Monday, 19 January 2015

Obama is not positioning himself to best effect as he helps to boost self-assured Cameron

While David Cameron certainly boosted his ‘statesman-like’ credentials on his recent trip to The White House, the news reports revealed a couple of fine details that provide useful pointers for business presenters.

First, Cameron got ‘caught out’ lobbying senators on the President’s Iran sanctions bill and was confronted on the matter at the press conference. But he handled the situation in the way that the best magicians handle a challenging moment: make a bold move; then underline your move with a ‘convincer’.

Without the slightest hesitation he answered: “Yes I have contacted a couple of Senators this morning”. Then he followed through immediately with: “And I may speak to one or two more this afternoon”. He was firmly on the front foot. So much so, in fact, that he then took the opportunity (and what an opportunity!) to make a very self-assured statement about domestic matters and his belief that election debates need to be held outside of the main campaign.

President Obama, meanwhile has learned the trick of wearing European-style ties with stripes that slope upwards from left to right, so sending out more positive signals than the more traditional downward stripes worn by previous Presidents (see my previous blog here). Where his presentational style continues to falter a little is in the right-to-left line ups.


Rule of 6 of the Rules of Magic states that ‘Attention tracks from left to right, then returns to settle at the left’ – because in Western Cultures we read that way. This applies in particular when you are using a screen or other visual aids, but with just two people on show the person positioned on the left in the audience’s view will be assuming the more dominant position. Magicians know about this principle; Ant and Dec have a slightly different take, saying ‘the tallest must go on the left'; the White House needs to catch up!

Monday, 12 January 2015

Tony Blackburn’s dumb-struck response to vintage record highlights the challenges of keeping abreast of the social agenda

I received a sharp reminder at the weekend of the way that our communication needs to shift and adapt to the changing moods and morals of the moment. I was listening to Radio 2 in the car with Tony Blackburn running through the top selling records of 1968.

Now, I’m the first to acknowledge that 1968 is a long time ago, but it was a good year for pop music and much of it remains as relatively common currency today.  We were treated to Hey Jude by the Beatles, I’ve gotta get a message to you by the Bee Gees and Do it again by the Beach Boys. Then came a record that outsold all of these and I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing as I listened to Gary Puckett and the Union Gap sing these lyrics:

Young girl, get out of my mind
My love for you is way out of line
Better run, girl
You're much too young, girl


With all the charms of a woman
You've kept the secret of your youth
You led me to believe
You're old enough
To give me Love
And now it hurts to know the truth

Beneath your perfume and make-up
You're just a baby in disguise
And though you know
That it's wrong to be
Alone with me
That come on look is in your eyes

So hurry home to your Mama
I'm sure she wonders where you are
Get out of here
Before I have the time
To change my mind
'Cause I'm afraid we'll go too far

Whaoo-oh-oh
Young girl, get out of my mind
My love for you is way out of line
Better run, girl
You're much too young, girl

What I remembered as a great up-beat pop song has become a no-go zone!  Tony Blackburn was broadcasting live and clearly felt similarly taken aback as he dropped the corny puns that had accompanied all the previous records and declared: “One slip of tongue with that one and we’ll all be out of business”.

I believe in direct speech and am probably not the world’s greatest supporter of political correctness, but we do all need to be on our guard for when what has seemed to be the norm becomes bad form.


I feel I would be scoring an ‘own goal’ if I embedded a video of Gary Puckett performing the said song, so try this one instead. It’s a personal favourite of mine from 1968, but rarely gets any airplay today: Jesamine by The Casuals.


Monday, 5 January 2015

Tim Bell’s frankness about Frank shows the business communicator how to both charm and convince

Happy New year everyone!

I caught up on some reading over the break and especially enjoyed ‘Right or Wrong – The Memoirs of Lord Bell’ by Tim Bell, who for the past 40 years has been at the forefront of advertising, PR and politics. He also has legendary status as one of the greatest of all business presenters, deploying charm to the extent that dogs are said to cross the street to be stroked by him!

