“Why the Little Things Matter”

I thought I would share this video about the presidential elections, which I’ve been showing at the beginning of my in-class Business Policy workshops. It’s well-edited and there are many comments about communication that are directly relevant to the students’ upcoming presentations. In addition, it’s a fascinating little history lesson of televised presidential debates since Nixon/Kennedy (1960). One of the commentators is Candy Crowley, who moderated last week’s debate. It’s a great conversation starter with highly topical political content to boot.

After the video, I ask students what they can “steal” from it that is relevant to their own presentations. We talk about gestures, eye contact, use of space, facial expressions, attitude, and what (not) to do while someone else is speaking. I remind them of the following quote from the video, one among several that explicitly addresses communication.

What I think Kennedy and Nixon discovered … was that it didn’t matter just what you said, it mattered how you said it and how you looked saying it.

– Gerald F. Seib, The Wall Street Journal

We also talk about the issue that comes up towards the end of the video, namely a sense of frustration and ethical concern about how many people decide their vote based on “little things” rather than on substantial differences in policy or knowledge. We talk about the relationship between content and communication.

Next I split the students up into their teams and ask them to create, in ten minutes, “mini-presentations” that answer the following questions:

  • What is your assignment?
  • To whom are you presenting?
  • How will you keep the audience engaged?
  • How will you work together as a team?

Each group makes this impromptu presentation in front of the class, receiving feedback from me and from their peers on all the aspects of communication we discussed previously with regard to the video. This seems like a good way also to give each team and each student a chance to feel the heat of standing at the front of the room with all eyes turned upon them. In the discussion that follows each team’s presentation, many other communications points arise, from physical style to lighting choices.

I end by talking about how the same issues of clarity and engagement apply to powerpoint slides. I show them some egregiously bad slides and ask for their comments. This is the first semester I’ve done such in-class workshops, so I can’t say for sure that they will have an impact on the group rehearsals to come. But my sense is that they will.



  1. Catherine Young says:

    This is great, thanks, Ben. In my class we watched Ann Romney and Michelle Obama’s speeches and analyzed them for gesture and vocal techniques (everything from modulation of pitch to theatrical voice tremors). When we discussed “motivated movement” (to get students to think about how and when to move during a speech) we looked at the town hall debate to see how Obama and Romney handled the physically awkward transitions from stool to center stage to audience. I can’t say the students seemed riveted by the close analysis activities, but they seemed to be able to analyze how rhetorical skills were being employed and some were even able to use vocabulary from the class.

    Your mini-presentation idea is great; I will be stealing it for my workshops. It models scaffolding not just the written work necessary for a solid presentation, but the fact that everyone needs to PRACTICE giving a group presentation. It is difficult to realize what issues will come up until we are in the act of the speech itself.

  2. Ben says:

    I am updated the in-class assignment this semester. I still want to give each group ten minutes to prepare a mini-presentation and then perform it in front of the class. But I found that,  with the four questions listed above, these presentations could not be taken very seriously, because they all contained basically the same information. All the students have the same assignment, same audience, etc. So after the first presentation, they were basically repeating themselves.

    Also, during a recent BLSCI fellows meeting, someone talked about wanting to create more space for the diversity and individuality of Baruch students to appear. With that in mind, I came up with four new questions for the mini-presentation:

    • Who is on your team?
    • What strengths does each team member bring?
    • How do you plan to work as a team?
    • What interests you about your industry?

    I hope that this will make these mini-presentations more interesting and useful.

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