Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The prime time to stop rehearsing and fiddling with your presentation is sooner than you think

I am not going to have a nag about the need to rehearse when you are giving a presentation - let’s take that as read and consider this:

When should you STOP rehearsing?  In an ideal world (and I am all too familiar with how grim things can be in the real business world) the answer is ‘24 hours in advance’. It’s what magicians call the ‘Hollingworth Rule’ after esteemed conjuror Guy Hollingworth who points to the futility of say, cramming for exams until the moment you walk into the room, and instead advocates a period of rest and reflection. It’s like the stories you hear of generals who pore over plans throughout the night, only to lose battles to rivals whose final briefing was: “Big day tomorrow, let’s all get some sleep”.

It that case, what’s the best chance of getting proper sleep the night before?  An important part of the early stages of preparation is – again in an ‘ideal’ world – to visit the venue in which you will be presenting. That enables you to make logistical plans but, most important of all, it allows you to visualise how things will be on the big day. As you lie in bed the night before you can then have it all quietly turning over in your mind and you will probably fall into deep asleep. If you can’t visualise the scenario because you are not familiar with the venue, you will have a sense of ‘nothingness’ churning away in your head and that will keep you awake.

Whatever you do, avoid any major ‘structural’ work on your presentation at the late stages.  I despair when people start offering ‘helpful’ comments the night before such as: “I think perhaps we should rethink these colour schemes”, or “can we add a demonstration of the product”.  Such suggestions can only create and add to stress levels at a time when all the focus should be on making the presenters themselves feel as comfortable as possible, which can only be jeopardised by changes to the format.

The one thing a presenter should do at the late stages is to become word perfect with how they plan to open and close.  ‘Firsts and Lasts’ are the most important parts of any presentation because those are the elements that audience members remember.  Even more importantly, a good start is essential to engaging the audience, making them pay attention and getting them to like you. The climax is where you deliver your ‘Call to Action’ and send them away with a message to remember.

So plan to stop fiddling with what are really no more than support materials 24 hours in advance, providing some time to devote to yourself. Use that time to visualise how good you are going to be in that scenario and to becoming word perfect at the bits that really matter. This will make you look and feel confident – not least because you can work free of notes and give full-on eye contact, just when it is needed most.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The best visual aids for a business presentation are often cheap and impromptu

I have always been very much in favour of using visual aids in business presentations – there is plenty of research to indicate how powerful they can be in terms of making your message both understood and remembered – but the aids that are most effective of all are often those that are cheap and impromptu.

Possibly the best use of a visual aid that I have ever seen was in a presentation by a Fund Manager. In response to a question, he reached for a scrap of flimsy paper and drew a very simple graph with just two axes and one line. He then held the piece of paper close to his face and guided his audience through the movements on the graph using his pencil as a pointer. By doing so he created a ‘single point of focus’ - him and his graph all in one ‘tight shot’ - and he never broke eye contact, making his delivery highly compelling.

The reason he was able to hold eye contact was that the scrap of paper was so flimsy that he could see through it and therefore knew exactly where he was pointing at any given moment. What underpinned the powerful delivery technique was that it all looked as though this thought had just occurred to him and that he had drawn the graph especially for this audience to answer their specific question. In other words, it was not a carefully thought out piece of PowerPoint to be rolled out to all and sundry.

In reality, of course, the ‘graph on a scrap of paper’ was central to his regular repertoire, and an essential part of his preparation for meetings was to ensure that some scrappy paper and a pencil were close to hand. If the paper provided was too thick he would send out for something cheaper!

I am not one to advocate abandoning PowerPoint altogether – you should use whatever helps to get your point across to this particular audience on this particular occasion. But imagine how powerful some cheap and impromptu aids can be if you are using them to break away for some more sophisticated aids that are clearly pre-prepared.

It nevertheless begs the question as to how far you can or should adopt the cheap and impromptu principle. For inspiration you might like to look below at a presentation given by my advertising hero Dave Trott (Click on the link under the picture). He delivers the whole thing by doodling on an overhead projector (remember them?)!  You will soon see, however, that it suits his ‘Wise Old Cockney Geezer’ character so much better than anything that PowerPoint could ever provide.

