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Look Past the "Self-Presentation"

One of the many consequences of the pandemic is that people are more anxious. The sudden appearance of Covid-19 and its impact on our lifestyles -, health and life itself, has created anxiety for almost everyone. For some it’s quite severe; for others not.  However, it’s important that we recognize its impact and help people address it.

Adrian Gostick, Chester Elton and Anthony Gostick, recently released a book, Anxiety at Work.  Even before the pandemic started, the authors were hearing that anxiety at work was increasing. Harvard Medical School research reports that “on-the-job-anxiety” imperils workers; careers and company  productivity.. Anxiety leads to increased employee, errors, growing burnout, workplace rage, more sick days, and poor employee health. Workplace anxiety is estimated to cost some $40 Billion annually in lost productivity, errors and health-care costs; stress is estimated t cost more than $300 Billion.

A 2018 survey found that 34% of workers of all ages felt anxious at least once in the previous month; 18% had a diagnosed anxiety disorder.  Some of it is related to fitting into the workplace; another comfort is discomfort with doing the work. Yet very little about it was reported in their companies.


At Stanford University, they came up with a term to describe the masquerading of students at the high-pressure school. The “duck syndrome” describes students who appear as if they doing fine, but are manically pushing themselves, just like a duck calmly glides on a pond, while below the surface the ducks are paddling like mad.

During the pandemic, the stresses became more severe, as people, especially parents had to juggle health issues, living arrangements, computer resources, and significant others having all kinds of problems, while handling the work for their employers.  Since the common interface was Zoom, people could try to a present a calm self-presentation. Like the “ducks”, they make it seem that they were gliding along, when in fact they were under pressure and used extra hours in the day to meet the deadlines. How hard they paddled wasn’t obvious.

We’re now in the “fluid” stage of the pandemic – trying to figure out when, where and how we will work at home, in the office, etc. Adding to everyone’s anxiety is that like water in a bucket on a ship at sea being tossed by the waves, the water keeps shifting and just adding more stress to it for all.

We all need to look past our self-presentations of relative “calm” and attend to the indicators of additional stress and anxiety that might below the surface. We need to have open discussions with our staff of what their current situation is like and how they expect it to changes, while the waves of this pandemic keep slamming everyone.  Only in that way can we help people take control of their anxiety and make decisions as to what will work for them in the next stage and eventually the new normal.

Share with us what you’re doing to help your staff. We can all learn from experiences.

Make Better Decisions

The ultimate purpose of making presentations to an audience is to guide their decisions on an issue. Whether the presentation is designed to inform, educate, inspire, motivate or activate the audience, the speaker’s job is to provide the logical and emotional foundation to enable the audience to make the desired decision.

Social scientists have identified countless many variables that affect the degree to which the message communicated will be compelling and persuasive. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist is a recognized expert in this area (e.g., Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Pre-Suasion: Channeling Attention for Change). As a social psychologist who created businesses (Brilliant Image and Presentation Excellence) to help over 5000 leaders make more effective presentations), we came up with an easy-to-remember foundational formula to guide our clients: ADAP: Audience-Driven, Authentic Presentations.

As a Vistage Chair, Executive Coach, and CEO of Age Brilliantly, my mind has been focused on the other side of the room: how to help people making decisions make the best ones possible. In the former roles, the goal is on leadership and personal decision-making; in the latter, the goal is to map out our and mange one’s life so adults can lead fulfilling lives which may well last till 100+.  For instance, we know that there are many conscious and unconscious variables that affect decision-making such as blind-spots, cognitive dissonance, etc. Even the type of decision matters, as Daniel Kahneman, et al. have shown with System I and System 2 thinking (e.g., Thinking Fast and Slow).

As a result, I reread an excellent book discussing ways in which we can increase the odds of making  better decisions: Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. As I start using more discipline to my own decision-making, and influence the others that I have the privilege of serving, I thought I’d share some key points.

