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.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Eye contact – it’s the business presenter’s most important skill but needs constant practice

“Prince Philip was feeling was left out and Fergie was wondering why you were staring at him” are typical of the feedback I give to business presenters when we are focusing on eye contact in my training sessions.

For me, eye contact is one of the most vital elements for effective Presentation Skills and yet most people need to keep working at it long after they have become accomplished in other respects.

And one of the difficulties in coaching people in this area is that you are often working with a very small audience or no audience at all. I soon realised there was little point in saying “imagine all these seats are filled with people” so I got myself some celebrity masks and if the need arises I strap them to the backs of the empty chairs. Then the presenter has some targets for the eye contact they are practicing. 


In order to establish the importance of eye contact I often ask those I am coaching about their children. “Are you teaching them to say: ‘thank you for having me’,” I ask. “They may achieve a firm handshake and a heartfelt thank you, but without eye contact it means very little.”

The same applies with grown ups in any situation, but it becomes especially apparent in presentations. You can be a word-perfect smooth talker but without the eye contact you are never going to engage your audience; indeed, you may switch them off or even make them feel excluded.

By the time we get to eye contact in my training sessions we have already clearly established that how you open and how you close are the two most important moments in any presentation. These are what audiences remember, I explain (what psychologists call ‘Primacy & Recency’), but there is much more to it than that. Your opening is where you need to engage your audience – making them sit up, pay attention and, ideally, like you. That needs strong, direct eye contact. Your close is where you deliver your Call to Action – what you want them to remember and do as a result of your presentation. No one is going to do anything for you unless you look them straight in the eye.

Two final tips – one from me and one from a legendary magician. Be sure to spread your eye contact evenly. In order to make everyone feel included this may need some overt moves in order to catch those at the back or to your extreme left or right. Magicians probably know more about eye contact than anyone because they use it to direct attention where they want it and away from their sleight of hand dirty work. Juan Tamariz suggests checking the colour of your audience’s eyes – that forces close eye contact.

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!