A lot of presentation skills trainers are saying we need to be much more animated presenting online via Zoom and MSTeams than was the case when working face-to-face. In this short clip I argue against such an approach. I reckon the skills of an online presenter are more like those of a screen actor than a stage actor. Smaller, more suble movements and facial expressions are the key. Not grand gestures for the people in the cheap seats at the back of a theatre auditorium. Why? Because you are in their face. Or certainly no further than an arm’s length away.
Step away from the PowerPoint. Close the Keynote. When you’re preparing a presentation – online or face-to-face – resist the urge to start creating content too soon. It’s a receipe for failure. And a mistake too many of us make.
Here I am murdering the English language and inventing at least two new words in my mission to help us all become better presenters. We should think of ourselves as storytellers and structure our presentations in the same way as a writer constructs and unputdownable book.
“If your presentation doesn’t work for your audience it won’t work for you.”Richard Uridge, ACM Training
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org 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: 4 minutesMozart 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: 4 minutesImagine 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: 2 minutesI’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.
PS R Breeders Ltd, it turns out, sell bull semen.
Approx. reading time: < 1 minuteHow 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.
This podcast episode is just one of a series of audio, video and written “how to” guides that form part of ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series.