The Heath Brothers identify “four villains of decision making”, discuss the many forms in which they take place and share real world stories so we can identify with the problem and value of a better solution. Here are the solutions to the four challenges:

  • Widen Your Options:  Many times the choices we’re offered are narrow: Should we do X or not? Should we do X or Y? The tyranny of OR is that we’ve eliminated our ability to think through other options that exist – and which may be superior. So when given a narrow option, think AND – what else might be possible. Often there is a third alternative, and often a fourth, fifth, etc.
  • Reality-Test Your Assumptions. Rather than accept the limited facts that you have, be curious and find a way to test or experiment with the assumptions. Years ago, I started supervising students who had little exposure to the real-world of working, and barely knew what their skills, passions and purpose were. The goal is to provide these interns (650+) with the opportunity to explore options and challenge assumptions in the real world.
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding.  Emotions often rule when quick decisions have to be made. High-pressure sales people (sometimes including yourself!) build on the emotions to get a fast decision. The better strategy is to give yourself time; get more input from other people who’ve been in analogous situations and can attest to the impact; distance yourself from the decision, by imaging what your old-wiser self (or other respected person) might tell you to do!
  • Prepare to be Wrong.  We want to be right and we become overconfident quite quickly on how we think the future will play out. Think through what might go wrong before it happens; for instance, a pre-mortem imagines what could go wrong and forces you to play devil’s advocate and uncover contrary facts and opinions that might go wrong. Is there “groupthink pressure taking place? Better to discover problems you’re ignoring before a poor decision takes place.

At this time in all our lives, as we make post-pandemic decisions for ourselves, our loved ones, our companies, our country, etc., think about the decisions you need to make and try to make the best decisions possible.   Then share with us which strategies helped you produce better decisions!

It’s the (User-Focused) Strategy that Counts!

To paraphrase a famous expression, “It’s the Strategy, Stupid!”

Recently Greg Satell, Publisher of Digital Tonto, reminded me of the difference that two companies used to accomplish a vision, with two different strategies and very different outcomes.   In “Anyone Can Have A Vision”, he compares the strategies of two visionary entrepreneurs committed to shifting the world from fossil fuels to renewables, and deciding to create enterprises focused on bringing electric cars to the masses.  Yes, one of them is Elon Musk and Tesla. 

The other, Shai Agassi, committed to this compelling vision in 2007 by forming a company called “Better Place”, focused immediately on producing the car for the masses. With a focus on the technology, he envisioned that the car, at least at the beginning, would have a very heavy battery and need to be recharged for drivers traveling long distances. Drawing on the model for gas-powered vehicles – where drivers stop in on stations to fill up when power was running low, the company focused on battery switching stations that would remove and install a new battery when power was running low.  The company went public and tested the initial model in places like Hawaii, Ireland and Israel, where the distances were relatively small and only one or two “charges” would be needed. Renault Fluence Z.E.  created the electric car to hold the batteries .  At its peak in 2012, there were 21 operational battery-swap stations open to the public in Israel. Better Place filed for bankruptcy in May 2013.

Musk adopted a different strategy – focusing on the user. He did not attempt to immediately build a car for the masses; instead he used the “adoption of innovations” approach and focused on early adopters: Silicon Valley celebrities and millionaires who wouldn’t rely on the car for everyday use, choosing to use it as their second car which they could show off to their friends and neighbors. That gave Musk the opportunity to learn how to manufacture cars efficiently and effectively, with the goal of producing cars for the masses in the future.

Musk focused on building competence in designing and delivering cars that buyers would want and could afford – and succeeded. In contrast, Agassi focused on battery switching, leaving him with only one automobile supplier – which provided only the “shell-of-a-car” running on someone else’s battery!

There are many ventures that teach us similar lessons. Webvan was one of the first delivery services for home goods. Despite raising a lot of money and hiring an experienced leadership team, it failed within a year, because it spent its money on distribution system warehouses, with a poorly designed scheduling system that made many deliveries unprofitable. Since then food and other home delivery services (e.g., Fresh Direct, Peapod, etc.) have learned the importance of smart user-friendly scheduling slots with profitability.

So before you launch your technology driven service, make sure you’re meeting customers’ immediate and long-term needs, profitably.  Use a “pre-mortem” to challenge your assumptions!

