Monday, 26 June 2017

For effective communication, Prime Ministers and business presenters alike need to let a little light shine in on themselves.

As Theresa May lurched from one crisis to another, I was asked last week by Helen Dunne, editor of CorpComms magazine, for some advice to address the PM’s failure to empathise and communicate effectively. Above all, the brief was ‘to make the Prime Minister seem more human’.

The results from myself and other commentators can be found here: on the CorpComms web site. The general thrust of my contribution, however, was based on advice I often give to clients in Presentation Skills sessions: ‘Let a little light shine in on yourself and your audience will warm to you. Then everything you say will sound more convincing, because it is coming from someone they feel they know and can trust’. This, it has to be said, needs to be rather more ‘real’ and spontaneous than a carefully stage-managed display of leather trousers. Arguably the most effective thing Mrs May did communications-wise over the Grenfell Tower disaster was reportedly to have shed tears over the victims’ stories. But, cynical as it may sound, she needed to be seen to be showing that emotion, not simply beavering away behind closed doors in Downing Street. Just look at how effective the Royals proved to be, simply by being seen to show up in a timely manner. And how much ‘PR credit’ have they banked of late by opening up on mental health issues?

So how do you apply the ‘Letting some light shine in on yourself’ principle as a business presenter as opposed to a Prime Minister or member of the Royal family? By way of example, I was working on a rather dry presentation with a senior packaging executive. It was a bit of a slog, so we took a break and over coffee he admitted that the new idea he was preaching had actually been sparked by his children over breakfast. I asked him if we could use that and he gradually warmed to the idea. What this meant was that the audience were now seeing: family man; cute kids (from a picture he dug out); a man willing to share credit on a day when the overall theme was ‘teamwork’; and a man prepared to think outside the box. As a result, his was the presentation that everyone remembered and talked about afterwards.

It’s quite simple really, but be warned – it needs a leap of confidence to get the process going. Note that my client’s key theme only emerged during an informal chat over coffee. This is often the case – most people are simply too coy to offer up aspects of their personal life in a more formal setting and need to have it coaxed out of them. So be brave and do it in consultation with others.

Monday, 12 June 2017

How to create an impact as you close your presentation – or kill the impact with a simple slip!

As I always say, Opening and Closing are the two most important parts of any presentation. Aside from being the elements that audiences are most likely to remember, your opening is key to engaging your audience so that they listen, and your closing is where you spell out what you want them to think and do as a result of your presentation.

So how do you create a real impact as you make that all-important final ‘Call to Action’? You could display a slide listing the key points of your presentation. And if you restricted those points to three (exploiting the ‘Power of 3’) and kept each to a one-liner, it would probably be quite effective.

But consider for a moment how much more effective your conclusion could be if you forgot the bullet points and worked with a blank screen. At this point in almost any presentation you are usually asking your audience to do or believe something. How much better is that going to be if it comes directly from you – with full-on eye contact – as you are seen to speak from the heart, rather than via a bunch of bullet points? Blanking the screen is easy in PowerPoint – you simply press the B key.

Let me conclude by pointing to a way that many people quickly kill any concluding impact they may have created, with a simple slip of the keyboard. They display a slide showing either: three short key points (quite good): ‘Thank You’ (not so good as this should be spontaneous); or ‘Any Questions’? (not so good either as Q&A are much better positioned earlier so that you can control your climax). Then they click on further, crashing out of the slide show and revealing their desktop – complete with latest emails, overdue software updates and their iTunes library, probably with Abba’s greatest hits on prominent display.

Any impact they may have created is going to be very short-lived and no amount of fumbling is going to make for an effective recovery!  How can you avoid crashing out of slideshow mode? Make yourself an ‘end slide’, ideally to display after you have delivered your Call to Action to a blank screen (using the B key). This could simply be a copy of your intro slide; or it could be an abiding image that underlines your Call to Action; or it could list your contact details. Having created the end slide, make a duplicate, so that you have two end slides and even if you press too far no one gets to see your desktop.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Like a great jazz performance an effective business presentation needs to be both scripted AND improvisational

There is always a debate when constructing business presentations – to script or not to script?
There are many pros and cons on both sides. With scripting you run the risk of the presenter just reading it out. Even if they memorise the script it is likely to come over as stiff, too pre-prepared and lacking in spontaneity.

Equally, one of the biggest ways in which many people let themselves down is that they don’t really know what they are going to say – they meander and repeat themselves in a way that would be deemed normal for a general conversation but unsuitable for a presentation where people have taken the time and trouble to gather and listen. Furthermore, it will almost certainly lack any real focus or impact, so may be a waste of (everybody’s) time.  

I therefore tend to avoid talk of actual ‘scripting’ – except for the opening and closing, which I stress are the most important parts of any presentation. As you open you need to get straight to your big agenda-setting point while also engaging your audience. As you close you need to send your audience away with a crystal-clear rendition of what you want them to remember and do as a result of your presentation. Your opening and closing therefore need to be both scripted and memorised – so that you are concise, word-perfect and can give full-on eye contact at the most crucial moments. In between you can afford to be a little more relaxed and informal.

