Thursday, 26 February 2015

‘Props are your enemy’ – as Madonna has displayed all-too-publicly

We have a saying in magic: “Props are your enemy”. I first heard it from the American magician Rich Bloch, who explained that it’s a bit like Murphy’s Law – ‘if it can go wrong it will go wrong’; and with magic props there is often an awful lot that can potentially wrong. Madonna’s tumble at the Brits was much more that a simple, embarrassing ‘wardrobe malfunction’; it was a full-on case of a prop biting back and threatening the whole performance. Like the best magicians, Madonna hardly let it affect her, carrying on like the true, hardened professional that she is, but how much planning went into managing the props?

I encourage business people to deploy props in their presentations – anything to break the screen-induced trance. And if you have the actual item to hand why not get it out rather than just project an image! My encouragement comes, however, with the stern warning that ‘props are your enemy’ and you may live to regret using one. Among the questions I ask are: How are you going to get in on stage? How are you going to unveil it smoothly; Will it need support? Can you be sure it will work properly? How are you then going to get rid of it to avoid it becoming an on-going distraction?

I had exactly this situation recently when coaching a packaging executive who was announcing a particular product going into his packaging for the first time. He had the first samples with him and was keen to open one on stage as the climax of his presentation. “OK” I said, with my usual provisos, “but we must rehearse that carefully because, with all due respect to your packaging, it’s not the easiest to open. And it will be even less easy without a solid surface, on stage, under the spotlights, in front of hundreds of people”. Sure enough, in rehearsal he fumbled in a way that would have be awkward in front of his colleagues.Then, when he emptied the contents, it was the wrong product. Potentially super-awkward! 

So, for the actual show, we made small but definite slits in the packaging and also had peek to check that it contained what the labelling said it did. It all went perfectly and he received rousing applause – because we had approached the situation knowing that props – potentially at least – are your enemy. Madonna is clever enough to turn her tumble to her advantage in the long run, but I bet she still wishes she had planned that cape removal a little more carefully.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Keeping your business presentation to time – the Dos & Don’ts

Keeping to time in a business presentation has always been important, but the pressure to do so has increased as the demand for short TED-style talks grows. Now, five-minute presentations are the order of the day at many business networking events.

There are actually many benefits of speaking for a short amount of time, but let’s focus here on the dos and don’ts of keeping to time.
Don’t even try to cram in all you would ideally like to say to this particular audience. Ideally, choose one key message and focus all you say around that.
Don’t speed up just to cram in all you want to say – it will simply diminish the effect of anything they manage to hear.
Don’t start to embellish what you have rehearsed. However nervous people may feel in advance of giving a presentation, they often start to feel more relaxed as they get into the swing of it. As they a result, they become more conversational in tone and stretch out what they had planned to say, with the result that they run over time. Do stick to the plan!
Don’t have a ‘countdown-style’ clock or a system of lights or signals in front of you. This will simply feel threatening; and what are you supposed to do if you are running out of time? Speeding up is not the answer! Also, don’t have a digital clock in front of you. When you look at a digital clock you need to ‘translate’ the digits into an image in your mind to understand what you are seeing; that is going to distract from your delivery.
Do have an analogue clock within your general view so that, with the merest glance, you can check you are broadly on track. If you are giving a lengthy presentation, make a note of where you should be at key points of time and mark these on any prompts you are using.
Do rehearse - and keep rehearsing - until you come comfortably within the allotted time in a natural manner. That way, your analogue clock simply provides reassurance – it is not driving you along! Ensure that you have at least one rehearsal in the space where you will be speaking – so as to overcome feelings of unfamiliarity.
Do aim to come in slightly under time. People will appreciate this and it will give you an added feeling of comfort.
Do ensure there is some leeway in your speaking time eg ‘between six and eight minutes, but no more’. Only TV presenters have to hit a precise ‘mark’ as they finish speaking. That is a whole skill in itself and is rarely required outside TV. If there is no leeway, then aim to come in under time, so giving yourself some leeway.
Do remember that “Firsts & Lasts’ are the most important parts of any presentation – they are what audiences remember. Furthermore, your opening is essential to engaging your audience and your close is where you send them away with your ‘big message’. If you run out of time, you lose the ability to deliver your big message or have to do it in a rush.
Do – ideally – include some content towards the end of your presentation that is ‘nice to have, but not essential’. That way, you have something that can be cut if, despite all your preparation, you are still running out of time. And your big finish can remain intact.

