Many companies (I’d hazard most) don’t have a crisis communications plan. A vague idea about what to do in an emergency? Yes. A carefully considered and well rehearsed business continuity plan? Maybe. A clear idea of what to say to stakeholders either internally via the usual channels or externally via the media including, where appropriate, social media? No.
But coronavirus has the potential to make us all wish we had. With the level of infection and disruption now being anticipated at the very highest levels of government, businesses large and small (my own included) face an existential threat. And effective communication with staff, clients, suppliers and others over the coming weeks and months could (and I don’t think I’m overstating this) make a life and death difference. Not just company life and death either.
How so? Because clear, consistent, truthful and timely communications can, for example, make the difference between a pissed off workforce who think their bosses really don’t care and a highly motivated workforce who feel valued and are prepared to be flexible in the face of adversity by working from home, working odd hours, foregoing bonuses, taking unpaid leave…
Because clear, consistent, truthful and timely communications can persuade suppliers to delay issuing that invoice even though they’re experiencing similar cash flow problems. Because effective communication can lower the expectation and heighten the appreciation of customers.
But while being truthful should come naturally 😂 being clear, consistent and timely needs planning and practice.
“The virus is on us. Isn’t it too late now?”
It’s never too late to make a plan which, in any case, doesn’t need to take long – especially in smaller, less complex organisations. The first planning step is to work out what you need/want to say and to who: in other words your key messages and your target audiences. The next step is to map the audiences to what become your target media and channels – internal email, the intranet, external media the internet. Make sure those key messages are clear and concise and can be readily understood by the audience. You might be inclined to say “we’re facing challenges on the supply side of our business so our customers may experience issues with their orders.” Your customers would prefer you to say: “We’re sorry but because of coronavirus it may take us a little bit longer to deliver your parcel. We know you’ll understand. And here, as a thank you for your patience, is a discount code for your next order.”
Being consistent means everybody is communicating the same message (not that the message can’t change – flexibility is key in a crisis). A lack of consistency can lead to confusion. If your line manager is saying staff can work from home but your boss says you’ve got to come to work unless you’re ill you’re likely to lose faith in both.
Being truthful is, I hope, self-explanatory. I may be naive, but honesty and integrity are rewarded. People want to work for and with organisations that genuinely embrace these things. Yes, price is important but value can be expressed in other ways. So what I mean here is more about being open. The truth will out (and with social media probably sooner rather than later) so why hold back. Imagine the furore restaurant chain would face if it didn’t reveal kitchen or wait staff had fallen ill with the virus until two weeks after the outbreak?
Being timely is tied into the above. When a situation is rapidly evolving there’s an inclination to keep quiet until the picture is clearer. But witness the backlash the government has experienced by only issuing virus updates weekly. A backlash so significant that it’s backed down. A “communications fumble” as the Chief Medical Officer admitted. That position was clearly untenable for UK plc and should be for all companies in these worrying times. I’m not suggesting you need to issue a running commentary to staff or in the media. But if the gaps between company bulletins are too long then all sorts of information can rush into the vacuum. Information over which you have no control. In a word or two: fake news.
To help you control the message and draw up and execute your own crisis comms plans we’ll be running a series of webinars for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak. More details to follow. But if you’d like to sign up email me – email@example.com and I’ll be sure to send you a link and access code.
This is the tale of two loos. Both of them at venues we use at ACM Training for our open workshops. One of them – Ort House Conference Centre in Camden – at the more traditional end of the market. The other – Waterfront Meeting Rooms in Bristol – at the funkier end. Now I’ve nothing against traditional or funky per se. But it’s funny how the signage at the two venue follows suite.
“We will endeavour to fix the issue in a timely manner,” asserts the sign from the Building & Facilities Team (their capitals) at Ort House when, in truth, the team is probably just a bloke with a spanner who doesn’t speak like that in real life – the bloke, that is, not the spanner.
By comparison the Waterfront sign is much less formal and the writer has even thought about the audience by appealing directly to younger gents (I can’t vouch whether the same sign appears in the ladies) with the “or your parents’ home” line.