Having long applied this principle to my Presentation Skills coaching, I was delighted to find a supportive view in TED Talks, via a contribution from Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. I quote direct from Head of TED Chris Anderson’s excellent book TED Talks – The official TED Guide to Public Speaking:

Dan Gilbert thinks it’s not either/or. First of all he writes a script for his talks (being careful to use spoken English).  But then, when I deliver them I don’t stick to the script I wrote. So why do I write them? Because writing a story is how you find out where the holes are! A great talk is both scripted AND improvisational. It is precisely like a great jazz performance: First, the opening and closing are always completely scripted; second, the general structure is fully determined before the first horn blows; but third, what makes jazz interesting and captivating is that in the middle there is always some point (or several points) in which the player can go off script and spontaneously create something that captures the mood of that particular audience in that particular room at that particular moment in time. The player can take a few moments to do this, but he must always know when to come home, and he must always know where home is. A totally improvisational talk is like free jazz: an utter abomination almost every time it happens. A totally scripted talk is like a classical music concert: intricate, deep, and flawlessly executed, but often predictable enough to put the audience to sleep because they know from the start that there will be no surprises.

To me, that sums up the scenario perfectly, with key take outs being:

1.    A great talk is both scripted AND improvisational.

2.    The opening and closing are always completely scripted.

3.    He must always know when to come home, and he must always know where home is.

I do, however, love the references to free jazz and classical concerts.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Let’s put the old ‘93% myth’ on the impact of communication to bed once and for all!

We’ve all heard it so many times: “Only 7% of the meaning of what you say is in the words; 55% comes through body language, and vocal tone and modulation account for the remaining 38%”. And the formula has been perpetuated for more than 40 years through word of mouth, unscrupulous trainers and, of course, the internet.

Stop and think about it for a moment. If the ‘93% myth’ were true, Shakespeare would surely have had Mark Anthony calling on his Friends, Romans and Countrymen to lend him their eyes rather than their ears. The telephone would be a fairly useless tool. The radio industry would be out of business and, would there be much point even in reading?

So what gave rise to the 93% myth? It all goes back to the 1960s when Professor Albert Mehrabian, based at the University of California, conducted research into body language and non-verbal communications. The focus of his study was discovering how emotion was communicated. His tests would therefore include people saying something like “that’s nice”, but in an angry tone of voice or with threatening body language.

Professor Albert Mehrabian

The results can therefore be more fully and accurately summed up as:

7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
38% of meaning pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way words are said)
55% of meaning pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression

It is that crucial phrase pertaining to feelings and attitudes that has gone missing in action over the years. It’s frustrating for us Presentation Skills coaches that the over-simplification has taken hold and it clearly gets to Mehrabian too because his web site ( includes a bolded disclaimer as follows:

Please note that this (7/55/38%) and other equations regarding the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (ie like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings and attitudes, these equations are not applicable.

There you have it – from the originator himself. Clearly body language and vocal tone play a crucial part in effective communication, but these are to enhance the words that must – after audience focus - remain at the top of the communication hierarchy.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The environment for your business presentation can derail your otherwise best-laid plans

I was called in at short notice recently to help a very senior client with an introductory presentation he was making for an important dinner – later that day. Despite the last minute nature of the assignment I was delighted my client had seen fit to invest in this level of preparation. He had recently arrived as CEO and this was his first opportunity to make a real impact with many of the people who really mattered within his world. When I called him the next day to see how it went he was clearly delighted but added: “Mind you, it was quite scary to begin with – the room was much bigger than I had imagined!”

I can only think that he had a wry smile on his face as he said this, because our session the previous day had begun like this. He had clearly put a lot of work into his speech so after a few brief pleasantries, he stood at the end of the big boardroom table and started to deliver it. “Hang on a minute,” I soon interrupted rather sharply, “how are you going to get them to stop talking and pay attention to you?” He indicated a glass and a spoon. “OK, where are you going to get those from? Where are you then going to put them? Will your guests be standing or sitting? Do they perhaps need to be asked to sit? (which will take time, so probably needs to be done first) What is the shape and layout of the tables? (Many people may be facing away from you). Will there be light on you? Will you have/do you need a microphone? (If in any doubt, you do, though with a short speech you might manage without). How far will you need to project your voice? What are the range and angles for your eye contact? Are there any obstacles such as pillars?”

My client had given little, if any thought to such factors but soon realised they all had the potential to add to or detract from what he planned to say. I didn’t press the point so late in the day, but it is because of factors such as these that I regard a site visit as crucial to success. Together with a lot of planning advantages, a site visit enables you to visualise what the situation will be and to replicate that in rehearsal, which will also do much to control any nerves.

