Monday, 15 September 2014

The Scottish debate's big reminder for business presenters in targeting & focusing communication

One thing for sure about the Scottish independence debate is that it provides a crystal-clear lesson for business presenters in targeting and focusing their communication.

The plain fact is that any message that is going to succeed boils down to WII FM.  That’s not a radio station – it stands for ‘What’s In It For Me’?

It has to be said that this is a whole lot easier for Salmond and the Yes camp who can paint dreamy future scenarios while tapping into gripes and prejudices that have festered for hundreds of years.

This is inevitably going to be a lot stronger than ‘Please don’t go’. When did that ever work?  ‘Better together’ is certainly a big step in the right direction but too many of the messages come over as threats and danger signals rather than benefits in the form of What’s In It For Me? messages. It’s all ended up as a bit of muddle that, whatever the result, we are going keep feeling for the rest of our lives. 

Even with the benefit of hindsight there is no easy solution but, as I said, the starting point for any message that is going to succeed is WII FM. So, what the Better Together team needed to tell the people of Scotland was: a) this is What’s In It For the Scots; b) this is What’s In It For the rest of the UK; c) it all adds up to a sum that is greater than its parts.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The tiny tool that gets you perfectly positioned to deliver a business presentation

Not many people carry what is undoubtedly one of my favourite items of business presentation equipment. They should, because it’s very small and costs just a couple of pounds. Most of all, it can be key to getting you properly positioned for a business presentation and feeling comfortable enough to ‘own the space’.

Let me introduce you to the gender changer. All it really does is join one projector/TV monitor cable to another. Most of the time you will have no need of this, but on the first occasion you are faced with a too-short projector cable you will wish you had one. You want to position your laptop so that you can see it from your preferred speaker position – not have it tethered according to what the available cable allows.

This is most likely to happen in a room without a fixed projector. Someone arrives with one in a bag; typically, the accompanying cable will be about a metre long. By the time you have positioned the projector far enough from the screen to create a decent-sized image, you have little or no flexibility as the where to put your laptop.

Even in rooms with fixed projectors, having a gender changer and extension lead in your
bag can be an advantage. The ideal way to set up is generally on the left of a screen from the audience’s point of view. As Rule 5 of the Rules of Magic states, ‘Attention tracks from left to right, then settles at the left’. The reason for this is that, in Western cultures, we read from left-to-right. With this set up your audience will therefore look at you (assuming you have established strong eye contact), then look at the screen; then their gaze will return naturally to you. 

With a right–to-left set up, on the other hand, your audience’s gaze will be veering towards ‘nothing’ on the left. You will find such a set up in many venues - regular haunts of my own such as the British Library Business Unit and The Royal College of Art are set up like this, often for good reasons such as there being a door on the left. With a gender changer, however, you have the flexibility to adapt the lay out to one of your own choosing. You can own the space! 

Monday, 4 August 2014

James Blunt's ROFL tweets have a serious side - and a lesson for business presenters

Singer James Blunt has rightly been lauded for the brilliant way he communicates via Twitter. Far from shying away from so-called ‘trolls’ he actively embraces them, with replies such as this particular favourite of mine:

@hettjones: James Blunt just has an annoying face and a highly irritating voice

@JamesBlunt: And no mortgage.

Much has been made of Blunt’s wit and clever self-deprecation, but there is actually a valuable lesson for business communicators here. Most people prepare for a presentation by putting high focus on the message they want to get across and the means (mostly technological) by which they are going to do that. These people have already made a fundamental mistake, because the first thing you need to think about is your audience: Who are they are? What do they already know? What do they think? What are their beliefs and prejudices? etc, etc. Only when you have addressed questions such as these can you really start to craft your message in a way that will engage your audience. 

The classic example of failing to think first about the audience was when Tony Blair addressed the Women’s Institute. One of the most successful communicators of the modern age, who happened also to be the Prime Minister, ended up being slow handclapped. The reason was very simple – he delivered his usual political message without any proper regard for the make up of his audience. And yet, had he sought a briefing from an appropriate adviser, he could probably have delivered fundamentally the same speech; it just needed to be tilted in the direction of his specific audience on that day.

James Blunt focuses on his audience in two ways. First, he engages directly the person attacking him. Second, he uses his ripostes – knowing them to be witty and highly shareable – to address an image problem he has been experiencing with the wider public. And of course, it just so happened that he had a new album ready for release. How much better is it going to be received when thousands of people are discussing James Blunt in a new, much more positive light?

So, engaging directly with your detractors is a risky strategy that is not necessarily to be recommended. But you are never going to truly engage an audience unless you have first worked out - however painful the process may be - what is already going on in their heads about you and the topic of your talk.

