Unfortunately, the graduates are often too tied up in their own thoughts to absorb the lessons the day of the show. There is great wisdom and value in some, and this speech by JK Rowling really inspires one to think:
People often blame PowerPoint for bad presentations. I do not. Powerpoint is a fantastic tool, when used to tell a great story. Although no one sets out to give a bad presentation. many fall short.
There are three primary reasons:
1. The presenter is sharing slides and a message that is not his or her own, or a message that is net new, first-time out of the gate.
2. There is no underlying story or outline that follows the basics of good storytelling.
3. The presenter doesn’t evaluate the performance and the outcome, seeking to fine-tune and improve over time, instead falling into repeating the same flawed pitch and a false belief that it is “pretty good” when it is not.
Right after you present, ask yourself these 12 questions and rate yourself and your effort – in writing – on each one:
Did you capture the audience’s attention in the first 90 seconds?
Did you establish credibility?
Did you keep their attention and interest?
Were you memorable?
Was your message memorable?
Did you inspire (usually we look to inspire change)?
Did you change the audience’s perspective?
Did you inspire next steps and actions?
What did people remember?
Was it entertaining?
Did you educate and simplify?
Did you delight the audience?
On any one of these that came up short of a 10, think about ideas for what you could have done better and jot them down. It will help you improve over time. Never present the exact same pitch as long as there is room to improve it. It’s an amazingly effective discipline to develop.
But that is not what this post is all about. More often than not, we have painfully little time before we must present to an audience. The world of distractions conspires to keep us juggling and fighting little fires, only to find ourselves staring at a sad-looking, boring-as-hell powerpoint deck on Sunday evening, knowing we must lead a discussion at 2 pm tomorrow.
I’ve put together a quick recipe I call the Sakalas Seven Checklist to help improve and renovate any presentation by 10%, 20%, even 52%. We all would like to be strategic evangelists who become trusted advisors. The Sakalas Seven is a little easy-peasy checklist that can be used to make your presentation better in short order.
First, and foremost, you must capture someone’s attention immediately. Do not spend a ton of time introducing yourself. Do not tell people where you fit in your organization. There is always time for those snoozy details later. I often spend almost 50% of my personal preparation time on customizing those first few critical slides and what I will say in the first couple of minutes. Customize the beginning for your audience. What’s in it for them? What is interesting to them. It’s not about you.
2) Next, people can’t generally remember more than three points from a meeting. Figure out your three main points. Put them up front, talk about them throughout, make them the takeaways at the end. Success is not found drowning the audience with too much stuff.
3) Always start with a problem or challenge the people in the audience will relate to.
4) One each slide, try to limit the words to less than 20. If you have more than 20, even after you delete as many words as possible, highlight the words that a “skimmer” would need to get the main point, the gist of the slide — because the world is full of people who skim. It will also help you as a presenter, making it easy to remember what you wanted to say while on the slide.
5) Often, there are slides after slides after slides of idea-dense, busy, hard-to-understand information. An amazing, easy-hack is to add a one liner slide that illustrates the big idea, the big point you want to make. The contrast makes it magical.
6) There is lots of evidence that people more easily remember visuals than words. In fact, imagining a visual image in your mind’s eye activates the process that moves ideas out of short-term memory into long-term memory. The hack is simple — use an analogy that demands the listener “imagine a visual scene or object” — it will make your point sticky.
7) Features or simply saying “yes, it does that” doesn’t make it real, doesn’t make it memorable. But a customer success story, spoken like you were (almost) there, absolutely does.
Here is the checklist on one page.
The next time you have less than 24 hours to hit a home run during your presentation, I hope you remember // and Google for // the Sakalas Seven.
We all want to make an impact. We all want to not only be heard, but we want to influence people to see things our way, to do things that we would like them to do.
Scientists, in a number of independent studies, have come to the conclusion that more than 80% of people follow a very predictable pattern of positivity, energy, and attention. Four out of five people are more receptive and optimistic during the morning, turning far more closed and negative in the afternoon, and then become a bit more positive in the evening. A person’s openness follows a classic “hype curve” pattern.
I think many of us “know this” biorhythm from our own experiences and common sense. Unfortunately, our logical brain often overrides common sense when we schedule an important customer meeting at 1:30 pm on a Thursday or when we pitch our new idea to our manager right before quitting time.
Timing matters. Imagine that you could bat .333 vs. .250 on moments when you try to influence others, over the course of a 40 year professional career. What would be the domino effect of one additional positive outcome, one more decision in your favor, 50 times per year? Career momentum builds over time, just like compounding returns in the stock market.
Schedule your meetings at 9 am, 10 am, and 11 am. You might have to wait a few more days to land the favored time slot, but that’s ok. Would you prefer that your doctor is more attentive or less attentive as she diagnoses your problem? Would you prefer that your boss decide that you deserve the raise now or decides to push you off until the following year? Would you prefer to sell your spouse on your idea for a vacation this year? It is actually surprisingly simple to let natural rhythms work in your favor.
