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

Monday, 19 September 2016

Mick Jagger’s audience management tips transfer directly to the business presentation arena

I have been catching up on some musical memories and in the process discovering Mick Jagger’s tips on audience management, which chime very nicely with the advice I give to business presenters.

To my great delight my son Louis has turned into an even greater Rolling Stones fan than myself, so for his recent birthday I gave him the latest box set of DVDs, amongst which was the Brixton Academy gig that I was lucky enough to attend in 1996. Aged just two at the time, Louis had been young too attend.

Also included was some great documentary material, with Jagger’s explanation on audience management including the following:

“I see it as one big animal and I focus on individuals too to ensure I’m getting close contact. I also do groups because you can spot little gangs and treat them like that. I don’t like seeing friends and family because you can’t be so daft….”

Let’s break that down into separate components:

I see it as one big animal

I say that you have to be sure to address everyone in the room in a business presentation, probably making a special effort to acknowledge those at the back and to your extreme left and right. I urge presenters to spread their eye contact far and wide because it is so easy for audience members to feel left out. If there is no audience available in a practice session and the speaker is struggling to imagine the situation for real, I get out my set of celebrity masks and fix them to the backs of chairs. Then the feedback tends to be along the lines of “much better, but Prince Philip and Sir Alex are still feeling rather excluded”!

and I focus on individuals too

I recommend holding eye contact with individuals for just a fraction longer than seems natural so as to ensure you are establishing close contact. Juan Tamariz, the Spanish hero of magicians worldwide, goes so far as to advise checking out people’s eye colours – again, to ensure you are establishing close contact.

I also do groups

I say you need to establish clearly up front whether you are happy and able to take questions as you go. Nevertheless, you should always seize on any opportunity for direct engagement with audience members, especially in groups.  You can empathise with them and bounce off their energy. Played right, the rest of the audience will feed off and add to that energy and the group members will feel special, be the first to applaud and they will talk about you afterwards.

I don’t like seeing friends and family

The challenge with Presentation Skills training and rehearsals is that you are usually performing in front of colleagues. People expect this to be a safe option and are a little baffled when they struggle. I explain that it is generally more difficult presenting to people you know because there is often some sort of ‘agenda’ between yourself and individuals in front of you. You will be coming to a particular passage and thinking something like ‘I know Sarah/whoever doesn’t like this idea’ so you will steer your eye contact in another direction and hold back a little in your delivery. It is much easier when you have a ‘blank canvas’ in front of you and can proceed unfettered.

Even, it would appear, if you happen to happen to be the front man of the world’s greatest rock ‘n roll band, with more than half a century’s experience under your belt!

Totally Stripped, the latest box set from the Rolling Stones can be found here:

Sunday, 4 September 2016

A lesson for business presenters from TV presenters, young and old

Most business people give a presentation on just an occasional basis, which is one of the reasons it can feel like an ordeal every time it happens. So what can we learn from people who are presenting day in, day out - Television personalities? I have come across a couple of tips from TV people from very different generations and they both revolve around preparation.

Jason Manford is a comedian, TV presenter, radio presenter and actor.  He’s probably most familiar, however, from his regular appearances on TV panel shows. How has he achieved such a broad-ranging career at the age of just 35 and why is he in such great demand?
l to r: Alan Davies, Sandi Toksvig, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Clarkson, Jason Manford
A big clue to his success can be drawn from this insight. “I prepare for everything”, he says, “even panel shows. I probably won’t use a lot of what I have prepared, but knowing you are so well prepared gives you great confidence.”  So, contrary to rumours, he is not given all the questions in advance, but does know broadly what topics are going to be covered. Based on that knowledge, he researches and writes little snippets and jokes that will suit the style of the show.

That kind of commitment and attention to detail is more readily associated with a different era of television – such as that of Cliff Michelmore, who was 96 when he died earlier this year. In the 1950s and 60s he became one of the best-known presenters on British television. He was appearing in as many as 300 programmes a year and presided over election coverage and moments of live drama such as the assassination of President Kennedy and the return of the damaged Apollo 13.

Michelmore’s hallmark was that he always appeared confident, calm, unhurried and unflappable. We could all do a bit of that, so what was his secret? Michael Parkinson got an insight when, prior to becoming a famous chat show host, he worked with Michelmore on the BBC current affairs show 24 Hours.  Noticing that his preparation methods used to involve a mere skimming of the research, but many notes in the margins of the running order, Parkinson asked Michelmore what he was writing. “I’m looking at the running order to spot where there might be a breakdown, and when I find it I write in my ad libs,” he replied.

Like, Jason Manford, he hopefully didn’t need to use much of what he had prepared but forewarned is forearmed and the result is unflappability.

