The Bad Chaplain

The summer before I turned 40, I worked as a hospital chaplain.  (My priest had enrolled me in clinical pastoral education, saying it was probably the only way to save my soul.) I wore a clerical collar and visited suffering patients.  After about two weeks, my steely-eyed supervisor stopped me as I was leaving a patient’s room.

“You’re really terrible,” she said.
“Excuse me?”
“You’re an awful chaplain. Probably the worst we’ve had at this hospital.”
“Really?  But I’m seeing all the patients. I’m giving them everything I’ve got.”
“You talk too much. You’re giving advice and troubleshooting. You’re exhausting them. What are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to relieve suffering.”
“Well, right now the only relief they’re getting is when you finally leave the room.”
“So how do I get better?”
“You’re not going to get better. This is just something you’re not good at.”
“But I’m here for another ten weeks.”

She thought a moment.  “I bet you’re a good teacher. There’s the problem. A suffering person doesn’t need a teacher. He needs someone who is willing to learn what his life is like. He needs you to be his student.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“No. Obviously not.”

How often does a compulsion to perform prevent us from seeing the real opportunity for connection? You know: the salesman desperate to dump his expertise on every prospect, the consultant compelled to fix a client’s problem before she really understands it, the teacher who doesn’t seem interested in learning with his students. Perhaps, like me, you default too quickly to performance.

The performance mindset blinds us to more promising questions: What could happen in this conversation? What sort of connection with this person (or audience) is possible? Why am I performing?
What else could I do?

After my supervisor’s tough-love intervention, before I’d walk into a patient’s room, I’d put my hand on the door and ask:  Are you willing to learn what this person’s life is like?  And if the answer was no, I’d go get coffee or hide out in the bathroom.  And if the answer was yes, I’d enter as a student, not knowing what I was doing, and on a few of those rare occasions my teachers found some comfort in our visit.

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Playful Brilliance

Vestiges of our earliest experiences with presentation and performance live on in business meetings:

Bedtime stories.  This ritual combines physical closeness with creative interaction.  The kid sounds out words, points to pictures.  Mom or Dad asks questions about the pictures, and they explore them together.  The kid asks questions about what the characters do and why — and they speculate about what might happen next or what could have happened differently.

“Show and Tell.”  You bring an object you think will interest your classmates (or, more problematically, one you simply want to show off) and can speak about it for 60 seconds or so.  (The time limit is critical.)  The audience leans in, expecting you’ll pass the object around, let others ask questions about it or play with it.  This intriguing object is your ticket to connection.

Creative Play.  Kids with a big sheet of manila paper draw a scene together or enact an extended fantasy on the playground, negotiating improvisation in the primal bond of play.

The junior-high book report (or poetry recitation).  You don’t want to stand in front of the class and read your execrable homework or expose the limitations of your memory. The teacher makes you.  Your grade depends on it.  You are a victim. You must shield yourself from cringing classmates’ secret delight at your humiliation.  You shrink back, mumbling, trying to vanish into your script; or you speed through it or become defiantly entertaining.  Contrast this with…

The science-fair project presentation. The audience is riveted if you’ve studied something gross or prurient — that is, truly relevant and worth sharing.  If you’re really proud of your work and want everyone to see what you’ve accomplished, it can’t be short enough.

Competitive Play:  Debate.  Spectacular displays of adrenalized intellect for prospective mates. Literate lekking.

If you feel like you’re weirdly acting out the worst of your early conditioning when you do a PowerPoint presentation, like you’re reading aloud to grown-ups in a darkened room (minus any reassuring physical proximity or interactivity) about your topic (not theirs) because you have to (fearful deference to authority) and have to prove how much work you’ve done and how smart you are — you probably are.

The best leaders draw on the best of their early conditioning when they present ideas, facilitate meetings and explore possibilities with customers. If you’ve wandered into a dysfunctional communication cul-de-sac, ask yourself: What else could I try?

How can I get closer? What do they really want to know?
Could I draw a picture or show them something cool?
How might we get to Q&A faster?
How can I make it all about them?

With practice, you can recover more and more of the generous brilliance with which you once connected.

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Three Notes on Stage Fright

The Mechanical Fix: A good prescription will short-circuit the physiology of stage fright and get you through a performance. You may feel, however, oddly disconnected from yourself and your audience. Wonder about that. What do you really want?

