Obama v. Romney: Blogging the 2012 US Presidential Debates


by Peter Watts

The ancient Romans and Greeks gave us the skills we today call Public Speaking. They also brought us the arena. For the Greeks, that arena contained the high ideals of athletics. For the Romans, it was frequently filled with something a lot more bloody.

This week, we will see those traditions of the ancient world resonate in the gladiatorial collision of the US Presidential Debates.

Watched, analysed, and regarded as more vital than the Party Conventions, the debating action might not have the physical blood of the Roman arena, but it will still be a fight to the death. As Richard Nixon famously discovered when he came up against John F. Kennedy, a poor performance means the end of not just a political campaign but the beginning of a political obituary.

This is reality TV with a vengeance, and doing justice to blogging the debates is a blogging mission bigger than any lone blogger, which is why there are two of us teaming up for it.

For the next three weeks, the Make A Powerful Point blog hosted by Gavin McMahon and The Presenters’ Blog hosted by Peter Watts will be joining forces. The day after each debate we’ll be looking at a specific aspect of the art of debating and then putting forward our own unique take on how the contenders did. We’re even going to try to score them and see if we can pick a winner.

Ah yes, a winner. In the interests of fairness, we’re also going to take it in turns to “spot” the different candidates, so here’s the schedule:

Wednesday 3rd October: Domestic Policy Debate in Denver
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Peter
In President Obama’s: Gavin

How did the candidates do at the fine art of “staying on message”? This comes down to the way they handle and frame their answers to the questions. A well turned answer will respond to the question while subtly boomeranging back around to the candidate’s chief talking points. A badly turned answer will have the Twitterverse twanging and host Jim Lehrer dragging the candidate back to the subject at hand.

Tuesday 16th October: Town-Meeting Format in New York
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Gavin
In President Obama’s: Peter

For the Town Meeting debate, we’ll be looking at the candidates’ use of language, and in particular how well they manage to move against their accepted presenter-types. Can President Obama sound Presidential rather than Professorial, and can Mitt Romney leave behind his wooden, PowerPoint-driven Management Consultant mode.

In particular we’re going to explore how the candidates use techniques such as metaphor, simile, and repetition to get their points across. This is a Town Meeting after all, and we’re looking for some down-home use of plain speaking, with just the occasional rhetorical flourish.

Monday 22nd October: Foreign Policy in Boca Raton
In Mitt Romney’s corner: Gavin & Peter
In President Obama’s: Gavin & Peter

This one’s the final show down, and someone might have their back against the wall, or we might have a one-all draw! We’ll also have had two debates behind us to get insights into how the candidates battle against each other.

Having seen how the candidates have performed to date, we’ll know where each is strong and where each is weak. Our final analysis topic will be on how the candidates manage to maximise those strengths, and to cover their weaknesses.

Each of our posts will be online the afternoon after the debate. We hope you’ll join us with your comments and thoughts on how the candidates have performed.

We’re looking forward to the debates, both on the stage, and here on the blog.

About us:

Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

Peter is a writer, trainer, and speaker on all aspects of Presenting. He coaches business executives in how to be at their best when on their feet. His bi-weekly blog, The Presenters’ Blog, examines core disciplines of public speaking and looks at how those disciplines are being illustrated by news stories around the world. You can follow his Twitter feed on @speak2all

A Note about bias. Neither of us can or will be voting in the US elections, but, like all humans, we have biases. We will try to look at the debates purely from a point of view of speaking, messaging and presenting, to see what the rest of us -— those that will never run for President, can learn.

That Back-to-School Feeling. No kids required

The vibes of Back-to-School still motivate us. Even as adults!

by Peter Watts

Fresh paint is the smell of back-to-school. At least for me. It was always industrial yellow with raised lumps of white stuff. As you queued the corridor for lunch on the first day back, you could still chisel out paint patterns with your thumbnail.

That fresh paint smell is so imprinted on my mind as part of the Back-To-School that come September I now experience a primal urge to start decorating!

We live surrounded by artificial calendars. When exactly is the new year? The calendar tells me it’s January 1st. The tax year tells me it’s April 5th. The multinational corporation I spent 11 years working for used to insist it was February 1st!

The most powerful of all though is the new year that we grew up with: the September – July school year.

You don’t need kids in your life to experience the gravitational pull of Back-To-School. It’s hard-cored into us. That slight drop in temperature, the heavier dew on the lawns in the morning, the first tell-tale color-shift leaves and the shortening days. They all point one way.