The book has actually received some mixed reviews, but for me any deficiencies in pacing and completeness are more than made up for by sometimes wonderfully indiscreet tales of cold calling FW de Klerk, Thatcher’s drinking habits, how the Westland crisis could have been avoided and behind the scenes manoeuvres with the likes of Hanson and Fayed. He also explains how and why he shifted from the advertising business to PR. It’s actually a tamer version of the story he told when I asked him myself at a talk he did with Professor Trevor Morris at Richmond University towards the end of last year. 


I had briefed two PR students who were accompanying me that Tim Bell had been super-successful in advertising, having effectively been the ‘third Saatchi brother’, but then switched to PR, probably having ‘seen the light’ while managing Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign. So I asked him: “Was there a specific moment – possibly during the election campaign - when you had an ‘epiphany’ that PR was the way forward”? “Well not really”, he replied, “the truth is that I was working with Frank Lowe and he didn’t like the fact that I was getting the credit for the company’s growth, so he said ‘you’ve got to go’! The solution we worked out was that I would run the PR companies we had been acquiring and leave him to focus on the ad agencies”.

All my nicely constructed theories about Tim Bell leading a progressive shift from advertising to PR went out the window! Was this proof of the theory that you should never meet your heroes? This had happened to me on a previous occasion when I quizzed Alastair Campbell on the intricacies of his famed Downing Street ‘Grid’ system for news planning. It turned out I had been giving him rather more credit than he was due!

Actually, I was delighted at the frankness of Lord Bell’s response. By being so open it made everything else he said all the more believable. When coaching business people in presentation skills I often encourage them to ‘let a light in on themselves’. Find a way, I say, to weave in a few relevant facts about your personal life. Then your audience will warm to you – one day dogs might even cross the street for a stroke – and everything you say will come over as more convincing.


Finally, I should say that I abandoned belief in the ‘Never meet your heroes’ theory back on the early-90s when it nearly caused to miss a meeting with Keith Richards. He turned out to be everything I had hoped and much more besides – including funny, erudite and beautifully mannered. He was also more than happy to pose for what we now call a ‘selfie’.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

For impact and engagement in your business presentations – go back and learn how to write!

I have spent the past few weeks learning how to write. Yes, almost 40 years after leaving school I have been making a proper study of the English language, this time without looking out the window or passing notes at the back of the class. The experience has made me realise that the tools with which to add engagement and impact to your communication are more plentiful than I thought. Like any good tool, though, they only work to best effect with some technical knowledge and plenty of practice! 

I started by participating in an excellent PRCA webinar on grammar.  Reassuringly, I found I was up to speed in this area, but it has already proved invaluable to some of the PR Apprentices for whom I act as Assessor. Next stop was the book The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth and this has opened my eyes to the detail and depth of principles that I had simply absorbed by osmosis over the years.

Much to my personal delight, Forsyth starts his book by standing up for Alliteration. Far from sneering at it, as some do, he suggests we should embrace it, just as both Shakespeare and Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby, Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol) did. Alliteration, he says, makes your words memorable, with the result that they are believed. Hence ‘it takes two to tango’, even though it takes the same number to waltz and we go ‘the whole hog’ rather than the full pig.

As a presentation skills coach who is always urging people to deploy the ‘Power of Three’, I was pleased to read about Tricolon – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. Having always said that it’s about rhythm - two is not enough and four (Tetracolon) is too much information, I was reminded that you need a ‘Rising’ Tricolon to make the Power of Three truly powerful. And by the way, did you know that Obama’s short victory speech contained no less than 21 Tricolons?

To make a proper three-some here, I can also report that the discovery of ‘Litotes’ has caused me to re-think slightly my exhortations to avoid negatives – because they need to be unscrambled before they can be understood. While politicians have used Litotes to good effect, the most memorable example is probably Tom Jones’s ‘It’s not unusual’. However the extreme use of Litotes by the Japanese Emperor in 1945 has served to underpin my anti-negatives stance. Having been hit by two atomic bombs the Emperor announced: “The war situation has developed, not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”.