The Spiritual Fix: Stage fright is acute self-consciousness, the ego folding in on itself.  The antidote is not to provide the ego with some other object, but through generous surrender to the needs of the audience, to deactivate it as a subject.  Stage fright persists because the ego fiercely resists being switched off

A manager who suffered from crippling stage fright met with a gifted coach.  He had to present to his company’s executives a plan to bring their manufacturing process into regulatory compliance.

“When they look at me, I see judgment, and I’m sure I’ll say something stupid or go blank.  I’m a terrible speaker.”
The coach asked, “When did you speak in front of people and it go OK?”
Nothing came to mind.  Then his aunt’s funeral, his best friend’s wedding, his daughter’s 21st birthday.
“Weren’t you scared?”
“I was terrified.”
“And you did it.”
“But that was my family.  They needed me.”
“These executives need you.  Can they join your family?”

Self-conscious dissolves when you get engrossed with someone else’s need.  (A mother rescuing children from a burning car experiences a range of intense emotions, but performance anxiety will not be among them.)  Stage fright depends critically on seeing the audience as judges to impress.  If you can cast them as friends to serve, people to help, the energy with which you anticipate meeting them will take a more hospitable form.

The Existential Cost:  A frustrated mentor once asked me: “When are you going to take responsibility for your power?”
I remembered his challenge years later when a client who had successfully overcome his anxiety about speaking up at work said, “I miss stage fright. It was a good excuse.”

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Curing Anxiety

In my early thirties I had panic attacks.  Suddenly and inexplicably my heart would race, my throat grow tight and my mind fill with catastrophic thoughts.  My doctor prescribed Xanax.

“If you take this, you won’t feel anxiety — and even if you do, you won’t care.”
“But I don’t want drugs.  I want a cure.”
“Well, if you really want a cure, I’d need to know precisely what we’re dealing with.  You’d need to tell me the exact order in which the symptoms occur when you have an attack.  Does your breath get short before or after your heart starts racing?  And so on.  Bring me that information, and we’ll cure you.”

So I waited eagerly for the next attack — and it didn’t come.  Finally, one day in the grocery store, I felt the beginnings of panic, and instantly I focused:  Is it my heart or my breath?  My gut or my thoughts?  But then nothing happened.

When I went back to the doctor:

“I haven’t had an attack since my last visit.”
“Well, pay attention if you do.  If we get that information, you’ll be cured.”

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The Price of “Poise”

We think with our whole bodies. That’s what a lot of interesting new science seems to prove.

For instance, Susan Goldin-Meadow (U Chicago) finds a tight link between hand gestures and speech in her book Hearing Gestures: If you sit on your hands when you talk, you’re likely to become wordier and less fluent.  If you video someone explaining how they worked through a logic problem and then play the tape back without sound for another viewer, that viewer can typically identify the relationships that the speaker is describing, and (most fascinating) the ideas often show up in gestures before the speaker finds the words.

Given the power of gesture to liberate thought, it’s not surprising that societies would seek to regulate the way some people use their hands when they speak, politicizing an intimate “everyday” aspect of self-expression.

Ann, a participant in one of my workshops, seemed less concerned with making a point than in making a particular impression. She was stilted and formal, and people weren’t following her argument.  One of her colleagues pointed out that her hands seemed stuck, clasped in front of her chest.

“Why don’t you try using your hands to show us your idea?” I suggested.  “Just start moving them, and your natural gestures will take over.”
“A lady doesn’t gesture when she speaks.”
“Tell me about that.”
“My mother taught me poise.  Poise is how people know you’re serious.  Poise is power.”

I tried various invitations without success.  Ann wasn’t interested in conversational gestures.  She kept performing “poise.”  I could see others in the workshop were losing patience.

Finally Carol, the other woman in the session, challenged her:

“You need to try the thing with your hands, Ann, because what you’re doing isn’t working.”
Ann replied, “My mother…”
“Honey, your mother is not here; and we want to see what you’ve got.  So go for it.”

After the laughter died down, Ann agreed to try it just once.  With her hands engaged, the difference was instant and remarkable:  She made her point crisply and with persuasive commitment — and then tears as she saw what poise had cost her.

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His Boss Yells

A young manager preparing to present his sales plan to his boss, Fred: “It’s going to be tough,” he told me.  “He’s going to yell.  He yells.”

“What do you do when he yells?”
“I just shut up and look at the floor.”
“What else could you do?”

He looked at the floor.  I took the notes from his hand, leaned across the table and yelled at him:

“You think this will work?  It’s sloppy. You’re going to fail.  You’re wasting my time with this crap!”

He stood up.

