Archive for Helen’s Blog

Unearth a valuable, strong key message

Are you a Senior Executive who’s missing the point?

You can’t influence without a strong key message. Yet leading executives often struggle to find a golden nugget of information to convey. My clients have a ‘light bulb moment’ when I show them how to frame their ideas differently to achieve buy-in.

As one CEO told me recently, “I’m amazed that our organisation has become so successful over the years, when we really don’t know how to communicate.”

Imagine how much more successful he could be, with exceptional communication skills to enhance his conversations, meetings and presentations.

The value of a strong key message

As a BBC journalist for many years, my job was to condense complex, often lengthy details into easy-to-understand descriptions. The first line of each report had to encompass the whole story, telling the audience everything they needed to know, in a bite-sized chunk. The aim was to grab and hold interest. Based on my ‘top line’, the audience would make up their minds whether to keep listening/watching, or switch off.

The process of devising a strong key message follows exactly the same principles. The message must encompass your whole argument. You can flesh out the details later, but if people hear the key message and then stop paying attention, at least they will grasp the main point.

How news delivers a strong key message

News stories are chosen for their novelty (change), relevance and impact to the audience. Stories with greater novelty, relevance and impact are considered to be the most important issues of the day. They make it into the headlines while others lag behind. The skateboarding duck, for example, is less relevant and has less impact, so will only ever appear at the end of a bulletin (unless the audience happens to be made up of ducks).

The same tenets hold true in the business world. If what you’re saying is new, you’ll have a chance of being heard. If your point is not new, there is no point in saying it, as it will only frustrate other people. Instead, find a different angle that makes it fresh. Or frame your message in a different way to stress the novelty.

A strong key message equates to pure gold

Gold miners dutifully sift through tons of rock, gravel and dirt to yield just a single ounce of gold. They know the treasure is in there somewhere, and examining massive amounts of debris is worth their efforts.

Creating a strong key message requires similar patience and dedication, as well as practice. Many of us work in information-rich jobs, where there is a danger of getting lost in the sand and gravel of the details. When you want to communicate some of those details, people need to hear the story behind them first. In other words, what do the details actually mean?

Putting information into context, and providing your readers/audience with a clear overview, will help them understand your message easily and recognise its importance.

Framing your message appropriately is fundamental. Get rid of the detail – at least for the moment – and focus on what really matters: the implications. These implications are the most critical elements of a strong key message.

Sift the details to find your nugget

Look at the information you’re planning to put across, and ask yourself, “So what?” (in other words, assess the impact) and “Who cares?” (in other words, assess the relevance).

Once you’ve answered these questions, challenge your own answers by asking yourself the questions again. And again. And again.

Dig down into your ‘information mine’ of details, scrutinise each possible point carefully and objectively, and sift out everything that is not new, relevant or impactful. This will help you avoid creating a potentially superficial or weak message that doesn’t benefit anyone. When you dig diligently, you will eventually reach the nugget that lies beneath the surface, and voilà! Your shiny, new, strong key message will surface.

If you’re uncertain how to create a strong key message, or if you want to sift information in the most effective and efficient way, drop me an email or connect with me and I’ll help you unearth the most valuable elements for achieving buy-in to your suggestions.

Fighting talk at the desk

I’ve noticed recently that seemingly innocent office jargon is evolving into a series of offensive metaphors. Workplace slang increasingly features horrific violence – the bloodier and gorier the better.

For example, it’s no longer good enough to work with a ‘cutting edge’ company. These days, ‘bleeding edge’ is de rigeur. We no longer cancel a failing project. Instead, we ‘kill’ it: sometimes by the ‘death-of-a-thousand cuts’ (loads of minor amendments making it unrecognisable and unworkable), and sometimes by ‘slash and burn’ tactics (acting indiscrimately and destructively).

How do we know these days if there’s conflict at work? We proudly announce that there’s ‘blood on the floor’, ‘blood on the stairs’ or blood on the walls’. And then there’s ‘guerilla marketing’.  When did aggressive, independent fighters become linked with promoting persuasive messages?

We often express positive information with the subtlety of a chainsaw massacre.  When a company does well, we describe it as ‘killing the competition’.  When it reaps significant profits, it is ‘making a killing’. 

It doesn’t seem to matter if the news is good or bad. Either way, we embrace the concept of violence.

Who wants to work in a vicious, belligerent environment?

In our corporate dealings, we often find ourselves in office environments where verbal aggression is the norm. Flippant comments about death and destruction run rampant through workplace argot. Despite our urge to be ‘PC’ (politically correct) in almost every other aspects of our lives, office jargon still actively promotes bullying and war. It’s unprofessional, to say the least.

News outlets have started to pick up on this. According to The Telegraph, the Plain English Campaign calls office jargon “downright dangerous” and warns it can create barriers to winning new business. The Guardian reports that while military-speak might make men come across as assertive, macho straight-talkers, women are more respected when they speak warmly. Despite this, female executives often feel obliged to talk in aggressive terms to fit in with their office culture. This uncomfortable clash of jargon against empathy prevents women from contributing fully, and in their own voice, to meetings and/or office discussions.

Hold your tongue, or the puppy gets it

Verbal violence is not only limited to fighting talk. It often spills out to attack our animal friends. Cute puppies bear the brunt of several disturbing office jargon expressions.

Ever heard an executive talk about ‘punching a puppy’? It means doing something despicable to create a beneficial result in the longer term.

The expression ‘kick the dog’ (or sometimes ‘kick the cat’) describes taking out aggression on someone more junior, who is then likely to repeat the pattern with his/her own subordinates.

Most disturbing, perhaps, is the phrase ‘shoot the puppy’, which means making ultra-macho decisions and doing the unthinkable to get ahead.

Poor, poor puppies. Someone call the RSPCA.

The destruction of sea creatures in office jargon

Dogs aren’t the only voiceless victims of office jargon. Ocean animals are also targets for death and destruction at the hands of modern-day management lingo.

If you ‘kick dead whales down the beach’, you are doing something unpleasant and seemingly endless, yet essential.

Have you carried out a thankless task recently? If so, you’ve been ‘boiling the ocean’. Just think how many animals you’ve killed off with that malicious activity.

Less horrific, but no less bizzare (hence its inclusion here), is when you have a great idea that fails to work. At the tipping point when the idea turns bad, you’re said to be ‘jumping the shark’. Apparently it’s a reference to the US TV series, Happy Days, which went downhill rapidly after its hero, Fonzie, the coolest guy in town, showed off his waterskiing prowess by jumping over a shark. Perhaps the cleverer sharks should turn tail and bite.

Cattle culling in the office

While we’re ticking through the list of animals in peril through the language choices of office workers, cattle also feature in distasteful office jargon. When considering who might lose out as a result of new plans, you might use a bullfighting analogy (bull against bull) with the question “whose ox gets gored?”  A descriptive and unpleasant thought.

