Bill Steele on “Presentation Skills 201”: An interview by Bob Morris

SteeleA presentation skills trainer and coach since 1992, Bill Steele has helped thousands of presenters increase their ability to craft strong, persuasive messages and deliver them with an engaging style. He has worked with both individuals and presentation teams in a wide range of industries and professions. In recent years he has spent the greatest part of his time coaching experienced presenters who are facing a critical presentation or have a strong desire to up their skills to a new, higher level. It is this experience with accomplished presenters that is featured in the Second Edition of his latest book, Presentation Skills 201: How to Take It to the Next Level as a Confident, Engaging Presenter (2016).

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Morris: Before discussing the Second Edition of Presentation Skills 201, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Steele: The person who has had the greatest influence on my personal life has been my wife Jan. Throughout the 40 years we have been married, she has modeled a life of peace and joy. I can’t say I have come even close to matching her in these qualities, but I know that a troubled childhood had me going in a much more negative direction and she has played leading role in the better biography I can now claim.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Steele: I’ve had the good fortune to work for and with several people who have helped me develop professionally, but if I have to identify the one with the “greatest impact” it would be a gentleman named Richard Kanter. He owned the marketing-services company I worked for in the first half of my career. I grew up in a blue collar family with no idea what it meant to be a business professional. Dick mentored me for years, all the while setting an example of how to work with people in a way that both gives and garners respect. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Steele: As I was approaching my 40th birthday, it was clear I needed a career change. I no longer felt fulfilled in what I was doing and my working relationship with Dick Kanter had ended with his sale of the firm a couple of years earlier.

That summer I bought a copy of What Color is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles’ great book (updated every year) for career changers. I worked through it cover-to-cover, doing all the exercises, ultimately identifying two work activities that consistently gave me the most satisfaction: presenting and teaching. I loved creating and delivering presentations to client groups. And, I had gotten in trouble multiple times for teaching clients how to do things instead of keeping them fully dependent on the firm.

It wasn’t clear at first how to build a new career around presenting and teaching, but then I learned about a company that specialized in training people how to be better presenters. My reaction: “Perfect!” They didn’t need a new trainer, but when I agreed to help find new clients in return for learning how to teach presentation skills, the company took me on and my new career was launched—the one I’m still in 24 years later. It’s been great.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Steele: I temporarily dropped out of college at the end of my junior year of college, out of money and directionless. When I returned and switched from a psychology major to a business major, everything started to click for the first time. That final year gave me the direction and confidence that had been lacking before. The higher grades and diploma opened the doors I needed opened.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Steele: I wish I had had a much wider understanding of the career opportunities available. Coming out of a family where no one had ever gone to college before and no one had a professional business career, I had a seriously limited grasp of what was possible. This had a lot to do with delaying the exploration that led to my current career and the fulfillment it has brought.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion –includes the best example of a great speech? Please explain.

Steele: Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s speech to deserters from the 2nd of Maine as depicted in Ken Burns’ 1993 Civil War miniseries. It would be hard to find a better example of inspirational speaking. It shows how powerful a message can be when it makes full use of Aristotle’s logos, pathos, and ethos.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Steele: This leadership quote speaks directly to my experience as a presentation skills trainer. When I first started in this profession, I thought my job was to be the all-knowing expert who poured knowledge into people. Experience taught me how wrong I was. I only began seeing significant results when I started fully appreciating the knowledge and understanding that was already in the room, and began drawing it out and building on it. (“Begin with what they have and build on what they know.”)

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Steele: Seth Godin, author of the most successful business blog on the Internet, tells how he had a great mentor early in his career who started every meeting with Seth by asking (my paraphrase) “What have you stopped doing since we last met?” Of course, this is the exact opposite of what you would expect a mentor to ask. You would expect: “What new, additional thing have you started doing?” The wisdom of not dissipating your efforts makes so much sense, but is so hard to follow. The natural tendency is to think that the potential for success increases with an increase in the number of things you’re trying.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Steele: I should re-read this quote every time I find myself efficiently working through a to-do list of low-value tasks, seeking satisfaction in checking them off.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Last year a client asked me to create some training that revolved around something called “motivational interviewing.” It’s a way of talking with people who need to change their behavior, but are resistant to change. It’s based on the idea that people only really change based on their own goals and priorities. Only if you can, in a non-threatening way, encourage them to think about possible dissonance between what they are doing and what they, themselves value, you’re unlikely to catalyze change. I see a lot of wisdom in this approach to overcoming resistance.

In your opinion, why do so many feel a greater fear of speaking in public than they do of death?

Steele: It’s probably because death is still something of an abstraction to those who are relatively young and healthy, but public speaking can create a quite real sense of severe vulnerability.

Morris: What is the greatest speech you ever heard, either in-person or via one or more media? Why do you think so highly of it?

