Monday, 20 February 2017

Business presenters are being misled by comedians – apparent spontaneity usually comes down to careful scripting

One of the biggest ways that people let themselves down when giving a presentation is so simple that I actually find it difficult to say out loud: they don’t really know what they are going to say.

People come up to me having made a presentation or given a speech, asking: “How did I do?” The sheepish way in which they often ask betrays the fact that they already know the answer, which is invariably: “You didn’t really know what you were going to say, did you?” At which point they protest about how busy they have been, how they only got a chance to look through it on the train etc. I don’t usually need to follow through, but if I did the blunt version would be: “So how can you expect to be any good?”

Part of the problem these days is that we are all exposed to a fair of stand up comedy and the best performers are very good at giving the impression they are simply chatting with the audience and making much of it up as they go along. I urge those I am coaching that this is simply not the case. “Go and see any comedian for a second, third or fourth night,” I tell them, “and you will find it remarkably similar, right down to apparent mistakes and interruptions. If they adlib, they do so because they have a solid structure for their act; they know that if they step out of that structure and it doesn’t work, they can get back into it very quickly. Indeed, having that safety net there frees them to exploit an opportunity for an adlib should it arise.”

Recently, however, I saw an absolute masterclass in the principle of appearing to make it all up on the spot, when Alan Davies came to try out new material at a little pub close to where I live. He was so convincing with his casual, chatty approach that even I started to think that perhaps he might be an exception to the rule that I so strongly espouse.

When I got home I started thinking more objectively about what I had just seen. Davies spent the first ten minutes talking hilariously about the pub and the neighbourhood. Surely that can’t have been planned?  On reflection I am pretty sure it was, for two admirable reasons. First he would have thought: Where am I going tonight? A: Peckham. Right, I can use some of my ‘South of the River’ material. That will juxtapose nicely with all my usual jokes about the pretentious coffee bars in my neck of the woods. Next, what sort of pub is it? A: ‘London’s first co-operatively owned pub’. So it’s probably a bit ‘rough and ready’, if not actually run down. Great, I can use my old material about Health & Safety inspectors and gangsters in the car parks. How can I make that topical? A: Quip about this being what Brexit is all about – getting back to proper old fashioned pubs.

We all loved it because it was very funny, but also – and here comes the second reason it was so good – it was all about us. He engaged us and got us to like him immediately by focusing on our favourite subject, which is always the same for any audience: ourselves.

As I always say, the priority for anyone with a message to communicate – be they a business presenter or a comedian - is to think first and foremost about your audience – who they are, what they know, what they are thinking. Only then should you start polishing your message in the light of all that information.

As for truly knowing what you are going to say, Derren Brown’s early advice to magicians included this little gem: The key to achieving good spontaneity is very good scripting. It’s not about killing spontaneity, it’s about setting the framework as best as it can be, to allow you to have the confidence to move into other areas.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

You must be yourself when delivering a presentation – but with a keen sense of self-awareness

I was coaching a property consultant in Presentation Skills recently and I opened my feedback as follows:

“You have very engaging style, clear voice, descriptive phrases and strong eye contact. You also have very expressive hands.”  “Yes, I know,” she said; “my bosses have told me I’ve got to sit on my hands.”

I pleaded with her not to sit on her hands as she actually used them rather well and the gesturing was clearly intrinsic to her (very engaging) personality. “The only problem you have,” I said, “is that there is just a bit too much of it.”

I went on to explain that, because her hand movements were a natural part of personality, it was likely that she was largely oblivious to them. What she needed to do, therefore, was to develop a greater awareness of how her audience saw her. She would probably then realise it was all a bit gesture-heavy and she could work at controlling her movements, by planning moments of stillness. Then she could save the gesturing for when she really wanted to emphasise key points. This would be all the more effective because the gestures would come from a foundation of stillness, rather than potentially getting lost in a flurry of on-going hand activity.

This is the opposite of the more common situation where I am recommending a more animated delivery, for which we build in planned moments of active gesturing to reinforce key messages. In each case the starting point is one of establishing a greater awareness of how the person is presenting currently and that probably requires video. I am not the sort of Presentation Skills coach who reaches automatically for the video camera and I can point to various scenarios in which it does more harm than good. I tend to spare the camera for working on the kind of specifics I am describing here.

I brought the camera out on one occasion when the presenter had a peculiar way of holding his arm and twirling it as he spoke. I suspected he had little or no knowledge that he was doing this. He confirmed as much when I played back the video and he said, with some amazement: “I dance like that.”