The ox’s long-haired cousin, while not actually a victim of linguistic violence, still finds himself shivering in the cold as a result of ‘yak shaving’ – the execution of a series of seemingly endless tasks to stop a project becoming stagnant and allow it to progress. A weird phrase if ever I heard one.

Let’s eliminate violent office jargon

According to the Institute of Leadership and Management, nearly two thirds of offices around the UK rely on office jargon, but a quarter of Britain’s workforce is frustrated by the language used. Perhaps the puppy punchers, puppy kickers and puppy shooters should ‘eat their own dog food’ (have a taste of their own medicine) and imagine how it feels when the verbal violence is aimed at them.

Of course office jargon isn’t limited to animal cruelty. Animals pop up in other parts of management speech too, and in today’s busy workplace, no-one needs to spend time and effort wondering what it means to have a ‘salmon day’, or what on earth ‘the pig in the python’ is all about. We don’t need to ‘get all our ducks in a row’ or to talk to ‘cubicle monkeys’ if we can avoid it.

When everyone starts to speak plainly, sensibly and without jargon, offices around the world will see a significant improvement in efficiency and effectiveness. Simplicity and clarity are the golden rules and if we make these our aim, we will move towards a happy and productive working atmosphere. It makes such a difference when people understand one another and don’t have to spend time and effort working out what something means.

If you’d like to ‘take this offline’ and ‘square the circle’, connect with me on LinkedIn or drop me a line. I help ‘thought leaders’ and ‘gurus’ to ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’. However, as I only work with elite clients, it’s worth noting that I’m rather hesitant to ‘open my kimono’ to just anyone. (Between you and me, that means ‘share trade secrets’.)

What office lingo really ‘gets your goat’?  Do let me know!

CEO branding: how to win hearts and minds

Build your individual brand for corporate success 

In today’s world it is no longer enough for a CEO to deliver financial performance alone. As CEO, you are also judged on your ability to enhance intangible assets and create non-financial returns. This depends on the effectiveness of your CEO branding.

Influential and well-respected CEOs build personal brand value that creates trust. When stakeholders feel positive about the CEO, they tend to feel positive about the company. They are more likely to engage with the organisation as clients, consumers, potential and existing employees. Because of this, it is vital to get your CEO branding right. 

Enhance CEO reputation, increase market value 

Research shows that a strong CEO brand increases corporate performance, reputation and profitability. Your reputation as CEO affects the performance, prosperity and destiny of your organisation. While a positive reputation is personally gratifying, it is much, much more as well: it is a driving force in relation to corporate reputation.

Corporate reputation is widely believed to be a company’s most valuable asset. In listed companies it plays a significant role in market value. Studies reveal that the personal reputation of a CEO defines up to 64% of corporate reputation, and improving CEO reputation by 10% can increase market capitalisation by 24%.

What exactly is CEO branding?

You might like to think of a “brand” as a collection of features that differentiate, create relevance and impart meaning. Ultimately, a brand equals a promise in people’s minds. Branding means creating the power of that brand.

Your CEO brand involves your personality, passions, values, skills and ideas. It combines your image (the picture that springs to mind when your name is mentioned) with your personal reputation (your overall performance compared with other CEOs).

You can use various CEO branding techniques to enrich your personal attributes and characteristics, strengthen your image and increase your impact. In other words you can enhance your CEO brand to create a powerful brand promise that will win hearts and minds.

What’s involved in CEO branding?

Practically speaking, CEO branding activities can range from everything you do as CEO, to an exercise in pure communication.

Becoming known as an innovator, thought leader, or even a disruptor, involves creating a positive presence, usually both online and in-person. This often encompasses speaking engagements, media exposure and – increasingly valuable – effective social media positioning.

Positioning yourself effectively does not necessarily mean turning yourself into a celebrity though. While CEO celebrity status can be beneficial, it also creates corporate risks and can act against shareholder interests. Tread carefully and ensure that you only position yourself in a way that enhances your company’s reputation.

Branding tactics often involve networking with relevant stakeholders/potential stakeholders to make genuine connections; coaching and training to improve your presentation and media skills; image consultancy to enhance your appearance; and creating a visual brand image – putting your personal touch on everything from stationery to office décor.

The cornerstones of a powerful CEO brand

Personality is a critical element of a successful CEO brand. Research suggests that the best-respected CEOs have a common set of personality traits. They are confident yet humble, intelligent, passionate and astute. Do bear in mind, though, that if you start to be perceived as overconfident or arrogant, this can harm your company as well as your individual reputation. It is important to listen to your trusted advisers on this and be prepared to act differently if/when appropriate.

Authenticity is fundamental. Authentic leaders are better trusted and liked and people find it easier to remember their messages. Being authentic demonstrates clear personal brand values and suggests stability and a lack of tension in the company. It allows you to come across as human.

So how do you demonstrate authenticity? You focus on people’s needs and feelings. You use authentic body language to show warmth. You share personal and business experiences openly, and you develop an emotional connection with others.

Ironically, authenticity is a perception that can be created in people’s minds. You might be a perfectly authentic person, but if you can’t express that effectively, you won’t be seen as authentic. For many CEOs, creating the perception of authenticity takes practice and hard work, but it is certainly worth it in the long run.

Employ an effective CEO branding strategy for success

Far too many CEOs build their brands accidentally, without realising that their personal brand can boost their company’s PR or doom it to failure. However, as CEO you should work with an executive branding specialist to create a CEO branding strategy that aligns with your overall corporate strategy. If your brand grows organically, without strategic rationale, you risk damaging your personal and corporate reputation, and you significantly reduce your chances of corporate success.

How would you like to be seen as a leader? What gaps are there between your current status quo and your dream CEO brand? If you’d like practical support in getting there – particularly in terms of communicating with authenticity and impact – connect with me on LinkedIn or drop me a line and give yourself a head-start towards success.

Are people too polite to mention that your slides are awful?

Remember the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Where a vain leader was sold an innovative new suit that was only visible to the smartest people? You’ll recall that those who couldn’t see it were either stupid or incompetent. Of course, the egotistical Emperor himself couldn’t see the suit, but being keen not to reveal this, he paraded (naked) through his Kingdom so all his subjects could appreciate and applaud his supposed new finery.

Not wishing to seem foolish, and out of duty, the subjects cheered the Emperor’s wonderful taste in clothes. We all know the ending. The embarrassed Emperor realised he’d been duped when an innocent child, who knew no better, piped up and shouted, “But he’s got no clothes on!”