“Look, you don’t have to yell.  I can hear you.”
“So why am I yelling?”
“You’re scared.”
“What am I scared of?”
“We just can’t fail.  You feel like you’re the only one who cares.”
“OK, let’s try it again: You’re wasting my time with this crap!”
“Fred, I can hear you.  I know how important this is.  We have to make it work.”

We practiced until his response was reflexive. He called after the presentation with a hint of disappointment in his voice:

“I was ready, but he didn’t yell.”
“Why not?”
“He saw I wasn’t afraid.”

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Preparing to Care

In my workshops, we video participants sharing stories about peak experiences — the birth of a child or a conversation where they forgave someone or a brush with death — so they can see how powerful they are when they talk about what really matters.

Someone invariably asks:  But what if you have to present something you don’t care about to people you don’t respect?  And I ask:  Why would you do that?  And they say:  Because I have to; it’s my job.

Talking about things that don’t matter is the practice of despair. Before we speak, lead a meeting or give a presentation, we must find a reason to care.

Power comes from caring:  Caring pulls your thoughts together, sharpens your attention, attunes you to clues, fires rapid learning.  Caring gives courage, makes risk worth taking, inspires bold improvisation  — and so caring makes you smarter and more compelling, makes people lean in and think with you.

If you don’t care, you can’t be powerful, not in that sense.

Find a reason to care.  Find a basis for respect. This is the most vital part of your preparation.

It’s how you learn what to say.

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Preparing to Present to Executives

You’re scheduled to present a proposal to an executive whose support you need. How should you prepare?

Consider the executive mindset. You don’t talk executives into things. They talk themselves into things. Executives don’t want to see a presentation. They want to hear a promising idea and then challenge it, test-drive it. They want you to tee up a decision quickly and then give them random access to your expertise.

Those of us who made a lot of presentations in school may think executives, like our teachers (and other authorities), want to hear us build logical arguments from the ground up or retrace the steps by which we developed our ideas. And, of course, we’re eager to get credit for all the work we’ve done.

What executives really want is the information they need to make a good decision.

First they need to know why they’re paying attention to you instead of one of the other urgent situations they’re managing — and they need to know that up front.

Next, they need to know what sort of decision you’re asking them to make so they know how to evaluate your proposal.

Finally, they need to get answers to the specific questions they use to sort good ideas from bad ones.

They want to get all of this information efficiently and on demand as their thoughts evolve during their conversation with you. If you can pitch your idea concisely and lead a discussion where you learn along with them, you’ll earn executives’ respect even if they’re not ready to get behind your proposal.

Here’s a plan for preparing a business case presentation for executives:


Before you outline your presentation or put a deck together, analyze your audience and the opportunity that this meeting presents.

1. What decision do you want the executives to make?

2. What is their starting point for this conversation? What do they already know (or think they know) about the idea you’re putting on the table? 

3. How is this idea related to other things that they care about, other initiatives they’re responsible for? What’s at stake for them?

4. What else is going on right now in the company or in the market that will affect how they see your proposal?

5. Do they have a history with you or your manager that could affect this conversation?

6. What sort of presentation do they want you to make in this meeting? How much time have they given you? Do they expect visuals? How long do they expect you to speak before handing off for Q&A?

7. Is anything particularly challenging about the room in which you’ll be presenting or the scheduled time of the meeting?

8. In addition to this context, is there any subtext at work in this meeting — that is, are there unspoken alliances or agendas that might influence the discussion or the decision?

As a rule of thumb, for an executive-level presentation, you’ll want to spend one-third of your preparation time analyzing the context and subtext. The more carefully you analyze the audience and their objectives and constraints, the clearer you’ll get about what you can accomplish in the meeting.

Now that you’ve identified your desired business outcome, you’re ready to start putting your presentation together.


Make a list of all the question you expect the executives will ask you. Make another list of all the objections you expect them to raise when you put your plan on the table. Executives typically vet a proposal by applying an appropriate framework (a sequence of questions or schematic). For instance, if you’re asking them to make an investment, they’ll ask about risk, ROI, fit with existing portfolio, and so on. Many of the questions will be easy to anticipate. To get to more unexpected questions and objections, you might ask people who present regularly to the executive you’re meeting with.

Once you’ve got your list, you’re ready to start verbally drafting responses. You’ll get more out of your verbal drafting if you do it with a partner. Have your partner ask a question from the list. You stand or sit (depending on how you’ll be presenting in the meeting) and answer the question. Get your partner’s feedback on your response and try again.

