You’re a social media landlord – manage your property portfolio well

With a property portfolio at one stage of more than 1,000 homes, Britain’s biggest buy-to-let landlords must have found it difficult to keep tabs on every single property they (or the banks) owned. I find it hard enough to keep tabs on just one – the house I live in. So, almost inevitably, tucked away in an avenue here or a cul-de-sac there will have been buildings that dragged down the reputation of the neighbouring homes. Peeling paint. Broken windows. Leaking roofs.

And so it is with social media real estate. Long forgotten Facebook business pages which haven’t been updated since September. September 2014 that is.  Corporate Twitter accounts with fewer Tweets than an empty cuckoo’s nest. And LinkedIn profiles that are about effective a calling card as a phone number scribbled on a soggy beer mat. All “properties” that could be damaging your reputation.

So it’s time to do a social media audit to assess the extent of your digital estate. Demolish those Facebook accounts, pages and groups that are surplus to requirements. Bulldoze those Twitter accounts that were set up in a burst of enthusiasm for every single department. In short, rationalise.

And where your rationalisation reveals gaps in your digital portfolio get building. Construct a new Instagram account. Open that YouTube channel. Make WhatsApp ‘appen.

Now if you’ll allow me to push the metaphor a little further… don’t risk getting “locked out” of your own property by allowing your “tenants” to make their own keys. Open up social media accounts centrally and keep a register of the administrator usernames and passwords – yours and anybody else you grant administrator or similar rights to – so that if somebody leaves (even you) the organisation can still get in.

If your digital estate audit does reveal a Facebook business page that you’re locked out of, perhaps because it was set up by somebody who’s now left, getting it deleted without a username and/or password can be tricky. The best thing is to report it to Facebook. Here’s a useful post on Facebook’s own help pages.

There’s a chance that your search will reveal property that looks like yours but isn’t. For example, I’ve worked as a social media trainer with local authorities who’ve discovered several spoof pages or profiles set up by disgruntled council taxpayers purporting to be the council. In these cases there’s not much you can do. Most tend to have a short lifespan and fizzle out after the initial disgruntlement (is that even a word)!? dies down. If they persist you could try contacting the owner and resolve the issue by negotiation. If that doesn’t work, and in particular if the spoof content is offensive, you could again try report the issue to the relevant social network. But don’t hold your breath. Resolving problems through the official channels can be long-winded and may still fail. Which is why managing your digital property portfolio properly in the first place is vital.

Be a good landlord.

I have to thank my trainees at Melton Borough Council for proving the inspiration for this post. You can find them on Facebook. If they’ve done their audit properly there will only be one page!

*  I shot the feature image in Kampot, Cambodia while on holiday earlier this year. It’s a fine old building from the era before Pol Pot and his murderous regime. Unlike a disused Facebook page it’s former grandeur shines through the decay.

Why First Person isn’t bad for science communication

Traditionally scientists have used the Third Person when communicating their work – particularly to fellow scientists. But in the cult-of-personality, social media age might the First Person be better? ACM Training’s lead media, communication and presentation coach, Richard Uridge, argues the case for scientists putting themselves centre stage.

Not so long ago science students were encouraged to write in the third person. “I did this” or “we observed that” first person communication was struck through with the bright red slash of a supervisor’s pen and replaced in spidery handwriting with “this was done” or “that observation was made.” Why? Because an aloof way of writing – and even of speaking – somehow reinforced a scientist’s sense of detachment from her or his research.  Get too close, put yourself at the heart of the experiment and you’ll compromise your independence or even corrupt your conclusions.  Or so the argument went.

Well after sitting through two days of presentations at a post graduate student event in Birnham, Perthshire, organised by the James Hutton Institute, I have to say it’s high time we overturned the archaic orthodoxy. The presentations that this, admittedly non-academic, member of the audience understood and enjoyed the most (and the two aren’t mutually exclusive) were those that unashamedly put the scientist centre stage. Being a part of your endeavours not apart from them isn’t bad science as anybody who’s been cured of a stomach ulcer (I speak from personal experience) ought to appreciate thanks to the pioneering work on Helicobacter pylori of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. By drinking a bacterial brew to prove their theory (that it wasn’t spicy foods that caused gastritis) Marshall couldn’t have been more first person. And it certainly didn’t stop him and his colleague picking up a Nobel Prize.

