Storytelling Builds Relationships

In business, it’s important to build relationships beyond the next deal or project. Professionals with strong executive presence connect on a deeper level and build trust through storytelling. Consultant, Tony Capone shares how easily stories can help you relate to one another on a more personal level.

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Three Easy Ways to Avoid Being a Jerk At Work (and Beyond)

This post is mostly just for men.

We have all stuck our foot in our mouth at some point, saying the wrong thing, or saying the right thing with the wrong tone or at the wrong time. We may mean well, but our comment misses the mark, or we come across as tone deaf to the situation in front of us, whether the result of “conscious bias,” or “unconscious bias.”

As a coach for senior executives, I’m often asked to work with very successful people who only need work on the subtlety of their communication. The briefing from the HR person usually starts with, “He’s a really nice guy, once you get to know him.” Or, “People just accept that that’s the way Scott is, but he still needs to work on it.” And occasionally, “Down deep, he’s nice and thoughtful and caring. But on the surface, geez!”

Here are some tips on how to avoid being perceived as “that guy” at work.

Stop tossing in witty side comments at meetings.

If you’ve got a knack for the quick pun, the sarcastic retort, the funny but irrelevant analogy, keep it to yourself. No one will forget how witty you are. Let it come through in more casual settings, not business meetings. One comment per meeting is sufficient. It can help lighten the mood and provide some mental breathing room from a tough conversation. But more than that is annoying and diminishes your overall presence. I used to be the guy who would throw in the funny comments at meetings. Years ago, I tried an experiment. At one long meeting, every time I wanted to throw out a comment to be funny, instead I put a tick mark at the top of my pad and kept my mouth shut. At the end of the meeting, I was appalled to see 12 marks on the pad. I would have interrupted the meeting 12 times, adding zero value, and making myself look bad. Here’s how to think about it.

If you’re the funny guy at 25, people grin and say, “Oh, that’s Jay. He’s a jokester.”

At 35, they roll their eyes and say, “Oh, that’s Jay. He’s a jerk.”

At 45, they grimace and say, “Yeah. That’s Jay. He’s a jackass.”

Don’t be a jackass, or at 55, you’ll be wondering why you’re not invited to meetings anymore.

Don’t make negative comments about anyone – especially your spouse.

I’ve only known three people my whole life from whom I never heard a bad word about anyone. They stand out as people of great dignity. Most of us will make the occasional snide remark about another person, which reflects far more on us than on the person we’re talking about. I’m not talking about people who are malicious; that’s a different issue. Rather, I’m referring to those of us who, out of awkwardness or lack of awareness, don’t understand the tone we are conveying, or what we are saying about our relationships.

This is especially important if you have a stay-at-home spouse who takes care of the kids and manages the household. My wife and I had four kids in five years. For more than a decade our house was chaos, but the good kind of chaos. Mary juggled competing priorities and schedules all day. When we would talk on the phone and she would recount her day, I would often comment, “So, just another day of popping bon-bons and watching soap operas, huh.” Of course, I would jokingly say that to her in acknowledgment of how tough her day was. If I ever said something like that in front of my co-workers, my female co-workers in particular, would have bitten my head off, and rightly so. If you have a stay at home wife or partner who manages your house, family, and life, don’t ever suggest at the office that you’re not sure what she does all day. Remember, the reason you are able to get so much done at work is because you have someone at home taking care of everything else. If you in any way knock that advantage, you are kidding yourself about your own accomplishments, and insulting people at the office who handle both jobs.

There are plenty of dads holding down the fort at home while their wives earn the income. I’ve never heard any working woman speak in a derogatory way about her stay-at-home husband. The respect for their role seems to be implicitly understood and appreciated.

Comment on colleagues’ accomplishments, not just their appearance.

We’re all so on edge about what we can and can’t say at work. However, our work lives are about relationships. We often like the people we work with. We view them as friends, not just colleagues. It’s perfectly natural to compliment someone’s new look or haircut at work. But don’t limit your comments to her appearance only. If you notice a female colleague wearing something new, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Nice scarf,” or “That’s a nice bright dress for spring.” But it would be much more thoughtful to start with a comment about her contributions at work. “Sarah, I really appreciated your comment at the meeting yesterday. I thought you raised a great point. By the way, nice scarf.” Start with the substantive comment. The compliment on appearance is secondary. And make the comment about the haircut or item of clothing, not about how it makes her look. “Nice dress. Is that new?” is fine. “You look great in that outfit,” is inappropriate.

