January 19, 2015
by Andy Saks
In mid-December, while the rest of us were caught up in the holiday rush, representatives of my home city of Boston pulled off an Olympic-sized feat.
They delivered a presentation that successfully convinced the board of the United States Olympic Committee, the body that chooses the host city candidate to represent the U.S. in the international Olympic bidding process, to select Boston for its 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic bid.
In doing so, Boston’s bid beat competing bids from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
The decision surprised many Bostonians, Olympic supporters and detractors alike, who expected one of the other candidate cities to secure the bid.
That’s because we Bostonians tend to see our city as second-tier, not grand enough to shine on the world stage. We view D.C. as the hub of power, L.A. as the hub of entertainment, good weather and sheer size, and San Fran as the hub of everything cosmopolitan, progressive and cool. (Boston calls itself “the hub of the universe,” but that’s purely an honorary, self-bestowed title.)
So how did Boston best those three high-profile cities—one of which (Los Angeles) had hosted the Games before—to earn this prestigious opportunity?
Much of the credit for Boston’s victory goes to the Boston 2024 team’s presentation before the U.S. Olympic Committee board. Its pitch convinced board members not to view Boston as second-tier, but rather as the safe choice, the timely choice, the right choice to represent the United States.
In doing so, it demonstrated some powerful presentation skills you can borrow to create your own medal-worthy pitches.
Ready to go for the presentation gold?
Boston didn’t just sent one lone presenter to deliver an Olympic monologue. It sent this five-person team:
Marty Walsh, Mayor of Boston
John Fish, Boston 2024 Chairman (and Chariman/CEO of Suffolk Construction)
David Manfredi, prominent architect
Cheri Blauwet, Paralympian
Keith Motley, Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston
Before these teammates even spoke, their collective presence spoke for them.
Separately, each prominent local leader embodied a community—political, business, educational or athletic—whose cooperation Boston would need to produce the Games successfully. Together, their placement on stage (and at this early stage in the process) reassured the board that their cooperation had already been secured, and sent a powerful message of unity: we’re ready today to support each other in this endeavor. Can your other candidate cities say the same?
During the presentation, the Boston 2024 team took turns speaking, giving each cast member his or her moment in the spotlight.
Fish spoke first, introducing his teammates. Manfredi discussed the modular designs of Olympic buildings. Blauwet explained how the short distances between the venues would help athletes compete. Motley reinforced the commitment of local universities to housing athletes and events. Walsh told personal stories about his Boston upbringing, and about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. And Fish returned to wrap the presentation. By smoothly sharing the delivery of its message, the Boston team didn’t merely assert its unity and teamwork; it demonstrated it.
THE LESSON: Presenting can be a team sport. Don’t go it alone if you don’t have to. Invite colleagues to present with you, reducing your speaking burden and enlivening your delivery. Benefit from the subtextual messages of partnership and strength that multiple speakers communicate. Your audience will be impressed.
When your audience thinks you’re the runt of the litter, how do you convince them you’re the leader of the pack?
Simple: just turn being a runt into your biggest advantage.
Mayor Walsh must have been thinking along these lines. He must have sensed that Boston would be perceived by the board as too small in size, population and resources to produce a global-scale event. And he must have been determined to defuse this concern by turning this perceived weakness into Boston’s defining strength and key differentiator.
So in his segment of the presentation, instead of ignoring, hiding or justifying Boston’s relative diminutiveness, Walsh described Boston as “a smaller city with a big heart.”
Walsh packed substantial meaning into this svelte, elegant phrase:
“A smaller city…” Instead of characterizing Boston as a “small” city, a term relating to factual, measurable characteristics like land size, population count and economic power, Walsh labeled it a “smaller” city, a relative, subjective term relating Boston only to its fellow candidate cities. Translation: Sure, we’re smaller than the other guys. But that doesn’t mean we’re too small for this challenge.
“…with a big heart” then emphasized Boston’s defining intangibles that superseded any physical measure: its history, its values, and the depth and connection of its communities. Fair or not, this angle provided a flattering contrast with competing cities, which instantly seemed too unwieldy to manage an event requiring so much intra-city cooperation. Translation: We’re the little city that could, the lovable underdog. Don’t count us out.