To me, PowerPoint presentations are the business world’s equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes. When the Emperor believed that his subjects were impressed by his incredible new attire, he deceived himself. Likewise, if you think that your incredible slide deck turns an uninspiring talk into glitter and rainbows for your audience, you’re fooling yourself too. Most of the time your subjects won’t be cheering. They’ll just be thinking ‘death by PowerPoint’, watching the clock and waiting for you to end.

“He’s got no clothes on!”

It’s a brave person who will tell you that the value of your slides is an illusion, and that all your hard work creating them was in vain. Luckily, I’m a brave person, but my criticism and advice is always constructive.

As a leadership communication coach, I am on a mission to help people recognise that PowerPoint is usually about as much use as an invisible suit. If you want people to take you seriously, it’s time to get rid of those slide deck misconceptions and open your eyes to reality.

PowerPoint presentations rule the world

Your colleagues, clients and stakeholders are inevitably overloaded with PowerPoint presentations. We see them in virtually every meeting and they are usually downright dreary. Yet, bizarrely, most organisations around the globe use PowerPoint decks as standard meeting fodder and rarely seek alternatives to slides.

Whether you’re asked to present to clients or the Board, chances are they’ll expect a slide deck. Often they’ll even demand that you “send the presentation in advance”.

This is one of my big bugbears. You don’t send “the presentation”. You send “the slide deck”. A presentation is YOU, talking to the audience. A slide deck is a less important set of visual aids intended to support your talk. OK, so it’s also known as a PowerPoint presentation, but your slides are not your presentation.

Maybe this is just semantics, but it drives me nuts. The word ‘presentation’ is now warped in people’s minds and there is no longer a distinction between presentation as verbal delivery and presentation as slide deck.

PowerPoint presentations and the death of storytelling

Be honest with yourself: when you think about creating a presentation, is your first thought about what PowerPoint template to use?

Forget the visual aids for a moment. Think about focusing on your audience, your message and your aims instead. You can turn your thoughts into a great story, which is far more likely to capture your audience’s attention than a random piece of clip art or a tedious list of key points.

Consider this: if someone can interpret your entire narrative by viewing your slides beforehand and without context, there is little point in you turning up to talk. What can you add at that point? Your audience already knows exactly what you are going to say. Boring.

Bin the slides and use your own words

My advice is to speak with minimal support from PowerPoint (if any). I call this ‘naked presenting’. You aren’t trying to hide behind a useless, invisible suit of slides. You’re out there telling it as it really is – confidently and authentically. Your audience will thank you for it.

Why not create a magazine-style article to hand out afterwards, if people want a reminder of your talk? Most people like reading magazines, and it’s much easier to digest an article written in full sentences than a list of bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation. If you want to continue to engage your audience beyond the meeting room, an article will do the job far better than a set of slides.

Who are you really talking to?

How many times have you heard the phrase, “I’ll to talk to the slides”? This is another gripe of mine.

Please don’t talk to the slides. They won’t hear you and they certainly won’t buy into your concept. Moreover, if you do actually talk to the slides, you’ll be facing away from the audience and aiming your voice at the back of the room. The audience won’t hear you either.

Again, this may be partly semantics, but if your mindset is to talk to the slides, you will fail to talk to the people in the room and you will fail to build rapport.

Good presenters make eye contact with their audience nearly 100% of the time. People buy people, and you need relationship-building eye contact to appear credible and authentic. Authenticity encourages your audience to trust you, to take your messages on board and act on them. You can’t achieve this if you are talking to a set of slides.

None of this is rocket science, but the predominance of PowerPoint presentations has encouraged a generation of business leaders who do not make good eye contact (they’ve never been taught how) and who rely on slides rather than storytelling to get their message across. The term ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is now a common joke in business. This is a bad state of affairs.

Let’s define Death by PowerPoint

We have all suffered long and mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations with presenters droning on and on. Many use slides as aides memoire rather than visual aids, and this is where they go wrong.

According to the interactive audience participation tool, Poll Everywhere, half a billion people around the world use PowerPoint. There are over 35 million PowerPoint presentations being made every day. I dread to think of the time, resources and funds that have been wasted on this over the years.

The phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is so common that it has now entered the dictionary. Well, to be fair, the Dictionary of Business Bullsh*t, where it is defined as:
• Interminable drivel given credence by near-universal software package
• A default setting for all bad presenters who, on being asked to write a presentation, rush to their work station and immediately open a PowerPoint file called “Presentation to X”, without any thought about the line of argument
• A deck of impenetrable charts offered up by fawning management consultancy to justify exorbitant fee
• A receptacle for juvenile clip art
• A vehicle for thunderously boring research debrief

It’s true, so very true…

Ditch the Emperor’s new clothes and present authentically instead

Creating a presentation based on bullet points, clip art, tables and charts does not make your performance beautiful, no matter how well you try to design those slides. If anything, it makes it worse. And when the projector decides not to work (we’ve all been there), you’re left completely vulnerable. It’s a nightmare for most executives.

I’m intrigued that, in a world of clever people, so many are brainwashed into believing that PowerPoint is king. Unless you have a side-line as a graphic designer, your slides are unlikely to dress up your verbal presentation with any real pizzazz, just as the Emperor’s new clothes couldn’t hide his very obvious nudity.

Often, PowerPoint presentations merely create a fantasy for the speaker that their words will be met with admiration. Isn’t it time to wake up and put on some real clothes?

Forget the slide deck. Present your topic authentically and passionately and tell a good story.

If you’d like to know how to minimise your PowerPoint presentations, take your speaking skills to the next level and impress your influential stakeholders, connect with me on LinkedIn or drop me a line.

Lack of emphasis on great communication

CEO communication is a significant consideration for most business leaders, with many Chief Executives placing heavy emphasis on interpersonal communication, both internally and externally. Most support the philosophy of software CEO, Sarah Nahm, who says: “I don’t think there’s anything a leader can invest in more than thinking about how you communicate”.

Financial Services leaders, however, tend to buck this trend. Research shows that communication doesn’t usually keep them awake at night. They are stressed by digital disruption, lack of key skills, regulatory issues, market disruption and trust, but seemingly not by their ability to convey issues appropriately to relevant stakeholders or to engage successfully in dialogue.

A CEO survey by PwC suggests that the primary agenda for Financial Services CEOs is digital and technological capabilities, with human capital a secondary focus. In this survey, Financial Services leaders barely mention communication, let alone CEO communication.

Exemplary CEO communication is linked to success

A recent survey of 200 CEOs showed that among the traits needed to succeed at the top are active communication and the ability to inspire others to take action.

To a large extent, the CEO’s role in execution is communication”, according to management consultants Bain and Company. “CEOs are the cheerleaders. They are the change agents. They are the glue and energy that keeps the organisation aligned and inspired to make things happen.”

