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.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Bringing about a ‘change of gear’ in your business presentation

Last year I discussed – here – the pros and cons of standing or sitting for a business presentation. As almost everyone I coach soon finds for themselves, standing always comes out on top – in terms of the control, body language and eye contact benefits that you gain – but there is way to have the best of both worlds.

If you start by standing, you can then pick the right moment to ‘change gear’ by sitting down with your audience at the table. This probably comes at the moment when you have made your big points with all the presence and impact that standing affords and you now wish to move to a ‘discussion phase’. Sitting together around the table is highly appropriate at this stage and the discussion is all the more likely to go in your favour because you have just made your points so powerfully.

There was a terrific example of a ‘gear change’ in a film broadcast on BBC 2 last weekend. Margin Call is based on a true story from the banking crisis of 2008. In a desperate attempt to save the company, Kevin Spacey’s character is instructing his staff to liquidate their entire holdings, knowing that such a move will be career-ending for most of them. So he builds to a rousing tone from a standing position that adds to his presence, gives power to his voice and enables broadly-spread eye contact. Some sensitivity shows through, nevertheless, via his finger fidgeting and he knows he is going have to speak from the heart as well as his position of authority. So, having spelt out what is required, he sits down.  He lowers his voice, increases the pauses, and makes a clear show of empathy, before standing again to bark his final call to action. Interestingly – and I am sure this was carefully planned – Spacey underlines the gear changes by removing and then replacing his spectacles.

I know it’s only acting, but it is particularly fine acting and you are unlikely to find a better example of the ‘gear change’ technique that I encourage people to adopt when the moment feels right. “There is nothing I like more” I tell the people I coach, “than the moment when I realise I have won my audience over, so I shut down the PowerPoint (rather pointedly, if not theatrically) and sit down with my audience for a chat”.


You can see the scene from Margin Call that I refer to just above and the entire film is available on the BBC iPlayer until the middle of June.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Is it planning or passion at the root of Prince Harry’s success as a Royal communicator for the 21st century?

Prince Harry is clearly doing a terrific job with the Invictus games – in all sorts of ways, not least by bringing modern, meaningful perspectives to the concept of Monarchy. As someone who has given the Royals a bit of stick in the past – in the 1980s I declared them ‘Britain’s Clumsiest Communicators’ and garnered a lot of self-publicity in the process – I find this particularly pleasing. 

I have always believed that there is great potential for the ‘spare to the heir’ to engage people in ways what the heir themselves is constrained from doing.  Happily, Harry appears to be succeeding in ways that we never saw with his Uncle Andrew or Great Aunt Margaret.

Sam Leith has picked up on Harry’s interview style in his Evening Standard column, noting that he refers to his fellow soldiers as ‘blokes’. He poses the thought ‘did Prince Harry calculate that “men” would sound too officer class, and that “chaps” would sound too posh?’

Now, I know that Leith has very specific expertise in this area and I might be being na├»ve, but is it too much to hope that Harry was simply being himself and letting his personal passions shine through? If he really ‘calculated’ that ‘blokes’ would hit the spot to best effect, then we have to start imagining that it was planning sessions between Radio 2 and Kensington Palace that led to him greeting Chris Evans with “Hello Ginge”. If that sort of thing is going on, then the whole thing is soon going to unravel.

I am just delighted that we have a bright, energised ‘spare to the heir’ who, having expressed his fear of public speaking little more than a year ago, is fast developing into a fine communicator.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Plan a moment in your business presentation that you know you are going to enjoy – and create your ideal environment

The recent death of ad man Peter Marsh reminded me of two very useful tips for enhancing your confidence and boosting your impact in business presentations: 1) Plan a segment of your presentation that you know you are going to enjoy 2) Wherever possible, make the environment work for your presentation as much as what you say and what you show.

Together with Rod Allen at the agency Allen Brady & Marsh, Peter Marsh was the brains behind the famous R White's "secret lemonade drinker" and "gotta lotta bottle" campaign for milk. They were the kings of the catchy jingle and became known for an overtly theatrical style of presentation. This extended to creating an environment that best suited their presentations. Most famously of all they purposely turned up late for a British Rail pitch, where the client waited at a table with half-empty coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. Just as the client was about to leave, Marsh appeared and said: "You've just seen what the public think of British Rail. Now let's see what we can do to put it right". The agency won the business.