 Retweeted by James Blunt
James Blunt just came onstage at Hop Farm. Had to step on a few toes, but we've managed to fight our way to the back.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Dragons’ Den victim highlights the importance of a crystal-clear opening to your business presentation

BBC2’s Dragons’ Den featured a classic pitching error this week – the first entrepreneur forgot to tell the dragons what he was pitching!

We viewers had the benefit of a voiceover explaining that he was seeking investment for ‘a new national fast food franchise’. What the dragons got to see and hear was a (literally) all singing/dancing intro, followed by statistics and facts such as £3.8bn spent of Indian takeaways, two existing stores in South Wales and a dream of a nationwide network. Confused dragon Piers Linney sought clarification, saying: “You have not explained, unless I missed it, what on earth you do. What is it? A takeaway? Is it a shop? Is it fresh? What is it?” The entrepreneur responded, but his explanation was still littered with jargon about ‘the brand’, ‘social media’ etc. Eventually Linney was forced to spell it out for him.

It was a very basic error, but it is quite common. For some years now I have coached some of the most brilliant young entrepreneurs prior to making a pitch of 6-8 minutes in front of investors who have the power and resources to make their business fly. Sometimes during rehearsals I stop them mid-flow, saying: “You are now four minutes into your 6-8 minute pitch and you haven’t told me what it is yet”. They usually protest that their business coaches have stressed the importance of communicating the strength and breadth of their team, the robust nature of their financial projections and size of their potential market.  “Yes”, I reply, “but until we know what it is none of that means anything to anybody.  Once we know what it is, then as well as being intrigued and potentially excited, the fact that you have, say, a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon on your team becomes very relevant”.

So I urge them – before they have even introduced themselves – to give the one-sentence version of what they have invented and plan to unleash on the world; for instance: “Good morning, we have invented a new way to make cars run on air and water alone”. I tell them to spit it out clearly and slowly and then pause to let the message sink in. This, it has to be said, brings other challenges. I remind them that they are some of the most highly educated people in the world and they are clearly very passionate about the project they have been living and breathing to the exclusion of almost everything else. Now they have to explain it all - in a rather specific and alien manner- in just 6-8 minutes. The fact is that they know too much about their project, so I introduce them to the concept of ‘killing your darlings’ – the film maker’s  expression for having to be ruthless with your editing, perhaps cutting out whole scenes that you have lovingly and expensively crafted.

Crucial to any form of communication, however, is getting the fundamental facts absolutely crystal clear up front. If you don’t, then anything that follows is relatively meaningless and your audience are probably half asleep anyway – because you have failed to engage them at the outset.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Is communicating effectively by phone becoming a ‘lost art’?

I was called recently by a journalist who was concerned that using the phone to sell an idea or product was becoming ‘a lost art’. I agreed that he may be onto something and my take on the topic was that the younger generation seem to be developing a fear of the phone – they prefer to stay behind the protective barrier offered by email and text. They need to understand that different communications methods each have their own strengths, but a phone call can truly establish a two-way dialogue and even a relationship.
This struck a chord with my enquirer because his inspiration had come from a big dose of 1980s excess – he had been to see Wolf on Wall Street and was particularly struck by the lead character’s demonstration of effective phone technique while enjoying cocaine and a range of other pleasures. “Have you got any tips?”, he asked.  “Not like that”, I replied, "but try some of these":

  • Think carefully about the name of the person you are calling before picking up the receiver – you need to be able to say it with clarity and confidence in order to get the conversation off to a good start; you are not going to engage the person you are calling if you can’t get their name right!  My own name is relatively rare but should not be a challenge to pronounce. And yet I get addressed (usually after some umms and errs) as Fizzlebert, Furzlebert and many other variations. Is that going to put me in the mood to buy something? 
  • In presentation skills ‘Firsts & Lasts’ are the most important elements, not least because these are what people remember, and this certainly applies to phone calls. You need to engage the person you are calling up front and wrap up with a ‘Call to Action’, so your opening and closing need to be carefully planned, if not actually scripted.
  • Speak with a smile on your face – it can be heard in the voice and will raise the level and tone of the conversation. You can take this a stage further by standing up to make a call – this raises energy levels and enables you to both breathe more deeply and use gestures that can’t be seen but will add impact nevertheless. Many radio studios now have control desks that can be raised to standing level for presenters who prefer to work this way. 
  • Come straight to the point. Talk in ‘headlines’, elevator messages or what Hollywood calls ‘High Concept’ (Snakes on a Plane, Giant shark terrorises holiday resort etc) up front so that the other person gets the gist of your subject matter immediately. Business communicators generally can be very bad at bringing high focus to what they want to say – they talk around the subject rather than get to the point. When offering to help associates with business introductions, legendary sports agent Mark McCormack used to brush aside long-winded credentials, saying: “give me something I can phone in”.
  • Observe basic courtesies upfront, but focus on establishing whether the other person has a moment to speak rather than asking if they are having a good day. 
  • If the person you are calling starts to speak – let them do so! Start listening - it sounds as though they are actually interested enough to start a conversation, so don’t plough on with your spiel!
  • Think carefully about a suitable time to make your call. Put yourself into their shoes and consider how they will feel about receiving your call at that particular time.

