When I was young and saw everything as being new and shiny, my mum used to tell me, “The more things change the more they remain the same”.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of that quote when I finished reading Chris Anderson’s great book, TED TALKS earlier this week, because as brilliant as it is ~ it is almost identical to a book originally written in 1915 by Dale Carnegie, Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business. The book is hard to find but there are plenty of links to a PDF of the manuscript if you search the Google webs. (I haven’t posted a link only because the copyright may be “questionable”).
What struck me most though was what each book chose to focus on. Looking at the contents and the bulk of each chapter, having read both books back-to-back I drew an interesting conclusion.
Chris Anderson’s book, aimed at a 21st century ultra-connected consumer, focuses mainly on the storytelling and the way in which it is presented. Chris focuses on the narrative, the style of delivery and why some TED speakers are better than others at resonating with an audience in some profound way.
Dale Carnegie, writing to an audience 100 years earlier, covers all of these topics as well, but focuses much more on the quality of the content and the mechanics of storytelling.
Today most of us understand that no matter what job title we told, in some way we are all storytellers. Back in the 1930’s and 40’s, people didn’t hold that view. In fact Dale starts off his book with a tale of why many people didn’t think his speaking courses would work.
“What? Make orators out of business men? Absurd”.
Today, we often prefer the idea that we should not let the truth get in the way of a good story. In fact it was one of my folk-heroes Anthony H. Wilson who summed up today’s attitude to storytelling best:
“When it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend”.
Obviously each view has it’s own advantages, but having watched hundreds of presentations over the last few years, my view is that speakers still focus on one or the other almost exclusively. Why not both?
Some business presentations are full of accurate facts, figures, reports and important statistics, but are presented in the most uninspiring way that nobody really remembers any of them. Others have the skill of entertaining an audience in such a way that time flies when they are speaking, but you may struggle a few days later to struggle to remember the substance of what they actually said.
When I was travelling Route 66 with my wife for our honeymoon, we met a guy called Gary who owned the oldest gas station on Route 66. He was a real character and the nicest guy you could ever wish to meet. He even invited us to stay for supper and have apple pie! He must meet tens of thousands of people each year, but as we were visiting at the end of the season and less people were around, so he spent an hour or so with us just chatting about his family and life on Route 66. After lots of small talk and a tour of his garage, he sat us down and said something I’ll never forget. Looking me straight in the eyes, he said,
“What I’m about to tell you, you will never forget for the rest of your life”.
He then told me a story about marriage which I won’t ever forget, but needless to say, by starting his story like that, he immediately had my undivided attention. Gary was in his 80’s and the way he spoke, I could just imagine him at one of those speaking courses Carnegie used to run at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The way that he told me his stories seemed different from the way we often hear stories today. There was no style over substance, it was just an authentic story told to me straight from his heart. It was like the old and the new colliding. Of course Gary has probably told that story a thousand times to a thousand newly marriage couples, but the fact that it sounded like it was the first time he had ever said it, made the story all the more compelling.
So purely for my own amusement, and yours if you are gracious enough to still be with me, I wanted to pick out a few highlights from Carnegie’s book that you might enjoy.
Carnegie concludes his opening lesson with a strong reminded that it is not about us, it is about the content which we have the privilege of delivering…
Have a message, and then think of yourself as a Western Union boy instructed to deliver it. We pay slight attention to the boy. It is the telegram that we want. The message – that is the thing. Keep your mind on it. Know it like the back of your hand. Believe it. Keep your heart in it. Then talk as if you were determined to say it. Do that, and the chances are ten to one that you will soon be master of the occasion and master of yourself.
If you must use notes, make them extremely brief and write them in large letters on an ample sheet of paper. Then arrive early at a place where you are able to speak and hide your notes behind some books on a table. Glance at them if you must, but endeavor to screen your weakness from the audience. Clutch a few very condensed notes in your hand if you must for your maiden effort. A child clutches the furniture when it is first attempting to walk ; but it does not continue it very long.
One of the pages that struck me the most in Carnegie’s book was page 88. Love Your Audience. Today we use the term love so freely, that it is often used as a throwaway remark and as such gets stripped of all meaning. 70 years ago, talking about love was not something that men in business did. This is one of the reasons I love collecting old business books, because every once in a while, you come across a passage like this and realise what it was that set Dale Carnegie apart from everyone else in his time.
Today I hear venture capitalists like Peter Thiel saying that the secret to success is often discovering,
“What one important truth do very few people agree with you on?”.
(Peter Thiel was the co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook. He also wrote a superb book Zero-to-One, which was one of the best tech books I read last year). Mark Zuckerberg saw a world were people were not ‘open and connected’, and contrary to popular opinion, he believed that friends wanted to know the relationship status and other intimate aspects of each others lives. It was a truth that many others didn’t agree with him on back in 2004. It’s why no one had put the effort into building anything of the scale of Facebook before. (Friendster and MySpace don’t count). For Dale Carnegie, he believed that business men needed to love their audience. At the time, that was also a truth that most business professionals didn’t think was necessary (or appropriate). Dale disagreed and took a different path, which is why we are still talking about him 100 years later.
“The secret to success… is devotion to the audience. I love my audiences. They are all my friends. I feel a bond with them the moment I step before them”.
Dale Carnegie quoting ‘the famous prima dona’ Madam Schumann-Heink.
One of the common themes running through “Public Speaking & Influencing Men in Business” is getting your facts straight. Accuracy is everything. “Think over your facts”, Dale reminds readers over and over again. “Think over your facts, burn their real importance into your mind. Try your own enthusiasm before you attempt to convince others”.
Think about that the next time you are in front of an audience of any size, sharing facts or statistics of any kind. How can you bring the numbers to life? What do they mean to you personally? Why is this number in particular so important? Why should we care?