Don’t under-estimate what powerful formative experiences those Back-To-School occasions were for you. There were new teachers, new subjects, and most scarily of all, there were occasionally whole new schools.

Take a moment. Put your mind back into those days.

That strange feeling that you’re getting, that sense of equal parts excitement mixed with fear, that’s the Back-to-School Feeling. It’s the feeling we get when we’re facing something big, challenging, and largely unknown. It’s the feeling we get when the only direction we can move in is forward, even though if we had a choice, we’d quite like to turn and run!

It’s a feeling that is priming us to be at our best in the face of challenge. It was actually a pretty cool feeling. If given the choice to click our fingers and physically return to those days, not all of us would do it (I for one am fairly sure I’d turn-down a time-ticket back to teenage), but still this time of year can deliver a major kick.

Think of your next presentation as being your very own grown-up Back-To-School. Access those old feelings that are just below the surface for you right now.

How can you give your presenting, and your presentations, that new paint smell?

Microstyle: The art of writing little

A style guide that’s not a Style Guide. Ideal for writers and presenters

by Peter Watts

“Human attention is now the scare resource we all compete for”

Christopher Johnson’s “Microstyle” delivers a blueprint for how we can win our share of the scare resource. It is a travel guide for writing within the information economy.

Having read Microstyle around a year ago, I’ve had the chance to play with it’s ideas, and found them to work. The key-verb in that last sentence was “to play”. This is exactly what Christopher Johnson wants us to do.

He wants us to play with language in all it’s textures. Trained as a linguist, Johnson objects to what he calls “Big Style”; the grammarians who foam about split infinitives every time Captain Kirk utters the words “To boldly go….”

Language breathes. It lives and changes. 2,000 years ago the Roman orator Quintilian found fault with Roman grammarians attempting to set Latin style in concrete. Quintilian’s comment at the time was that if they didn’t let linguistic structures evolve, then Latin as a living language was doomed. Christopher Johnson would urge us to heed that lesson from history.

For someone who appears intent on demolishing “big style”, Johnson’s weapons of choice are a surprise. 90% originate in antiquity. He re-examines the rhetorical techniques of the Greeks and Romans, and integrates them into the modern world.

The guide shows how we can redeploy metaphor, tropes, and repetition techniques. Any Roman orator would have recognised the ideas, even if they wouldn’t have recognised the application to Twitter messages!

Along the way, Johnson exposes us as to why certain movie titles work, while others fail. He draws examples from wits such as Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde. He dives into poetry for an exploration of rhythm patterns that can make a micromessage leap off the screen. He demonstrates how to create blog and subject headings that intrigue and pull readers in.

The author states his goal as being to help social media writers achieve an “interaction of message, mind, and context, that will make meaning happen.”

He succeeds.

Stories, anecdotes, and diversions

by Peter Watts

Anecdotes, stories, and diversions bring a presentation to life.

When we add something personal to a presentation, it is a gift from ourselves to the audience. It paints colour into our words, sharing our passion for the subject.

The secret is to not leave the anecdote to chance. Plan it carefully. Know at what point you are going to introduce it, and most importantly, ensure you know how to link back into the presentation afterwards.

This week I have had the privilege of working in Istanbul, and the even greater privilege of having a small portion of leisure time. During that day off, I found myself walking down one of the city’s principal streets.

All the usual suspects were there. Well known designer brands sat beside Starbucks outlets. Recognition of familiar branding gave me a feeling of being somewhere I knew. Rather like the main theme of a presentation it was easy to navigate.

Numerous smaller streets sat between the western chains. I took a diversion, and headed down one.

Familiar stores were replaced by street markets. The area around me had come to life. THIS was Istanbul. Like a good story or anecdote, my diversion bought me not just the colors of Istanbul, but it’s sounds, and smells, and textures, and tastes. All the senses engaged at once in a full memory locking experience.

I so much enjoyed my diversion, that I wandered further, following the twists and turns. My initial experience so pleasant that I was encouraged to wander deeper.

When we tell a story, the audience sits forward. Interest peeks. We are encouraged to keep going.

Before long, I became aware that the streets were becoming distinctly narrower and more neglected. Time to go back. The problem was that as I traced what I thought was my route back to the street, I realized that I was going in circles. I had passed the same fabric store three times. The store keeper was starting to recognize me. Hopelessly “lost tourist” had to be scrawled all over me.

If we haven’t planned a story thoroughly, before we know it, the walls can start closing in, and we struggle to find our way back to the main theme in a way that the audience start to recognize as a “lost presenter”!

