I’ll fully admit to you, my motivation to start Distinction Communication was your classic ‘keep the lights on’ kind of desperation move after being laid off in 1998. There was no time for a finely crafted business plan, and I certainly didn’t feel like your classic roll-the-dice kind of entrepreneur. I was like most of you, just trying to make ends meet.
But what I can tell you is this, what happened over the course of the next 24 years was nothing short of the most amazing journey I could have ever imagined. Many of you reading this blog right now played an important role in that. I sincerely thank you.
As I head into retirement, I think I’ve also become a little more retrospect these days too. Some of that is simply end-of-career reflection but perhaps a bigger part for me realizes I had somehow finagled a front row seat to one of the most unprecedented industry evolutions we may see.
So, with that firmly in mind and at the conclusion of this blog, I’d like to offer up 3 important takeaways for you. (It just seemed like a fitting way to wrap-up a career as a speaker coach.) It’s my hope you may glean a few nuggets to accelerate your own career and perhaps be the catalyst for a business or two.
The birth of an industry.
When I was hired by Genigraphics in 1986, it was probably best known at the time as an early pioneer in the presentation graphics world. As it turned out, we would also play an instrumental role in helping Microsoft breathe life into a newly acquired little presentation graphics application. And what was initially conceived as a clever “Buy 2 Microsoft Office applications, get one free” offer, eventually became PowerPoint. Anyone could now create a ‘tray’ of slides and business professionals everywhere seemed strangely gleeful at the prospect of taking on a business process that had early on been relegated to already overworked administrative assistants. (Thank you, SNL, for chronicling that change.)
What seemed at the time as an incredibly strategic partnership for Genigraphic, however, ultimately drove our customers to a much more cost-effective alternative to high-end service bureaus and bankrupted the company. But for me, it also teed up a short stint with another industry pioneer, InFocus Systems and the opportunity to write a monthly column for Presentations magazine. InFocus ultimately lost their industry dominance as well, and I was laid off in March of 1998. An event I’ve often shared as the best thing that could ever have happened to me and my family.
What most people never knew, my small business, Distinction Communication, started as a presentation design business and the traction was immediate. It was the low hanging fruit of business communication in the 90s and it certainly didn’t hurt that serious design professionals at the time shunned working in such a pedestrian application. In the years that followed, our little business evolved to include messaging assistance as well (at a 50% premium).
Our most significant evolution occurred just a few years later
We came to realize a presenter’s visuals could look nice, the message could be sound, but ultimately it was the flesh and blood conduit for that process that most greatly impacted outcomes. One afternoon after the local Business Journal wrote a little piece on my one-person company, I would receive a call from Fred, “Jim, I think I’m supposed to work for you.” Fred would not only become an important mentor to me, but over the years many of you reading this blog would come to appreciate and love him as well.
So, after a few months of building out the foundation of a presentation training workshop, we launch it with great expectation! Crickets. But 6 months later and after some persistence and timely introductions, we would add Honeywell, adidas and other high-profile companies to our client list and for many, became their #1 rated training partner. Somehow we found ourselves smack in the sweet spot of business professional’s #1 fear.
The value for any business is related to the size of the problem you solve for people
If presentation skills training was the most significant evolution of our business, our step into the big leagues occurred on a late summer afternoon in 2004 in Hillsboro, OR where we found ourselves sitting around a large conference room table pitching Intel for the opportunity to provide personal speaker coaching for their senior leadership team. (Presenting on being a presentation coach. No pressure.)
But Fred and I would somehow pull off a big win that day and soon faced the reality of working with executives in Fortune 500 companies. After nearly a year of agreements, legal requirements and contracts, the call finally came and on a cold rainy Sunday evening in San Francisco, I found myself standing on the big stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco working with Intel’s Doug Davis as a sea of event planners, producers and AV teams scurried around us. Many more senior leaders at Intel would be added in the years to come and our one-on-one coaching would expand to executives in hundreds of organizations – small business start-ups to some of the people you see on the 6 o’clock news.
So, what’s changed in the presentation world the last 24 years?
The short answer… everything, and very little.
Since PowerPoint 97, the dizzying acceleration of presentation software features has been nothing short of mind boggling. Video, animation and third-party effects could be inserted and edited as easily as clipart. Covid accelerated by a decade our willingness to take our presentations online and it seemed like every board room and training room in America now had connected LCD screens – the equivalent of an electric car charging station on every street corner.
This last year, I was even part of a consulting team to the PowerPoint development group tasked with providing feedback on an embedded delivery skills coach. That’s right. Present to your computer and a digital coach will critique you in dozens of ways. Perhaps the best part for most people… you can just close your laptops if it gets a little too uncomfortable. To be honest, trying to have algorithms address our personal short comings as communicators was just a little too Hal 9000 for me. Google it.
Over the years, I would also come to understand that as a presentation and speaker coach, I was never working with someone in the moment. Yes, we’d try to address issues like message flow, visuals, and their personal skills, but it was never lost on me that many presenters still struggled to disengage from the bigger issues in their lives. Ones that would follow them to the front of a room like a shadow; their carefully camouflaged insecurities, baggage from every bad big presentation fail, body image issues and on occasion, haunting childhood family of origin voices.
Presenters were first and foremost human beings. And trying to be a good coach seemed to require finding ways to provide victories on several fronts.
... and how have presenters evolved in 35 years?
The answer to that question might best be found in the advice I was imparting to business presenters back in 1985.
Don’t turn around and read your slides to your audiences.