Obviously, all of this assumes you are being genuine. Don’t blow smoke. People see right through that.

Disclaimer – at no point is it appropriate to comment on your female colleague’s shape or age. Those are non-starters. If you’re not sure where the line is, don’t make any comment at all about appearance, but don’t let that keep you from commenting on someone’s substance. That’s always appreciated.

There are many more ways to not be a jerk at work. This is just a starter list. Let me know if more would be helpful.

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How to Strike up a Conversation at a Conference

Many of us attend conferences for professional development.  We’d like to expand our job knowledge and bring the outside in.  But, it’s also a great time to step outside of your comfort zone and meet new people. Here are a few tips on how to be ready to strike up a conversation at your next event:

Study the headlines.

Before heading to the conference, scan the headlines or consider what is new and interesting in your industry and note a few potential topics to discuss.

Maintain eye contact.

When introducing yourself, smile and look into the person’s eyes as you speak your name and they say theirs. As the conversation continues, keep your focus on the person you are talking with. Don’t scan the room looking for friends or others to meet.

Gesture openly.

Avoid crossing your arms or clutching your drink with both hands as you talk. Instead, try and keep your hands apart and your arms relaxed. Gesturing makes you appear natural and approachable.

Ask a few questions.

Sometimes you’ll need to jump start their side of the conversation. Try asking an open-ended question like “What were you hoping to learn while you’re here?” If their answer is short, build on the information they’ve just shared.

Find a connection.

As they’re answering your questions, find an element to pick up on. You’re listening for something to keep the conversation going. Find common ground and the conversation will continue without effort.

Speak slowly and pause.

Keep the dialogue moving at a casual pace. If you talk too quickly, the listener will strain to keep up or may interpret your speedy delivery as a sign of nervousness.

Disengage politely.

After a few minutes, it’s perfectly fine to close the conversation. Exchange contact information, if you’d like. Ask them to join you on a trip to the buffet. Or, simply smile, tell them you enjoyed chatting and move on.

We hope you meet lots of interesting people at HRWest. Just start with “hello” and go from there.

Have other tips you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.

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Your Words Matter

“A $3,000 suit means nothing if your words have no value.” Consultant, Gisele Simmons shares that there is more to executive presence than just looking the part. She has coached entry-level professionals up through the c-suite to create messages that are meaningful and memorable.

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Preparing For Performance Reviews, Part 2: Handling Feedback

Last week, I wrote about giving feedback during performance reviews. This week, I offer tips on handling the feedback you receive in the most productive and graceful manner.

With 2017 wrapping up, shortly, we will all sit down to discuss with our manager how we performed on our goals for the year. Since it’s October, we already know what level of success we are likely to achieve by December 31. Some of us approach that conversation looking forward to the praise and adulations. The rest of us have the experience to know life doesn’t grade on a curve. Nevertheless, we can all approach that conversation with the hope that we’ll learn something that will set us up for even greater success in 2018. Here are some thoughts on how to participate in your annual performance review to achieve the greatest benefit for yourself and your organization.

Some basics to keep in mind:

First, your company, firm, or organization wants you to succeed. There is ABSOLUTELY NO BENEFIT to your employer if you fail to achieve your goals. If you get a review that you haven’t done well, your manager is about to hear in her review that she didn’t do well this year because she didn’t get you to where you needed to be. Your manager is rooting for you to hit the high marks.

Second, everyone has room for improvement. If there’s only praise in your review, you accomplished this job and it’s time to move on. If you have completely mastered the job you’re in, the review should be about how to position you for the next step in your career.

Third, many managers consider some of those who they manage to be their friends and want to maintain those relationships. These conversations are hard for some managers. In addition, very few organizations teach managers how to give effective feedback. Therefore, go into the meeting realizing that your manager may not be as facile at this conversation as you might hope. If he doesn’t hit the right ton, or spends too much time in one area, take it with a grain of salt. Think about your entire relationship with your manager and give him the benefit of the doubt if he struggles a bit with this conversation.