In the old days we had an expression when hiring PR people – ‘he/she gives good phone’. I haven’t heard that for a while – such skills need to be developed and nurtured.

A version of this article appeared in PR Week.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Monty Python and the Communication Grail – what to talk about when you meet a famous person

So the Monty Python crew are back on stage for one last huge hurrah, designed to sort out a variety of needs including pension pots, alimony payments and legacies for young wives. And it reminds me of an incident that brought a communication conundrum into sharp focus: when you meet a famous person in a domestic situation, do you talk about what made them famous?

My general rule of thumb is that, once you have shown initial acknowledgement and appreciation, you talk about anything but what made them famous. I put this into practice one evening in the early-80s, when I went straight down to the pub, finding just two people there: the landlord and Rick Parfitt from Status Quo. As soon as he had served my drink, the landlord disappeared, leaving just Rick and myself. It really didn’t feel right to start discussing the joys of his band’s 1973 gig at the Guildford Civic Hall, so we talked about how to cook oven chips, the price of petrol and who might have borrowed his hedge clippers. At the time, this man was considered to be a bit of a hellraiser!

I learned the lesson in a rather painful way, however, one night as I sat down for dinner two places away from Monty Python’s Terry Jones. At the time Terry lived immediately next door to some mutual friends who had a lot of parties, so I saw him on a fairly regular basis. We therefore exchanged ‘catch up pleasantries’, as he told me about a Radio 4 series he was working on and I touched on my new training programme. He even asked about a special magic convention he knew I been attending. Almost as an aside, I added: “Oh, by the way, congratulations on winning the poll” and he responded with slightly embarrassed gratitude. 

“What’s that?”, asked the woman sitting between us. I explained that there had been a lot of press coverage during the week about a survey conducted to find the funniest-ever line in a film – and Terry came top. “So what was the line”, probed the woman. Trying to move the conversation on, I said that it was the ‘famous one from The Life of Brian’. “But which one?” she persisted. I looked at Terry and he shot back a pretty clear ‘you’re not getting Python’s greatest hits tonight’-expression. “Well”, I replied, “it’s the one where he says: ‘He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy’ ”.

I had just performed the funniest-line-ever in a movie. In front of its originator. We reverted to domestic trivia as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

‘Kill some darlings’ before delivering your business presentation

The subject of editing business presentations has been very much on my mind in the past week, with two very different clients having to face up to making big cuts to their content.

Client number one was a large public sector organisation that had two hours in which to convey a myriad of messages in an interesting way to a wide range of different stakeholders. The dilemma was that, while the allotted two hours was a very long time to keep any audience’s attention, when carved up into separate slots, none of the speakers would get enough time to say anything in a meaningful manner.

Client number two was one of the young PR executives I am guiding through their Apprenticeship. Her task was to explain the programme to her colleagues, highlighting the areas in which they could help her and she could help them. “So I have compiled text and pictures on each of the 18 modules”, she said, “but I fear that it is going to be rather boring for them and I won’t have time to get through it all”.

I explained to both clients the principle of ‘Killing your Darlings’ – a film and TV makers’ expression to describe the process that leads to them leaving a lot of content ‘on the cutting floor’ – or its digital equivalent. They go to all the trouble of scripting, rehearsal, acting and filming, only to throw much of it away.

Watch the deleted scenes on DVDs and you will typically hear the director explaining: “it’s a lovely scene, with both the leads giving great performances, but it wasn’t really moving the story forward. So it had to go. The same happens in business presentations: you have a favourite anecdote, a nice video and your PA has slaved over a very tricky graphic – so naturally you are going to use them all. But you need to be every bit as ruthless as those film directors – and keep killing ‘darlings’ until your presentation is as tight and crystal clear as it can possibly be.

Both of my clients warmed to this theme and realised that a lot of darlings faced the chopping block. With the public sector client it forced us to realise that the majority of the audience would be made up of one type of stakeholder, so the content could and probably should focus largely on them. With my Apprentice, I asked her to consider how many of her 18 different modules were realistically ones to which her colleagues could make meaningful contributions. We concluded the answer was six or seven. At a stroke, two thirds of the content could be killed off. Of course, she would give a quick overview up front to show the length and breadth of what lay ahead, but she would rapidly move on and announce that today she would be focusing on the six units where she and her colleagues could work together to mutual benefit.

The resulting presentation personified the realisation that another client came to last year: “I see”, he said, “don’t tell them everything; just tell them what they need to know”.