Walsh then underscored his assertion with evidence. He referenced his own personal story of growing up in Boston (one he must have developed during his 2013 mayoral campaign, and found easy to thaw and heat for the occasion). And he spoke of Bostonians’ “Boston Strong” response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings as evidence of their ability to pull together and overcome adversity.
Blauwet then added to Walsh’s argument by emphasizing how Boston’s smaller size would actually benefit the Games. She explained that Boston’s plan to place all 28 of its venues within a 10-kilometer radius would boost its athletes’ performances. “To athletes, that’s extremely important,” Blauwet said, “because not having to think about transportation time enables you to have more mental energy to compete.”
The collective subtext was clear: San Francisco is too divided. L.A. is too spread out and disconnected. D.C. is too angry and polarized. Boston is big enough to do it, and small enough to do it right. Our size works for us, not against us, and it’ll work for you.
THE LESSON: Instead of attempting to ignore, hide or justify the part of your pitch you’re worried your audience won’t like, transform it into your biggest asset and key differentiator. Think about its positive aspects, the benefits it brings, and the distinct advantages those benefits would deliver to your audience. Consider what your competitors sacrifice without this trait. Then play up those differences.
Success in any discipline, from Olympic competition to medicine to law to music, demands practice. Those who succeed in any endeavor make it look easy by practicing endlessly when no one’s watching.
Fortunately, the Boston team knew this, and sequestered itself for a whopping 31 practice sessions—that’s multi-hour sessions, not individual run-throughs—during which it perfected its pitch. Many sessions took place inside a hotel conference room in Redwood City, California (just 30 minutes from its competitor, San Francisco!) right up to the morning of presentation day.
“The practices were almost like debate prep in high school,” said Mayor Walsh. “But it clearly worked.”
Those practices made this team perfect. If you were there, watching run-through after run-through, you surely would have seen a clear, steady and fascinating evolution in the presentation’s running order, topics, evidence, transitions, timing, and flow.
Each line delivered would have been brainstormed and tested, adopted or dismissed, ordered and moved, shaped and polished. Feedback and advice loops would have been created to allow every presenter to benefit from everyone else’s input. Speaking anxiety would have slowly abated too, as the words and the ebb and flow of their delivery eventually became so familiar, speakers could deliver them by rote.
The first run-through probably resembled a pee-wee soccer game; the last, a choreographed ballet. The difference? Practice.
THE LESSON: Run it and run it and run it again. Then run it again. Practice in front of your mirror, video camera, colleagues, Toastermasters group, family, pets, plants. Get strategy, content, feedback, any input from any anyone and everyone around you. Take that feedback to heart, and use it to strengthen your performance. If you do that and you still don’t love it, if you’re not totally comfortable with it and confident about it, you won’t deliver it with conviction. Run it again.
Even with its planning, practice, and presentation skills, the Boston group knew the USOC might still see Boston as a risk too big to take.
Sure, it had painted itself as the lovable underdog, demonstrated unity of leadership, and delivered a polished, impressive presentation. But could it really host one of the highest-profile events in the world? Was it really big enough, capable enough, credible enough to succeed? Would it ultimately enhance the USOC’s reputation, or tarnish it?
This is when Boston 2024 Chairman John Fish executed the perfect closing remark, the one that stuck the landing.
Fish addressed the topic directly, but with indirect language. He reminded the USOC board that “the world comes to Boston for universities, medical expertise, and business opportunities, so why not trust Boston to host the Olympics.”
The subtle subtext in this statement was powerfully reassuring. Don’t worry that you’re taking a risk here, it whispered. Other respected industries already trust Boston. This city isn’t an unknown quantity; it’s tested, proven and reliable. And it’s OK for you to trust it too.
THE LESSON: In your closing remarks, try to address any lingering doubts you think your audience might have about whatever you’re advocating. Reassure them why the thing nagging at them isn’t worth worrying about. Convey credibility by reminding them of all the people who already trust you. Make your last impression one of reassurance and certainty.
