One of my presentation skills participants in a workshop for physicians was struggling.  We’ll call him Joe.  His nerves were obvious and were expressed in slow, stilted delivery, forgotten ideas, and extreme stiffness.

Joe was a real fun guy to talk with.  Like the other participants, I had talked with Joe before the presentation to find out his presenting background and goals for the session.  During that phone conversation and chats I had with Joe at break and as I observed him engaging with others, Joe was articulate, fun, quick, and relaxed.  Then he stood in front of the group for his first presentation and a negative transformation came over him. As it happens to so many, frozen Presenter Joe came forward.

Once each participant had done two medically related presentations, we got around to the last presentation in which they could pick any topic.  I always want people to nail that last presentation with their best performance, but I had never wanted success as much as I wanted it for Joe.  You could feel the whole group was cheering for him.  Joe stood when it came his time, slowly and confidently looked at each face in the group and said, “I have a very important question for each of you.”  He clicked and an image of a Tesla came on the screen.  “What do I have to do to get you in this car?”  And then Joe smiled.  It was big, relaxed, self-assured smile and his colleagues and I gave a deep exhale of relief; Joe was going to be OK.

Joe was more than OK.  He was great.  Joe was energetic, persuasive, fun, and very, very clear.  He didn’t just talk about the car, he talked about the environment and climate change and he talked with passion directly to his audience of doctors and said they were the people with the resources to be early adopters of technology like a Tesla that could help save the planet.  Joe got one of the few standing ovations I’ve seen in a workshop. 

One lesson from this is that Joe, and every other presenter, needs to focus on the person who came through in their best presentation.  Joe needs the confident, eloquent, energetic image to be the one that informs future presentations and this is where the appreciative approach comes in.  Joe and you and I need to appreciate our best moments and clearest examples of our skills coming to the surface.  Joe, like all the presenters in the workshop, had a video of each presentation.  This final excellent example of his best presenter self was the one Joe should watch and sear into his mind.

When we gave feedback, I suggested that Joe always talk about Tesla cars and technology.  I wasn’t saying that he should become a car salesperson and quit his medical practice; I was suggesting he find a way to make Tesla a metaphor for any topic.  If he is talking about new technology in his field, Tesla can be a metaphor.  If he is talking about patient care, he can talk about Tesla customer service.  Quality control, things we can do to make a difference, design, and countless other topics have parallels between medicine and cars.  If Joe uses that Tesla metaphor over and over he will bring patches of passion and comfort into any talk on any subject and his mind will begin to accept how good he really is at presenting.

I use gardening in this way.  When a picture of a garden bed or a plant comes up in my slide deck, I feel a surge of confidence because I know about that area of life and love to talk about it.

What is your Tesla? What is the thing that would be more than just a good topic for a talk but can expand to inform any talk? Find that thing, use it over and over and appreciate it. 

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A new year is starting and around the world people are focused on resolutions and fresh starts. Please consider finding ways to highlight and use your strengths as an overarching resolution for 2006 and beyond.

After about 20 years of consulting, I’m seeing, more all the time, that a key ingredient to helping individuals and organizations is to encourage a focus on strengths. Whether it’s an individual, a team, an organization, or a community, it’s bringing forth strengths that is the key to success, effectiveness, and happiness.

Often, we do the opposite: we highlight weaknesses and put inordinate amounts of time and attention into areas where we   aren’t so good. It doesn’t take much thought to see this is absurd. With work, care, and consistent effort, you can use your strengths as doorways to excellence. By helping your strengths flower fully, you can be the best you can be for the world. By pouring time and energy into fixing weaknesses, you walk through a doorway that leads to mediocrity.

A while back, I was ranting about the obsession we have with weaknesses when a workshop participant who had been very quiet spoke up. “What you just said about focusing on strengths and not weaknesses got me thinking about my son. I’m not trying to brag about him, but I was real proud that he just got accepted into a gifted program in second grade. He really excels in math. But he’s really got bad handwriting. My wife and I are always on him about the handwriting and so are his teachers. What do you think we should do?”

Before I could answer, another participant jumped in and she said, “Doctors have terrible handwriting and they do OK in life. Forget the handwriting and let the boy do math.”

Let that advice sink in a little and see how it feels to you. Do you think this father should lighten up on the writing and focus on the math? Does it make sense? Or do you think that the only way a person improves is to face weaknesses and work hard to improve? Do you think you, your team, and your organization should spend energy on highlighting strengths or focusing on weaknesses? Should Michael Jordan have focused his last years of athletic competition on improving at baseball or winning more basketball championships? How do you live out this choice in your life?

Focusing on strengths goes against the way most of us were educated and the way our performance is reviewed by the boss. In most cases, it’s the weaknesses that get the attention. The “F” catches the eye of the parent and the teacher and not the “A;” the bad handwriting gets energy. The “areas for improvement” are the focus of the performance reviews and the strengths are hardly mentioned. Many individuals allow weaknesses to become the focus of their entire life and go to the grave with untapped talents.

What are your greatest strengths? When do you feel you are making your greatest contribution to your organization and to the world? How can you use your strengths and talents more? How can you help those around you focus more on their strengths?

“I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience.”

– Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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