The fact that the pair were plain speaking Australians helped. You can’t imagine Warren saying “a beaker of H. pylori was consumed and 48 hours later vomiting and fever were observed in the patient.” You can imagine him saying “Bazza chugged a tinny of the stuff and was crook as a dingo on dodgy dog food before you could say surf’s up. “

Okay so I’m exaggerating but you get my point: first person doesn’t equal bad science. And what’s more, first person does equal more effective communication. In short because it’s more engaging. Engaging an audience is a necessary precursor to communication. Think of engagement as opening up the pipeline between you, the scientist, and your audience. Once it’s open you can push information, data if you will,  through it from your brain to theirs. If the pipeline’s closed conveying that data is impossible.

Here’s the Who Goes First? podcast. It’s not about first person science communication per se but more about scientists who’ve experimented on themselves and are very much centre stage in the way I discuss above. It includes discussion of the ethical dimension of Marshall and Warren’s work.  


Please note that this programme was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a result it contains copyright material so is strictly for personal use and must not be used for commercial gain withour our express permission in writing. Please contact me if you’d like to obtain a licence.

NEXT Rumours of its death may be greatly exaggerated but why PowerPoint is in intensive care and may not be the most appropriate tool for science communicators.

Normal service restored

Normal service has been restored. The ACM Training website is back up and running. Thank you to the “firefighters” who dealt with the hard drive meltdown at our IT provider. It wasn’t as bad as the picture makes out by the way!


If you’ve found your way here because you couldn’t get to the main ACM Training website at we’re aware of a problem and dealing with it. The boffins are muttering something about a hard drive meltdown. The boss is having a meltdown. Things should be up and running again soon. Fingers and toes crossed. Sorry for any inconvenience. You can always ring Jack on 01584 890970. He’d love to have a chat. Especially if you want to place a booking!

Hook ’em with a question

“Online it’s all about the narrative. We’re suckers for a good story so try to convey your research as such. Make it engaging for your target audience. Aim for a conversational tone. And remember to ask lots of questions. Think of it this way: a question mark is like an upside down hook so to hook people into your research ask them questions. As a researcher you’ll be amazed at the value of their responses. It could even be the answer you’re looking for!

I penned these few words of advice for researchers looking to build an audience for their work online. It was in response to a request from Hywel Curtis at – a new website to help academics with blogging.

The quote took me a long time* – certainly longer than the few minutes I’d expected. But it’s amazing how blogging can help clarify the thought process. And that, in itself, is surely one of the benefits of blogging for researchers? There are, of course, other benefits. Here’s a short presentation I prepared as part of a training course for Queen Margaret University in Scotland. It’s a basic introduction that I hope might help you decide whether to start blogging yourself. Watch it carefully and you’ll spot the delicious irony when I say that blogs shouldn’t be a repository for all those presentations you’ve given!


French philosopher Blaise Pascal
French philosopher Blaise Pascal

*The French philosopher Blaise Pascal, he of the “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter I didn’t have time to write a short one” was right; it takes longer to ponder a few sentences than it does to compose a whole article.

What’s the difference between categories and tags?

Whether it’s birds or blogs we’ve be organising stuff into groups since the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus invented his system of classification. In fact I’d argue that making sense of our complicated world is something we’ve felt compelled to do as Homo sapiens (Kingdom: Animalia; Order: Primates; Family: Hominidae) pretty much from the get go. Or to put it another way, we were anoraks well before the anorak was invented. But whilst the taxonomy of the natural world is, for want of a better word, taxing, the taxonomy of the digital world is, thankfully, less complicated.


Blogs can be organised into three, simple sections:

  1. Subject
  2. Categories
  3. Tags

Think of the subject as the label that covers everything you write about or are planning to write about in your blog. It might be a subject with a wide-ranging scope like nature or gardening or something much narrower like hill walking or vegetable growing or narrower still like Munro-bagging or potato propagation. Narrow or wide the choice is yours – especially if you’re blogging for pleasure. If you’re blogging for profit then I’d suggest you stick to a subject you know about and one where your target audience will value your expertise. It’s easier to sell yourself a master of one trade rather than a Jack-of-all.