Exacerbating the struggles of the financial sector

Management consultancy firm, Hay Group, warns that Financial Services executives overestimate their capabilities to influence, and that they tend to rely on a leadership style that is more coercive rather than collaborative. Hay Group calls for these executives to “make a conscious effort to examine the ways in which they leadThey should take a look in the mirror”.

This is especially relevant in the light of a recent EY summit, which revealed that financial regulators and supervisors place increasing importance on communication. These overlords of the banks and financial institutions want to “get to the whispers before they turn to screams”.

Respecting the importance of individual communication

While CEOs across all other sectors hone their personal and organisational communication skills to engage employees and strengthen customer focus, with a view to capitalising on new opportunities, PwC reveals that Financial Services leaders across the globe struggle to put customers first. Perhaps this is because they place relatively little emphasis on excellent CEO communication.

As a Financial Services CEO, if your raison d’être is strategy and share price, it is perhaps unsurprising that the details sometimes swamp the bigger picture. Yet it is often the bigger picture that needs communicating, whether you are speaking with regulators, investors, customers or staff.

Shining CEOs in the financial sector

Not every leader of Finance shies away from enhancing CEO communication. I’ve worked with several Financial Services leaders who see communication as fundamental to their role, and have become brilliant at it.

There are a few leaders in this sector who promote the importance of great communication. Robert Kaplan, for example, President of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, stresses that leadership is about asking the right questions and listening to the answers; being open to learning and self-improvement. He says that people who fail to achieve this fail to lead.

Communicating with expertise to engender trust

Excellent CEO communication isn’t just about standing up and giving a talk. It’s not merely about facing the media and winning a journalistic game of interview ping pong. It’s also about how you converse with your staff, your Board, your clients and your investors. It’s about how you brand yourself as a leader and how you want people to perceive you.

After the financial crisis of 2008, trust is one of the most important things you can achieve. You may be racing to keep up with digital and regulatory revolutions, but your actions alone will not engender trust. Trust is built through communicating those actions in one-to-one conversations, group meetings, interviews and presentations; in addition to emails, reports and other written materials.

How to achieve great CEO communication

Personal development in the form of appropriate communication coaching empowers leaders to achieve trust, and this, in turn, helps achieve wider business objectives. So if you are a CEO in Financial Services or any other sector, and if you have vaguely considered communication coaching but put it on the back burner, waiting for a less busy time, I urge you to think hard about your decision. That ‘less busy time’ may never come.

The regulators are breathing down your neck (or they will be soon). Your investors are clamouring for positive financial results. You are failing to attract or retain the talent you need.

Right now, the ‘soft skills’ of communication are just as important as industry know-how, and as the face of the company, investing in yourself today could raise the reputation of your business and create the difference between success and failure.

As CEO, if you are ready to invest in your communication skills to raise the reputation of your company, connect with me on LinkedIn and/or get in touch today.


Communication training – a dirty little secret?


I am the skeleton in the closet of several large clients – their dirty little secret. I am banned from sharing that I’ve worked with them. This has nothing to do with the quality of my communication training (other companies give me great testimonials). It seems this gagging order is down to extreme confidentiality brought about by fear.

Yet clients who are scared of revealing they’ve had training or coaching are missing a trick. We live in a new era of openness and transparency, diversity and inclusion. Our society has increasing respect for those who are willing to recognise their personal development requirements and take bold steps towards self-improvement.

There is good reason why ‘transparency’ and ‘authenticity’ are contemporary business buzzwords. Successful organisations create trust and build reputation through open, candid communication.

Unfortunately, in my experience, the higher the client profile, the more likely they are to include a non-naming clause in their non-disclosure agreement. This means that even if they start to appreciate the value of transparency and authenticity as a result of training or coaching, it is already set in stone that the intervention must stay under the radar.

This is counter-productive for those moving towards a new, beneficial style of authenticity-enhanced communications. It also prohibits me from connecting clients who would otherwise benefit one another.

It’s not just me

I’m not the only one facing sanctions if I mention that I’ve worked with a hush-hush client. I’ve just carried out a survey of other trainers and coaches, and this requirement for silence appears to be a common trend.

One colleague told me that fifty percent of her clients don’t want people to know she’s coaching them. “The higher up in the organisation or the more public their position,” she told me, “the more they prefer others not know. It’s perceived as a weakness, even though they know everyone gets coaching.”

Another colleague has a client who won’t even let him state where he’s travelled for the work, “in case people put two and two together”.

It seems that while some people are open about the benefits they’ve experienced from communication training, others are ashamed of the whole process before it even begins.

I’m not advocating total transparency, of course. I would never reveal personal or commercially sensitive details, and I’ll comply absolutely with any non-naming agreement thrown my way, but it does seem rather excessive.

Benefits of ‘outing’ your communication training

Communication training is an important element of personal development, which helps to make you the best you can be. It can be liberating and inspiring to share your investment in this, as well as helping fellow executives who are struggling. (You won’t know who they are because they don’t talk about it, but believe me, there are a lot of them out there.)

Recognising that everyone has the potential to improve, and raising your head above the parapet can have very positive effects. It can engender trust and respect from staff and stakeholders, help you become perceived as an employer of choice, and raise corporate reputation as a result.

Sharing your experience externally can also increase brand awareness in markets where you might not otherwise gain exposure, while increasing goodwill with suppliers and/or contractors (like me!) who can refer you to new contacts in untapped or previously inaccessible markets.

Stand up, speak out, be proud

My call to all clients – past, present and future – is to stand up and speak out about your communication training.

Be proud of your ability to influence. Be proud of your ability to lead a thriving business through successful communication. Be proud that you had the foresight to ask for expert guidance with these abilities. Be proud that this shrewd judgement allowed you to recognise new areas for personal development and achieve more than you ever thought possible.

Be proud to be part of a truly authentic organisation that leads the conversation about the importance of communication training for businesses and the economy. Be the best that you can be. And don’t be afraid to admit that you couldn’t have done it by yourself.

(And, of course, if you’d like to publicly thank the person who helped you get there, please feel free!)

Crisis communications: reducing reputational damage

When it hits the fan

Crises happen. Despite the best-laid plans, there is always an opportunity for something to fail: often systems, people and/or finances.

The big number in the news this week is 400,000.

400,000 Ryanair passengers are likely to have their flights cancelled after the Irish budget airline messed up its pilots’ holiday leave, forcing the airline to ground numerous flights.

400,000 is the number of British customers who might have had their personal details stolen from the credit monitoring company, Equifax, when its systems were hacked in July.

400,000 might sound a lot, but it seems that we Brits got off lightly in the Equifax crisis. Equifax has admitted that half the entire US population could be affected. That’s 143 million Americans, making this crisis mind-blowingly humungous.

