Sunday, 22 March 2015

Clarkson endorses my plea to business presenters to ‘Kill their Darlings’

I have written before (here) about the need for ruthless editing in any business presentation and I have suggested looking to film and TV directors for inspiration.  They have a phrase ‘Killing my Darlings’ to describe the fact that, having gone to all the trouble of writing dialogue, acting it and then filming it, they go on to throw much of it away – ‘on the cutting room floor’ or whatever is the digital equivalent.

“Take a look at the ‘Deleted Scenes’ of your DVDs”, I say, and you will get the director typically saying: “this was beautifully played by both the lead actors; but it wasn’t really moving the story forward; so it had to go”. They have to be ruthless in their editing for a number of reasons and they usually end up with a better product as a result. Anyone who has ever sat through a typical business presentation will probably agree that business presenters could do well in taking inspiration from these killers of darlings.


Now, Jeremy Clarkson, who I often lean on for presentation tips, has come up with perhaps the definitive description of the benefits of killing some darlings. In his Sunday Times column on March 22 he wrote the following:

I used to work on a television show called Top Gear and every week the films were edited to a length that 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.

Whatever you happen to think of Clarkson, most people who have read his books and columns would agree he is a very talented writer. And of course he scripted most of what went out on Top Gear. Quantifying just how good he is is difficult, but I can offer this little personal insight into his skills. Many years ago he and I were the only ones left at a dinner table in South-London – possibly because no one else was interested in our somewhat anoraky chat about the inner workings of journalism. “I have been writing columns for so long”, he said, that if I am asked to write, say, 400 words, I can start writing and come to a halt, knowing that I am within two-to-three words of the 400 target”.  And on that note…. I shall come to a stop, with absolutely no idea whatsoever of how many words I have written.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

To build a reputation as an expert you need some tasty bits of trivia

If you want to get ahead in business it usually pays to display the expertise that your position implies whenever you can, everywhere from the boardroom to the conference stage. Presentation skills can help to create such a reputation and there is a trick to conveying expertise and being remembered for it: find yourself some tasty bits of trivia.

The fact is that quantity and even quality of knowledge is not necessarily going to enhance your reputation. Selecting knowledge that creates insight is what you should probably be aiming for, but even that is not necessarily going to make you memorable. To get people going away remembering and re-telling your gems of wisdom you need to be counter-intuitive and come up with a few simple one-liners that you might even go home and tell to your loved ones.

Think in terms of the little stories Sir Michael Caine used to come up with in his many chat show appearances. He claims he never actually said: “Not a lot of people know that”, but it’s exactly the sort of thing he would have said following one of his little trivia stories, so the phrase was used by all the impressionists and became attached to his persona. Nowadays the concept is exploited by Steve Wright on Radio 2 with his ‘factoids’ feature and the long-running Qi TV series is built entirely around the concept of: “I heard something quite interesting about……”.  You know the sort of thing: Fleas can jump 350 times their own body length; elephants are the only animals that cannot jump; polar bears are left-handed.

So how do you make this work in business?  Reflecting on what you say about your work to friends and family is probably a good start. I was coaching a travel market analyst in presentation skills; he was from Georgia and his latest assignment was to become the expert on all things Russian within his firm. In the initial run through of his presentation he displayed a lot of graphs and statistics, which were all very sound but left little lasting impression. When we took a break for coffee I happened to mention something about the big global online brands such as Amazon, Google and YouTube.  He responded, saying: “We have all those brands in Russia, except they are rip offs. They work on the same model and at a glance they look the same, but they are all fake versions”. 

I suggested he should use this concept in his presentation and he struggled at first to understand why it was applicable. I replied that it was not directly applicable to selling travel in his region, but he should remember his personal agenda: to become the ‘expert on all things Russian’. Telling this story and showing some pictures will give his audience a little bit of trivia they will remember and take away with them to use as chit chat at home and down the pub, as well as around the office. He could justify a small deviation like this as creating context for the hard facts and figures that follow. The audience might not remember that data, but the trivia would make them remember him as the ‘go to’ person on everything Russian. As a final convincer, I asked him if he had seen Top Gear the previous Sunday; he said he had missed it, so we looked it up on the iPlayer. Clarkson and May were visiting China and they made a very entertaining and extremely memorable feature on the fact that Western car brands such as Mini, BMW and even Rolls Royce had all been copied by rip off replicas.