Categories become important once you have more than a few blog entries and  help vistors find their way around. The wider-ranging your blog the more important categories become. I have a client who blogs about urban anthropology (the subject). She’s written extensively about the legacy of the London Olympics but also writes about the post industrial landscape and about the impact of technology on human behaviour. I suggested they should be thought of and classified as three separate categories. Of course, there will be times when you want to list a post under several categories and that’s fine. For example, if Pokémon GO ever becomes an Olympic sport it’d come under two of my anthropologist’s category headings.

Tags are similar to but more specific than categories. Again looking at the example above a post could be categorised under “Olympic legacy” but be tagged specifically “London” or “Rio” so that a visitor could more easily find all the posts that are tagged or reference, say, “Rio.” Tags on blogs aren’t that different to tags on #Twitter that help us find stuff there.

Most if not all blogging platforms allow you to display your chosen categories so visitors can see your blog’s organisational structure at a glance. I’d suggest you do just that. WordPress and others also enable you to display the tags you use so that if a visitor clicks on a particular tag it aggregates all the posts that use that tag.

If you want to have a look at how I utilise categories click on the dropdown menu  on the sidebar of this post or on my personal blog. The tags I use appear along the bottom of this and other posts. Try out the feature by clicking on one.

Eat your heart out Linnaeus!

Facebook groups versus pages

Should I set up a Facebook page or group?

Good question and the short answer in most cases is both!

The longer and more helpful answer is that it depends largely on what you’re trying to do (your organisational aims and objectives) and who you’re trying to do it with (your target audience). By answering the following questions you’ll be able to arrive at the best answer…

Which description best fits you and your organisation?

A: We’ve got a well-established support base on the social web and would simply like to split this existing audience into more manageable and natural subsets.

B: We need to get more likes and build a bigger audience in order to “sell” our products, services or ideas.

Answer A Then a group or groups is probably the best option for you.

Answer B Then a page is more likely the better option.

Do you want to keep the conversation between you and your audience private?

YES! Then a group is probably the best option because with closed or secret groups you can more easily manage who sees what’s being shared on the group’s timeline.  For example, with a secret group nobody outside the group can see it and, as a result, know who’s in it or what they post.

NO! You need to answer a few more questions yet. A page might be the best option but equally an open group could be the perfect solution.

Do you want to vet who’s allowed to join?

YES! Then a group is probably best. Group settings allow you to decide who you invite and/or accept.

NO! Then either a group set to anyone can join will be the right option or a page where anyone can like a page to connect with it and get updates in their news feed.

Do you want to use Facebook Insights to measure the results?

YES! Then go for a page because Insights doesn’t currently work with groups.

NO! Then it doesn’t matter which.

Do you need to share with your audience documents or files on your computer?

YES! Then go for the group option as it’s easier to share, collaborate and ask questions.

NO! Then again it doesn’t matter.

CASE STUDY – local authority

Victoria Fawcett of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council set up a Facebook group called Stockton 5K trail series to promote, as the name suggests, a series of 5k runs across the North East of England. The group was fine as a way of communicating with athletes who’d already heard of the series from other sources – both on and offline. But it wasn’t so effective at growing that community to get more taking part in the events. Two things informed Victoria’s decision to set up a page and invite group members to join her there: firstly visibility – pages, she was told, are easier to find on Facebook than groups; secondly, because only a page gives you access to valuable metrics via the Facebook Insights suite of feedback and analysis tools.  Whilst the latter is true the former is not – unless your group is secret. The community page has nearly 1,500 likes (July 2016). That’s significantly more than were members of the now defunct group so it was clearly a good decision to make the change to page.


Make an informed decision before you establish a page or group as you can’t automatically convert a group into a page or vice versa at a later stage. The only workaround in the case study above was for the group owner to ask members via the group timeline to migrate to the page incentivising those who make the journey across the wide open trails of cyberstockton by offering modest prizes (a beanie)!  Nor is it possible to merge two groups into one short of asking members of the one you’re closing to join the one you’re keeping going.

