When I attended a presentation called “The Leadership Journey” at the Technical Leadership Exchange, I greatly enjoyed the anecdotes the speaker used to illustrate each point, but I felt overwhelmed by the 21 laws of leadership he presented, one after the other. The speaker had faithfully reproduced the structure in John Maxwell’s book, the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. Although he had supplemented it with personal anecdotes, it came off–at least to me–as sounding rather like a book report. A detailed, lively book report, but a book report nonetheless – a laundry-list of concepts. I wondered if there was a better way to present the information. Here are the laws he presented:
I mentioned this to another colleague who got in touch with me about an internal conference. I had put this presentation down as one of the sessions I could volunteer to present if no one else stepped up, although I admitted I had my misgivings about how to deliver the presentation well. I told him how I felt the long list of concepts made the presentation less effective than it could have been, and that a mnemonic device or a navigational aid would make this presentation better. He was amused by the idea of a mnemonic–a 21-letter acronym, perhaps?–and said he’d pass on my feedback for some presentation coaching. Hearing that, I volunteered to give the speaker feedback myself. That would be better than second-hand feedback, I thought, and I might as well stand behind my words and learn even more in the process. =)
This challenged me to think about the presentation more. If I were presenting this, what would I do? How could it be organized to present all that rich content in some more easily digested and applied form?
I reviewed every slide in the original presentation, writing down keywords on a piece of scratch paper. I thought about questions the speaker could ask people to help them think about the topic before the explanation of the law. After the fourth or fifth law, I found myself categorizing things based on questions, using Who-What-When-Where-How-Why as my original framework. My first pass through the list gave me these categories: “who is a leader”, “where you go”, “how you get there”, and “what you do”. I created a spreadsheet organizing the topics into those categories. As I moved things around, I ended up refining the categories to these five:
Who can be a leader?
5. E.F. Hutton
How do you become a leader?
6. Solid ground
What can hold you back or move you forward?
1. The lid
11. Inner Circle
What do you do as a leader?
16. Big Mo [Momentum]
20. Explosive growth
Where do you go next?
Some of the topics can be moved around. “12. Empowerment” belongs in both “What do you do as a leader” and “Where do you go next”, and it could also go into the earlier entries. I don’t have a good feel for whether “1. The lid” should be in “What can hold you back or move you forward?”, or “How do you get there?”. If I spent more time revising this, I’m sure things would settle down.
What I like about this structure is that it has a certain cohesion about it. Similar laws are together, allowing the speaker to illustrate them with a single well-chosen story or use several stories to build upon a point. There are guide questions that prompt people to reflect as they’re listening to the presentation, and these guide questions are followed by advice and examples from leaders who have taken on those challenges. There’s a chronological flow that matches the leadership journey as well. Each category flows smoothly into the next, and within each category, each law leads into the next. You tell a story.
Structure is good for speakers and listeners, too. This arrangement gives you a structure that scales: you can cover the entire thing in less than ten minutes, or you can talk for hours. And because it’s broken down into chunks, it’s easier for you remember, whether you’re presenting it or listening to it. You could probably give a speech on this from memory, and people can leave the session with a feeling of understanding the whole thing, not just the first and last chunk.
Now I’m tempted to look for John C. Maxwell’s e-mail address and send a link to this blog post. It feels weird giving feedback to an author who’s written leadership bestsellers, and maybe there’s a higher reason why he organized those topics that way. But maybe the author hadn’t taken a step back and seen things click into place… If so, then maybe he’ll like this suggestion and use it to help others in a second edition of the book!
What would you call what I did? I really enjoyed poking inside that presentation and bringing everything together into a structure, a story. I would love to do more of that in the future. It’s quite far from my official IBM role (although the presentation and communication practice will help me as an evangelist), but maybe I can bring aspects of that into my life sometime. Maybe one of my careers will be as a presentation coach… =) I’d love to learn and share more about effective communication!