It doesn’t have to be hard to be effective. Optimism combined with good timing is a winning strategy.
In a knowledge-based society, in knowledge-based work, effective communication is paramount to success.
I work within the enterprise software business where concepts, technology, ideas, architecture, and roadmaps are my world 24 / 7, 365 days each year. Not only is it crucial to communicate with clarity, it is important that the communication is remarkable and memorable. If you have what felt like a great meeting, but people don’t remember the key ideas one week later, your efforts have failed and disappeared in the quicksand of the common technology terms everyone uses.
The longer I serve, struggle, experiment, and learn, the more I realize that most of us are ignoring the simplest of rules that is simultaneously obvious yet rarely followed: Be concise.
I see this scenario repeat a dozen times each week. I watch a guru present on her topic. She nails it in the first 15 minutes. If the meeting stopped at that moment, it could have been enough and perfect to earn a first down, it would give people time to ask questions, to think about it, and then regroup for the next set of downs with refreshed minds. But that does not happen. Instead, the presenter goes on for another 45 min, drowning the people with details that dilute the message. The top 3 memorable takeaways turn into the top 20 thoughts and the magic is lost. Techno-term quicksand takes over.
Although this quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Blaise Pascal, or Mark Twain, as each man used and believed in it, it originated from Roman statesman supreme, Marcus Tullius Cicero:
If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.
In a world overwhelmed by data, information, and communication, it holds a lesson for all of us. To be more effective, learn and invest the time to be concise.
Every topic worth discussing, deserves a good story. Yet, usually, in the world of business, most people just present the facts, the what something is, the what it does, and the how it does it. When I ask the presenter why, he or she often says that its hard to come up with a relevant story and the story is not that important anyway.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Imagine that you are a product manager who has shepherded version 3.0 of XYZ-CRM software for the last 18 months to get to today’s launch. 18 months, 300 man-years of time, and you decide that it is not worth creating a story that would clearly make it more interesting, more memorable, and likely, more successful in the marketplace?
Watch this interesting TedX session by David JP Phillips below:
I believe everything worth doing, everything worth launching, everything that has a web page or a web site, deserves a good story. It doesn’t matter if “it” is a product, a service, or an idea.
Many of us have jobs where we “sell” our ideas to others, even though lots of people are not in professional sales per se. Everyone has to sell, even if you are just selling ideas to your teammates, your boss, your kids, or the really big boss, your spouse. The better you become at being persuasive, the more likely you are to make a positive impact, to be memorable, to help others, and, if the planets align, to advance to positions of greater responsibility.
The problem is that it is quite difficult to rise above the constant noise, to create and deliver an outstanding, memorable presentation in a noisy, crowded, distracted, multi-media world that we live within.
In my career, I have attended thousands — literally thousands — of presentations. Every week, I attend at least ten. Most of the people at the front of the room, or in front of the Zoom webcam, were selected to lead the presentation or discussion as recognized experts or managers in their field. What’s mind-boggling is how few of the sessions are actually compelling, captivating, and memorable.
A lot goes into rising several deviations above the level of the average presentation.
Some crucial aspects take a lot of practice and are quite nuanced — for example, does the presenter achieve a personal connection to the audience even though he is speaking to a room of 300, or she is speaking over Zoom or Teams to a crowd of 1,000. Details include the ability to command attention, to make a positive first impression in seconds, to appeal to the senses despite the distance. Many of these nuances have to do with one’s voice modulation, facial expressions, and body language, things that take time, coaching, experience, and effort to adjust and improve. Julian Treasure offers food for thought during his speech at TED.
Fine-tuning details aside, the vast majority of items for creating a compelling and captivating message can be easily baked into your effort if you follow a specific, proven formula, a checklist recipe for greater effectiveness. You must be willing to put in the work — to take your presentation that you thought was done and re-engineer it for a week or more — and then practice your honed message once it passes the checklist test as no one “kills it” the first few times he or she presents it — but if you do, I believe you will be able to achieve top 10% presentation messaging and become more compelling and memorable. Always remember that the Beatles played ‘Hey, Jude’ hundreds of times for live audiences, gathering feeedback and making adjustments, before it became a global hit.
I have invested years creating a checklist that works, coaching others on how to improve their message, and of course, applying these principles to my own presentations:
Sakalas Wonderlist a.k.a. Sak’s C3 Checklist: A Checklist for Creating a Captivating and Compelling Presentation:
Always start with Why, not What or How
Why appears on more than one level — at the company level, Why do we exist — what do we believe — what makes us want to get up in the morning. The easiest way to do this when in doubt is to simply have one slide that says “We Believe ________” — no reason to be too subtle.
The “Why” at the here and now level — Why we invented or created this product, or why I have this specific idea — why solving this problem is worth the effort — instead of all the other things you could do with your time and money.
The personal “why” — Why this idea / solution / product is near and dear to me — why it drives me personally — why I’m a believer.