Other gems from The Elements of Eloquence include: Diacope: ‘Bond. James Bond’; Syllepsis – one word used in two incongruous ways: think Jagger and “she blew my nose and then she blew my mind”; and Anaphora - using the same word at beginning and the end, as Paul McCartney did in ‘Yesterday’.

One of the charms of the book is the many musical references that Forsyth uses alongside extracts of great literature. As he says: “I do not believe that The Beatles had any idea what Andiplosis was, any more than I believe that the Rolling Stones knew about Syllepsis. They knew what worked, and it did”.

So it’s not about being clever and knowing all the technical terms, but there is much to be gained from a bit of pro-active study if you want to give your language a lift. As for how this relates to business presentation skills, I always say that your opening and closing are the two most important parts of any presentation. In order to make them important to your audience as well as yourself they need to be scripted.


Finally, there’s another musical link that led me to The Elements of Eloquence – it came as
a gift from Lesley-Ann Jones, a great friend who is widely admired for her best-selling rock biographies. I now know a few of the secrets that help to make LAJ such a fine writer. Alongside Freddie Mercury – the Definitive Biography and Ride a White Swan – The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan, her beautifully-crafted words have been wrapped around many of the world’s most famous people and served up in the biggest-selling newspapers. I can’t wait for Lesley-Ann to apply her pen to a novel based on her life or, better still, her own autobiography. If ever you wanted proof of the pleasure and power of good writing, here are some very good starting points: www.lesleyannjones.com; @lajwriter

Monday, 17 November 2014

The perils of failing to ‘own the space’ as soon as you start your business presentation

I received a stark reminder at the weekend of one of the essentials of opening a presentation; together with energy and engagement you need to ‘own’ the space from the moment you kick off.

I was attending a charity dinner in the City of London and I became increasingly irritated at the way certain people continued to talk, both as the MC spoke and then as the auctioneer sought bids. I grew more angry as the MC’s “shush” pleas were ignored, leaving me itching to intervene in the way I once did at an outdoor charity concert staged beside a lake in the grounds of a Surrey manor house. “Excuse me”, I said to two women deep in conversation about how their children were getting on at their boarding schools, “that is Eric Clapton over there and most of us want to enjoy this rare opportunity to savour the world’s greatest guitarist in very special surroundings; we don’t want to hear ……”

I hesitated, though, because I was attending as a ‘Plus One’ with my wife and I didn’t want to embarrass her, our host or her other guests. Eventually, however, I could stand it no longer and I strode towards the noisy people and said as loud as I could: “For pity’s sake stop your chatter, just for five more minutes!”

A degree of hush ensued and a bit later the MC came up to me, thanking me for my intervention, saying he found it ‘very helpful and so heartfelt’. I commiserated with him, but what I could/should have added was that anyone getting up in front of an audience – especially where alcohol and spoilt rich people are involved -needs to set their agenda very clearly. You need to seize control of the situation, because if you don’t, the audience probably will.

In short, the speaker needs to ‘own’ the space. I once saw Jenni Murray do this brilliantly at the ceremony for some industry awards I had been judging. “Right”, she said a she opened, “we’ve got a lot to get through, so this is how we are going to do it.” Having laid out a few rules, both about being quiet while people were talking and as noisy as possible when applause was required, she introduced a ‘carrot’ element as she held up the bottles of champagne that she would be awarding throughout the process to the ‘best behaved tables’.


The same principles apply even in more civilised situations just as board rooms and lecture theatres. For the time allotted to you, the space is yours and you need to own it. So don’t start until you are ready, and when you are tell the audience what is going to happen, how it is going to work and what, if anything, you need them to do. As long as your preparation and planning has been heavily focused on your audience and what is going on in their minds - rather simply what you want or need to say - you are likely to find them surprisingly compliant.