Now you could argue that a sign on a toilet wall doesn’t really matter because people’s impression of the venues is based on so much more – the friendliness of the reception staff, the cleanliness of the facilities, the airiness of the training rooms. And that’s certainly true with face-to-face businesses. But what about those businesses whose customers only transact with them online in a virtual sense? Or those where the initial contact is via a website or blog? Then words really matter because, like the reception staff in this example, they are for many people the first point of contact. And first impressions matter.
So if you’re writing for websites instead of toilet signs you need to think long and hard about the most appropriate use of language. For most organisations conversational but purposeful is best. That and plain English. Have a ponder next time you visit the loo.
By the way, I have endeavoured, on behalf of ORT House, to fix the linguistic issue in a timely manner so here, for what it’s worth, is my alternative…
If it’s broke we’ll fix it. You just need to let us know.
If your website is broke (linguistically that is) we’ll help you fix it.Or, better still, we can train you to fix it yourself. Either way you just need to let us know.
Approx. reading time: 4minutesMozart was a dab hand at the piano. Which is putting it mildly. A veritable child prodigy, by the age of five he was already performing for royalty. And by the time he died – at just 35 – he’d written 600 works including his Piano Concerto 21 shown above.
I mention all this because more than 200 years later Mozart’s music has something to teach us as presenters and public speakers. He knew how to captivate an audience with high notes and low notes. Fast sections and slower, more reflective sections. Louder bits and quieter bits. In short, he scored his compositions in such a way that made them captivating. And I’d argue that you should score your presentations to make them captivating.
Far too many of the presentations I’ve had the misfortune of sitting through wash over me. Not because the content is dull (although it may be) but because the delivery is dull and as a consequence the content, however important, fails to register.
“Blah, blah, blah…
Nobody uses these exact words, of course. But they do use words that when spoken by the same voice, at the same pace and the same tone end up sounding so samey they may as well be.
“…blah, blah, blah.
The net effect of which is to send the audience to sleep. So how can we turn our presentations from unintended lullabies into stirring sonatas?
Well let’s start with tempo. You’ll see the word “andante” appears above the bar at the beginning of the sheet music at the top of this post. This notation of Italian origin is an instruction that the movement or passage should be played at a moderately slow tempo. If the whole concerto was to be played at the same tempo it’d sound much less impressive. It’s the juxtaposition of different tempos that make each stand out and contribute to the overall effect. And so it is with presentations. What bits of your presentation are best delivered allegro – that is fast? And which sections might best be delivered adagio – slowly?
Back to that sheet music you’ll see the letter “p” appears under a couple of notes. This means that the note should be played piano or softly. Two ps together as in pp means the note should be played pianissimo or very softly. It seems counterintuitive but if you want your audience to take notice of a really important point, saying it more quietly than your usual presentational volume (p or pp in musical terms) forces them to listen more carefully and helps reinforce the point. Although not if you’re too quiet – ppp!
At the opposite end of the dynamic range are the effs – f, ff and fff. F stands for forte or loud. FF for fortissimo or very loud. And FFF for fortississimo meaning very, very loud. I’d avoid fff altogether as it can seem really rude and shouty unless done for special effect, in which case it’s probably best to forewarn the audience or, at the very least, explain immediately after the very, very loud passage why it was so. And even ff should be used sparingly as it’s tiresome to listen to permanently loud speakers.
The knack is to vary the volume in a pleasant sounding and naturalistic way just as we do automatically in conversation. Think of your presentation coming to a crescendo – another musical term that means increasing or, literally, growing. Build to a major point or a call to action.
Look carefully at the sheet music above and you’ll see what looks like a fat or bold hyphen at the end. This is what’s called a rest (actually it’s a half rest but let’s not get too technical – this is presentation skills not piano grade 8). A rest mark tells a musician to pause for a period of time to let the previous note die away. To echo into the distance. To be savoured to the very last decibel. And so you should pause for effect in your presentations. Carrying on before the audience has properly understood and appreciated your previous point is to cheapen that point. A tip here. A short pause for the audience can seem like an eternity for us presenters – especially if we’re nervous in which case silence can really spook us. So in order not to under do the pauses count to five in your head in one thousand chunks before moving on.
“One thousand. Two thousand. Three thousand. Four thousand. Five thousand.”
