By Larry Tracy
Let me start with five assumptions:
First, Government Requests for Proposals (RFP) are more like the musings of the Oracle of Delphi than examples of clear writing. They require interpretation. Interpret correctly, you are gold; interpret incorrectly, you are dead.
Second, when orals are an afterthought in the bidding process, a “wall” is created between writers and presenters.
Third, the written proposal is the objective marshaling of a company’s capabilities, which respond to the RFP-stated requirements.
Fourth, the oral presentation is much more subjective, and factors such as poor speaking ability, distracting body language and repeated use of “uh’s” and “you knows” can all undercut a well-crafted and responsive written proposal.
Fifth, Government evaluators are cautious and risk-averse. They do not want to be blamed as the group which awarded the contract to the “wrong” company.
Why Project Managers and Proposal Professionals Should Collaborate
Now, with those assumptions in mind, permit me to use the syllogism, one of the oldest methods of deductive reasoning, to make my case that Proposal Professioanls and Project Managers should work hand in glove.
My major premise is that written proposals represent a costly investment of a company’s financial resources and the time, intellectual energy and creativity of Proposal Professionals.
My minor premise is that when competing proposals are virtually identical, the oral presentation, headed by the Project Manager, can be the deciding factor or tiebreaker.
From these premises comes the inevitable conclusion that any “wall” separating proposal managers and project managers must be torn down, and that preparation for the orals, and collaboration between those who write the proposal those who make the oral presentation must be an integral part of the proposal process from the outset.
Proposal Professionals are the creators of the intellectual project known as the proposal. They have burned the midnight oil; they have written under deadline pressure; they have had to interpret the obtuse writing of the Government’s RFP.
Why should they consider their job complete when the proposal goes out the door, or celebrate when they have, in the Government’s arcane language, been judged to be in the “competitive range?”
To protect their intellectual investment, they should work closely with the Project Manager and his/her orals team. If they do not do so from the period before the RFP is released, they are shooting themselves in the foot. No matter how well written the proposal, a lost contract is a lost contract.
Unfortunately, many Proposal Professionals believe that a well-written proposal that “answers the mail” of an RFP is sufficient, and an oral presentation merely a formality. I recommend to those thinking that way to heed the words of a former executive of the world’s most successful strategic consulting firm, McKinsey & Co. Robert Garda, now a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, was quoted in the book The McKinsey Mind as saying
I’ve put half-baked ideas into great presentations and seen them soar, and I’ve put great ideas into poor presentations, and watched them die.
Project Managers may also labor under an equally false impression that technical knowledge alone is enough, and that speaking skills are not necessary. Lee Iacocca, former CEO of both Ford and Chylser, disagreed with this notion. In his autobiography, Iacocca wrote,
I’ve known a lot of engineers with terrific ideas who had trouble explaining them to others. It’s a shame when a guy with great talent can’t tell a board or committee what’s in his head.
His solution? Send these engineers to take courses in presentation skills so they would not be limited in their careers because they were ineffective presenters.
How Project Managers Can Improve their Presentation Skills
Now, let’s move from the macro of collaboration to the micro of showing Project Managers how to “tell a board or committee what’s in their head,” or a group of evaluators why your company should be awarded the contract. Yourr goal should be to deliver presentations that cause audiences to “buy in” to what you are advocating. You may ask, “Why do I need to improve my presentation skills? I’m an engineer, a project manager?”
My answer, and that of Lee Iacocca, is that you must present to senior executives to “sell” your ideas, to members of your project team, and of course to evaluators when leading an orals team. As a “manager,” you are always communicating. Chances are the person who best presents his/her case wins the day.
Those who can distill and explain complex data in “pressure-cooker” situations (such as boardroom presentations for project funding or competitive presentations for lucrative contracts) are highly valued. Moreover, when called on to speak extemporaneously at meetings, you have a wonderful opportunity to shine and impress.
You also have a wonderful opportunity to fall on your face if you cannot deliver a hard-hitting, succinct message.
Keep in mind that every presentation is actually four presentations: (1) the one you plan to deliver, (2) the one you actually deliver, (3) the one your audience hears you deliver, and (4) the one you wish you had delivered.
After internalizing the systematic, proven approach in the following pages, you will be able to deliver as you have planned and practiced, be on the same page as the audience, and have fewer of those “I wish I had said it this way” moments.
What about the well-known fear of public speaking? Survey after survey ranks “speaking in front of a group” at or near the top in lists of phobias. Unlike many speech coaches, I make no promises that merely reading this article, or my book, or attending one of my workshops, will vanquish your apprehension about speaking to groups.
Nor do I believe you should seek to eliminate this fear, which can be used to develop energy and enthusiasm. I am often asked if I get nervous before a presentation. My answer is I make myself nervous. Let me explain.