I suggest watching Simon Sinek’s uber-famous break-out moment when he gave his “Start with Why” TED talk at a regional event. He later followed it up with a book, and has now created an entire career launch — because his message is dead on right.
Re-configure your story to make the audience the hero / the protagonist of the story — you can never be the center of the story — people care about themselves, not you. The easiest way to implement this is to start with something like “We have noticed a lot of our customers encounter this challenge, or a lot of our customers are working on this problem”. If you do this well, success is noticeable as members of the audience nod in agreement that they too, face the same issue.
Stories follow the same pattern — no matter if you analyze the works of William Shakespeare, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, or Stephen Spielberg. There is always a hero who faces a big problem. The hero finds an experienced advisor who gives him or her the understanding needed and helps him or her create a plan. The plan leads to a climactic moment where the hero either wins or loses. If the hero wins, he or she is transformed into a greater person, ready for greater challenges in the future. If he or she loses, there are always grave consequences.
This story formula can apply to a company, a product, or a person.
Distill the story to its essence. As a good rule of thumb, 50 – 75 words is probably the maximum you should strive for.
I suggest watching this short session with Donald Brown, author of StoryBrand. It is invaluable in getting to the essence of your company’s story, or a product’s story, or a service’s story, or a personal story that will capture people’s attention.
Strive for crystal clear differentiation versus the closest competitors / alternative choices / competing ideas. A big mistake is to list differentiators that are not different. You must be clear as to actual differences that people will remember and agree are actually differences. Often you do not get to pick — for example, if a competitor has a well established differentiation of ‘safety’, you will not succeed by differentiating that you are safer than safe.
Focus on benefits that the audience / customer wants, not the benefits that you want. Its all about your audience. Anticipate what the audience wants, and then show how your idea-product-solution will offer the benefits are a great fit. Your benefits should outweigh your focus on what it is or does by a factor of 2:1. As Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt memorably pointed out decades ago, people want a hole in the wood board, not a shiny drill. Too often, we spend our time talking about our shiny drill.
Change your message to fit your audience, every time. A generic message to a generic, broadly diverse audience will usually fall flat. Bespoke messaging sells 300% better than generic messaging. Neil deGrasse Tyson observes on Masterclass.com that few people realize how much time and effort he invests in every single presentation that he does. He attributes much of his success to this custom, audience-aware message preparation.
Assume you have only 5 – 10 minutes before many people will tune you out. Email, texts, slack messages, dogs barking, kids barging in to the office, ADD — lots of things can and will happen. Everything else is a bonus. Learn from how newspapers write articles — they have a well-honed formula. The first few paragraphs have the whole story. You want the audience to get the key aspects of your message in the early innings of the game, just in case they tune out soon thereafter. After you have your high-level message done in just a few minutes, you can then go into greater detail, re-enforcing the same message, during the middle of the presentation or paper.
Always summarize three key takeaways that you hope that they got from your message. Ask people if that is what they got. If they did not, it’s a good time to engage in a conversation at the end. The takeaways should confirm the ‘newspaper format’ first 5 – 10 minutes (see previous checklist item #6).
Consider starting with your three key takeaways as well ending with them — while this is not super-creative, there is wisdom to making sure people “get” the message that you are hoping they receive from your moment in the limelight. There is no doubt that people pay more attention to the first minutes than the last ones during an hour meeting.
Why three? Three is not magical, but it might be a maximum to hope for. I have seen success with five takeaways, but you are asking a lot of your audience — will they remember anything if you ask them to remember five? To that end, less is usually more.
Create a sense of urgency to take action. If there is no reason to act, people will not remember it nearly as well as you hope. Ideas go stale without next steps faster than lettuce in your refrigerator. Sometimes it seems like the lettuce wilts just going from Whole Foods to the refrigerator at home!
Set the hook right away and grab their attention right away – nothing matters more in the first minute. Don’t spend time introducing yourself — it is much better if you get someone else to introduce you before you start.
Best — Start with a personal story, that connects to the main purpose of the message in no longer than two minutes. People lean in when they know its a story. We like stories. Use the words “before I plunge in, I’d like to share a story (that happened to me / that I found super interesting / that really applies to our topic…). This is the best way to connect to the audience quickly because it reveals your personality and how you think.
Good — If you can’t find a good-fit story to use, start by asking questions that ultimately reveal some startling facts. This also connects you to the audience, but not quite as well as a personal story, because it is less revealing of your personality and like-ability.
Better than nothing — If you can’t figure out a story or startling facts, tell a good joke. Jokes are hard unless you are very adept at telling jokes.
Use visual analogies throughout. There is a mountain of research that proves, beyond the shadow of the doubt, that when a person imagines a visual in their mind, they then remember the concept that you hope to convey. Jesus preached in visual parables and analogies for a reason: they work. If you are selling a software tool chest that helps you build new applications quickly, compare that to Lego City Kits that help you build an entire city, full of skyscrapers and firetrucks, quickly, on a conference table. The visualization matters.