In summary, the human voice is a musical instrument. So play it like one. And if you feel the audience may be getting bored listening to the same old instrument playing the same old song can you change the instrument (if not the song)? By that I mean can you change the presenter? Most presentations tend to have just one voice (you) but can you recruit co-presenters and double-head or even triple-head your next speech? The simple expedient of a change of voice can keep an audience attentive for longer.
Forgive me for a final foray into this musical metaphor. Make sure your presentations are well orchestrated. Be a maestro. Just like Mozart. Aim for a bravura performance.
This post was first published as a podcast (complete with extracts from Mozart’s Piano Concerto 21) in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.
Approx. reading time: 4minutesImagine paying good money to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, only for the dancers to be rooted to the spot throughout the performance. Static. Unmoving. You’d demand a refund.
In ballet, beauty springs from movement and choreographers think long and hard about how dancers use the full extent of the stage, where they position themselves in relation to one another and the audience and which steps to take – a pas de deux maybe or a pas de chat.
And so it should be in presentations, with speakers giving similar consideration to the choreography of their performances. Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that this means pulling on a pink tutu and sashaying across the boardroom floor but simply injecting some more modest, naturalistic movement into your presentation in a way that compliments your words – energises them even – rather than detracts from them.
Don’t mess with my tutu
Too many presenters I’ve seen (or rather haven’t) stay hidden behind the lectern throughout. And those who do show us their legs often pace nervously up and down an imaginary track and I end up worrying more about the carpet than I do listening to what’s being said.
I get why presenters stay close to the lectern. It’s where their notes are and, looking out at the sea of faces that is the audience, they fret that if they swim too far from this presentational lifebelt they’ll end up drowning. Trouble is that, in a big auditorium in particular, the lectern is usually stage left or right which means you’re closer to one side of the audience than the other. And while the extra distance between you and those opposite may not be an obvious distraction, subconsciously at least, it may leave those farthest away feeling somehow left out.
Mind the gap
And so it is with the people in the cheap seats at the back, again, of the bigger venues. They can feel ignored if you don’t do something to literally or metaphorically close the gap between you and them. Literally closing the gap might mean coming down off the stage (with a radio microphone if the event is that big), walking along the aisle to the back of the auditorium and delivering a section of your talk from there. Metaphorical gap closers include spoken ones – “can you hear me alright back there?” – and unspoken ones such as making eye contact with people in all quadrants of the audience, not just those closest to you. A really good tip I was given years ago is to divide the audience into quarters (or sixths in bigger venues), pick a friendly face in each section (front left, front right, middle left, middle right, etc.) and make eye contact with them periodically. Because of something called parallax it appears as if you’re looking at everybody in each section rather than just one.
Come out come out wherever you are
Now in order to feel comfortable moving away from that lectern or desk and your notes means weaning yourself off those notes, so I’ll make that the subject of another post. But before that let’s explore the consequences of too much movement.
Carpets have feelings too
I’ve written elsewhere about nervousness and posted a 10 point plan for tackling it. Suffice to say that when our mind is racing our body often follows suit. So we pace up and down. And for the audience it can be a bit like watching a game of tennis where we’re the ball and their eyes swivel from left to right and back again ad nauseam which, in Latin incidentally, means literally ‘to sickness.’ Remember audiences (and carpets for that matter) have feelings so don’t overdo the movement. With practice it’ll become instinctive. Just as the movement does for those ballerinas.
Form and function
If too much movement can be distracting, it follows that the right amount can be attracting. What we should aspire to then is movement that is meaningful. Meaningful because it grabs the audience’s attention; gives people a chance to move around in their seats (and so prevents deep vein thrombosis); adds value to your words. By adding value I mean that your movement is actually making a point. Let me explain by giving a real life example.
A Third Sector presentation I recently helped choreograph was designed to get people to stop and think about the scourge of rough sleeping. The words went something like this…
“You’re walking down the street. It’s like a minefield. You’re navigating around other pedestrians who’re paying more attention to their mobile phones than the pavement ahead. Picking a route that avoids the beggars who are up. And tip toeing past the rough sleepers who’re down.”
Now these words could have been delivered statically from behind a lectern. But I’d argue they had twice the impact because they were delivered while the presenter was walking along an imaginary pavement, the actions mirroring the words.
