Golden Circle

Why?

It is not uncommon for insights drawn from one domain to be startlingly relevant to another. Indeed human creativity can be seen to be geared to making connections between otherwise independent and unconnected ideas. It is what we do in our working memory. So I thought to share with you some connections between Simon Sinek’s insights and the subject of this blog – presentation design and delivery. They might just affect the way you tackle your next presentation.

The Golden Circle

A participant on one of my training courses commented about having been inspired by Simon Sinek’s TED video on what he calls the Golden Circle. Co-incidentally I had downloaded this video a few weeks previously because it resonated so much with my work in the field of leadership and communication. The result was that there were many parallels drawn and references made throughout the course to the subject of the TED (the “Why” question).

I do recommend a viewing of his talk. It is inspiring and its simplicity speaks to us all. One of his mantras is that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. He argues that companies and people who understand and communicate in this way tend to be the successful ones.

Observation

It does seem that many companies are almost exclusively focused on the “what we do” rather than “why we do it” and having spent many years in the Consultancy and IT Services sector it is clear to me that this has led to the rather dull sameness of many companies in this sector when viewed from the outside. They espouse (or say they do) much the same values, have tag-lines which are almost identical and use methods and approaches which are pretty much indistinguishable. You see the result in company brochures, fliers, credential statements and written proposals.

This is not to say that, within companies, smaller groups with more visionary leaders do not exist. They do. But I would suggest that often their pursuit of the “why” question is not understood or even tolerated by managers who have been groomed in the “what” and “how” world, so may not always survive the corporate mill. I have though also seen some very successful and highly motivated teams inside companies – and the distinguishing feature is their sense of purpose (“why”).

As an aside, the public sector is, I believe, much more in tune with the “why we do it” way of thinking. I would suggest that there can be, as a result, something of a tension when functions and responsibilities are moved from the public to the private sector, and the “why” element becomes obscured and effectively replaced by the “what and how”.

I remember a senior executive in the Rail industry saying to me that you could create a contract for anything and that therefore any service could be delivered under a contract. I disagreed with him then, and I would still. Contracts are great for “what” and “how”. But even the much vaunted “outcome based” contracts cannot really deal with “why”.

Relevance to message design

In relating the Golden Circle thinking to message design and presentations, there are many intersections. I mention a few here.

Why am I giving it?

The first question to ask before designing a presentation is to ask the question “Why am I giving it?” Many people asked this might offer “to share knowledge or information”. But it rarely is just that. In the vast majority of cases, when you really think it through, the purpose of a presentation is to affect the future actions of an audience. Otherwise, what is the point?

That future behaviour or action is where your presentation must lead, so it is the starting point in design of your message. Presentations of this sort are fundamentally about persuasion. People are persuaded (and make decisions) on an emotional rather than rational basis. As Simon Sinek points out, decisions are made in the limbic part of the brain.

Why should they listen?

In a business setting, turn your ideas into the form where your audience is, as far as possible, the subject of discourse, not yourself or your company. People like to be talked about; they like their issues to be discussed. They do not like to have to endure generic descriptions of methodologies or technical specifications, unless they have specifically asked for that. See my previous posting on “Forensic delivery”.

An audience will be encouraged (or not) to listen and be attentive within the first few seconds of your presentation. So make sure you have a good “Eye” – and make it about them!

Why is it true?

Assertions do not convince on their own; evidence and examples in presentations are about answering the “Why?” questions. Indeed those of you acquainted with the “Kipper” structure for design of presentations created by Willie Macnair of the Rhetorical Company will know that the left hand side of the “middle” is concerned with points, propositions and ideas. They create (or should) in the audience’s minds one of two responses: “Why is that then?” or “OK, but now prove it….” And that is what the right hand side does with evidence and examples.

Why should they care?

If you are going to engage emotionally with your audience, make it about them. The only really important people are the audience. The presenter is there only for them. As Simon Sinek says about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the crowd turning up were not doing it for him – they were doing it for themselves.

Thank you, Simon.

