Bill Steele on “Presentation Skills 201”: An interview by Bob Morris

SteeleA presentation skills trainer and coach since 1992, Bill Steele has helped thousands of presenters increase their ability to craft strong, persuasive messages and deliver them with an engaging style. He has worked with both individuals and presentation teams in a wide range of industries and professions. In recent years he has spent the greatest part of his time coaching experienced presenters who are facing a critical presentation or have a strong desire to up their skills to a new, higher level. It is this experience with accomplished presenters that is featured in the Second dition of his latest book, Presentation Skills 201: How to Take It to the Next Level as a Confident, Engaging Presenter (2016).

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Bill. A link to the complete interview is provided later.

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Morris: Before discussing the Second Edition of Presentation Skills 201, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Steele: The person who has had the greatest influence on my personal life has been my wife Jan. Throughout the 40 years we have been married, she has modeled a life of peace and joy. I can’t say I have come even close to matching her in these qualities, but I know that a troubled childhood had me going in a much more negative direction and she has played leading role in the better biography I can now claim.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Steele: I’ve had the good fortune to work for and with several people who have helped me develop professionally, but if I have to identify the one with the “greatest impact” it would be a gentleman named Richard Kanter. He owned the marketing-services company I worked for in the first half of my career. I grew up in a blue collar family with no idea what it meant to be a business professional. Dick mentored me for years, all the while setting an example of how to work with people in a way that both gives and garners respect. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Steele: As I was approaching my 40th birthday, it was clear I needed a career change. I no longer felt fulfilled in what I was doing and my working relationship with Dick Kanter had ended with his sale of the firm a couple of years earlier.

That summer I bought a copy of What Color is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles’ great book (updated every year) for career changers. I worked through it cover-to-cover, doing all the exercises, ultimately identifying two work activities that consistently gave me the most satisfaction: presenting and teaching. I loved creating and delivering presentations to client groups. And, I had gotten in trouble multiple times for teaching clients how to do things instead of keeping them fully dependent on the firm.

It wasn’t clear at first how to build a new career around presenting and teaching, but then I learned about a company that specialized in training people how to be better presenters. My reaction: “Perfect!” They didn’t need a new trainer, but when I agreed to help find new clients in return for learning how to teach presentation skills, the company took me on and my new career was launched—the one I’m still in 24 years later. It’s been great.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Steele: I temporarily dropped out of college at the end of my junior year of college, out of money and directionless. When I returned and switched from a psychology major to a business major, everything started to click for the first time. That final year gave me the direction and confidence that had been lacking before. The higher grades and diploma opened the doors I needed opened.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Steele: I wish I had had a much wider understanding of the career opportunities available. Coming out of a family where no one had ever gone to college before and no one had a professional business career, I had a seriously limited grasp of what was possible. This had a lot to do with delaying the exploration that led to my current career and the fulfillment it has brought.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion –includes the best example of a great speech? Please explain.

Steele: Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s speech to deserters from the 2nd of Maine as depicted in Ken Burns’ 1993 Civil War miniseries. It would be hard to find a better example of inspirational speaking. It shows how powerful a message can be when it makes full use of Aristotle’s logos, pathos, and ethos.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Steele: This leadership quote speaks directly to my experience as a presentation skills trainer. When I first started in this profession, I thought my job was to be the all-knowing expert who poured knowledge into people. Experience taught me how wrong I was. I only began seeing significant results when I started fully appreciating the knowledge and understanding that was already in the room, and began drawing it out and building on it. (“Begin with what they have and build on what they know.”)

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Steele: Seth Godin, author of the most successful business blog on the Internet, tells how he had a great mentor early in his career who started every meeting with Seth by asking (my paraphrase) “What have you stopped doing since we last met?” Of course, this is the exact opposite of what you would expect a mentor to ask. You would expect: “What new, additional thing have you started doing?” The wisdom of not dissipating your efforts makes so much sense, but is so hard to follow. The natural tendency is to think that the potential for success increases with an increase in the number of things you’re trying.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Steele: I should re-read this quote every time I find myself efficiently working through a to-do list of low-value tasks, seeking satisfaction in checking them off.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Last year a client asked me to create some training that revolved around something called “motivational interviewing.” It’s a way of talking with people who need to change their behavior, but are resistant to change. It’s based on the idea that people only really change based on their own goals and priorities. Only if you can, in a non-threatening way, encourage them to think about possible dissonance between what they are doing and what they, themselves value, you’re unlikely to catalyze change. I see a lot of wisdom in this approach to overcoming resistance.

In your opinion, why do so many feel a greater fear of speaking in public than they do of death?

Steele: It’s probably because death is still something of an abstraction to those who are relatively young and healthy, but public speaking can create a quite real sense of severe vulnerability.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

Bill cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His Amazon link

Outskirts Press link

LinkdedIn link

YouTube CaSB 014 video link

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