I have many pet peeves, but I reserve a special degree of scorn for one in particular; the laser pointer.

I hate them, and not just because a high school student once caused a complete meltdown in my class, while I was writing on the board, by shining the red dot on my backside, nor because they invariably bounce all over the screen as the speaker tries to aim the dot at a specific point on the slide, leaving me more confused than ever about what he was trying to point out.

No, I hate them because they tell me that I’m in the hands of a presenter who is lazy, incompetent or unprepared.

The only reason for a speaker to ever use a laser pointer in a presentation is if it isn’t clear what part of their slide they are talking about. That can only happen if the slide is overloaded, ill-conceived or badly designed.

If the speaker had taken the time to think through what the relevant and important points were going to be, and to make a separate slide highlighting each point, there would be no need to use the laser pointer.

If the speaker had given enough thought to clearly labeling the graphics, diagrams or images, there would be no need to chase the red dot around the screen.

If the speaker had made the effort to get feedback on what parts of the presentation were likely to be confusing, and taken steps to make them clear, there would be no need to point anything out.

The red dot of shame is nothing more than an admission of failure.

So please, do us all a favor. Put your laser pointer on a hard, concrete surface, place the heel of your boot on top of it and grind it into dust.

If nothing else, use it for its only legitimate and proper purpose; entertaining your cat. At least, the cat will enjoy it.


Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist
– Pablo Picasso

I recently participated in an interesting online discussion about whether there were “right” and “wrong” ways to do business presentations. As with all semantic discussions, it eventually boiled down to how you defined the words. Does “right” mean it is the morally correct way, the way that it is prescribed by those in authority, the generally accepted practice or the way that is most effective in achieving the goal?

However you define right and wrong, to me it begged a more interesting question; SHOULD we always present in the right way, even what we ourselves consider the right way?

The right way also means the predictable way and predictable is, almost by definition, boring.

The “right” way to open your presentation is with a provocative statement, an intriguing question or an evocative story. But if your purpose is to seize the attention of the audience, wouldn’t something more bizarrely unexpected work better?

The “right” way to present yourself is as a calm, rational, confident authority on your subject. But might not a softer, less confident image, that of a fellow seeker rather than an expert, sometimes be more effective in establishing a true rapport with a hostile or ambivalent audience?

The “right” way to structure your material is in the standard “tell them what you’re going to say, say it and then tell them what you said”, form. But wouldn’t a less rigid, more impressionistic, blend of stories, thoughts and images sometimes work better at breaking through skepticism and doubt?

The sun rising in the east doesn’t strike anyone as remarkable or noteworthy. That’s the right way for the cosmos to operate. But if, one day, it rose in the south, it would be an historic event, never to be forgotten.

The right ways to present are accepted as right for good reason; they usually work better than the wrong ways. But if your goal is to create a sensation, to upset the corporate apple cart or to stir up trouble, doing it wrong just might be the right way to go.


Distraction is the death of comedy
– Keenan Ivory Wayans, on “Inside Comedy.”

As a big fan of potential public humiliation, I have recently been dipping my toe in the stand-up comedy world at amateur open mikes in Tokyo. I have no aspirations of being the next Robin Williams or Louie C. K., but I’m fascinated by humor.

I’ve always been good at finding the comedy in a speech. I can reliably trigger a few chuckles from any audience, even the occasional belly laugh, but what I find so fascinating about it is its seeming unpredictability.

Of course calling something unpredictable is just another way of saying that we don’t understand it well enough to predict what will happen. Sharks are often called unpredictable but, from the sharks’ point of view, its actions are perfectly logical and predictable.

The same joke, however, in the same speech or comedy routine, can get a completely different reaction from two different audiences, because each audience brings in its own unique blend of experiences, beliefs and attitudes.

It is also impossible to tell the same joke, in exactly the same way, twice. A slight change in tone, rhythm or timing can be the difference between a big laugh and an uncomfortable silence.

There’s a third level of difficulty at play, as well, and that is the attention of the audience. Much like a great dramatic movie, comedy requires the audience to suspend reality and enter into the comedian’s warped mental world.

