Taking Control of the Room

Joel Mowbray is a nationally known syndicated columnist who spoke at a suburban home in Marin County last night, and gave a superb example of how to take control of a room. The event was to be a small gathering primarily to hear Joel, but also to enjoy the group and drinks and appetizers. Ended up more came than expected, so it was packed with over 125 people squeezed into a living room - overflowing into two other rooms and halls. Couldn’t move much, much less eat or have a glass of wine.

I thought that with this crowd, all standing uncomfortably,  Joel would just give a few remarks and tell people to enjoy the party. But he did so much more, and kept everyone’s rapt attention for over 45 minutes!

Here’s how he handled it. (And in the same form we give feedback in our Communicate To Influence program, let me mention 3 Keepers and 3 Improvements.)


  • He came out strong. He didn’t apologize for the circumstance, but just began speaking, with a strong voice, humor and confidence.
  • Great behavior. He has a great smile, open manner, gave insider asides, his voice carried with no mic, had energy, gestures and movement. He showed care and candor…
  • Content. He was interesting. He was authentic as he had lived the experiences he talked about. Lots of stories made his very focused points. Joel did all the behaviors, but it ultimately was his content that carried the day. Impressive, authoritative…

Improvements (only ones are in the Q&A Session):

  • Joel's eye communication was to each questioner, and he held it. It's always best to start your answer looking at the questioner for the first 10 seconds or so, and then continue the answer looking at other individuals in the entire audience. This frees your mind to broaden your answer, and avoids this next problem...
  • He got into dialogues with some long winded questioners. By continuously looking at them they could easily feel they were in a conversation, and break in and give their opinions, or begin dialogues or arguments. And they did - this was a verbal group. We (the audience) came to hear the speaker. We’re interested in Mowbray’s opinions, not some strangers.
  • He went too long. The Q&A turned out to be over 25 minutes, and he should have stopped it sooner by saying, “We have time for one more question."

But the improvements were minor compared to the impact he had, and how skillfully he spoke. He handled the room, and the audience was the better for it.

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Meg Whitman as Communicator

Meg Whitman just debated Steve Poizner for the Republican Gubernatorial nomination. It was interesting, but not as interesting as looking at where Meg Whitman might go - if she can communicate.

First the debate:

Meg did well, but Steve probably did better if this was an equal contest. But it is not - Whitman has a 30-40 point lead on Poizner, and the debate did nothing to change that. On June 8 Meg will win in a landslide.

Bring on Jerry Brown:

[caption id="attachment_1412" align="alignright" width="84"] Jerry Brown[/caption]

Where this gets interesting is in the general election this summer/fall, between past Governor, Presidential contender, now Lt Gov. of California Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. It's one stiff-communicator against another in a race for a prize that's dubious at best. The state of California is in the worst shape of it's long history. Can Meg Whitman convince voters she can change that? (We'll leave Jerry Brown's communication content and style for a later post.)Communicate To Influence, Not Just To Inform:

Look at these cogent words from yesterday's incisive Business Week article on Meg Whitman:

"The most gifted politicians manage to turn scripted "messaging" into stirring stump material, but there is nothing Churchillian in Whitman's delivery. Says former colleague Rajiv Dutta, former eBay CFO and PayPal president, now a managing director at Elevation Partners: "Clearly she doesn't have the practiced ease of appearing to be intimate in front of millions, which career politicians have spent their lives perfecting."

About 80% of the voters are biased and will vote accordingly. For Meg to get those 20-30% undecided to vote for her she must influence, be trusted (and likable) and inspire vision. She's not there yet. She still speaks in PowerPoint Speak - bullet points and logic statements, and cluttered. Fine for her as a former CEO directing employees, not so great for inspiring voters of a new vision for a collapsed economy. Leaders must inspire, not just inform.

Behaviorally Meg Whitman must loosen up, engage the media, and at least look like she is having fun. She is smart and capable - these are just behavioral habits that she could change with some coaching.

More importantly perhaps, she needs to create sticky messages.

God knows there is enough material in the collapsed state of California to have vivid examples, metaphors, SHARPS and memorable language to help make HER colorful, and much more memorable. She needs messages that are 'made to stick,' for example:

  • The union pension fund obligations are like a tsunami that are about to engulf our great State of California
  • Government spending is as out of control as the BP gusher that is polluting the Gulf of Mexico. It must be brought under control.
  • 40% of California's public school budget is for admin and overhead. If I ran eBay like that I wouldn't be here talking to you tonight - I would have been fired.