So stand back, look at the bigger picture and pick out a few elements from the lighter side. That’s what is most likely to get you remembered as the serious player in your field.


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Three questions to ask yourself about the ‘Visual Aids’ in your business presentation

Before embarking on a business presentation the presenter should always review their content, asking themselves three fundamental questions about their Visual Aids. PowerPoint should certainly be included within the scrutiny; indeed that is probably where the questions need to be most probing.


1. Are my Visual Aids visual?

Without getting bogged down here in a debate about pictures vs. words, can your audience actually see the detail of your Visual Aids? How many times have you heard presenters declare: “I know you can’t really see this but….”.  Clearly it’s not visual, so it’s not aiding anyone; it may even be doing more harm than good.

Some of the business presenters I have coached remain oblivious to this point, so I end up asking them to come and join me towards the back of the room, where I ask: “Can you see anything on that screen”? 

To be sure that your Visual Aid is truly visual you therefore need to see it on the screen on which you will eventually be presenting and you need to view it from the back of the room. You may be surprised at how a Visual Aid that looked clear on your computer or the page from which you scanned it becomes quite indistinct once displayed on a big screen. 

Particular danger areas include:
  • Grey print on a white background, which can become washed out.
  • Maps and property plans with a level of detail that was designed to be read close up.
  • Graphs with thin lines – which probably need bolding – and discreet, over-detailed or even sideways-positioned legends and axis markers.

As I say, I am not going to get into a pictures vs. words debate here, but you need to bear in mind that any bullet point loses most of its impact once it tips over into two lines. Look at the pictures below – a slide written for a business pitch; it is fine for a document, but useless for presentation. Then the same slide, edited down to work effectively as a Visual Aid.




Finally, bear in mind that you can fall foul of having too many pictures, every bit as much as you can having too many words. How many times have you been presented with a slide filled with multiple illustrations, making you think ‘where am I meant to be looking?’, with the result that you lose the thread of what is being said.


2. Who are my Visual Aids aiding?

All focus with any presentation should be on the needs of the audience. So are your Visual Aids helping the audience to understand what you are saying more clearly?  If they are simply helping you to remember what to say, they are not Visual Aids, they are prompts – and these should not be on display!


3. Are my Visual Aids actually aiding anyone?

The most effective way to select Visual Aids is to start with none whatsoever – and that means no PowerPoint. Run through what you are planning to say to this particular audience and you will achieve a natural flow, in your own style – you will not find yourself being driven by whatever Visual Aids you have compiled. At certain points you will probably find yourself struggling to describe something or taking longer than you should to do so – in which case you probably need a Visual Aid. You only really want a Visual Aid on display if it is actively helping your audience – and thereby you – at this particular moment. You might be surprised at how few you really need.



There is plenty of research to prove just how important the visual sense is to communication and in particular to ensuring that messages are retained. But too many so-called Visual Aids are neither visual nor an aid to anyone.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

‘Props are your enemy’ – as Madonna has displayed all-too-publicly

We have a saying in magic: “Props are your enemy”. I first heard it from the American magician Rich Bloch, who explained that it’s a bit like Murphy’s Law – ‘if it can go wrong it will go wrong’; and with magic props there is often an awful lot that can potentially wrong. Madonna’s tumble at the Brits was much more that a simple, embarrassing ‘wardrobe malfunction’; it was a full-on case of a prop biting back and threatening the whole performance. Like the best magicians, Madonna hardly let it affect her, carrying on like the true, hardened professional that she is, but how much planning went into managing the props?

I encourage business people to deploy props in their presentations – anything to break the screen-induced trance. And if you have the actual item to hand why not get it out rather than just project an image! My encouragement comes, however, with the stern warning that ‘props are your enemy’ and you may live to regret using one. Among the questions I ask are: How are you going to get in on stage? How are you going to unveil it smoothly; Will it need support? Can you be sure it will work properly? How are you then going to get rid of it to avoid it becoming an on-going distraction?

