The Big English Present

The grammatical term of the present in English is a bit of trap. Yes it is a tense, but when combined with the four basic aspects of simple, progressive (or continuous), perfect and perfect progressive the concept of the present being the now type present goes out the window.

The confusion starts with the present simple. It is big. Really big. So big in fact that it swallows up the past and future and sticks them together.

For example. I am a man. Could I have been a woman last year? Or will I change into a woman in five years? No, it says I was a man, am a man, and will continue to be a man. Past, present and future.

To move aspects. I am reading a book. So, what right at this very moment? No. Perhaps I started reading the book three weeks ago, and still have ten chapters left to read. Perhaps I only read one chapter of an evening before going to bed. Again, past, present and future.

Or, I am having my tooth extracted. When. Today, tomorrow, next week. We don’t know, but it is definitely in the future.

To the perfect present. I have painted the kitchen. When exactly? Am I painting now? No, I finished some time ago. So here we have the present talking about the past. That’s logical isn’t it? The economy has collapsed. When? Now, or in the past?

I have been painting the kitchen. Add the progressive to the perfect and what do we have now? Past action again, but now there is a hint that I may not have completed it yet. Now there is a subtle difference to ponder.

So there we have it. The grammatical present in English. Quite a simple concept really. It is everything, every time and quite illogically huge.

To understand why the English present is different from many other languages, one needs to look at how English uses time in its tenses. Yes, as in most languages English has the three standard grammatical time periods of past, present and future. Where English differs, is that it needs another time period, and that is the time concept of now.

Now is infinitely small. It is gone before you know it has been. It is the very fine line of time that separates the past from the future. The present sits on top of this structure, and with a change of aspect, moves to the appropriate point in time.

Hence, the present in English is not just the present at all. It can be the past, the present or the future. Or, a combination. Simple really.

Book Review – The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, by Carmine Gallo

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs is a book that a speechwriter can love. Gallo quotes from sources such as Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology and Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen. He even has a sidebar on JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s influence on Barack Obama titled, “What the World’s Greatest Speechwriters Know.

The message of this book is that Jobs’ extraordinary impact is based on his authenticity and his passion for his company’s people and products. Most presenters can’t claim to be the CEO of an archetypically cool Silicon Valley company.

Neither can they get away with wearing faded jeans, sneakers and a turtleneck onstage. But simply everyone with a product or service that improves people’s lives has a story to tell. Gallo’s book explains in detail how Jobs presents his story so that his passion shines through and ignites the audience. It’s Gallo’s claim that anyone can learn how to deliver an “insanely great” presentations.

The “secrets” that make Jobs so effective onstage include the usual stage tips taught by presentation coaches: Make eye contact with the audience, use vocal variety and know the power of a well-timed pause. But the majority of the book analyzes the structure, rather than the delivery techniques, of major keynotes Jobs has given at Macworld and elsewhere over the years. This makes the book of inestimable value for anyone who needs to understand the nuts and bolts of writing a speech.

Performance piece

When Steve Jobs takes to the stage he often tells dramatic stories, so it’s appropriate that the book itself is structured as a three-act play. Act 1 tells how to create the story, Act 2 tells how to deliver it, and Act 3 stresses the importance of rehearsal. Gallo adds “Director’s Notes” that summarize each chapter (or scene), and he introduces a cast of supporting characters.

Organizing the book in this way also reinforces the importance of telling a story in three parts; of delivering a speech with three messages. In fact, Gallo concedes, the chapter on the effectiveness of breaking a speech into three “could easily have become the longest in the book.”

Speechwriters’ playbook

The book is a playbook for writing a great speech. Jobs and his team start scripting a speech long before firing up PowerPoint or, in their case, Keynote software. They settle on an attention-grabbing headline (“The world’s thinnest notebook”); then they decide on the three key messages; develop analogies and metaphors; and scope out demonstrations, video clips and cameo guest appearances.

Next they develop the “plot” of the speech, setting up an antagonist (Microsoft or IBM in the early days), dressing up numbers and including plenty of “amazingly zippy” words. Finally, they script a memorable “holy smokes” moment that people will talk about long after the event ends. The slides they eventually create are heavy on images and light on text and bullet points.

Live action video

A book alone will go only so far. If you’ve never actually seen Jobs present in person, then you haven’t experienced the “reality-distortion field” his charisma and eloquence creates in the auditorium. Gallo has this covered.

The book’s end notes provide URLs for some of the 47,000 YouTube and Apple.com video clips showcasing Jobs and clearly demonstrating the techniques discussed. Viewing the videos compensates for the poor-quality monochrome photos of Jobs onstage-the one disappointment in the book.