What to say when everything goes horribly wrong

There are two main strategies for managing business communication in a crisis: communicating information (gathering and conveying facts) and communicating meaning (attempting to influence external perceptions of the crisis and/or the organisation). Crisis response strategies are mainly about managing what a crisis means to stakeholders.

Your main responsibility in a crisis is to protect your stakeholders: informing them how to protect themselves, reassuring them that they are safe and/or expressing concern for them. You can only start to repair your corporate reputation once you’ve conveyed this so-called ‘instructing’ information. It’s worth noting that reputational repair can take years, so it is vital to get your crisis communications correct from the start.

However, it’s not just a one way street. Stakeholders want real conversation and not just official statements. With social media an ideal platform for engaging actively in dialogue – listening and responding to the concerns of customers, clients and other interested parties – it is important to gauge your audience’s emotional tone to guide your crisis response and proactively support your stakeholders.

A swift and genuine apology can go a long way

Almost incredibly, it took six weeks for Equifax to reveal it had been hacked, during which time three leading executives sold huge numbers of shares in the company. Equifax’s CEO was forced to apologise to the public last week after being dragged before the US Senate Committee on Finance to explain.

In a hacking situation – an invisible crisis to begin with – it is important to go public before fraudsters start sending phishing emails to your stakeholders. Ideally that means informing the media and social media within an hour of the data breach becoming apparent.

In a visible crisis, the media is likely to find out what is happening before you contact them. With hundreds of passengers stranded, Ryanair had no option but to admit its mistake quickly. It took the correct course of action by apologising wholeheartedly to its customers.

A sincere apology is absolutely fundamental. However, you should only ever apologise if you really mean it. Coming across as insincere is likely to aggravate the crisis. It is also wise to avoid a pseudo-apology, which business leaders often use to reduce the impact of a crisis and to avoid taking full responsibility. Anything other than a heartfelt, genuine apology will come across as insincere and will hinder your cause.

Handled carefully (honestly and openly, recognising distress and anger and apologising sincerely), your crisis communications are likely to strengthen your brand loyalty.

When the password management company LastPass was hacked earlier this year, it communicated transparently with its users, explaining exactly what was going on and how it was working to resolve the situation. While LastPass was criticised by some for putting passwords at risk (fair comments bearing in mind the company remit), many others praised its response to the crisis and supported the company fully.

Who should take the rap?

The Ryanair crisis hit on Saturday 16th September, 2017. The man initially in charge of the response was Chief Marketing Officer, Kenny Jacobs. Strangely, Chief Executive, Michael O’Leary, was nowhere to be seen… until the share price slumped when the markets opened two days later.

Mr O’Leary is known to be very vocal and has a habit of aggravating and exasperating people, so perhaps Ryanair decided to keep him under wraps. Or perhaps he just didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation. Kenny Jacobs is not well known, so having him as spokesman made it feel like the CEO didn’t really care. That’s bad news for Ryanair’s reputation.

Michael O’Leary is a well-known figure, and passengers wanted  an apology from the boss. When he finally put his head above the parapet, he apologised profusely. He then spoilt this with the arrogant remark that passengers who vow to avoid Ryanair in future will break those promises because of the company’s cheap tickets: “our booking engine is full of passengers who have sworn they will never fly with us again”.

The buck always stops with the CEO, so he or she should willingly take the media spotlight in a crisis.

Let’s look at the telecoms company, TalkTalk. When it was hacked in 2015, with fears that 4 million people might have had their personal data stolen, CEO Dido Harding offered herself to the media. She was heavily criticised for the timing and content of her response, but she was also praised for taking ownership of the problem, expressing concern and advice for customers and showing commitment to solving the issue. Although her comments were uninformed, at least one PR practitioner described her honest and open communication style as refreshing and to be applauded.

Honesty, transparency and openness are always the best policies when it comes to crisis communications, and stakeholders expect this from the person at the top.

Crisis communications channels

If you are in a large organisation, you will have a crisis communications plan and a team to implement it. You will probably have message templates to help you respond swiftly, and trained spokespeople who know what to say and when.

Smaller companies should follow the same principles. It takes time and effort to create a solid crisis communications plan and run crisis practice sessions at least once a year, but it is always a worthwhile insurance policy: you just never know when crisis will hit. If you are unprepared, your business is at risk.

You will certainly need to pre-establish channels of communication in case your standard channels crash or if you have to take them offline. Not all companies have this foresight, however – even communications companies. When TalkTalk was hacked, for example, its website and webmail went down, making it tough for the organisation to communicate with customers.

A company in crisis can be lost without clearly defined secondary communication channels. Many companies create a ‘dark website’ – a crisis website hidden from public view until it is needed. This forms part of a crisis communication infrastructure which might also include a dedicated call line, dedicated Twitter feed and a cloud-based critical communications platform to ensure that if internal email goes down, managers and staff can still communicate.

Crisis communications: points to remember

Ensure your crisis communications plan is solid and workable. If you are uncertain, follow the British Standards Institution advice in its crisis management handbook, BS11200.

When crisis hits, think of your stakeholders first. Are they at risk? What can you do to ameliorate that risk? How can you best communicate this and support them? Listen to them and respond accordingly.

If your company makes any form of error, apologise genuinely and quickly. People want an apology from the CEO, especially if they are well known. If that’s you, gird your loins and go for it.

As you are unlikely to face many crises in your lifetime, you’ll need to practice your response in a safe environment well before everything goes pear shaped. Run annual crisis training scenarios to ensure you are up to the job. As a hacking crisis is very specific, and as data breaches are becoming increasingly common, make sure you have plans in place for this, as well as for more general crises.

Be open, transparent, honest and genuine. Be yourself – the best you can be. If you’re not sure exactly how to achieve this, get in touch and I’ll be happy to advise.

How to present with PowerPoint for maximum impact

Perform to impress

Are you a slide-reader? Does PowerPoint tear your gaze away from the room and force you to stare backwards at the wall behind you?

Go on, admit it. I bet you spend far too long looking your slide deck and not enough time connecting with your audience. I’m sure you’ve attended numerous Death by PowerPoint meetings and presentations. So why inflict that on others?

Happens to the best of us? Actually it doesn’t.

Today I’d like to focus on how to present with PowerPoint without making it the centre of your talk, and how to leverage your slides without hosting a dull and dreary event.

A simple image says so much

First things first. Put your slides to work. Visual aids are supposed to do what they say on the tin: illustrate a message to help people understand it. We are all aware that this doesn’t always happen.

It often seems de rigueur to overpopulate each slide with of reams of text and loads of pictures – even though this does nothing but confuse your audience visually. A slide deck should never be used as an aide memoire, yet many people – even very, very senior people – fall into this trap. Please don’t place yourself among that crowd.

