The Art of War for Public Speakers, Business Presenters & Pitching
Part One: Reconnaissance
About 2,300 years ago, in what is now north China, a piece of writing impacted the strategic thinking of all East Asia. These writing offered a different… one could say radical… approach to handing military conflict where victory could be achieved without going to battle.
Originally written on bamboo scrolls, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general of the State of Wu, is one of those rare writings that time has not stolen the wisdom or value from. Business executives, strategist, marketers and sales leaders, even lawyers, use the teachings of The Art of War to get the upper hand in positioning, negotiations, and winning.
The wisdom in this book has been a great source of lessons for life in general. Life is a constant struggle to, if not to stay on top, then to at least make it through daily challenges, while making the most out of our resources.
One of the beautiful aspects of a work like The Art of War is it’s ‘availability’ and openness to interpretation. This means it a can also be a great source of inspiration and guidance for professionals in their work and personal life.
Clearly, this 2,500-year-old book still resonates with many people still today.
Bringing it home…
Several weeks ago, I picked it up again with the purpose of reading bits and pieces, clearing my head and crystallising some ideas and guidelines for 2017. As I was doing this I noticed how certain parts of the book could easily be applied to my area of speciality… public speaking, business presentation and Pitch.
For example, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
When I read this, I immediately recognised the wisdom, and its application, for a person who speaks about their business in public. If you are a public speaker or a person who is required to write and deliver business presentations, you will need to really embrace this principle.
But first, here’s a couple more Art of War Principles I know will help you…
Remember, many of the principles found in The Art of War are open for interpretation. You will be able to apply them as a ‘guideline’ for mindset, behaviour and execution.
- Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
- The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.
- All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.
- Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
- The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.
The Art of War for people who talk about their business in public…
Each one of the Principles mentioned above have relevance and meaning to a person with the ambition of becoming a more engaging, persuasive, impacting and compelling public speaker (for more read The Four Pillars of Influence) and over the next few months I’m going to focus on each one… unwrap it… position it for you… helping you in your quest to become a Platform Master.
If Sun Tzu was writing today…
If Sun Tzu was writing today he would most likely structure his 13 Chapters into four categories: Discover, Diagnose, Design, and Deliver.
Sun Tzu begins by telling us to start with reconnaissance (Discover) then move forward to analysing (Diagnose) what we have learned from it. Then, and only then, should we create a plan (Design) whereby you can progress with clarity and focus (Deliver) into battle with a clear strategy and tactical plan for winning.
We are going to explore each of these four categories over the next few months in both our podcast and this blog.
Discover… get accurate information first!
One of the crucial themes running like an arterial vein through the writing is the power of accurate information. Sun Tzu hits this one idea again and again from so many angles. He really doesn’t beat around the bush: knowledge wins’ war!
Sun Tzu Principle: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
This means, before you launch into anything, make sure you have knowledge. This is Discovery… the pursuit of knowledge, that when examined, will lead to the design and delivery of a winning solution.
This principle, getting information, is never more important than in the battlefield of public speaking.
Yes, I said battlefield!
The Battlefield of public speaking…
I’ve maintained, for several years, that being a public speaker means we are in a war in two ways.
First, we have the internal war… that war against nerves, against sabotaging self-belief, poor preparation habits, mistaking audience style and knowledge, against losing control of content delivery, shuffling feet and unfocused eyes… it’s a war, make no mistake about it.
It is an often-quoted research statistic that 75% of people suffer from speech anxiety, making it one of the most common phobias in the world today and we know that ‘fears’ trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response in the body.
Public speaking is no exception.
To get a ‘technical’ insight into fight or flight, click here and go to Wikipedia.
Here’s my version of what happens to a public speaker standing in front of an audience.
Standing in front people… all of whom are staring right at you… waiting for you to start talking, creates stress. If you are like millions of other people, you find your mouth suddenly goes dry, your palms start sweating, and you hear your heart beating through your chest. Then… your voice, out of nowhere, develops a strange, shaky, nervous pitch and somehow… you forget how to start… despite practicing your presentation at least 50 times.
Here’s the reason why…
The brain responds to the stressor of being in front of all those staring expectant eyes by activating a little ‘engine’ in the brain… which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.
This engine goes by the name Amygdala and it’ sends a message to the adrenal glands… with instructions to do something!
The adrenal glands under instruction produce adrenaline that flows to the heart and lungs to help blood and oxygen pump quicker throughout the body. Most of this blood is sent to muscles, preparing the body to respond to the situation by… you guessed it, fight or flight.
Yes. Public Speaking is a battlefield.
Then we have the external war…
If putting up with the internal elements of public speaking wasn’t enough, we also have external elements like:
- Importance of the stakes involved (career/status)
- The size and composition of the audience
- The venue – Is it the well-known Board Room or the unknown Conference Centre
- The time of day – some people are better in the morning and some in the evening
- Your personal state of emotional wellbeing – recent personal events may have taken their toll (relationship break-ups/bereavement) or made you feel great (falling in love/getting a promotion)
Internal and external join forces…
The internal and external elements join forces – an alliance of sorts – to attack you when you start to remember your recent performances when speaking… could be good… could crash and burns!
Public speaking is a battlefield.
So, what wisdom can The Art of War offer us for this internal-external’ battlefield of public speaking?
Sun Tzu Principle: “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”
Reconnaissance is the gathering of information, based on observation behind enemy lines, for military purposes. Reconnaissance lets you know what you’re up against. It enables you to go forward with more intelligence… to work smarter… to create ‘game plans’ for both internal and external battlefields.
As a public speaker, you always want to do a reconnaissance before you speak. You want to observe the situation before you enter the engagement.