Think of pages as physical places. If you’re a small organisation you might only need one page/room. If you’re a big organisation you’ll probably need several pages/rooms. Get as many people coming through the doors of these pages/rooms as you can and then, once they’re in, decide how you want to organise them into separate groups.

CASE STUDY – national charity

As a supporter of the NSPCC you might like the charity’s Facebook ’s page. Almost 300,000 people already have. But it would be inappropriate for discussions about some of the grittier areas of the society’s work to be held, in effect, with all these people listening. So there are five open or public groups and who knows how many secret groups where like-minded individuals can get together in much smaller groups to discuss things. Social workers use these groups, for example, to discuss child welfare issues away from the public gaze. And young people can discuss growing up in a secret group away from the inappropriate gaze of adults.


Ask yourself is it more appropriate for conversations with a target audience to be happening in relative if not absolute privacy? If the answer is yes then a Facebook group with its built in privacy settings is probably the best  for you.

CASE STUDY – small business

At ACM Training we had too many groups and it was almost impossible to find both the content and the time to post stuff to the various groups’ timelines to stimulate debate among members. For example, we had one group for people who’d been on our social media training courses and another for those who’d attended our writing for the web courses. Now we have a larger – but more easily managed – social web group which works for us because resources aren’t spread so thinly and works for group members (unless they think otherwise!) because there is a natural crossover between the two subject areas – if you’re interested in the social web you’re almost certainly going to be interested in writing for the web. We encourage group members to like our page but don’t insist on it as a precursor to joining the group. We also allow group members to invite new members so we can grow organically.

Here is a link to Facebook’s own thoughts on groups vs pages.

Brexit – a victory for style over substance?

I promised myself I wouldn’t write about the EU referendum here. But then so many people (for which, read politicians) seem to be going back on their words left, right and centre that one more little broken promise won’t matter surely?

Actually I don’t want to comment on the politics at all. Or reflect on the outcome. More than enough has already been said on those fronts. But as a student of public speaking and as a presentation skills trainer I believe that the contrasting styles of Remain and Leave did influence the result. To what extent I guess we’ll never know although it’s worth adding that in a close contest the side with the better lines and the better delivery can and often does end up winning as a consequence.

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re selling England down the river, dodgy DVDs down the market, or a proposition to colleagues down the corridor, your “patter” must conform to what I call the Four Cs. It must be: clear; concise; catchy; and strike a chord with the audience.

So with that in mind let’s explore the political patter.

“Let’s make tomorrow our Independence Day.”

Nigel Farage’s call to action is undoubtedly clear, concise and catchy. The fourth measure, of course, depends on your point of view. But on the first three alone it trumps the Remain refrain.

“We are stronger, better off and safer in Europe than we would be out on our own.”

Again, whether it strikes a chord depends on your point of view.  But putting that aside, what the two quotes boil down to is Independence (leave) versus Interdependence (stay). Now we’re more familiar with the word independence. And its face value is probably higher too. We seek financial independence.  As teenagers we can’t wait to leave home and become independent (even if not immediately financially so). At the other end of life we fight to keep that independence for as long as possible. By comparison the word interdependence is weaker and, therefore, harder to promote. The irony here is that our treasured independence is illusory. Take the notion of financial independence. Unless I keep my fortune under the mattress my security depends largely on external factors, as anyone who’s lost money on the financial markets in the turmoil that’s followed Brexit will tell you. Indeed, even under the mattress, my financial independence exists only in so far as it doesn’t get stolen. I’m depending on burglars not reading this, the alarm company, that nosey lady at number 23 who’s in Neighbourhood Watch, the police, the law…oh and the bloody great Rotweiller that has a free run of the house when we’re out.

A better presentational strategy for Remain might have been to subvert the familiar phrase and quote it back at their opponents and, by extension, the wider audience – you and me.

“They say ‘let’s make tomorrow our Independence Day.’ I say there’s no such thing. We all depend on others. Children on their parents. Grandparents on their children. All the way up to nations on their neighbours. For our safety. For our security. For our jobs. For our families. Let’s make tomorrow our Interdependence Day.”