Increase Your Visibility

Are you one of the people/companies standing at the “post-pandemic” starting gate, anxious to gain new or increased business from potential clients? In this crowded field, it’s difficult to become visible and stand out in the crowd.   Here are some easy-to-follow rules that will help you succeed.

Two decades ago, when we launched Presentation Excellence to help presenters  who were already visible to close more deals,  we also launched PortfolioPR, an investor and public relations firm focused on the first problem: gaining visibility so you would be invited to make the presentation.  At the time, we created our own rules for doing so:

  • Conduct a perception scan – who knows about what you do and what do they really know
  • Determine a unique branding proposition to fill the blank
  • Present your brand in contexts where you’re different than the others around you
  • Reinforce your unique brand as often as necessary until feedback tells you that you’ve succeeded

For instance, a public company with a market capitalization of $500M, wanted to achieve a market capitalization of $1Billion+, so the largest investment banks would make investments.  The perception study told us that most potential investors didn’t know the company was even an option; they though other larger companies had acquired them years ago. At the time, the aerospace industry was in a recession and it provided products to the industry. But since it also provide other industry products, we branded the company as an expert in “highly-engineered solutions”. We promoted the company with a focus on the breadth of the product line, through a mix of public and private investor programs – which allowed us to engage in strategic partnerships with colleagues in all the industries. Eighteen months later, we accomplished the goal – and turned over the strategy to a newly created team within the company to continue the process.

Lee W. Frederiksen offers a different framework for professionals who want to increase visibility. In Visible Expert, he identifies four levels of expertise that a person can promote:

  1. The Resident Expert:  Establishing yourself as a thought leader and expert within your firm.  Focus on what you know and what people need, and keep developing outstanding content for anyone who reaches out to you.
  2. The Local Hero: With an eye on future career development, you begin to specialize within your domain of expertise. You rely on referrals, speaking engagements, social media and websites.
  3. The Rising Star: Using your entrepreneurial energy, you focus on your niche and start promoting yourself more actively to reach larger audiences and become recognized as a market leader.  Issuing white papers, publishing a book, participating in podcasts, etc., are strategies you use to create buzz.
  4. The Industry Rock Star: Visibility as an expert has taken a life of its own and continues to generate new opportunities. You become more selective in your niche expertise and audience, and channel existing buzz into reputation (and income) management.

Now is the time to launch your career or company growth. Harness the strategy that will enable you to achieve your goal of being a recognized expert and leader!

Communications Need to be Compelling

How compelling are your communications? While the focus of our work at Presentations Excellence is on helping leaders to deliver winning Board, sales, investor, marketing and organizational restructuring presentations, we’re often asked to help make the communications that lead up to the “big” presentation more compelling. If the email, panel speech, networking introduction, whitepaper, website, etc. don’t grab the audience’s attention, you may never get asked to make the presentation that wins a deal.

For instance, Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language, recently surveyed 3,000 people in he US workforce and found that 70% reported poor digital communications to be a problem. The Digital Communications Crisis report estimated that lackluster communication resulted in an average of four hours wasted per week – valued at $188 Billion.

Some of the email-related solutions offered by experts (including Sam George who wrote I’ll Get Back to You: The Dyscommunication Crisis) include:

  • Craft more enticing subject lines. If a recipient doesn’t read your email right away, it’s likely to be ignored. Make them witty, engaging, personalized or urgent. Credibility and timing also matter
  • Pose questions and ask for simple yes or no answers, so the reader can decide whether he/she agrees with you.
  • Structure the message so it leads to the Course of Action that you want to the person to take: send more information or agree to attend to a meeting.
  • Address people by their first names; people are 27% more likely to open a personalized email.
  • Address the message to the user; remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the user.
  • Create visual impact by breaking up long emails into bite-size paragraphs and subheads. Instead of overly long paragraphs, use bullet points.
  • If you’re looking for a response, simplify the request so it’s almost effortless to do so.

Use these solutions to increase the power of your emails – and you’ll have more impact!

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