And just as a cell phone ringing right at the most dramatic point of a movie can kill the suspense, anything that disrupts a comedian’s intense mental connection with the audience, such as a waitress passing in front of the stage, a dropped fork or a loud conversation in the back of the room, kills the comedy.

Speakers and presenters don’t require the same intensity of connection that a comedian does, thank God, but that doesn’t make distraction any less of a problem for us. Some things we can’t control, but we are, at times, our own worst enemies. We introduce the very distractions that kill our presentations.

We introduce distractions in our body language by pacing back and forth, repeating the same gesture or fidgeting with our belt buckle, shirt collar or pen.

We introduce the vocal distractions of “Ummm”s, “Uhhhh”s and “You know”s.

We introduce the visual distractions of misaligned text in PowerPoint slides, random color and font schemes and, my own most hated, text animations.

We can’t blame the audience for not paying attention, if we are the ones distracting them and pulling their attention off of the message we are trying to communicate.

These attention killers are everywhere, and we need to be constantly on the lookout for them. I have no special talent for spotting distractions, in my own presentations or my clients’. I just pay attention to where my attention goes.

If I find myself staring at the speaker’s twitching and contorted left hand, held rigidly down at his side, I know I’ve found a distraction, and that’s a problem.

If I find myself counting how many times the speaker begins with. “Next,….” or “So,…..” , I know I’ve found a distraction, and that’s a problem.

If I find myself wondering why the PowerPoint text just spun around and zoomed off the screen, stage left, I know I’ve found a distraction, and that’s a problem.

If I find myself thinking about anything except the speaker’s message, I know I’ve found a distraction, and that’s a problem.

Whether you are watching yourself on video or watching a co-worker or client practicing, pay attention to where your attention goes. If it goes anywhere but to the speaker and his or her message, you’ve got a problem.


I’ve heard a number of speeches about bullying over the years.

The speakers had good intentions. They presented statistics about the frequency of bullying. They explained the psychological roots of bullying and its effect on the victim. They gave well-considered prescriptions for combating bullying, on the personal, institutional and cultural levels. And yet none of them have had the impact of a speech I heard the other night.

The speaker, my friend Takami, addressed the question of why bullying and harassment are so often suffered in silence. It’s a complex issue that intertwines threads of fear, shame, powerlessness and a lack of self-esteem.

In her speech, she told us the story of an incident from grade school. A classmate next to her was making noise, while the teacher was writing on the board. His back to the class, he warned whoever was talking, several times, to be quiet. Finally, the teacher, a man that Takami liked and trusted, turned and grabbed Takami’s pen case and whacked Takami hard on the head.

Takami told us she just hung her head and said nothing. She didn’t protest her innocence or blame her friend. She didn’t tell her parents or report him to the principal. She just sat there burning with shame and resentment at the injustice of it.

The specifics of Takami’s story were unique to her. I’ve never been hit by a teacher. But as I listened to her story it brought back memories of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson.

In our classroom, above the blackboard, was a construction paper train and each boxcar had a student’s name on it. When one of us finished reading a book, we took fold of colored paper, wrote the title of the book on it and tossed it in to our boxcar.

I’ve always loved to read, so I took to this project with enthusiasm. Within a couple of months, my boxcar was filled to overflowing.

One day, as the class was rushing out to the playground for recess, Mrs. Anderson asked me to stay behind and talk about the book train. I was so sure that she was going to praise me for my reading skill and probably offer to make a second boxcar for my books. It seemed only fair.

But instead of a pat on the back, I got a smug lecture on the evils of dishonesty. Mrs. Anderson said she didn’t believe I could possibly have read that many books so quickly.

That happened 47 years ago and I’m still angry about it. But at the time, I said nothing.

I KNEW exactly how Takami had felt at that moment, not because she had described or explained it to me, but because I had been there. That feeling of betrayal, anger and injustice was seared into my memory.