Here are some approaches that may help you in the actual meeting.

Keep an open mind.

You’ll likely hear about what you did well, and where the organization feels you have room for improvement. “Room for improvement,” isn’t a euphemism for how you “failed.” Performance reviews aren’t supposed to be spankings. Performance reviews are supposed to help you grow professionally, setting you up for even greater success next year. What you hear about your areas for improvement may not be what you expect. If the feedback is surprising, rather than get defensive or argumentative, ask questions to understand the nature of the feedback.

Depending on the feedback, some good questions might be:

  • “Can you share specific instances of what you mean by that?”
  • “Is that assessment something you think was typical of my performance or a one-off kind of thing?”
  • “How do you think I could have approached that better?”

Questions that aren’t so helpful are:

  • “Who said that about me?”
  • “Are you kidding me?”
  • “Well, you want to know what I think of you?”

Remember, assume good intentions on the part of the person sharing the feedback. She wants to help you grow.

Come in prepared.

Reflect on your own successes and challenges over the last year. A year is a long time. You accomplished things back in January that you have forgotten. If you barely remember your own achievement, chances are your manager, who manages lots of people, doesn’t remember it either. Think about the ways in which you have grown. Write them down so that you come into the meeting looking like you take this discussion seriously. Don’t minimize your successes by trying to share every little accomplishment; think instead of the few big things that happened this year and how you helped the organization or developed a new skill set.

Also reflect on the elements of your performance that have been a challenge for you. If you sound as if you think everything has been perfect this year, you sound unrealistic and myopic. If you can’t identify how you can improve, you are leaving it to your manager to set the course for you, and frankly, making her job more difficult instead of taking on that burden yourself. Identify two or three things you think you could be doing better. This sets the stage for the more important part of the conversation – setting goals for next year.

Focus on the future.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, we should all think of “performance reviews” as “performance reviews and goal-setting meetings.” The point of looking at how you did this past year is to plan for improved performance for next year. If we keep doing the same things, we should expect the same results. Managers want to know what you plan to do differently in 2018 to get different results. If you tell your manager, “I’m going to work that much harder doing the same thing,” you’re conveying that you don’t understand how improvement happens. I’m routinely asking people, “So what are you going to do differently next year?” Come in with a plan. It shows you care about your future and care about adding value to the organization. It’s even OK if your plan is to say you’ve thought about it, you don’t know what to do, and you need guidance. It’s not OK to shrug and mumble that you simply don’t know. That conveys you don’t care.

Maintain engaged body language.

Sit forward in your chair. Keep your hands and forearms above the table. Look “in the game.” If you sit back with your hands in your lap, you look like you are there to take instruction instead of participating in the conversation.

Hear everything in context.

There will likely be some good news and some bad news. Hear both in perspective. If the majority of the feedback is positive, don’t get all in a snit over the fact that there were some improvement points. We all need to grow. If the majority of the discussion is what you need to do to improve or your job is in jeopardy, don’t walk out the door thinking the one positive comment is going to save your job.

Make it a dialogue.

The meeting should be a conversation. Ask questions about both the feedback and the growth possibilities you see for next year. If you’re engaged in the conversation, it reflects that you’re engaged in the relationship. Remember, both you and your manager want this relationship to work. There’s no upside to either of you if it doesn’t. Asking what you think you can do to perform better makes the other person even more committed to helping you achieve those goals.

Congrats on a successful 2017. Plan well for an even better 2018.

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Preparing For Performance Reviews, Part 1: Giving Feedback

We’re nearing performance review season. It’s a season most people dread. If we feel we’re doing well, we’re gearing up for having to justify why we want an even bigger raise. If we’ve had an off year, or we’ve done well but our firm, company or division has been off this year, we’re prepping for bad news. If we know we missed a few performance benchmarks, we’re psyching ourselves up to walk in with head held high, ready to commit to doing a better job next year.

If we’re delivering the performance review, there’s almost as much anxiety. We tend to be friends with our co-workers, even those we technically manage. As a rule, we don’t give feedback to our friends. You don’t come back from lunch with a colleague and say, “Hey Larry, great suggestion on the Chinese place for lunch. By the way, you slurp your soup really loudly.”

