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.

Monday, 14 November 2016

‘Pause for thought’ in a business presentation – your audience’s thoughts, that is - allowing them to sink in

One of most effective of all Presentation Skills techniques happens also to be one of the simplest; and yet it is a technique that many presenters struggle to implement. I am talking about Pauses which, as Khalid Aziz says, have the effect of putting your words ‘into lights’, so adding real impact. In my Presentation Skills coaching sessions I point to two additional benefits. 

First, pauses allow important messages to ‘sink in’ and register properly with your audience, who are probably hearing them for the first time. Too many presenters tend to be focused on simply getting through their presentation, so they ‘plough on’, giving equal weight and emphasis to everything they say. I find myself responding: “Hang on a minute; somewhere in there you made brief reference to the ‘highest rental rates ever achieved’, but you said it in a rather mater of fact way and moved on too swiftly to various bits of minutiae. If you have a record achievement to report, let’s dwell on that for a moment, with a bit of emphasis, a display of excitement and then a pause – to let that important message sink in.

The second additional benefit of pauses is that they can help with your overall pacing. Many people speak too fast when they present, certainly as they open – partly because their heart is pumping a bit faster at that nervy moment, so their speech speeds up as well. There are various methods to tackle nerves, but if you plan and implement pauses around key words, then together with the benefits already discussed, you will soon find your rate of speech coming down to a much more measured pace. And if you work at this, you have the beginnings of gravitas.

So pauses are one of the most useful and impactful tools in the business presenter’s toolbox – you only have to look at any Steve Jobs video to see how much he liked to deploy the pause.  And yet most people are afraid to pause – they almost shudder at the thought of creating a ‘vacuum’ that must surely be filled as quickly as possible. Some of the best interviewers, of course, exploit this fear when asking difficult questions. They simply wait for an answer that eventually comes, but mainly because the interviewee can’t bear the prevailing silence.

The only way to overcome this fear is to start experimenting with pauses – in a planned way - and studying how others use them, both when speaking and in other fields. At The Magic Circle, for instance, when we are being taught tricks, the advice around the big ‘ta dah’ moment is often: “Having done that, do nothing else. Just allow the moment to sink in.” Dynamo, of course, takes this approach to an extreme, by simply walking way from his audience, allowing them to focus fully on the amazement he has just created.


In music, meanwhile, no one is completely sure whether Miles Davis actually said: “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play”, but somehow the attribution feels right. What I can be sure of – having seen for myself recently on a Sky Arts interview - is that Jeff Beck said: “Silence is gold dust. The trouble is that people don’t know when to shut up.”





Prof Khalid Aziz is Chairman of Aziz Corporate, the executive business & leadership coaching company

Monday, 31 October 2016

Why bother turning up to give your business presentation? Take a tip from the demise of the ‘Top Gear Experience’

“If you’re just going to stand there and read it out, you might as well send it in by email and save your audience a lot of time and effort.” 

Now, I have never actually given feedback like that in my Presentation Skills sessions – I like to think I have a reputation for giving tough advice in a kind and constructive way – but there have been occasions when I would have liked to!

A great presentation is all about the person giving it, possibly enhanced by some well-chosen aids. YOU and only you can bring the subject alive, make it memorable and make your audience do something as a result.

So it was no surprise to me when I read last week (see here) that the ‘Top Gear Experience’, which enables Jo Public to live out what they have seen on the TV screen, has gone bust.

Now, I’m asking for a slight leap of imagination here, but look at it like this. Without Clarkson, Hammond and May, the so called Top Gear Experience is just an old airfield in Dunsfold and some scruffy sheds. And ‘Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car’ is ‘Me in a Reasonably-Priced Car’ which, actually, is just Me Living Out My Ordinary Life, but on an old airfield used by Top Gear. It was that Terrible Trio that made the old airfield and scruffy shed seem like magic, helped along by their particular visual aids – exotic cars that only they will ever be able to borrow! And, while the new team still deserves a chance to settle in properly, we don’t (yet, at least) really aspire to driving like Chris Evans, the bloke from Friends or any of those other people, some of whom appear to have the makings of star quality.


