I wish I were as optimistic as Chris Anderson, who wrote today, “Anyone Can Give a Memorable TED Talk,” in the Wall Street Journal (April 30-May 1, C3).
You can read the entire article by clicking HERE.
Anderson, who is the President of TED, has a new book that hits the market next week entitled TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).
He gives these tips:
- ask yourself if you have something worth saying
- slash the scope of your talk so that you unpack the idea properly
- give people a reason to care
- build your case piece by piece, using familiar words and concepts
- tell stories
His premise is that anyone, with the right approach, and enough practice, can be a greater presenter. In the article, he tells the improbable story of Richard Turere, a 12-year old Maasai boy, who gave a talk at a TED conference, in front of an audience of 1,400 seasoned professionals.
I don’t think so. I have provided instruction and critiqued thousands of speakers in Business Communication courses over the past 39 years, and have coached individuals one-on-one countless times. In fact, even today, I am meeting a speaker for individual coaching who gives a talk next week. I can start naming people right now who you would never see on the TED Talks site, no matter how much time I would spend coaching them, and I would still be listing names hours from now. And, I don’t think it’s because I’m a lousy coach. Sorry – everyone can’t do it.
His assumption is that there is something within an individual, that if unlocked properly, will propel a person to greatness. He would say that if you stay with it long enough, and apply the correct instruction and techniques, success is simply a matter of time.
I will admit that for many people, presenting is more a matter of “will” than “skill.” There are people who simply don’t want to get any better, and therefore, even intense training and coaching will not get them there. They could be great, but they don’t want to be. Fortunately, there are enough people who do respond to training and coaching, and who do become great speakers, that keeps me going as a professional resource.
But, what about people who can’t? What if fantastic presenting is not a will or skill issue? There are plenty of people who fall short of any or all of the six behaviors listed as tips above. They just can’t do it. It’s not their strength. It never will be. Do we beat them up and put them through the misery of intense scrutiny toward an end that will never happen? I would far rather build on something else that they are good at – one of their strengths – to work around their presentation weakness, than to consistently badger them to speak well.
I also think that the title of Anderson’s article today insults the great TED speakers. I am well aware that writers rarely get to construct titles to their articles. They usually see the title the same time all the readers do, so I am not bashing Anderson. But the title is there for all to see. TED Talks are premium presentations. Great content with great delivery. And, it is a very competitive product. These are not like “uploads to YouTube” from your web cam. Even many really great speakers are not to the level of TED presenters that you watch on that site.
To suggest that everyone can be like TED, is about the same as saying everyone can be like Mike. No way.
For years, I have listened to interviews with Temple Grandin. (Here is a great program, with excerpts of a series of earlier interviews, conducted by Terry Gross of Fresh Air on NPR – broadcast on February 5, 2010). She has an amazing personal story. Autistic, did not speak until age four, she made it through high school, college, and two graduate degrees. She is renowned for her lectures on autism and the treatment of cattle, and for her breakthrough recommendations on the care of cattle. In fact, over 50% of slaughterhouses in the United States use designs that she created or inspired.
HBO produced a new movie about her life and career, called simply Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes. I sat transfixed as I watched it (great acting job by Claire Danes), and have not been able to get the movie out of my head.
Temple Grandin does not think, or “see,” like the “normal” among us. She thinks and sees in pictures. And this ability helped her develop her breakthrough recommendations regarding the treatment of cattle.
As I thought about the movie, I came up with ten lessons we can learn from Temple Grandin – for business success, and life success. (I know that 10 is a big number for such a list – but I could not leave any of these out). All of these I have covered in an array of business books over the last decade. But here they are, wrapped up in one remarkable human life.
1) Success requires absolute focus. When Temple Grandin takes on a task, she gives it her undivided attention with a focus that is remarkable and unwavering.
2) Success requires prolonged and intense observation. Temple Grandin truly looks at things – every–thing – with an observers eye unlike any other I have ever seen. The movie captured this with great visual images. Try to see it for this reason, if for no other.
3) Success requires a bias for action. In the movie, Temple Grandin sees something, decides to tackle it, and goes to work – right then. She acts, with speed and determination.
4) Success requires crystal clear and precise communication. The mini-speeches by Temple in this movie are captivating. Once, she was in a room of skeptical slaughterhouse executives, and she simply and throughly persuaded them that not only was her plan more humane for the cattle, but would save money. Yes, her design was more expensive – but it would actually save money. It was a great example of “to the point” communication.
5) Success requires “suck-up” skills. (phrase borrowed from Carville and Begala). Because of her autism, Temple Grandin did not understand the value of sucking up, and it did not come naturally to her. Apparently (this is assumed more than stated or demonstrated in the movie), her mother and aunt had drilled into her the value of simple, polite manners. (“My name is Temple Grandin. Pleased to meet you.” And then, right away, she would launch into her real question or message). And though she sounded impersonal in her use of such everyday politeness, she made herself do it. What a testament to the need to develop what we now call networking skills.