How can we prepare for, and participate in a performance review meeting? This week, I’ll share some basic pointers on giving feedback. Next week, I’ll cover how to prepare to receive feedback, and how to handle the news, whether it’s good, bad or a bit of both.

Here are some basic tips for when you are giving a performance review:

Change the focus of the meeting.

“Performance reviews,” by definition, look backward. They are an assessment of the prior year’s accomplishments. Think instead of calling them “Performance Review & Goal Setting Meetings.” Assuming someone is not getting fired, the important purpose of reviewing the past year’s work is to figure out how to improve for next year. The more the focus is on what’s to come, the more positive the conversation will be, and the more invested the person receiving the feedback will feel in the conversation.

Target specific instances when discussing behavior.

You can’t say to someone, “You have a lousy work ethic,” or “You have trouble getting along with people.” Attacking someone’s personality will not help the conversation, in part because it’s too easy to rebut. Instead, identify specific instances of behavior. “You arrive late three times each week, and we’ve spoken about this many times.” If you have the data to back up your assertion, it’s hard for the other person to argue about the issue.

Do your homework.

No one should hear anything in an annual performance review for the first time. If I meet with you in December, and you share with me for the first time that I did a lousy job on a project back in April, how is that information helpful at this point? Over the years, I have had colleagues share feedback for me to share with a direct report. When they share negative comments, my first question is always, “What was that person’s reaction when you shared that feedback with them?” If they say they never shared the feedback, I guide them one of two ways.

If the feedback is regarding a recent issue, I ask them to share the feedback with the individual and let me know how that conversation progresses.

If the feedback is about behavior in the distant past, I tell them if they didn’t feel it was important enough to share with the person back when the incident happened, it’s not important enough to share now, and the feedback won’t be conveyed to the person; there is no upside for anyone in doing so.

Consider the importance of the meeting to the other person.

This may be the fifteenth review you have delivered this week, but it’s the only review this individual will be receiving. It’s the most important conversation of the year for them. They enter the room with a certain amount of trepidation. You need to look as if this meeting is an important meeting for you as well. If you come across as tired, or bored, or blasé when you are sharing important, meaningful, and challenging information with someone, you look as if you don’t really care. Performance reviews provide a great opportunity to help build a relationship with someone on your team. The wrong delivery style will undermine all the effort you put into connecting with them and helping them to see how they can grow.

If you are seated across the table from the person receiving the feedback, keep your spine straight and lean in slightly. If you lean back in the chair you risk being perceived as disengaged or that you aren’t taking the conversation with the same level of commitment as the other person.

Keep your hands apart; it will make you less likely to wring your hands or play with your pen. Any fidgety behavior can make you seem nervous, as if there is even worse news to come. 

Make eye contact, particularly when sharing the toughest news. You manage this person. You are responsible for their overall performance. Keeping effective eye contact with them will suggest you are invested in them hearing information that, although painful now, will help them in the long run. If you can’t make eye contact when you deliver bad news, you appear as if you are not quite entitled to be delivering the news, that you are out of your element. Although it’s uncomfortable to deliver bad news to someone, you’re not only entitled to deliver the news, it’s your job.

Set the stage and get the more important info out first to get rid of the mystery.

If in your industry the annual performance review includes a discussion of someone’s bonus, start with a quick “congrats on a great year,” and then tell them the bonus number. They won’t hear anything until you share the number. Then you set the agenda and say, “Let’s talk about how we came to that number, and what the performance goals are for next year.

If your organization doesn’t distribute bonuses, or if they aren’t part of this discussion, start by setting the agenda. “Let’s talk about how things have gone so far this year, and how we can set you up for even greater success next year.

Ask questions.

Check in to make sure the person understands what’s being shared, and pull them into a conversation, particularly when setting goals for the next year. The more the review is a discussion between two professionals rather than a diatribe by one, the more opportunity you will have to help the person grow.

Next week, I’ll post some tips for receiving feedback.

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Small Changes Drive Employee Engagement

The job market continues to improve and companies are fighting to retain their best employees and attract new talent. Business leaders are scrambling to figure out how to improve employee engagement. A recent study by the Harvard Business Review surveyed over 550 executives about employee engagement. While the majority of those leaders consider employee engagement an important issue, less than a quarter of them feel that their employees are highly engaged.

