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So In Conclusion October 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I once worked with a person who was brilliant but, shall we say, less than tactful.  He could be abrupt and had a tin ear for many societal niceties, especially with those that he felt were wasting his time.

Once he was sitting through an interminable technical presentation.  As the speaker went through his slides, the crowd became increasingly restless but sat politely.  My coworker could finally take no more and called out from the back of the room, “So in conclusion!”  The speaker, rattled, quickly wrapped up and released the crowd.

The common reaction among those in the meeting was to outwardly note the terribly rude behavior but inwardly breathe a sigh of relief.  No one wanted to sit there; one person had the nerve to express what everyone was thinking.

Who hasn’t been in this position?  Who hasn’t wished for someone to take one for the team and cut short an awful speaker? Yet we won’t, because most of us are far too civil to do such a rude thing in public.

Perhaps we should. I do a lot of speaking, and I always hope that I am serving my audience well.  But I know that I often do not, and that they would rather move things along and call it a day.  While being shouted at from the back of the room might be a bit much, I would truly appreciate a gentle comment to pick up the pace or to redirect the flow of the presentation.  Speaking is about serving the audience, not yourself.

Similarly, those of us speaking need to be attuned to the subtle cues that our audience is giving us.  Shouted advice notwithstanding, our audience is telling us how we are doing with their posture, their eyes, and their furtive text messaging below the table.  If your audience is drifting away, that’s your fault, not theirs.

Whether I am speaking or listening, I look forward to the end of the presentation. Not because it is over, but because that’s where the questions get asked.  I find a dialog between a speaker and the audience much more useful than a monologue. I view the speaking part of the engagement as a way to set the stage, to provide background information, and to pique the audience’s interest.  With appetites whetted, we can then engage in a directed conversation that everyone benefits from.

I am always frustrated by panel discussions. I love listening to panelists field questions from the audience, comparing divergent opinions on the fly.  Why, then, do panel moderators almost always arrange for panelists to speak for fifty minutes, allowing ten minutes at the end “in case there might be questions?”  “Might be?” I’d rather have the panelists speak for at most ten minutes, with fifty minutes guaranteed for questions. If they can’t generate any questions in ten minutes, you have the wrong panelists!

As always, speakers need to focus on their customer: the audience.  The audience wants to be entertained and educated; rarely do they simply want to bask in your presence.  In conclusion, we need to be more attuned to the subtle cues of our audience so that we meet and exceed their expectations.

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Broadway Leadership July 24, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I recently spent a long weekend in New York City.  Among other things, I was able to attend three Broadway shows in three nights.  This is a rare treat; my love of Broadway theater goes back to my childhood.  I was part of many productions in high school, even if my professional career (ahem!) never really took off the way I might have hoped.

Although I have come to accept that I will never win a Tony, I carry with me the lessons learned from my days on the stage of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School.  Many of the core skills of the theater can help all of us be better leaders.

Leadership is about communication, and communication is about getting up in front of people.  More people fear public speaking than dying, and the only way to overcome that fear is to get up and do it, over and over.  If nothing else, being in a show will teach you how to get up in front of a group of strangers and do all sorts of foolish things.  With that experience, making a simple business presentation is child’s play.

But effective communication is more than just getting up and speaking.  Theater teaches you to face the audience, to keep your face in the lights, to project, to speak clearly, to wait for laughs and applause.  You learn how to read an audience, and how to develop pacing and timing.  These kind of communication skills will benefit anyone, but are a core component of every effective leader.

Theater experience goes beyond performing.  As part of a troupe, actors rely on each other to deliver a unified performance.  The analogies to business teams are obvious, but the subtleties of the stage bear repeating.  Respect the other actors and give them their time in the spotlight. Don’t step on someone else’s lines (or applause!).  When you sing and dance, since and dance together.  And when you take a curtain call, make sure everyone gets to take a bow.

For many of us, gaining theater experience now is not an option, although community theater always beckons.  As an alternative, organizations like Toastmasters can provide excellent training in public speaking.  For our children, however, it is not too late to encourage them to try out for a play at school, or to get involved in some aspect of performing.  The lifetime benefits of that experience will be invaluable.

Even if you will never walk the boards and feel the lights, you can always attend a performance, either on Broadway or when a touring company comes to your town. In this day of digital everything presented on screens we hold in our hands, it is entrancing to sit and watch live people sing, dance, and act along with live musicians playing live music. It is magical and inspiring, and it is something everyone needs to experience.

Never forget: every leader is a performer, whether you like it or not.  Break  a leg!

Lion? Eagle? Or… May 8, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As a leader, what kind of animal are you? Of all the members of the animal kingdom, which one demonstrates the very best qualities of leadership?

My predecessor, a very good CIO, once had the opportunity to answer this question. He was invited to speak as part of a leadership panel, with an audience of several hundred fellow IT executives. The moderator had provided some of the seed questions to the panel in advance, so he had some time to think about his response. He actually did some research and came up with the perfect answer.

Now, most people are quick to answer this question with “lion” or “eagle.” Lions, of course, have great strength and sit near the top of the food chain. Although naturally lazy, especially the males, the lion’s leadership aura has been greatly enhanced by teams of Disney animators and the fact that the best lions apparently sound a lot like James Earl Jones.

