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4. Five Reasons the Best Presenters Start Conversation

The big names strike up a dialogue with their audience

Richard Branson doesn't care for PowerPoint. He prefers eye contact and conversation. Branson doesn't have patience for long, confusing presentations. He prefers short and simple pitches, even if they're written on a beer mat. Branson also disdains sterile conference rooms. He prefers the outdoors and unconventional settings like the time he sat in a bath while Al Gore delivered a presentation on global warming. These are just a few of the things I learned when I recently had the opportunity to ask the Virgin Group founder some questions based on his new book, Like a Virgin.

No entrepreneur sells himself quite like Richard Branson. His ideas on effective communication are valuable for CEOs, managers, business owners, entrepreneurs, and aspiring leaders. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation [my insights appear in brackets].

Carmine:Let's start with the subtitle of your book, 'Secrets They Won't Teach You at Business School.' What are business schools failing to teach students about communicating, presenting and pitching their ideas?

Richard: Too many people are hiding in dark rooms flipping through too many words on big screens. There's a reason why I avoid boardrooms. I'd rather spend time with people 'in the field,' where eye contact, genuine conviction and trustworthiness are in full evidence.

[When you're pitching an idea, your story should take center stage. Slides complement the story; they don't replace the story. Once you lower the lights so the audience can read the words on a slide, you've lost them.]

Carmine:Mr. Branson, you devote a chapter to Steve Jobs. I wrote a book on how Steve Jobs gave presentations and I know that many business leaders have adopted his style. I'm curious. Did you ever see a Steve Jobs keynote and what were your impressions of him as a communicator?

Richard: Sadly not, but an important lesson Steve taught today's business leaders is to express your unflinching commitment to your products and your company. Steve had two valuable communication strengths: obsession over the details and his belief that the company was unveiling the very best product possible.

[Branson said Steve Jobs was the entrepreneur he most admired, but he has a completely different leadership style than Steve Jobs had. Both entrepreneurs, however, were obsessed with making radical improvements on the status quo. Jobs was single-minded in his pursuit to design computers that everyday people could use to transform their daily lives. Branson was-and continues to be-obsessed with customer service, staff engagement, and a sense of fun in his business units. Passion also connects Branson and Jobs. According to Branson, "We both truly enjoyed and believed in what we were doing. Because you are far more likely to be persistent, inspired, and dedicated if you love what you do, and if you eventually make something you are truly proud of that filters down to your staff and your customers."]

Richard Branson

Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention, in my view, was remarkable because of how he chose to explain ideas. Politics aside, it was an great example of explanation at work. Last night we saw more evidence, via an interview with Jon Stewart, that explanation was his specific intent.

"I was determined to get the facts right and to simplify the arguments without being simplistic, I didn't want to talk down to people. I wanted to explain what I thought was going on."

The intent to explain. This is an idea that I write about in The Art of Explanation. A huge first step in building explanation skills is to take a step back and make explanation a priority. By making explanation a goal, we can approach an idea from a new perspective. We can make a conscious choice to turn ideas into explanations.

"Just forget about politics, think about any time in your life, you've been confused or angry or frightened, or resentful or anything and you didn't know what was going on. In those moments, explanation is way more important than eloquence. And rhetoric falls on deaf ears, so the only chance I had to get anybody to really listen was to say look - here's what I think happened."

What a great quote. From my perspective, this strikes at the heart of the one big question explanations are built around: why? We all seek answers to this question every day. Why does the world work this way? Why have things changed? Why is this happening to me? These are serious questions and when we don't have understandable answers, we grow more frustrated. Effective explanations help solve this problem.

This was the feeling we had when we first started making video explanations. We sensed that people were feeling anxious and even fearful about social media. Rather than pontificating or trying to look smart, we looked for ways to help people feel smart and confident.

"You can get all kind of information off the internet, but you can't be sure if it's right or not and there's all these disparate facts out there. So what I tried to do was organize all the information in a way that I thought would be most helpful to people."

This goes back to my point above about intent. He made an effort to explain the ideas. But that's not all. Clinton focused on organization, or as I call it in the book, "packaging ideas". This is another goal of explanation - to take an idea or set of ideas and package it into a form that makes it understandable for an audience. This means taking the time to build context and agreement. It means using language that accounts for the audience's level of understanding and confidence. It means telling stories and making connections.

Imagine a world where your boss, your Mom or peer could explain their ideas more effectively. Think of the positive change and efficiency it could create. The potential of explanation as a fundamental communication skill is tremendous, yet often forgotten. At the same time, just a little effort and improvement can make a huge difference. That's the change I want to see in the world.

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Ch. 3: Make Your Ideas Stick ►