How to Win Over Your Audience: Lessons from the Pianist With the Real-Life Rocky Story

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Remember that scene in Rocky IV, where Rocky battles Russian boxer Ivan Drago in Moscow, and the Russian crowd begins to cheer for the American? When I first saw the movie in 1985, right before Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, I thought, “No way. This could never happen.”

But, in fact, it had – only in the concert hall rather than the boxing ring.

Back in 1958, the Soviet Union announced the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, just months after they had launched the Sputnik, the first manned spacecraft to orbit around the earth. This competition was designed to build on the Sputnik success, to prove to the world that the Soviet Union was the dominant country militarily, scientifically, and now culturally.

At the time it seemed no one but a citizen of the Soviet Union had a realistic chance at the prize. First, the Russians truly did have – and still have – enormously talented classical musicians. If you look back at the greatest classical musicians of the last century, probably a majority were born in the former Soviet Union.

Beyond that, the competition emphasized music by Russian composers. And it was in front of the hometown crowd. And the judges were all Soviet citizens.

Still, the call went out to the best pianists in the world. And many responded, including a 23-year-old Texan named Van Cliburn.

In Moscow, Van Cliburn breezed through the early rounds, playing Chopin and Tchaikovsky. The final round posed the ultimate challenge: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. For a pianist, it’s a 40-minute sprint filled with immensely challenging solos. The pianist has to play fast, be technically precise and express deep artistic passion – all at the same time.

Van Cliburn blew them away. The Russian crowd gave him an 8-minute standing ovation. The judges, most legendary pianists in their own right, were astounded.

There was just one problem with declaring him the winner. This was 1958, and in 1958 the Soviet Union was still a totalitarian state, ruled by an absolute dictatorship.

So the judges went to the very top. According to legend, they approached Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev. Nervously, they asked, “Could we give an American the grand prize?”

“Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked. The judges nodded. “Then give him the prize!”

And so Van Cliburn became a hero – in both the US and the USSR. He returned to a ticker tape parade in New York City, the first and only time a classical musician was so honored. He remained famous in Russia to the day he died.

American pianist Van Cliburn, a few years after winning the first Tchaikovsky competition.
Van Cliburn, a few years after winning the first Tchaikovsky competition. (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Van Cliburn proves that you can win over an audience, even when the odds seem stacked against you. But this is true only if you …

1. Raise Your Hand

You have to raise your hand, step up, lean in. You’ can’t win if you aren’t in the game.

Van Cliburn didn’t play it safe – and neither should you. At this stage in my career, I don’t regret the times I tried and failed nearly so much as the times where I never raised my hand.

But before raising your hand, be sure to …

2. Pay Your Dues

Van Cliburn only seemed like an overnight sensation. In fact, he had been playing the piano for years, had studied at Julliard, and had won other competitions. He learned from the famous Russian instructor Rosina Lhevinne.

The lesson? If you want to compete with the best, learn from the best.

3. Make Connections

Russian audiences loved Cliburn’s personality as much as his musicianship. He connected with them in ways that even their own countrymen couldn’t.

The secret to connecting is caring. Van Cliburn demonstrated that time and again.

In 2011, more than 50 years after his triumph, Van Cliburn made one of his many return visits to Russia. As always, he graciously greeted his fans. One elderly Russian, moved to tears, exclaimed: “‘He loves the whole world … There is enough of him for the whole world! This is a great heart!’”

It’s not the size of your network, but the size of your heart that makes the difference.

4. Have a Servant’s Attitude

As the only solo musician ever to have his own ticker-tape parade in New York, Van Cliburn could have developed a big ego.

He didn’t, because he saw himself as a servant. He gave back to his audiences, his community, and his art.

Richard Rodzinski, who directed the Cliburn’s own piano competition for more than 20 years, said:

“Serving’ is a big word in his vocabulary … He refers to presidents of the United States who serve a term, a queen who will serve her people. He feels he is serving the purpose of being able to bring beautiful music as he sees it, from his garden to an audience.”

5. Teach Your Audience About Themselves

Van Cliburn connected with his audience thanks to his skill, artistic vision, and servant’s heart. And he did more – he taught them about themselves.

Music journalist, pianist and composer Stuart Isacoff puts it this way:

”He played like an immortal, he played like a legend … He seemed to show them [the Russians] more of who they were than their own players were demonstrating.”

Russian pianist Olga Kern won the Cliburn Competition in 2001. Her musician parents heard and loved Cliburn in 1958 and played his recordings at home.

