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FF sake – what musical notation can teach presenters and public speakers

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Mozart 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?

TEMPO

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?

VOLUME

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.

REST

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.

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Choreographing your presentation – what presenters and public speakers can learn from dancers

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Imagine 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.

A lectern house left (stage right) is a long way from the audience sitting diametrically opposite in the back rows.

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.

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How to start a presentation – “zoom in” on a detail

Approx. reading time: 1 minute

How 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.

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How to deal with hecklers and heckling – a 10 step plan to stop the sslandder

President Obama dealing with a hecklerApprox. reading time: 7 minutes

Hecklers and heckling can be a headache for public speakers – just ask Theresa May whose keynote speech was ruined by a prankster with a P45 (and one or two other glitches)!

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:

  1. Stop
  2. Smile
  3. Listen
  4. Acknowledge
  5. Negotiate
  6. Deal
  7. Delay
  8. Eject
  9. Re-start
  10. Repeat.

So now let’s take them one-by-one…

Stop

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.

Smile

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.

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Listen

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…

Take our presentation skills survey to find out what kind of presenter you are.

Acknowledge

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…

Negotiate

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…

Deal

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.

Delay

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?”

Eject

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.

Restart

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…

Repeat

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.

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What the f? Or what the Prime Minister’s nightmare speech can teach us about presentations

Approx. reading time: 5 minutes

The 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.

HECKLERS

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.

  1. Stop them getting in.
  2. Ignore them.
  3. Tackle them (physically not intellectually).
  4. 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.

In the meantime here’s a good comparison of Obama and Trump dealing heckles. Which do you think  is more presidential?


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Why First Person isn’t bad for science communication

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

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.  

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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.

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Brexit – a victory for style over substance?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

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.

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

Approx. reading time: 8 minutes

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

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.

You can listen to Richard Uridge’s five minute masterclass on dealing with nerves by visiting the Masterclass section of the ACM Training website or you can listen here.


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ED MILIBAND’S CONFERENCE SPEECH DECONSTRUCTED

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

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Love him or hate him, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s keynote speech to his party’s conference in Manchester this week is an interesting, instructive and, it has to be said, fairly lengthy watch for students of public speaking and presentational skills. If you’ve got one hour, four minutes and 48 seconds to spare you can watch his address here and make up your own mind. But if you haven’t (or as a true blue Tory voter the very thought of spending that long with him makes your skin creep) then read my conference speech guide – not to the politics of it but the mechanics.

I’ve divided his address into the five components that make up any speech from the grandest to the most modest :

1 the speaker
2 the spoken (words)
3 the spoken to (audience)
4 the unspoken (body language)
5 the place spoken (venue)

In this post I’m going to explore the first component – the speaker. Future posts will cover the other four.

Purpose
As a speaker the key to a successful presentation is knowing from the outset exactly what you want that presentation to achieve and never losing sight of your objectives through the planning and delivery phases. As a trainer I recommend speakers distil their purpose into a just few lines as the very first step. Watching Ed Miliband I’d stake my house on his early notes reading something like this: “show the audience I’m an ordinary kind of guy, share with them my vision for Britain and tell them how together we can make that happen.” As a politician he almost certainly couldn’t resist also scribbling “and rubbish the Coalition, especially the Conservative half or it.”

Know thyself
Know thine audience is the phrase most often associated with public speaking. But there should be a second mantra – know thyself. Self knowledge as a speaker is vital. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Where the comfort zone ends and the discomfort zone begins. How nervousness manifests itself (and all presenters get nervous however relaxed they may appear). Like top athletes the very best speakers frequently push themselves beyond their normal limits. It’s how they improve. By speaking entirely without notes Miliband was pushing himself to the limits of his endurance. Doing the oratorial equivalent of a Mo Farah (whose name, incidentally, he mentioned in an effort to associate himself with the winning Olympic team). In delivering his address without even the safety net of an auto-cue he was again serving his purpose. He wanted us to think “hey a guy who can do that can run the country.”

