Right pitch, wrong shirt

Know your audience before you start talking… This is not only the title of one of my earlier posts on this blog, but even more a piece of good advice for anyone who’s speaking in public. A group of people that also includes a growing army of young entrepreneurs, pitching in front of venture capitalists and potential investors to obtain the so desired initial funding to realize their dreams.

Not so long ago, I had the honor to be part of the jury for a (try-out) pitching session organized by a local business incubator. Among the 6 jury members were representatives of a regional business angel network, a few technology professionals (like me), and an investment expert from a major bank.

During the event, one of the startups was pitching a social app they developed for sports clubs. In an effort to accentuate his message visually, and probably to charm the audience and the jury too, the presenter-on-duty entered the stage dressed up in a colorful soccer shirt.

rsca_shirt

A great idea. Theoretically. The young guy made one wrong choice: the club shirt he was proudly wearing displayed in large letters the name and the logo of… a large bank. Unfortunately, not the one of the sixth jury member’s employer. But rather the one of its fiercest competitor in the market place.

Shit happens. The presenter delivered a great pitch for a nice product. But he won neither the hearts nor the (virtual) money of all jury members (guess which one wasn’t convinced?) A mistake that could have easily been avoided by conducting some quick, upfront research on who would be in the audience and in the jury (actually, the speaker should have known; the event was held at the bank’s HQ premises.)

Penne all’amatriciana

Last week we returned from a vacation in Italy. During our stay we were confronted with the breaking news about the devastating 6.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked the center of the country. One of the hardest-hit towns was the beautiful comune of  Amatrice, with 80% of the historic center destroyed and nearly 200 deadly casualties.

As we were safe and sound, visiting a region of the country hundreds of kilometers away from the quake’s epicenter, we heard the dramatic testimonials of disaster-stricken residents and saw the images of rescue teams digging through the rubble delivered via the local media.

In addition to all the dramatic facts and figures, we also learned that Amatrice is the birthplace of the bacon-and-tomato flavored all’amatriciana pasta sauce that was accordingly named after the severely hit mountain town. This factoid turned out to be an ideal context for Italian food blogger, Paolo Campana, to launch an appeal on Facebook in which he asked restaurants to put pasta all’amatriciana on their menus and donate 2 euros per dish sold to the Italian Red Cross.

Amatriciana

When we went for dinner on the last night of our Italian holiday, we found out that the restaurant had also appended a solidarity penne all’amatriciana item to their menu. So, guess what we chose as the primo piatto of our meal? And, actually, the food was  delicious, but the knowledge that we were supporting the earthquake victims with a symbolic donation made it taste even better…

My apologies for using some inappropriate terminology in this dramatic context for my conclusion, but the above anecdote is proving once again that combination of an emotion-touching story (the sauce that originated in the earthquake-hit town,) combined with an excellent product (a perfectly flavored pasta dish,) and an engaging cause (supporting the earthquake victims) is a powerful marketing and communication tool.

You may also have a look at these other posts about the value of brand storytelling:

Beauty and the beast

This week I read two articles about robots. One was about Jia Jia, a hyper-realistic young female-looking android, dressed in traditional Chinese style, which is capable of having a conversation with humans. She (or, should I rather say “it”?) can understand what people say, though she mostly just reacts to compliments on her appearance, like “You are beautiful” and “You look like an 18-year-old…”

The other piece covered a more functional species, named SpotMini. Boston Dynamics’ latest creation could be characterized as a ‘helpful giraffe-dog’.  It can grab all sorts of things, including fragile objects such as wine glasses or dirty dishes. Although less a pleasure for the human eye than robot goddess Jia-Jia, robodog SpotMini is probably more what the average person would expect a robot to be and to look like.

robots

Watching the pictures of both cyborg creatures made me think about the trade-offs between beauty and functionality. Even in this era of gender equality, most people don’t associate a sturdy machine with the looks a beautiful young woman, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, similar prejudices also often apply to the (PowerPoint) presentations we create. Working in a high-tech environment, in the heart of a community of engineers, I experience on a daily basis that most of my colleagues prefer creating long and (often) ugly slide decks with lots of complicated diagrams, detailed tables, and technical jargon. They seem to consider any visually appealing presentation a marketing gimmick — a kind of Jia-Jia, who’s only good for accepting “you are beautiful” compliments — that is not to be used for explaining complex ideas, designs, and creations. They put functionality before simplicity and aesthetics.