Okay, I accept it might need a bit of a polish (although less if you read it in a stirring Churchillian voice) but it’s certainly better than some of what I heard which, paraphrased, amounted to: “The EU is a bit shit to tell you the truth. But we can make it a little bit less shit. And it’ll be a lot shittier if we leave.Trust me, I’m a politician.” Actually I made that last bit up but you get my drift.

It seems like VoteLeave had all the good lines. Here’s another one:

“Let’s put the Great back in Great Britain.”

So powerfully did this key message tug at the heartstrings of a certain demographic that I heard it being repeated in conversations. Something that strikes a chord (the fourth of the four Cs) resonates. And if that chord is still resonating when people enter the polling booth then there’s a chance that their pen (not the pencil provided) will dance to its tune.

“Stronger together” was as close as Remain were able to get. But I’d argue, semantically, that given a choice most people would prefer to be great than strong. In other words, being strong is only good if it makes you great.

So what does all this mean for those of us who present not on a national or international political stage, but in more modest meeting rooms and conference halls? It means being clear about what you need to say. It means saying it as concisely as possible. Make your key messages and calls to action catchy by choosing your words carefully and putting those words in the right order. And, although it’s not always possible (especially if your audience doesn’t like you or what you’re saying) try to strike a chord.

Over the next few months I’ll be exploring the impact that personality has on presentation through the lens of the referendum. Was it, for example, the undeniably colourful (yes I think that’s the right word) characters like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage wot won it for Brexit?

My next presentation skills course in London on July 5th is sold out but there are still places available in London on September 6th and December 8th and in Manchester on September 14th. You can book here.

Front loading – websites not washers

Here’s a quick and easy fix to make your website more appealing to your target audience:

Don’t bury the good stuff so far down the screen that people have to scroll or swipe to find it. Because they probably won’t!

To avoid this problem we have to “front-load” web pages – that is, put the most critical information at the top of the page where it’s clearly and immediately visible. In the old days of broadsheet newspapers it was called putting stuff  “above the fold” where, on a newsstand, the bit of the article on the top half of the front page could instantly be seen by potential buyers.

Front loading is such an important concept in my writing for the web workshops that I’ve devised some simple exercises to help explain it. The exercises also cover principles such as decluttering for clarity and brevity. It’s probably easier to print them off  (open pdf) and mark the paper, as I suggest, with a real red pen.

Here’s a paragraph written specifically for print that follows the conventional, and some would say out-dated, intro, explanation, conclusion format:

In this article I’m going to show you how to write for the web and explain why it’s different to writing for print. But first a little bit of history. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. But when we read stuff online we’re much less linear in our approach. Eye tracking studies suggest we scan the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And if we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page or worse still the whole site in a hurry. The fickle way readers behave online is the biggest single factor determining the way we write web copy. In short, because people read differently we need to write differently. It really isn’t good enough simply re-purposing words written for paper. Or certainly not without wholesale changes in terms of structure, layout and length.  Structurally we need to write in such a way that the important stuff is placed on the screen where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down. The principle is called top or front loading. Another name for the technique is the inverse pyramid. Doesn’t really matter what it’s called. We need to write in a way that lends itself to breaking up long paragraphs and, therefore, large blocks of text, into shorter paragraphs and smaller blocks, bullet points and lists. And we need to write in a way that is shorter, sharper and to the point because or readers tend to be less patient than when reading a book. [312 words]

Where is the introduction? Highlight it and write the number 1 in the margin alongside.

Where is the explanation or background? Put a number 2 next to it in the margin.

Highlight the conclusion (or conclusions) and mark with a 3.

Now try writing a version that conveys the same information but in the reverse order – 3, 2, 1. Start with the conclusion.

Struggling to find a natural sounding place for the introduction at the end? Another virtue of writing this way is that we can often dispense with the intro altogether and make the article shorter as a consequence.

Here’s my version.

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down. The principle is called top or front loading or the inverted pyramid method. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Write in a way that is short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye tracking studies suggest we scan the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page in a hurry. Compare that to the way we read words on paper. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. [176 words]

Better structurally but still a bit too long so let’s next go through it striking out the words that aren’t strictly necessary. See how short you can make the paragraph without rendering it meaningless.

