Effective Communication 101 as Taught by Alec Baldwin's Character in Glengarry Glen Ross

"Put that coffee down. Coffee's for closers only." Now that is a classic opener to get your audience's attention. Might not work in your next Zoom call, but being a student of communications, I felt compelled to analyze my favorite movie scene ever on its merits. Spoiler alert: there is a lot we can learn from it with regards to communication.

Yes, I am talking about the infamous scene where Alec Baldwin chews out the sales team in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). David Mamet's writing in this piece is simply unbelievable. The screen adaptation of his own play unveils itself as both perfection on the stage and chillingly real at the same time.

The presentation by Baldwin's character Blake follows the key steps to delivering a great presentation. Let's break it down.

The Four-Part Structure to Effective Communication

Blake executes the presentation technique to perfection In this scene, albeit in an over-the-top abrasive manner.

  1. Grab the audience's attention with a relevant opener

  2. Clearly state your primary thesis

  3. Back it up with supporting arguments, facts, and visuals

  4. Summarize and conclude with the call-to-action

We already noted how he gets the group's attention. It is clear from the outset that this is no ordinary corporate meeting. The salesmen present know they better pay attention. Blake doesn't start with a boring introduction or recitation of his resume. Rather, he uses tone and related content to articulate the message that he is to be respected and requires their undivided attention.

"I'm here from downtown. I'm here from Mitch and Murray." Only after grabbing their attention does he support his implied claim of authority with this verbal reinforcement. Reminiscent of the "show don't tell" mantra in fiction, he convinces his audience indirectly of a fact or proposition rather than simply spelling it out for them.

The Primary Thesis: Don't Bury the Lead

On the other hand, you want to be crystal clear in non-fiction and verbal communication while stating your primary thesis. You also shouldn't wait until two-thirds through the material in order to make your point. It should be up front, direct, and resonate with your audience.

"The good news is your fired. The bad news is you all got just one week to regain your job..."

If Blake didn't already have their attention, he has it now. But we know this is not the attention-grabbing line. This is the key takeaway. The main point, the primary thesis, whatever you want to call it.

Each of the salesmen needs to maximize their sales in the next week. Its as simple as that.

Now you may be thinking in terms of your own presentation or paper, my thesis is not that simple. That very well may be true, but think carefully about how you can make it as simple as possible for your audience. Don't make them do the hard work. You do it for them. You will both end up winners.

You have been thinking about your speech or presentation for many weeks now. However, your audience is only just hearing it. Provide them with plenty of opportunity to digest the message, preferably while you are still in front of them reinforcing your point. Communicate the primary thesis up-front, and follow up by providing supporting arguments. This will plant the seed in your audience's mind and provide the best chance for it to grow into the future.

Also remember that you may have a half-dozen different points you want your audience to take away. However, most people will only remember one or two things from it. Again, your talk is the focal point of your day but the average attendee may have just shown up because they were required to do so or else it was on their calendar. Choose your focal points carefully and don't try to accomplish too much in one swing.

Supporting Arguments are not just for Lawyers

The rest of your talk is going to support your primary thesis. Focus on the key takeaway and let there be no doubt in your audience's mind by the end.

Here are a few of the supporting arguments made by Baldwin's character in this scene:

  1. The only thing that matters is sales, e.g. "get them to sign on the line which is dotted"

  2. Even "weak leads" can result in a sale

  3. Nobody wants to hear you complain, just do your job

  4. Their job is on the line, i.e. reinforcement of the motivation to meet the goal

Each of these points supports the thesis of maximizing sales in the current week. There are no excuses. You've got everything you need to do the job. And you better do it because it will be a bad day for you otherwise.

The dialogue in this portion is fascinating, and the abrasive manner is simultaneously infuriating and understandable. Like Blake says, if they can't take this abuse, how are they going to deal with their customers?

AUV: Always Use Visuals

While there aren't visuals in the truest sense of the word, Blake does use some notes on the blackboard to reinforce his thesis. This provides support for his message and their mission.

"A. B. C. Always be closing." Typically a picture is worth a thousand words, yet these three letters meet or exceed this standard. Memorable, concise, and crystal clear.

My standard advice during presentations is to use as few words as possible on the slides. Paint a picture for the audience by sketching out some details with a visual and then fill in the details verbally through your talk. You want your audience listening to you, not reading words on a slide. They can read much faster than you can talk, and you don't want their mind to wander. You want their complete attention.

Blake's acronyms here serve a similar purpose. His three characters are the mnemonic to remember. They paint a very striking picture of the goal to strive for the next week.

The Call-to-Action

Leave your audience with a clear next step. Again, on this one, spell it out for them. Guide them on the path. Give them the tools and motivation that they need.

While I'd rather not put the quote from the movie verbatim here, Baldwin's character (paraphrased) says that it takes nerves of steel to sell real estate. But the leads and the money is out there, just waiting for them. Are they going to take it? It is not just a next step or a threat. Its a challenge.

My call-to-action for you is this. Don't use the form of Baldwin's character (rude, abrasive, foul-mouthed), but follow the function (systematic, clear, concise). Use the four steps and you'll be clearly getting your key points across in no time.

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