Monday, 7 July 2014

Is communicating effectively by phone becoming a ‘lost art’?

I was called recently by a journalist who was concerned that using the phone to sell an idea or product was becoming ‘a lost art’. I agreed that he may be onto something and my take on the topic was that the younger generation seem to be developing a fear of the phone – they prefer to stay behind the protective barrier offered by email and text. They need to understand that different communications methods each have their own strengths, but a phone call can truly establish a two-way dialogue and even a relationship.
This struck a chord with my enquirer because his inspiration had come from a big dose of 1980s excess – he had been to see Wolf on Wall Street and was particularly struck by the lead character’s demonstration of effective phone technique while enjoying cocaine and a range of other pleasures. “Have you got any tips?”, he asked.  “Not like that”, I replied, "but try some of these":

  • Think carefully about the name of the person you are calling before picking up the receiver – you need to be able to say it with clarity and confidence in order to get the conversation off to a good start; you are not going to engage the person you are calling if you can’t get their name right!  My own name is relatively rare but should not be a challenge to pronounce. And yet I get addressed (usually after some umms and errs) as Fizzlebert, Furzlebert and many other variations. Is that going to put me in the mood to buy something? 
  • In presentation skills ‘Firsts & Lasts’ are the most important elements, not least because these are what people remember, and this certainly applies to phone calls. You need to engage the person you are calling up front and wrap up with a ‘Call to Action’, so your opening and closing need to be carefully planned, if not actually scripted.
  • Speak with a smile on your face – it can be heard in the voice and will raise the level and tone of the conversation. You can take this a stage further by standing up to make a call – this raises energy levels and enables you to both breathe more deeply and use gestures that can’t be seen but will add impact nevertheless. Many radio studios now have control desks that can be raised to standing level for presenters who prefer to work this way. 
  • Come straight to the point. Talk in ‘headlines’, elevator messages or what Hollywood calls ‘High Concept’ (Snakes on a Plane, Giant shark terrorises holiday resort etc) up front so that the other person gets the gist of your subject matter immediately. Business communicators generally can be very bad at bringing high focus to what they want to say – they talk around the subject rather than get to the point. When offering to help associates with business introductions, legendary sports agent Mark McCormack used to brush aside long-winded credentials, saying: “give me something I can phone in”.
  • Observe basic courtesies upfront, but focus on establishing whether the other person has a moment to speak rather than asking if they are having a good day. 
  • If the person you are calling starts to speak – let them do so! Start listening - it sounds as though they are actually interested enough to start a conversation, so don’t plough on with your spiel!
  • Think carefully about a suitable time to make your call. Put yourself into their shoes and consider how they will feel about receiving your call at that particular time.

In the old days we had an expression when hiring PR people – ‘he/she gives good phone’. I haven’t heard that for a while – such skills need to be developed and nurtured.

A version of this article appeared in PR Week.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Monty Python and the Communication Grail – what to talk about when you meet a famous person

So the Monty Python crew are back on stage for one last huge hurrah, designed to sort out a variety of needs including pension pots, alimony payments and legacies for young wives. And it reminds me of an incident that brought a communication conundrum into sharp focus: when you meet a famous person in a domestic situation, do you talk about what made them famous?

My general rule of thumb is that, once you have shown initial acknowledgement and appreciation, you talk about anything but what made them famous. I put this into practice one evening in the early-80s, when I went straight down to the pub, finding just two people there: the landlord and Rick Parfitt from Status Quo. As soon as he had served my drink, the landlord disappeared, leaving just Rick and myself. It really didn’t feel right to start discussing the joys of his band’s 1973 gig at the Guildford Civic Hall, so we talked about how to cook oven chips, the price of petrol and who might have borrowed his hedge clippers. At the time, this man was considered to be a bit of a hellraiser!

I learned the lesson in a rather painful way, however, one night as I sat down for dinner two places away from Monty Python’s Terry Jones. At the time Terry lived immediately next door to some mutual friends who had a lot of parties, so I saw him on a fairly regular basis. We therefore exchanged ‘catch up pleasantries’, as he told me about a Radio 4 series he was working on and I touched on my new training programme. He even asked about a special magic convention he knew I been attending. Almost as an aside, I added: “Oh, by the way, congratulations on winning the poll” and he responded with slightly embarrassed gratitude. 

“What’s that?”, asked the woman sitting between us. I explained that there had been a lot of press coverage during the week about a survey conducted to find the funniest-ever line in a film – and Terry came top. “So what was the line”, probed the woman. Trying to move the conversation on, I said that it was the ‘famous one from The Life of Brian’. “But which one?” she persisted. I looked at Terry and he shot back a pretty clear ‘you’re not getting Python’s greatest hits tonight’-expression. “Well”, I replied, “it’s the one where he says: ‘He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy’ ”.