After the speech, we were talking to another friend, Drian, and he told us the story of a time in school when he was working diligently in the midst of a group of boys who were screwing off. In exasperation, the teacher finally punished the entire group, including Drian. As he told the story these many years later, I could hear in his voice that same burning resentment. He had been there too. HE knew that feeling.

Who hasn’t felt the sting of being unjustly accused? I’ll bet that every member of the audience that day was feeling the same thing Drian and I were, each through his or her own unique experience.

More than any dry lecture on psychology or statistics could have, Takami’s story had taken us straight to the root of the experience, not by explaining it, but by triggering our memories and emotions. It made her speech so much more vivid, powerful and memorable.

That’s how you make an impact on your audience.

That’s how you lead people to a deep understanding.

That’s how you make them care.

That’s how you move them to act.

And that was a damn fine speech, Takami-san.


One of the most effective marketing campaigns in American history was a series of public service announcements produced by the group MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Driving while drunk had always been perceived by most to be a minor offense. It was a comedy staple on television and when drunk drivers were arrested, judges tended to slap offenders on the wrist.

Yet the reality was that drunk drivers were responsible for a great deal of the carnage on our national roadways. It was estimated at the time that almost half of the nearly 10,000 accident deaths on American highways every year were caused, at least in part, by alcohol.

Beginning in 1980, MADD set out to change the public, and therefore the political, perception of drunk driving; to drive home the reality of the tremendous damage, pain and loss caused by such a “minor” offense.

A lecture, even one backed by the grim facts, wasn’t going to cut it. We have a way of averting our eyes from the uncomfortable facts that cause cognitive dissonance, particularly when it is our own behavior or attitude that is being challenged. That’s why logical negative appeals tend to be so ineffective.

So MADD decided to do an end run around logic. They produced a series of commercials, deceptively simple in production, that featured a single person, captured in a basic, dramatically lit, head shot against a black background, talking about someone – their child, their husband, their mother – who had been killed by a drunk driver.

The video below features the story of 16-year old Kali O’Dell, who survived an accident that killed both of her parents. It is a later video, produced by the Canadian branch of MADD, but it follows the same basic format.

There is no ranting about accountability, deterrence or revenge, no call for political action or social change, just the story of one person’s pain, grief and loss.

Each commercial put a human face to the statistics and exposed the hypocrisy of excusing or laughing off the lethally foolish irresponsibility of getting behind the wheel of several thousand pounds of hurtling metal when drunk.

Almost immediately, public perception began to change and, in due course, the politicians fell in line and dramatically stiffened the penalties for driving while impaired.

Of course, there are still idiots who drive when they shouldn’t, but at least no one is laughing about it anymore. And the law takes it seriously enough that repeat offenders are taken off the road and, if necessary, thrown in jail. That’s a step in the right direction.


Getting Emotional

by R. L. Howser on February 11, 2013 · 0 comments

There’s no crying in baseball.
– Manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), in “A League of their Own.”

After my last post, Moist and Dry Presentations, I had a couple of interesting conversations about emotions, one an email exchange with a reader I’d never met and the other a talk with a good friend.

Both objected to my claim that good “American style” presentations, particularly in business, tend to be emotional in nature.

“I don’t know where you’re getting your information,” they both said, in essence, “but there’s no crying in business. Getting emotional is the fastest way to kill your career.”

Admittedly, whining, crying and pleading are rarely effective ways to conduct your business, whether in discussion, negotiation or presentation, but that’s a very narrow definition of emotional.

Anger is an emotion too. So are disappointment, pride, gratitude, excitement, sorrow, determination and optimism, if you cast your net wide enough.

Emotion is personal. It is human. It is present. It is what reaches out and grabs the attention of the audience and engages their interest. It is also what is missing from the vast majority of dull, ineffective presentations.

Facts and figures have their place in explaining your message, supporting your logical argument and justifying your conclusion, but they will never move your audience to care.

And if they don’t care, you might as well be talking to a room full of empty chairs.


Recently, I was typing an email to a potential client, who had expressed an interest in having his staff trained in giving “international style” business presentations. I was just about to hit send, when my eye caught a potentially embarrassing typo.