Here’s my version, first with the editing showing and then without:

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down scrolling. The principle is It’s called top or front loading. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Write in a way that is Be short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye tracking studies suggest we scan search the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page in a hurry. Compare that to the linear way we read words on paper. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. 

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Be short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye-tracking studies suggest we search the page in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page. Compare that to the linear way we read words on paper  – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page. [106 words]

Shorter, certainly, but perhaps still a bit “slabby” in appearance. Try breaking it into bullet points and improve usability further by changing the font type, size and colour to make the key words stand out like headlines in a newspaper.

Read differently means write differently.

  • Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading.
  • Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists.
  • Be short, sharp and to the point. 

Eye tracking studies suggest we search in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave. Compare that to the linear way we read word by word on paper. [83 words]

The shortest and cleanest-looking version yet, although maybe a bit too short for readers who are really interested in the subject. Extra detail can be provided through hyperlinks (internal or external) readily accessible to those who are motivated to learn more but without cluttering the page or confusing those who are only after an overview.

Here’s my shorter version with hyperlinks (and, yes, the hyperlink works)!

Read differently means write differently.

  • Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading.
  • Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists.
  • Be short, sharp and to the point. 

Eye tracking studies suggest we search in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave. Compare that to the linear way we read word by word on paper. [83 words]

Now try the above exercises with a page or section from your own website. When you’re done road test it by asking your visitors  (or, failing that, colleagues, family or friends) which version they prefer. If your own website is too close to home to fiddle with without upsetting your co-workers then choose an external website from your sector that you think could do with a makeover.

This article first appeared in Richard’s writing for the web booklet which accompanies his training course of the same name. You can book a place here.

Dealing with nerves – a ten point plan for presenters and public speakers

So you’ve got to do a presentation. Stand up in front of room full of people and speak publicly. Admit it. Your legs are turning to jelly. Failure and ritual humiliation beckon. Sound familiar? Well join the club. We’ve all felt nervous at some time – even those who routinely present to millions of people on television and radio. And those who say they haven’t are either big fat fibbers or dead from the neck up.

Nervousness is what tells us we’re alive – along with a few other physiological niceties like breathing, of course. In fact nervousness and breathing are bodily bed fellows – if you’re feeling the former it’s more difficult to do the latter. To the point where you risk beginning your presentation with lungs as empty as if you’d just outstripped Usain Bolt in a hundred metre dash. And believe me I’ve been there. Not in a running race but in a mad, hyperventilating rush to get to the end of the opening sentence whilst reading the news. It wasn’t even a long sentence come to think of it: “Hello, good evening…” So how can we say good night to our nerves?

  1. Say hello to your nerves
  2. Make a plan
  3. Practice make perfect
  4. Grow your confidence from a solid start
  5. Focus on success
  6. Breathe deeply
  7. Speak slowly
  8. Feed off the audience
  9. Admit nothing
  10. Share the load

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Say hello to your nerves

Our minds move in a mysterious way. We begin by worrying about the actual presentation – let’s call this the primary concern. Then we begin to worry about the consequences of a poor presentation. We imagine ourselves looking stupid in front of colleagues, being passed over for promotion or maybe even sacked. In effect this secondary concern doubles our worry. But hang on a minute. We haven’t actually failed yet. We’re not really on the platform looking at a sea of unforgiving and unfamiliar faces. It’s just a bad dream. Make that a nightmare. In the dead of night we’ve snapped awake with a start, drenched in sweat. A bad attack of THE FEAR OF FAILURE! At this point we need to drag ourselves out of bed, go to the bathroom and have a long, hard look in the mirror. Give ourselves a cheer up smack. Say out loud: “I will succeed.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. He’s beginning to sound like some whacky American lifestyle guru. What about us shy, retiring Brits who wouldn’t say boo to a goose let alone “I will succeed” to a mirror? Okay here’s the UK equivalent: “Hello mirror old chap. Awfully sorry to disturb you at this unearthly hour. Any chance I could have a quiet word with you? You see I’ve got this presentation to do. I don’t mean to burden you unnecessarily with my troubles but…”

Look, whatever you say in your moment of reflection don’t mention the word failure. Fear’s fine. But put fear to work. Harness the fear. Channel the nervous energy into planning and the imagined dire consequences – the secondary concern – are much less likely to come true. So don’t go back to bed. Start a plan.

