Archive for Helen’s Blog – Page 2

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.

Politics and body language

Can body language really affect election results?

When people assess politicians in the media, physicality and body language have a significant, albeit subtle effect. It’s said they can swing a close-call election, although this is controversial.

The claim arises from the very first televised leadership debate, which took place in the US in September 1960. Around 70 million viewers watched as vice President Richard Nixon was pitted head-to-head against the young, relatively inexperienced senator, John F Kennedy.

Despite his vast political experience, Nixon did not come across well to the viewing public. He had been in hospital for two weeks in August 1960, with an infection that left him sallow, drained, and twenty pounds lighter in weight. On the day of the debate, he was at the end of a bout of flu, with a raised temperature, and had banged his bad knee getting out of the car at the TV studio. By the time the cameras started rolling he was grey, in pain, and no match for the handsome, charismatic, tanned JFK.

Lessons in political body language

As well as the differing appearances of the two Presidential candidates, their body language was worlds apart. JFK looked into the camera to answer each question. To viewers at home it seemed as if he was addressing them directly. Nixon, on the other hand, spoke both to the reporters in the room and to the viewing public, not realising that moving his eye-line to do so made him appear shifty.

While radio listeners were convinced by Nixon’s political arguments and felt he had won the debate, TV viewers were convinced by Kennedy’s physicality.

At least that’s how the story goes. The evidence for this seems to have been lost in the mists of time, although some people believe it was based on a survey of just 2,100 people, of whom just 13% listened on radio, most of them Republican (Nixon) supporters. So it may or may not have its basis in truth.

Either way, just a few weeks after the debate, Kennedy won by a tight margin.

The rocky politics show

As the UK’s general election looms, many Brits are caught between what they see as a rock and a hard place. Jeremy Corbyn is widely disliked – even among ardent Labour supporters. Theresa May is leading Brexit – the blight of many people’s lives.

On 8th June one of them will be elected Prime Minister. But who will people vote for? And how might the body language of these two would-be leaders make a difference to that decision?

This week Mrs May and Mr Corbyn appeared on TV, answering audience questions before being grilled by the UK’s most feared, intimidating interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Although this wasn’t quite a debate, as they weren’t in the studio at the same time, there is general consensus that there was no clear winner.

So what feelings did the ‘debate-that-wasn’t-a-debate’ trigger in people’s subconscious, particularly in relation to body language?

It’s just a jump to the left….

Let’s consider Jeremy Corbyn to start with. When he came on stage, he couldn’t work out whether to be ‘bloke in a bar’ (aka Nigel Farage) or ‘serious leader’ (aka David Cameron). He stood with hand in pocket, leaning on the podium with one hand, weight on one foot, for all the world like he was just about to order a pint of beer.

He must have realised this wasn’t exactly professional, for he quickly changed into salesman mode, emulating the powerful, hands-open gestures of his Labour forerunner, Tony Blair. At this point he came across much more professionally – although he still lacked gravitas.

This was partly because of nerves. The earnest looking Mr Corbyn fiddled with his fingers as though reassuring himself. This type of gesture emulates a parent soothing a young child and is commonly used at times of stress.

He also stuck his foot out at an angle during his interview, pointing it away from the interviewer in a sure sign that he didn’t want to be there and was ready to move off at any moment.

…and then a step to the right…

Theresa May, despite her political experience, was also nervous. At the start of her audience question session she could be seen breathing once every two seconds. If she’d continued with that breathing pattern, she would have found herself seriously hyperventilating. Luckily for her, she got it under control fairly swiftly.

Mrs May smiled more than Mr Corbyn, which gave the impression that she was warmer, but sometimes it felt like the smile of a clown: painted on to hide an underlying discomfort.

She also had a habit of tilting her head. Perhaps she did this as a listening pose, but it had the effect of making her look like she has a neck problem, which diminished her stage presence.

Theresa May tends to come across as strong and authoritative. This is partly to do with her pace of speech and her vocal timbre. But on TV, her high heels prevented her from breathing properly and projecting her voice effectively. This exaggerated her vocal strain, which didn’t do her any favours.

Like Jeremy Corbyn, she also stood with her weight on one foot – a bad plan for anyone who wants to come across with true gravitas, as it means that part of your brain has to focus on balance, and this reduces the ability to focus on communication. (Is it purely chance that Mrs May favours her right foot while Mr Corbyn favours his left foot?)

Finally, although this isn’t strictly related to body language, I don’t think senior politicians should wear short skirts. Who wants to see the Prime Minister’s thighs when she sits down for an interview? This has nothing to do with prudishness or feminism but everything to do with cultural and religious sensitivities – not mine, but those of many in our very multi-cultural society. We have never seen Angela Merkel in a short skirt. I think she could give Theresa May a few lessons in political dress etiquette.