Wouldn’t it be great if the presenter was the only speaker in a presentation? That would put all the content in the presenter’s control.
Alas, most presentations have a question-and-answer component. It’s often placed at the end, making it the audience’s last impression—and often lasting memory—of a presentation.
Q&A is usually the segment presenters dreads the most, because it feels out of their control. They wonder: What if someone brings up an embarrassing topics? What if I can’t answer the question? Will a final moment of awkwardness on stage eclipse all the rest of my effort and impact?
Sure enough, during their Q&A, USOC board members brought up an embarrassing topic with a straightforward, crucial question: Did Boston really want the Summer Olympics?
The question was legitimate. In the weeks leading up to the presentations, a groundswell of vocal objections had erupted in Boston’s local press and social media. A protest group called No Boston Olympics had formed to stand against Boston’s host city pursuit. USOC board members noticed this opposition, and it clearly concerned them.
But the Boston 2024 team saw this question coming. So like all good presenters, they prepared for it.
Mayor Walsh phrased his response perfectly: the more Bostonians learning about his team’s plans, he said, the more they would support it.
In one short, unambiguous sentence, Walsh gathered in his arms all those troubling objections the question had referenced, casually flung them in the air, and let the wind blow them away. He painted them—however varied, insightful and justified their true rationales—as nothing more than natural, temporary reflections of the dissenters’ lack of knowledge, and a predictable symptom of this early, secretive stage in the process. Once people understood Boston’s plans, Walsh claimed, that resistance would dissipate like so much dust in the wind.
Next, USOC members asked if the leadership leading into the 2024 Summer Olympics would be consistent. In other words: Will the team impressing us now, or at least its descendants, be in power for the next nine years to lead Boston through every phase of planning and execution? Or will the impressive team we see today be replaced down the line by different people with different attitudes, agendas and levels of competency?
The Boston team must have seen this question coming as well. So they reassured the USOC that Massachusetts Governor Baker would be starting his first term the following month, and Mayor Walsh had three years remaining on his first term. Both leaders were relatively young and certainly planned to get re-elected. All of that hinted that yes, there was every likelihood of a consistent, eager team in place right through Closing Ceremonies.
THE LESSON: Expect hard questions, and welcome them. See them as your chance to discover what troubles your audience members most, and erase those anxieties before your presentation ends and they’re set in cement. Brainstorm possible answers beforehand, and use the one(s) that are the simplest, most honest, and speak most directly to the underlying anxieties the question reveals.
So how did the USOC board react to all this polished pitching? How much of an impact did it really make?
USOC and International Olympic Committee member Angela Ruggiero, who was in the audience, felt the team had made its case. “Having a strong leader in Mayor Walsh, a strong leader in John Fish, and a unified perspective where you can see the team works well together, is important,” she said. “You could see that they had delivered against all of the asks from the USOC.” After three hours of debate, the board’s decision to award its candidate city honor to Boston was unanimous.
Of course, great presentations don’t guarantee success. But as you can see, sometimes they’re enough to change perceptions dramatically, and swing the audience in your favor. Before you take your next stage, I hope you take heed of Boston’s gold-medal performance and deliver your own medal-worthy presentation!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Background information for post came from the Boston Globe article, “Convincing Case Made by Boston for Olympic Bid,” published on January 10, 2015.
ABOUT SPARK PRESENTATIONS
Spark Presentations is a private company founded in 1998 that provides presentation skills training and speech coaching for executives, salespeople, marketers and others, plus booth staff training for trade show exhibitors.
Spark also books professional presenters to represent its clients at high-profile events as keynote speakers, trade show booth presenters, masters of ceremonies (emcees) and live auctioneers.
Spark’s owner, Andy Saks, is also the author of The Presentation Playbook Series: Be a Most Valuable Presenter (MVP), a three-volume series of books that help businesspeople master common presentation situations by building and running speaking “plays” like a coach or player calls a key play in a game. Volume 1 is available now in print and PDF formats on Spark’s website and at these online retailers and formats: Amazon print, Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks and Barnes & Noble print and Nook.