Friday, 29 July 2016

The communication and creative skills that contributed to Alexis Conran’s success on Celebrity Masterchef - a small personal insight


Huge congratulations to Alexis Conran on winning Celebrity Masterchef 2016.  But who, you may be asking is Alexis Conran? Well, I first met him more than a decade ago when he was a jobbing actor, supplementing his income by working as a magician. I was working with his magical agent on the initial development of what eventually became my Presentation Skills training programme based around the Rules of Magic.

I had the pleasure of working alongside Alexis, together with the likes of Guy Hollingworth and Ali Bongo on a couple of occasions at The Magic Circle. What impressed me was the work ethic he applied to rehearsal, his attention to detail – “we need a new envelope, not this used one” – and his engaging personality. They (my wife, for one) may not have remembered what he did, but they certainly remembered him, which was why he was so regularly booked as a magician when he was actually becoming too busy with his acting to be fiddling around as a magician.

Alexis went on to co-create and star in the BBC’s The Real Hustle and a variety of his own documentaries, as well as hosting TV and radio shows; when I last saw him about six months ago he was struggling to even remember his exploits within the magic world. Watching him triumph on Celebrity Masterchef, however, I could see that all those qualities of hard work, attention to detail and a winning personality were now being applied to cooking. Watch out for Alexis hosting a prime time show on a mainstream channel soon – it may be cookery-based, but he could win us over with almost anything.

The lesson for business presenters?  Draw inspiration from all around you. It’s Magic, Movies and Music that do it for me, but apply principles from whatever turns you on to your business presentations and you will soon start to excel.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Without enunciation your business presentation can fall at the first fence

I have talked before about the importance of enunciation in a business presentation – especially as you open and close. This is not simply an old-fashioned notion – unless your audience members receive your introductory message with crystal clarity, then anything that follows could be rendered meaningless.

The concept was brought into sharp focus for me recently when I was coaching a foreign entrepreneur for his investor pitch about a new material he had invented. Key to the concept was that his material had great advantages over its traditional competitor - ‘vood’. I was confused but eventually worked out why, necessitating a conversation about composer Wagner, actor Robert Wagner and guitarist Ronnie Wood.

Rex Harrison in 'My Fair Lady'
Language difficulties can be sorted out relatively easily, but speakers of the Queen’s English can fall into similar traps, especially with words that sound very similar to another word or even the opposite of what was intended. If, for instance, you were to say: ‘this is unnecessary’ or ‘unnatural’, that could easily be heard as ‘necessary’ or ‘natural’ – the opposite of what you meant! The problems with these examples are of course exacerbated by the double Ns, but you need very clear enunciation in such cases to make yourself clear. It may well be better to change the words to something like ‘this won’t be needed’.

My favourite real life example of mumbled delivery that was potentially going to have very expensive repercussions was the presenter who appeared to announce, in a rather offhand manner: “This is a $17 million opportunity.” “Hang on a minute”, I interrupted; “if this really is a $17 million opportunity, then please ‘spit that out’ loud and proud.” He replied rather sheepishly that it was actually a $17 billion opportunity. “In that case”, I said, “my advice stands; but multiply it by 1000!”

So by all means relax a bit in the middle of your presentation – keep it conversational and tell some stories to bring it all to life. But open and close with crystal clarity that leaves your audience in absolutely no doubt about what you have come to talk about and what you want them to do as a result.


Monday, 11 July 2016

Prince George helps to highlight the importance of strong, direct eye contact

If I had to choose one ingredient that is most vital to the delivery of an effective business presentation it would be eye contact. And if you were to ask me what needs most work in the Presentation Skills training sessions I run it would also be eye contact. Happily, I now have a new role model to help in my quest to improve presenters’ eye contact and it is none other that HRH Prince George.


Strong eye contact makes a presenter more credible, trustworthy, confident, assertive, as well as more friendly. And yet most people have to work at improving eye contact that is typically indistinct, hesitant, too brief and poorly spread. This is often as a result of inexperience, but nerves can play a big part and many people using PowerPoint have an additional struggle – that their eyes are drawn continuously towards their screen, whether or not anything there has actually changed!

“Keep looking forwards”, I say. “If your eye contact is strong, then your audience’s eyes should follow yours into the screen – when you want them to look there specifically”. Magicians know more than almost anybody how the eyes can be used to direct attention. Their mantra is ‘if you want your audience to look at you (which you do most of the time), look at them. If you want them to look at something (ie where the magic is about to happen), look at it’.

So how does Prince George fit into all of this? Well, many of the people I coach have young children, so I personalise the principle to them by asking if their children are at the age of being taught how to shake hands and say ‘thank you for having me’. We generally agree that without accompanying eye contact, the words are relatively meaningless. To ram the point home, I have for many years been showing pictures of my own daughter Eliza at that age, both with eye contact (delightfully engaging) and without (rather grumpy).