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Silence is golden

What is the most important part of any speech or presentation? My answer would be – the silence within it. The subject of silence and pausing is an essential part of message design and delivery, but is often overlooked or diminished in importance. A number of things came together recently which highlighted this business of pausing  – one of them being the Presidential nominations and forthcoming election in the US. More on that later.

Our need for pauses

Anybody with a theatre or comedy background would fully appreciate the importance of timing and the dramatic effect of well positioned pauses. A comment made by the Canadian sculptor Paul De Monchaux about Churchill’s war-time speeches (and the way that they were laid out on the page) resonated particularly well with me. He said that he “was struck by Churchill’s awareness of the way in which the shape of the spaces around words can amplify their meaning.”

But there is much more to the power of the pause than “dramatic effect”. This is the fact that as an audience we need silence in which to “unpack” what we have heard, translate words into ideas and meaning, and create memory. As an audience we find it stressful to have to listen to a continuous stream of words – and even if we can follow and understand what we are hearing as we hear it, we will not be able to remember anything unless the stream was broken up with pauses.

The speaker’s problem

The problem that the speaker faces is that the stress – even fear – associated with delivering a presentation will cause him or her to speed up the rate of word delivery and, more importantly, remove any hint of a pause. Often, this will be associated with breathlessness – no time to breathe!

I had the pleasure of running some communications training courses in India last month. One of them comprised eight delegates representing seven different mother tongue languages. In common with all groups I have trained regardless of geography, a number of the delegates experienced an overwhelming pressure to speed up delivery and they recognised it as a “hard to conquer” problem. With some, the shaping of the phrases (probably a reflection of their mother tongue languages) meant also that there was a rising tone at the end of each. This in turn created a breathless leap to the next phrase…. and the next.

The speaker gains too

We did some exercises to build in appropriate pauses of about 3 seconds (this is not easy to do!) and to try and phrase in a way which avoided the rising tone. The key learning for me was that everyone in the room testified to the very significant improvements made. This was not just in the ability of the audience to understand and create memory, it was also about the great enhancement to the credibility and authority of the speakers.

Then there was a Presidential election

Which leads me to politics. It is of course a fact that most politicians are rarely interested in helping audiences understand issues and create memory. But they are generally, at least, concerned to come over and be remembered, as someone with credibility and authority.

Some combine both and I have great respect for them. A characteristic of such orators is that they do – and indeed must – build pauses in to their delivery. I have frequently referred to Obama as a politician who practises this. (There are precious few in UK politics these days.) In his early days as US President I would sometimes listen to his speeches in order to time the embedded pauses – they were usually 2-3 seconds. This is at the lower end of what is needed – 3-4 seconds is more the accepted mark – but they did work well. However, I noticed in a recent broadcast (I cannot remember what it was about – sic!) that he was not pausing nearly so well.  As a result, he came over as less authoritative and perhaps a little superficial.

But when it came to him responding to Todd Akin’s statement about rape, the pauses were, fortunately, back in.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-19326638  They were still a bit on the short side though, and with an irritating “ummmm” intruding. So, Obama, beware! One of the reasons you won the Presidential mantle was the authority that you exuded – and this came not just from your words but from the silences that enabled us to make sense of them, and of you. So, more pauses please!

It is worth comparing and contrasting with Mitt Romney. From the clips I have seen, he has certainly got himself a “good” speech writer. Good in the sense that the words are well crafted to create a knee-jerk emotional response and the minimum number are used in short phrases to create that effect.  And the pauses have been built in between these short phrases – wait for them to cheer! Romney is still learning though how to be comfortable during a pause – you can see him almost biting his tongue – but  at least there were no “ummmms” that I could discern. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-19445965

If your view of politics and politicians is that it should be about whipping up emotions – hate, love, disappointment, blind faith and so on, then the Romney style of speech will appeal to you. I know it is only a nomination acceptance speech and perhaps one should not expect more at this stage, but let us hope that there will be time in the coming months for both candidates to argue and evidence their intentions and policies in more considered debate.

What is clear is that even though the men, their politics and their styles are very different, their success in communication relies upon silence as much as words.

So, I do wonder whether the US Presidential election will be won, not on what the candidates say or do, but on the power of their pauses – “the shape of the spaces around words”.