I had just performed the funniest-line-ever in a movie. In front of its originator. We reverted to domestic trivia as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

‘Kill some darlings’ before delivering your business presentation

The subject of editing business presentations has been very much on my mind in the past week, with two very different clients having to face up to making big cuts to their content.

Client number one was a large public sector organisation that had two hours in which to convey a myriad of messages in an interesting way to a wide range of different stakeholders. The dilemma was that, while the allotted two hours was a very long time to keep any audience’s attention, when carved up into separate slots, none of the speakers would get enough time to say anything in a meaningful manner.

Client number two was one of the young PR executives I am guiding through their Apprenticeship. Her task was to explain the programme to her colleagues, highlighting the areas in which they could help her and she could help them. “So I have compiled text and pictures on each of the 18 modules”, she said, “but I fear that it is going to be rather boring for them and I won’t have time to get through it all”.

I explained to both clients the principle of ‘Killing your Darlings’ – a film and TV makers’ expression to describe the process that leads to them leaving a lot of content ‘on the cutting floor’ – or its digital equivalent. They go to all the trouble of scripting, rehearsal, acting and filming, only to throw much of it away.

Watch the deleted scenes on DVDs and you will typically hear the director explaining: “it’s a lovely scene, with both the leads giving great performances, but it wasn’t really moving the story forward. So it had to go. The same happens in business presentations: you have a favourite anecdote, a nice video and your PA has slaved over a very tricky graphic – so naturally you are going to use them all. But you need to be every bit as ruthless as those film directors – and keep killing ‘darlings’ until your presentation is as tight and crystal clear as it can possibly be.

Both of my clients warmed to this theme and realised that a lot of darlings faced the chopping block. With the public sector client it forced us to realise that the majority of the audience would be made up of one type of stakeholder, so the content could and probably should focus largely on them. With my Apprentice, I asked her to consider how many of her 18 different modules were realistically ones to which her colleagues could make meaningful contributions. We concluded the answer was six or seven. At a stroke, two thirds of the content could be killed off. Of course, she would give a quick overview up front to show the length and breadth of what lay ahead, but she would rapidly move on and announce that today she would be focusing on the six units where she and her colleagues could work together to mutual benefit.

The resulting presentation personified the realisation that another client came to last year: “I see”, he said, “don’t tell them everything; just tell them what they need to know”.

Monday, 19 May 2014

What is it that makes so many business presentations so boring? And what’s the (magic) trick to overcoming the affliction?

I was chatting recently with someone who had just sat through a whole day’s worth of dreary business presentations. “The trouble is”, he said, “that most people are fundamentally rather boring”. 

I could have gone with the flow and simply agreed with him, but I like to look at life in a more positive way than that and, anyway, I think the situation is a little more complicated. I explained my belief that many people climbing the corporate ladder feel they have to default to a certain type of corporate persona, with the result that they fail to make a significant impact and come across as rather boring. 

In my time as a PR consultant I was constantly frustrated when having to deal with the underlings of real decision makers. They never ventured to tell you what they actually thought themselves. Instead they told you what their boss would probably think; and because they were acting like rabbits caught in a headlight, they invariably got it wrong, making them even more timid in future. This situation becomes markedly worse when they come to do a presentation – they are ‘on show’ to people with influence on their careers so they switch into corporate mode – a bland version of themselves that smothers their personality.

In many cases the switch into corporate mode comes automatically and without the speaker really being aware of it. A very senior IT executive I was coaching recently told me that the feedback he invariably receives is: “you were great in all the meetings and they loved you at the lunch, but when you did the presentation you became really boring”.

In the words of Mark Lee, a fellow member of The Magic Circle who advises Accountants on developing their careers and businesses, ‘boring is optional’. You really don’t have to be like that and there are so many benefits to letting your personality show through.