I had exactly this situation recently when coaching a packaging executive who was announcing a particular product going into his packaging for the first time. He had the first samples with him and was keen to open one on stage as the climax of his presentation. “OK” I said, with my usual provisos, “but we must rehearse that carefully because, with all due respect to your packaging, it’s not the easiest to open. And it will be even less easy without a solid surface, on stage, under the spotlights, in front of hundreds of people”. Sure enough, in rehearsal he fumbled in a way that would have be awkward in front of his colleagues.Then, when he emptied the contents, it was the wrong product. Potentially super-awkward! 

So, for the actual show, we made small but definite slits in the packaging and also had peek to check that it contained what the labelling said it did. It all went perfectly and he received rousing applause – because we had approached the situation knowing that props – potentially at least – are your enemy. Madonna is clever enough to turn her tumble to her advantage in the long run, but I bet she still wishes she had planned that cape removal a little more carefully.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Keeping your business presentation to time – the Dos & Don’ts

Keeping to time in a business presentation has always been important, but the pressure to do so has increased as the demand for short TED-style talks grows. Now, five-minute presentations are the order of the day at many business networking events.

There are actually many benefits of speaking for a short amount of time, but let’s focus here on the dos and don’ts of keeping to time.
Don’t even try to cram in all you would ideally like to say to this particular audience. Ideally, choose one key message and focus all you say around that.
Don’t speed up just to cram in all you want to say – it will simply diminish the effect of anything they manage to hear.
Don’t start to embellish what you have rehearsed. However nervous people may feel in advance of giving a presentation, they often start to feel more relaxed as they get into the swing of it. As they a result, they become more conversational in tone and stretch out what they had planned to say, with the result that they run over time. Do stick to the plan!
Don’t have a ‘countdown-style’ clock or a system of lights or signals in front of you. This will simply feel threatening; and what are you supposed to do if you are running out of time? Speeding up is not the answer! Also, don’t have a digital clock in front of you. When you look at a digital clock you need to ‘translate’ the digits into an image in your mind to understand what you are seeing; that is going to distract from your delivery.
Do have an analogue clock within your general view so that, with the merest glance, you can check you are broadly on track. If you are giving a lengthy presentation, make a note of where you should be at key points of time and mark these on any prompts you are using.
Do rehearse - and keep rehearsing - until you come comfortably within the allotted time in a natural manner. That way, your analogue clock simply provides reassurance – it is not driving you along! Ensure that you have at least one rehearsal in the space where you will be speaking – so as to overcome feelings of unfamiliarity.
Do aim to come in slightly under time. People will appreciate this and it will give you an added feeling of comfort.
Do ensure there is some leeway in your speaking time eg ‘between six and eight minutes, but no more’. Only TV presenters have to hit a precise ‘mark’ as they finish speaking. That is a whole skill in itself and is rarely required outside TV. If there is no leeway, then aim to come in under time, so giving yourself some leeway.
Do remember that “Firsts & Lasts’ are the most important parts of any presentation – they are what audiences remember. Furthermore, your opening is essential to engaging your audience and your close is where you send them away with your ‘big message’. If you run out of time, you lose the ability to deliver your big message or have to do it in a rush.
Do – ideally – include some content towards the end of your presentation that is ‘nice to have, but not essential’. That way, you have something that can be cut if, despite all your preparation, you are still running out of time. And your big finish can remain intact.

Finally, I was recently coaching a business presenter on the concept of message distillation and he thought for a moment, before saying: “I get it. Don’t tell them everything; just tell them what they need to know.” He had, indeed, got it.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Don’t let False Memory mess up your messages in business presentations

The concept of ‘False Memory’ has been in the news this week, with NBC news anchor Brian Williams being suspended after his bosses were forced to consider why he had claimed incorrectly to have been in a helicopter that was shot at during the Iraq war. Had he been lying, exaggerating or suffering from ‘False Memory’? The latter sounded unlikely but is perfectly possible, according to Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, who contributed to a Newsnight discussion on the topic. See here (until mid-March 2015, starting at 40.42).