I’ve been speaking to audiences since I was 14 years old. I’ve crashed and burned more times than I would like to remember and I’ve launched and soared many, many times. I’ve learned how to launch and soar on purpose, because I’ve always started with ‘reconnaissance’.
I’m going to share my secret weapon in the battle to control the internal and external battle I face as a public speaker.
The Five Question Reconnaissance Template
I use a five-question template to always start the process of designing and crafting a keynote or presentation. It’s simple and highly effective.
Here’s the five questions:
1. Why am I giving this speech?
2. What do I want to achieve?
3. Who will my audience be?
4. Why will they listen to me?
5. How much time do I have?
Let’s go into each one in a little more detail.
1. Why am I giving this speech?
It always starts with ‘Why am I giving this speech?’ If you don’t ask and answer this question you will simply be going through the motion of speaking. You will lack clarity and focus, making it difficult to concentrate and deliver to a core objective. Ask yourself are you giving this speech to persuade? To inform? How about simply to entertain?
I remember to this day, how in the early 1990’s I did not ask this question when I was invited to be an after-dinner speaker for a major bank’s Christmas Dinner. Never mind that I didn’t get to the podium until after 10pm, or that many of my audience had more than one too many drinks under their belt.
These were the factors that made up the speaking environment and I simply approached it with the wrong ‘Why am I giving this speech?’ What I needed was a fun, story filled, laughing, entertaining 25 minutes… not a motivating, challenging and demanding message whereby I try to rally them into changing the world.
I knew within 90 seconds… I had seriously misjudged this and didn’t have a backup plan. Foolishly, I ploughed ahead and… crashed and burned! I’ve never been asked back to speak, coach or facilitate a workshop in that bank. That was a very expensive lesson to learn.
It’s because of this painful… make that excruciating, experience that I created the Five Question Reconnaissance Template and I never fail to start all my speeches and presentations with it.
This opening question brings clarity and focus, both of which are essential if you are to step up to the podium, or onto the stage and bring passion, purpose, posture and projection… the four ingredients of platform mastery.
2. What do I want to achieve?
When I am finished with this speech, what is it I will have achieved? Will this audience be influenced to change their mind, embrace a new way of looking at the subject? Or will they be motivated to move forward in a specific direction? Will I inspire them to buy into a new thing or product? Or will I simply let them leave thinking… pondering.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was a speaker at a breakfast and I knew that time was tight when I looked down and saw we were only a portion of the way through the agenda and I was yet to be introduced. So, I decided to use my ‘short but extremely powerful’ version of the presentation I had prepared. Instead of the 20-25 minutes I was allocated, I stood, delivered and sat down inside 13 minutes.
I could tell the audience was with me. People leaned forward in their seat or at their table. I saw head turn to look at each other. I saw nodding, the odd smile and a whole lot of note taking.
My ‘What do I want to achieve?’ was to ‘compact so much value into a short burst that the audience would want more and come and ask for it’. I can say with a smile that I achieved what I wanted.
This questions is critical, as it gives you the bulls-eye of intention. If you don’t know why you are giving this speech and what you want to achieve with it, your message will flounder, languish in nowhere land and eventually die.
If you want to win the battle for designing and delivering a concise, clear and easily communicated message, then you MUST pay attention to the first two questions on the Five Question Reconnaissance Template.
3. Who will my audience be?
First, write down as much as you know about the audience. This will give ‘content shape and alignment’ ideas and guidance. In my bank ‘crash and burn’ I didn’t even do this! Ever since then I’ve done my homework. Checked out the lay of the land. Taken notice of the terrain… I asked questions about the audience I will be engaging.
- How many people will in this audience?
- What is the average age?
- What about the gender mix?
- Do I need to have more knowledge on the ethnicity mix? (Some of my language and stories may need to be adjusted if English is a second language or culture.)
- Is there a uniting factor? For example, is this an insurance industry event or does this audience come from a variety of industries? Maybe this audience has a large portion that work from home, or as solopreneurs? Look for something that ‘unifies’ this audience.
You may need to ask the person who invited you to speak at this event to help with your ‘Audience Reconnaissance’.
4. Why will they listen to me?
Keeping audience attention is more important and more difficult than getting it in the first place. In fact, it is 99.99% guaranteed that you will have the audience’s attention when you walk up and start speaking. But keeping it… that’s a completely different matter.
As the minute’s tick by, the more difficult it is to keep the attention of the audience. It’s a natural progression. However, when you have answered the question, “Why will this audience listen to me?” – you have unlocked two critical elements: Meaningfulness and Relevance.
Meaningfulness and Relevance… the twin ingredients to ensuring you hook your audience’s attention, keeping them interested in your message. The higher you keep the audience’s attention, the more effective you will be as a communicator.
How do you keep it meaningful and relevant? You can start your journey to Memorable by reading this post from last year: Using Story to Create Presence and be Memorable. I’ll be writing more on this subject later in this Art of War for Public Speakers Series.
5. How much time do I have?
Knowing how much time you have to speak determines what amount of content you need to develop. I made the mistake once of creating a 25-minute session when I had a 50-minute slot. If I’d just asked the question I would have known. You see, it’s always easier to edit down than it is to create up!
For me, a 25-minute speech will mean I need three stories, each with no less than three principles to build my content around. The stories need to be… you guessed it, relevant and meaningful to this specific speech, using the first four questions in the Reconnaissance Template as a guide.
So, going back to my mistake of only preparing for a 25-minute session when in fact I had a 50-minute session, you can see my dilemma.
Using this template always helps me to establish a solid foundation to launch into researching, shaping and positioning my message to a specific audience style or type.
Make no mistake about it, your quest to become a platform master will require you to adopt Art of War strategies and tactics.
Note: Download and use the 5 Question Reconnaissance Template. It is seriously much more powerful than you would think.