So who will win?

Right from the start, even some of the most hardened Labour supporters have thought this election a done deal – even though Labour are closing the gap on the Conservatives and a poll today shows we might even end up with a hung parliament.

As an unbiased, floating voter at this stage, I think Mrs May’s authority will sway the public, regardless of her politics. She comes across as much more powerful and for the most part she engenders respect with her physicality and her voice.

Unfortunately for Labour, Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t, and I suspect that this is Labour’s downfall – not just choosing a leader whose policies cause so much controversy, even within the party, but choosing someone who lacks the gravitas and executive presence that other people look up to and admire.

(With thanks to Sky TV for the screenshots of the TV programme, and to Chatham House for the use of Jeremy Corbyn’s photo.)

Effective messaging: why so many fail

Read on for my offer of free individual advice

With hundreds of business communications demanding our attention each week, and thousands of marketing messages every day, we forget most of what we see, hear and read.

Even pictures – said to be worth a thousand words – are sometimes of little value in the long run. And although we remember more of what we hear than what we read, we still forget at an alarming rate.

Our decline in memory is shocking. Psychologists say that just an hour after we learn something new, we’re just as likely to forget it as remember it. After a day, we retain just a third of the information presented, and by the time a month has passed, we might remember a fifth of what we were told.

This ‘forgetting curve’ was revealed in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied how much information the human brain retains and how much it forgets.

Effective messaging: you’re dead in the water without it

This doesn’t bode well for our communications. If people can’t remember what we say, what’s the point in wasting our time and energy trying to convey a message?

Are you setting yourself up for disappointment?

Senior personnel who know they’re not quite achieving their aims, or want to do better, usually think it’s something to do with the way they deliver messages. Often the root cause is the messages themselves: what they say rather than how they say it.

This never surprises me. Effective messaging isn’t taught in schools, universities or workplaces, and I spend a lot of time teaching clients to work out the best way of achieving buy-in.

The basis of effective messaging

The principle of cutting through the clutter is simple: people remember things which are more important to them.

Research shows that we all evaluate messages based on our own individual beliefs and experiences. If you can frame a message to relate to the personally-important values of your audience it is much more likely to stick. A high quality argument using attitude-relevant information is a powerfully persuasive tool.

When you’re creating your argument (message), the questions to consider are “why should my audience care?” and “what’s in it for them?”

More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle recognised that to make an impact, you have to tap into people’s emotions. Marketing consultant Simon Sinek outlines this well, supporting the theory with some biological science – always a favourite of mine. Although Simon’s spiel is oriented towards sales rather than general persuasion, his points are relevant for all communications. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”, he says.

This is so true. If you can dovetail your “why” into your audience’s “what’s in it for me?”, you are well on the way to effective messaging.

How to create effective messaging

Effective messaging is simple, relevant and clearly beneficial to the recipient(s). Its principles are beautifully explained in a great little book called Made to Stick: why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. This describes why “we have no difficulty at all in remembering the details of, say, a bogus scare story, and yet often struggle to recall information that may be vital to us”. The book takes us through concepts of simplicity, the unexpected, the credible and the emotional, among others. It is well worth a read.

If you can create a well-crafted, sticky message, you will help the recipients of that communication to slide down the persuasion funnel of awareness, interest and consideration, and encourage them to take action… until BANG! You’ll have them in the palm of your hand, following your suggestion.

But don’t take my written word for this. I’m up for a challenge if you are. If you’re a UK-based business leader reading this in April or May 2017, and you’d like to assess your skills in this area (totally gratis, no strings attached), send me a message, tell me who it’s for, give me a little background, and I’ll let you know how it reads and what chance it stands of achieving its aims.

Communication stress: the secret bane of business

From client meetings to boardrooms

It almost makes me weep to see so many high-flying execs painfully stressed about important events. Offices around the world would be much happier places if senior personnel recognised that this overwhelming anxiety is unnecessary. Work would become more productive without endless hours spent on something which probably needs a fraction of the time.

In the days and even weeks leading up to an Event (always with a capital E) over-anxious executives can barely think about anything else. Their sleep suffers, their muscles contract with unreleasable tension, their worry levels shoot through the roof. It doesn’t matter whether they are preparing for a board meeting, a media interview or a keynote speech: the discomfort is the same. It can be incapacitating.

Confidential concerns

The main fear is forgetting what you’re going to say or giving the impression that you’re not up to the job.

If you are light-skinned it is easy to give the game away by blushing beetroot red. (Of course women can always put this down to hormones, but no-one wants to do that in front of senior colleagues or clients.)

