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.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Hi-tech presentation facilities make traditional presentation skills all the more important.

When I arrive for training sessions at big international companies I can’t help feeling from the delegates a slight sense that little of what they are about to learn is going to help in their cross-border, multi-time-zone environment. Casting their minds back to what they have learned in the past about principles such as body language, eye contact and voice projection you can just see them thinking: ‘none of this really applies now that we are communicating via Webex, Skype, and other conferencing technology’.
Recently I have even heard mention of The Curse of Google Hangouts, with dark mutterings about inattentive and even partially absent audiences, canine interruptions and doubts about visibility and audibility generally.

My response to people facing these challenges is threefold:

First, you still need traditional presentation skills, because you have got to be capable of ‘owning the room’ before you can expect to engage anyone beyond it.

Second, make the machinery work to your advantage. One client came to the realisation: “We should move the cameras so that they get us in the best position – probably alongside the screen”. I responded that absolutely he should – the machines are all simply tools; they are not meant to drive you!

Third, another reason you still need traditional presentation skills is that many of them become even more important when you are presenting down the line. For instance:
  • Strong eye contact
  • Firsts & lasts as the most important elements of any presentation
  • Absolute clarity of the proposition up front
  • Not starting until everyone is ready and free from distractions
  • Clear chunking of content
  • Variation of vocal tone
  • Uncluttered slides
  • Storytelling approach to graphs
  • Q&A management

…just for starters, have always been fundamental to successful presentation. When your audience is not actually in the room, then getting off to a great, high clarity start as you look straight down that camera lens becomes absolutely crucial. As for retaining your distant audience’s attention, you need to nurture both the skills mentioned and a variety of pacing techniques so that you can accentuate them when communicating via technology.

Increasingly I find myself advising clients to ‘be a bit bossy’ when stepping up to present. For those few minutes, I say, the floor is yours and your audience will usually respect that – as long as you assert yourself. With technology, the airwaves - rather than the floor - are yours, but you need to be extra ‘bossy’ when you are not face–to-face with your audience. So:
  • Greet them in a big way
  • Don’t start until you have acknowledgement from everyone that they are present, able to hear you and ready to start
  • Keep seeking reassurance they are with you and understand what you are saying
  • Build in controlled inter-activity to ensure their engagement
  • Accentuate the announcement of fresh headings and agreements reached
  • Choose visual images that will be both engaging and memorable enough for them to want a copy
  • Stick to the time limit you have pre-announced and be strict with invitations and agendas

When PowerPoint was first introduced nearly 30 years ago it became ubiquitous very quickly, largely because it was immediately acquired by Microsoft and embedded in Office. Sadly it acquired the ‘Death by’ tag because, with so much focus on technology, traditional Presentation Skills – that were still needed – took a back seat.

Now the technology has moved on again and we continue to need traditional Presentation Skills, but in a supercharged way. And you can’t achieve that until you have mastered the basics.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The reason behind left/right positioning of news presenters is already familiar to savvy business presenters – and magicians!

A so-called ‘row’ has blown up, or perhaps more accurately being stirred up by the media, over Dan Walker, the new boy at BBC Breakfast being positioned on the left of the screen – the position usually reserved for the more senior presenter. Louise Minchin, meanwhile, with ten years service on the show retains her position on the right.

There has been much debate about sexism, but very little in the way of explanation as to why the left-hand seat – from the audience’s point of view - is the favoured position.

My regular readers are probably ahead of me on this one because I have often discussed Rule 6 of the Rules of Magic: Attention tracks from left to right, then settles on the left. The reason for this is that in Western cultures we read that way. 

So just as Paul Daniels, for instance, would always position himself to the left of his props and Debbie McGee (as this a sexism debate I have omitted her traditional prefix), I advise business presenters to position themselves to the left of their screen (audience’s view). That way, the audience looks at the speaker, moves their glance to the screen, before returning naturally to the left. So as to take advantage of this I also urge business presenters to carry long leads and gender changers with which to join leads.

I write this in the late evening, intrigued as to how things will look on the BBC Breakfast sofa in the morning!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Making your business presentation memorable often takes a bit of bravery

I was working with a rising star within a huge international company recently, helping her prepare for a conference presentation to senior management. The topic was the cost-cutting project she had been working on - potentially a bit of a ‘short straw’ in terms of engaging the people on whom her career advancement depended!

Happily, though, part of the brief was to think differently/outside the box/the unthinkable, even. So this became one of the three main strands of the presentation and I suspected it would probably be the source of a memorable moment on which to conclude.

We started by presenting the findings of the cost-cutting project, relying on some extraordinary data that was compelling and even engaging.

Then I asked if she had already implemented any cost-cutting herself. “Yes”, she replied, “we did it with our travel expenses and we achieved it by taking a completely different approach.” This was great news as it ticked two of our boxes. At the end of the day, however, although the idea was breaking new ground, it was actually just very good common sense. It was not memorable enough for my client to make a lasting mark.

