Four Presentation Lessons from Larry King

Shortly after talk show host Larry King announced his decision to hang up his suspenders after 25 years at CNN, he was asked to reminisce about his favorite guests. What caught my attention as a business communications coach were the traits King says he looks for in an ideal interviewee: passion, a sense of humor, anger, and an ability to explain what he or she does very well. The ability to telegraph these four qualities to audience members helps business leaders stand out—whether they're being interviewed on CNN, giving a sales presentation, or pitching an investor. Consider my advice below to improve your own delivery.

Transmit passion. Enthusiasm is contagious. Built to Last author Jim Collins once said that some managers are uncomfortable expressing emotion about their dreams; but it's passion and emotion that attract and motivate others. Too many speakers fall into what I call "presentation mode," hiding their passion, energy, and enthusiasm. Passion appeals to the emotional side of the brain, and it's the emotional side—the right brain—that often guides decision-making.

Show off your sense of humor. In June, Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs was demonstrating the new iPhone 4 when the demo failed to work because of an overtaxed data network in the conference venue. Jobs was able to make a joke even as he was troubleshooting: "You could help me out. If you're on Wi-Fi, if you would just get off, I would appreciate it," Jobs told the audience, flashing a broad smile.

Despite the best-laid plans, something often goes wrong in a presentation, interview, or pitch. Shrugging it off with a smile and a humorous aside shows that you don't take yourself too seriously. Notice that Larry King did not say that a great guest tells jokes. Nobody expects a speaker to be a comedian, but having a sense of humor—especially when something goes awry—is appealing.

Don't be afraid to demonstrate your anger. Although King didn't explain this particular quality, I believe it speaks to having a larger mission. Great communicators convey a sense of purpose—a mission—to right a "wrong." In the corporate world, a wrong could be poor customer service, inferior products, or our dependency on fossil fuels.

Audience members notice when speakers lack anger. Some liberal and conservative political observers have criticized President Barack Obama for not being emotional enough—angry enough—when speaking about topics such as the BP (BP) oil disaster or unemployment. I'm sure Obama is upset about both situations but this criticism reinforces the point that the outward manifestation of "anger"—even a touch of it—is a trait that people want to see in a speaker.

Explain what you do very well. In a June New York Times interview, MasterCard (MA) Chief Executive Officer Robert Selander defined executive "presence" as knowing what to communicate and how. In other words, communicate the right amount of information that is appropriate for your audience.

When I worked for CNN as a business correspondent, I quickly learned that the guests who communicate clearly, simply, and concisely are nearly always invited back. There are guests I interviewed 10 years ago who are still go-to experts on various television networks. They have staying power not because they are the most knowledgeable about particular topics, but because they can talk about those topics in clear, simple, and concise language. This quality matters in business, too. I'll never forget sharing lunch with a Fortune 500 technology executive in the company's cafeteria. The executive pointed to someone sitting a few tables away and said: "You see that guy? He's the smartest person in the company but he barely gets ahead. He should be running this place by now." "Why isn't he?" I asked. "Because nobody can understand him," the manager said.

Very few journalists can claim they've interviewed more people than Larry King. For more than 50 years in broadcasting, he has sat across from the best and the worst communicators. He's had plenty of time and more than enough experience to accurately identify the qualities of a great guest. Honing all four qualities might not land you on CNN, but it will help you win over your audience.

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