You might have the tendency to shake, sweat, go pale, develop a dry mouth, tremble vocally and/or lose your train of thought. In this last case, the ‘forgetting’ worry becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the likelihood of appearing incapable increases exponentially.

With communication stress so incredibly widespread, I’m in the very privileged position of hearing about it from some of the most senior personnel in the business world. I’m also in the very lucky position of being able to help.

The elephant in the room

Communication stress is an enormous elephant in the room on many occasions, and most of the time it is completely invisible. So while you might be swallowing hard at the thought of the contribution you’re about to make to that significant meeting or what you’re going to tell the audience of VIPs who’ve flown in from far-flung countries, you can be pretty sure that at least one other person in the near vicinity is struggling with the same feelings of impending doom.

There are some very real, biological reasons why your brain switches off at moments of great stress. At times of great danger it is evolutionarily advantageous for you not to focus on intellectual activities. It’s more important to get the hell out of there when your life is at risk, rather than sit quietly and weigh up the philosophical advantages versus disadvantages of the situation. But let’s be honest – a business communication is hardly going to kill you.

Communication stress: a hidden health issue

I have the utmost sympathy for anyone who suffers from communication stress, but I am also frustrated on their behalf, as this doesn’t need to be an issue. If more people spoke out about it, more people would get the support they need.

It’s a crying shame that senior people feel they have to be so secretive about their issues with communication, particularly as this can affect their health, working relationships and professional progress.

I believe that communication stress should be medically recognised as a health issue. It should be considered on a par with issues like depression: widely discussed, with sufferers treated compassionately in the workplace and help available on demand.

However, while people with depression were once stigmatised, communication stress is so covertly hidden that no stigma has ever grown up about it. There’s not even a little green shoot of a stigma. It’s still very much underground and from what I can tell, it’s likely to stay there.

Overcoming communication stress

A very savvy US President once told America that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Franklin D Roosevelt was well ahead of his time in understanding the problems we cause ourselves and voicing them so eloquently.

The good news for secret sufferers is that the stress, worry and fear surrounding work-related communication is eminently surmountable. As I tell my senior clients, much of it is about knowing how to communicate effectively.

That means knowing how to frame a message effectively to get the optimum reception from your target audience. It means knowing how to deliver that message well. And it means understanding your body well enough to control your physicality and take charge of the event (which now has just a little ‘e’).

This is all certainly possible. I’ve helped many, many people to wipe out their communication stress entirely – sometimes very quickly. If you’d like to know more, please get in touch. I’m on a mission to crush communication stress in the boardrooms of Britain and beyond, and I’d love to help you stamp out your concerns and find your communication spark so you can shine on every occasion.

English pronunciation and accent discrimination

Making and breaking careers

Whether you are a native or non-native English speaker, your accent can play a major role in how you are perceived. Surveys show that accents have an impact “on success, in employment, social life and elsewhere”. Sadly, and very unfairly, ‘accentism’ appears to be an acceptable prejudice.

Take singer Cheryl Cole, who was sacked as a judge on the US version of The X Factor, allegedly because the US audience found it hard to understand her Geordie tones. Was this a reasonable decision by the producers in an attempt to increase viewing figures? Or was it a case of pure accentism?

There is strong evidence that talent show judges are not the only ones whose English pronunciation affects their careers. In a survey carried out by the law firm Peninsula, nearly eighty percent of UK employers questioned admitted they had made discriminating decisions in job interviews, based on regional accents. Foreign accents didn’t even come into the picture. This was pure discrimination by Brits against people with a native British accent.

The US has strict laws against accent prejudice (perhaps Cheryl Cole should take note), but while UK law lists a number of ‘protected characteristics’ which are illegal to discriminate against, accent is not on the list. Race or nationality discrimination is illegal. Accent discrimination is not.

Why non-native speakers can be harder to understand

This is not solely a British problem. Around the globe we are all increasingly exposed to accented speakers. In 2015, nearly 250 million people lived outside their country of origin, yet linguists and sociologists are concerned that the world has not accepted or adapted to this new reality.

In an article by the business news outlet Quartz, sociolinguist Ingrid Piller explains how accents make it “easy to make judgements about a person’s cultural affiliation or education”.

Psycholinguist Shiri Lev-Ari reveals that “we’re less likely to believe something if it’s said with a foreign accent”. We are also less likely to remember what that person has said.

In practical terms it is more difficult to listen to someone who speaks with an accent different to our own, whether or not we have the same mother tongue. We need more mental power to concentrate on their words. Non-native speech exacerbates this, particularly when different sounds, different syllables and different parts of the sentence are stressed in an unfamiliar way. When we do not immediately recognise vocal sounds or speech patterns, we can struggle internally to make sense of them – even though we might not recognise this consciously.