Finally, I was recently coaching a business presenter on the concept of message distillation and he thought for a moment, before saying: “I get it. Don’t tell them everything; just tell them what they need to know.” He had, indeed, got it.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Don’t let False Memory mess up your messages in business presentations

The concept of ‘False Memory’ has been in the news this week, with NBC news anchor Brian Williams being suspended after his bosses were forced to consider why he had claimed incorrectly to have been in a helicopter that was shot at during the Iraq war. Had he been lying, exaggerating or suffering from ‘False Memory’? The latter sounded unlikely but is perfectly possible, according to Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, who contributed to a Newsnight discussion on the topic. See here (until mid-March 2015, starting at 40.42).


Williams' slip up was less surprising to those of us in the magic community, who exploit the False Memory principle somewhat shamelessly. A lovely example came up last night when the much-admired American magician Wayne Houchin lectured at The Magic Circle. Among the items he demonstrated and taught to us were: 1) Sucking a thread into his mouth and pulling it back out through his eye 2) Swallowing a needle, followed by some thread; then pulling the thread back out, with the needle attached. Later he advised us that it was a good idea to perform both of these tricks in the same show – because False Memory Syndrome kicks in. Audience members, he said, come up to him afterwards congratulating him on ‘swallowing the needle and pulling it back out through his eye’. “I just keep quiet and thank them” said Houchin, “because that is a lot more impressive than what I actually did”!

So the message for business presenters is: ‘Don’t let False Memory get the better of you and your message’. I have written before in various ways about the need for high focus and aiming for the ideal of basing your presentation around ‘one big message’. The dangers of False Memory, it seems to me, provide another compelling reason to maintain high focus. If you tell your audience a list of things they might remember none of them; tell them one big thing and you’re in with a chance. And if your audience members are anything like Brian Williams - ‘America’s Huw Edwards’, according to Newsnight’s Evan Davis - they might get that list of things mixed up to create a whole new perception!

Finally, to anyone thinking of seeking help to exploit False Memories to their benefit in the way magicians do, I would have to say: “that would be devious; magicians are paid to be devious; it’s not such a good idea in the business world! Let's talk instead about 'underlining' and 'bringing life' to your message."

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Applause Cues are crucial to business presentations with a memorable message

I would like to add an element to what I have said before (see here) about the importance of ‘Firsts & Lasts’ in any presentation or speech: make your ending definite. Your audience needs to know for certain that you have reached your conclusion. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘showbiz’, you need to create an ‘Applause Cue’ – a little signal that indicates ‘that’s all folks’.

So what were Tony Blair and his speech writers thinking when they constructed his Sedgefield resignation speech? He had learned from both the occasional disaster (Women’s Institute conference) and many triumphs (The settlement train is leaving; She was the people's princess…; I feel the hand of history…). Prior to his final party conference he reportedly sought advice from Kevin Spacey in order to ensure he went out with a bang. And yet, when he came to make the really big speech in which he resigned as Prime Minister he finished as follows:

This is the greatest nation on earth.
It has been an honour to serve it. I give my thanks to you, the British people, for the times I have succeeded, and my apologies to you for the times I have fallen short.
Good luck.

You can see what happened if you click on the video below and fast forward to 8.52. He says: “Good luck”, then there is an awkward silence as audience members look at each other for a moment, before eventually bursting into applause as Blair raises his hands.  He had created a ‘Have you finished?’- style conclusion at one of the most crucial moments of his career.



So you need to create an Applause Cue, whether or not you are expecting actual applause. To achieve this you need a well constructed sign-off line, combined with a sense of rhythm and emphasis. Think in terms of: Dum-diddly-um-tum…dum-dum. Blair could never have achieved this with a mere two-word sentence. He needed to extend it a bit and add emphasis, gusto and perhaps even a wave as he utters the words “good luck”. 

This applies to the everyday business presentation just as much as it does to a Prime Minister bidding farewell to the nation. Your conclusion needs a carefully constructed ‘Call to Action’ – the message that you want your audience to go away remembering, but this needs also to be carefully rehearsed so that it acts as an Applause Cue. If necessary it can be as simple as: “Thank you for your attention” – as long as it sends out an unambiguous signal that you have finished.

Two final points. First, however awkward or nervous people tend to be about getting up to speak, once they have got started, they invariably find it difficult to stop. They tend to ramble on longer than required – another reason to instil discipline on how you finish.

Second, even with a well-constructed and executed Applause Cue, business audiences are often unsure as to whether applause is appropriate.  So when you are in control of a meeting, decide if you want applause. If you do, then get someone to act as ‘applause leader’ – once one person claps, everyone else is sure to join in, because applause is infectious!

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’.