Do you remember my visuals of customers wanting a hole, not a shiny drill — or ideas wilting faster than lettuce in the refrigerator? These illustrate my point: visualizations work where words on a slide fail to stick.
Find your hook and chorus, the spine of your presentation, and repeat it often. Most hit songs have both a hook (short one – three words) and a chorus that are catchy and memorable. The best speeches do as well. Find the theme that ties your message together and insert it at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Barack Obama turned his primary loss to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire into momentum that propelled him into the White House when he found a hook (“Yes, We Can!”) that resonated with the electorate that fateful night.
There are another dozen of so techniques — items such as creating a bit of mystery, suspense, surprise, emotional moments — that can help with the compelling, captivating and memorable aspects of your effort, but they pale in comparison to the importance of the ten checklist items above. These dozen are the frosting on the cake, while the ten on the checklist above make up the cake itself.
Note that everything on the Sakalas Wonderlist applies not only to spoken presentations but to other forms of presentation as well, such as writing a killer white paper brief or creating a one-page website.
Lastly, I do not believe that powerpoint sucks, as many people mindlessly incant for shock value and an easy laugh. Powerpoint and Keynote can be great, if they support and enhance a great message with great delivery. The most common mistake people usually make is trying to make too many points using one slide that has too many words on it. If you decide to make one and only one point per slide, you will be on the path to becoming a Keynote Jedi or Powerpoint Jedi someday. There are incredible presentations without a single slide, and fabulous presentations with only a white board, but the truth is that many, if not most, will include a presentation tool — especially in business — so why not learn to use it well?
If you remember anything at all from my discussion today, it is:
Killer presentations don’t happen by accident
The 11 items on the Sakalas Wonderlist will help you succeed in creating a killer presentation.
It will take sincere work and practice to achieve a great result.
Never forget that people like stories 1,000% more than presentations without a story.
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions. I’m happy to help.
PS> C3, if you were wondering, stands for compelling, captivating, and concise. Being concise, leaving plenty of room for questions, is much better than boring people with additional details that take away from the core message. I believe that designing your presentation to encourage questions (that you are well-prepared to answer) is actually “great design” that leads to success.
Success in life is simple but expect it will be hard. You have to be up to the challenge. Discipline matters. The world does not owe success to you — you must adapt, overcome, and never give up. You must be optimistic, you must believe that you can. All this and more is captured in Admiral McRaven’s brilliant address at University of Texas’ 2014 graduation. You can watch it on YouTube but I believe it is more memorable if you read it.
“Make Your Bed”
This speech was delivered by Admiral McRaven as the commencement address to the graduates of The University of Texas at Austin on May 17, 2014.
President Powers, Provost Fenves, Deans, members of the faculty, family and friends and most importantly, the class of 2014. Congratulations on your achievement.
It’s been almost 37 years to the day that I graduated from UT. I remember a lot of things about that day. I remember I had throbbing headache from a party the night before. I remember I had a serious girlfriend, whom I later married — that’s important to remember by the way — and I remember that I was getting commissioned in the Navy that day.
But of all the things I remember, I don’t have a clue who the commencement speaker was that evening, and I certainly don’t remember anything they said. So, acknowledging that fact, if I can’t make this commencement speech memorable, I will at least try to make it short.
The University’s slogan is, “What starts here changes the world.” I have to admit — I kinda like it. “What starts here changes the world.”
Tonight there are almost 8,000 students graduating from UT. That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com, says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime. That’s a lot of folks. But, if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people — and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people — just 10 — then in five generations — 125 years — the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.
800 million people — think of it — over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world — eight billion people.
If you think it’s hard to change the lives of 10 people — change their lives forever — you’re wrong. I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan: A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the 10 soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush. In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500-pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.
But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn were also saved. And their children’s children were saved. Generations were saved by one decision, by one person.
But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it. So, what starts here can indeed change the world, but the question is — what will the world look like after you change it?
Well, I am confident that it will look much, much better. But if you will humor this old sailor for just a moment, I have a few suggestions that may help you on your way to a better a world. And while these lessons were learned during my time in the military, I can assure you that it matters not whether you ever served a day in uniform. It matters not your gender, your ethnic or religious background, your orientation or your social status.
Our struggles in this world are similar, and the lessons to overcome those struggles and to move forward — changing ourselves and the world around us — will apply equally to all.
I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left UT for Basic SEAL training in Coronado, California. Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harrassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL.
But, the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships. To me basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months.
So, here are the 10 lessons I learned from basic SEAL training that hopefully will be of value to you as you move forward in life.
Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack — that’s Navy talk for bed.
It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.
If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
During SEAL training the students are broken down into boat crews. Each crew is seven students — three on each side of a small rubber boat and one coxswain to help guide the dingy. Every day your boat crew forms up on the beach and is instructed to get through the surfzone and paddle several miles down the coast. In the winter, the surf off San Diego can get to be 8 to 10 feet high and it is exceedingly difficult to paddle through the plunging surf unless everyone digs in. Every paddle must be synchronized to the stroke count of the coxswain. Everyone must exert equal effort or the boat will turn against the wave and be unceremoniously tossed back on the beach.