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Bond team triumph again – by thinking like magicians

The new James Bond film Spectre is magnificent in many different ways, but one reviewer has chosen to focus in a negative way on one of the fundamental reasons for its success.

Sam Mendes film spends more time making sly references to Bond’s past glories than coming up with fresh ideas, said the Evening Standard on Friday.  Maybe the reviewer hasn’t been listening to Daniel Craig’s careful explanations of the strategy for re-booting the franchise, and he certainly seems to be ignorant of some important principles of the workings of effective communication.

My own take on these principles is the ‘Rules of Magic’ – techniques that the best magicians deploy instinctively and which prove every bit as effective in the world at large. Bond films follow many of the Rules of Magic – perhaps most obviously Firsts & Lasts are remembered (Rule 13), but the key here is Rule 3: Communication can only be effective when it builds on what the audience already knows. So when I am helping people to create and deliver business presentations I am constantly urging them to build in familiar reference points that spark meaning in the minds of the audience, so that the main message can be built upon that meaning.

From a personal and professional point of view I was therefore delighted to find Spectre liberally sprinkled with familiar reference points. The challenge was to build a new story on top of these iconic elements and that was both achieved and aided by a sharp juxtaposition of the old and the new.

I would love to tell you more about these delightful moments but I am not going to for two reasons. First I don’t want to spoil the surprises and second, I’m actually writing under an embargo here. I was very fortunate to be invited to a preview by my friends at Aston Martin. Funnily enough, the Evening Standard makes no mention of what continues to be Bond’s car of choice. Maybe he thinks that requires some ‘fresh ideas’ as well!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Don’t be afraid of simple solutions when constructing your business presentation

Much has been made of the need for simplicity when it comes to communication and at some stage we have all been taught the ‘KISS” principle – ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’! I would like to make a gentler, more practical proposal for constructing a business presentation: Don’t be afraid of the simple solution – that may be staring you in the face.

I actually touched on the challenges to achieving simplicity and the clarity that usually results in my last blog (see immediately below) on the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. We tend to know too much about our subject matter to be able to explain it in simple terms. 

One of the occasions on which this became most apparent to me was a few years ago when a newly formed group of doctors and other NHS bodies was making its final pitch to become a fully-certified Clinical Consulting Group. They needed help with their presentation because they were all much more used to day-to-day medical matters than they were to making persuasive arguments to bureaucrats in control of purse strings. As experts in their various fields, however, they knew everything there was to know - other than where to start, where to finish and how to cram it all into the allotted time frame. They were truly afflicted with the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. 

After listening to some longwinded meanderings that were neither persuasive, nor memorable, I told them that the structure with which they were struggling was actually very simple; they already knew it and it’s up there. “Where”, they asked. “Just there”, I replied, pointing to a pop up banner that I was seeing for the first time, but had seemingly become just ‘part of the furniture’ to everyone else. Underneath the organisation’s logo the banner proudly declared: ‘Better Care, Better Health, Better Value’. “Those are presumably your founding principles and I assume you still stand by them”, I suggested to nods all round. “Well all you need to do in the presentation to get final sign off for your CCG is to give brief but compelling demonstrations of how you are delivering better care, better health and better value, ideally in that order”.

The solution had not occurred to anyone until that point, probably because it seemed too simple to be true. Within that simplicity, however, lay – from the audience’s point of view - clarity and familiarity, all wrapped up in the ‘Power of Three’. For the presenters it overcame all the agonising over structure – and the presentation content started to write itself.

So don’t be afraid of the simple solution – that just may be staring you in the face.

Monday, 5 October 2015

You can easily know too much when constructing a business presentation

When it comes to constructing a business presentation, you might assume that the more you know about the topic, the easier you will find the process. Actually, the opposite is often true - those with really deep knowledge of their subject matter tend to struggle with construction because they are afflicted by the ‘Curse of Knowledge’.