An eagle is a better choice. Soaring high above the landscape, eagles have great vision and react quickly when detecting prey or enemies. Unfortunately, eagles are pretty much loners and do very little actual leading of anything. Although Disney has not yet made the equivalent of “The Eagle King,” the eagle gets good PR from being on money and various state and national seals.

The real answer, as my friend discovered, is the giraffe. Before you scoff, consider: the giraffe is the tallest animal, able to see threats at great distance. Other animals rely on this skill, gathering near the giraffe to capitalize on its early detection ability. As a result, the giraffe is recognized by all the other animals as a natural leader. Just as a good leader looks to the horizon to guide their team, a giraffe brings safety and surety to the world of the other herd animals. Giraffes, in fact, see the lions long before an attack is possible. Giraffes are also too large to be carried off by an eagle, or even a team of cooperating eagles, should the eagles ever get their act together.

So my friend went into the panel discussion sure that he had the killer answer. The moderator poses the question, and much to his astonishment, the guy next to my friend answers “Giraffe!” He goes on to explain all the great reasons, and the crowd is suitably impressed. When the moderator turns to my friend, all he can say is “I chose giraffe, too.” Even though we knew he had, half the audience was thinking “yeah, right.” Who would say “eagle” after hearing the great giraffe answer?

So today’s blog offers not one, but two crucial bits of leadership advice. First, when you get the question about the best animal leader, you know now that the answer is “giraffe.” And two, make sure you get to answer first.

Any Questions? February 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.

I do a lot of public speaking.  I am that rare person that enjoys public speaking.  I get energized by being in front of people, and there is nothing more rewarding than a captive receptive audience.

For me, the only unpleasant part of the experience is at the end, when that last slide appears: “Any Questions?”  At this point, the opportunity for public embarrassment climbs exponentially.

The worst thing that can happen is… nothing.  No questions, no feedback, just crickets and uncomfortable rustling in the audience.  We’ve all been in these audiences, immersed in the palpable relief that the presenter has finally finished speaking.  Initial relief that questions will not prolong the affair is replaced with awkward embarrassment for the speaker, who wraps things up with a lame joke and heads off-stage, fighting back tears.  Usually, concern for the speaker’s feeling is not so great that anyone will offer a “pity question” to break the silence. We all just look away and develop a sudden great need to check our email.

It’s almost equally bad to get too many questions.  I don’t care how great a speaker you are, the audience will only tolerate four or five questions before restlessness sets in.  I can guarantee that even after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the audience would have been staring daggers at whoever asked a sixth question.  You’ve done it: the speaker has answered a few questions, you want to get out of there, and the request goes out: “Any other questions?”  Everyone starts darting glances at each other, daring some insensitive clod to pose another query.  When they do, you can hear the air go out of the room as everyone else gives a quiet groan.

My personal favorite is the unintelligible question.  A person may have a thick accent or may be soft-spoken, but for whatever reason the speaker cannot understand the question.  I’ve been here many times, desperately trying to lip-read from 35 feet away as an audience member takes a third crack at explaining their question.  And it’s never a quick question.  Oh, no.  It has a two minute set-up and three parts to it, and you lost track of the question a half-sentence in.  The best answer? “That’s a great question, but is probably better handled offline.  Can we talk afterwards?”

In reality, we all have a responsibility to make the Q&A successful.  The presentation is a solo act, but the questions and answers are a duet. Whether speaking or listening, be ready to hold up your end of the act, either with short, effective questions or direct, helpful answers.  Everyone gets to go home on time, with a minimum of embarrassment.

Any questions?

Can You Read This? January 7, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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We’ve all been in this situation.

You’re sitting through some PowerPoint presentation when the speaker puts up a slide and comments, “I know you can’t read this slide, but…”

But what?  “But I thought I’d waste your time with it?”  “But I really like it anyway?”  “But my need to talk completely outranks your need to stay awake?”

But, nothing.  This is one of the biggest, rudest mistakes a speaker can make.  The point of any presentation is to effectively convey information to an audience and leave them with a positive impression of the speaker.  The audience is investing their precious time to gain knowledge.  By giving them a slide that is unreadable, you have wasted their time, diminished their trust, and made it that much harder to teach them anything.

PowerPoint may be one of the most abused tools in the history of computing, if only because you can use it to torment so many people at once in a captive situation.  The purpose of a slide deck is to enhance your presentation, add value to what you are saying, and help your audience follow your ideas.  It is not a shared teleprompter that you read to your audience, nor is it a reproduction of a white paper that you talk over.

Well-crafted slide decks generate interest and keep your audience engaged.  They provide useful illustrations that bring your words to life, or provide a skeltal structure that you fill out verbally. They should be readable from every point in the room, and use color schemes that do not induce seizures among the more sensitive in the audience. And for the compulsive in the room, please make sure the bullets and indents are consistently and correctly applied in each and every slide.  A little time spent making your slides perfect demonstrates your respect for your audience.

Now don’t get me started on the what follows the presentation: “I’d like to give a demo of our product, even though these screens are kind of hard to read…”