For the boat to make it to its destination, everyone must paddle. You can’t change the world alone — you will need some help — and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.
If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
Over a few weeks of difficult training my SEAL class, which started with 150 men, was down to just 35. There were now six boat crews of seven men each. I was in the boat with the tall guys, but the best boat crew we had was made up of the the little guys — the munchkin crew we called them — no one was over about five-foot-five.
The munchkin boat crew had one American Indian, one African American, one Polish American, one Greek American, one Italian American, and two tough kids from the midwest. They out-paddled, out-ran and out-swam all the other boat crews. The big men in the other boat crews would always make good-natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim. But somehow these little guys, from every corner of the nation and the world, always had the last laugh — swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us.
SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.
If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.
Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges. But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn’t good enough. The instructors would find “something” wrong.
For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.
There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. Those students didn’t make it through training. Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.
Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.
If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.
Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events — long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics — something designed to test your mettle. Every event had standards — times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list, and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a “circus.” A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.
No one wanted a circus.
A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue — and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult — and more circuses were likely. But at some time during SEAL training, everyone — everyone — made the circus list.
But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students — who did two hours of extra calisthenics — got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses built inner strength, built physical resiliency.
Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.
But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
At least twice a week, the trainees were required to run the obstacle course. The obstacle course contained 25 obstacles including a 10-foot high wall, a 30-foot cargo net and a barbed wire crawl, to name a few. But the most challenging obstacle was the slide for life. It had a three-level 30-foot tower at one end and a one-level tower at the other. In between was a 200-foot-long rope. You had to climb the three-tiered tower and once at the top, you grabbed the rope, swung underneath the rope and pulled yourself hand over hand until you got to the other end.
The record for the obstacle course had stood for years when my class began training in 1977. The record seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life head first. Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the TOP of the rope and thrust himself forward.
It was a dangerous move — seemingly foolish, and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training. Without hesitation the student slid down the rope perilously fast. Instead of several minutes, it only took him half that time and by the end of the course he had broken the record.
If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.
During the land warfare phase of training, the students are flown out to San Clemente Island which lies off the coast of San Diego. The waters off San Clemente are a breeding ground for the great white sharks. To pass SEAL training there are a series of long swims that must be completed. One is the night swim.
Before the swim the instructors joyfully brief the trainees on all the species of sharks that inhabit the waters off San Clemente. They assure you, however, that no student has ever been eaten by a shark — at least not recently. But, you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position — stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. And if the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you — then summon up all your strength and punch him in the snout, and he will turn and swim away.
There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.
So, if you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
As Navy SEALs one of our jobs is to conduct underwater attacks against enemy shipping. We practiced this technique extensively during basic training. The ship attack mission is where a pair of SEAL divers is dropped off outside an enemy harbor and then swims well over two miles — underwater — using nothing but a depth gauge and a compass to get to their target.
During the entire swim, even well below the surface, there is some light that comes through. It is comforting to know that there is open water above you. But as you approach the ship, which is tied to a pier, the light begins to fade. The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight, it blocks the surrounding street lamps, it blocks all ambient light.
To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel — the centerline and the deepest part of the ship. This is your objective. But the keel is also the darkest part of the ship — where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, where the noise from the ship’s machinery is deafening and where it is easy to get disoriented and fail.
Every SEAL knows that under the keel, at the darkest moment of the mission, is the time when you must be calm, composed — when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.
If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.
The ninth week of training is referred to as “Hell Week.” It is six days of no sleep, constant physical and mental harassment, and one special day at the Mud Flats. The Mud Flats are area between San Diego and Tijuana where the water runs off and creates the Tijuana slues, a swampy patch of terrain where the mud will engulf you.
It is on Wednesday of Hell Week that you paddle down to the mud flats and spend the next 15 hours trying to survive the freezing cold mud, the howling wind and the incessant pressure to quit from the instructors. As the sun began to set that Wednesday evening, my training class, having committed some “egregious infraction of the rules” was ordered into the mud.
The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit — just five men — and we could get out of the oppressive cold. Looking around the mud flat it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up — eight more hours of bone-chilling cold.
The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night, one voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.
The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singingbut the singing persisted. And somehow the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.
If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person — Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan, Malala — one person can change the world by giving people hope.
So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit is ring the bell.
Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT — and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell.
If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.
To the graduating class of 2014, you are moments away from graduating. Moments away from beginning your journey through life. Moments away from starting to change the world — for the better. It will not be easy.
But, YOU are the class of 2014, the class that can affect the lives of 800 million people in the next century.
Start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone.
Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if take you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up — if you do these things, then the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.
And what started here will indeed have changed the world — for the better.
It starts with “We the people…” America is not about one leader dominating the agenda, getting stuff done for the other 350,000,000 of us. Yet, it seems that we (and everyone in the news business and even everyone at Saturday Night Live) have forgotten this truth.