And still Beauty and the Beast can live together in perfect harmony. The Apple II personal computer was launched in 1977 with the slogan “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and although Steven Jobs is sometimes quoted for saying that “design is how it works, not how it looks,” many people still buy an iPhone because of its premium look and feel. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. And so should be your business presentations!

You can watch some videos of the robot creations I mentioned above:

And, by the way, beautiful robots can be smart, ambitious, and wicked too. Have a look at another humanlike robot, Sophia, who “in the future, hopes to do things such as go to school, study, make art, start a business, even have her own home and family…”, and — oh my — “destroy humans” too.

Thought leader or entertainer?

“You know that I’m a thought leader, because I’m wearing a blazer, I have glasses, and I’ve just done this with my hands…”

Maybe you’ve already seen the recording of a This is That TED-like talk by self-proclaimed thought leader Pat Kelly. And if you haven’t, take a look at the video below.

Unless you’re an alien without any sense of humor, you must have realized that this is not a real keynote. And observed that Kelly’s character is an empty shell with nothing to say, though with an impressive ability to deliver his message (and entertain his audience.)

Then, you also know that it takes more to being a thought leader than wearing the right clothes, putting on a pair of smart looking glasses, and making some gorgeous gestures with your hands. But, if you still believe you are one – or have an unstoppable ambition to become one – here are a few tips…

  • Stay ahead of the curve. Keeping Malcolm Forbes’ wisdom that “the best vision is insight” in mind, always base your opinion – and accompanying narrative – on trustable and traceable facts and figures.
  • When acting as a thought leader, NEVER deliver a sales pitch. Take the stance of a neutral observer,  and a dependable domain expert. Of course, when you’re explicitly speaking on behalf of your (or another) company there’s no problem to recommend or acknowledge the ‘sponsor.’
  • Never stop earning your audience’s respect. Show them that you are an authority on the topic, and prove them that you have the right to speak. But even when world considers you a champion, always stay your humble self!
  • Talk as often as you can with customers, end-users, and opinion makers. Listen to them and benefit from their insights and experience to further develop your expertise and evolve your narrative. Be careful with dropping names or citing facts or figures on behalf of any 3rdparty to make yourself look more important.
  • Create an elevator pitch, define your mantra and don’t be shy of repeating yourself – repetition is one of the tools to make your message stick. In the mean time, keep evolving your story and updating your content as technology and markets evolve.
  • Craft and deliver compelling content for a broad audience. Keep it simple and sweet, but don’t be fluffy. Be aware of audiences’ needs and expectations and remember, people are always looking for the WIIFM.
  • Build a personal brand, establish your social media presence (also as a follower!) and develop a multi channel content strategy. Try to create and share quotable quotes, tweetable data points, and impactful visuals.
  • And finally, invest in developing your storytelling and public speaking skills. Being able to create and deliver a compelling presentation is certainly one of the basic competences an opinion maker (or any business leader) needs.

Unfortunately, there is no college class or MOOC that will teach you how to become a respected thought leader. It takes a lot of insight, expertise, and communication skills. And, even if you (think) you have all of these, the next time you’re on stage and walk over to your laptop, your audience may still look at you as an entertainer…

thought-leader

As a final note, by writing this blog post and giving you the above tips, I am not pretending to be a thought leader at anything at all. Think of me as a singer-songwriter, who’s passion is to perform a good song, while trying to entertain his audience.

More reading:

B.Y.O.C.

In an earlier entry on this blog, I listed the character as one of the 5 key elements upon which novelists, movie directors, as well as professional presenters rely to let their audience emotionally engage.

The character is the individual (or several of them) that the story is about. The answer to the “who?” question. Many narratives introduce protagonists and antagonists – respectively the main characters of the story and their opposites.

Introducing one or more characters is often a great way to personalize your message and add “what’s at stake?” tension to your story. Depending on the topic of your presentation, the protagonist may be you, your company or even your product, while the antagonist could be a competitor, a demanding customer or even an unfavorable market condition.