The trouble for me is that Eliza is now 18 and about to go to University! So thank you Prince George, whose nervy greeting of a Red Arrows officer at the Royal International Air Tattoo last Friday provides a charming up to date example of the point I seek to make. Little does he know just how much hand shaking lies ahead of him!

Monday, 4 July 2016

Make the most of your assets and the surroundings when giving a business presentation

I was attending a music industry lunch recently and found myself surrounded by famous, if ageing, faces from the 60s and 70s. As the time to sit down approached the host asked me: “Where’s Noddy?” I pointed him out and the next thing I knew was that we were being called to order by none other than the great Slade singer Noddy Holder. Why strain your own vocal cords when you have the loudest voice in pop music at your disposal?


It reminded me of the opportunities that can arise for adding impact to your presentation by exploiting your own assets, the occasion itself and even the venue. Equally, there can be situations in which you would fall down by failing to embrace what is going on around you. If a key news event has occurred that day, the journey to the venue had been particularly difficult or something extraordinary had happened with the weather, you really need to make some mention of it, even if only to get a burning topic out of the way. This creates empathy with your audience because you are acknowledging a shared experience.

What I am talking about with Noddy Holder-type situations is seizing bigger opportunities. Among the examples – both seized and missed – that I have seen in my Presentation Skills training sessions are:

  • “Our company was founded in 1834 by …..”, before rapidly moving on to more mundane information. “Hang on a minute” I said, “most companies would kill for a heritage like that – dwell on it for a moment. And that founder must be a pretty special guy; I want to see a picture of him and I want an insight into how he created what became such a big and long-lasting company.” You probably don’t want to dwell too much on ancient history, but neither do you want to deprive your audience once their appetite has been whetted. The best solution here would probably be to conclude on a topical note that rings true with the founder’s principles.

  • An induction presentation that launched almost directly into form filling and systems operations. As it happened, I had worked in the location before and been taken onto the roof terrace for coffee. While we admired the magnificent view, I was told stories of direct links with Winston Churchill and wartime London. In this induction presentation I was soon befuddled by all the systems talk, so I recommended that it should start with a tour of the building, brought to life further with a bit of history. That would make newcomers much more eager to sit down and do some serious learning.

  • Members of one of the PR companies I trained were tasked with presenting magic tricks as a way of sharpening their business presentations. Looking for a way to reveal a prediction in an original and impossible manner, one delegate had spotted that the venue owned a dog. She quietly arranged for the dog to appear - on cue and with the prediction attached to its collar - and received a standing ovation.

  • Finally, I was in at a bank in Canary Wharf. The place was rather anonymous, so with small talk material rather thin on the ground I complimented them on the design and taste of their biscuits. They replied that they had their own in-house baker before moving straight on to talk about business matters. When I followed up with a training plan I also sent them one of the ‘doggy bag’ boxes used by my wife’s hotels. I suggested that if any future visitors expressed interest in the biscuits as I had, they should present them with some to take home. What’s more, there were various options for doing this in personalised, impromptu and surprise ways. The recipients would then remember the bank’s people, talk about them and maybe even do some business with them.

So the opportunities available to you may seem trivial. They may have become ‘invisible’ to you through over-familiarity. But it will all be new and potentially interesting to your audience. So be sure to make the most of your assets, the surroundings and anything that simply falls into your lap!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

What wedding speeches can teach us about business presentations

With the summer season now in full flow, there will be people of certain generations with a lot of weddings to attend – and a lot of speeches to enjoy or endure. It was about this time last year that I realised just how much a business presenter can learn from a good wedding speech; and how they can learn even more from a bad one!


I had been invited to join Jeremy Vine for a phone-in on his Radio 2 show and the producer, knowing that I normally coach business people in Presentation Skills, asked me to ‘adjust’ my advice to the ‘general listening public’ who were likely to phone in. I soon found, though, that exactly the same principles applied to both audiences.

Many of the calls were about weddings and we heard some horror stories about inappropriate Best Man speeches that were skewed far too heavily to tales of the Stag Night and similar laddish memories. We heard one story about a pair of brothers who have not spoken for 20 years since such an incident.


As I say, the advice I found myself giving was essentially the same as I give to business people: Think first about your audience, rather than what you would like to say. At a wedding the key audience is really the bride, her mother and probably some elderly relatives, so the speech should be constructed for them almost exclusively. You have already had your big boys’ fun, and what happens on the Stag Night should in any case stay on the Stag Night.

We had a Father-of-the-Bride who was fretting over his speech for the coming Saturday. He’d been researching jokes on the internet but was feeling neither happy nor confident. “Are you a natural comedian?”, I asked. “No, absolutely not”, he replied. I asked him, therefore, why he was planning to go out on such a limb on the most important day of his daughter’s life. Slightly bemused he asked what he should do instead of looking for jokes on the internet, wondering perhaps if he should think of some amusing / embarrassing stories from her childhood.