6) Success requires the courage to go it alone. Temple Grandin would do what she thought, what she knew, to be right – regardless of what others thought. She built her own “hugging machine,” and the movie captured the kind of courage she needed to stick to this project and then to actually use her hugging machine..
7) (But also), Success requires the help of others – you simply can not do it alone. In the movie, a teacher and an aunt, along with the amazing persistence and faith of her mother, made all the difference. And at one key moment in her college career, that high-school teacher saved the day with advice and counsel. If you have ever doubted the value of a good teacher, watch this movie!
8) Success requires genuine empathy. Temple Grandin put herself in the place of the cattle. Literally. She would crawl through cattle chutes, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt. She saw what bothered the cattle. Apparently her first published articles were about the messages contained in the loudness of the different moos of cattle. Her empathy was astonishing.
9) Success requires a decision to (and the discipline to) keep learning. And with Temple Grandin, learning was very tangible. She needed to learn how to create drawings of cattle-care devices, so she watched a draftsman at work, bought the tools, and simply taught herself how to do such work. She is perpetually learning.
10) Success requires the ability to “keep going” in the face of ridicule and opposition. She never had it easy. “Normal” people, ridiculed her, were cruel to her, all the way though – from her school days to her days at the cattle pens. But she simply kept at it. She “self-medicated” with her “hugging machine,” and went right back out there.
I don’t believe I have ever seen a better movie about business and life success than Temple Grandin. I hope you find a way to see it.
Sara says: Cheryl and I teach graduate students and we’ve discovered that many don’t write well. It’s a rampant problem and when we mention it, some students get a real “deer in the headlights” look. They don’t have a clue where to start. Now, this isn’t going to be a rant about today’s youth not being able to write. It’s about a leader’s responsibility to good communications. The quizzical look from our students, whether it means “I don’t know what you are talking about” or “I don’t know what to do about it” is not a sufficient response. A leader’s job – right up there with delivering results to the shareholder’s – is communicating. Leaders must always be on the lookout for 1) the most effective ways to communicate and 2) the number of ways they can deliver the message.
Lou Gerstner who wrote about the turnaround of IBM, wrote in his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, “Personal leadership is about communication, openness, and willingness to speak often and honestly, and with respect for the intelligence of the reader or listener.” I heard Gerstner tell an audience of IBM executives that, “you cannot over communicate. You are responsible to communicate your vision in every memo, every conference call, every interview.” If change in a company fails, look first to the leader and their ability (and tenacity) in articulating the change.
Cheryl offers: Our friend and ally blogger, Bob Morse, posted this question only a few days earlier in June: Q #184: Has the ability to write well become obsolete? Bob’s answer was “No, and I am convinced it never will.” I agree with Bob and Sara. The responsibility to teach, practice, and role model good communications reside with leadership; be it the school system or in corporations. “Have you ever thought about the fact that the great philosopher Socrates had a student named Plato, and that Plato had a student named Aristotle?” This comes from the book, “If Aristotle Ran General Motors” by Tom Morris. Morris goes on to say, “Given the right context of intimate and sustained association, greatness gives rise to greatness.” If that doesn’t inspire a teacher or leader to invest the time to teach their students/employees the value of clear, concise, and grammatically correct communication, I’m not sure it can be done!
At the First Friday Book Synopsis, we have chosen books that touch on every aspect of business life and success. A recurring theme seems to be communication. Getting your message out, clearly, concisely, without confusion — this is one tough assignment. I have presented synopses of Words that Work by Frank Luntz, and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Both of these books are good, useful, practical.
In Made to Stick, the authors commend six principles for successfully communicating messages that will stick:
(By the way, remembering Aristotle and the ancient rhetoricians is always useful: of the six principles, ethos, pathos, and mythos are clearly evident, and logos is never far behind).
In Words that Work, Luntz proposes 10 Rules for Successful Communicators. (Yes, there is some overlap in these two lists).
The Ten Rules of Successful Communication:
|Simplicity: Use Small Words
|Brevity: Use Short Sentences
|Credibility is as Important as Philosophy
|Novelty: Offer Something New
|Sound and Texture Matter (alliteration)
|Rule Eight – Visualize
|Ask a Question
|Prepare Context and Explain Relevance
And in this book, the conservative Luntz quotes from the liberal Warren Beatty for a really great piece of insight: “People forget what you say, but they remember how you made them feel.”
So, yes, you can learn a lot about successful communication from these and other books. But recently, I was re-reading my handout from an early year from the First Friday Book Synopsis. I presented the classic work by Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. (To my knowledge, Greenleaf coined the term servant leadership). And, as usual, the greatest piece of advice is found in such a jewel. Here it is — you can almost forget everything else, and communicate this way. Let’s call Words that Work Lesson #2, and call this Lesson #1:
“If you have something important to communicate, if you can possibly manage it, put your hand over your mouth and point.”
It simply does not get any clearer than that.
(To purchase my synopses of Made to Stick and Words that Work, with handout + audio, go to our 15 Minute Business Book site).