As I said up front, you should always let your own personality come through in a presentation – but within limits that show self-awareness!

Monday, 23 January 2017

Speeding up your presentation is not the answer when time is short – now there’s scientific proof!

“I’ve got a lot to get through, so I’m going to go quite fast”.

How many times have you heard this from someone giving a business presentation? And how effective did those presenters turn out be?

Speeding up, as I have often said to those I coach in Presentation Skills, is not an effective answer to communicating a lot of information in a short space of time. Indeed, it will probably do more harm than good. And now there is some science to support what I have been saying; published in the journal Cognition, it was reported in both the Times (see below) and here in the Daily Mail.

The findings of the research, by Dr Uriel Cohen Piva, assistant professor at Brown University in the USA, are quite complicated and the Daily Mail has almost inevitably led on a reader-friendly gender divide. The nub of it, however, is that as speech sped up, the information rate declined. 

So what can business presenters do when they have a lot to convey in a short amount of time? The best approach is to be ruthless about your editing – you need to accept the fact that you suffer from the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ and need to ‘Kill some Darlings’, just as TV and film makers do. I have discussed these issues at various times in the past and you can click on some links for the articles, the most recent featuring Jeremy Clarkson.

Thereafter, there are a number of tactics you can deploy, primarily:

First, be sure to time yourself carefully as you rehearse. The brain plays tricks on you at times like this and your presentation will always seem either longer or shorter than it actually is.

Second, aim to come in a little under time. People will thank you for that and you will have a built-in comfort margin. It may even help in terms of stimulating follow up questions.

Third, build in some content at around the 75% mark that is nice to have, but not essential. That way, this can be cut if necessary, so that you can avoid having to rush or even manage without your closing comments.

Finally, remember that if you are forced to curtail your closing comments you are messing up the most crucial part of your presentation. ‘Firsts & Lasts’ are the most important elements of any presentation for two main reasons: 1) Those are what your audience remember and 2) Your close contains your ‘Call to Action’ – a crystal clear (rather than rushed or stunted) definition of what you want your audience to do and to remember.

Monday, 16 January 2017

How effective could my business presentations be if I were able to read minds like Derren Brown?

Of all the questions I am asked when applying the Rules of Magic to business presentation skills, “Can you use mindreading techniques to win people over?” is the one that crops up most consistently.

The short answer is ‘yes’, but it’s a very qualified yes because the secret behind most ‘mindreading’ is blatant, and often quite simple, trickery. No one really likes to hear that, so they persist with: “But what about the stuff Derren Brown does?” Again, mostly trickery, with elements of psychology mixed in, but this does lead to where we can have a more constructive conversation on the subject of Cold Reading.

Essentially, Cold Reading is about truly observing – rather than just seeing – everything around you and putting that information to good use. Sherlock Holmes is the best known exponent of this technique and would famously chastise Watson with: “You see, but you do not observe,” before drawing all kinds of conclusions about a person based on the way they dress, the scuff on their shoes, the hint of a scent and a study of their gait.

I recently found myself in the perfect position to point to the benefits of some ultra-simple Cold Reading when I helped a Korean start-up business with their investor pitch. They had a whole new hi-tech take on personal identification for online security and they were pointing to the potential for their product in different parts of the world. They displayed a global map that was divided into percentages, with higher scores featuring in the West than the East. When they finished I confessed I had failed to understand this part – what did the percentages represent?

Then, and only then, did they explain that until quite recently people in Eastern cultures tended to use a stamp impression to identify themselves rather than a signature. Then someone else chipped in: “It’s a bit like the signet rings that British people used for stamping sealing wax on important documents.”  “Like this,” I replied, showing my own signet ring bearing my family’s ancient crest and motto.” Just as I had very little knowledge of Eastern practices, my client had never seen the Western equivalent and in my explanation I had to avoid getting too bogged down in the complexities of Royal Charters and the Norman invasion.

What came out of this, however, were at least two very useful little nuggets for future versions of the pitch. First, actively use – and maybe even make a feature of – the cultural differences between stamps and signatures. It may seem peripheral to your ‘big sell’ but it’s all good story material with the potential to interest and intrigue your audience. 

Second, do a little ‘Cold Reading’ before you get started, especially in a room full of Brits in the City of London. Scan the room to see who has a signet ring, probably on the pinky finger of their left hand. Then you can get individuals actively involved in your storytelling. It builds a bridge between the two different cultures, together with empathy between yourself and your audience.