Make a plan

Planning is so crucial to any nerve reduction strategy that it deserves a post all of its own and at some point I’ll do just that. On my presentation and public speaking skills workshops I encourage delegates to think about the following steps:

Purpose – what do you want your presentation to achieve?
Audience – who’s watching?
Context – where are you giving the presentation and what are the physical and intellectual  barriers to communication?
Content – what do you need to tell them?
Structure – what’s the best order to communicate your content?
Style – what’s the most appropriate style to communicate your content?

A good plan probably won’t get rid of your fear entirely. But it can make the difference between the adrenaline-max version which makes us want to run away and the adrenalin-lite type whose purpose is to encourage us to stay and do a good job. Flight or fight.

Practice makes perfect

Done a plan but still feeling nervous? Nothing unusual there. They may feel the same, but what you’ve got now is a different type of nervousness. Not the disabling fear of failure that springs from a lack of planning but the enabling fear designed to get us to carry out our plan. Performance nerves not planning nerves. Actors plan well. They learn their lines. Do endless rehearsals. Yet they still get first night nerves. Sir Laurence Olivier and Barbara Streisand both suffered an extreme version of it called stage fright. So you’re in good company. I prefer to call it pre-presentation panic. But as Corporal Jones would put it: “Don’t panic!” Again subdue the nerves by acknowledging them and use the nervous energy to rehearse. What’s the old adage? Practice makes perfect.

Grow your confidence from a solid start

Even with practice you’re going to feel nervous when it comes to the real thing.  And the bigger the audience the greater the fear. But enabling fear dissipates the moment you start your presentation. It’s why in the planning phase you design and practice a simple start. One you know you can manage even with a few jitters. If, when I was reading the news, a producer had written a long or complex introduction to the lead story, one where even the sub clauses, the bane of simple speech, had sub clauses and it looked, with my shattered nerves, that I’d be unlikely to reach the full stop, that welcome little dot indicating the end of the sentence, without expiring, then – a bit like this convoluted nonsense richly deserves – I’d split the sentence into more manageable chunks. Tiny. Little. Bits. So take a deep breath…

Breath deeply

Our heart rate increases when we’re scared. We breathe more quickly too and the breaths we take tend to be shallower. Although not always. Sometimes we forget to breath altogether. Which is kind of weird given that most of the time we don’t have to think about breathing at all because it just comes naturally. So restore the natural order of things by taking ten deep breaths whenever you feel the panic rising and the heart quickening. In through the nose for at least three seconds. And out through the mouth for a similar count.  Stilling our bodies stills our minds. Stilling our minds stills our bodies. Circular breaths.

Speak slowly

When we’re nervous we tend to speak more quickly. Which is understandable because the quicker we speak the sooner our presentation is over and we can relax. But although the instinct is right, the reaction is wrong. For two main reasons: that we may be speaking so quickly the audience can’t keep up; and that we may trip over our words like Mr Spooner of Spoonerism fame who meant to raise a toast to the dear old Queen but instead raised a toast to the queer old dean.

Slowing down is easy to say but harder to do. I find concentrating on the pauses provided by the full stops and commas of speech a better way of slowing down. Pausing for effect….letting a point sink in…counting to five slowly in my head before moving on.

Focus on success

When we want something to be over with (like my visit to the dentist the other day) we tend to focus on the finish line. But like speaking too quickly, doing so can make us rush and more likely to trip over. Try focussing instead on the purpose of your presentation. This subtle shift can be transformative. Not achieved your purpose yet? Then don’t sit down until you have. Achieved your purpose? Then sit down now. Purposeful presentations are very often shorter presentations.

Focussing on success can also help by putting our nerves into perspective. One of the best presentations I’ve ever seen was delivered by someone who, by her own admission, was extremely nervous beforehand. The young woman was raising money and awareness for stroke patients. Afterwards I asked how she’d managed her fear and she said: “By concentrating on the outcome and realising that my own fear was nothing compared to the suffering of the people  my speech was designed to help.”  Wise words.