I made it back to that main thoroughfare, and resumed my walk. But I was so disoriented by this point that I started walking in the wrong direction, and five minutes later found myself back-tracking in the heat over places I had already been.

If we become lost in an anecdote, we are so relieved to rejoin our main thread that we then become lost all over again.

My detour into the backstreets of Istanbul was the most memorable part of my day, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. In just the same way, a well placed story will be the most memorable part of your presentation.

For it to be a success though, make sure that you know how far into it you want to go, and have a clear idea of how to find your way back out.

Presentation books: The Pin Drop Principle

The Pin Drop Principle

David Lewis and G. Riley Mills

Published June 5th, 2012

by Peter Watts

“Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

It’s my favorite quotes from George Burns, and for “The Pin Drop Principle” it sums up both the book’s number one strength, and its number one weakness:

Strength:

The book is written from a strong acting and stage perspective, by two gentleman who clearly know their art, and how to apply it to business presentations.

The acting insights throughout the book serve a purpose, are relevant, and offer pointers and ideas.

Weakness:

In places the book does indeed seem to tell you how to fake not just honesty, but any number of different emotions. If you place emotional integrity near the heart of your delivery, then there are bits you’ll find yourself disagreeing with.

It’s also worth noting that this is a book based around a successful commercial training concept. The introduction is so laden with marketing plugs for that concept that I almost didn’t get past page ten.

I’m glad I did though, because the authors, David Lewis and G. Riley Mills, have good ideas to put across.

One of the founding concepts of The Pin Drop Principle is being aware not just of your objective in a presentation, but also your intention; the emotional impression that you want to bring to your delivery. Are you seeking to challenge? To involve? To calm? To warn? Even to manipulate?

If you think of a cliche grand actor wandering the stage during rehearsal demanding “Yes, but WHAT’S my motivation???” then you won’t be far off the general concept.

The book suggests identifying those motivations, or your intentions, and then demonstrates how you can put them front and centre of your public speaking.

If you have had some experience of presenting, and are looking for the next stage, this book will help you put the 3D of emotional intention into your delivery.

The authors also combine a couple of topics that many books leave out. There is a section on the inner workings of storytelling, an excellent section on the importance of listening as a presenter, and some strong insights into getting the best out of your voice.

Certain fundamental subjects however are under-represented. Controlling nerves is one, and the structure section is another. Both are short. It’s as if the authors had in mind a reader who had already gone through a basic training course. That’s why I would say this is not a book for the novice presenter.

If you have already had some professional training and plenty of real-time practice, then this is an ideal book to give you ideas for how to get to the next level.

For the experienced presenter there is something to be gained as well. I found the sections on intention, story-telling, and voice to be particularly interesting.

I’ve presented a couple of times since reading the book, and on each occasion found sections of it’s content staying with me. The concept of “intention” has led me to consider my daily deliveries from a different angle. Basic tips, such as remembering to protect the voice by drinking plenty of water, have also come as useful reminders for this coffee-addicted presenter.

For the final words, I return to George Burns and to a quote that the authors use in the book:

The secret to a good speech is…. “ to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible.”

Getting the beginning and the ending close together is something that Lewis and Mills do well. “The Pin Drop Principle” is a lean book, that is a quick read, and importantly, is available as an e-book.

For an experienced business person, looking for an easy-to-action evolution in their delivery style, “The Pin Drop Principle” is ideal.

The presentation came out of nowhere. What to do?

by Peter Watts

Presentations can strike without notice. A colleague gets hit by ill health and you get hit by their presentation.

How to avoid that deer-in-the-headlights moment?

The key to success is your ability to rapidly master your colleague’s presentation so that it works for you as smoothly as it was about to work for them. Get the content right, and all else will follow.

Organize the slides to work for you

The biggest mistake you could make would be attempting to deliver your colleagues’ PowerPoints unmodified. That was their presentation. It made sense to them. You need something that makes sense for you.

First make a copy of the slides. You’re about to perform high-speed field surgery and you’ll cut deeper if you know a backup is saved elsewhere.

Find out about the audience. What do they need to know, and where does that intersect with what you know. Edit the slide deck to focus in on those happy intersections.

If there are any essential slides that you’re unsure about, have a colleague talk you through the salient points and help you put them into a context.

Where there are slides you don’t understand but that aren’t connected to the main purpose, delete them. Make that slide deck as compact as possible.

Similarly, delete any superfluous bullet-points that might be hanging around. Make your  slides as clean as possible to minimise the chance of audience questions being prompted by stray bullets.