Show business people other than magicians will be familiar with this process, without necessarily regarding it as ‘Cold Reading’. “Who’s in tonight?” they will ask the theatre manager, keen to know of any particular coach groups with special interests, regionalities or special interests they can bounce off. As for magicians and their trickery, that inevitably has to remain shrouded in secrecy but, while much of it is surprisingly simple, technology has undoubtedly helped. Indeed, in the early days of the internet many mindreaders made a specialty of picking a supposedly random audience member and telling them intricate details of their schooldays – all plucked supposedly direct form their minds. Those mindreaders continue to this day to curse the demise of Friends Reunited!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The post-truth lowdown on the Christmas story

By any reckoning 2016 has been a pretty dreadful year for most of us, so there’s all the more reason to have a really good Christmas and start looking forward to better times in 2017.

One thing we are going to have to get used to, however, is living in a ‘post-truth’ age, which Wikipedia defines as follows:

campaigners continue to repeat their talking points, even if these are found to be untrue

debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored

Now, at the risk of ‘bah humbug’ accusations, it occurs to me that post-truth has been applied to the Christmas story for more than 2000 years.

What brings me to this conclusion? A rather wonderful new book called A Christmas Cornucopia by Mark Forsyth, who gets to the bottom of the traditional Christmas story with a lot of detailed research.

Among the Christmas myths busted by Forsyth are:

  • None of the four gospels say what day Jesus was born on. Mark and John don’t mention his birth at all.
  • From the evidence available (mainly equinox data) Jesus was probably born in the Spring.
  • Advent does not begin on December 1, except for once every seven years because officially it’s on the Sunday nearest to November 30. Only the advent of Advent Calendars brought about standardisation.
  • The origins of Christmas traditions are neither Victorian, nor Pagan. The Pagans did worship trees but opted for oaks.
  •  ‘Three ships came sailing by’ – makes no sense, as Bethlehem is landlocked.
  • Good King Wenceslas was a real person, but he wasn’t a King and he wasn’t called Wenceslas.
  • The number of Wise Men or ‘Magi’ is not specified in the gospels – only the number of gifts (three, of course).
  • Rudolph cannot be a male reindeer. ‘He’ is always depicted with horns, but males shed them during winter.
  • British partridges don’t perch in trees.
  • Early Christians didn’t even celebrate birthdays – they celebrated death days.

What makes A Christmas Cornucopia so enjoyable is that Forsyth combines his research with large doses of humour and affection. Among the origins he investigates are: Round Robins, Christmas Cards, Carols, Father Christmas, Santa’s Grotto and Elves, Rudolph and ‘his’ red nose, Crackers, Dried Fruit, Christmas Puddings and their sixpences and Boxing Day.

And, by the way, a ‘proper’ Christmas tree should have a snake in it!

It’s all great stuff and for me takes nothing away from the fact that I absolutely love Christmas. So be sure to have a very happy one yourself and if you click on the link below you can see me creating a Christmas card with the help of some technology and a little bit of magic!


Sunday, 4 December 2016

Keep still in your business presentation! It will both add impact and amplify your gestures

“Where are you going?” said the acting coach to the business presenter who was pacing backwards and forwards as he spoke. “Over there”, came the rather weak response. “Why?” said the coach, as they both realised there was no good answer to the question. That coach, Rich Bloch, was speaking to us at The Magic Circle and he made me think afresh about the benefits of stillness when you are delivering a presentation.

Stillness is, of course, the body language equivalent of Pausing, which I discussed in another recent blog. I said then that many people struggle with pausing and I have to admit that keeping still continues to be one of my personal challenges.

I tend to fidget and shuffle my feet around, which is not a good thing for two main reasons. The first is simply that an audience cannot focus on a moving target! Most people need discipline (possibly guided by some video footage) to achieve stillness and they also need inspiration from other sources. The latter, I believe, has not been helped by the rise of stand up comedy, which has grown in scale from little clubs with no room to move at all to the O2 Arena with its massive stage. This means that we now regularly see comedians prancing around their stage, and even skipping and falling over in some specific cases.

Please don’t even think of taking inspiration from the comedy world. Instead, take a look – as I continue to suggest – at almost any Steve Jobs product launch. He prowls the stage a bit as he opens – to ensure that he has engaged with every member of his audience. By the time he gets down to business, however, he is keeping fairly still, usually from a ‘home’ position on the left of the stage (audience’s view).

