Wednesday, 26 November 2014

For impact and engagement in your business presentations – go back and learn how to write!

I have spent the past few weeks learning how to write. Yes, almost 40 years after leaving school I have been making a proper study of the English language, this time without looking out the window or passing notes at the back of the class. The experience has made me realise that the tools with which to add engagement and impact to your communication are more plentiful than I thought. Like any good tool, though, they only work to best effect with some technical knowledge and plenty of practice! 

I started by participating in an excellent PRCA webinar on grammar.  Reassuringly, I found I was up to speed in this area, but it has already proved invaluable to some of the PR Apprentices for whom I act as Assessor. Next stop was the book The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth and this has opened my eyes to the detail and depth of principles that I had simply absorbed by osmosis over the years.

Much to my personal delight, Forsyth starts his book by standing up for Alliteration. Far from sneering at it, as some do, he suggests we should embrace it, just as both Shakespeare and Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby, Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol) did. Alliteration, he says, makes your words memorable, with the result that they are believed. Hence ‘it takes two to tango’, even though it takes the same number to waltz and we go ‘the whole hog’ rather than the full pig.

As a presentation skills coach who is always urging people to deploy the ‘Power of Three’, I was pleased to read about Tricolon – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. Having always said that it’s about rhythm - two is not enough and four (Tetracolon) is too much information, I was reminded that you need a ‘Rising’ Tricolon to make the Power of Three truly powerful. And by the way, did you know that Obama’s short victory speech contained no less than 21 Tricolons?

To make a proper three-some here, I can also report that the discovery of ‘Litotes’ has caused me to re-think slightly my exhortations to avoid negatives – because they need to be unscrambled before they can be understood. While politicians have used Litotes to good effect, the most memorable example is probably Tom Jones’s ‘It’s not unusual’. However the extreme use of Litotes by the Japanese Emperor in 1945 has served to underpin my anti-negatives stance. Having been hit by two atomic bombs the Emperor announced: “The war situation has developed, not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”.

Other gems from The Elements of Eloquence include: Diacope: ‘Bond. James Bond’; Syllepsis – one word used in two incongruous ways: think Jagger and “she blew my nose and then she blew my mind”; and Anaphora - using the same word at beginning and the end, as Paul McCartney did in ‘Yesterday’.

One of the charms of the book is the many musical references that Forsyth uses alongside extracts of great literature. As he says: “I do not believe that The Beatles had any idea what Andiplosis was, any more than I believe that the Rolling Stones knew about Syllepsis. They knew what worked, and it did”.

So it’s not about being clever and knowing all the technical terms, but there is much to be gained from a bit of pro-active study if you want to give your language a lift. As for how this relates to business presentation skills, I always say that your opening and closing are the two most important parts of any presentation. In order to make them important to your audience as well as yourself they need to be scripted.


Finally, there’s another musical link that led me to The Elements of Eloquence – it came as
a gift from Lesley-Ann Jones, a great friend who is widely admired for her best-selling rock biographies. I now know a few of the secrets that help to make LAJ such a fine writer. Alongside Freddie Mercury – the Definitive Biography and Ride a White Swan – The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan, her beautifully-crafted words have been wrapped around many of the world’s most famous people and served up in the biggest-selling newspapers. I can’t wait for Lesley-Ann to apply her pen to a novel based on her life or, better still, her own autobiography. If ever you wanted proof of the pleasure and power of good writing, here are some very good starting points: www.lesleyannjones.com; @lajwriter

Monday, 17 November 2014

The perils of failing to ‘own the space’ as soon as you start your business presentation

I received a stark reminder at the weekend of one of the essentials of opening a presentation; together with energy and engagement you need to ‘own’ the space from the moment you kick off.

I was attending a charity dinner in the City of London and I became increasingly irritated at the way certain people continued to talk, both as the MC spoke and then as the auctioneer sought bids. I grew more angry as the MC’s “shush” pleas were ignored, leaving me itching to intervene in the way I once did at an outdoor charity concert staged beside a lake in the grounds of a Surrey manor house. “Excuse me”, I said to two women deep in conversation about how their children were getting on at their boarding schools, “that is Eric Clapton over there and most of us want to enjoy this rare opportunity to savour the world’s greatest guitarist in very special surroundings; we don’t want to hear ……”

I hesitated, though, because I was attending as a ‘Plus One’ with my wife and I didn’t want to embarrass her, our host or her other guests. Eventually, however, I could stand it no longer and I strode towards the noisy people and said as loud as I could: “For pity’s sake stop your chatter, just for five more minutes!”