I meant to write in my email that “Most presentations simply aren’t effective,” but what I saw on the screen was that “Moist presentations simply aren’t effective.” My computer hadn’t caught the error because, of course, grammatically it was still correct.

At first it just made me chuckle, but the more I thought about the idea of moist presentations, the more profound it began to seem.

The Japanese characterize Western, particularly American, business culture as “Dry”. It is based on facts and figures, logic and law. It strives to be impartial and impersonal. Decisions are short-term and often temporary, and based on the return on investment and the bottom line.

Japanese business culture, on the other hand, is considered “Moist”. It is based more on assiduously cultivated personal relationships, tied together with a web of mutual connections, shared history, obligations and favors. Memories are long, as are goals, forecasts and decision timelines.

That’s the fundamental reason so many Japanese and American businessmen have so much difficulty in understanding each other, they tend to have very different views of how business should be conducted, how decisions should be made.

The irony is that Japanese businessmen tend to give the “driest” presentations I have ever seen. It is a “Just the facts, Ma’am” data dump, heavy on charts, spreadsheets and bullet points.

Unlike in American culture, in Japan, the presentation itself is not viewed as a vehicle of persuasion, so much as one for reassurance. It is a pro-forma performance – business kabuki – meant to support decisions that have already been made, procedures already in place and results already forecast. It is meant to provide at least the illusion of control and predictability. Surprises are neither expected nor appreciated.

So the “moist” American presenter, full of emotion, passion and conviction, who strives to blow away the audience with a powerful argument, unassailable logic or a visionary plan, is seen as irrelevant to the business process in Japan. By that point, the decisions have already been made.

By the same token, the Japanese presenter who gives a dry, factual, predictable presentation, one that adds nothing new to the discussion, is seen in America as a waste of everyone’s time. There’s no point in going over what we all already know.

The fact that Japan and America built the two most powerful and dynamic economies of the 20th century points out that neither approach is correct. Both have been shown to be quite effective, yet they both fail completely when used in the wrong cultural context.

Becoming a skilled international business presenter isn’t just about developing your own style or being a good presenter in your own culture. It requires the sensitivity and flexibility to give the type of presentation that is most likely to be effective in the culture of the audience, particularly the decision makers.

Only then can you call yourself an “international style” business presenter.


Talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours.
– Benjamin Disraeli

There is something about standing in front of an audience that seems to sharpen our “I” sight. It seems that all we can see that’s worth talking about is “I did this”, “I know that” and “I think the other thing.”

It’s no surprise.  We’re often taught that we should write and speak about what we know best, and there’s nothing we know better than ourselves. But there’s also no faster way to lose an audience.

Unless you’ve walked on the moon, lived with wild wolves or been abducted by aliens, and you have a video of the inside of their ship to prove it, you’re simply not as interesting to your audience as their own lives are.

That doesn’t mean you can do nothing but tell your audience how great, wise and capable they are, although several famous speakers have built careers on just that. It does mean, however, that you need to speak to the audience’s desires, concerns and interests.

At the very least, it means you need to understand what the audience cares about, but with a bit of research, imagination and a basic understanding of human psychology, that’s no so hard to figure out.

You can then use your experiences, opinions and knowledge to cast light on the audience’s interests in a way that illuminates their own lives and challenges, lighting the path for them.

If you’ve built an internet business from nothing into a multi-million dollar concern, use your story, not to brag, but to show us the possibilities of being an entrepreneur in the age of virtual business.

If you’ve survived a crippling disease or injury and gone on to become happy and successful, tell us how you did it, not for your own aggrandizement, but to inspire others to look beyond their short-term setbacks and keep a positive attitude.

If you’ve used wacky PR stunts to get free media exposure for a controversial political or social cause, show us how you did it, not as an excuse to climb back on your soapbox, but as a primer for other social activists.

Put your experience, your insight, your knowledge in terms that will be useful to us and relevant to our challenges, and we’ll happily listen to you for hours.


Why not a question?

by R. L. Howser on December 28, 2012 · 0 comments

Do you like being told what to do? Or what not to do?