”I grew up on it,” Kern says, “and absolutely loved it. I loved how he transformed that music to a different level. He opened for Russian musicians how this Russian music can sound completely different: more melodic, more softer, more dramatic. It sounded so new and so fresh. It was incredible.”

So, pay your dues, raise your hand, make a connection, serve your audience, and, finally, show them something about themselves they may not even recognize. You may not win the competition, but you’ll win over your audience.

The Proper Perspective for Powerful Presentations

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There I was, presenting to a group of young managers. I had the data, the experience, and the forum to make my points about customer satisfaction. And as I looked out at my audience, I noticed …

Well, mostly I saw that they were bored. Some looked upset that I was wasting their time. When they walked out afterwards I got a few mumbled “thank you’s” and nothing else. Almost no one made eye contact with me.

Sure enough, the evals were brutal. I’d tanked. Big time.

That was my lowest point as a speaker. But today I’m grateful for the experience because it taught me the truth of the phrase, “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

My audience didn’t think I cared about them. So they tuned me out. (That is, the ones who weren’t actively angry at me!) Since then, I’ve learned that powerful presentations don’t begin in your head – they come from your heart.

Be the Host First and the Expert Second

As a presenter, you find success – and make strong connections – when you play the role of the gracious host. This is true even when you’re a guest speaker at someone else’s event. You’re always the host of your own presentation.

Unfortunately, our insecurity can make us try too hard to impress. As I learned, the more we try to impress, the less we connect. Or to put it another way, the more we boast, the less we host.

Just imagine I threw a party and greeted my guests like this:

  • Let me tell you about how much I know. If we have some time at the end maybe some of you can share your stories too.
  • Although I’ll be the one doing most of the talking, I want this to be interactive. So don’t hesitate to ask me questions. Just raise your hand and wait until I call on you.
  • I know this conversation can be kind of dry, but it’s important, so listen up. I’ll try to get through it as quickly as possible.

You’re probably not coming to too many of my parties, right? And if I come through that way as a presenter, you won’t come to too many of my sessions, either!

Five Techniques for More Impactful Presentations

The good news is that you can boost your presentation skills without taking a public speaking course. Here are five things you can do:

  1. Prepare. You wouldn’t host a party without some preparation, right? So don’t ever try to wing a presentation. Do at least one walk-through before presenting. If the stakes are high, do a lot of rehearsal. At a minimum, know your presentation well enough so that you don’t have to read the slides.
  2. Ask questions to get the audience talking. A good host doesn’t do all the talking. Similarly, a good presenter makes the session conversational. Don’t wait for the audience to ask questions. Your first few minutes set the tone, so ask questions early and often. If you have a large audience, break them into small groups to discuss their answers. That way, everyone gets a chance to talk.
  3. Don’t brag on yourself. Sure, some hosts love to show off their houses. These generally aren’t the people whose parties we enjoy attending. It’s the same with speakers. There’s a time and place to build credibility, but do so after you’ve connected with your audience. So …
  4. Talk about your failures before you share your successes. People don’t care where you went to school or what jobs you’ve held in the past. But they are drawn in by self-deprecating – though not self-hating – stories. If you start your presentation by explaining how you were the youngest VP at your last company, you’ll come across as arrogant. When you tell the story of being the youngest VP and feeling completely over your head until a mentor took you under his wings, you come across as humble – and still establish your credibility.
  5. Keep the conversation rolling. Don’t go more than a few minutes without some audience interaction. Whenever possible, call on people by name, as you would at a party. Just be careful not to surprise anyone when they are distracted. And don’t ask questions that they might not be able to answer.

To be sure, there’s a lot more to powerful presenting than the tips I’ve shared above. But if you come across as friendly and gracious, you’ll connect with your audience.

So, to earn the toast, play the host.

 (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

I Want to Be Like Ike: Leadership Lessons from Dwight Eisenhower

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He was an ambitious leader. Dedicated, bright respected – but his career was stalled in middle management.

During World War I, he watched as colleagues grabbed the coveted assignments. While other officers led troops in combat, he remained in the States to run a training camp. After the war, he was stuck at the rank of major for 16 years.

He didn’t become a full colonel until he was nearly 51.

Not cut out for an executive position?

Not quite, because over the next 12 years Dwight Eisenhower’s career took off. He moved from brigadier general to lieutenant general to Supreme Allied Commander in Europe to General of the Army to first Supreme Commander of NATO to President of the United States.