Here is a brilliant speech, barely 12 minutes long, by a British Rabbi — believe it or not — that does a great job in reminding us why the selfie generation is confused and misguided, why America, the land of immigrants, is special, and what all of us in America must remember: Sound ideas and ideals matter far more than Trump, Pelosi, Pence, or Schumer:
Rabbi Sacks is on point regarding the need for embracing and seeking out differing points of view with respect, the incredible need to maintain our country’s identity, and to enthusiastically embrace individual responsibility.
We can solve problems, we can flourish, we can stay true to our ideals, and we don’t have to bankrupt future generations. It takes great vision, hard work, “we the people” working together, and a lot of optimism. I’m no magical thinking “just coexist’er” — but nothing happens with no-compromise extremism. Without optimism, that real hope and belief that there are better days to come, it will not happen. Right now, about 50% of this great country doesn’t believe it can happen — but we need all of the people, not just some of them, to roll up sleeves, to compromise, to work together, and start getting things done.
Everything is become more complicated and interconnected. When faced with a difficult decision, almost everyone adds more detail, weighs more aspects, analyzes the problem to the n-th degree, and creates complexity. I personally work to sell solutions that create timely, valuable, and actionable insights from data, a topic that is truly large, complex and ever-growing, given the explosion of “big data” as zillions of devices connect to networks and every aspect of business becomes digitized by computers. The result is thousands of topics from hundreds of vendors and millions of powerpoint slides.
Every data analytics vendor dilutes its message with every word added to every powerpoint slide. Every company uses the same buzz words, every slide says much of the same, and the final slides always says the preceding 100 slides prove that this vendor’s specific solution is the best decision.
I believe there is great opportunity for a bold optimist that decides to zig when everyone else is following the zagging herd: simplify the message while everyone else complicates it.
If I was the customer, I would limit each presentation to 30 minutes, with 20 minutes of presentation and 10 minutes of question and answer. I would limit each vendor to the top 5 reasons their solution is best for my company. I would limit the number of powerpoint slides to 10, and the number of words per slide to 20.
Would less be better? Of course it would, because each vendor would be forced to distill their message to the essential. The customer could better compare each vendor’s solution at its core essence. TED presentations are phenomenal and each is limited to 20 minutes.
This applies to all aspects of life, and it offers you great opportunity to shine. If you are a lawyer, are you better off with a rambling 40 minute final argument or a 5 minute hard hitting one? If you are a teacher, is it best to spend hours on one topic or boil it down to the essential while students are still paying attention? If you are a preacher on Sunday, will the congregation pay better attention to 40 minutes of fire and brimstone… well, you get the picture. I have found that if you “train” your target audience that your message will be short, they will pay close attention because they appreciate your approach.
Anyone can become the Master of Succinctness with effort and expertise. People love those that can make their point, with impact and simplicity. Less is more, when done well. Your career will flourish. I’m still amazed that the Gettysburg Address was less than 300 words, yet most big data analytics slides have 100 words of broken English on each.
PS. In case we forget, here is the Gettysburg Address, all 272 words of it…
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Over the years, I have often written about the essential requirement to be 100% committed to whatever you are doing. Overcoming adversity demands it, and every one of us will run into plenty of adversity. In my life, I learned this painful lesson as a freshman in college, when — and this is most definitely not my proudest moment — I literally threw away a full ride scholarship because I was not committed to doing my best and doing what it takes to succeed academically. The good news is that after enough anguish and self-appraisal, I learned the lesson. I decided that if it was to be, it was up to me, and no excuses matter. I adapted and I overcame.
My little story pales in comparison to Inky Johnson’s story, for Inky has overcome exponentially greater adversity than I have. This is a story well worth watching, and in my opinion, more than once. It is essential to watch it when you have 10 minutes without distractions. I hope that you enjoy it. I hope that it gives you food for thought. I hope that it changes your resolve to give every day and every endeavor 100% commitment:
Anyone with enough will, and enough belief, and a purpose beyond themselves, can achieve greatness and make a positive impact on others. Anyone.
The following video is worth watching: it is not about optimism per se, but I have found that if you have your black belt in optimism, nearly everything contributes to your self-chosen outlook.
Josh Luber’s talk will expand your thinking and appreciation for limitless possibilities. Human “logic” and cooperation is extraordinary, and the rise of interconnectivity and ‘big data analytics’ networks millions of minds together in surprising ways. If you work in marketing, this presentation is 5-star fascinating.
Yes, if you are wondering, I am a bit of a sneakerhead, although my participation is limited to the search for the perfect pair to wear, and not at full retail, if I can help it.
Can you think differently? Really creatively? Can you ask “why am I doing things this way?” or “why am I doing this at all?” at a truly atomic level?
In many things — business, school, life — we seem stuck on rails, unable to stop doing things the way we have done them, the way they have been done for prior decades — even if we have many proof points that question whether we are on the right track.