Anyone presenting a magic trick as part of their coaching in 

Presentation Skills is asked to sign a secrecy agreement 
- to ensure that Nick does not transgress 
The Magic Circle's strict rules
The good news is that you can be cured of slipping into corporate mode and my own treatment often includes getting the ‘patient’ to present a magic trick. Coaching sessions start with the patient giving a business presentation, which allows me to assess the severity of their condition and where the treatment should focus. Then I ask them to present a simple trick – tailored to their own company. Compared with their business presentation earlier a number of changes become immediately apparent:

  • Their body language loosens up
  • They show greater energy and enthusiasm
  • A smile comes to their face and that can be heard in their voice
  • They need to interact with their audience, so they start thinking seriously about the clarity of what they are saying and how to display visual aids to best effect
  • Furthermore, they discover that they can communicate without the crutch of PowerPoint
  • They tell us about themselves – so we warm to them and they become more convincing as a result
  • Above all, they realise that the success of the trick depends on a ‘ta-dah’ moment at the climax that they want their audience to remember and talk about

All they need to do then is to apply some of those lessons to their business presentation – in particular the one about building to a ‘ta-dah’ moment that everyone is going to remember and talk about. Back in the world of business presentations this is known as a ‘Call to Action’, which needs to be focused and crystal clear; if it’s not, your presentation is likely to be worthless. Imagine, therefore, how powerful your presentation could be if its Call to Action was as memorable as the climax of a magic trick!

The German translation of Nick Fitzherbert's book 
Presentation Magic was published in April 2014

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Sirens, fire alarms and hippos – anticipate the potential for distractions in your business presentation. And don’t even try to compete!

I would like to seize your attention for a moment to discuss the topic of distractions in business presentations.

It follows my recent musings about the benefits of taking a moment at the beginning of a presentation to ‘own’ the space. I added: Don’t, whatever happens, get caught out by the arrival of the coffee. All too often a trolley arrives just as you are delivering your full-on, scene-setting, engagement-designed opening statement. You cannot hope to compete with the clinkety-clink of cups and saucers and the passing of the sugar bowl.
Arrival of the coffee is perhaps the most regular and common of all distractions; others include fire alarms and passing sirens. You can’t compete, so stop, making a light-hearted reference if you can think of one, then carry on again once the distraction has passed. That way, nothing you say will be missed and you reinforce the fact that the floor is yours at that moment and you are in control. Indeed, if the coffee arrives, stop speaking and make a point of pouring it yourself. Far from looking servile it will show that you are in charge - you own the space!   

I talk about distractions along these lines when I am coaching business people in Presentation Skills, but what I really hope for is that distractions will occur naturally during the day so that my points become self-apparent. I was delighted, therefore, when at PR client hired a rather inappropriate room – underneath a pub – for a day’s team coaching. As the day went on and delegates had to see past the mirror ball hanging over the table and contend with constant banging in the kitchen, one presenter even had to compete for attention with the arrival of the manager’s dog. I had no need to start talking about distractions as mundane as sirens and fire alarms!

Sometimes the distractions are less apparent because they exist in the minds of your audience. Soon after I started an awayday for a major car manufacturer, news came in about the possible closure of one of the company’s plants. It became very apparent that that was what they were all thinking about, rather than anything I was saying. So I called a halt. “Let’s break for an hour”, I said, “make your calls, see what needs to be done and then when we re-convene we can decide whether to continue or whether to let you all go”. They made their calls, clarified the position, realised there was nothing they could really do and everyone was back and ready to continue within 35 minutes.

So think carefully about what is likely to be on the minds of your audience as you plan a business presentation. If, for instance, you have picked up that they are anxious about catching a specific train, then make that the first and most important item on your agenda. Tell them you are aware they need to get away on time and you have arranged to finish 10 minutes early. Then you can even add a bit of theatre – ask them to come to the window and point to a taxi; “that car is already waiting to take you to the station”.  Now you have the best possible chance of retaining their attention – because you have eliminated the big distraction.

The most unusual distraction (apart form the arrival of that publican’s dog) that I have come across recently was when I was helping a friend who was giving a presentation in a pod on the London Eye. We discussed opening with energy and impact and how to cope with sight lines in an unusually shaped ‘venue’. The real challenge, however, was that as soon as the pod was up in the sky anything I said about eye contact was going to have little value – everybody’s gaze would inevitably be drawn to the view! How can you compete with that?

We decided to plan for it. “Start off”, I said, “with a bit of audience interaction by asking for help from someone who is good at identifying landmarks in South-East London. Say that you will be stopping your story when you get high in the sky so that everyone can admire the view and you will need their help at that point”.  With a specific moment promised for admiring the view, no one would worry about missing it, giving the speaker the the best chance of keeping the focus on herself as she spoke.

Finally, the most extreme distraction I have experienced was with one presenter who thought she could hear hippos! This was a very long way from sirens and fire alarms, but then so were we – because we happened to be on a game reserve in Swaziland. Amusing as it was, I didn’t really want the distraction to continue into Day Two, so I checked it out. While there were hippos nearby – and we got to see them on the final day – the noise turned out to be coming from the local equivalent of a cattle grid. 

The German translation of Nick Fitzherbert's book 
Presentation Magic was published on April 29.