I entered the workforce about two and a half years ago. I’ve had the pleasure of working at Exec-Comm my entire (yet young) professional life. Over these two and a half years, Exec-Comm has modernized and adapted its employee engagement and retention strategies. Rather than making major changes to firm policies, Exec-Comm focused on more subtle changes that drastically improved an already enjoyable work life.

Flex Time

First, Exec-Comm introduced new policies around employee work hours. A recently implemented New York State law required some of Exec-Comm’s employees to begin filling out timesheets. While this change could have easily been seen as a way for managers to micro-manage their employees, Exec-Comm quickly adapted to the changes and, instead, created a new benefit for employees.

Exec-Comm now allows all employees to make their own schedules. We can work the hours that suit us best as long as we work the 35 or 40 hours a week required. This simple change reduced stress during morning commutes, added flexibility for doctors and other important appointments, and mitigated employee frustration about keeping timesheets.

Monthly Happy Hours

To build comradery and community, Exec-Comm began hosting monthly happy hours. On the last Friday of each month, employees convene at our favorite company spot (Windfall on 39th street) and enjoy one another’s company. These events give us the opportunity to get to know our colleagues in a different light. Additionally, employees feel as though they are consistently being rewarded for their hard work.

Mentorship Program

Most recently, Exec-Comm introduced a new mentorship program for employees who are just starting out in their careers and have been with the firm for 3 years. Each person’s experience is different based on their growth goals. In step one, you are paired with a consultant to mentor and coach you to improve your communication skills. In step two, you are paired with a specialist to mentor you in preparation for a specific new role or to help target growth opportunities. Mike Feeley, the first employee to experience the mentorship program expressed, “the mentorship experience has been a tremendous help for my growth as a professional. It has given me full confidence in my technical and client-facing skills.”

While employee engagement is a hot topic right now, you don’t need to overhaul your entire HR policy manual to make employees happy. Little changes can motivate them in big ways. A free drink once in a while doesn’t hurt, either.

How does your company motivate you at work?

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Climbing the Corporate Ladder with Executive Presence

Technical Manager, Dan Vicente shares a story of someone close to him. Through hard work, constant learning, and developing her executive presence, this woman rose from an entry-level Associate to Vice President at a leading global financial services firm. In watching her grow and succeed, Dan realized that “executive presence is a skill that can be developed and nurtured.”

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Crafting a Brand and Creating a Movement: Advice from Tough Mudder Founder Will Dean

Logos are symbols. They are powerful reminders of a brand. But even the most loyal consumers don’t get tattoos of the logos of their favorite product. In different cultures, however, tribes get tattoos to symbolize their connection to each other and their shared identity. As I stood with some friends at the starting line of a Tough Mudder race in the summer of 2013, I was surprised to see, on the calves or shoulder blades of some of the other participants, a variety of Tough Mudder tattoos. Some wore the Tough Mudder logo, the image of a runner silhouetted on a large background of flames. Others included a list of the dates and locations of the Tough Mudder “challenges” they had completed. Talk about brand loyalty!

Will Dean, the founder of not only Tough Mudder, Inc., but of a unique culture of camaraderie, recently completed, It Takes a Tribe – Building the Tough Mudder Movement. It’s an inspiring story of creating an experience that draws out the best in people. Dean crafts the book the way he crafted the company – not around standard corporate milestones of meeting revenue targets and expansion goals, but around the stories of individuals who overcame obstacles, remained innovative in the way they faced personal challenges, and crossed the finish line exhausted, but somehow stronger than when they started.

Jay Sullivan: Who is your target audience for It Takes a Tribe, and what are you hoping readers take away from reading it?

Will Dean: There are two primary audiences for It Takes a Tribe, which are so large in and of themselves that it’s probably easier to say, “It’s for everyone.” The first audience is Mudder Nation – the 3 million participants, spectators, and volunteers who have experienced the power of the community firsthand. In some ways, it’s a “thank you” to the incredible tribe of people that propelled the Tough Mudder movement.

The second group is anyone interested in the power of community. When I started Tough Mudder, I wanted to create an event where success was achieved by supporting each other, rather than surpassing each other. This philosophy began and ended with our culture at TMHQ. I believe It Takes a Tribe provides insight on how to foster that type of community, especially at a startup.