Coming back to the world of business presentations, one of my trainees left a session last week with the personal objective: I am going to put much more focus on myself and what I say and do in order to engage the particular audience on the day. Only once I have cracked that will I think about the aids that might support me.

That is getting
priorities in the right order. And here’s looking forward to The Grand Tour: 




Monday, 24 October 2016

‘Little elephants’ in the room can hijack your message – as Phil Collins can testify!

This week I am urging business presenters to watch out for ‘Little Elephants in the room’ when they deliver a presentation. Yes, following the ‘Starbucks Test’ that I described in my last blogpost, I have coined another phrase. More accurately perhaps, I have adapted a very well known phrase that goes back hundreds of years but has come into increasingly frequent use in the past decade as people describe awkward scenarios where a big issue remains unaddressed.

I believe, however, that with business presentations there can often be ‘Little Elephants’ in the room – in the form small details that will inevitably be at the front of the minds of those you are addressing. A Little Elephant starts as a distraction and if left unattended can end up as the framework for everything you are seeking to communicate. If, for instance, I were to turn up for a presentation with a black eye, then whatever I say, the main thing audience members are going to be thinking is: ‘I wonder how he got that black eye’? They may start using some of the things I say as pointers to solutions; those at the back could even be getting into a whispered dialogue about it.

What I would need to do, therefore, is to address the black eye right up front, quickly and definitively: “Hello I’m Nick Fitzherbert – as you can see I’ve got a black eye – that kitchen cupboard clearly wanted to get its own back when I finally prised it open! What I am going to talk about today is…”. By acknowledging your situation clearly but concisely you have the best chance of clearing it out of the way, so that you can move on and have your audience focus on what you are actually saying rather than the causes of your ‘shiner’.

Two examples from the world of show business demonstrate how this tactic can be deployed. Rob Beckett is a young comedian whose opening line when he was initially establishing himself was: “Hello, my name’s Rob Beckett and I’ve got massive teeth. A funny thing happened the other day…” By having an overt laugh at himself right up front and moving on swiftly the Little Elephant has left the room the audience can now focus on his comedy rather than his prominent gnashers. David Regal is one of the most creative people in the magic world and he happens to be rather short. None of us really noticed this until he appeared on
Penn & Teller’s Fool Us TV show, performing alongside the extremely tall Penn Jillette.  As they came together centre-stage Regal’s line was: “Thank you for joining me Penn”, then, turning to the audience: “as you can see, pinstripe (the pattern of Jillette’s suit) gives the illusion of height.” Again, the Little Elephant had left the room and now all we were thinking about was Regal’s magic.

 Finally, if you remain in any doubt about the ability of a Little Elephant to steal attention and frame your communication, my black eye example happened for real just last week. Phil Collins announced a series of new shows. This was big news as he was coming out of retirement after a series of health scares and personal problems. So the story made page 3 of London’s Evening Standard. The front page, however, was dominated by a picture of Collins captioned ‘How did rock star Phil Collins get that black eye’? As for framing what he actually wanted to communicate, the Page 3 story was headed: ‘Collins soldiers on after bathroom fall to announce: I’m coming out of retirement’.

It has to be said that, on this occasion, Collins’ PR team were probably raising a glass to that bathroom floor, but Little Elephants are rarely going to be quite so helpful!

NEWS UPDATE: Robert Peston presented Peston on Sunday yesterday with facial injuries – but not before he had inserted a jokey preview clip in which he explained that he had fallen off his bike!

Monday, 10 October 2016

So what is the ‘Starbucks Test’ for business presenters?

I’ve been travelling again – all over America, albeit just across airwaves for a series of radio interviews on Presentation Skills. One question that was asked by everyone from the bushy-tailed breakfast jocks to the rather more intense business commentators was: “What is the Starbucks Test that you apply to your training?”


The Starbucks Test is as follows: You must invest proper time in preparation; you know that but you probably won’t appreciate it fully until you have let yourself down once or twice. So in my training I go a little over the top to make the point. I ask people to imagine they have prepared and rehearsed their presentation very carefully and have arrived with all their equipment and other aids, only to be told: “Very sorry, but all the meeting rooms have been booked, so we’re going to have to do the presentation over the road in Starbucks.” Now, you need to decide whether you are prepared to be messed around like that, but if you could still deliver an engaging and impactful presentation in such conditions, just imagine how good you could be when everything goes exactly to plan! As I say, it’s a little over the top, but only a little – it has happened to me!

