Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Catch the ‘conversational asides’ to make your presentation truly engaging and impactful

I have written before about the benefits of speaking your words out loud as you create a presentation. It makes it all the more fluent and manageable. Above all, though, it steers you clear of dressing your words in a ‘cloak of formality’, as tends to happen almost automatically when you apply pen to paper or fingertips to the keyboard.

Similarly, advertising legend Dave Trott has blogged (here) about writing advertising copy ‘as if you’re talking to a bloke in a pub and trying to convince him’.

So you need to keep your communication conversational in tone, but I have found when coaching business executives that you actually need to go a little overboard to make this happen to best effect.

One person I was working with recently had three big points to make, the first being to convince her colleagues that: ‘Our Service Engineers must be allowed to focus their work and training exclusively on maintenance tasks’. This sounded somewhat unexciting to me and it was clear she was struggling to get the point across to her colleagues. So we stopped for a coffee break and I chatted very informally about the challenges she was currently facing. She became progressively more heated as she explained that her Service Engineers were having more and more work and responsibilities piled upon them. Eventually she reached a crescendo, exclaiming: “they expect my Service Engineers to be Superman; they are not Superman; they never can be”!

That”, I replied, “is what you should say – with all the passion you have just shown, and some imagery to help. It will make your message impactful and memorable, and it will create the best chance of a positive response from your colleagues”.

So we removed a slide full of words about the parameters of responsibility and training and replaced it with a simple image of Superman. A little animation then inserted a big cross across Superman’s chest as the speaker pronounced: “They are NOT Superman. But they can be superheroes if we allow them to focus on their core responsibilities”.


It’s still too early for feedback on the extent to which a fresh attitude to the Service Engineers has ensued, but immediate reaction came with the Chief Executive deciding to scrap his planned closing remarks and re-run the ‘Superman Talk’ as part of the conference’s finale. We had achieved this by going further than just making the presentation conversational in tone – we had used a third party to ‘catch the conversational asides’ that really got to the heart of the matter.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Sainsbury’s shows how to reduce the impact of your communication – just add a negative.

A weekend trip to Sainsbury’s reminded of the way that negatives impede communication – because your brain needs to unscramble the message before its meaning can be properly understood.


When I am coaching business people in presentation skills I explain that, if I were silly enough to give a small child a tray of drinks, saying: “Now, don’t drop it”, the way their brains would take in that instruction is as follows. 

Main concept: drop; specific in this case: don’t.

By which time, they probably have dropped it, because that was where the focus lay. If, instead, I had said: “Hold it steady”, that would been a clear, positive instruction they could act upon, as well as visualise.

So why don’t Sainsbury’s get straight to the point and say ‘Remember to re-use your bags’? It might even leave them enough space to say: ‘Please remember to re-use your bags’.

It’s actually quite hard to provide firm proof of this principle, but I can provide a couple of pointers. First, if you had been a bit slow to fill in your Census form back in 2011 you might have received one of these through your letterbox.


I reckon they must have thought to themselves: ‘Hang on a minute, why are we saying “don’t” when we want them to do something? And why are we saying “forget” when we want them to do the opposite of that’? I say this because the follow up leaflet that arrived (not at my house, of course) a week later read like this.



Finally, many years ago my son received a half-term report that concluded:



He was in tears. His little 11-year old brain couldn’t or wouldn’t unscramble what his teacher was saying. I had to explain that what she actually meant was ‘with success’.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Presenters need to be ready for both VGA and HDMI to be sure of getting connected

For anyone who prefers to present from their own laptop, let’s get just a little bit technical for a moment. It may make the difference between you delivering your presentation successfully - or being deprived from doing so. The deciding factor could be whether you find VGA or HDMI connections when you arrive.

I always recommend using your own laptop. You are completely familiar with its workings, and compatibility can be assured. You just plug it into the projector or screen when you arrive and away you go. It’s been about as simple as that for around 20 years because the standard for connecting a laptop to a projector or screen has been VGA plugs. It’s a bit different if, like me, you use a Mac because Apple have their own connections, but you simply use a little adapter that used to come with the Mac itself and is easily obtainable if not.