Sullivan: How much pressure do you feel to maintain the brand when so many people are wearing a tattoo of your logo? Do you think people get the tattoos because they love Tough Mudder, or because they love what their experience at the event says about them?

Dean: A Tough Mudder tattoo is a commemoration. It isn’t just a logo of a company; it’s a symbol of the individual’s achievement. To be sure, it represents Tough Mudder’s mission and brand, but it is also about what Tough Mudder represents to that individual. The experience of running Tough Mudder is transformative for many people and the tattoo is a reminder of how they felt crossing the finish line.

Sullivan: What drove you to start your own company rather than apply your creative talents to an existing entity?

Dean: I’ve always had the desire to build something; I set up three business while at school at the University of Bristol. When I ended up at Harvard Business School, it was about acquiring the skills, confidence, and grit to pursue that full time.

Sullivan: One of my favorite lines in the book is, “I think entrepreneurship is often what is left when you have ruled out all other safer and often more lucrative options for yourself.” Can you comment more on that? What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Dean: The motivation to be an entrepreneur is often boiled down to the cliché that you must, above all, follow your passion. If I hear people say things like ‘I want to set up a ski company because skiing is my passion,’ I can’t help feeling they are likely to be disappointed. If they run a ski company, they are going to spend an awful lot of time in an office, talking about skis. They would probably be better off, if they really wanted to follow their passion, to get a job where they have lots of spare time and can live near a mountain.

When entrepreneurs describe their passion, it is not often about the product or even the environment they have created (though they are proud of those things). It is about the way their business has proved that their original idea about making the world a slightly more enjoyable and efficient place was right all along. The products themselves were just a vehicle for delivering that idea.

I wanted to create something that brought people together, uniting them through the shared experience of overcoming obstacles. Tough Mudder was my vehicle for that. When I talk about Tough Mudder now, I am describing my passion for the Tough Mudder movement, which is rooted in this philosophy.

Sullivan: Only one of the book’s nine chapters has “Innovation” in the title, but I found advice and examples around being innovative throughout the book.

Dean: That’s correct. The real answer to that notion of “fostering innovation” is that it must be fundamental to everything you do, not only at the micro level but also at the macro level; “innovation” is really another word for growth.

Sullivan: What advice do you have for any company, large or small, or any individual, about being more innovative?


  1. Be resilient – The obstacles on a Tough Mudder course are nothing compared to the obstacles we faced in building a business.
  2. Never stop evolving / don’t be complacent – We get tons of great ideas for new obstacles and new approaches from participants.  But the subtext to their recommendations is, “OK that was great. Now what’s next?” We have to keep coming up with something new or we lose our edge, and our spirit of creating a challenging environment.
  3. Deprioritize – Be willing to shift your priorities as needs arise.
  4. Challenge convention – Ask “why not?” frequently.
  5. Don’t ignore data, but don’t make it your only reason for doing something

Sullivan: Very helpful. Thanks.

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Engage Your Audience Using Visuals

Did you know almost 85% of the information your audience remembers comes through their eyes? To make an impact and leave a lasting impression, we suggest you use visual aids during your informative presentations.

Here are the top three reasons to use visuals:

Your audience will remember more

Between 80 and 85% of the information stored in your memory gets there through your sense of sight. Choose images that support your message and connect with the audience.  In addition, avoid using text-laden slides.  One compelling graphic or phrase per visual will help the audience remember what you said.

You control the agenda

Using visuals helps you control your agenda. Often during a presentation, you will get sidelined with questions and tangent topics. Using visuals will help you stick to the agenda and control the audience. After you respond to a question, you can use your visual to transition back to the presentation and reinforce your main message.

You won’t forget what you need to talk about

Not only do visuals help you control the agenda, but they also ensure you won’t forget what you want to say. Visual cues help you recall information with ease. Each image should represent one thought. Then, as you look at the visual, you will naturally elaborate on that thought. If you forget a point you want to make, you can glance back at the image to refresh your memory.

So remember, the next time you are going to present, be sure to include visual cues to help you direct your agenda, remember what you want to say, and in turn help your audience remember your message.

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