I asked what else the team had done differently. “Well…..”, she said rather tentatively, “there was a situation whereby our project was running at the same time as the end of the financial year, so we were finding it impossible to get a response from the finance director, without whose input the project would have been doomed. In desperation one of our team tried the different approach of sending a request attached to a picture of a cute cat. He received an instant response and lines of communication flowed freely thereafter.” She went on to explain that the cat became a mascot for the project, to the extent that they had badges made up and they built these into their final presentation.

“Right”, I said, “we need to build up to a big finish with the cat.  That is what everyone is going to remember you for and it will help to trigger memories of plenty of serious points about your project.” I feared she was not entirely sold on the idea, but we progressed with plans to build up to the cat story, reveal that she was wearing the cat badge and then finish with a picture of the FD happily wearing the badge as well.

When my client arrived at the conference venue, however, the first thing she said was: “I’ve cut out the stuff about the cat.” My heart sank. Clearly she was concerned that she needed to maintain a completely serious tone about her serious subject matter on what was a seriously career-defining occasion. I said nothing immediately, as time was on our side – she was not speaking until Day 2. During the morning session, though, I made a careful note of where the applause moments and laughter came during the opening speeches. Invariably it was ‘cat-like’ references that triggered them and at lunchtime I was able to start a conversation with: “Do you see why we need the cat?”

She could indeed see why she needed the cat and the audience loved her cat when she shared it with them the following day. Best of all, the Chief Executive followed her spot, congratulated her and said: “Can I borrow the slide changer for a moment. I want to go back to that cat of yours.”

You usually have to be a little bit brave to make your presentation memorable.

Monday, 29 February 2016

How do you generate applause at a business presentation?

I was working with a CEO recently on the plans for his big concluding conference speech. As we honed the various moments of light and shade that were designed to trigger memories of some serious underlying messages, he said: “We might get some applause there”. I responded saying: “You will get some applause there”. He didn’t quite seem so confident, but he didn’t know I had just appointed myself ‘Applause Leader’.

Most of us don’t, of course, expect to receive actual applause in a typical business presentation, though it’s always great feeling if a spontaneous burst is forthcoming when something special has been achieved.

At staged conferences, however, you probably do expect applause at a series of key moments. It’s with the ‘in between’ situations such as so called ‘town hall’ meetings, big announcements and special occasion speeches that it becomes a bit tricky. The audience can be faced with a ‘Do I or don’t I applaud’? feeling and you might even end with one of those awkward moments when one person tentatively starts to applaud, realises no one else is joining in and it trickles away rather quickly.

Comedians have a range of lines to handle these situations, such as: “all or once or not at all”, followed by “now you’re just clapping out of sympathy”. Magicians, meanwhile, will typically say: “when I first saw that, I was so amazed that I didn’t applaud either”. This both covers the silence and helps to ensure some fairly rapturous applause as he builds to an even more impressive climax.

So it’s OK for entertainers - they are doing it every night, they know what’s probably coming up and they make their handling of it part of the rhythm of their performance. How, though, does a business presenter ensure that applause comes at all and then comes in the right places and to the right degree?

Two planning points:
  1. Decide whether you would like applause – is it appropriate to the situation? If you decide it is, appoint one of your team as ‘Applause Leader’, who can start the clapping at the end of your presentation and possibly at other agreed moments. If the Applause Leader, who is ideally positioned at the back of the room, does this enthusiastically it will become infectious and everyone will join in. It’s only when the applause comes tentatively that it risks trickling away. Once you start this process, as long as you don’t overdo it, the applause should become progressively warmer – because audience members realise they have ‘permission’ to applaud.
  2. Create an applause ‘cue’ as the closing point to your presentation.  Whether or not you want or expect applause, you need to reach a short, sharp crescendo that sends your audience away with your key message. This will clearly signal the fact you have finished, while also triggering applause, especially if you have planned for that.

All you need to do then is to be sure to ‘accept’ the applause when it comes. Don’t be coy and turn away or even leave your speaking position too soon. Keep looking forwards, smile and spread your eye contact with a series of small nods. If applause – or laughter – comes earlier in your presentation don’t ‘tread’ on it – pause to let your audience show their appreciation.

For magicians only

The footnote that follows will mean nothing unless you are a magician. If you do happen to be from the magical fraternity, it’s a little gem that relates back nicely to this discussion.

Back in the 90s, I was attending a get together in Clerkenwell that I think was the launch of Guy Hollingworth’s wonderful book ‘Drawing Room Deceptions’. Many eminent magicians were present and several got up to do an impromptu trick or two. When David Williamson’s turn came he experienced one of those ‘trickles’ of applause that we all need to avoid but which can be turned to advantage by a skilled entertainer. Far from being phased, Williamson saw it as a gift, especially when he realised the identity of the person responsible. “I’d like to thank you for that short burst of applause; it sounded like four claps, but in fact it was only three”. The short burst had come from none other than Alex Elmsley!