As such, I have enriched many of my business talks and blog posts by telling about what happened to “a friend”, “a colleague” or “a customer of mine”. Characters may be fictive, but you’ll feel more confident and earn more credibility when talking about real persons. Of course, you don’t have to mention their names – particularly when the protagonist or the antagonist appears in a not-very-flattering situation or gets involved in an embarrassing incident.

If you’re a frequent visitor of this site, you may remember the posts below, in which I used the exploits of my colleagues for introducing notorious do’s and don’ts of giving a business presentation. Though names and characters have been anonymized, all these stories report on real-life events that I witnessed personally:

This weekend I walked into a French LEGO store. For more than 80 years, LEGO toys have engaged kids in creative play, encouraging them to imagine, invent and explore (see for example the 1970’s letter from Lego to parents below.) That’s why their flagship store always is a good place to breathe the air of creativity – and in this case, get inspiration for a new blog post.

lego_letter

(click to enlarge)

Incidentally, I stumbled upon the Build-A-Minifigure bar. By combining a broad variety of heads, torsos, legs, hair, hats and accessories, everyone can design and purchase his/her own LEGO character(s).

Lego_store_BAM

It made me think about another article I wrote about “creating personas for audience-centric story design,” in which I explained how defining personas may help you to tell a better story. Putting yourself into the shoes of (some in) your audience will help you better understand what they think, believe, do, feel and need.

Suddenly, while having an Aha! moment at the Minifigure bar of the LEGO store, I figured out why I had intuitively borrowed a LEGO image to illustrate this old blog post.

And, then I realized that I might have run into the perfect tool for fleshing-out personas of my audience, and for synthesizing the protagonists and antagonists of my story.

B.Y.O.C. = Bring (or Build, or Buy) Your Own Character…

Lego_store_minis

Start with a book

When delivering a talk, it’s utterly important to grab your audience’s attention from the first moment on. In an earlier post on this blog, “Begin the beginning,” I gave a few examples on how you may surprise, intrigue or provoke them with an opening statement or poll. And in another article, “Titles, ” I elaborated on using original presentation titles.

Here’s yet another great jump-start for the beginning of your speech: tell the people in the room about a book you read that’s relevant to the subject of your presentation. You may even consider bringing a hard copy with you: a tangible artifact that your audience can see, touch and browse through.

In my day job as a high-tech marketer and communicator, I’m involved in conversations with customers and opinion makers about how broadband internet, connected devices, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications are changing the way we live, work, and do business. So, after reading the summaries below, it should be no surprise that I picked these three  – fiction, non-fiction, and science fiction – books for introducing some of my speaking topics.

Blackout – tomorrow will be too late” by Austrian author Marc Elsberg, is a techno-thriller about a large-scale power outage in Europe, caused by a cyber attack. While the digitization of the energy sector, and the move towards distributed power generation, smart meters, and internet-connected appliances are creating a number of opportunities, new technologies can also open the door to cyber threats.

Elsberg-cover

As no-one wants to experience the scenario that’s described in this book, I mentioned it at the start a lecture about smart energy grids and cyber security. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of an English translation of the book.

In “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” American social-economic theorist and activist Jeremy Rifkin describes how new technologies, such as 3D printing, green energy, and the Internet of Things, are speeding us to an era of nearly free goods and services (and, according to the author, the eclipse of capitalism.)

Rifkin-cover

Billions of sensors are being attached to natural resources, production lines, energy grids, logistics networks, recycling flows, and implanted in homes, offices, stores, vehicles, and even human beings, feeding Big Data into an IoT global neural network. Prosumers will be able connect to the network and use Big Data to accelerate efficiency, increase productivity, and lower the marginal cost of producing and sharing a wide range of products and services to near zero…

In another post on this blog, “Back to the future,” I wrote about why it may be a good thing for a sales or marketing person to make speculations about the long-term future. Some of the best forward-looking statements –of which a number really materialized– about technology and the evolution of society were written many years ago. Take for example George Orwell’s “1984,” or Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot.”

The book I sometimes refer to when touching the topic of smart cities and a technology-powered society, however, is a less known work by French science-fiction author Jules Verne. Marketed on the cover as the lost novel, “Paris in the Twentieth Century” was originally written in 1863, but it took more than one hundred years before his great-grandson discover the handwritten manuscript.