Steele: Although I politically don’t agree with much of it, I have to say that Mario Cuomo’s Tale of Two Cities speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention is a masterpiece. I’m not surprised that it catapulted his political career. He did an incredible job of using metaphor and painting word pictures to evoke a powerful emotional response from his audience.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Steele: As you might expect given my profession, I would focus in on their greatest communication challenge. Cynicism and a lack of trust in authority is widespread and growing in our society. This is putting an ever-greater demand on CEOs to be authentic, honest, and transparent when they speak. Unfortunately, the trend is in the opposite direction. With ever-increasing legal, political, and social pressures coming to bear in a 24-7 news and social media environment, CEOs are under pressure to be as circumspect as their political counterparts in Washington. Sounding eloquent while remaining safe has become mark of an “accomplished speaker.”

Now please shift your attention to the Second Edition of Presentation Skills 201. When and why did you decide to write it?

Steele: I was encouraged to write Presentation Skills 201 in 2009 by the individual who was then running the training company that uses me as an independent contractor quite a bit. She rightly believed it would build my credibility as a presentation skills coach and increase the demand for my services.

Once I got into writing it, this patently commercial motive was joined by a lot of satisfaction from putting down in writing much of the insight I’ve gained from working with speakers over the years.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Steele: In thinking about your question, I realize I started writing it without a clear vision for the book. I needed the discipline of a daily writing goal, so I decided I had to stay at the keyboard until I had fully explained one piece of advice. I would worry about the overall organization later. Unsurprisingly, this led to a “collection of ideas” format, and not a step-by-step narrative.

This format turned out to be popular because it doesn’t demand an extended reading commitment. In just a couple of minutes, a person can pick up another useful piece of advice. I’ve had many people tell me that they keep going back to book over and over again. I wish I could say that this was my plan from the beginning, but it wasn’t. It just fortunately worked out.

Morris: You present and thoroughly explain a seven-stage process and devote a separate chapter to each. What seems to be the most serious mistake that people make when attempting to complete each step? First, Planning

Unfortunately, creating a slide deck has become synonymous with creating a presentation. If presenters concentrated first on shaping their message, and then on creating their slides, they would be far more successful

Morris: Preparation

Steele: Human nature is to prepare as if you’re going to be your own audience. In other words, we prepare presentations based on what resonates with us. Time and again this leads to presentations that don’t meet the needs and expectations of the actual audience.

Morris: Deliberate Practice:

Steele: People prefer to practice quietly, in their minds, instead of out loud. The first time they actually deliver their presentation is in front of the real audience. This is not good. If you don’t practice out loud, you don’t discover the inevitable rough spots that still need work. As Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan says in her book On Speaking Well, you should practice out loud and “where you falter, alter.”

Morris: Teamwork

Steele: Teams need to think of their presentation as one presentation, not multiple presentations linked together. When they don’t (which is the norm), their performance fails to maintain a consistent theme and, in the worst cases, leaves the impression of a group that may be less-than-organized in more ways than just their presenting.

Morris: Delivery

Steele: I would say the biggest mistake people make in their delivery is adlibbing a lot. As I say in the book, you should “plan your dive, and dive your plan,” just like a scuba diver.

Morris: Platform

Steele: Presenters forfeit a lot of their potential to be dynamic by remaining stationary. If they occasionally blanked out their screen and moved toward their audience, their engagement of the audience would be significantly stronger.

Morris: Finally, Use of language

Steele: Many speakers have a habit of salting their language with many unnecessary qualifiers. This makes them sound less than confident in their message. The result is an audience that is less than confident in their message.

Morris: What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when including [begin italics] humor [end italics] during a presentation?

Steele: Humor is powerful. When it goes well, audiences love it. Unfortunately, it can fail to go well quite easily. I always recommend keeping the humor light, shooting for a smile, not necessarily a laugh. That way, if the audience doesn’t catch the humor, it’s not a big deal.

Morris: Einstein once recommended, “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.” To what extent does that apply to preparing and then making a presentations? Please explain.

Simplification is not simple. What is intended as a simple message is often an incomplete message, lacking necessary context, and loaded with incomplete thoughts. You’re going to be more successful at crafting a simple, but complete, message if you start by creating a one-page version and building it out, rather than throwing in everything but the kitchen sink and trying to edit down to something simple.

Morris: You explain the Preface: “I need to stress that this book is NOT a step-by-step guide to creating and delivering presentations. I titled it Presentation Skills 201 because it assumes you know the fundamentals and you’re now looking for ways to enhance your skills.” Which source do you recommend to those who know little (if anything) about even basic skills?

Steele: Rather than recommending a book, I would recommend that anyone who is just starting out sign up for a workshop at their company or a local community college. The fundamentals tend to be similar wherever you go. A workshop is going to include practice and feedback, two essential elements that are missing with just a book.

For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Presentation Skills 201, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Steele: Most of my work has been in large corporations so I hesitate to give advice for small-company CEOs. I fear my assumptions may be off. I am assuming that speaking occasions are less frequent and their staff support more limited. This leads me to believe they would particularly benefit from the chapters on preparation and practice. More of the preparation falls on them and they have less opportunity to stay practiced.

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Bill cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His Amazon link

Outskirts Press link

LinkdedIn link

YouTube CaSB 014 video link

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