A degree of hush ensued and a bit later the MC came up to me, thanking me for my intervention, saying he found it ‘very helpful and so heartfelt’. I commiserated with him, but what I could/should have added was that anyone getting up in front of an audience – especially where alcohol and spoilt rich people are involved -needs to set their agenda very clearly. You need to seize control of the situation, because if you don’t, the audience probably will.

In short, the speaker needs to ‘own’ the space. I once saw Jenni Murray do this brilliantly at the ceremony for some industry awards I had been judging. “Right”, she said a she opened, “we’ve got a lot to get through, so this is how we are going to do it.” Having laid out a few rules, both about being quiet while people were talking and as noisy as possible when applause was required, she introduced a ‘carrot’ element as she held up the bottles of champagne that she would be awarding throughout the process to the ‘best behaved tables’.


The same principles apply even in more civilised situations just as board rooms and lecture theatres. For the time allotted to you, the space is yours and you need to own it. So don’t start until you are ready, and when you are tell the audience what is going to happen, how it is going to work and what, if anything, you need them to do. As long as your preparation and planning has been heavily focused on your audience and what is going on in their minds - rather simply what you want or need to say - you are likely to find them surprisingly compliant.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Keep well away from your computer when planning a PowerPoint presentation

For anyone who starts the process of creating a presentation by staring into a blank PowerPoint template, I encourage you to adopt a whole new approach and think like a film director!


There are at least three benefits to getting into a ‘Hollywood frame of mind’. The first is one I have discussed before – filmmakers work around a principle called ‘High Concept’ whereby a single phrase sums up what the whole movie is about. Giant Shark terrorises holiday resort was the High Concept that helped a little film called Jaws kickstart the phenomenon of the summertime blockbuster. More recently, High Concepts have even been adopted as the film titles – think Snakes on a Plane and Cowboys & Aliens. It’s all about making the message memorable, motivating and word of mouth-friendly – which is generally exactly what you want in a business presentation.

It is the other two benefits I want to discuss this time. One is that film makers think visually when storytelling, constantly creating and referring to storyboards.  The other is that they don’t get their cameras out until they have decided what they want to film! So the lesson is to plan what you want and need to say, together with any visual support and then consider how PowerPoint can help you achieve your objectives – if, indeed, PowerPoint is the best solution. It might be better achieved by props, boards, exercises or a simple sketch pad.

A management consultant I was coaching some years ago illustrated the benefits of this thinking – and the perils of reaching for the computer too soon – more clearly than I have ever seen. He entered the room loud and proud, but shrivelled somewhat once the door was closed. “I have a problem”, he confessed, “I’m 48 years old and I am getting worse at presenting; and I don’t know why”. The moment he started presenting I could see exactly what the problem was. His main focus was on ensuring that he matched his spoken words with those on the screen, what was coming up next and whether he had covered everything laid out in his slides, whether or not it was strictly required. He was being driven by his slides rather than supported by them!

I could see without even starting to discuss it that he was dissatisfied with his performance, so I asked him to do it again – without the slides. He gulped at the thought, but I knew it was not an unreasonable request as he was an expert on the subject matter. As soon as he started he was more fluent than before and it wasn’t long before he was relaxing and becoming engaging, convincing and clear in everything he said. 

So did we decide to abandon all those slides? Not entirely, because the process was also very effective in highlighting where some visual support was actually needed. Whenever he struggled to describe something or needed to convey a lot of information quickly, that was where we needed a visual aid – probably using PowerPoint. And there is nothing actually wrong with bullet points, provided they support you and don’t start competing with you for the audience’s attention.

So next time you start planning a presentation, try a pencil and a storyboard template before you go anywhere near your computer. Even better, just start talking; the moment you begin to struggle is probably the place that a visual aid can help you. The clue is in the word aid.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Why ‘doing nothing’ is usually the best solution if something goes wrong in a business presentation

It’s in the nature of life that things go wrong; sometimes they go wrong even when you have made every possible kind of preparation; it’s known as Murphy’s Law – ‘if it can go wrong, it will go wrong’.

So what should you do when something goes wrong in a business presentation?  The simple and best answer is usually ‘nothing’ but this advice can be extremely difficult to follow because our human instincts are to apologise to our audience, share our angst and explain the extent of our disappointment. 