Verne-cover

The work gives a staggering prediction of Paris of the nineteen-sixties. The author depicts a city in which industry and commerce have triumphed, and creativity and art have become obsolete. Just like Villemard did in his 1910 postcards, Verne predicts automobiles, the subway, fax machines, and more things to come.

For those interested in new technology and its impact on our (future) society, here are a few links to presentations I have given over the past years about the subjects mentioned above:

Size matters!

Here’s another true story, possibly even an Oscar candidate in the “wrong answer to a good question” category.

One of my colleagues – let’s call him John – was recently presenting at an industry seminar. With more than 200 experts and potential customers in the audience, the speaker had a great stage for promoting our company’s vision and portfolio. The event turned out to be a big success and John’s message was well received.

Actually, the content of his talk was outstanding. But, during the after-event debrief, there was this one comment about “too much text on the slides and too small font sizes.” As I was sitting in the back of the room, I can acknowledge that a pair of binoculars would indeed have been a good thing to bring along.

eyetest

When confronted with the poor readability of his visuals, John’s reaction was unexpected and wrong:

“Well, when we come back next year, we should probably ask the organizers to install a larger projection screen…”

In my humble opinion, a more straightforward – and easier solution – might have been to put fewer words on the slides, and to increase the font size of the remaining text. A to follow Guy Kawasaki’s advice:

“The reason people use a small font is twofold: first, that they don’t know their material well enough; second, they think that more text is more convincing. Total bozosity. Force yourself to use no font smaller than thirty points. I guarantee it will make your presentations better because it requires you to find the most salient points and to know how to explain them well.”

Size matters, John, also for your presentation fonts!

Elon Musk and the stored sunlight experience

Over the past weeks, there has been a lot of excitement about the unveiling of the Tesla Model 3. But almost exactly one year ago, the car maker’s CEO made another game-changing announcement.

On April 30, 2015 Elon Musk introduced the Powerwall, a home battery system that charges using electricity generated from solar panels (or when utility rates are low) and powers your home in the evening.

ElonMuskPowerWall-640x320

Although there was nothing really revolutionary about the lithium-ion battery technology that Tesla showed off, Musk delivered a memorable pitch. His presentation changed the public’s perception of batteries — similar to when Steve Jobs talked about a new laptop, or introduced the iPhone. And he thoughtfully applied Simon Sinek’s golden circle principle.

As I described in an earlier post on this blog, Sinek’s message is as simple as it is powerful: People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. That’s why great leaders always start with the WHY, before they talk about the HOW, and the WHAT.

Let’s have a look at the video and do a bit of analysis on the Tesla Energy keynote…

  • Musk starts his presentation with reminding the audience about how today’s power is generated. Showing an image of burning fossil fuels, he tells the people in the room that: “This is how it is today. It is pretty bad. Actually it sucks…” and supports his statement by facts and figures about C02 concentration in the atmosphere. Isn’t this a direct — and memorable — way of saying what’s wrong and WHY things needs to change urgently?
  • Then, before disclosing anything about his company’s actual product, he explains why today’s electricity grid is not properly working, and evangelizes the HOW — a vision of a world powered by “this handy fusion reactor in the sky, called the sun” and “that one red pixel, that is the size of the batteries needed to bring the United States to have no fossil fuel generated electricity.” Two high-impact metaphors that describe how simple and compact a solution to being solar with batteries could be.

Of course there’s still one small matter that needs to be solved: “The issue with existing batteries is that they suck. They’re really horrible. They look like that. They’re expensive. They’re unreliable. They’re sort of stinky, ugly, bad in every way, very expensive – you have to combine multiple systems – there’s no integrated place you can go and buy a battery that just works…”

  • And finally, only after more than 6 minutes, the keynote speaker comes up with WHAT people will be able to buy: “That’s the mission piece. That’s the thing that’s needed to have a proper transition to a sustainable energy world… This is a product we call the Tesla Powerwall.”

Particularly for this kind of groundbreaking technology innovation, it may be important to give evidence that you’re not just showing slideware.

  • Musk does that by zooming in on a camera feed of the event venue’s power meter. And by observing that “the grid it’s actually zero. This entire night has been powered by batteries. Not only that, the batteries were charged by the solar panels on the roof of this building. So, this entire night, everything you’re experiencing is stored sunlight.”