Now, I’m not going to suggest you should wear white suits or go into song and dance routines, as Peter Marsh did. That’s all a bit 1970s anyway, but the point is that he was clearly enjoying himself as he drew on his background as an actor. There is much to be said for letting a little more of the ‘real you’ shine through – you are likely to excel and your audience will warm to you.

More specifically, having a segment that you know you are going to enjoy presenting will underpin your confidence as you move towards it, then you can bask in a bit a glory as you move on from it, towards your all-important Call to Action.

I have a number of little moments that I enjoy in my training sessions and talks. It won’t really help to quote them here out of context but they tend to be short videos, little anonomised stories from training sessions, and references from magic, movies and music.

As for creating environments that support the presentation, I can be more forthcoming. I used to work in Drinks PR and was always faced with having to launch products out of season. So for a summer drink I was announcing in February I hired a theatre backdrop of an English garden on a summer’s day and brought my outdoor furniture into the boardroom. Similarly, when selling a promotion for an after-dinner drink, I divided the long boardroom table into two. When the moment came, I darkened the room, lit some candles and invited my audience to move to the other end of the table – which was set for dinner. In neither situation did the audience have to imagine the scenario I was proposing – they were already living it.

Furthermore, they enjoyed the experience and I enjoyed creating it – to successful conclusions on both occasions.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Is it time to put Corporate Storytelling to bed?

Jargon alert – I’m going to use some corporate buzzwords. Here comes the first one – Have we reached ‘peak’ storytelling? 

I ask for two reasons. First, I have long held the view that talk about storytelling in the business world has got out of hand and become increasingly meaningless. I am the first to say - and did so recently in a blog – that nobody’s job is too boring to make an engaging presentation, but attempting it ‘once upon a time’-style is rarely the answer.

My second reason for believing we may be nearing the end is inspired by what I have been watching on TV. HAPPYish on Sky Atlantic features Steve Coogan and my favourite West Wing actor Bradley Whitford running an ad agency and feeling their age as a pair crazy young Swedes begin to dominate. Only one of the Swedes ever actually speaks, but his response to a campaign idea for Coke was: “We are living in a post-storytelling society; we collect moments”. Then he showed his own YouTube-style campaign idea featuring puppies, and everyone burst into rapturous applause.

I can’t recommend HAPPYish wholeheartedly. While it is quite thought provoking, it had a shaky start, received some poor reviews and has already been cancelled by Showtime. But it still holds reasonably true that what happens in America hits us soon after and that little Swedish outburst about collecting moments – filmed almost exactly a year ago – does contain some essential truths.

I urge the people I coach in Presentation Skills to tell stories – but as a variety of moments rather than in one big storytelling arc. Overall they generally need to approach their presentation Army-style – tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you have told them ie full of spoilers. Along the way, though, they need a series of stories, because that brings the triple benefits of illustrating what they are saying, making it feel real and engaging the audience.

There is a further advantage to inserting story snippets into a presentation. In order to engage your audience and hold their attention you need to vary your vocal tone. This happens almost automatically when you move from the ‘general narrative’ of a presentation to a ‘story snippet’. Your voice changes to a different, slightly warmer tone, before moving back - again automatically - to a more assertive mode for the general narrative.

So storytelling does have a role to play in corporate communication – just not quite the role that continues to be so regularly trumpeted. I am going to end on another piece of jargon; in fact, I’m going to invent a new piece of jargon: Storygelling. Do you see what I did there? It’s a technique I used in my PR days called ‘Familiarity with a Twist’. I believe this word can help to sum up my approach to using stories in presentations. Deploying a series of small stories can bring two main benefits 1) make the overall presentation gel together 2) make the presentation gel with the audience. And the person telling those stories can carry on presenting happily ever after – not just HAPPYish.

HAPPYish is currently being broadcast on Wednesdays on Sky Atlantic with double episodes at 10 pm and 10.35 pm. You can also binge the entire series via the Sky’s Box Sets facility. The episode referred to is no.8 – due for broadcast on April 20.