“Start”, I said, “by thinking about your audience.  That is very easy for you – it is primarily your daughter, her mother and perhaps a few key relatives. What is one thing you most want to say to your daughter and that she most wants to hear?”.  Having fumbled for a moment he declared: “That she is the most beautiful and special daughter I could ever have wished for”.  “Fantastic”, I replied, “say that to close your speech. You might want to open with it as well. Then all you have to do in between is find a couple of those childhood stories to bring that simple message alive. Job done”.

So it really is the same whether you are addressing the guests at a wedding, delegates at a business conference and anyone in the boardroom. Think first about your audience; then put high focus on a simple message that will resonate with that particular audience. In doing so, it just may help to imagine the potential delight/wrath of a bride’s mother!

Monday, 13 June 2016

How to avoid a ‘crashing’ end to your PowerPoint presentation

How many times have you seen a presenter come to a big, impactful finish, only to undo the effect by running past their final PowerPoint slide? In doing so they ‘crash out’ of Slideshow mode to reveal their desktop, complete with sentimental screensaver and an iTunes library that invariably kicks off with Abba’s Greatest Hits? No amount of fumbling is ever going to completely bring back the feeling they created – for just a fleeting moment – nor the Call to Action they delivered with such panache.


Happily, there is a very simple solution to avoiding ‘crashing your PowerPoint’. Make yourself an ‘end slide’ – this could simply be a copy of your ‘intro slide’ or it could be more specific to the close of your presentation, showing a ‘big message’, an abiding image or your contact details and website address.

Place this at the very end of your presentation, followed by a duplicate. That way, you can click onto a definite end slide that marks the end of your presentation. And if you happen to fumble and click too far you display the duplicate and no harm is done. If you want to be really safe - belt and braces, as they say - you could have two duplicates at the end. It may seem like a small point but, as I always say, ‘Firsts & Lasts’ are the most important parts of any presentation and you really do want to send your audience away with your big message, undimmed by any clumsy slide control.

Once you get the hang of putting high focus on how you open and close, you may want to move to another level and deliver your intro and your outro with a blank screen. To see the advantages of doing that, click here: Open and close your businesspresentation with more impact – by switching off.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The benefits – and surprising hazards - of throwing out questions to kick off your business presentation

There is no doubt that throwing out questions to your audience can be a terrific way of starting a business presentation. It brings immediate interaction, enables you to gauge the feelings of your audience and you can be seen to be personalising your message to them from the outset. Let me pause for a moment, however, to go back and put some emphasis on the ‘can be a terrific way…’. Because this technique can also be an absolute minefield.

Among the stories I relate to the business people I coach in Presentation Skills are:

- The Californian magician who strolled on stage with a straitjacket over his arm, saying: “there is one magician we all know, we all remember, we all admire.  His name is Harry…..” and he cups his hand to his ear, awaiting a response from the audience. “Potter”, shouts a small boy at the front. Not a good way to get into your Harry Houdini tribute act, which has now been stalled by having to explain to a disgruntled audience member that ‘yes, he’s a great magician called Harry but tonight we’re going to focus on another one who….”.

 - The business presenter who bounded into the room asking: “Who here likes skiing?” - to a very muted response. I think he was unlucky, because I always reckon I am the only person I know who doesn’t ski, but his first ten slides – on a skiing theme – fell a bit flat. He was nowhere near as unlucky, however, as my third and final example.

- The director of a marketing services company who started by saying: “Please shout out some names of brands you love”. Back came names such as ‘Apple, Sony and Virgin’. “Thank you for that; now please call out some brands you hate”. “Yours”, said a man at the back very pointedly. At first the speaker assumed he was joking, but it transpired he had had a very bad experience with her company, which he proceeded to tell us about. What was meant to get the presenter off to a big, engaging start had the absolute opposite effect – one from which she could never hope to recover.

As I said, throwing out questions can take you into a very dangerous minefield!  So before embarking on this route – which can be very effective – be very sure that you can handle the answers that may come back and that they will be helpful in getting you off to a good start. Ideally the question should be one that can be answered in one of two ways, each of which you are prepared for and can launch you into the point you want to make. If, for instance I were talking about Presentation Skills, I might pose the question ‘who here gets nervous prior to a presentation’? I could reasonably expect a majority to say yes and I could follow with my tips, starting with a reassurance that these feelings are perfectly normal. If, however, only a few admitted to nerves, I could respond with: “well you are the lucky ones, because most people get nervous and one day the nerves will kick in, even with you, and this is how to handle the situation…”. 

The safest option, of course, is to ask for a show of hands, which is easier to control and generally more comfortable for the audience.

In case you think the examples above are unusual or even extreme, let me conclude on one that happened in one of my coaching sessions earlier this year. The presenter wanted to both engage her audience and pave the way to making the point that her products were achieving much higher prices at auction than might be expected. So she asked the audience to guess the price. The most vocal audience member suggested £5,000. The answer was actually £3,800. So not only had her opening failed in terms of setting her up for her big point; it had actually undermined her! Opening and closing are the most important elements of any presentation – so it’s crucial that you remain in control at those moments.