One of my most obvious examples is managing public companies for results every 90 days. The “quarterly results squeeze” invariably results in a whole host of problems, including net margin compression, motivation destruction, loss of quality employees, loss of quality in general, investing only for the short-term, and all kinds of foolish wasted time and energy. Yet, almost every public company continues the sad practice unabated. It hits the company that is struggling hardest of all, which helps many good firms auger into the dirt, unable to pull up from the dive.
This TED video is a great test to see if you are able to think differentlyon a large scale. I believe Ricardo is a wise luminary who tests most people’s ability to take a leap of faith. I’m sure others will see Ricardo as flat out crazy.
I think his ideas, ideas that have actually been tested in his company and in education, should be considered, given the dismal results many of our current paradigms in business and education are delivering.
Most importantly, all of us have opportunities to do things differently, to question everything in our own personal sphere of influence. What is a topic in your like that you should ask “why” three times in a row on, and what can you try to do better, to do differently?
Please watch the video, and then decide — are you able to truly think differently, or are you cemented in the status quo? You are not on rails — you can, if you believe that you can. Choice is all powerful.
It is a crowded world, full of distractions, and it is getting louder all the time. People seem to have less time and less interest in listening to anyone. Instant messaging and checking one’s Facebook and Instagram take more and more available attention. It seems like more than half of everyone under thirty is wearing ear buds. Without a doubt, it is getting hard to be heard and understood, yet few skills matter more to your success and effectiveness than your ability to communicate effectively.
Do you find that others sometimes miss your message or don’t listen as attentively as you would like them to? There’s a reason, and it is well worth figuring out the root cause. There are ways to rise above, but many people fall into poor communication habits. The result is that less people listen.
Julian Treasure studies sound and advises businesses on how best to use it. He is the chair of the Sound Agency, a firm that advises worldwide businesses — offices, retailers, hotels — on how to use sound. Here is one of his three short talks at TED. We all have habits that can be improved. I think his thoughts are well worth considering:
As with many things that lead to personal success, improving yourself is a matter of eliminating or at least greatly limiting bad habits while enhancing good habits. In the case of speaking, Julian suggests eliminating your —
lying / exaggeration, and
These seven absolutely turn people off to your message. Those who think a that a bit of gossip every week, or little white lie here and a little exaggeration there are no big deal, don’t realize the damage they do to themselves and their longer-term believability.
Focus on four good habits —
speaking honestly and from the heart,
being authentic (be yourself),
do what you say (have integrity), and
have love (wish them well) for your fellow man.
Improving oneself is mission-critical but we often lose months, even years, because we are too busy. Jim Rohn’s consistent message was that everyone should “Work harder on yourself than you do on your job.” One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits was “Sharpen the Saw“, a likely adaptation from Abraham Lincoln’s “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.” In my opinion, improving your ability to communicate — clearly, concisely, and with impact — must be at the top of your skills improvement quest. There is always room to get better.
To be a true optimist who makes an impact, you must believe certain things must improve and that proactive action must be taken. Not every corner of any society, ours included, is rosy. Simply having faith that things will eventually get better is not good enough. For things to get better, we have to think about the uncomfortable topics, discuss them, debate them, and even argue about them — we have to demand progress so that we can move toward resolving them.
Some issues are disturbing, if one gets deeper than the simplistic and often out-of-context sound-bytes from Washington DC’s politicians, as quoted by the USA Today and Headline News.
One of these issues is why America has had an 8-fold population explosion of prisoners, going from 300,000 to well over 2,300,000 in just the last 40 years? This is a difficult issue, but it never seems to hit the top ten discussions of any presidential election.
I believe another difficult issue that cause many Americans to look the other way includes inequalities and injustice in our legal system. This includes the staggeringly disproportional incarceration rate of black young men and the question of whether God gives us the right to levy the death penalty as a valid tool of justice.
There are other, smaller, but equally perplexing “justice” issues as well. Let us not forget the extraordinary financial damage our justice system dispenses with frivolous class-action suits and I continue to be perplexed at the political and legal support for patent-troll companies, full of lawyers who do little but stifle innovation while enriching themselves.
For justice to get better, we have to make progress on all these fronts, and most of these topics are not comfortable ones.
Below is an extraordinary talk by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who is a leading spokesman about many aspects of injustice, especially as it comes to race. I highly recommend listening to Bryan, and contemplating the topics. It helps that he is such an accomplished orator. There will be no progress unless all of us first understand the issues — beyond just the sound-bytes — and then take action, sooner than later.
We can solve anything if we are willing to take it on. I find it hard to fathom why the USA, the land of opportunity, should lead the incarceration of the developed world.
Power is what the world wants. Specifically, power in the form of electricity, because it is efficiently transported and applied to nearly any required purpose. While the world’s 1 B greatest consumers are starting to worry about green power, conserving power, and the possibilities of running out of fossil fuel power, the other 6+ B of earth’s human inhabitants simply want more power and an affordable price.
