Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Be sure to get your words in sync with your visuals

I was coaching a start up entrepreneur in Presentation Skills recently and he spoke - very appropriately - about a 'grey area'. The problem was that these words were supported by a timeline that contained various colours, but no grey. For a moment my mind was a bit confused and I was taken back to the news reports of the war in Iraq where they kept talking about the 'Green Zone', but marked it in red on the accompanying maps. If you have ever experienced the 'Stroop Effect', whereby you are asked to read out words like this RED GREEN BLUE you will know what I mean.

So my response was: "I know 'grey area' is a figure of speech, but if you are going to talk about a grey area, it is very helpful to your audience to show that in grey"! 

Meanwhile, what has become of decent timelines? Increasingly I find presenters saying: "Here is the timeline" and they show me a bunch of bullet points running from the top of the screen to the bottom. There is not a line in sight!

In these cases I explain that timelines emerged because they can be very effective at displaying a progression over a fixed period and for spreading the elements appropriately across that period, in comparative proportions. I then go on to explain that the best timelines make their big point 'at a glance' without the reader or audience even having to study any accompanying detail.

Here, for instance, is a nice twist on the classic Human Evolution timeline where you instantly see the point that our activity levels and posture are beginning to regress:


Similarly, a look back at how mobile phones became smaller and smaller, then began to grow back to a size - front-on at least - approaching that of their starting point: 


It's always useful to keep reminding yourself that, while you are very familiar with all that you are saying and displaying, your audience will probably be hearing it and seeing it for the first time. So, to ensure maximum clarity it all needs to be a bit simpler than you might think. You are never going to achieve that if your words are out of sync with your visuals!


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Jeremy Vine & I discuss Public Speaking on Radio 2

On Tuesday July 21 I had great fun joining Jeremy Vine on his BBC Radio 2 show to discuss public speaking.  We covered various scenarios including several weddings - and a funeral!  
If you would like to listen (until August 18), here is the iPlayer link. It starts at 1.11:
The famous Elton John piano in the Radio 2 green room

Monday, 6 July 2015

Standing or sitting for your business presentation?

Several of my recent Presentation Skills coaching sessions have involved debate as to whether one should sit or stand when delivering a presentation. Once I have briefed delegates on how to position themselves in relation to their screen, how to keep still and avoid prowling or rocking backwards and forwards on their feet, they reply: “We usually sit for our presentations. Do you think we should we should stand?”


To me the answer is obvious: Of course you should stand – it creates a focus around you and your aids and it gives you much greater freedom to gesticulate, so adding a visual element to your delivery. At the same time, I don’t want to impose my techniques on people. My aim is to tailor my advice to each individual so that they can add impact in their own way to the specific situations in which they are presenting.

So if I am working with a team I usually suggest we try a mix, with some people presenting from a seated position and some standing. This experimentation enables us to do some useful comparing and contrasting. It also allows each person to reach their own conclusions (Rule 19 of the Rules of Magic states: People put more reliance on something they have worked out for themselves).

I set it up so that sitting presenters go first – the supposed reason being that this is the normal/traditional way for them to do things. Standing presenters follow and almost immediately everyone starts to realise certain basic benefits: you can create a single point of focus with yourself and your aids in one view; eye contact, which is constrained when you have people at your immediate sides, is much stronger and easier to control and spread. Above all, the slight elevation gives you a commanding position – a position of authority even. For a few minutes you ‘own’ the room.

This is where the principle of getting the delegates to reach their own conclusions really kicks in. Sometimes they start to realise that problems they often encounter can be overcome by standing and may even be exacerbated by seated presentations. One client related how they often have to deal with unwanted interruptions or bosses who go off at unhelpful tangents. “They might be less likely to do that”, they muse, “if we have the floor, so to speak”. “Absolutely”, I reply, “especially if you get into the habit of what I am going to propose next”.

By this time no one wants to sit any more. They want to start working on their gestures, realising that there really is something in those old theories about the words you say only forming part of any communication that results. They even get excited about the potential for deploying props.