Verbal drafting is the best way to prepare to make your case. By talking your idea out, you’ll discover what you want to say and how you want to say it. You can’t create a presentation on paper or on slides and expect it to work in a conversation. You’ve got to create it in the same medium in which you’ll deliver it, by speaking aloud.

With repetition, you’ll boil your thoughts down so you can get to the point in your own powerful language. Verbal drafting is the quickest path to the word economy that makes you credible with executives.

Verbal drafting also gets your message into your system. You don’t need to memorize a script if you really know the story you’re telling. If you role-play your responses over and over, you’ll be able to land them with confidence when they challenge you in the meeting.

In addition to anticipating questions and challenges, check in to see if you’re dreading anything that might happen in this meeting. Are you concerned that tempers might flare? Could an overzealous colleague derail the conversation? Are you concerned that a key decision maker might not show up? Is there a matter of subtext that needs to be acknowledged sensitively — that is, with “strategic candor”? Whatever your concern, you’ll feel more confident if you make a contingency plan and role-play your response with a partner.

Likewise, if you’re concerned that one of your stress responses (or “personal red flags” like speaking too quickly, shaky hands or going blank) might give you trouble in the meeting, decide how you’ll watch for it and what you’ll do. (Breathing deeply and focusing outside yourself will short-circuit most stress responses.) Ideally, you’ll spend about a third of your preparation time working on questions and challenges, dreads and “red flags.”


If you’ve verbally drafted the answers to all the questions you anticipate, you’ve got your content. It’s just a matter of organizing it for a discussion that they can drive. Remember, you’re not going to give a speech. You’re going to facilitate a discussion by putting a good idea on the table and following their energy.

First, identify your goal for the presentation. After role play and verbal drafting, you may decide to scale back your ask. Or you may decide that your case is stronger than you thought and you want to make a more ambitious ask. Just decide exactly what you want them to do. Verbally draft your request. Practice putting it decisively on the table.

Next, identify the three key points that you will offer in support of your request. For instance, if you’re proposing a strategic e-mail marketing campaign, your three key points might be: 1. Customized messages have a relatively high response rate, 2. It’s easy and inexpensive to design customized messages for each of our customer affinity groups, 3. The groups are large enough to deliver a good return on the investment.

Verbally draft each of your key points. If you’re finding a point hard to explain or difficult for an executive to believe, start thinking about what sort of evidence or visuals might help you get it across.

Now you’re ready to draft the most important part of your presentation, the launch frame. You have about a minute to get executives focused on your proposal and fully engaged in discussion. In your first sixty to ninety seconds, you have to deliver a very precise connection between what they know and care about and what you hope to accomplish in this meeting. You want to verbally draft this launch frame over and over until you have it in plain and simple language and can deliver it with precision and confidence. When you’ve got your launch frame down, you’re almost home. (See the post “Launching an Executive Presentation.”)

Also practice how you’ll make the ask and verbally draft some contingencies. What if you wind up scaling back your ask in response to concerns they raise in the meeting? In general, you want to come away from the meeting with some kind of YES, even if it’s not the one you hoped for.

Verbally draft how you’ll wrap up the meeting. Your strong close should include a summary of points of agreement as well as what didn’t get resolved, what you’re going to do next (as well as what they’ve committed to do) and finally a statement that reminds us why this discussion matters — that is, how your proposal bears on the things we all care about as leaders of this company.

Just so it’s clear, you want to be verbally drafting each of these pieces of your presentation and practicing aloud over and over. Each time you go over it, it will get simpler, clearer and better.

Finally, you want to identify the vivid specifics that will help executives understand and believe your arguments. Vivid specifics include compelling figures (“half of these are repeat customers,” “cut cycle time by 40%”) and analogies (“Lo-jack for your Laptop”) as well as clear statements of fact (“Every firm that’s fought a suit like this has lost.”)

You also want a visual strategy. You’ll need a visual anytime you’reasking your audience to interact with a table of data, visualize relationships among two or more variables, imagine the fit between parts in a complex system or see an actual image (like a user interface or product label). You probably don’t need a visual to summarize your three key points. If they are compelling and you state them clearly, the audience will remember them.

For anyone who excelled at writing academic papers, this preparation strategy may seem backwards. We’re used to writing, not talking out our ideas. We’re used to laying out a logical, linear presentation; not programming for random access. And we’re used to making our points and taking readers on our journey, not trying to anticipate how harried executives will make their own paths through our information.