Why are 6B people so power hungry? Because power transforms daily life for the better in so many ways. We take the empowerment for granted, just as our kids take the internet and Googling something for granted. Hans Rosling sums up the why in ten fantastic minutes here:
So, what happens when we run low on oil and the price of electricity rockets higher? What happens when solar power comes into its own, at a steep price too? Fracking and nat gas isn’t a permanent solution, although it helps the near-term energy independence outlook for the USA. Will the pessimists who are predicting the end of civilization as we know it, actually win? I think not, not if we embrace the young, new Optimistic Few, a generation of optimists who want funding to pursue new answers.
To the Optimistic Few, there are always ideas, limitless opportunities, and plenty of silver linings. I believe that my kids — our kids and grandkids — will lead a much better, more promising lives than we enjoy today. Stop listening to the critics, naysayers, and doomsday gang. They are wrong, and it is worth the effort to speak up and correct them when you can.
Are you tired of all the bad news? I am. Between the Eurozone, the newest flu, North Korea’s sabre rattling, the burgeoning national debt, the partisan quagmire in Washington DC, the IRS targeting the Tea party and any organization with the word Patriot in its name, and the tragedy whenever a Kardashian breaks a fingernail, it is hard to watch any evening newscast or even late night parody of the news.
The news media is hopelessly biased, and not just in the liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican kind of way. The media believes one formula sustains and accelerates it’s own financial success: Bad News Sells Newspapers (and drives TV ratings, and Internet banner ads). Sensationalism is the business model.
News Flash: The world — yes the entire world — is rapidly improving.
It is a big story. The problem is that few people realize it. It doesn’t sell ads, so the news conglomerates don’t put in on the menu. Instead, our teleprompted news media talking heads make sure that everyone worries on a daily basis and tunes in at 10 pm.
The big fret goes on, day in and day out, on whether we will have enough to send our kids to college; enough to travel the world like we always wanted to; enough to provide domestic security, defense, health care, and welfare; enough to buy our Lipitor, Crestor, and Norvasc; and enough to retire on. If the collective people were to awaken to all the positives, employers would invest more and hire more, which leads to faster innovation that creates more opportunities, which leads to an economy that grows more, which leads a greater haul of taxes skimmed from the people, which helps our representatives in government right our listing financial ship. Stop fretting.
Below are two related videos regarding some of the greatest news of this decade. Ask yourself why so few know the story — in our online, connected age, not being acutely aware of one of the biggest stories of the decade is clear evidence calling for the indictment of mainstream news companies. Watch both videos and you can’t help but become more optimistic:
Hans presents world health evidence that is quite clear, and coincidentally supports my overall belief that “whatever gets measure does indeed improve.” Watch this video:
Be optimistic. The world is not ending. We are not running out of power. We are not melting the ice caps. We are getting better. Progress that matters is all around us, but you must proactively look for it, because the media refuses to cover the long-term positive trends in favor of the short-term worries and sensationalism.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. — Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo was spot on right when he made this observation.
Those of us that have made a great living with successful professional sales careers know that less is more: finding the one aspect that really matters to the prospect is priceless while pursuing a sale. If you find that one item, professionals don’t dilute it with a fog of other features, functions, and benefits that cloud the decision.
The problem is that simplicity is often difficult to distill. Finding a perfect, clear message that motivates people in just 7 – 10 words is what makes or breaks a pricey highway billboard campaign. There are lots of very expensive television commercials but few communicate as well as this one. Finding a perfect 90 second elevator pitch makes or breaks many budding entrepreneur as they pursue angel or venture cap funding. Finding the simple but powerful theme behind your product line that resonates is often the difference between success (what does BMW stand for?) or failure (what does Saab stand for?).
How can we apply this important concept to our daily lives? We are all selling something all the time, no matter if “it” is a product, a service, our company, our personal capabilities, our kids, or ourselves. The video segment below offers an important clue, an important change of thinking that can have big positive ramifications as to how you approach your messaging.
Simon Sinek has simplified how to sell, how to market, so that all of us can become far more effective. It comes down to focusing on why, first and foremost. Why is all powerful, yet 99% of companies, 99% of people start with what, then how, and finally and often optionally, why. Speeds, feeds, horsepower, megawatts, gigabytes, megahertz, and fiber-connect are not what blows people out of the water and gets them to join your side.
Why is there such a partisan quagmire in Washington these days? It seems worse than ever before.
I can’t say that I often agree with blue state überliberals. In fact, I have a hard time with the fervent extremists at both ends of the American political spectrum, although I clearly lean toward conservative tenets. But, here is an issue, presented by a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, that does open one’s eyes.
As a small side-note, if you enjoy studying the effective use of presentation aids and public speaking in general, as I do, Lawrence does a great job in keeping his audience engaged by using powerpoint / media effectively, something few accomplish well — there is a lot to learn for all of us that speak to groups, and he offers a glimpse of one way of doing it very well:
If you understand how things work — if you appreciate the underlying factors — you have a better chance of making progress on any problem. Today, bi-partisan constipation tops the list.