A single, powerful image stays with us much longer than dry facts and figures. That’s why newspapers print stimulating photos under their headlines. Think of the first moon landing…the Twin Towers…the World Cup…the Royal wedding…the first African American President…any other significant event. The pictures support the words and add flavour and depth.

It really isn’t rocket science. When you present with PowerPoint, using a single, clear image with one effective message helps people to understand new concepts and improves their recall. It also helps to get your audience on-side.

Basic, well designed diagrams and flow charts can collate and simplify information. Coloured graphs and charts can help illustrate numerical data and showcase trends. Pictures, photos and videos grab the imagination. Maps pinpoint the area you are discussing. Relevant cartoons and humorous photos entertain. Take your pick. But keep it simple. Stick to one image per slide and never, ever combine graphs, bullet points and pictures.

Text free – a breath of fresh air

When people view a complex slide, their first reaction is to wonder what it is about and then try to determine its meaning. Your audience will  do this ‘calculation’ while you are speaking. While they are trying to understand the visuals, they won’t hear a word you say. This is obviously detrimental to your message.

Visuals always take precedence over audio. Audiences cannot multitask. So when faced with a choice between focusing visually on a slide and listening to you talk, the slide wins hands down every time.

If the slide contains a single, simple image, they will glance at it and revert to you. If there is text on the slide they will finish reading while you are still labouring through the first point. That means you will lag far behind in the information you’re providing. The audience will already know what is coming up and will get bored waiting.

With text-packed slides, you are more likely to fall into the dreadful practice of reading to your audience. They will inevitably groan – if not out loud, then certainly to themselves. They will be completely justified. Reading slides is not giving a presentation. It is a waste of time both for presenter and audience.

If you plan to present with PowerPoint and pack your slides with text, you might as well send out the deck beforehand and not bother turning up on the day. Who wants to waste their time listening to something they already know? Business is busy and time is precious.

Keep all slides as text free as possible. Use highly abbreviated bullet points if you must use words, but do yourself a massive favour and avoid full sentences.

Make those bullets hit home

If you absolutely insist on including text, the rule of thumb is to have no more than four bullet points per slide, with no more than four words per bullet point. This is the four-by-four rule. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that’s a maximum of 16 words per slide.

Sounds unachievable? Give it a go. You may end up with many more slides than you normally use, but they will be slides that work as opposed to slides that don’t.

Crossing into design for a teensy moment… While some people put a full stop at the end of each bullet point, this is not compulsory. You just need to be consistent with your use (or lack of use) of full stops, as well as with the length, icon and colour of each point.

Smooth your delivery

Many senior leaders find that delivering a talk is easier and smoother with the use of physical cue cards as a memory jogger to support an image-rich slide deck. Each cue card should contain the relevant bullet points for just one element of the presentation.

Cue cards can be instrumental in reminding you of what comes next. Have a quick glance at your notes, remember what you want to say, and avoid the problem of reading and sounding stilted.

PowerPoint lovers can substitute cue cards with the notes section of PowerPoint, but however you want to play this, do follow the four-by-four rule, with no more than 16 words per card. Have the words in large font so they are easy to see at a glance.

As a safety net, number each card in case you drop them all. You really don’t want to scrabble around on the floor picking up cards while trying to find your place again – and believe me, that’s happened to more than one person I know.

Focus on the audience so they can focus on you

Visual aids, however brilliant, are for your audience, not for you. They can significantly detract from your performance if you keep looking at them. Slides and cue cards can be a presenter’s worst distraction. If you don’t use them properly, you can find yourself staring at a screen behind you, or gazing down at the card in your hands, drawn to your place of focus as if it were the most important thing in the world.

To present with PowerPoint effectively and turn your talk into an authoritative, memorable occasion, you need to maintain eye contact with your audience. Look at them at all times while speaking. When you come to the end of a point, glance at your cue card/PowerPoint notes in silence to remind yourself of the next point, and don’t start speaking until you are facing the audience again. There is no point talking to the wall behind you (the audience won’t hear you). There is no point talking down at a cue card in your hands (they still won’t hear you).

Whenever your mouth is moving, your eyes should be on your audience. If you look at them, they will look at you. Only then can you achieve a spark of human connection that might sell your message.

It is important to practice your talk well before the event – partly to avoid using visual aids as an excuse to look away from the audience. The better you know your content, the better you will be able to deliver it while maintaining that all-important eye contact.

Slides are not the only visual aids

Shock horror – you don’t have to present with Powerpoint or even with Prezi. I hear you gulp, but slide-free presentations are the way of the future for the successful executive, and they really should be the way of the present, too.

Physical props are a great alternative (and/or addition) to slide decks in a talk, but their potential is often overlooked. It takes a smidgeon of creativity to incorporate three dimensional objects into a presentation, but it is well worth the effort when you get it right. Your speech will become memorable for all the best reasons.

So…when you discuss the latest widget, make sure everyone in the audience has a widget to play with. When you talk about sales material, make sure your brochures are freely available in the room. When you explain a new piece of kit, bring it along so people can see, hear and feel what you mean.

Think laterally as well. What can you use to demonstrate your point? It doesn’t have to be exact. Analogy is great.

For example, to demonstrate a new software system you might want to peel an orange to show how the segments fit neatly together in one rounded package. Or place an old mobile phone next to the newest, snazziest smartphone to illustrate the difference between the basic software package currently in use, and the super-duper all singing, all dancing software that you advocate instead.

Sit back, relax, enjoy, succeed

There are many ways to swing a cat (don’t take that literally) and many ways to illustrate a talk. Regardless of the visual aids you choose, the most important thing is your message and framing it effectively to convey the benefits to your audience. Enjoy the process of explaining and triggering that ‘aha’ moment in those around you.

If you’re unsure how to achieve this, or you’d like support with anything I’ve said here, please get in touch and I’ll be happy to help.

Communicating CSR: media or social media?

Getting the CSR message across

Communicating CSR (corporate social responsibility) is increasingly important. It can influence leaders and opinion leaders, maximise business opportunities and increase employee morale and reputation. It can differentiate between responsibility and irresponsibility and distinguish ethical behaviour from questionable conduct. In short, it is something every organisation should consider.

Today I’d to explore two important channels for communicating CSR: the media and social media. Each has its own pros and cons and it is worth considering these carefully before deciding how best to communicate your CSR.

Communicating CSR through the media

The media shapes information into news stories, feature articles and editorials which mirror and mould public opinion. It communicates with multiple stakeholders and influences perceptions of an organisation in relation to CSR.

The more times your organisation is mentioned in the media, the better its media reputation will become, and with CSR becoming more newsworthy, organisations are recognising the importance of CSR efforts.

Research shows that organisations which are perceived as being socially responsible are more likely to be believed, and media reports about them tend to be more positive. This has a positive effect on reputation over time. Conversely, negative reports about CSR can cause immediate damage so it’s vital to get your CSR communications right first time.