Actions speak louder than words
If you want your audience to stop and think about the point you’ve just made, stop and think yourself. If you want your audience to take action, be active. If your presentation needs a moment of reflection, of quiet contemplation, then slow down and stop. If you’re excited, look excited. And, of course, sound excited. Which brings me on to a subject for a future post – musicology, or how to use your voice as a musical instrument and play all the right notes in your next presentation.
Approx. reading time: 2minutesI’m easily annoyed. Perhaps it’s just my age. Or maybe there’s a lot to be annoyed about in the world right now. And I’m not just sweating the big stuff (Trump, war, Brexit…). Little things bug me too. Like signwriting on vans and lorries. I’ve written about it before but I feel compelled to write about it again after an angsty journey from my home in Shropshire to the Home Counties. Barely five miles into the trip I’m following this monstrosity.
I’m assuming the company has gone to the trouble and expense of having the vehicle signwritten as a mobile billboard. But adverts generally only tempt potential customers if those customers know what the bloody hell they’re being sold. It’s not clear at all from this mumbo jumbo what the van driver does for a living so I’m unlikely to stop him and buy one. Whatever one is.
It’s a classic case of trying to impress the reader with clever words and having exactly the opposite effect.
But as these two examples demonstrate is is possible to use the limited space and time available on the side of a moving vehicle to advertise one’s wares effectively.
The lesson? Decide what you want your words to achieve before you start writing and use language that is clear and concise to the reader.
Creating value, building trust and delivering results are bullshit bingoey kinds of words or phrases that should, like cliches, be avoided like the plague.
It’s all about the reader. If it doesn’t work for them it can’t work for you.
Approx. reading time: < 1minuteHow to hook your audience at the start of your presentation by zooming in on a detail. It’s better, says ACM Training’s presentation skills coach, Richard Uridge, than overwhelming them with the “big picture.” Or boring them with something that looks and sounds the same as every other presentation they’ve ever seen.
So how should she, and more importantly we who earn a living giving presentations, deal with such unwelcome interruptions? By their very nature the specifics of a heckle are hard to anticipate and plan for, let alone rehearse. But there is a generic approach that can work in a variety of different situations. I call it my stop the sslandder technique.
You’ll notice I’ve spellled sslandderr in a slightly unconventional way (and I had to disable auto-correct to do so). It’s because the letters of the word stand for the steps you can take as a speaker to keep heckles down without getting your hackles up. And also because hecklers often do come up with, if not slanders, then certainly slurs. So here are the steps:
So now let’s take them one-by-one…
So you’re still speaking but that reptilian bit of your mind that’s always working even when your lips are moving has registered an unwelcome sound somewhere in that sea of faces that is the audience. It’s not yet the full-throated roar of an angry lion but nor is it the polite sneeze of a timid mouse. Question is do you stop or press on?
For the “harrumphers” in the audience – that is those who exhibit what I call sub-heckling behaviour – ignoring these minor interupptions may just work. Trouble is that the harrumph could be the precursor to a louder and more persistent interruption. So if the noises off are minor and they do quieten down quickly continuing is fine. But if the initial noises are major or the volume rapidly increases then my advice is to seize the initiative and stop. Show you’re in control of your mouth and manners even if, and especially as, they (the hecklers) are not. The alternative is worse: you keep going so they get louder; you get louder to make yourself heard above the din so they get louder still… If this was an arms race you’d be heading for mutually assured destruction. Mad. So stop before you’re forced to. On your terms not theirs. Look strong. Not weak.
In any case if two or more people are talking at once nobody’s going to hear you properly. At the very least the audience will be distracted. And a distracted audience is harder to “sell” to.
You probably won’t be smiling on the inside with that carefully crafted speech in tatters at your feet instead of the roses of adulation you’d been hoping for. But hang on! It hasn’t been ruined – yet. So relax. Take a deep breath. And smile. Force that smile if necessary and you’ll find that it soon turns into a more natural version. At the very least it shows good grace and coolness under fire. At best a smile can be disarming as well as charming and simply showing your teeth (it’s an ape thing) can be enough to subdue the hecklers. But even if it doesn’t it’s likely to win you a bit of audience sympathy. And you need the audience on your side for the subsequent steps. Otherwise it’s just you versus the heckler and what if they’re bigger than you, or uglier than you, or both? Besides the heckle may actually have been funny so smile, join in the laughter – even if it’s at your own expense. Nothing like a bit of self-deprecation to win even more audience support.