Learning from his mistakes

To counteract any feelings of inadequacy you might have after watching Jobs deliver a flawless keynote, do a quick search on YouTube for “Apple Bloopers” and you’ll see that, even for Steve Jobs, things don’t always go well onstage. Demos fail, screens freeze, and he stumbles over words. But as with any masterful presenter, Jobs remains calm. 

Even if the speeches you write or deliver are not destined for “insane” greatness, they’ll be much, much, better for having read Carmine Gallo’s insanely great book.

3 Essentials to Developing Powerful Presentations – Part 2

Powerful presentations are vital to building your credibility when communicating with colleagues, senior leaders, board members, clients, or staff. In Part 1 of this article, I focused on the preparation phase, and action steps that need to be taken in advance to ensure success. The next two phases include the presentation itself, and feedback to refine your skills following the presentation.

Presentation (Your Delivery during the Meeting)

It’s OK to be nervous. However, the best way to overcome nervousness is to be prepared and know your topic better than anyone else. Eventually the nerves will subside.

Speak clearly and with confidence. Pace yourself, so as not to speak too fast or too slow – because both drive audiences crazy. If you have difficulty enunciating certain words, do not use them. Also, be careful not to speak in a monotone manner; it will put people to sleep.

Be mindful of your body language. A genuine smile is a great way to warm a group up, so be very conscientious of your facial expressions throughout your presentation. Your body language should be relaxed to convey confidence, and throughout your presentation be sure to scan the room with positive eye contact and a periodic smile. If your eyes focus solely on your presentation notes or the PowerPoint slides on the projection screen throughout the entire presentation you will lose the audience, and you will not be able to assess whether they are embracing your message or are board stiff. Also be extremely mindful of your posture and hand gestures. Remember, not only is the audience listening to you – but they are also looking at you.

Make your presentation memorable. Start with a strong opening, typically interesting facts and figures are a good way to get the audience stirred, or with a little taste of humor. Next, make sure you have an impactful middle — this is where your knowledge and expertise of the subject matter will make all of the difference. Don’t lose the audience with too many big words, but at the same time don’t talk down to the audience. There is a fine line between a presenting your information with confidence and finesse, and totally missing an opportunity to “wow” your audience. Prior to closing your presentation, allow a few minutes to take a few questions. And, if asked a question that you cannot answer, don’t fake it. Respond appropriately indicating that you will find out and get back with them a.s.a.p. Most important, end with a memorable closing, usually a great supporting quote helps round off your presentation.

Walk the room. When presenting to small groups, using the opportunity to walk around the room is extremely effective. Periodically gaze across the entire room, using positive eye contact and smiling as often as possible to convey a sense of confidence. Of course, walking the ballroom is not effective if you are presenting to a large group in the 100′s because then everyone cannot see you. In these instances, stay on the stage or at the front of the room, periodically pacing from one side to the other to keep everyone’s attention. When presenting to large groups, I always prefer and request a wireless microphone for this very reason.

Be mindful of the time. If there is a clock in the room, periodically glance at it to ensure you stay within your allotted timeframe. I have been in meetings where the speaker went over their allocated time and participants started leaving. My suggestion, respect people’s time. That’s why handouts are so helpful. If you are running out of time, you can always advise participants to review the handouts later for more details.

Feedback for Refinement (After the Meeting)

Solicit audience feedback. The manner in which you solicit feedback depends on the audience you are presenting to. When I’m facilitating a training workshop, I always handout participant feedback forms. When I am presenting to small groups, I usually speak with the meeting planner afterwards to get their feedback on the effectiveness of my presentation and suggestions for improvement.

Use feedback to improve your skills. It’s tough accepting constructive criticism and feedback when you have worked so hard preparing for a presentation or to facilitate a training workshop. However, you must take it all in stride and use what you learn to improve your presentation style. If you continue to hear the same criticism over-and-over again (you use your hands to much, you pace too much, you let the audience take control too much, you didn’t use eye contact with the audience, etc.) then it is a chronic blind-spot that you need to work on eliminating. It’s OK to be sensitive, but use this type of feedback as an opportunity to learn and grow over time. When you begin to hear the same criticisms less over time, you’ll know that you have mastered them.

In closing, my list of tips for a powerful presentation is not all inclusive. However, hopefully it has gotten your creative juices going and in the future you will consider some of these tips to improve your presentation skills. There hundred of other tips to help you improve. I give hundreds of presentations each year, but I still review books and other self-help resources to refine my skills. Believe me, your first, second, or maybe even fiftieth presentation will not be perfect – but the more you do over time the more confident you will become.