Feed off the audience

The audience is more supportive than you might imagine. They really don’t want you to fail – except perhaps the few ruthlessly competitive inviduals who’d like your job at any price and might benefit from a stuff up on your part. Most people know from bitter personal experience what you’re going through as you clear your throat ready to speak. Tune into and draw on this positive vibe or empathy. With a big audience it all adds up to a lot of people rooting for you. Your very own personal cheer leaders if you like – without the ra ra skirts and pom poms!

If the audience still feels like a huge, amorphous blob ready to gobble you up for breakfast, scan the crowd and try to find a friendly face or two. Maybe you met them over coffee ten minutes ago or you’ve known them a lifetime. Nodding acquaintance or bosum buddy, engage with these individuals eye-to-eye. Remember where they’re sitting and return to them now and again when you feel the need. It’s best in a big venue if you choose at least four friendly faces – back, front, left and right. Look in only one direction and you risk visually excluding everyone else. Incidentally, even though you may be looking at only four in a hundred faces the 96 other people think you’re looking at them. It’s all down to the physical properties of light and how waves propagate. Certainly way too complex to get into here so let’s just call it an optical illusion. In a small venue, however, this “magic” doesn’t work in your favour and it means trying to make eye contact with everyone. In the film Zulu the actor Michael Caine uttered the immortal line: “Don’t shoot til you see the whites of their eyes.” Your words are less likely to hit their target if you shoot your mouth off before you can see the whites of the audience’s eyes. Not a lot of people know that.

Admit nothing

Whilst all of the above can help us deal with our nerves they never truly go away. And sometimes, mid presentation, they can come bounding out of the shadows and attack us when we least expect it. We feel the butterflies in our stomach stomping around in size 12 boots. We feel our hands going cold and our faces getting hot. But the operative word here is feel. Feelings are just that – felt. They’re rarely manifested to the extent that the audience even notices them. And what the audience can’t see can’t hurt you. For example, don’t apologise for losing your place or missing out a bit. The audience doesn’t know you’ve lost your place or missed out a bit unless you’ve given them a script to follow beforehand – rarely a good idea.

Mind you it is possible to make the invisible visible. Tony Blair made the mistake of wearing a shirt that not only showed he was sweating but also became see through. It’s hard to take anybody seriously when you can see their nipples. My own salutory lesson would have been even more chastening had it not been for some quick thinking. I was chairing an event one summer and decided on the Martin Bell look – a creamy coloured linen suit. But I hadn’t reckoned on the faulty plumbing. Not mine I hasten to add even though the audience wouldn’t have reached the same charitable conclusion. Nipping to the loo for a pre-presentation pee – another physiological response to fear – I was careful not to leave a tell tale splash only to be stymied at the hand-washing phase. Just a quarter turn of the hot tap unleashed a torrent of water with the force of an Icelandic geyser. Up the basin and down the trousers in a pattern for which there could be only two explanations – neither of them relishing. Accusations of a bad aim or incontinence were narrowly avoided by whipping off the offending trousers, soaking them in the washbasin, wringing them out and putting them back on. Fashionably and visibly crumpled and universally but invisibly damp. The moral of these stories? Stop sweating. And don’t go to the toilet. Or, more feasibly, choose your suits, shirts and blouses carefully.

Share the load

A problem solved is a problem halved, or so the saying goes. There’s a presentational equivalent: a speech shared is a speech halved. In the world of broadcast news and current affairs the busiest shows are very often double headed – that is, there are two presenters. It’s not just done for cosmetic reasons. It’s also because fast-paced and quick-changing programmes can be too much of a challenge for one presenter. And in the same way long or complex presentations can be too much for one speaker. So why not double head them? Buddy up with a colleague. Share the load. Half the nerves.

Richard Uridge is a former journalist and broadcaster turned communications coach. If you’d like him to help you with your next presentation he’d love to hear from you. A place on his open presentation and public speaking courses starts from just £99. To qualify for this special price all you have to do is subscribe to this blog by email (sign up in the left hand column or, on mobiles, below) and we’ll send you your £30 discount code as a thank you.