He won two presidential elections by wide margins. By the time of his death, he’d been named as Gallup’s most admired man a record 12 times.

Not bad for a leader who didn’t hit the fast track until his 50s.

President Eisenhower with troops before D-Day (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
General Eisenhower with troops before D-Day (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
What Made Eisenhower a Great Leader?

Eisenhower wasn’t a supremely eloquent, visionary leader like Roosevelt or a charismatic, culture changer like Kennedy. Nonetheless, “Ike” was the ideal president for post-war era, when people were enjoying themselves after two decades of depression and war while worried about Cold War nuclear tensions.

Ike provided safety and stability. His two chief goals were to contain the Soviets and maintain the booming economy. He nailed both.

In retrospect, Ike’s long years as a junior officer were not wasted. First, he learned to be a great follower. Then he learned to be great leader.

I see at least five lessons learned.

1. Ike Learned How to Be Himself

In his excellent book Ike: An American Hero, Michael Korda describes Ike’s authenticity.

[As a general] Ike … was genuinely liked by the soldiers, American and British, who served under him, and he communicated a warmth and lack of ceremony that made soldiers ignore his high rank. He was one of them; and when he spoke, he spoke for them, in phrases which they could understand and with which they agreed. Civilians too admired Ike – he represented “the people,” in the most traditional American meaning of that phrase. He was no faraway object of hero worship…. Like Grant and Lincoln, Ike was one of the people; and he made good without ever losing sight of what he was and where he came from.

Years of being passed over for promotion helped keep Ike humble. Later on, this became a powerful asset.

2. Ike Learned How to Lead Himself

Ike was authentic. But unlike some current presidential candidates, Ike didn’t give free rein to his emotions. As a leader, he was careful to project a positive attitude – even when he felt otherwise. In his book The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from Roosevelt to Clinton, Fred Greenstein writes:

Realizing that the commander has the double burden of “preserving optimism in himself and in his command” and that “optimism and pessimism are infectious and they spread more rapidly from the head down than in any direction,” Eisenhower made the following resolution [prior to the invasion of North Africa during World War II]: “I firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect the cheerful certainty of victory –that any pessimism and discouragement I might ever feel would be reserved for my pillow. To translate this conviction into tangible results, I adopted a policy of circulating through the whole force to the full limit imposed by physical considerations. I did my best to meet everyone from general to private with a smile, a pat on the back and a definite interest in his problems.”

Ike proved that you can be an authentic leader while exercising emotional self-control.

3. Ike Learned How to Be Accountable

Korda writes that Eisenhower “… believed strongly that a president should ‘take personal responsibility for mistakes and give subordinates credit for success.’”

This is exemplified in the speech General Eisenhower had prepared just in case D-Day was a failure. It may be the best speech an American leader never delivered:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

Too many of today’s leaders refuse to take responsibility. Ike reminds us that the greatest leaders hold themselves accountable.

4. Ike Learned How to Get Along with Others

Ike may be unique among great military leaders in that he owed his success as much to his diplomatic skills as to his grasp of strategy. As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, he managed subordinates and allies with some big egos – George Patton, Winston Churchill, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and French General Charles de Gaulle. He earned the respect and trust of the Soviets. He even managed to impress the notoriously paranoid Joseph Stalin.

5. Ike Learned to Tolerate Divergent Points of View

Ike was able to consider other points-of-view. Even though he strongly opposed Soviet expansionism, he could see the world from their perspective and worked hard to reduce tensions. A moderate Republican, he supported Social Security at a time when many conservatives were trying to roll it back. He supported civil rights. A career military man, he warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex (and in fact coined the term).

A Leader We Can Learn From

“I Like Ike” was the slogan of Eisenhower’s successful 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns.

It still rings true today.

Ike was an authentic, accountable leader who made people feel safe. He was a diplomat who could be tough on matters of principle and whose most important accomplishments took place after he was 50.

I just don’t like Ike. I want to be like Ike.

Mining for Diamonds: How Powerful Listening Brings Out the Best in Others

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I’ve been working in the diamond mines.

Well, OK, not literally – and, uh, I’ve got the biceps to prove it.

But in a sense I have been, because when you coach someone, you’re helping them mine for the diamonds within themselves – big ideas, best practices, solutions to problems, paths forward, ways out of difficulties.

You could write books on coaching techniques, but it all begins with listening. As my friend Fred Harburg puts it, “Coaching is powerful listening.”