Benefits of media coverage

The media is a very valuable resource. It can promote your company’s profile, raise awareness, give credence to specific views and encourage support.

For example, when a Fortune 500 company contributed significantly to a university supporting a centre for underprivileged local children and its donation was publicised in the local media, those who remembered the news reports felt good about the company’s social responsibility and were happier to buy its products than those who were unaware of its actions.

The media creates publicity that is seen as reliable and impartial, and the only costs involved are your time and resources. Media coverage can even help ameliorate a crisis.

In 1988, for instance, when an oil storage tank owned by Ashland Oil Company sent four million gallons of oil flowing downstream towards Pittsburgh, USA, CEO John Hall immediately flew in, marched up to a group of reporters at the airport, apologised to the people of Pittsburgh for the environmental impact the accident was going to have on their lives and explained how the company was going to help clear up the mess, demonstrating clear CSR.

The net result was very few legal claims or fines against the company, and the elevation of the CEO to hero status in Pittsburgh for what was seen as leadership and courage in facing the community, taking responsibility and acting appropriately.

Risks of media coverage

There is no benefit without risk, and organisations which feature heavily in the media find themselves subject to greater public and stakeholder scrutiny compared with those who receive relatively little media attention. Even their minor mishaps are more likely to be reported.

The media provides a platform for critics to call your company’s activities to account, and when there are a range of different opinions – including critical ones – this makes it more difficult for viewers, readers and/or listeners to reach conclusions about how well (or badly) your organisation is behaving in terms of CSR.

Most newspaper opinion pieces relating to CSR are written with a negative tone, creating negative perceptions in readers. You need to be continually up-to-date with topical issues and respond to press enquiries quickly. It is important to understand the media agenda and news values, and share your CSR stories in a way that meets journalistic requirements.

Unless your organisation is completely beyond reproach, there are dangers in publicising CSR through the media. However, the benefits far outweigh the possible dangers, and with the news media becoming more interested in reporting CSR, it is wise to consider media opportunities in a favourable light.

Communicating CSR through new media

The internet is increasingly recognised as the most useful channel to broadcast information about responsible business practices. It accelerates the spread of up-to-date information, enables more information to be conveyed, reduces costs and provides opportunities to communicate with new potential stakeholders while maintaining two-way dialogue with existing stakeholders. It allows you to take advantage of interactive technologies like forums, ratings platforms and social media, which can all inform your communications.

The internet turns CSR reporting from a static, periodic event into a continuing, interactive process. The Spanish banking group, BBVA has recognised the benefits of this. Previously, it printed a glossy CSR report each year, but when it realised that this undermined its policy on sustainability, it started publishing digitally instead. As the company was also committed to using new media, this new practice complemented its communications strategy.

The internet delivers unprecedented opportunities to disseminate and receive information; underline CSR commitment; create the capacity for better dialogue and improved partnerships between organisations and stakeholders; provide the potential to maintain or strengthen moral legitimacy, influence agenda, increase customer loyalty, raise reputation, attract and retain good staff.

Communicating CSR through new media has many advantages over using traditional media. You are fully in charge of what you convey (although not the responses you engender). You can bring issues to life with images, graphics, animations and multimedia, and you can update information at any point, in real time.

Websites and CSR

Most companies use their website as the main tool for communicating their commitment to social and environmental issues. The website provides a strong platform to explain, legitimise and promote CSR activities. It is cheaper than a printed annual CSR report, and it has wider coverage and permanency.

To affect your viewers strongly and create positive feelings,  it is best to use a rich selection of images, video, animation and text. Intel takes advantage of this by supporting its printed CSR report with dedicated CSR pages on its website. General Electric uses a standalone website to convey its sustainability efforts and its attempts to “enhance resource productivity and reduce environmental impact at a global scale”.

Social media and CSR

Social media have the advantage over websites in that they are interactive, enabling multi-directional communication involving your organisation, your stakeholders, potential stakeholders and influencers.

Social media can enable you to direct conversations, monitor what is being said and respond with focused, personalised and targeted messages, making your CSR communications more efficient, engaging and effective.

Communicating CSR through social media can bring environmental and social issues to the fore; enrich conversation between your brand(s) and consumers; create relationships that lead to trust; develop loyal, committed brand ambassadors; improve community relations by helping you find common ground with communities; enable your organisation to develop, grow and add value.

Companies that are highly respected for their CSR activities are often innovative in their use of social media, and fast to adopt new channels and networks.

General Electric tops the 2016 Social Media Sustainability Index, which reports how well multinational corporations communicate sustainability through social media. Its ecomagination is communicated on Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest and a Twitter forum for “fresh thinking and conversation about clean technology, sustainable infrastructure and digital efficiency”. Its healthymagination”, GE’s “innovation catalyst for global health challenges” also makes strong use of social media. In 2015, GE launched its own Snapchat channel to stimulate interest in science, and to complement its similarly themed output on Instagram and Youtube. GE also uses Facebook to promote sustainable products.

Social media, CSR and reputation

Because you can find yourself under close scrutiny on social media, there is always a risk that criticisms can damage your brand image and/or reputation. Business rivals might generate negative publicity, while activists and hactivists can challenge your CSR and focus on corporate social irresponsibilities instead. This can create significant issues.

For example, when McDonalds launched a Twitter campaign for suppliers and customers to share positive stories about its farmers, it was an immediate disaster. McDonalds was deluged by negative tweets about food poisoning, poor standards and animal welfare – in other words the campaign was ‘tweetjacked’. McDonalds pulled it swiftly.

While social media allow immediate responses and/or rebuttal of harmful comments, you’ll need to monitor them constantly for potential reputational risks, just as McDonalds did.

On the positive side, organisations with a strong social media presence can respond quickly and effectively to negative sentiment. Social media is another tool for ameliorating the effects of a crisis.

Take World Foods Market – a supermarket which sells healthy, organic products at a premium price and which has corporate social responsibility at the heart of its business. In 2015, organic farmers claimed that, counter to all its promises, the company was selling non-organic, non-ethically grown products. World Foods Market issued denials, but there was an immediate consumer backlash on social media. Because of the organisation’s strong online presence, however, this did not harm the brand in any significant way. Instead, the company’s social media following continued to grow by 10% every day. This was not the company’s first PR crisis, but its loyal fans, created by active, positive use of social media, formed a supportive, protective base.

Social media CSR challenges

While the opportunities are vast, social media also create a variety of challenges for CSR communication. Not everyone can access or communicate effectively through social media. Some of the most marginalised people are at a social media disadvantage, and several countries block social networking services (SNS) altogether. In China, for example, people cannot access Facebook or Twitter.

