Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.


Posted on

ED MILIBAND’S CONFERENCE SPEECH DECONSTRUCTED

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

20121003-211342.jpg
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

Posted on

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.

Posted on 3 Comments

WORDS MATTER

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesWords matter. Well chosen they have the ability to move us to tears. Of sadness. Of joy. They can pluck our emotions as assuredly as a classical musician plucks the strings of a harp. Or, if you prefer, play our soul like Noel Gallagher tweaking his Telecaster. Written for the eye or spoken for the ear, words can transport us through time and space. Badly chosen words can move us too. Spark moral outrage and indignation. Provoke anger and frustration. Or, more likely, send us to sleep through a fog of I-really-can’t-be-arsed-to-read-this indifference.

Most of the time we choose the words we speak or write instinctively. We don’t, consciously at least, consider whether they’re the right words. And, as a consequence, sometimes they’re the wrong words. Which may not matter a whole lot if we’re talking to friends or writing to family. But which may matter heaps if we’re comunicating with a wider, possibly less tolerant, more critical audience.

Take the word communicating in the last sentence. It’s missing an m. And while that may not bother you there’ll be some readers fulminating at such a basic mistake. It would undermine my credibility as a communications coach and make selling my services to the angry reader an unlikely prospect. Yet every single day I receive letters and emails exhorting me to buy something that are littered with literals, or are simply (and often complicatedly) inelegant, ineffective, inept, inane. And occasionally insane.

Consider for a moment the poor soul at the NHS who wrote the letter sent to 8.5 million patients advising us that our healthcare records were about to be put onto the computerised Summary Care Record system and that we could opt out of the move if we wished. According to the Telegraph (June 17th 2010), just 15% of the letters were read which means 7.2 million letters were not. A remarkable reflection on our indifference or a sure sign that the letter was poorly written? If you’ve received such a letter let me know your view by posting a comment. Oh and if you’d like to learn how to write professionally and creatively (yes the two can go hand in hand) sign up for my creative and professional writing skills workshop.