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4. Mastering the Moment

Men flourish only for a moment.


When you are standing before hundreds of people or find yourself Facing the Nation or Meeting the Press, who among us doesn't feel the tug of personal destiny? Is there anyone who doesn't hope and pray to...

Master the Moment

Yet often we do not, and it is more than a matter of charisma; for even the best speakers flop now and then. What keeps them in the limelight is that they so seldom fail at what they do best: gain and retain audience interest, sometimes under intense conditions. Imagine the pressure on an evangelist, minister, or president facing the flock during a breaking sex scandal.

A good dollop of charisma would help, of course, yet that's not what survivors such as Jane Fonda or Bill Clinton depend on. Newsmakers and leaders have mastered many moments. They've made their missteps and lived to tell about them.

As masters of their own destiny, they know all too well that to do well up front, you must be prepared to be up front. Integrity and authenticity go a long way in establishing your credibility, because the lens doesn't lie, whether it is in the eyes of your audience or on the front of a camera.

Lee Iacocca said that being honest is the best foundation — to be clear and candid about what must be accomplished and what sacrifices may be involved. And in the case of a serious problem, you cannot do much to put out a brush fire if you first insist there isn't one.

If you are constantly putting out fires instead of fireproofing, there will be no chance to take the second step and...

Master the Method

If you are in a relatively formal role in your professional life, trying to be folksy on a platform can be risky. You can also be a fish out of water if you are naturally casual and try to be formal because this is an "important" occasion. If no one ever laughs at your jokes, don't try to reverse the trend while standing before an audience.

If you don't know what people love about you, find out, and be genuine. Be yourself — and be the best you can be at being you.

Master the Medium

Third, be a master of your medium. Know what presentation media you'll be using and how to handle it well.

Go to the speech site days before and be very early on the day of the event to get the lay of the land and take care of logistics.

I was once a perfect lady, following tradition and waiting for the president of a men's club to escort me to the speaker's table for a breakfast and speech (mine) before hundreds of invited guests. Imagine my surprise, and theirs, when the monitors that were to provide video examples for my speech projected only noise. Despite technicians crawling under the table to fix things as I spoke, the noise, not the pictures, continued throughout the speech.

Because you will be the one who looks bad when the monitor doesn't work, a microphone doesn't project, or a podium light flickers, don't leave anything to chance or to somebody else. And even in today's high-tech world, it is better to use an old-fashioned slide projector/remote changer or even an overhead with ease than to fumble with a computer-based presentation you don't know how to operate.

If your medium is the media, know the rules and how to play the game — proactively. Offer to be a media resource as an expert in your field. Cultivate media contacts and beat reporters in your industry by genuinely complimenting them on a well-researched story. Put a press release out over the wires with sound statistics or new information. Make yourself available for background or a sound bite when there's a breaking story.

To be truly successful in mastering the moment, you must also...

Master the Material

To be truly successful in mastering the moment, you must be a master of your material, which means more than just the technical knowledge. You must be able to adapt it to the level of the audience and have it organized in a way that will lead your audience to respond. The material should be second nature to you, allowing you the freedom to work the room and an audience. Professional athletes practice for hours shooting free throws, making putts, or hitting against a backboard. Then, when the game begins, they can simply play. In a stand-up presentation, you must be able to marshal facts or processes, and to do so in a way that makes them both clear and useful. If nothing else, you will be prepared for the unexpected.

I once flew to Chicago from Los Angeles for a new business presentation, only to find my audience rushing past me to the airport to fly in the company jet to the site of a crisis. "Come with us," they said, "to see how things really happen around here and you can give us your pitch on the way." I went, I saw, I got the client.

Fellow writer Tom Snyder holds a doctorate, with a specialty in small-group communication and systems analysis. He was scheduled to lead an interactive session for top executives wrestling with integrating new digital solutions to management issues. There was a crisis when he arrived, however, and no management team members were available. Having scheduled and paid for his time, the company brought in telephone operators instead of managers. "Happily," Tom says, "my own training had been so rigorous that it was a case of adapting group processes to meet communications issues. At the end of the day, the phone operators had a proposal for management that would save money and ease their workload."

Finally, you must...

Master the Message

Master the message by keeping whatever you are presenting simple and organized around a single idea, preferably a provocative, profound, or at least cogent thought, to make it worth the audience's time. As I put it to clients, "What's the point?" Presentations with several competing ideas only compete for the attention of an audience that is no longer clear about what is important.

Three to five single sub-points may be used to support that one idea, but be sure that one main idea or message is clearly and concisely presented. If the angle were to be written up as a magazine or news story, what would be the headline? At the end of your presentation, the audience must know and be able to say exactly what your presentation was about and what they learned from you.

And as you are sifting through facts or a process you intend to present, remember that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Don't let the facts be dull and repetitious. Informing is only part of your job. The rest is to enlighten, perhaps entertain, and certainly to inspire.

When you know what you are presenting well enough, you are then able to make contact with your audience on an individual level. Notice how great performers always seem to be singing to one person? That's because they are — one and then another, then another. To be interesting to your audience, you must be interested in your audience. The magic of a meeting is in consensus; the magic of a stand-up program lies with acceptance. In both cases, individuals begin to respond as part of a group, with you as their leader, the master of the moment.

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