The fact is, however, that if you just keep quiet, your audience may never notice the mishap. They don’t know what is coming, so they don’t know what they are missing!

I experienced exactly this scenario in the early days of my training career. At that time I used to run video clips from a separate DVD player – to avoid the risk of crashing the computer. I had checked everything was working on arrival, but as I came to cue the DVD I could see that it wasn’t going to work. I kept prodding at the switch and already my audience could tell something was wrong. I apologised for the fact that I was having technical problems and broke off for a moment to check the equipment more closely. Giving up, I apologised again and told them how frustrating this was because it was working earlier and now we would not be able to see the film that etc etc. I was now very much on the back foot. At the end of the day I received generally good feedback, but one person commented: ‘shame the technology didn’t work’, prompting an enquiry from the fee payer as to why everything had not been in proper working order.

Why did I put myself through this? It would have been nice to have shown the film, but not essential – it merely provided a bit of variety and it set me up to make a key point. The audience did not know that I had scheduled a video clip. Had I simply kept calm and carried on when I noticed the cueing failure no one would have been any the wiser. I would have continued in a reasonably relaxed manner and the disproportionate post mortems would have been avoided.

So it takes steely nerves – which come through experience - to carry on regardless of a problem and the best examples I have seen are certain members of The Magic Circle. Inherent in magic effects is a whole multitude of potential pitfalls, which is one reason that most working magicians simplify their routines wherever possible. James Brown is an award winning magician who is known as the ‘Professional Opportunist’ – for all sorts of good reasons, not least his skill at making the best even of a potential disaster.

James told us a story one night at The Magic Circle of a situation in which he had to make a playing card vanish using a particularly difficult sleight of hand move.  To his initial horror, he dropped the card. But he realised no one had actually spotted this error; moreover, the person who had selected the card had just shifted forward and was now standing on it. “Keep very still”, James said to his volunteer, “I am going to make your chosen card jump into your shoe”. Some magical gestures followed and the volunteer was asked to carefully remove his foot from his shoe. “Is it in there”? James asked. “No?....it must have gone a bit further”. The volunteer turned over his shoe and triggered applause for a miracle which, unbeknown to the audience, had much greater impact that the intended trick, while also avoiding a disaster.


One final tip. Technology ramps up Murphy’s Law to much greater degrees and there are all kinds of precautions and good practice you can follow. If, however, you are presenting in a scenario where there is official technical support, be sure to know that person’s name (eg Derek) as well as befriend him in advance. This means you will be well looked after and if anything should go wrong you keep calm and say: “Can we get Derek please”? This makes you look in control – however much you might be panicking inside – and it subtly places the responsibility elsewhere.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Open and close your business presentation with more impact – by switching off

I am going to offer a little tip that can enhance the impact you make as you open and close a business presentation.
As I have discussed before (here) ‘Firsts & Lasts’ are the most important part of any presentation because, as Rule 13 of the Rules of Magic states, ‘Firsts & Lasts are remembered’. Moreover, the way you open is crucial to engaging your audience up front; and making anything happen as a result of your presentation usually depends on a successful ‘Call to Action’ at the close.
So what’s the little tip? Switch off the PowerPoint for your opening remarks; or don’t even switch it on until you have made them. This enables you to establish yourself as a person – with all those people in the audience – before a great deal of their attention gets sucked into the screen by your PowerPoint presentation. They can look you up and down, tune into your voice and run through all the 'first impression checks’ that our brains undertake automatically. With a combination of luck and design they will hopefully decide that they like you. Then you are all set to deliver your big messages – with some support from PowerPoint if appropriate.
You can repeat this trick at the end, just prior to delivering your big ‘Call to Action’.  Think about it – you are almost certainly asking your audience to do something or believe something; you may even be seeking to inspire them. That has to be better coming direct from you – straight form the heart and with full on eye contact – rather than via a list of bullet points on a screen.
It’s actually an old show business trick. Something like a big variety show would traditionally build to a big crescendo that was literally all singing/all dancing, with the stage full of people and the band playing at maximum volume. After much applause the curtains would close for a final time and then the star of the show would come out from behind them to say one more, very personal and heartfelt goodbye to his or her audience.  


So how do you turn off the PowerPoint without powering down the projector? Again, I have discussed this (here) before. There is a little tool built into PowerPoint that many people don’t know about but is invaluable to presenters as it brings attention back to you, while also clearing away distractions. Simply press the B key and it blanks the screen; press it again and it brings the presentation back.