Friday, 29 July 2016

The communication and creative skills that contributed to Alexis Conran’s success on Celebrity Masterchef - a small personal insight

Huge congratulations to Alexis Conran on winning Celebrity Masterchef 2016.  But who, you may be asking is Alexis Conran? Well, I first met him more than a decade ago when he was a jobbing actor, supplementing his income by working as a magician. I was working with his magical agent on the initial development of what eventually became my Presentation Skills training programme based around the Rules of Magic.

I had the pleasure of working alongside Alexis, together with the likes of Guy Hollingworth and Ali Bongo on a couple of occasions at The Magic Circle. What impressed me was the work ethic he applied to rehearsal, his attention to detail – “we need a new envelope, not this used one” – and his engaging personality. They (my wife, for one) may not have remembered what he did, but they certainly remembered him, which was why he was so regularly booked as a magician when he was actually becoming too busy with his acting to be fiddling around as a magician.

Alexis went on to co-create and star in the BBC’s The Real Hustle and a variety of his own documentaries, as well as hosting TV and radio shows; when I last saw him about six months ago he was struggling to even remember his exploits within the magic world. Watching him triumph on Celebrity Masterchef, however, I could see that all those qualities of hard work, attention to detail and a winning personality were now being applied to cooking. Watch out for Alexis hosting a prime time show on a mainstream channel soon – it may be cookery-based, but he could win us over with almost anything.

The lesson for business presenters?  Draw inspiration from all around you. It’s Magic, Movies and Music that do it for me, but apply principles from whatever turns you on to your business presentations and you will soon start to excel.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Without enunciation your business presentation can fall at the first fence

I have talked before about the importance of enunciation in a business presentation – especially as you open and close. This is not simply an old-fashioned notion – unless your audience members receive your introductory message with crystal clarity, then anything that follows could be rendered meaningless.

The concept was brought into sharp focus for me recently when I was coaching a foreign entrepreneur for his investor pitch about a new material he had invented. Key to the concept was that his material had great advantages over its traditional competitor - ‘vood’. I was confused but eventually worked out why, necessitating a conversation about composer Wagner, actor Robert Wagner and guitarist Ronnie Wood.

Rex Harrison in 'My Fair Lady'
Language difficulties can be sorted out relatively easily, but speakers of the Queen’s English can fall into similar traps, especially with words that sound very similar to another word or even the opposite of what was intended. If, for instance, you were to say: ‘this is unnecessary’ or ‘unnatural’, that could easily be heard as ‘necessary’ or ‘natural’ – the opposite of what you meant! The problems with these examples are of course exacerbated by the double Ns, but you need very clear enunciation in such cases to make yourself clear. It may well be better to change the words to something like ‘this won’t be needed’.

My favourite real life example of mumbled delivery that was potentially going to have very expensive repercussions was the presenter who appeared to announce, in a rather offhand manner: “This is a $17 million opportunity.” “Hang on a minute”, I interrupted; “if this really is a $17 million opportunity, then please ‘spit that out’ loud and proud.” He replied rather sheepishly that it was actually a $17 billion opportunity. “In that case”, I said, “my advice stands; but multiply it by 1000!”

So by all means relax a bit in the middle of your presentation – keep it conversational and tell some stories to bring it all to life. But open and close with crystal clarity that leaves your audience in absolutely no doubt about what you have come to talk about and what you want them to do as a result.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Prince George helps to highlight the importance of strong, direct eye contact

If I had to choose one ingredient that is most vital to the delivery of an effective business presentation it would be eye contact. And if you were to ask me what needs most work in the Presentation Skills training sessions I run it would also be eye contact. Happily, I now have a new role model to help in my quest to improve presenters’ eye contact and it is none other that HRH Prince George.

Strong eye contact makes a presenter more credible, trustworthy, confident, assertive, as well as more friendly. And yet most people have to work at improving eye contact that is typically indistinct, hesitant, too brief and poorly spread. This is often as a result of inexperience, but nerves can play a big part and many people using PowerPoint have an additional struggle – that their eyes are drawn continuously towards their screen, whether or not anything there has actually changed!

“Keep looking forwards”, I say. “If your eye contact is strong, then your audience’s eyes should follow yours into the screen – when you want them to look there specifically”. Magicians know more than almost anybody how the eyes can be used to direct attention. Their mantra is ‘if you want your audience to look at you (which you do most of the time), look at them. If you want them to look at something (ie where the magic is about to happen), look at it’.

So how does Prince George fit into all of this? Well, many of the people I coach have young children, so I personalise the principle to them by asking if their children are at the age of being taught how to shake hands and say ‘thank you for having me’. We generally agree that without accompanying eye contact, the words are relatively meaningless. To ram the point home, I have for many years been showing pictures of my own daughter Eliza at that age, both with eye contact (delightfully engaging) and without (rather grumpy).

The trouble for me is that Eliza is now 18 and about to go to University! So thank you Prince George, whose nervy greeting of a Red Arrows officer at the Royal International Air Tattoo last Friday provides a charming up to date example of the point I seek to make. Little does he know just how much hand shaking lies ahead of him!