In addition, some SNS providers have faced issues relating to copyright, security, surveillance and privacy. Facebook has been criticised for breaching users’ privacy, for example, and as international standards of CSR require high levels of privacy, some CSR professionals now avoid Facebook altogether.

Although successful CSR communication strategies are hard to create in the first place, and social media exacerbates this difficulty, if you get it right, the social media/CSR relationship can be super-beneficial. It can help you recognise opportunities for new business, society, the environment and the community, while reducing risks to organisational reputation and survival. There is a strong view that every CSR strategy should include social media.

Communicating CSR: media, social media or something else?

While traditional media is still important in communicating CSR, the interactive nature of digital technologies means it is faster and cheaper to use new media to engage stakeholders in CSR. Integrating new media into your CSR strategy will make your communications more widespread, interactive and interesting.

While offline tools such as reports, brochures and adverts are still important, combining offline and online communication can create synergies that support your CSR. Unfortunately, many organisations fail to integrate both types of communication effectively in CSR strategies. They are missing a trick – don’t follow their example.

It is worth noting that despite the benefits of both traditional and social media in communicating CSR, nothing outweighs the need to talk to stakeholders in person. Face-to-face conversation builds a level of trust and understanding that no remote communication can ever hope to achieve.

So, when considering the most appropriate channels of communication, do remember to include some real, in-person discussions to underline your commitment and dedication to corporate social responsibility and to the real people and the real environment that you are working so hard to support.

The authentic voice in politics

Oxymoron or reality?

When we hear someone speak, our immediate gut feeling tells us whether we should trust them. Research suggests we should listen to our initial instincts – they’re stunningly accurate. But can we be misled by political performance posing as true leadership? Do we delude ourselves that we hear an authentic voice when in fact we are listening to a cheap vocal trick?

As the old saying goes, “populus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur”. In other words, “people want to be deceived, therefore they will be deceived”. We see what we want to see, and we hear what we want to hear.

This is exemplified by an illusion known as the McGurk effect, in which we watch and listen to someone making a specific vocal sound. The audio and visual clash, but our eyes, rather than our ears, tell us what we are hearing. The BBC’s Horizon programme explains this beautifully.

Are politicians also creating a vocal illusion for us? Are they who we really think they are? Or are they trained actors turning make-believe into our reality?

Vocal pitch influences voter attitudes

Margaret Thatcher famously had voice training to lower her rather shrill pitch to a modulated, lower tone. She recognised the importance of vocal gravitas in her speech, and there are suggestions that this accelerated her political career. But her new sound wasn’t her authentic voice, and every now and again her high pitched tones would re-emerge and give her away.

It’s known that vocal pitch affects the way we perceive a person. We are all drawn towards a low voice. It makes the speaker sound more powerful. A US study shows that candidates with low voices are more likely to win an election. While the sound of a voice doesn’t override our views on policy, there is a strong, statistically significant correlation between vocal pitch and electoral outcomes.

This doesn’t bode well for the rather squeaky Paul Nuttall and Tim Farron, leaders of UKIP and the Liberal Democrats respectively, although most people will be drawn (perhaps subconsciously) to the low tones of the SNP’s deputy leader, Angus Robertson.

Prime Minister Theresa May conforms with the low pitch expected of a strong female leader, but the uncomfortable strain in her voice subtly undermines her sound. Meanwhile Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t create sufficient depth or resonance to his voice. Sometimes he also demonstrates an exaggerated passion that feels like over-acting.

While a low voice draws us to mark our cross on the ballot paper, it doesn’t necessarily make the speaker a better leader. To the contrary, as the US study suggests, “it is possible that an unconscious bias for lower voices causes us to vote against our best interests”.

The emotional voice captures attention

Authentic emotion is conveyed by the authentic voice. When we are angry, sad, exhilarated or scared, our speech becomes more urgent. This can make our vocal melody louder, softer, faster, slower, more tuneful, monotonous or erratic.

Vocal emotions grab attention. They also affect how we recognise words later, and how we feel about those words.

A speaker with true faith in his message will shine with vocal authenticity, but where politicians are concerned, are we reacting to real emotions or to trained ‘emotional genuineness’?

The production and perception of genuine versus simulated emotions is controversial. A recent study found that people who have had more acting experience come across as more genuine than those who haven’t. This study investigated the singing voice, but I suspect the results are transferrable to speech. Professional actors, like former US President Ronald Reagan, who know how to use their voice to sway people, probably have an edge over non-actors during an election period.

In which case, are politicians who invest more in communication training able to pull the wool over our eyes more effectively? Are we voting for trained monkeys, in effect?  We believe what we want to believe.

Cutting through the ‘authentic voice’ of an actor

Despite being elected to the White House twice, by a substantial majority each time, even President Reagan wasn’t always a vocal winner. While he used all the rhetoric and theatricality of his acting profession and was praised as a great communicator, there was one group of people who saw right through him.

These individuals all suffered from aphasia – a brain condition that made it difficult for them to understand spoken language, but still allowed them to recognise meaning through tone, musicality and pitch. In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, neurologist Oliver Sacks describes his surprise on hearing these hospital patients react to Reagan.

“What was going on?” he writes. “A roar of laughter just as the President’s speech was coming on, and they had all been so eager to hear the President speaking… Were they failing to understand him? Or did they, perhaps, understand him too well?”

You can’t fool all of the people all of the time

Professor Sacks’ explains that the aphasiacs were reacting to the sound of Reagan’s speech rather than his words.

“For though the words…might convey nothing, spoken language is normally suffused with ‘tone’, embedded in an expressiveness which transcends the verbal – and it is precisely this expressiveness, so deep, so various, so complex, so subtle, which is perfectly preserved in aphasia, though understanding of words be destroyed”.

In other words, you can’t lie to an aphasiac. They might not be able to understand the words, but they’ll certainly read between the lines.

“They have an infallible ear for every vocal nuance, the tone, the rhythm, the cadences, the music, the subtlest modulations, inflections, intonations, which can give – or remove – verisimilitude to or from a man’s voice”.

In other words, they hear deeply. And in Reagan’s speech they heard “the grimaces, the histrionisms, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice…It was to these most glaring, even grotesque incongruities and improprieties that [the] aphasic patients responded, undeceived and undeceivable by words”.

Listen for the truly authentic voice

We all have the same potential to discern authenticity as people with aphasia, but our linguistic understanding tends to override our ability to hear what is really being said.

However, when we become aware of the vocal tricks that politicians use to make us believe in them, we may be able to listen with a more discerning ear, and assess their credibility – or lack of it – more accurately.

If we all take heed and listen beyond the language before voting, we might avoid being duped by vocal ploys. Ideally, this will help us elect politicians that are, at least to some extent, authentic. Roll on Friday morning, when we could find out if we’ve achieved this.