Williams' slip up was less surprising to those of us in the magic community, who exploit the False Memory principle somewhat shamelessly. A lovely example came up last night when the much-admired American magician Wayne Houchin lectured at The Magic Circle. Among the items he demonstrated and taught to us were: 1) Sucking a thread into his mouth and pulling it back out through his eye 2) Swallowing a needle, followed by some thread; then pulling the thread back out, with the needle attached. Later he advised us that it was a good idea to perform both of these tricks in the same show – because False Memory Syndrome kicks in. Audience members, he said, come up to him afterwards congratulating him on ‘swallowing the needle and pulling it back out through his eye’. “I just keep quiet and thank them” said Houchin, “because that is a lot more impressive than what I actually did”!

So the message for business presenters is: ‘Don’t let False Memory get the better of you and your message’. I have written before in various ways about the need for high focus and aiming for the ideal of basing your presentation around ‘one big message’. The dangers of False Memory, it seems to me, provide another compelling reason to maintain high focus. If you tell your audience a list of things they might remember none of them; tell them one big thing and you’re in with a chance. And if your audience members are anything like Brian Williams - ‘America’s Huw Edwards’, according to Newsnight’s Evan Davis - they might get that list of things mixed up to create a whole new perception!

Finally, to anyone thinking of seeking help to exploit False Memories to their benefit in the way magicians do, I would have to say: “that would be devious; magicians are paid to be devious; it’s not such a good idea in the business world! Let's talk instead about 'underlining' and 'bringing life' to your message."

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Applause Cues are crucial to business presentations with a memorable message

I would like to add an element to what I have said before (see here) about the importance of ‘Firsts & Lasts’ in any presentation or speech: make your ending definite. Your audience needs to know for certain that you have reached your conclusion. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘showbiz’, you need to create an ‘Applause Cue’ – a little signal that indicates ‘that’s all folks’.

So what were Tony Blair and his speech writers thinking when they constructed his Sedgefield resignation speech? He had learned from both the occasional disaster (Women’s Institute conference) and many triumphs (The settlement train is leaving; She was the people's princess…; I feel the hand of history…). Prior to his final party conference he reportedly sought advice from Kevin Spacey in order to ensure he went out with a bang. And yet, when he came to make the really big speech in which he resigned as Prime Minister he finished as follows:

This is the greatest nation on earth.
It has been an honour to serve it. I give my thanks to you, the British people, for the times I have succeeded, and my apologies to you for the times I have fallen short.
Good luck.

You can see what happened if you click on the video below and fast forward to 8.52. He says: “Good luck”, then there is an awkward silence as audience members look at each other for a moment, before eventually bursting into applause as Blair raises his hands.  He had created a ‘Have you finished?’- style conclusion at one of the most crucial moments of his career.



So you need to create an Applause Cue, whether or not you are expecting actual applause. To achieve this you need a well constructed sign-off line, combined with a sense of rhythm and emphasis. Think in terms of: Dum-diddly-um-tum…dum-dum. Blair could never have achieved this with a mere two-word sentence. He needed to extend it a bit and add emphasis, gusto and perhaps even a wave as he utters the words “good luck”. 

This applies to the everyday business presentation just as much as it does to a Prime Minister bidding farewell to the nation. Your conclusion needs a carefully constructed ‘Call to Action’ – the message that you want your audience to go away remembering, but this needs also to be carefully rehearsed so that it acts as an Applause Cue. If necessary it can be as simple as: “Thank you for your attention” – as long as it sends out an unambiguous signal that you have finished.

Two final points. First, however awkward or nervous people tend to be about getting up to speak, once they have got started, they invariably find it difficult to stop. They tend to ramble on longer than required – another reason to instil discipline on how you finish.

Second, even with a well-constructed and executed Applause Cue, business audiences are often unsure as to whether applause is appropriate.  So when you are in control of a meeting, decide if you want applause. If you do, then get someone to act as ‘applause leader’ – once one person claps, everyone else is sure to join in, because applause is infectious!