trust and make a connection, and not only because we are relieved that a person isn’t holding a weapon.
 
There is science behind this. When we have skin-to-skin contact, our bodies produce a chemical called oxytocin, known as the connection hormone.  Through experiments, researcher Paul Zak found that by giving a dose of this hormone to participants they became more trusting. That’s another reason a positive handshake helps to build trust.
 
Talk with your hands
As humans, we become more engaged watching people with open gestures and body language. A team led by researcher Vanessa Van Edwards studied why some TED Talks go viral, while others don’t gain traction.
 
The team reviewed hundreds of hours of TED Talks searching for differences in the most and least watched talks. They analyzed hand gestures, vocal variety, smiling and body movement.
 
Edwards’ team concluded that speakers who used the most hand gestures had the most views. “The most popular talks used an average of 465 hand gesture (yes, our coders counted every single one). The least popular TED Talkers used an average of 272 hand gestures. And TED superstars Temple Grandin, Simon Sinek and Jane McGonicgal topped the charts with more than 600 hand gestures in just 18 minutes.”
 
And it’s not only good for presentations. Edwards also notes that 30 years ago researchers found that job candidates who used more hand gestures were more likely to win the job.
 
Use gestures to describe concepts
In the same vein, I suggest you use your hands as tools for explanation. People often derive more information from our body language than from our words. Use your hand gestures to explain ideas and facts.
 
For instance, you might hold your left hand parallel to the ground showing the level of your projected sales; your right hand could be raised beyond the left to show the increase in sales year over year. The visual of your hand gestures will reinforce the concept much more strongly than your words.
 
Clearly, our hands make a difference in how we communicate with others. Take action this week by using your hands naturally to fully engage people who matter in your business and life.

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Speaking and Writing to Be Understood

It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.

And that’s why your books
have such power and strength.
You publish with shorth!
(Shorth is better than length.)

Dr. Seuss

 

Some of my clients, super-intelligent financial experts, scientists and business leaders believe that they must talk in the highly sophisticated language of their field to be respected as experts.

Many also feel that they must give longer, more complicated answers so that people have a deeper understanding of their ideas and, again, recognize that they are indeed experts. They say they don’t want to “dumb it down” by talking more simply.

None of these ideas is true. Today people are so overwhelmed with information and activity that being clear and simple in your talking and writing will give you greater influence and respect.

Whether your communication goal is influencing, informing, educating or entertaining people, you’ll be more successful if you seek to be understood.

And this doesn’t just apply to experts in their field. It applies to all of us. People are not paying attention anymore. We get an estimated 5,000 marketing messages a day, not including your email, texts, news, Facebook and other social media.

That’s why all of us need to:

Use clear, direct language

Speaking and writing in clear language is more understandable, authentic and approachable. People are put off by jargon they don’t understand. It stops us cold.

When their attention diverts, people don’t hear what you say or write anymore. If they are present at all, they are just hearing you say, “blah, blah, blah.”

Use fewer words, not more

I have clients who complain that no one reads anymore. Emails, reports, white papers that took a ton of time to create often go unread.

That’s because, with our short attention spans, people are intimidated by long reports and even emails. Give them a summary, so at least you’ll have them engaged with your basic ideas.

If you hook them in the beginning, you might find that they go deeper or ask you questions. You have to engage them. As I wrote in July, today less is more.

Use short, simple sentences

The average newspaper in the U.S. is written for a sixth-grade reading level comprehension; blockbuster novels are written for seventh-grade reading level; while the Wall Street Journal is closer to the ninth-grade level.

I learned to write more crisply and directly in high school and in college journalism. The reason you find short, crisp sentences and paragraphs in news writing is to capture and keep people’s attention.

Studies show that our attention and comprehension decline after 30 words in a paragraph. That’s about the length of the previous paragraph. ;-)

Be conversational

Some of the feedback I get from readers is that they feel as if I’m talking directly to them. I think this is a great compliment because my mission is to help people communicate more effectively. That won’t happen if you don’t understand what I’m writing.

My goal is to have a conversation with you about topics that matter and give advice you can take action on right away. Part of the reason this might sound conversational is that I dictate much of my writing into Microsoft Word, as I am doing right now.

Test your communication

You can ask people if you’re communicating clearly, or you can run experiments. Start sending short emails on just one topic. Stay higher level when you talk about a complicated topic. See if people are more engaged, as a result.

You can test the readability of your writing here. Just click the “Try it Now” button, which gives you free access to the tool anytime. You simply paste in your text, and it will be thoroughly analyzed for being readable and conversational.

For instance, the article you are reading gets an “A” for readability; it reads at a 7.1-grade level; 68.4 reading ease (100 is best); 13.6 words per sentence. The tool gives a complete statistic breakdown on every aspect of your writing. This is my first time using this tool, and I’m very impressed. Check it out!

The primary basis of this tool is called the Flesch-Kincaid grading system, originally commissioned by the U.S. Military to write more clear and useful manuals. Dr. Rudolf Flesch’s most famous book, published in 1955, is called Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It. That book inspired Dr. Seuss to write The Cat in the Hat in 1957.

Although it may seem easier to write in simple sentences and paragraphs, it’s not. You have to put in more effort and be willing to revise until it’s ready to go. As Mark Twain famously said, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

If you want to engage people, your best bet is to use clear, simple, direct and authentic communication.

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