Nobody does.

That’s probably the reason so many public safety lessons fail miserably. It doesn’t matter how good, how sensible or how reasonable the advice is, we all have a natural inclination to resist doing what were told.

Smokers are notorious for their defiance. They know that smoking isn’t a healthy habit, but choose to smoke anyway. They feel as if their freedom to do so is constantly under assault. They are relegated to balconies and alleyways, in fair weather and foul, and vilified at every turn as a public health menace. No surprise that suggestions they give up the habit meet a fierce, knee-jerk resistance.

Yet, the “Call to action” close, in which the speaker tells the audience what they should or shouldn’t do, is considered the standard way to wrap up almost any speech or presentation. It’s the standard because it works.  It gives the audience a clear direction to go with the information or argument the speaker has presented.

But there is another way of wrapping up that can be even more powerful, and that is to end on a question. Let the audience come to their own conclusions about what they should do.

This video, from Thailand, was part of an anti-smoking campaign that didn’t tell anyone to quit smoking. It just asked them a question.

When the children asked adult smokers for a light, the adult invariably told them that they shouldn’t smoke; that it was bad for them. So the children simply handed them a paper that asked, “You worry about me. But why not about yourself?”

No scorn. No lecture. No well-meaning advice. Just a question.

What could have been more powerful than that?


Dig Your Well Now

by R. L. Howser on December 19, 2012 · 0 comments

There is an interesting TV program about the advertising industry on the AMC network.

The Pitch - Logo - resizedIt is called, “The Pitch” and it is an unscripted, reality program, in which two ad agencies compete for the business of a major corporate client by presenting a concept for an advertising campaign. I find it fascinating, in part because I’m interested in the subject of persuasion and influence and the central purpose of all advertising is, of course, persuading consumers and influencing their behavior.

That is also the purpose of speeches and presentations. If you’re not trying to persuade or influence your audience, you are wasting your time and theirs.

But beyond that, the dramatic climax of each show is the pitch, or presentation of the concept, to the client. These are high-pressure, high-stakes events and the entire future of a firm can sometimes ride on the performance of the executive making the pitch.

So I was a bit surprised, in one recent show, to see a firm toss an unprepared young executive straight in to the presentation fire.

The agency, Muse, was competing for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation account. The executive, Creative Director Marcus Moore, while clearly an intelligent, creative young man with a bright future in the business, was not an experienced presenter, so at the last minute, they brought in a presentation coach to work with him.

The Pitch - Marcus Moore - cropped and resizedThe coach, Tim Hart, knows his business and he had a lot of very perceptive comments and helpful tips to offer. He began throwing out suggestions, telling Moore to take off his hat, to make eye contact, to stand still, not to begin with “So,..”, to put more drama in his voice, to enunciate better and to separate his words. You could tell from the glassy look in his eyes, Moore was totally overwhelmed.

Not surprisingly, his performance in front of the client, while not terrible, was less than stellar. He had at least one deer-in-the-headlights moment where he lost his train of thought and froze.

It made for good television, but it was hardly effective training. It’s like taking your first golf lesson the day before you tee off in the Masters. A golfer needs to have his swing so grooved, so automatic, that he doesn’t even have to think about it. That frees him to think about the course.

Harvey Mackay - Dig Your Well CoverThe business writer, Harvey Mackay, wrote a book on business networking called, “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty”. That also strikes me as good advice for anyone who expects to be put in the situation of giving high-stakes, high-pressure business presentations.

The physical skills of presenting effectively, such as displaying a relaxed, authoritative voice and posture, maintaining rapport through eye contact and communicating effectively through gestures, facial expressions and vocal tone, rhythm and pause, are not things you can learn in one lesson.

Like a golf swing, you have to burn the habits of effective speaking into to your brain and muscles, so when it’s time to speak, they are as automatic as breathing, freeing you to focus on your audience and your words.

In business, you never know when you are going to be thrown into a make or break speaking situation, and that’s okay, if you already have the skills to shine when it happens.

So dig your well now, before you’re thirsty.