Hecklers want to be heard. That’s why they heckle in the first place. So listen to them. And listen carefully with all the active listening skills you can muster (a look of concern on your brow, your best ear pointing their way, your head tilted slightly to one side). Try to ignore the anger – the heat if you will – and see the point they’re trying to make, however angrily or illogically – the light. The listen can in itself be disarming. Coupled with the smile before it, listening can be twice as effective. Better still link both with the next move…
It’s easy to allow an argument to be defined by the differences between two sides (you and the heckler in this case). After all that’s how arguments start in the first place. But what if you could redefine the fight the heckler’s picking by concentrating on the points you agree on? You’re not going to lose the argument by acknowledging their anger. You’re not going to lose by conceding some neutral or indefensible ground. “I can see you’re angry. I can hear the passion in your voice. We welcome passionate people.” I’m paraphrasing but these are the sorts of things that the former US President, Barack Obama, said to soothe tempers when he was heckled. “You’re absolutely right, politicians – me included – must do more to help the poor, the downtrodden, the neglected (delete as applicable). That’s why I got into politics in the first place.” In other words he’s saying – and you need to say to the heckler, “I’m on your side.” And when you’re standing if not literally then metaphorically on common ground there’s no need to shout across the gulf of your differences which is a crucial starting point for the next step…
Clearly you don’t want to spend more than a few minutes of your precious stage time negotiating with a heckler. But demonstrating both your willingness to negotiate and your negotiation skills can, like the preceding steps, enhance your overall credentials and win audience support. As in any negotiation make a reasonable offer, be prepared for a counter offer, amend your original offer in response to the counter offer if it’s reasonable and then stick to it. The whole point of negotiating is, of course, to reach a deal which brings us neatly to our next step…
There are two types of deal: the deal that gives the heckler what they want, or enough of what they want, to shut them up permanently; and the deal that silences them temporarily – at least until you’ve swept magisterially from the podium with those bouquets strewn in your path. If you’ve listened carefully and understood enough of what they want, maybe you can do a deal there and then. Perhaps they feel their voice hasn’t been properly heard, in which case don’t eject them from the hall, as this will only exacerbate the problem from their perspective. Invite them to a seat closer to you. Move closer to them. The closer physical proximity can demonstrate a willingness to closer intellectual proximity. It also plays to the old adage keep your friends close but your enemies closer.
If you can’t do a deal (and it’s rarely sensible to do a big deal in the heat of the moment) then try to delay. A dealay, if you’ll forgive me for making up a word, encourages the heckler to think that a bigger deal may be in prospect if only they wai. It can buy you time. Offer to meet them afterwards for some “quality face time” as one person I heard put it inelegantly but effectively. And because the art of the deal is to get something in return you might try making their part of the deal more explicit as in: “How about you and I get together one-to-one at the end of my speech and in return you and I stop discussing this right now in front of these patient people so that they can hear the rest of what they came for?”
You’ll understand why I’m not offering the above advice on a money-back-if-not-completely-satisfied basis. The most determined and disruptive hecklers can’t be simply silenced rather they simply can’t be silenced. In which case we’re up to E for eject in our ten point plan for dealing with hecklers. If there are heaps of hecklers it may be best for you to pull the eject handle and make a steady (never rush) exit from the podium with as much of your dignity in tact as possible. But like a fighter pilot ejecting from a jet, this should be a last resort.
