I’m preparing my synopsis of The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, which I will present this coming Friday at the First Friday Book Synopsis. (By the way, it may land near the top of my list of the “best books I’ve read.” It is a really good book!)
He writes about problems solving complex problems in an ever-more complex world. He spends an entire chapter on the crisis following Hurricane Katrina. There is quite a section on the brilliant response of Wal-Mart. Buy the book just to read this chapter! (It is chapter 4: The Idea).
Lee Scott, the CEO, issued this edict:
“This company will respond to the level of this disaster… A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision that you can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and above all, do the right thing.”
And store managers did so. They got stores open, fast, created “crude paper-slip credit systems for first responders, providing them with food, sleeping bags, toiletries, and also rescue equipment like hatchets, ropes, and boots.” Store managers distributed diapers, water, baby formula, ice… One assistant manager literally drove a bulldozer through her flooded store, loaded it with items she could salvage, and gave them all away in the parking lot.
Wal-Mart officials concentrated on setting goals, measuring progress, and maintaining communication lines with employees at the front lines and with official agencies where they could. In other words, to handle this complex situation, they did not issue instructions. Conditions were too unpredictable and constantly changing. They worked on making sure people talked… Wal-Mart’s employees were able to fashion some extraordinary solutions.
Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government chronicled and praised Wal-Mart’s response in a case study.
I had read a little about Wal-Mart’s response after Katrina. But the details in this chapter were new to me. I suspect that is due to my own negligence. I have not always been a fan of Wal-Mart’s ways. But this chapter is pretty convincing that in one really bad and tragic moment for a whole lot of our citizens, Wal-Mart deserves all the praise anyone can give.
I just posted about the need for serious and thorough preparation in a speech/presentation.
I wrote earlier about President Obama and his editing of a speech draft. I had read that President Reagan had the same discipline, but did not refine my Google search terms well enough to find an image. Well, thanks to suggestions from Bob Morris, I used better words, and now we can see that both presidents were active with their editing pens. (side issue — we can also see the difference between a typewriter and a modern computer).
Here are a couple of samples of President Reagan’s editing:
And here’s President Obama’s:
And here is the lesson. The great speakers know that the first draft can always be improved, and they work hard at it. By the way, President Reagan wrote out many of his speeches in longhand, as did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(note: I live in multiple worlds. I read and present synopses of business books, and other nonfiction books; I speak and consult; and I teach speech, and study speech pretty seriously. This is a post from that part of my life).
Every failed presentation fails in one of two ways: the presentation had little or nothing worthwhile to say, or, even if the content was worthwhile, then it was delivered very, very poorly.
Would you like to deliver successful presentations? It is simple (not easy – just simple) – just have something really worthwhile and useful to say, and then say it very, very well.
That’s it. Every other tip (and step and piece of advice) simply elaborates on these two.
If you want the academic terms for these two elements, they go all the way back to Aristotle’s canons. He had five (invention; arrangement; style; memory; delivery — read about all five here), but I think these two really are the whole ball game:
Invention: invention involves finding something to say. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY!
Delivery: Delivery concerns itself with how something is said. SAY IT VERY WELL!
The Invention Part requires a host of elements: good, genuine, deep preparation; checking out opposing viewpoints and deciding why your view is correct and the other views are incorrect. Have more to say than the time allotted, thus forcing you to edit effectively; fill your time with great and useful content. Choose the most effective order for your main points, the right illustrations, the best stories, the right words. Follow the principles set forth in such books as Made to Stick by the Heath brothers and Words that Work by Frank Luntz. (see this earlier blog post for a summary of the key content from these two excellent books). And be sure to select the best possible topic – one that you care deeply about, one that really does matter to your specific audience, one that is born of this time and these circumstances, one that is manageable in the time allotted.
And don’t forget the techniques of the great speakers. Use repetition – a lot of repetition – on purpose. In a written essay, repetition can be your enemy. In a presentation, repetition can be your friend. Try your best to use parallel structure, especially with your main points. Don’t have too many main points!
And start in a way that compels the audience to pay attention. And end in a way that sends them forth with a clear understanding of “what next? – now that I’ve heard this presentation, I know the what’s next!”
In other words, before you ever get up to speak, you’ve got your work cut out for you. It takes a lot of serious, focused preparation to have something worthwhile to say.
The Delivery Part requires a lot of practice (rehearsal) with deliberate practice/work on specific elements. Start with your posture. Then your voice. Then your eye contact. Then your gestures.
When you actually deliver your presentation, make sure these things happen:
• come across as knowledgeable, but not arrogant
• come close to electrifying the room with your energy
• be perceived as deeply caring about this topic, and these people
• genuinely connect with this audience
Whatever else, don’t fail. Succeed. Have something to say, and say it very well.