The potential problem for presenters is emerging at the other end – where the cable connects to the TV screens that are rapidly replacing the old projector/pull down screen set ups now that super-sized TV screens have become so affordable. TV screens used to have VGA connections but now tend to have HDMI only. So if you arrive geared up for VGA you are not going to be able to connect your laptop to the screen.

My advice, therefore, is to be ready for both VGA and HDMI. As a Mac user this means I have two adapters – one to put a VGA lead into my Mac, one for HDMI.  If you use a PC it probably has a VGA connection on the side, so you just need an adapter that converts VGA to HDMI.

While you are getting yourself kitted out treat yourself also to a couple of ‘gender changers’ which, as I have said before (here), are invaluable for joining one lead to another.  This means you can set yourself up where you want to be (ideally left-to-right in the audience’s view), rather than wherever the cable provided happens to stretch.

L to R: VGA adapter, HDMI adapter (for Mac); HDMI and VGA gender changers
All of these devices can be found online for just a few pounds each, or rather more if you visit one of those beautiful Apple stores. Speaking of which, those shops will now offer you a brand new, thinner-than-ever MacBook Air which has just one connection for everything including the power. Let’s go there for the moment!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Steve Jobs’ most important presentation secret remains under wraps

Steve Jobs remains, without any doubt, my greatest presentation skills hero. It certainly helps that his work is so readily available on the internet, but no other business leader I have seen comes anything like as close to epitomising the presentation skills that I espouse in my coaching sessions and my book Presentation Magic.

Many studies have been made as to what made Jobs such an exceptional presenter, but I believe the most important answer is hidden from most of us and it remains hidden, despite an insightful new biography from Brent Schendler entitled Becoming Steve Jobs.

That secret is the time, effort and thought that Jobs put into the preparation of his presentations. This is truly important because it’s the one aspect of presenting that most business people fail to grasp fully, if at all. They always have other duties they perceive to be more important, to the extent that that many high-ranking executives get someone else to do most of the work for them and then ‘look through it on the train’. Even those who know or suspect they are not giving enough time and attention to preparation seek to justify their lackadaisical approach, perhaps by protesting that they want it to sound ‘fresh and off-the-cuff’. This usually produces unsatisfactory results, if not actual disaster.

The author of the latest biography got about as close to Steve Jobs as anyone outside his immediate circle, so I was really hoping for the ‘missing link’ to the secrets of his presentation skills. When coaching business presenters I often show them videos such as the launch of the MacBook Air. I point to various ways in which Jobs communicates like all the very best magicians wrapped up into one. Then I have to speculate, as I say: “Notice how it’s all beautifully relaxed and conversational. But don’t be fooled by that. I bet he wrote many, many drafts and then rehearsed it over and over again. He would have known how many paces he needed to walk to pick up the MacBook. He would have known which way the string was tied on the envelope – he couldn’t afford to get in a muddle at that point. He will even have practiced sliding it out of the envelope – props, he knew, could be your enemy, and he didn’t it want it falling on the floor at the big moment or maybe coming out upside down!”


So we still don’t have the definitive answer on Jobs-style preparation, but Becoming Steve Jobs does offer a few hints such as references from his wife to the way he agonised over his legendary Stanford address. Best off all, perhaps, is a tantalising insight, from Bill Gates no less:

“I was never in his league….I mean, it was just amazing to see how precisely he would rehearse. And if he’s about to go on stage, and his support people don’t have things right, you know, he is really, really tough on them. He’s even a bit nervous because it’s a big performance. But then he’s on, and it’s quite an amazing thing.

“I mean, his whole thing of knowing exactly what he’s going to say, but up on stage saying it in such a way that he is trying to make us think he’s thinking it up right then….” Gates just laughs.


In other words, the sort of attention to detail that Steve Jobs applied to, say, the development of an Operating System, examining progress ‘pixel by pixel, feature by feature, screen by screen’, according to the book, was replicated in the preparation of his presentations. Until the rest of us put in that sort of time and effort we will never know how good we can really be. 

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.