Stay tuned. This is going to be an interesting general election here in California, and could be a microcosm of what's to come for the country.

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New Communicator Bursts on the Scene

Put your politics aside for a moment – a new communications star was born tonight. Unless you live under a rock, you now know of Scott Brown, who won the Massachusetts Senate race Tuesday.

I hesitated blogging on Scott Brown’s acceptance speech because I just got back from Las Vegas and it’s late and it’s too political – but after seeing him on Tivo I couldn’t resist. What Barack Obama did in 2004 in his speech at the Democratic convention, Scott Brown just did in 2010 in his victory speech – burst upon the national scene.

Here’s why:

  • It’s a national stage – this was a very important election politically. The world was watching - the race and the speech, but even more so the clips of the speech that will be televised and blogged over the next few weeks. And because of his surprising and excellent communicating he is immediately a force to be reckoned with.
  • He packages and uses symbols well (SHARPS in our language). The obvious political phrase “We can do better” became a repeated litany. But probably the best is his iconic and populist green truck that has 201,000 miles on it, and which he made a point of driving and referencing throughout the campaign. Well publicized, he referenced it several times, causing the chant “Drives A Truck, Drives a Truck…”
  • He is humorous – making several jokes – playing basketball with Barack Obama, a sign on supporter’s lawn, and even joked about his daughters’ being ‘available’ (maybe not politically correct however.)
  • Focused on his issues. He appropriately thanked Massachusetts for electing him, and emphasized the independents, but he immediately went to national issues. He was articulate in speaking to his view on the Health Care bill, and what he was going to do about that, as well as his views on spending, taxes and the war.
  • He can turn a phrase. He actually turned many phrases, but perhaps one of the best lines he had was talking about terrorists and saying, “our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them and not lawyers to defend them.”
  • His use of the teleprompter was excellent. President Obama could take lessons from him.
  • And the importance of a smile – it served Ronald Reagan very well, and it serves Brown. He is energetic, attractive, personable (spontaneously related to many on stage) and confident – important communication attributes.

But above all, his victory speech created a communication experience, and not just for the enthusiastic, and very large, crowd of supporters. For the viewer the image of confidence, strength and purpose was powerful. Although there’s a lot of water yet to go under Scott Brown's bridge, right now, like him or not politically, he is a force to be reckoned with.

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Why Obama Fails As A Communicator

Obama Teleprompter 1Barack Obama came to the Presidency riding the crest of an oratorical tidal wave. Because of that, the media and pundits have said he could do no wrong (communications wise). Well, the emperor has no clothes.

It’s not that President Obama is a BAD communicator, particularly in contrast to the most recent President Bush. It’s just that Obama has failed to live up to his communications promise. He was a great speaker as a candidate but is not so great a communicator now that he is the leader. And he has not expanded his capabilities.

Here’s why:

  • Obama appears aloof and professorial in his many formal speaking situations. He actually holds his head up so his nose is often in the air, lips pursed – not very open and connecting.

  • He puts an enormous emphasis on scripts and the teleprompter. What a burden on his speechwriters, who are actually quite good and very well paid, but overworked. With the frantic and relentless pace and demand of Presidential communications, you very often have to rely on your mind, not your writers. You can’t lead from scripts.
  • And the President is way overexposed. Speaking so often on the less important diminishes the very important, and he could pick his shots much more wisely. Granted that he has put forth so many initiatives he may feel he must push them all, but the “bully pulpit” is best used powerfully, and sparingly.

His popularity ratings have plummeted in recent weeks. Even his controversial Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has a higher favorability rating than the President. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Barack Obama is young, fresh, personable, and has an attractive family. He certainly is bright and has strong opinions. But he is not the Great Communicator. Although that is just one of the reasons his popularity ratings have plummeted, it is a major one. People buy on emotion and justify with fact. At the emotional level, the President just does not connect as well as he could - and should, if he wants another term.

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Farewell President Bush…

President George Bush gave his last speech as President.

It was good - here's why:

George Bush is not a man of great communication, but he is a man of great character. Whether you agree with his faith or his decisions, you have to respect, and hopefully admire, his consistency and his integrity.

That is what was on display tonight. And it WAS President Bush at his best. Readers of this blog know that I have said that he lacked basic communication skills - and this is tragic for a person at that level of leadership. The Bully Pulpit is powerful, and should be used.

So in tonight's speech he was at his communicating best. He's not an orator, and he did not have to push or advocate or persuade. He could just be himself. Authentic. And that is what true communication is all about.

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