Monday, 1 February 2016

Nobody’s job is ‘too boring’ to make a compelling business presentation

I was coaching a team of senior logistics executives once and eventually the time came for the one person who didn’t really want to be there to make a presentation. He was an engineer whose job essentially had been to construct data warehouses in far-flung destinations. By way of pre-amble I asked him what was his general feeling about giving presentations. “A necessary evil”, he replied, “that I don’t enjoy”.

He ran through his presentation as quickly as possible. It was based entirely on showing us screen shots of a complicated budget approval form. It wasn’t much fun for anyone and my feedback included: “none of what you showed us was actually a presentation aid; if you have to use that stuff, at least tell us where to look; and please, when you run through the ‘Benefits’ list at least show some enthusiasm there”.

I made a point of cutting my feedback short and said: “Let’s forget about your presentation for a moment. You have presumably been to these far-flung locations. What did you tell your loved ones when you got back”?  “Actually”, he replied, “they were quite upset with me as I hardly contacted them at all, because it was almost impossible to get a phone signal. I knew they would never believe me so I started taking photographs of the telegraph poles to show how archaic the communication systems were. I had plenty of opportunity to do that because the traffic was an absolute nightmare; we sometimes sat going nowhere for an hour at a time. The only upsides were that the people were absolutely charming and food was unbelievably delicious”.

Suddenly, by getting him to think how he relates the situation to his family rather than to a procurement committee we had the building blocks for some storytelling. We had local colour and indications of inside knowledge. We also the potential for a central plank for the presentation – a striking image that would be memorable and maybe even sum up the whole situation. At the moment, though, it was just a snapshot stuck on the guy’s phone as an excuse for why he had appeared to be ignoring his family. 

“Show me one of those pictures”, I said. As he reached for his phone a smile was beginning to spread across his face. What we then christened the ‘Mad Telegraph Pole’ had more wires coming, going, criss-crossing and hanging loose than you could even begin to count. Then, to my delight, he reached his own conclusion: “actually, this would be a good way of explaining why I have asked for so much in the infrastructure budget”.  Bingo!  To my even greater delight, the man who just a few minutes earlier had been declaring the process a ‘necessary evil’ said: “I’m quite looking forward to doing this presentation again”.

We hear a lot about the need for storytelling, but few go on to explain what to actually do about it. As I have said before, it is often the apparently trivial things that can provide invaluable material. Here’s another tip: Forget for a moment the people you are planning to address; how do you talk about it to your loved ones?

Monday, 18 January 2016

How many ‘WOMs’ does your latest business presentation contain?

As I caught up with some reading over Christmas I found a nice little nugget in Chris Evans’ latest book Call the Midlife. In one chapter PR guru Matthew Freud summed up his advice to Evans on publicising the comeback of his TV show TFI Friday with the question: ‘How many bits do you have in your draft running order that might immediately be uploaded to YouTube’? Despite being about TV publicity and Social Media this is actually a terrific principle for constructing a business presentation and here’s why.

The advice Freud was giving to Evans was essentially an update on the principles he was deploying back in the early 1990s. I worked with him then on a marketing conference during which he explained his strategy for publicising the big film of the moment - Four Weddings and a Funeral. “What we did”, he said, “was go through the film almost frame by frame looking for ‘WOMs’ – little bits that would create Word of Mouth (WOM). All our publicity work went into pushing those moments – the audience did the rest of the work for us, by talking about them.”

The basis of effective communication has always been Word of Mouth. You can say it loud and say it frequently, but your efforts will be wasted if the message doesn’t register with people to the extent that they go away and talk about it. In the days before Social Media when we all watched the same TV shows in large numbers at the same time, we used to talk about ‘water cooler moments’ – discussions based on what everyone had been seeing or hearing the previous evening. With advances in technology - and the advent of Social Media in particular – this is now known as ‘Sharing’, but it’s all really the same Word of Mouth concept that has always prevailed.

Coming back to business presentations, yours is not necessarily going to be a candidate for YouTube, so let’s focus on WOMs: how many WOMs did your last business presentation contain? What if anything did your audience go away remembering and talking about that night, the next day and ever since? As I have discussed before (here), some of the potential WOMs that I suggest to people I am coaching can appear quite trivial at first sight. But if they get you, your message - and ideally both - understood and remembered your job will have been done.

Chris Evans was, by the way, unable to answer Freud’s question about the number of potential YouTube moments initially, but went away and discussed it with his producer Will. They eventually reckoned they had – or could create – fifteen. The show was commissioned for a series very soon after it was broadcast and if you look on YouTube now you will find, together with appearances by various bands, clips of Cheryl Cole and Justin Bieber doing the water slide down the stairs and Chris Martin playing a keyboard made from bananas.

Monday, 4 January 2016

New Year’s resolutions for business presenters – should you drop the PowerPoint?

It’s the time for new beginnings and fresh approaches, so anyone with a business presentation high on their New Year agenda may well be considering some changes in how they address their audiences.

“Should I abandon PowerPoint”? is the question I am most frequently asked by those seeking a radical re-think. “No” is my emphatic answer for most scenarios. What I do recommend to many people, however, is that they view PowerPoint in a rather different way.

You need first to see PowerPoint as a tool that is there simply to help you get your message across to your audience. Too many presenters regard their PowerPoint slides as ‘the presentation’ and the slides end up driving them rather than supporting them. “You are the show”, I tell them!

Having re-framed PowerPoint in your mind as a tool, it now needs to be seen as just one of a number of different options within your toolbox. You should really use whatever tool is going to do the job most effectively: that may well be PowerPoint, but it could also be a simple picture on a board, a flipchart, a group exercise, some music or old-fashioned technology such as an overhead projector.

For all my talk of ‘tools’, PowerPoint is really just a ‘Visual Aid’ and the best way to decide where you need Visual Aids – if indeed you need them at all – is to do an initial run through of your presentation without any aids at all. This puts the focus in the right place – on you and what you are saying – and it points to where you need aids. The moment you struggle to explain something or perhaps take too long to describe a feature is the moment you need a Visual Aid. Then you can decide what type of Visual Aid would do the job most effectively in this instance and you can make this decision objectively, without PowerPoint becoming the automatic default.

“So should I give up the bullet points”? is the next question I am often asked. “Not necessarily” is my usual response. Bullet points can actually be very effective in capturing and reinforcing the essence of what you are saying, while also framing related points together in a natural group. Two points are key to doing this effectively:

·      Restrict your bullets to a list of five; ideally make it three
·      Keep them all to one-liners

The moment a bullet point spills over into a second line it loses the majority of its potential impact and audience members are now having to choose whether to listen to you or read bullet points.

To see how this all works I invite you to watch any Steve Jobs presentation. He always uses PowerPoint (or his own Keynote version) but he only ever puts anything on the screen if it is actively helping him – and thereby his audience – at that particular moment. Most of the time it’s about him and his products, along with appropriate props and demonstrations.

One firm recommendation I can make – and something you might like adopt as a New Year’s resolution – is as follows:

Drop the bullet points – and indeed the PowerPoint – from your opening and closing passages. A blank screen as you open enables you to establish a personal connection with your audience members before their attention gets sucked into the screen. Then, as you close it’s time to deliver your Call to Action – the moment at which you need to look them straight in the eye and ask them for something. Generally speaking, that is so much more effective coming from you – speaking straight from the heart – rather than via a bunch of bullet points.
Final question: “How do make that happen from a technical point of view”? Try pressing the B key. For many, one of PowerPoint’s most useful features remains hidden in plain sight.

Happy New Year!

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!