Don’t put so many words on your slides.
Use more stories to breathe life into your charts, graphs and bullets.
Get your eyes off your presentation screen and talk to your audience.
Don’t try to communicate so much!
Fast forward over three decades and the struggles presenters face seemed to have changed surprisingly little. So, it begs the question (or should) – if the tools around the presentation process have evolved so dramatically in all this time – why haven’t presenters?
In my final thoughts to every presenter, big stage or small – I’ll offer up a few seasoned observations.
#1 We’ve relied too much on tools to do all the heavy lifting for our ideas
The hope of most technological evolutions is that we all somehow get time back in our busy lives. Time to do more things or sometimes just do things better. Unfortunately, that never really happened for most presenters. We bought smaller, brighter projectors but struggling presenters still struggled. We tried jettisoning PowerPoint for sexier software with nichey features hoping our thoughts would magically become more coherent more quickly. They did not. We trusted that all the graphical options now at our fingertips would somehow make our ideas come to life faster, but our choices would often work against us.
Looking back, perhaps the one feature that could have made the biggest difference, could never be created… the common sense wizard. One of audience’s top complaints 35 years ago and still today… too much stuff on the screen.
So, are most presentions simply destined to mediocrity?
There’s been an amazing growth the past twenty years, however, by a group of design professionals who have carved out a very deep niche in building good presentations. And many more today understand their role is not just about how to use software features more elegantly, but they’ve become quite expert at helping their presenting partners merge sometimes fractured ideas and imagery into a more compelling storyline. In essence, they have become your ‘common sense wizard’.
I get that some companies can’t afford in-house expertise, but we seem to have no problem outsourcing HR, payroll or legal advice. So, why do many still see this kind of support as a luxury? The reason is simple. We’ve muted the stakes associated with a presentation. The one opportunity to make an important first impression. One shot to change a mind or make a case. Never a do-over. And I’ve often seen the repercussions of that reality impair countless careers.
Maybe it’s time to seek out a design professional who understands how to merge your ideas into simpler visual information. But this partnership will ask something of you too. You will need to see them the same way a professional golfer sees their caddy. Over time, they will know your strengths and weaknesses and will adapt a strategy accordingly. Trust them. They also understand the “course”, perhaps better than you do. Value their advice. And when they suggest a ‘swing coach’ for your skills, swallow your pride and do it. The stakes are just too high not to.
You get time back in your life when you understand, just because you can create a deck, doesn’t mean you should.
#2 Presenters often confuse giving with getting.
Somehow in the time sucking process of building a presentation deck to help us sell a product, service or idea, we’ve lost track of something very important. The equivalent of Star Trek’s prime directive not to screw up other alien civilizations. It’s simply this. Most sixth graders routinely ‘give’ presentations these days. They’ve learned how to type, paste, embed and link content in a presentation and project it on a wall. Maybe better than you. There should be no parking lot high-fives for just getting through a big presentation.
What should occupy or thoughts and perhaps keep us up at night is a much higher calling – our prime directive. When everything is said and done and our captive audience walks out of the room (or exits Teams or Zoom), did they truly “get” what I was saying? And in the getting, did they agree more deeply, care more passionately and will they ultimately take action? It’s been my experience that far too much time is spent simply giving presentations these days. It takes a unique and practiced set of skill and insight to ensure your audiences actually get them.
Our ability to step out of the task at hand, embrace the relational dynamic of our role and make the complex simpler should be a starting point for presenters – not an afterthought.
#3 Make the “how” as important as the “what”.
For the better part of 20 years, I’ve consistently asked one very important question in every group workshop and 1-1 coaching session – and I did it in the first 5 minutes. How do you want to be perceived? I did this for 2 very important reasons. First, I learn a lot about the person in front of me in the words they chose to use.
Engaging. Confident. Knowledgeable. Clear. Passionate. Trustworthy. Concise.
The second and more important reason, however, was to make one potentially career-impacting point that would cause them to lean into this challenging process and not flee from it.
None of the words they used with me were a by-product of having great presentation slides. All the descriptive words they felt were so important were all forged in the “how” skills; the building blocks of human interaction when we stand in front of a room or screen. Yet, to a person, they fully admitted they spent nearly all their valuable time just getting their visuals right and little or no time on how they were actually delivering their messages.
This month I complete the transition of Distinction Communication to my daughter, Amy Wolff. She has been a significant part of the business the last 10 years and has created her own impressive credentials as a popular national speaker, speaker coach, as well as a featured TedX speaker here in Portland, OR – May 2022. Distinction Communication’s legacy as a premier coaching/training company will continue on and when the time is right, reach out to Amy at [email protected].
Taking the initiative to continually hone your how skills will change the trajectory of a life and career.
As I wrap-up, maybe 30 years from now we’ll all be talking about how amazingly better presenters are, but I suspect that may not be the case. Just like I can count on Taylor Made who makes the driver in my golf bag to come up with a must-have ($600) club every year, the fact is golf clubs will still always require someone who knows how to swing them. And so will presentations.
It’s my hope you can regularly experience one of the most empowering, encouraging moments many people have – finding the powerful convergence of simple messages, skillfully delivered that get through to the busy and distracted people in your lives. Be that presenter. The world needs you. Your ideas need you.
As I sign-off for the last time, sadly I won’t be on the next part of your journey with you but there are many people who can be if you let them. You can be that presenter everyone wants to hear. Make every moment count!
So, goodbye my friends. The memories I made with you changed my life.
Jim Endicott, Retired.