Monday, 14 April 2014

Killing the PowerPoint to bring focus back to yourself just needs ‘Plan B’

Last week I promised to reveal how you can blank out the screen when using PowerPoint – so as to bring focus back to yourself and clear away any distractions.

You simply press the B key and it blanks the screen; press it again and the image returns to the screen. Similarly, if you press W it whites out the screen.

This facility is built into PowerPoint but few people know about it. I have asked audiences numbering one hundred for a show of hands as to how many people know what happens if you press the B key and had a mere three or four responses.

The greatest need I have ever seen for the B key during a presentation was when a PR man was talking through his consultancy’s credentials. Very appropriately, he said: “Before I conclude, let me tell you about some of the fun things we do” and right on cue up went a picture of some professional women enjoying a night out.

He continued: “We find this is a really god way of connecting with one of our key target audiences, many of the journalists we deal with are women etc etc. So, why should you appoint us? Well, three reasons: first…..”. At the crucial moment of his ‘Call to Action’ nobody was paying attention to what he was saying – they were still looking at a picture of attractive women! Had he used the B key at that point, the distraction would have been cleared away and attention would have come back to him with the additional benefit of the now blank screen indicating ‘change of mood – this is where we get serious again’.

Finally, it can take a while to get used to using this nifty little tool and I have even heard people say: “But I can’t keep turning it off”. My response is “Don’t think in terms of turning it off; focus instead on turning it on when – and only when – you actually need visual support”. Then I show them how Steve Jobs used to deliver his brilliant product launch presentations and I say: “Notice how he never puts anything on the screen unless it is actively helping him at this particular moment”.

Extracted and adapted from Nick Fitzherbert's book 
Presentation Magic.  German edition published April 29.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Why can’t PowerPoint shake off its ‘death by’ tag?

There are many people throughout the business world and beyond who hate PowerPoint and I discussed what I believe to be the root cause of its perceived failings a while back in a blog I wrote at the time of PowerPoint’s 25th birthday. You can click here to read the article.   

The fact is, though, that the ‘Death by’ tag has been blighting PowerPoint for a long time now. Why does it persist? Why don’t we just stop using PowerPoint or, preferably, use it better? Recently have I discovered one key factor that I believe does much to perpetuate ‘Death by’ accusations.

Alongside my work as a Presentation Skills coach, I devote time to mentoring Apprentices in the world of PR where I began my career. At an early part of their programme the Apprentices have to outline the role and responsibilities of PR executives at different levels. It dismayed me that they kept submitting work declaring that PowerPoint presentations were one of the responsibilities of an ‘Account Assistant’ - the entry level position just below that of ‘Junior Account Executive’. 

“No, no, no” I responded, “PowerPoint is simply a tool that supports the speaker, so it needs to be put together – or at the very least briefed – by the speaker themselves so that they receive visual support to what they are saying”.

The Apprentices looked confused and showed me the text book from which they were learning. And there, alongside ‘research, maintenance of media lists and general administrative duties’ was listed ‘PowerPoint presentations’ as one of their duties.

Frustrating as it was to make this discovery, it was not actually too much of a surprise. I often get collared by minion types who say: "can you spare a few minutes to advise me on some ‘decks’ of slides I have put together for the chief exec when he sees the board next week". It’s not really helpful at times like this to hit them with the truth which is as follows:
  • You are confusing a bunch of PowerPoint slides with a presentation. You (or whoever is actually speaking) are the presentation; the slides are merely support.
  • You MUST see the slides as support – a simple tool to help you get your point over – if and when appropriate. If your starting point for the presentation is the slides, then the speaker will be driven by those slides and they won’t really be themselves, let alone speak from the heart. And the audience's attention will almost inevitably flit between what the speaker is saying and what is being depicted on the slides.
  • When creating a presentation think of yourself as a film director. They do not get their cameras out until they have thought through and planned out exactly what they want to get across! If you start without any visual aids at all and simply speak out loud you will soon discover where you need some visual support – the moment you are struggling or taking too much time to describe something is probably the point at which you need a visual aid. The solution may well be PowerPoint, but it may be something even more appropriate to this particular situation such as a prop of a simple board.   
Finally, give some serious thought to finishing your presentation without any PowerPoint. Why?  Because the finish is where you need to deliver your Call to Action – the point at which you are asking your audience to remember your big point or commit to something specific. That needs energy, passion and full-on eye contact, all of which are so much more powerful than a list of bullet points on a slide.

So how do you kill the PowerPoint at a strategic moment (without powering down your projector)? Come back to this blog next week and I’ll tell you about the little known but most useful tool that's built into PowerPoint to help you.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Public Speaking retains high position in YouGov's Phobias poll; but a few steps can turn fear into fun

So another poll has highlighted just how much people fear the idea of public speaking.  A survey by YouGov, no less, places the Public Speaking just behind Heights and Snakes in the rankings of our greatest phobias and it takes number two position if you combine ‘very afraid’ respondents with those who are ‘a little afraid’.

Full details of the survey can be found by clicking on the graphic, but we have heard this many times before – much more than we ever hear about solutions. The fact is that there are no direct cures or even answers, but here are a couple of pointers to bringing the scary side of public speaking under control.

First, the biggest cause of ‘stage fright’ is the fear of the unfamiliar. Much can be achieved, therefore, simply by making the situation familiar to yourself. I always urge those I am coaching in presentation skills to visit the venue in advance of their presentation. They can check out the logistics, but above all they can get a feel for the environment in which they will be working on the day. Then, as they prepare they can both replicate the situation and – even more importantly – visualise how it will be. If they cannot visualise the situation they will have a series of unanswered questions churning through their minds – and that it what sets the nerves alight.