The second, more practical reason for keeping still is that gestures can be very effective for adding impact to what you are saying – but only if they come from the starting point of stillness. If your arms and legs are already flailing around it’s going to be difficult for your audience to spot your gestures in amongst all the other action!

As I intimated, you need to work at achieving stillness, but you can start that work like this: 1) As a general principle aim to keep still. Rather than standing with your feet parallel to each other, keep your heels together, with your feet at a 45 degree angle to each other; this should anchor you to the spot. 2) Plan some specific moments of movement and some appropriate gestures at key points. 3) Plan some very specific moments of stillness – probably where you have planned some pauses.

Finally, let’s go to an extreme and listen to some tips from a movie star who brings together both stillness and pausing. I say an extreme because, as Oliver Reed says in this clip, when your face is projected on a big screen your eyes can be six feet wide and if you want to, say, convey a sense of menace, you can’t even afford to blink! This clip evokes special memories for me because I was lucky enough to know Oliver quite well in the 70s and 80s when he lived in the house featured here, just across the fields from where I grew up. One Sunday afternoon he stood on one side of a pond reciting poetry, as a small group of us sat mesmerised on the other side. What made it so special was the combination of his rich voice and the fact that he was utterly still, so that any body language had great impact when it came. Naively I whispered to his niece: “How does he remember all those lines?” “He’s making it all up as he goes”, came the reply. Wow, what a shame we never got to see him on stage, rather than just on screen!

Monday, 21 November 2016

Clarkson gave business presenters a valuable lesson in editing. Now he needs to relearn the art of ‘Killing your Darlings’

So The Grand Tour, Clarkson, Hammond & May’s new post-Top Gear show, has finally hit our screens, albeit via an Amazon Firestick, and the ‘Terrible Trio’ have many reasons to be rather pleased with themselves. The bits in the tent need tightening up and they should make better use of their chosen location, but the films are magnificent – with one little quibble that harks back to a lesson for business presenters.

In my Presentation Skills sessions the subject of editing tends to loom large, especially when I am helping start ups with their investor pitches. I explain to the presenters that they simply know ‘too much’ about their topic. They have been fully immersed in that topic for months, if not years, so understandably want their audience to hear the full story, complete with all the intricacies on which they have laboured so long. The trouble is that the audience will be hearing it for the first time and have yet to develop any interest at all; at this stage they probably need a version that has been highly simplified. Really it needs an outsider (someone like me!) to look at the situation in an objective manner. Only then can you overcome what the psychologists call the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ – knowing too much to be able to explain something to people hearing it for the first time!

One of the techniques I recommend as a cure for this curse is to adopt the film makers’ approach to editing which is so ruthless that they call it ‘Killing your Darlings’. They go to all the trouble to writing dialogue, acting it out and filming it, only for much of the resulting footage to end up on the cutting room floor. The need to fill very specific time allocations and to hit commercial breaks at pivotal moments is part of what drives this approach, but it is more nuanced than that. If you watch the deleted scenes on DVDs the director’s voice over will typically include comments such as: “Nice performances from both the lead players here, but it wasn’t moving the story forward. So it had to go.”

Among the best recent endorsements for this ruthless approach to editing happens to be one from Jeremy Clarkson. In a Sunday Times column just after his famous fracas he said: “…every week the films were edited to a length that felt right. They felt balanced. They felt good. But every week there simply wasn’t time to fit them into the programme – so they’d have to be shortened. And without exception they were better as a result.” 

My ‘little quibble’ with The Grand Tour is that, while the films were both beautiful and embraced all that was best about the old Top Gear, they were a little too long. Early reviews seem to agree – The Evening Standard said: ‘segments testing hybrid hyper-cars drag at times’. In The Times, meanwhile: ‘the first sequence is too long…..For a show about speed, this played very slowly to me’.

What seems to have happened is that they have broken free from constraints but, as Clarkson himself said last year, one of those constraints – having to fit into precisely 58 minutes - had actually being doing them a favour. When broadcasting on the internet no one is putting up a stop sign and you can all-too-easily just keep wandering on.

So Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman need to re-learn the discipline of Killing your Darlings, possibly by doing as I advise business presenters – getting help from a third party who has had nothing to do with the content and so nothing to lose from making a few cuts. Furthermore, they will be seeing it for the first time, so will react much more like the audience will on the big day.