So it’s at that point that I propose sitting down again! In the type of situation where people have traditionally given a presentation from a seated position their objective is often to make the case for something and then win agreement through subsequent discussion. So I tell them there is an opportunity to have the best of both worlds. Start by standing to give a short, impactful presentation. Once you have made your key points, concluding with a ‘Call to Action’, announce that the time for discussion has come, as you change the mood by re-joining your audience, seated at the table. By now you are in a powerful position to win the agreement you are seeking.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Lack of Creative Thinking makes the big news issues fester – it’s time to appoint Dave Trott as Minister for Creative Solutions

Watching the news tonight I was dismayed at the complete lack of creative thinking currently being applied to some high profile issues. I should declare upfront that, alongside my work as a Presentation Skills coach I train PR people in Creative Thinking.

Take the first issue – the government ‘s early – albeit flagged in the manifesto – withdrawal
from subsidising onshore wind energy facilities. NIMBYism is apparently one of the big problems – people just don’t like the look of the giant propellers than generate a cheap, clean energy. There was much talking around the subject but no one seems to be considering this: what might be done to make them more attractive? We like the look of windmills – artists paint pictures of them and they make the landscape look beautiful. Might there be a way of achieving a similar result with the modern day version? The answer may be no, but let’s at least consider it.

Issue number two – the Palace of Westminster is crumbling. It’s going to cost between three and seven billion – yes, billion - pounds to repair it.  Depending on various options it could take anything from six to thirty-two years to complete the work. What is missing from this information? Answer: how much it would cost and how long it would take to pull the whole thing down and start again with a building more suited to today’s needs.

Now, no one likes a bit of history and heritage more than me and I would be very sad to see the wrecking balls applied to the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’. But if you are going to have a proper debate you need to consider all the options, including the so-called ‘nuclear’ options. Considering extremes is a very effective way of both stretching the imagination – you think of all kinds of potential solutions; some of them will be a bit mad and you may not actually use any of them, but it will help to bring fresh thinking to the problem. Extremes are also useful for putting things into perspective. It might be, for instance, that it is cheaper to repair than to rebuild, in which case the current shocking figures can be presented as a bargain. It might be that it is slightly more expensive to repair than to rebuild, in which case the whole focus can be on the difference between the two costs rather that just one big, horrific number.

So we are now getting into communication issues here as well as the need for creative thinking – which is why the whole thing both fascinates and frustrates me.


I have a quick, potentially highly effective solution to propose. Have a dip into any of these books:  One + One = Three, Predatory Thinking and Creative Mischief. You will soon see that their author, the advertising legend Dave Trott, is brilliant at thinking sideways and back to front – never mind outside the box – to come up with solutions to any kind of challenge. Give Dave a peerage and appoint him Minister for Creative Solutions without delay.



Monday, 15 June 2015

Getting your message to hit home by making it personal - Part Two, as rockers rally for Prostate Cancer

At the weekend I finally took the decision to get myself checked for Prostate Cancer. I was attending the second annual Rock’n’Horsepower concert in aid of Prostate Cancer UK, where the big message is “we always need your money, but most of all we want to raise awareness of your need to get checked”.

I attended last year too and some of the world’s biggest rock stars including Jeff Beck and the Who played some fantastic music, punctuated by pleas to get ourselves checked. Did I get myself checked? No. Looking back at my failure to take action got me thinking about the communication issues of mobilising people to act on their health.


I returned this year to enjoy some more great music in the most wonderful setting. By happy coincidence Kenney Jones, drummer with my all-time favourite band The Faces, not to mention the Small Faces, the Who and his current band the Jones Gang, set up a polo club just along the road on which I grew up. Back in the 70s I could never have dreamed that I would one get to hear many of musical heroes in my backyard. So I pop in to see my Mum, who can hear it at gentle volume from her garden, and then amble along to Kenney’s Club. 

The point is, I was not really thinking about Prostate Cancer, even though Kenney himself has recently recovered from it. Most of the people appearing, such as members of UB40 and the Average White Band, Steve Harley and Procul Harum slipped in mentions of the need to get checked. Some supplemented these with a very convincing ‘it just needs a blood test’ and Steve Harley raised money by auctioning his guitar.