“Know the fact ~ hug the fact. For the essential thing is heat, and the heat comes from sincerity”.
Carnegie quoting Emerson.
Knowing that “nine readers out of ten take a lucid statement for a true one”, any presenter must remember that being in front of an audience comes with a certain amount of perceived credibility. Things said from a platform are often believed to be true and not questioned anywhere near as much as they should be. This is why it is so important to marry the storytelling that Chris Anderson loves to see in TED speakers, with the attention to detail and accuracy that Carnegie asks for. Statistics can be molded to fit almost any argument, we only need to look at the race for the Whitehouse or London mayoral elections to see that. But at the very least, we should be sure that we have checked our sources, believe the methodology behind our numbers to be true, and then share those statistics in a way that is personal to you. Let me give you an example that I use myself regularly.
When talking about customer data and ‘big data’, my favourite statistic is,
“Everyday we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data”.
But on it’s own it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a big number. So how do I “hug that fact” and turn it into a story? First, I appeal to any mathematicians or engineers in the room who actually know what a quintillion is. “It’s a one with 18 zero’s”. But that still only tells us how big a number that is. So this fact only really comes to life when I ask people to imagine Google. Imagine all the data that they have. All the search data. All the map data that they have collected from every street in almost every country in the world. All the books that they have scanned. And imagine how much data that is and how it has taken Google 20 years to collect all of that data. Now imagine that the amount of data we are creating in the world everyday, is equivalent to a company the size of Google being created every 2 days. Now we have a story. Now I have a fact I can hug. Everyone will probably forget the number. Hardly anyone forgets the analogy.
Carnegie used several examples like this on his teaching courses, by constantly reminding speakers that there are only really four major goals of an “address”.
The purpose of every talk, whether the speaker realizes it or not, has one of four major goals:
Many a talk fails because it doesn’t have clarity, conviction, action or interest. One of my favourite lines from Dale’s book is when he talks about the length of a talk. He was famous in his courses for encouraging speakers to get their point across in 75 seconds or less because people’s attention spans were so short. (He was saying that back in 1920!). How many times have we seen speakers cram 3 hours of content into the 20 minutes that they were given to deliver their talk? So it made me smile when I read that Carnegie once told an audience, “Many a talk fails to be clear because the speaker seems intent upon establishing a world’s record for ground covered in the allotted time. He leaps from one point to another with the swiftness and agility of a mountain goat”. It’s a funny line. And he didn’t mean it in a good way.
“Do not emulate the mountain goat!” Carnegie used to shout at his speakers!
But it needs to be remembered that a short talk doesn’t need to use short words. A business book I have dating back to 1859 suggests that people’s attention spans are too short, so it encourages speakers to “use big ideas, small words and short sentences”. It’s also a good line, but it’s one that needs to be thought of in this content. Looking at the mechanics of sentences, this is what Dale had to say ~ “Appeal to the sense of sight. Use exhibits, pictures, illustrations when possible. Be definite. Don’t say ‘dog’ if you mean ‘a fox terrier with a black splotch over his right eye’”.
“How did Mark Twain develop his delightful facility with words? As a young man, he travelled all the way from Missouri to Nevada by the ponderously slow and really painful stage coach. Food – and sometimes even water – had to be carried for both passengers and horses. Extra weight might have meant the difference between safety and disaster ; baggage was charged for by the ounce ; and yet Mark Twain carried with him a Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary over mountain passes, across scorched deserts, and though a land infested with bandits and Indians. He wanted to make himself a master of words, and with his characteristic courage and common sense, he set about doing the things necessary to bring that mastery about”.
In 1945 according to Carnegie, the average man has a vocabulary of around 2,000 words. Milton is reported to have employed 8,000 words and Shakespeare 15,000. Both men were also obsessed with dictionaries. My favourite example is of President Lincoln, a man famous for reading the dictionary by candlelight late into the night, much to the dismay of his wife! Carnegie wrote a great book on Lincoln that is well worth picking up on eBay if you’re interested, but he’s an interesting character because he arguably wrote the greatest speech of all time. Many quote JFK, MLK and Churchill but think about the Gettysburg address. 170,000 men fought at Gettysberg and 7,000 were killed, yet it was widely reported at the time that the speech President Lincoln gave will be remembered long after the battle itself.
What was most interesting was that the main speech, given by Senator Edward Everett who spoke for over 2 hours. It was still an impressive speech by all accounts. You can read a transcript of Everett’s speech here.
But more impressive was Lincoln’s impromptu speech that became known as the Gettysberg address. The entire speech lasted only 2 minutes and it wasn’t even recorded. In fact a photographer to attempted to take his picture while delivering the speech, but Lincoln had finished before the primitive camera could be set up and focused. Lincoln’s address has since been cast in bronze and placed in a library at Oxford as an example of what can be done with the English language. Carnegie used to say, “It ought to be memorized by every student of public speaking”.
And finally, being mindful of the length of this post and the length that a good talk should be, I’ll finish with this wonderful quote about brevity and substance.
“The clock has nothing to do with the length of a sermon. Nothing whatsoever! A long sermon is a sermon that seems long. And the short sermon is the one that ends while people are still wishing for more. It may have lasted twenty minutes or it may have lasted for an hour and a half. If it leaves the people wishing for more, they do not know nor care what the clock said about the length of it. You cannot tell, therefore, how long a sermon is by watching the hands of a clock ~ watch the people. See where their hands are. Of the hands of the men are for the most part in their pockets, pulling out their watches to note again how long you have been at it, this is ominous. See where there eyes are! See where their minds are, then you will know exactly what time of day it is for that particular sermon. It may be high time for it to come to an end”.
The Art of Preaching by Charles R. Brown, Yale University.