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Introduction: The Wizard of Aaaahs

Introduction: The Wizard of Aaaahs

Once upon a time, I was living and working at the opposite end of California from Silicon Valley, in Hollywood. I had spent the first half of my professional life in the world of show business, as a television producer for CBS, as a freelance screenwriter, and as a sometime novelist. I helped create news documentaries, feature films, dramas, and musicals. I had the opportunity to work with some of the most creative minds in the industry, from the legendary Mike Wallace on down. If you know anything about show business, you know that it's filled with peaks and valleys, and I had more than my share of valleys. But I met many interesting people and learned a lot, particularly about the art of telling a story in a clear, convincing manner.

Then, in 1987, I had a conversation with an old friend, Ben Rosen, one of the top venture capitalists in the high-technology world who was then Chairman of the Board of Compaq Computer Corporation. It was a conversation that changed my life.

Ben and I had met at Stanford University, where he was studying for his Master's in Electrical Engineering and I for mine in Speech and Drama. The engineer and the artist met only because we happened to be competing for the affections of the same girl. Our interest in the girl quickly faded, but our friendship did not. Ben followed my subsequent career in television and was well aware of my interest in the art of communication. As Compaq's chairman, he was also aware of an issue facing the great computer company: Its CEO, a talented executive named Rod Canion, had never developed a comfortable and effective style for public presentations.

Ben called to offer me a challenge: “Rod has worked on his weakness as a presenter,” he explained. “He's even been coached by some of the experts in the field. But it hasn't quite taken hold. Would you be interested in flying out to Houston to teach Rod what you know about communication?”

I was intrigued, but a little reluctant. After all, I didn't know much about the world of business. But Ben closed the deal with an unusual offer: “Compaq has just come out with a line of hot, new laptop computers. I've seen that clunker you're still using.” (I'd just laboriously drafted my second novel on Compaq's huge, old, “luggable” computer, and had been coveting the sleek, new, expensive Compaq machines.) “Suppose we swap you one of our new laptops for your services?” he asked. I agreed on the spot.

I met with Canion at his Houston office, and Ben sat in on our session, watching as I taught Rod the basics of communicating a story with clarity and effectiveness. An hour into the program, we took a break, and Ben buttonholed me at the vending machine in the lounge. He was fascinated by what he'd seen. “Jerry,” Ben said, with a snap of his fingers, “There's an enormous business opportunity here! I spend all day listening to presentations by CEOs who want me to invest in their businesses. You wouldn't believe how complex and dry most of them are. You ought to move up to Silicon Valley and teach these people some of your storytelling skills. God knows they need your help!”

Naturally I was flattered. But I thought of myself as a television professional, not as a business consultant. “I don't know anything about Silicon Valley or the computer business!” I protested.

Ben pressed me. “That doesn't matter,” he insisted. “I'll be able to introduce you to clients; I can show you how to run the business; I'll help in many ways.”

Still I demurred, “It's not a good idea to do business with friends.” Ben shook his head and dropped the matter, for the moment.

Like all successful people, Ben is successful because he is persistent, and he persisted with me. He talked about the idea, on and off, for six more months, but I was still hesitant. Finally, at Ben's insistence, I agreed to make a pilot trip to Silicon Valley to meet some of his associates. One of them was Andrea Cunningham, a woman who had parlayed her experience as public relations counsel to Steve Jobs at Apple Computer into her own successful national public relations agency, Citigate Cunningham, Inc.

When I got to Andy's office, she was in a fretful state over a presentation she was scheduled to make at a major technology conference. I took a quick look at a very rough outline she had prepared and suggested a simple re-ordering of her concepts into a more logical sequence. Then I skimmed through the high points of the new outline for her. Andy's frown gave way to a smile, and she said, “You're going to do very well here!”

My reluctance gradually melted away. I agreed to Ben's business proposition, and Power Presentations was born.

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