In yet another post on this blog about storytellers, storydoers and storymakers, I wrote that only great personalities are able to combine these three roles. They not only have great ideas, but they also have the capabilities to execute them and engage their audience — and as such create or change an industry. If you ask me, Elon Musk is certainly one of them.

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba

Some stories are so strong that they survive for centuries, and so universal that they appear in many forms and in different contexts. Recently, while I was watching Disney’s classic masterpiece The Lion King on TV, it came to my mind that the plot holds many similarities to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

the_lion_king

Although my children consider themselves too grown up for watching animated features, their old dad enjoys them more than ever. William Shakespeare and Walt Disney are two of the most influential storytellers in human history. In my article about five elements of a story (and how to use them in a business presentation) I identified 5 key ingredients to ensure a consistent story, allow the action to develop and let the audience emotionally engage. Let’s have a look at how Hamlet and The Lion King compare…

1. Plot

The plot of both Hamlet and The Lion King is about a (young) prince whose father is killed by his uncle. The prince is exiled from his home and returns to revenge his father’s death and take the throne that rightfully belongs to him.

2. Characters

The protagonist role of prince Hamlet Jr. of Denmark is played by the lion cub Simba, while Shakespeare’s antagonist, the king’s brother Claudius, has inspired Disney’s animators to create the villain lion Scar. And did you  ever look at the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed as Rosencratz and Guildenstern?

3. Theme

Death, revenge, and justice are major themes in both stories. Both princes delay action, they overcome a moral struggle, and their faith only changes when their dead fathers reappear as a ghost. It has to be noted however, that most of the characters in Hamlet die, while Simba lives happily ever after with his youth friend Nala.

4. Setting

At first sight, the settings of both productions are completely different. One can hardly compare the African savanna with the medieval Denmark. But what if you start looking at Pride Rock as the King’s castle, and match the devastated Pride Lands that Simba discovers when he comes home to Shakespeare’s churchyard in act 5?

5. Style

As they were addressing a different audience, the style of Shakespeare’s play vs. Disney’s movie is notably different. Playing around 1600 A.D., London theater visitors were the very rich, and the upper and lower middle class, while Disney’s movies are primarily addressing 20th century children and their parents.

But, as with many Disney films, The Lion King works on different levels and both children and adults will enjoy this animated classic for different reasons. You even don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan.

P.S. For those who wonder about the title of this post: “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” is Zulu for “Here comes a lion, father.” They are the first words of the opening sequence of the movie… and, yes, I have seen the musical too.

Beware the Oxford comma

Have you ever heard about the Oxford comma, also known as the Harvard comma, or the serial comma. No? Neither did I (although I just used one in the previous sentence) until I was confronted with this Sky News alert about the Nelson Mandela memorial service on December 10th, 2013:

“Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…”

I would never have imagined that there was something more behind that warm handshake between US president Obama and the Cuban leader Raul Castro, but that’s what I (thought I) was actually reading…

obama-castro-handshake

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a serial comma is “a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect).”

Here are a few other sentences in which a small comma can make a big difference (the two first quotes are told to have appeared in The Times):

“Among these interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

“Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

“During the sales team meeting they discussed the quarterly results, their key customers and their upcoming trip to Disneyland.”

Not all writers and publishers use it, and style experts disagree on whether it is required or not, but if you look at the examples above you’ll concur with me that the Oxford comma may actually be the most important punctuation mark in English (or any other tongue.)

Although commas only appear in written language, oral presenters may also benefit from punctuations. Silence sometimes says more than words, and the effective use of pauses turns an average speech into a dynamite speech. As such, it’s a good practice to insert a short moment of silence (while taking a breath) when a comma, a semicolon, or a period would be used in a printed text.

A colleagues of mine has even adopted the habit of (occasionally) speaking punctuations out loud. The first time you hear him talk like this … comma … it may sound a little bit weird … period … But when you think about it  … comma … it’s actually a good way to pace your speech … comma … to emphasize your message … Oxford comma … and to avoid confusing word constructions … full stop.

And if you follow the news you won’t have missed that the odd couple, Obama and Castro, recently had another date (their fourth one already)  in Havana, to further deepen their relationship.