Eliminate anything that might leave you staring at the screen mumbling “Well, I think that point is self-explanatory”. No-one is fooled. You are clueless in public. Zap any such slides or slide content before you present.

Structure

Put the content you are least confident of into the least memorable part of the presentation: the middle. Place strong content at the beginning and end of the presentation. Don’t worry if your colleague’s 90 minute presentation is now your 30 minute one. Brevity is an art form.

When it comes to any content that you are not comfortable with however, do keep challenging yourself: “Does this really have to be in the presentation?” If in doubt, then either delete, or remember the option of “Hide Slide”.

Questions

Before starting the presentation, plan for how to handle questions. It’s quite possible that the person you are replacing had knowledge of specialist topics that you don’t, and that there might be audience questions about those topics.

Remember as a first-base, that you are stepping in at short notice. Without you, there would be no presentation, and even though you can’t actually see it, the super-hero cape is already fluttering from your shoulders. Being unable answer specialist questions about someone else’s specialism is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about.

Perhaps subject matter experts are available who while not wishing to present, would be happy to take questions for you.

If such an individual isn’t available, never be tempted to bluff your answers. Resolve that for any questions you can’t answer, you will make a note of them and get back to the audience members after the presentation.

This approach upholds your credibility and ensures people get the right answers. It also creates a reason for you or a colleague to talk to the audience beyond the presentation and thereby further develop the relationship.

What experiences of impromptu presentations have you had, or are maybe having?

What are your tips for turning unexpected pitch into richly deserved triumph?

Hear the sound of your self-esteem. Coach accordingly

by Peter Watts

I became aware of a damp patch.

Inevitable with a Victorian cottage. Moisture slowly creeping up an outside wall. Tell-tale watermarks on plaster in the hall.

Months of contractor confusion led to my hiring an independent surveyor to take charge. He promptly nailed the source of all my problems as being a tiny pipe, steadily and slowly dip drip dripping beneath a floor.

Seemingly tiny little leaks of self-esteem can have exactly the same effect on our confidence.

The most damaging are those hidden beneath the floor-boards of our bravado; the inner comments we make to ourselves when offered the chance to take on new challenges.

  • “I’m no good at x”
  • “I’ll screw it up if I dare to have a go at y”
  • “I’ve not got what it takes for z”

Over months and years, those drips become a damp-spreading mantra, soaking foundations. Our confidence water-logs from within.

My surveyor told me that to identify a hidden leak it’s important to listen both to what you can hear, and to what you can’t.

Listen for noises that shouldn’t be there (in my watery case, an almost inaudible hissing sound), and then listen for the sounds that are missing, such as the high pressure surge of water rushing through a healthy system.

  • As a presenter, do you suffer a low level hiss of negative internal criticism?
  • After speaking, how clearly can you hear your that healthy surge of success?

Maintaining a constructive inner-dialogue is essential presenter care-and-maintenance. Self-coaching can be one way to do this, but sometimes problems require the help of an external expert for true diagnosis.

Professional coaching assists presenters at all stages of their careers, in the same way that my professional surveyor was able to help me.

It’s well worth taking the time to fix those little leaks.

At the end of the day, nobody enjoys a presentation from a damp-patch.

Santorum out. But can Romney learn to like himself?

by Peter Watts

The personal characteristics that enable others to believe in us the most, are often the ones coached out of us as being most likely to frighten the horses.

The Republican nomination process for the candidate to face President Obama this November, has demonstrated this supremely.

Candidate Rick Santorum spoke from the tightly constructed belief system of a 17th century religious fundamentalist. He knew what he stood for, and had that stand consistent. He knew his social views made him unacceptable, yet he trumpeted them through all pronouncements. The interesting result was that while we might have abhored his policies, we couldn’t help but believe the man. When Santorum spoke, we believed him. When his opponent, Mitt Romney speaks, we don’t.

Romney appears insincere. His character appears disparate and dislocated. We are shown the urban sprawl, while denied even a glimpse of the central city. What is so awful that Mitt Romney hides it from view?

The problem is that Romney has been told his wealth does not play well with the electorate. He’s been told the same thing about his Mormonism. The result is a candidate hobbled by the two defining characteristics that should be surging a Republican candidate to victory; red-blooded business success and missionary-grade religious ardour.

Romney struggles to portray himself as something he’s not, or to put it more precisely, he struggles not to portray himself as what he truly is.

We should have been hearing about Mitt-the-Merciless. Instead we get Mitt the Etch-A-Sketch; one quick shake and the policies dissolve.