Outbreaks of the Curse have been most prevalent in my presentation skills coaching at a leading University where I help some of the most brilliant post-graduate students with pitches to potential investors. Having lived and breathed their projects for some years - often to the exclusion of almost anything else – they actually struggle to explain what it is they have invented. Sometimes it takes them so long to do so, that they run out of time to lay out their business plan. We have to work hard at getting their message into a neat little nutshell and positioned right up front in the running order. On one excruciating occasion, however, a student decided to manage without the coaching with the result that the Q&A kicked off with an investor asking: “This all sounds very impressive, but what actually is it”?

Fund Managers also tend suffer from the Curse of Knowledge. Their super-sized brains simply cannot cope with distilling their messages down to something the rest of us can process in the time available. In one instance I took the highly unusual step of declaring: ‘Let’s not even try to teach him any Presentation Skills; let the sales guys do all the heavy lifting and just wheel out the Fund Manager briefly so that the audience gets a glimpse of his ‘boffin credentials’.

Most recently, I discovered very clear symptoms in a highly accomplished author and broadcaster. She is giving a talk on a leading rock star and she is travelling to the USA to give the talk, because she is the world’s leading authority on the said rock star. She needed help with construction, though, saying: “I’ve got so much material, I don’t know where to start. Shall I show some clips here, play some music there, how am I going to fit it all in”? I pressed her on the nature and knowledge of the audience and listened to the general sense of what she wanted to say. We then put the two together and drew up a simple three-part structure.  The elements of the structure immediately suggested material that should fit within them; and if anything did not answer that brief it would not be included. My client relaxed because the curse of all her knowledge had been lifted and she could now focus on being magnificent in her delivery.

So the Call to Action here is: when constructing a presentation, seek help from others who are broadly within your target audience but know little or nothing about what you plan to say. Only then can you be sure of hitting home with your message. Having done exactly this with many people over a number of years, only recently did I realise that the psychologists call the problem the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. I am indebted to InsightAgents, whose blog here goes into more detail and links to a video discussion with Steven Pinker, who discusses this and the many other issues featured in his latest book The Sense of Style.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Reframe your nervous feelings to get into the best shape for your business presentation

I am always seeking inspiration for Presentation Skills from outside the business world and there is a fair amount one can learn from actors. One of my favourite pieces of advice comes from Andy Nyman on the topic of nerves. In his book The Golden Rules of Acting he advises:

Don’t say ‘I’m nervous about…’, say ‘I’m excited about…’. Try it, you’ll be amazed how effectively it gets rid of your nerves.

The clever thing about this particular gem is that nerves and excitement feed off the same sets of energy and emotion, so it quite easy to swap them around in your mind to positive effect. 

Having said you can learn from actors, there are limits to their usefulness to the business presenter. With all due respect to actors and other performers, most of them have never had a proper job for any sustained period and they simply can’t relate to the situation business presenters are in. This was all too apparent when I dealt with some top comedians seeking continued sponsorship support. One was surprised at a frosty response from a sponsor and said: “They did want us to take the p**s out them didn’t they”? My answer: ‘No and they don’t want to continue with the sponsorship, either’!

Andy Nyman, on the other hand, is a much more well-rounded actor who is an award winning writer, director and magician, highly acclaimed for his collaborations with Derren Brown. His book, therefore, is a treasure trove for actors and presenters. Having worked with a number of people whose nerves are exacerbated by watching videos of themselves, I was fascinated to find Andy saying that actors have similar reservations:

Watching yourself in a film or on TV is horrible – you will think your voice sounds horrible and you look awful. Trust me, it doesn’t and you don’t.

This can be a problem, it would seem, even if you happen to be James Bond! Pierce Brosnan commented that his children used to complain about his refusal to watch the latest 007 movies with them – he simply couldn’t bear to see himself on screen. Similarly afflicted, it would seem from last Sunday’s Desert Island Discs is Bond’s boss – Dame Judi Dench.  She told Kirsty Young that she hates watching herself and has never seen many of her performances. She went on to say: “But fear brings a great energy that you can turn into something useful – that is the secret of success”.

So in the words of Andy Nyman, as endorsed by Judi Dench, don’t say: “I am nervous about my presentation; say I am excited about my presentation” and feel the difference that it makes.