In most cases it’s better to eject the heckler, although again with as much dignity as possible. Give them every opportunity to leave under their own steam with perhaps a gentle guiding hand on the small of their back from a well-mannered colleague or security guard (if it’s that kind of event and you’re that kind of person). It never looks good to see people – even hecklers – manhandled from a venue. It may play well with the audience with you in the venue who have seen the wider context and your valiant efforts to not reach this point. But how will it appear to the wider audience watching on television or on the web (again if it’s that kind of event) where the context is lost. If the archetype you’re trying to establish and/or reinforce for you and your organisation is say the care-giver then the subliminal message of a person being wrestled, kicking and screaming, from your presentation is working against you. This is why Obama did his level best not to get to the eject step. Trump, on the other hand, wants to convey the strong man archetype -a bit like the bear-wrestling, torso-baring Putin. So they and maybe you actively relish this step, witness Trump calling for a heckler to be “taken out and beaten up and I mean that seriously.” You can compare and contrast Trump and Obama’s differing styles on this fascinating Huffington Post video.
In most cases you’ll be able to restart without a messy ejection. If you can’t remember where you left off ask the audience: “Now where were we?” Note that’s where were we not where was I. The heckle is a collective inconvenience shared by everyone not just you. This approach shows you care for your audience and along with all that compassion you showed the heckler (unless you’re in the Trump school) will send your ratings soaring. But before you get carried away and start thinking of those garlands all over again a word of warning…
Unless all of the hecklers have been ejected from the venue and unless those who’ve been persuaded to shut up and stay keep their word, then you may have to repeat all or some of these steps. Stop again and smile winningly. Listen carefully. Acknowledge what it’s reasonable to acknowledge – if only their anger. Negotiate again (gently chiding them from breaking the last deal you brokered). Reach a new deal. Delay the resolution if you can’t find a solution there and then. Eject them this time (assuming you didn’t last time and they snuck back in when nobody was watching). Restart and, all being well, this time you won’t need to repeat step ten.
Richard Uridge runs presentation and public speaking skills courses for a wide range of clients – particularly in the not-for-profit sector. He must be a masochist because he actually enjoys the thrill of dealing with hecklers. So if you’d like to book a place on one of his workshops and heckle him he’d be delighted – especially as you’ll be paying modestly (from just £99 per person) for the privilege.
Approx. reading time: 5minutesThe Prime Minister would’ve been hoping the Heckler and Kochs were all safely in the arms of the police officers outside the Tory Party conference here in Manchester. Little did she suspect there would be a heckler and cock on the inside, armed with nothing more than a piece of paper. But in the right hands (or the wrong hands depending on your political perspective) a P45 can be every bit as lethal as an MP5 – particularly if the victim has already been wounded by blue-on-blue “friendly” fire from within the ranks. Step forward Lieutenant Johnson and Lance Corporal Rees-Mogg.
That the comedy Spetsnaz hiding in plain sight among the party faithful didn’t finish off the PM is testament to her presentorial (I made up that word) fortitude. After all, here was a speaker who also had to grapple with two additional enemies. The first biological: a sore throat. The second mechanical: an adhesive failure (or perhaps that should read ailure) when the f in the slogan behind her – building a country that works for everyone – came unstuck along with an e. Not great boss shtik. Or Bostik.
This scenery fail was, of course, a gift for the political commentators who were bound to see it as some kind of grand, unifying metaphor for the state of Theresa May’s rapidly disintegrating authority. But those seeking to bury her bits should remember the old adage “ne’r cast a clout til May is out.” And, by the end of her speech, May was down, yes, but by no means out.
At the risk of mixing metaphors, watching her performance put me in mind of those old nature programmes on the telly when I was a kid, except I don’t remember ever seeing the wildebeest get up and walk away after being dragged to the ground by a pack of hungry hyenas.
Now I don’t seek to make or score any political points here, but merely to suggest how those of us who have to present to audiences for a living might learn from May’s extraordinary recovery against the odds. It’s possible, of course, that she’s sustained mortal injuries and will succumb to them in due course. But as I write this in my hotel room overlooking the conference venue, where the security fences are being noisily dismantled, she’s still with us. The devil dogs have slunk into the shadows more usually occupied by the rough sleepers who, in turn, have been forced temporarily to seek out the even deeper shade in the streets and towpaths and underpasses the police consider a “safe” distance away.
So in this blog post I’ll suggest how you might deal with hecklers. And in subsequent posts I’ll write about sticky throats and less-than-sticky scenery.
There are four main ways of dealing with those intent on interrupting our presentations. The first is what I call a pre-heckle preemptive manoeuvre – grandiloquent eh?! The other three are post-heckle tactics, or what I like to foreshorten to “hectics” because that’s what they can feel like.