While Romney flustered, Santorum flew. Santorum flew despite the fact that he knew he would never become the nominee, but still consistently put his own true self out onto the stage. Result: respect.

Mitt Romney came into the campaign as Republican heir apparent. He came into the campaign as the candidate the White House feared. And yet, while he will indeed leave the campaign as nominee, he will also leave it weakened by evasiveness and flip-flopping.

Mitt Romney is no longer a candidate the White House fears.

To speak in public with passion and integrity, your own personality attributes must lock together into a convincing narrative. Try to run away from your own true self and you’ll find your audience can run even faster! This was the strength behind Rick Santorum, and the weakness behind Mitt Romney.

Problematically for Romney, it is also the strength behind Barack Obama.

Steeplechase presenting? Try trick-jumps

by Peter Watts

Easter Sunday at our local church started with a 7:00 a.m. service; the first of five Easter services for the Reverend Louise; three in the morning, and two in the afternoon.

For a busy Vicar, Easter Sunday must feel like a steeplechase. One service falls directly after another, and each congregation, whether the first or the last, regards it as a special time they have cleared in their day just to come and hear the Vicar’s message.

As presenters, our world is sometimes the same. It might be the third, fourth, fifth,tenth or twentieth time we have delivered our presentation, but for the audience, it is always the first.

To join with that audience, we must approach with the same freshness, the same beginners mind as the people in front of us. By approaching something with a beginners mind, we keep it alive.

Try adding new twists to your content. Maybe a new perspective, a new anecdote, or a slightly different sequence of topics. Perhaps take advantage of your comfort level with the topic to take a little risk, and experiment with a new technique you have’t tried before. If we continually ski the same old slope to the point where we individually recognise each and every pine tree along the way, it leads to boredom with the message and neglect of our audience.

By slipping in the occasional trick-jump, we keep things fresh.

Unaccustomed as I ham

Rejoice, for the season of the office party is upon us

by Peter Watts

You’re used to presenting right? These are folks you work with every day right? What can go wrong when it comes time for you to stand up and….. “say a few words”?

Lots!

Informal social speeches can prove slippery beasts. Unaccustomed, we attempt light-hearted, delivered under the influence of alcohol. A cringe-inducing serving of Christmas ham is the unintended result.

The Holidays are memorable, staff parties are memorable, and your speech is the keynote party address. It needs to be memorable too, and for the right reasons.

Here’s the instant guide to the perfect four-minute ham-free party speech.

  • Control for your comfort zone. Speak early, before noise or alcohol levels have the chance to rise
  • Keep it short
  • Please, no PowerPoint
  • If joke-telling is not what you’re known for, avoid!
  • Plan, practice, & memorise

The Perfect Office Party Speech:

The goal:

  • Generate team-wide feel-good about success achieved in the past year
  • Spread the love, showing how everyone contributed to that success
  • Project success forward into the year to come

Ingredients:

One team triumph from the year just passed. Of the achievements your team produced, which are you proudest of? It could be new contract, a product launch, a project completed, or a challenge met.

The chosen triumph must allow glory to be spread. Make sure it involved teamwork. Remember: spread the love!

Process and Timings:


Step One:
Open with the significance of your chosen triumph. Why are you proud of it?
60 seconds

Step Two:
Detail three examples of how everyone worked together to achieve that triumph. If your party includes staff family members, be sure to include them too.
Keep it short and punchy.
90 seconds

Step Three:
Conclude by projecting forward into next year. Talk about the next challenge on the horizon and how this year’s triumph is a perfect spring-board.
60 seconds

Step Four:
The call-to-action: “Ladies and Gentlemen…. the bar is open. Enjoy!”
30 seconds

Receive applause. Bask in goodwill. You just made a highly effective holiday-season speech!

It was a speech about teamwork. A speech that acknowledged and valued people, and that pointed-up the values of endeavour, persistence, and hard work. A speech that issued the first battle cry of the year to come and set your team looking forward to challenges ahead.

It was a speech in under four minutes flat!

It was a holiday speech they’ll remember, and for all the right reasons.

More Sources:

Office party speaking appears to be something a lot of people  are interested in, especially come the Holidays. Here are a few additional resources from around the web:

Max Atkinson’s Blog

Max is a leading UK blogger about speaking and communication. Here is his guidance for Holiday speaking: The Office Christmas Party Speech: roads to failure and success

And for ideas about what to put into the script, try write-out-loud.com’s Christmas Speeches: Short, Simple, and Sincere

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