Before cofounding Communispond in 1970 with my friend and business colleague, Charlie Windhorst, I was a management supervisor for the J. Walter Thompson (JWT) advertising agency. I was responsible for handling some advertising accounts at JWT, but, because of my interest and experience with presentations, I was also assigned to the new business development team.
I’ll never forget my first experience pursuing a new account. Someone at JWT had heard a rumor that a certain big advertiser was unhappy with its agency—one of our big competitors. I was asked to call the president of that company and see if I could set up a meeting. I was told not to bring up the subject of a possible switch of agencies, but to give him the opportunity to do so. I was pretty confused by those instructions, but I made the call.
The president answered his own phone (miracles still happen), said, “Hello,” and suddenly I had to say something. Here’s what came out of my mouth: “Hello, my name is Kevin Daley, vice president of J. Walter Thompson. I was reviewing our records today and discovered that we have never established the right kind of relationship with you.”
At that point I shut up; I didn’t know what else to say anyway. His response was: “I don’t know anything about the relationship you might have with someone here, but we are considering making a change in our agency set up and I’d like to talk to your management about whether or not J. Walter Thompson would be interested in soliciting our account.”
Wow! I couldn’t believe my good luck. The meeting took place and a date for a new business presentation was established. We knew we’d be up against four or five other top agencies—it would be a “bake off,” a “beauty contest,” a “dog-and-pony show.”
Everything depended on the presentation.
We needed to highlight our talents, our creativity, our skills, our people, and our accomplishments. The presentation would be made up of many parts and involve several people. We started the planning process by creating an agenda and identifying the presenters. We notified all eleven presenters and told them what content they should emphasize. Finally, we scheduled two rehearsal times for each presenter. I rehearsed each of them personally. They hated rehearsing. They liked to talk about the material instead of delivering it. But that doesn’t work. The words need to have traveled their route previously or they will take detours when they are launched to a live audience. The same is true for gestures and the handling of charts. Life is physical and so is presenting; we must physically go through the process to learn it. Then we must do it again (do it, not talk it) if we want to improve.
Were they good presenters? Some were. Most weren’t. Were any of them great? No. They were experienced and competent, but not highly skilled. Some talked to their charts, not to the audience. Some mumbled or swallowed words. One senior vice president, whose name was Bill, read his script hidden behind a lectern while a cohort controlled his visuals. They leaned on the table; they slouched; they put their hands in their pockets. None of these things are punishable by death. But these people were the cream of the crop, the best that JWT had to offer. And yet they ranked good, not great, as presenters. This started me thinking: There should be a training program for people whose livelihood depends upon making great presentations.
When the big day arrived, the client showed up with his team and was taken to the main conference room, which had been designed as a mini theater for just this purpose. There was a conference table at floor level, with seats behind it.
The meeting began with eight client representatives and five JWT people seated around the table. Most of our presenters were on standby, outside the room. Our chairman opened, welcomed our guests, and established the agenda. In the dialogue that followed, the client identified why they were there and what they were looking for. Once that discussion was over, we began our presentation.
Our executive vice president started by giving a presentation on the subject, “Who is the J. Walter Thompson company?”
Next, individual case histories were presented on five accounts: Standard Brands, Kodak, Ford, Listerine, and Miles Laboratories. Five different account supervisors delivered these. They showed print ads and television commercials. They articulated marketing and creative strategies. They outlined budget efficiencies and return-on-investment. Our research director gave a presentation on copy testing; the media director, on media; the broadcast director, on broadcast. The creative director presented the creative philosophy of the agency. And our president handled the finale, showing a reel of JWT television commercials with his commentary.
When it was over, I thought to myself, “This could have been so much better.” Our material was first class but, with a couple of exceptions, our presenters weren’t. Imagine how much of a downer it was when Bill walked behind the lectern to read his presentation to the client. There was no lift, no charm, no sense of confidence.
In advertising lingo, we were “pitching for the account.” Everything depended upon the client’s reaction to the presentation. We could win a $50 million account if our presentation knocked the lights out. But, alas, the lights were still on when we finished. We didn’t get the business.
I came to realize that, in the advertising business, decisions are made in response to an oral presentation, rather than a written proposal. (Later on I discovered that’s true in virtually every business.) The proposal was important. It had to be there. The differentiator was the presentation, however. The client could see, hear, and sense what the recommendation was all about. They could ask questions. They could see the people who would be involved, assess their credibility, their commitment, their integrity, their enthusiasm, and their knowledge.
The presentation is a moment of truth for the presenter. We can’t hide. We are exposed, for better or worse. The listeners decide whether they like us, believe us, trust us, and perceive whether we are secure in ourselves and confident in what we are saying. The viewers can see us think on the spot, and judge how smart we are.
In this moment, I had just witnessed the best efforts of the top people of the number-one advertising agency in the world and found them wanting. So I said to myself, “There is a need for a training company that helps successful people learn to present themselves better in front of an audience. They need it even more than people who are just starting out because so much is riding on how they handle themselves.”
I founded Communispond because of that experience. Since then, the company has trained more than 450,000 executives in a broad variety of communications skills. And my passion in life continues to be helping people speak as well as they think.
In the pages that follow, my daughter Laura and I share the knowledge and findings that come from our collective forty-nine years of experience in training executives to be more effective in front of groups. Each chapter deals with a specific speaking situation you will face as you go forward. We explain what is expected of you and how to approach each one. We also provide a pathway for success in each of them. There are examples, stories, principles, and dos and don’ts for each situation.
Our goal in writing this book is to help you to be a more effective speaker, presenter, and communicator, no matter what challenges you may face. A by-product of this newly acquired skill is that you will also become a better leader, since leadership gravitates to people who can stand up and say it right.