I have proved this principle on a number of occasions. In the few instances that I have not
The Magic Circle HQ
been able to visit the venue in advance – such as when the conference cruise ship was in the South Atlantic – I felt noticeably uneasy. By contrast, when I was preparing to take my entrance exam for The Magic Circle I had the good fortune to be coached by Jack Delvin who is now the President. In view of the fact that I would be performing at the world’s most prestigious magic society, in front of the members, all of whom know exactly how the tricks are done, and many of whom are very eminent if not quite famous, Jack suggested I had a run through in the exact position within The Magic Circle HQ that I would be performing for my exam. I would be able to feel the atmosphere, get used to the lighting and check the sight lines. So I set myself up and waited for Jack to give me the nod. To my horror he made an announcement to the membership at large: “Anyone who wants to see a magic show come to the Devant Room now”. Suddenly I was faced with a substantial audience of magicians – and it was a horrible experience. But I got through it and when I came to do it for real the following week it was a lot less horrible because I had done it before – the situation was familiar. And I passed the exam.

Second, when anyone tells me they are fearful or nervous of presenting I ask them for reasons – specific reasons – and I labour the point by going to the flipchart and waiting for them to dictate some suggestions. Typically they struggle to come up with actual reasons but may suggest: I have a lot of material to learn; I might freeze; they may ask difficult questions etc. I point out that rehearsal and planning can reduce or even eliminate all these fears and more, but the real issue is that we are afraid of being afraid. Malcolm Gladwell covers this in his latest book David & Goliath - the concept is called ‘Affective Forecasting’ and the prime example he describes is the bombing of our cities in World War 2.  The government forecast a complete break down in law and order as people fled from cities in fear of the bombs.  In fact, after some initial, orderly evacuation few people left the cities. They got used to the bombs, even when they lost their homes, the ‘spirit of the blitz’ took hold and some even went so far as to say: “I’m not leaving now, this is scary, but it’s also the most exciting thing that is ever going to happen to me”.

When coaching anyone in presentation skills for the first time I make a point of asking how they feel about presenting. In line with all the survey findings, many express a degree of fear. I make a promise that they are going to start to enjoy presenting – usually to a look of disbelief. Later in the process, but often on the same day I can see a little smile flicker on their faces as they achieve marked improvements. It’s a sign for me to suggest that they are starting to enjoy the process. Usually they become a little coy at this point but the fact that they are not denying my suggestion is good enough for me and we both go home happy people.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Take a moment to ‘own the space’ when getting straight to the point in your business presentation

Last week I was discussing the need to open your business presentation with the kind of energy you feel when you’re closing a successful presentation – and taking inspiration from the great magician John Archer.  It reminded me, however, that there can be conflicting objectives at play as you open.

On one hand, you want to come straight to the point, driven by that sense of energy. One the other hand, you actually need to take your time to get established, allowing your audience to ‘tune in’ to you as they settle and ensuring that you don’t simply blurt your all-important opening words because your heart is pounding away that little bit faster than normal. Above all, you need to take control of the situation and ensure that, for the next few minutes at least, you ‘own the space’.

I usually illustrate this to asking those I am coaching if they have ever been to a dinner with entertainment provided by ‘table-hopping’ magicians. I explain that it’s a tough environment for the magicians – they need to break into the table, interrupt the conversation and struggle with noise, difficult lighting conditions and waiters trying to serve food, never mind potentially tipsy guests. The best performers will do all they can to ‘own the space’; they will clear a small area for themselves, adjust the seating a little and clear away any obstructions or distractions. Only then will they start to perform their magic – when the conditions are right for them to do the best job possible. 

Few people get to experience working as both magician and businessman, so I was
delighted to hear Marvin Berglas echo my thoughts in one of Pete Wardell’s excellent ‘Magic State of Mind’ interviews.  Marvin is the man behind the super-successful range of ‘Marvin’s Magic’ tricks that you will find in department stores all over the world. He continues as a performer, however, particularly at the Emirates Stadium where he organises the corporate entertainment for Arsenal FC. Inevitably he gets asked in business meetings to ‘show us a trick’. The way Marvin responds is to say: “Sure, but not near at the corner of your desk; let’s go and sit around the table and I’ll show you something special”.

So – take a moment or two before launching straight into your business presentation. A moment to check that your audience are all settled and that everything you need is in place. And 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. So stop speaking and make a point of pouring the coffee yourself. Far from looking servile it will show that you are in charge and you will re-start when full attention can be assured.  You own the space!      

Friday, 21 March 2014

Twitter's birthday coincides with sharp warnings of its dangers

So Twitter is eight years old and don’t we all (OK, many of us) love it? The medium’s birthday coincides, however, with two sharp warnings, first about how dangerous it can be and second about how its instant one-to-one personal nature is being eroded.

The first example is Grant Shapps’ notorious ‘Bingo & Beer’ tweet that has been deemed patronising at best and the end of Shapps’ career at worst.  Was this actually personally tweeted by Grant Shapps?  How closely involved was he with the tweet?  Whatever the answers, it went out under his name and he gets the blame.

The second example is rather more sad.  At least one tweet went out on L’Wren Scott’s Twitter account after she died; it would seem that she was using an automation service. Many brands do likewise, but it’s a long way from what Twitter was all about when it first emerged eight years ago this week.