Powerful Listening Helps Bring Out People’s Best Ideas

Share your wisdom, but know that people grow the most when you draw out their brilliance. So ask questions and listen.

Let’s say you’re coaching people who wants to be more consistent in their performance:

  1. Focus on they do well. Have them tell you stories about their successes.
  2. Ask if they mind that you take notes.
  3. Prompt them to walk through examples of when they were on top of their game. Go step by step.
  4. Drill down in the spots where they skip important details (e.g., “You just told me you got in to see the decision maker. How’d you get past the gatekeeper?”)
  5. Repeat what they’ve been telling you. (“OK, so you meet with the rep prior to the sales call, you create a plan of action, then you roleplay how you’ll begin the pitch. Am I capturing it all?”)
  6. Ask for more examples to fill in the details.
  7. Initially, performers often tell me what they think they should say. But if you keep prompting them – and listening – you might detect hints of passion. Seize on this. (“You sound excited about that. Tell me more.”)
  8. Don’t stop with what they’ve been doing. Ask how they might change things going forward. (“What could you improve the next time?”)
  9. After they’ve exhausted the positive, talk about the tough times. What’s different about those situations? Try to isolate what throws the performer off.
  10. Map out the process/solution together.
  11. Afterwards, send them your notes.
  12. Don’t be surprised when they take what you’ve captured and add to it.


Listening to others is like helping them mine for diamonds (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Powerful Listening Helps Others to Appreciate their Talents

Whenever people read the notes I’ve taken during a coaching session, they’re almost always impressed – with themselves. “Did I really say all that?”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, you did.”

While we may be aware of what we do well, we often don’t fully realize how we go about doing it. Coaches can help bring clarity by asking good questions and then listening carefully. The more conscious people are of their performance, the better they’ll feel about themselves.

The Power of Listening

I love how Tim Sanders describes “business love” in his wonderful book, Love Is the Killer App. Listening is a key part of expressing this kind of love.

So many of our conversations are mechanical. We move through a set of points we have to accomplish and then we race for the water cooler, the plane, or the TV. Instead, be a warm person: Listen, aspire, help—do all the things a machine can’t do.

For me, it’s about working in the diamond mine. Sometimes I see myself at the bottom of a shaft, holding a lamp as a miner hacks away at the stone with a pick. I try to encourage the miner, but mostly I just shine the light where it’s most helpful. From time to time, I set it down so that I can take the pick while the miner rests.

At last we uncover something that looks promising. I reach for it, show it to the miner. She smiles. Looks like it could be of value. I pull out a rag, polish the stone, and hand it over.

“That’s it!”

The performer finds the diamonds. The coach is the listener.

Four Challenges for New Leaders

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“Don’t be a super claims rep.” Back when I was on the leadership development team at Farmers Insurance, we gave this advice to new supervisors.

As I’ve moved on in my career, I’m amazed at how this rings true in other professions.

I now tell my associates, “Don’t be a super salesperson.” Or “Don’t be a super account manager.” However you fill in the blanks, the point’s the same. When you step into a leadership position, your job changes. And so should your perspective.

And when it doesn’t? Well, let’s say you were the best salesperson in the region. Now you’re a sales manager. Of course you don’t want your team to fail, so you step in to close deals and save accounts. Pretty soon you’re the “go to” person for the customer, same as before, only now with more customers. And suppose your team doesn’t document their meetings very well – at least not up to your standards. Guess who tidies up their entries in the evening?

Before long you’re working around the clock – just not the job that you’re paid to do.

Here’s a better way. I call it LEAD.

LEAD as in Let Go, Embrace, Accept and Dare to be different.

Dare to Be Different

  1. For starters, let go of the old.
  • Let go of the old job and the things you enjoyed about it. Let your reports get the glory for handling the tough customer calls, closing the deal, providing excellent service to your clients.
  • Let go of the need to be star. Shine the spotlight on the people who report to you. Believe me, as they excel, you’ll excel.
  • Let go of the need to be right every time. Maybe your team has better ideas for customer service. Give them a chance to be right.

2. And embrace the new.

  • Embrace the opportunity to be a coach. As a leader, you get things done through the members of your team. Develop their skills. Ask questions, gently push them to find solutions, then guide them in coming up with a plan. Then help them stay accountable.
  • Embrace the chance to serve. Mediocre leaders think it’s all about them. Great leaders know it’s all about the people they serve.
  • Embrace your team by building a foundation of trust. You can’t coach people who don’t trust you. Take some time up front to get to know your team.