Having planned for the environment we were then able to focus on the content and we did many of the usual things such as introduce a personal note or two linked with the venue, disentangle some double negatives, make references to some people in the room more fulsome and overt, and coming to a rousing finish. We also took the opportunity to remove anything that was superfluous. I frequently talk about ‘Killing your darlings’ – the filmmakers’ approach to ruthless editing and it is every bit as important in a situation like this as it is in the boardroom. After all, what your audience really want to do is tuck into their dinner!

So, as with all good presentation practice, you need to think about your audience first - before developing your message - but remember that the environment can often create the framework for the impact that you are seeking to achieve.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Are you undermining your fellow business presenters without realising it?

“I know you are only speaking for a few minutes each, but actually you will be under pressure to ‘perform’ for the full 40 minutes that you remain on stage.”

So went my briefing to a team of business presenters I was helping to prepare for a recent conference.  What you need to remember, I explained, is that the audience will be looking, if not actually focusing, in your direction throughout the session. What typically happens is that you are all revved up for your own section, but will probably sigh with relief and relax a bit once it is complete. You have already heard what your colleagues are now presenting in numerous rehearsals, so your mind starts to wander. You may start examining your fingernails, spot something peculiar about the light fittings, or even let out a little yawn.

This is bad news for your team and especially the person currently presenting – because you are sending out signals of boredom to the audience. If you are not showing proper interest why should they?

What you need to do therefore is to remain fully alert – ‘on parade’, if you like – for every moment that you are in the audience’s view. Specifically, you need to be supportive of your colleagues, actively listening to what they say, complete with smiles and nods in appropriate places as if you are hearing it for the first time. As well as being supportive this will create a sense of ‘energy’, that will be sadly lacking if each person is simply waiting for their turn to speak.

Success in presenting as a team is dependent on a number of other factors such as choreography – getting the team on stage in the right order and at the right pace – and furniture! What you need to avoid is low-standing squidgy sofas that appear to suck people into a slump position. Look at the sofas on breakfast TV shows – they may look comfortable, but in reality they are quite hard and upright. Stools are usually the best option – they keep everyone almost vertical and are quick and easy to get out of.

One other tip was highlighted by my recent coaching session – the need to be seen to actively watch any video material you use. One of the speakers introduced his video clip with a certain amount of gusto and then appeared to take no further interest in it. “You must watch – and be seen to be watching – your video,” I said. “I was,” he replied, “I looked at the monitor in front of the stage.”  I explained that I knew that but few, if any, of the audience would appreciate the fact. He needed to actively turn towards the screen at the moment that he wanted attention focused there and keep his gaze firmly fixed in that direction for the duration of the video.

Magicians, of course, know all about using their gaze to direct attention where they want it, but it was the main point here of being ‘on show’ that the great Ali Bongo used to drum into us for events at The Magic Circle: You must remain fully ‘in character’, he said, whenever members of the audience see you - or might see you.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The verbal ‘tic’ that is ‘so, so’ for business presenters – bad for opening, but good for closing

A verbal ‘tic’ has emerged in the past few years – increasing numbers of people seem to be unable to start speaking without saying ‘so’. And it afflicts communication professionals as much as anyone. I listened to a podcast with a legendary broadcasting executive and no less than five of his answers started along these lines: “So, the interesting thing is…” or, “So what you have to remember….”

So is essentially a variation on ‘umm’ or ‘err’. It’s what the linguists call a ‘voiced pause’ – a filler word that gives us a moment to think what we want to say. As such it has no part in presentation – it soon becomes irritating and it diminishes what you are saying.

Verbal tics come in waves because they are infectious. So follows the Upward Inflection (finishing every sentence as though you are asking a question), which thankfully seems to be on the wane, and Literally. I reckon this last one – which is all about emphasis - actually recurs every 15 years or so. I remember during my schooldays being told of a boy who had stuck his fingers in a toaster and ‘literally screamed his head off’. A generation later it was adopted by Hooray Henry-types you would use it as an opener: “No, literally…”

Some people have their own personal tics. I once knew a marketing agency executive whose job it was to present – and therefore sell – the agency’s creative ideas. As he introduced each idea he said: “This is just a concept based around….”  Just? For goodness sake talk it up, not down, I kept thinking.

The problem with So for a business presenter is that your opening is one of the two most important parts of any communication – it’s what your audience remembers and it’s the bit that engages them (or not). I was coaching a business presenter in Q&A recently and her answers started thus: “So the shareholders are delighted with the return they are getting currently…” It’s only a tiny two-letter word that’s getting in the way, but the statement could carry much more impact if she got straight into the meat of it, especially as the So prefix hints at hesitation and perhaps a looming qualifier.

Conversely, So can be rather effective when you make your closing statement, which, along with your opening, is the other most important part of any communication. At this point you need re-gather attention before hitting them with your big finish – usually a Call to Action. That can be achieved quite effectively by proclaiming in a very definite way: “So….” It must, however, be followed by a decent-sized pause.

So….it’s time for me to close. The nature of tics is such that you probably won’t be aware your own – which means you need help from friends and colleagues. So is the current one to watch for – it’s harmfully superfluous up front, but can be really quite useful as you close.