After I retired from the Army and entered the field of speech coaching, I was invited to address a large meeting of commercial real estate agents in Northern Virginia. The presentation went well, and as I was leaving, the woman who had hired me to speak made what I considered a strange comment. She said, “You must operate under terrible pressure when you speak to audiences such as ours.”
Considering the hostile audiences I had faced around the country while detailed from the Army to the State Department, I certainly didn’t consider commercial real estate agents particularly frightening, I said “No, I don’t really think so. Why do you believe I operate under great pressure?” Her response has had a profound impact on me.
She said, “As commercial real estate agents, our job is to sell or lease properties. If we do a poor job of presenting, the property retains its market value. If you do a poor job in presenting, who would ever hire you to teach them to be better speakers. You are the property.”
That hit me like a punch in the stomach. Whenever I am set to make a presentation, I remind myself that “I am the property.”
Don’t seek to eliminate fear of speaking. Instead use it to motivate yourself to practice so you desensitize yourself and anticipate the areas which will cause you concern. Change fear of the unknown into knowledge of the known.
Now let’s show you how to develop and deliver presentations which cause your audience—one or many—to “buy in” to what you are advocating. Although the title of my book is The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations, I am using “buy in” more frequently now, because I recognize that persuasion is a means, and buy-in the goal.
You can be very persuasive in your presentation of the facts, using all the techniques to sway people, but unless audience members conclude that what you are advocating is in their best interests so they “buy-in” to what you are saying, you have not persuaded.
Buy-in takes place when the presenter’s objective is perceived by the listener as a solution to that listener’s problem.
The S3P3 System
From my own speaking experience in front of quite demanding audiences, I developed a methodology for achieving buy-in that I call the S3P3 System, which you might visualize as a pyramid supported by three pillars.
These three pillars are Substance (the knowledge the speaker holds on the issue), Structure (the logical means by which this knowledge is presented to the audience), and Style (the use of rhetorical devices, the arrangement and choice of words, vocal quality, facial expression, gestures and other non-verbal communication). These pillars support a pyramid of Planning, Practicing, and Presenting.
In Planning, you must develop a concrete objective, aimed at solving the problems, needs, wants and concerns of your audience. This is always important but especially so when facing a demanding audience. Know specifically what you wish to have this audience do with the information you are providing.
It is here where you draft your presentation, and this can best be done, in my opinion, by following my 3-1-2 System. While this system is counterintuitive, it virtually guarantees that you will have both focus and theme, vital for an oral presentation.
Take a stack of 3×5 cards. Mark one with a “3,” and place on it the “bottom line” message you wish to impart to your audience. In front of these words, put “In summary,” “In conclusion,” or some other phrase signaling the end of your presentation.
You now have your conclusion, as well as a mini-presentation, especially beneficial when making a business or sales presentation when time is reduced at the last minute. Take another card, mark it with “1,” and use it to tell the audience where you are taking them on this oratorical journey.
Next, place the supporting points that flow from “1” to “3” on a series of cards marked “2A,” “2B,” “2C,” etc. Using the 3-1-2 System will enable you to present maximum relevant content within the limited amount of time your audience may have to listen to you.
You’ll have more focus, because you will know when you start drafting where you are going with the presentation. Most importantly, audience members will see a logical structure to your argument. Using this “backward planning” method is far more effective than the traditional 1-2-3 method-Introduction, Body, Conclusion.
The next level of the pyramid is Practicing, and I want to share with you an observation Abraham Lincoln made abut getting ready for a presentation. He said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.”
The Gettysburg Address was an example of such diligence. Don’t believe the nonsense that he wrote the speech on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. Lincoln scholars have uncovered numerous drafts he wrote, and he undoubtedly practiced for what has become known as a masterpiece of brevity, some 270 words delivered in less than three minutes.
He sharpened his axe repeatedly, and the result was the greatest political speech in our history. We who tend to be somewhat wordy in our presentations can learn much from this great President.
I call the method for practicing which I teach in my workshops the “Practice three step.” Step one is practicing solo, with a tape recorder and/or video camera. No one nearby. After a few sessions, listen/watch yourself. Watch your mannerisms; listen for the “uh’s” and “you knows.” Do it again, making corrections.
Step two is with a colleague, friend, or spouse as your audience. Ask for constructive criticism.
Step three is a “Murder Board.” This is a term I bring with me from the military. It is to the presenter what the flight simulator is to the pilot.
Just as the pilot learns to deal with in-flight emergencies in the flight simulator, the Murder Board permits presenters to learn from their mistakes, so that the actual presentation is (1) more responsive to the informational needs of the audience, (2) answers are developed for likely questions to be asked, and (3) overall speaking confidence and competence are enhanced.