3. Accept that there are some things you can’t change.

  • Accept that the people on your team are different from you. They have different definitions of success. They may not have your level of self-confidence. They may not accept feedback (or praise) the same way you do.
  • Accept that your team will make mistakes. Then coach them through them.
  • Accept that you will make mistakes too. Ask for forgiveness.

4. And, finally, dare to be different.

  • Dare to be a different type of leader. The last thing the world needs are more self-centered leaders. Be different. Be other-centered. Make it all about them.
  • Dare to trust your team. They may have some ideas that you’ve never thought of. As long as the suggestions don’t jeopardize health and safety standards, company policy, or your values, give them a try.
  • Dare to be wildly optimistic in an age of cynics. Play a different game.

According to John Maxwell, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said: “The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.”

Now that’s being a leader.

So don’t be a super version of what you were before your promotion.

Instead, leave that role, embrace the new one, accept imperfection, and dare to be different.

Optimizing Your Optimism: Lessons from the Man Who Inspired Churchill

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I once thought Winston Churchill was the most inspiring politician of the 20th Century.

No longer.

Nothing against Churchill. He was a leader for the ages. It’s just that I learned Churchill had his own “go to” guy for inspiration – a man so optimistic that Churchill was energized just by being around him.

The man, of course, was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And he has my vote for most inspiring politician of the 20th Century.


President Franklin Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill at Casablanca

President Franklin Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill at Casablanca (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)


Sure, I’ve always known Roosevelt was a great leader. But I had no idea how dynamic he was until I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. For example, here’s how Goodwin describes Churchill’s impressions of FDR:

Churchill once said that to encounter Franklin Roosevelt, with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescent personality, and his inner élan was like opening your first bottle of champagne. Roosevelt genuinely liked people, he enjoyed taking responsibility, and he adored being president.

At another point Churchill put it in even more strongly:

“If anything happened to that man, I couldn’t stand it. He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I have ever known.”

That’s inspirational leadership.

Franklin Roosevelt was a powerful speaker, a brilliant politician, and a deeply strategic thinker. But above all, he was an incredible optimist with a genius for transmitting his “can do” attitude to those he led, even during crises such as the Great Depression and World War II.

Writes Goodwin:

Frances Perkins claimed that “his capacity to inspire and encourage those around him to do tough, confused and practically impossible jobs was without dispute.” Like everyone else, she said, she “came away from an interview with the president feeling better not because he had solved any problems,” but because he had somehow made her feel more cheerful, more determined, stronger than she had felt when she went into the room. “I have never known a man who gave one a greater sense of security,” Eleanor [Roosevelt] said. “I never heard him say there was a problem that he thought it was impossible for human beings to solve.”

Projecting a Powerful Optimism

We can all grow in our capacity to project optimism. Whether you’re CEO, a middle manager, a salesperson, a parent or friend, you can help others feel more cheerful, more determined and much stronger.

I wish I knew all Roosevelt’s secrets. But if we go back to his first inaugural address, we can tease out some of his techniques.

1. Spread Cheer by Giving Others Hope

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”

Daniel Goleman puts it well: emotions are contagious. We’re wired to respond to the emotions of others – and they’re wired to respond to ours. No one projected cheerfulness better than Roosevelt. In his first words as president, Roosevelt calmed nerves, inspired confidence and gave people hope. He got people to believe because he believed in them.

2. Foster Determination by Facing and Reframing Reality

I’ve heard the “only thing we have to fear” line more times than I can remember. But until I read the full text of the speech I had no idea of what followed: “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”

Like all great leaders, Roosevelt was never in denial. He faced reality head on.

And then he reframed it: “These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

Denial doesn’t foster determination. People get – and stay – focused when they have a sense of mission.

3. Enable Others to Grow Stronger by Helping Them Help Themselves

Finally, Roosevelt believed that people grow stronger when they are able to do things for themselves. “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work.”

This is a great lesson for leaders. We don’t make our team members stronger by doing their work for them. They grow stronger when we coach them to solve their own problems.

Optimize Your Optimism

As you can see, optimism isn’t denial. It’s not pretending things are better than they are. Instead, optimistic leaders like Franklin Roosevelt face problems head on. They just do so in a way that makes others feel more cheerful, more determined and stronger.

You can do the same.

Question: How do you make others feels more optimistic?