An executive meeting is not a presentation in the usual sense. You’re not there to present a paper. You’re there to facilitate their decision-making process, to lead discussion, negotiate, learn and teach. This “backwards” approach attunes you to the executive mindset, gives you more comfort and confidence when you’re pitching your ideas and increases your odds of getting the decision you need.

©2014 Steven Tomlinson

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Launching an Executive Presentation

You want smart colleagues and executives to collaborate with you on ideas for improving your business. Of course, they’re busy and distracted; so you have to convey ideas quickly and clearly if you want to engage them.

You have about 90 seconds in a meeting (and much less time online) to persuade an audience that your idea is relevant and promising enough to warrant further attention; so before you can get into the details of your proposal, you have to frame the discussion for your audience. You need a few well-chosen sentences that get their attention and give them the gist of your proposal and a reason to care about it. The sequence of statements that previews your idea, precisely and concisely, is called a launch frame.

Your first statement should connect to what the audience already knows and cares about. As Peter Drucker famously said, “People listen to you for their reasons, not yours,” so make sure you start with something they recognize and agree with. Barbara Minto (The Minto Pyramid Principle) calls this starting point the SITUATION.

Ideally, your first statement will get them to nod their heads in agreement.

Here’s an example of a SITUATION statement from a marketing manager meeting with executives at one tech company:

We’re all looking for ways to improve the return on our e-mail marketing campaigns. Right now our e-mail ads are getting a response rate of less than 0.2%, which doesn’t cover the cost of developing them.

When the speaker made this statement, the executives nodded their heads. They agreed – and then they wanted to know what he had to add to the conversation. What did he know?

If you invoke one of your audience’s concerns, they’ll expect you to add some relevant information or perspective – which is the next step in building your frame. Barbara Minto calls your next statement the COMPLICATION. You unsettle or “complicate” the audience’s SITUATION by adding new information or perspective that points to an opportunity or a threat.

The COMPLICATION in our marketing presentation sounded like this:

My team recently sent out a carefully targeted ad to 1,000 names on our accounting affinity group – and we got a response rate of 8.2%.

This statement sets up an opportunity. Your audience now wants to know what you plan to do about it – so you introduce the SOLUTION, your idea or proposal for responding to the COMPLICATION.

In the marketing presentation, the SOLUTION sounded like this:

I propose that we create a similar targeted ad campaign for each of our 34 customer affinity groups.

When you put a specific idea in front of executives, they reflexively ask: What will that do for us? – which sets you up to state the IMPACT or benefit that your plan will deliver. It will sound something like this:

It would cost only $60,000 to design and manage the cam­paigns. Given the size of these combined lists, and assuming a response rate comparable to what we got in the pilot, we could add $8 million to sales in the next two quarters.

That’s your frame: Four statements that create the equivalent of a movie trailer for your business case. The SITUATION statement grabs the audience’s attention and provokes a question that the COMPLICATION answers. The COMPLICATION provokes a question that the SOLUTION answers, and so on. Because you’re always one step ahead of their questions, the audience stays with you. You successfully manage their attention.

When you’re pitching to executives (who want random access to your knowledge), you’ll typically state your whole frame (in 60-90 seconds) upfront so they can jump right to questions. This approach to introduc­ing a proposal is sometimes called “Answer First.”

Try this metaphor: your launch frame lays out the home page for your proposal so the executives can click on the topics they want to explore – for instance, they might ask “What did these targeted ads look like?” or “Let’s see the numbers from the pilot.”

Since the frame is a logic path – tracing the steps by which people make sense of a proposal and persuade themselves to support it – you don’t have to lay a whole frame out at once to spark a good discussion. For instance, if you want to facilitate an online discussion among your colleagues, you could post your SITUATION and COMPLICATION on the discussion board and invite SOLUTIONS. Someone might propose the one you’ve thought of – or something better.

So, here’s a reliable plan for building a business case launch frame:

SITUATION Connect with a specific issue or initiative that the audience knows and cares about. Find the specific point of agreement between you and your audience that sets up your business case.

COMPLICATION Introduce relevant information or new perspective that puts the situation in a new light and points to an opportunity or a threat.

SOLUTION What do you propose? What’s the best response to the new information under the circumstances?

IMPACT What will your solution accomplish? Measure the benefit with metrics that matter to the audience.

To make the most of your audience’s attention up front, verbally draft a launch frame with a colleague before every important meeting or presentation.

[Read more about Barbara Minto’s strategies for organizing information in The Minto Pyramid Principle, 2003.]

©2014 Steven Tomlinson

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