Stop them getting in.
Tackle them (physically not intellectually).
Tackle them (intellectually not physically).
Stopping them getting in in the first place is nigh on impossible. It’s hard to imagine a presentation with tighter security than for a sitting Prime Minister at a party conference. Yet even with a carefully vetted guest list Simon Brodkin aka Lee Nelson managed to get through. So by all means hope for the best and plan for the worst…
That plan should include whether you should ignore them and (a) hope they’ll give up/go away or (b) be escorted swiftly from the premises by your burly security detail. Now I don’t know about your presentations, but if you’re much further down the pecking order than, say, the PM or even the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, you’re unlikely to have such a, I was going to say luxury but, sadly, I should probably say necessity.
Both options – ignoring and physically tackling hecklers – are potentially problematic for your presentation. Bitter experience has shown me that while initially an interruption may barely disrupt proceedings when ignored hecklers usually get louder and louder until they can be ignored no longer. Best intervene on your terms rather than theirs.
So what should that intervention be? The physical tackle is best left to the rugby field (unless, of course, there is an immediate physical threat to your health and safety and that of your audience). The audience may forgive the physical nature of the response if it’s perceived to be proportionate to the threat. But if the threat isn’t physical or the response is disproportionate then the audience might change allegiance and see you as the oppressor and the aggressor as the victim. Whether seen live by your delegates or later by a wider audience via TV and the Internet, images of hecklers being man-handled (and it usually is man-handled) out of the building are rarely pretty. We instinctively back the little fella in the David vs Goliath scene we’re inadvertently producing.
All of which leaves us with the intellectual tackle, in its own way as hard to properly execute as the physical version but done well more effective. Doing it well means first of all pausing your presentation and acknowledging the interruption – ideally with a smile and especially with a smile if the heckle’s funny (to the audience that is – you’ll be struggling too see the funny side at the time)! It’s amazing how often even the acknowledgment and smile can calm or wrong foot the heckler who would otherwise feed off your discomfort.
If it’s needed, the next step is the critical one and if it was a dance move it’d impress Len Goodman. In a few words it’s to deal with the heckle not the heckler. In many words it’s to placate not to exacerbate, to reason not argue. It’s a routine best done calmly. Slow down your natural delivery pace and markedly so. Speak more quietly than usual. Resist the temptation to speed up, rush things or get louder. Humour can work, if it’s self deprecating. May held up a throat lozenge handed to her by Philip Hammond and declared “look, a free gift from the Chancellor!” And it’s to her credit that she was able to turn defence into attack and redirect the spoof P45 towards her usual arch nemesis, the Leader of the Opposition. But humour can fail if it’s at the expense of the heckler. They may become more not less disruptive or the audience may feel your humour is too cutting and the heckler’s once again an Old Testament David and you’re the cudgel-swinging oaf.
Asking questions of the heckler may seem time-consuming but can help you and the audience understand what exactly are their concerns. Once revealed those concerns can then be addressed – the underlying causes if you like rather than just the symptoms. If you discover that the heckler has a point then maybe you could concede some ground. Theresa may have said (but didn’t) “for those of us in uncertain jobs the P45 isn’t a welcome sight but thanks for reminding me all the same I’ll keep it to hand” and then, with a magician’s flourish, folded it into her pocket and resumed her script. It’s certainly a refreshing approach and can again wrong-foot all but the most determined heckler. I’d concede it takes both quick wits and steel nerves but I find that many sources of interruption can be anticipated and rehearsed so that you appear super smart and super cool only because you’ve practised. And as you know, practise makes perfect.
If you’d like to practise dealing with hecklers in highly realistic training sessions then Richard Uridge and ACM Training offers just that for a whole lot less than senior politicians pay their armies of choreographers, script writers, voice coaches and colour consultants. Click here to send us an email outlining your worst presentational nightmares and we’ll do our level best to show you how to turn them into sweet dreams.
Next time. Not to be sneezed at: how to deal with coughs, colds and sore throats.
Approx. reading time: 3minutesTraditionally 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.
“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 http://www.growresa.com – 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!
*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.