The apex of the pyramid is Presenting, and by necessity we must discuss how the audience sees and hears you. Negative non-verbal communication can seriously impact how an audience receives your information. Think of speaking as algebra, with he difference between positive equations and negative equations determining the value of the proposition.
If you reduce the negative equations you increase the value of the proposition. If you reduce speaking negatives, you automatically become a better speaker. In my workshops, I conduct a drill to help people afflicted with the “uh” and “You know” malady.
I ask them to speak for one minute on any subject. The rest of the class is asked to listen carefully and when they hear the offending sound, they shout “Uh’ at the speaker. When they hear “you know,” they respond with “No, we don’t.” This type of behavior modification normally results in a sharp reductions in these abominations of the English language.
Shortcuts to Eloquence
Positive speaking “equations” contain what I call “Shortcuts to eloquence.” These include the “Rhythmic Triple,” expressing your thoughts in punchy cadences of three. Sir Winston Churchill used this technique when he articulated the thought that the people of England owed a great debt to the pilots of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain.
Instead of using a mundane declarative sentence, Churchill said, “Never in the field of human endeavor have so many owed so much to so few.” See how you can convert important thoughts into such “triples.”
Analogies and metaphors are useful means to help audience members learn something new by comparing it to something well known to them. These rhetorical devices can be an excellent bridge from the known to the unknown, but be careful of excessive use of sports metaphors.
The rhetorical question can be employed to “bring back” audience members who have perhaps dozed off or are daydreaming. Move close to that person, do not look at him or her, pose a question, and then pause. Your presence and resulting increased volume will awaken the daydreamer/dozer, who will have no idea of the answer due to their comatose state.
When you provide the answer, they are now wide-awake, and grateful to you for not embarrassing them. A word of caution: Do not use this technique on a dozing boss. Let him or her wake up on their own.
The Final Arrow
We are conditioned to end our presentation when the senior recipient says “Thank you.” If you do end then, you lose an important opportunity to drive home your “buy-in” message. So consider using what I call “the Final Arrow. Think of your presentation as a quiver of arrows.
You fire the first one to motivate the audience to listen because you are going to provide information to solve their problem. That’s the ‘”1” of the 3-1-2 method. Then fire your various “2” arrows which provide the substance of your argument. You then end with your “3” conclusion, and you answer questions. So you see that you draft 3-1-2, but you deliver 1-2-3.
You still have a small arrow in your quiver, which is a reduced version of your “3.” When the recipient says “thank you,” look directly at this senior person, say “Thank you and I just want to reiterate…” while you are closing your laptop or gathering your notes. Condense this message into no more than 15 seconds.
Be careful to lead in with “reiterate,” “say again,” or some other short phrase that shows you know your time is up, and you are just repeating information already presented while you are preparing to leave. This is the last message the recipient and others will hear, and it may just “stick.” It is similar to the “closing argument” of the trial lawyer who hopes the jury retains this message as they decide the fate of the defendant.
Any primer on presentation skills must address how to use PowerPoint, or, more correctly, how to avoid “Death by PowerPoint.” The program has so many capabilities that it tempts users to employ far too many. I frequently receive brochures advertising courses which promise to turn attendees into spellbinding speakers by mastering PowerPoint.
I consider that a contradiction in terms. My recommendation is to be a minimalist, not one who uses so many “bells and whistles” that the audience is distracted from the substance of your remarks.
Here are two pointers on how to use PowerPoint so it can reinforce your message through the visual avenue to the brain. First, bring the bullets onto the screen one at a time. If you have, say, five bullets and they come onto the screen at the same time, audience members will scan down, perhaps being attracted to one of them, and therefore not listening as you address the first bullet. By bringing the bullets on one at a time, you focus the audience eyes and ears at the same place.
Second, it is not necessary to have words or graphics on the screen continually. When you want to give the audience a break, hit the “B” key, and the screen goes black. Hit it again, and the slide comes back on. If you want to jump forward to a slide, or backward to review one already shown, hit the slide number, then enter, and the desired slide appears on the screen. This means, of course, you must have a list with the numbers of the slides being used.
Let me conclude this essay on how to “Bring Home the Bacon” with your presentationn with an observation from the birthplace of speech training-ancient Greece. The Greeks of that day, even while admiring the speaker with the stentorian voice, dramatic gesture and clever turn of phrase, nevertheless realized the purpose of any presentation was to cause audience members to take the action the speaker wished them to take. So it was said, in comparing the greatest speaker of the day with one who had lived many years before:
“When Demosthenes speaks, people say ‘how well he speaks’.
But when Pericles spoke, people said, ‘Let us march.'”
Use the advice in this essay and you’ll get custommers and clients to “march” in the direction you are going so you can “Bring Home the Bacon.”