Two things spurred me into action this year. First, the MC reminded us that Alvin Stardust had performed last year and within weeks he was dead – from Prostate Cancer. His wife came on and sang two terrific songs in his memory. Then, towards the end Jim Cregan, long time Rod Stewart and Steve Harley collaborator and guitarist with the house band on Saturday night, came forward and told his story. “I was here last year”, he said, “and I didn’t have Prostate Cancer. Now I do, I’m recovering but I do have Prostate Cancer. I played a concert to raise awareness and never got myself checked”.


So I had finally been convinced, but my musings on why it had taken me so long led me to conclusion that, sadly, highlighting some victims and urging everyone else not to fall into the same trap is not quite enough. We need to normalise the notion of getting yourself checked. So my communications recommendation to Kenney Jones is as follows: Please Kenney carry on the concerts and ideally get Rod and Ronnie along for a Faces revival next year; bring back Jeff Beck as well and you can make it truly historic with a simultaneous reformation of the Jeff Beck Group. BUT – even though you are already asking favours – don’t let anyone play a note until they have told the audience that they have been for a check up themselves. Then get them to add a few brief details to convince us and show how simple it is. Then we will truly be ‘all in it together’.







Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Building personal details into your business presentation can be the key to convincing your audience

‘Let a little light shine on yourself, then your audience will warm to you and everything you say will come over in a way that is even more convincing’. This is a piece of advice that I often give to those I am coaching in presentation skills, as I urge them to build a few personal details into their material, however serious and corporate their overall theme may be.

The best magicians are well aware of this principle. Dai Vernon (right), the guru of gurus for magicians, used to say: “If they like you as a person, they will like what you do”. In order to like you as a person, however, they need to know something about you. So how can two seemingly disparate themes come together? Among examples from people I have worked with or observed recently are:
  • The Finance Director who confessed to an internal audience his alarm at discovering he was known by some as ‘Hatchet Man’. This showed self-awareness and a degree of sensitivity that would make any future tough talking he needed to do that little bit easier to deliver, together with a greater likelihood of effectiveness.

  • The Business Coach who revealed he had been a punk rocker, so providing a fantastic opportunity to juxtapose an accompanying image with another showing his subsequent metamorphosis into a Police sergeant.  More importantly, it helped to portray a much more well-rounded personality than might be immediately obvious from the rather serious-minded character on stage.

  • The Product Innovation Director who confessed that whenever he had a really radical idea he tried it out first on his children. “They”, he declared, “are my own personal focus group”, as he displayed an image of two cute kids photoshopped into a focus group scenario. He made the point very effectively that you need to be brave when innovating and he too found the process nerve-racking. Moreover, everyone was going to remember the message because of a standout, heart-tugging image and the personal nature of the story.

  • The CEO of a data storage company whose induction speech to young employees about the great potential for all of them to succeed, whatever their educational background, was underpinned by a short story about how he started his working life as a self-employed scaffolder. This insight into the boss made what could have seemed like ‘mere words’ into something believable and truly aspirational.

One note of warning. Most people need to be a bit brave to put themselves in the spotlight in this way. The last two examples only came about because I encouraged the individuals to make their stories more than just a passing mention. The former-scaffolder CEO initially said simply that he had been self-employed at the beginning of his career, so I pushed him a bit to create a picture in the minds of his audience, never believing he would eventually provide such a striking juxtaposition with his current position. Similarly, the Product Innovation Director only confessed during a coffee break that he brought his kids into the process. So, as I discussed recently (here), it’s back to ‘catching the conversational asides’ if you are going to find the real gems for presentation material. One other note of warning – if you do not feel the need to be a bit brave about introducing personal details, you are probably talking about yourself too much!

So try building in some personal details in this way and, when you get the hang of it, apply the principle to your all-important opening remarks. Another great magician, Wayne Dobson, lectured to us at The Magic Circle, putting great emphasis on what has for many years been his opening trick. He showed us how to do it, but more importantly he showed us why he did it as his opening trick. He said: “I do that at the start because I want the audience to like me. Once I have achieved that, I can do almost anything I want”.