As a speaker it’s also vital to know your relationship with the audience. Is your stock, so to speak, high or low? Do they like you or hate you? You’re selling them something – in Miliband’s case a promise to make Britain great again in return for our votes – so you better know how hard a sell you’ve got on your hands. The Labour leader clearly understood his stock was on the low side, not at the conference itself so much as among the wider public audience. Confronted with this tension between themselves and their audience speakers have two options: ignore it and hope it’ll go away; or concede there’s tension and do something to reduce it. Sensibly Miliband chose the second. “I understand why you voted for Cameron,” he declared before moving on to why we should no longer trust the Prime Minister but trust him instead.

You’re havin’ a laugh
Humour is an important part of any speech. Important but not essential. Not essential because some people are uncomfortable with humour – speakers and audiences alike. And some subjects are simply no laughing matter. Done right, however, humour can lift a speech. Give both the audience and the speaker a moment to relax. Act as a delicate counterpoint to a more profound moment. Provide punctuation. Give people a chance to shift buttocks or open a Murray mint without drawing attention to themselves. Done wrong humour can kill a speech stone dead. Alienate an audience. Overdone and it can tend to trivialise a speech and overshadow the content.

By making himself the butt of his jokes Miliband avoided giving offence. And mostly the laughs he got appeared genuine (but then in a hall full of acolytes I’d be surprised if they didn’t) although occasionally there was a momentary disconnect between punch line and laugh which made the smile on the Labour leader’s face a tad strained. My advice is to move on swiftly if the anticipated response isn’t forthcoming.

More importantly his self deprecating humour helped serve his purpose: it was designed to show the audience (especially the overwhelming majority of us beyond the conference walls) that he was our kind of guy. Odd looking perhaps. A bit like the bloke off Wallace and Gromit maybe. But warm and friendly nonetheless. The friendly bit is crucial to politicians. They know we don’t trust them. And because we don’t trust them they know we don’t like them. But they also know that human nature dictates this behavioural formula works the other way round and if we like them we’ll trust them. So politicians work hard to make themselves likeable. Hence the humour and the frequent references to family history in the Miliband speech.

Richard Uridge coaches public speakers and runs presentational skills workshops. He hasn’t trained Ed Miliband. And even if he had he’d be contractually obliged to say he hadn’t (but he really hasn’t)! He’s not a bad speaker himself. Not the best. But then Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t the best footballer. If you’d like him (Richie that is not Fergie) to train you or your colleagues or give a speech then you can get in touch by sending him an email richard@acmtraining.co.uk

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CHOMSKY’S A CHUMP – why Noam’s a numpty

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesNoam Chomsky may well be an expert linguist. But his suggestion in a recent Daily Telegraph article that oratory is unnecessary is ludicrous. ‘I am no Barack Obama,’ he told the interviewer, Nigel Farndale. ‘I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don’t try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.’

Well Noam I beg to differ. Hearing you drone on would bore me, however interesting the content. I’m glad I’m not one of your students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d be the bloke at the back dozing off.

Great communicators combine content with style. Okay so no amount of style can make up for a total lack of content. But great content can be spoiled by poor delivery. Try reading any of Churchill’s famous wartime addresses to the nation in a boring voice. Or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech for that matter.

Classical music provides an appropriate metaphor. Imagine Beethoven’s 5th played on just one instrument. And, what’s more, imagine that the instrument played just one note. Wouldn’t be much of a symphony. Blah, blah, blah…You wouldn’t want to listen beyond a few blahs – oops I mean bars – now would you?

When public speaking your voice is an instrument. So use it as such. Unless, of course, you’re in possession of one of the world’s greatest intellects. And are arrogant enough to believe that alone will compel people to listen to you.

Are you a Chomsky or a Churchill? Take my presentational skills quiz.