Aside from recognising the reality that things will inevitably go wrong from time to time, my Starbucks Rule actually embraces another very important principle of business presentation: if you see a bunch of PowerPoint slides as ‘the presentation’ you are going fail; you are the show, everything else is just support to you and what you are saying. Imagining what you would do if you were suddenly robbed of your aids forces you face up to this. It also helps to underline one of the tips I give to people seeking to pitch an idea or new concept in their presentation: Be sure to give your idea a name. I don’t imagine those American DJs would have been too excited if their briefing on me had said simply: ‘Nick puts great importance on proper preparation’. In contrast, by pitching it as: ‘Nick applies the Starbucks Test to the final stages before making a presentation’ they see images, intrigue and the potential for banter.

So what’s in a name? The power to communicate, that’s what!



A little footnote: My Starbucks Test has come to the fore as I have gradually and sadly had to retire my favourite story about the benefits of preparation, simply because it happened rather a long time ago. It’s the story of how Queen made intense preparations for their barnstorming performance at Live Aid in 1985. The story, which you can find here was told to me by Lesley-Ann Jones, author of Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography. The good news is that Lesley-Ann has just published a new book: Hero: David Bowie. It’s a terrific book and one of the things that makes it so good is that, just as she was there, backstage at Live Aid, Lesley-Ann was also with Bowie at various different stages of his long career. And if you read the story about a sponsorship deal on page 252 I can vouch for that myself – because I was there!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Learning some cultural communication lessons – the Bulgarian Blog

I’ve been on a speaking assignment to Bulgaria and, as always when venturing abroad, I have learned a few new things, not least about differences in communication styles.

A very handy little guide I was given on arriving at my hotel explained that Bulgarians nod for ‘no’ and shake their heads for ‘yes’. I wish I had known this when working some years ago with an asset management executive who displayed exactly this trait. Rather than going straight into a criticism/discussion about his mis-match between words and body language, I could have eased my way in with the semi-serious question: “Do you have any Bulgarian blood?”

Then the moment I finished my talk one delegate came straight up to ask a personal question – not, sadly about my subject matter of Presentation Skills and Pitching, but what was the meaning of the word ‘taut’. Ironically, the word appeared in a direct quote from a Spanish magician.  I was annoyed with myself, however, because clearly I had failed to run through my script and slides one final time to check for words that may be unfamiliar to those whose first language is not English. 

Other things I learned in Bulgaria include:
  • They all think we are mad for choosing to Brexit. We had not even got out of the airport car park before my taxi driver began to grill me on the matter. 
  • The Hungarians have had to set up a new Facilities Management Association – because their best people in the sector have left for the UK and Germany.
  • The Bulgarians still have book shops all over town. They even have a big outdoor market, devoted entirely to books. Some of the cover designs are very familiar, with Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver featuring strongly. Quite how Sir Rod Stewart’s autobiography ‘Rod’ translates into ‘Pao’, however, remains a mystery both to me and to the Google Translator app. 
  • Ian Gillian ‘sings Deep Purple’ at local gigs – with an orchestra!
  • If the taxi driver who picks you up at the airport charms you into accepting a ‘fixed fare’ you are definitely being ripped off. But you won’t realise it until the return trip, because it’s still quite cheap.

Finally, I visited the grand-looking cathedral opposite my hotel and I was reprimanded for having my hands in my pockets! Again, I was disappointed in myself, because I like to think I am not really a hands-in-pockets person – certainly not when talking to someone. I felt like suggesting perhaps they should focus more on putting away the stray brooms, storing the rolled up carpet more tidily, replacing a lot of broken light bulbs and switching some others on so that we could actually see the artwork on the walls. But I didn’t – I meekly obeyed. 

However globalised we become, differences in communication and culture persist and we need to learn, respect and abide by them if we are to engage with different communities.

Goodbye to the Yellow Brick Road that runs from the Radisson Blu to the cathedral