Restoring Confidence, One Presentation at a Time

Most business presentations end with a call to action. This column begins with one: Stop delivering a message of defeat and desperation. It won't win you investors, customers, or the loyalty of your team. I've met too many business leaders who are reluctant to express a positive outlook for fear of sounding, in their words, "too rosy." That's a defeatist attitude. Inspiring leaders know to give sincere, upbeat presentations, despite the ongoing effects of the recession. They are unafraid of expressing their delight in what the future might hold, regardless of how dire the current situation might appear. Here are a few examples to keep in mind when crafting your next presentation.

"America's best days lie ahead." Take a cue from legendary investor Warren Buffett who recently told Berkshire HathawayBRK shareholders that their investment had recorded its worst year ever. In his annual letter, Buffett spent the first seven paragraphs acknowledging the sequence of events that led to a "paralyzing fear" that engulfed the country. "Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails," Buffett quickly reminded his readers. He discussed the two great wars of the 20th century, panics and recessions, "virulent" inflation, the Great Depression, and so on. His conclusion: "Without fail, however, we've overcome them…. America's best days lie ahead."

Buffett is counterbalancing what psychologists call a "recency effect." They say people will look to the recent past as a guide to the future, ignoring history and long-term data. Inspiring communicators like Warren Buffett acknowledge current problems, propose solutions, and inject a healthy dose of positive observations based on long-term history.

"Your job is to steer and inspire." Think about the roles you play when communicating with your customers, investors, and employees. One role is to deliver accurate and timely information. But don't forget an equally important mission: "As a leader, your job is to steer and inspire," wrote Jack and Suzy Welch in a recent BusinessWeek column. "That's why when a difficulty arises, the first thing you need to do is to huddle with your trusted advisers and wrestle the challenge to the ground…. Then and only then will you have the ability to communicate as a leader must, with the message: 'Here's what we're going to do and why. Here's what in it for you, and here's what we're going to look like when we get to the other side.'" Most people forget that last part. Don't forget to paint a picture of what your company or industry will look like when the economy inevitably recovers.

Your most priceless possession. I recently met the CEO of a call center affiliated with a major global bank. This year he increased the frequency of his staff meetings from monthly to weekly. His pep talks to employees and community organizations (his company is one of the town's major employers) always starts with the obvious: "Call volume is down, other call centers throughout the company have had to reduce staff, and, while our business is still solid, we need to step up our efforts to keep every customer satisfied." The rest of his presentation, however, is light on "strategic initiatives" and heavy on stories about companies and individuals who succeeded despite overwhelming odds. "Your attitude is your most priceless possession. You become what you focus on," he often tells his audiences.

Happiness is contagious. New studies are showing that positive emotions have positive consequences. I recently spoke to University of California, Riverside psychology professor and The How of Happiness author Sonja Lyubomirsky. "Happiness is contagious," she told me. "We know that depressed people make other people feel down. The same goes for happiness." Lyubomirsky calls this contagion an "upward spiral." For example, emerging research shows that people who express gratitude frequently are happier, more energetic, and more likable. The rest of us are literally caught up in their optimism.

The power of your words can literally change the course of your company's future. By delivering an honest, optimistic message, your influence will increase and, most important, you may help contribute to a faster recovery for your business.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.