Those who are less fluent in a language use longer pauses in their speech. I am a big fan of the pause, but silences lasting longer than two seconds can be hard to take. Partly because of this tendency to pause, non-native speakers can take 30% longer than native speakers to get their message out, making it tiring to listen. It also doesn’t help that non-native speakers tend to fill the silences with long errs and/or umms.

So who cares about your English pronunciation?

To understand why the business world cares about accents we need to examine the meaning of the word ‘accent’. This is defined as a group of pronunciation traits shared by people in the same geographic location or belonging to the same social group. In other words it is the way we sound when we speak.

Everyone who speaks English has an accent, whether it is the old fashioned BBC English pronunciation known as Received Pronunciation (RP), a UK regional accent, tones from another English-speaking country, or an accent completely foreign to the English language.

Accents are so powerful that we all notice immediately if someone does not sound like us. Conversely, when we leave our local or national area, our own accent marks us out as different. And that can lead to problems.

Death by accent

Setting work discrimination aside for a moment, let’s look at accentism in the news. Media outlets are peppered with stories about murders committed on the basis of accent alone: the Scouse-accented student killed in Manchester and the English-accented boy kicked to death by Scottish teenagers, for example.

Unfortunately this trend is nothing new. Accentism is centuries old. It has even led to ethnic cleansing.

More than three thousand years ago in ancient Jordan, for example, when the people of Gilead defeated a tribe of invaders, they wanted to be sure they had killed the whole tribe. There were no visual differences between the Gileadites and the survivors, so the Gileadites asked anyone suspected of being from the invading tribe to say the word “shibboleth”.

With no “sh” sound in the invaders’ dialect, those who pronounced it “sibboleth” were identified as the enemy and killed. This was one of the first recorded events of accent-related genocide.

To change or not to change your English pronunciation?

Fast forward to the modern day, and with accentism still a widespread and acceptable prejudice (in the UK at least), many people consider changing their accents. This, too, can lead to problems.

Dr Alexander Baratta from Manchester University researches people who purposely adapt their English pronunciation to fit in with those around them. He has found that a third of people who do so are ashamed of it, but they force themselves into it because they are scared of how others will perceive them if they continue to speak in their own accent.

Dr Baratta explains that someone who tries to change their accent can end up with identity issues. “From 9 to 5 they’re one person, but when they’re home they become someone else”, he explains. He warns that changing your accent can undermine your sense of self, make you feel as though you are betraying your true identity, and bring up angry, bitter emotions.

Accent happiness

Before you start worrying too much about how you sound and whether you should change, I’d like to stress that there are some very significant positives associated with having an accent different from those around you. Some people will appreciate it greatly.

Your accent suggests all the positive qualities associated with your culture: an Italian accent hints at passion, a French accent oozes charm, for example. Languages and accents can also be pretty romantic, if this clip from the British comedy film, A Fish Called Wanda, is to be believed. (A word of warning – it is slightly X-rated!)

On a more serious note, when we hear someone with a foreign accent, we know they are clever enough to communicate in at least two languages. To me that’s pretty impressive, considering much of the native UK population only speaks English.

As another positive, your accent immediately reveals your geographic and/or cultural roots. This helps others with a similar background to identify with you quickly, leading to strong business relationships among those from the same community.

What is the best English pronunciation?

Your place of origin influences the English pronunciation that you prefer. You probably feel most comfortable conversing with someone whose accent matches your own. You won’t even notice that they have an accent. The similarity between you will hint at a shared heritage and possibly even a shared gene pool. This is your tribe; your extended family.

You will also have a preferred accent that is different from your own. This too depends on your origins. Surveys show that Brits usually find the Southern Irish accent the most trustworthy, closely followed by RP, while Brummie, Liverpudlian and Essex accents tend to fall into the least liked category.

Americans favour the Glaswegian accent (think Billy Connolly) and Cockney (think Ray Winstone).

On a global scale the world’s sexiest accent is said to be Northern Irish. (If you hail from Northern Ireland, you’re in there!)

Shake off the worries

Many of my clients, already at the pinnacle of their professions, express doubts about their English pronunciation and ask me if they should change their native or regional tones to blend in with those around them. The answer is generally ‘no’.

To my mind, surveys about accent discrimination give a misleading picture, so I’d like to set the record straight. In the UK, the only accents which might potentially hinder your business success are very strong regional accents and very strong non-British accents. If those around you have no trouble understanding you, if you articulate clearly and confidently, and if you are already at the top of your tree, be assured that your accent forms a valuable part of who you are, and you should treasure it as part of your heritage and personality.

I’ve been stressing this for years, but many senior leaders and C-suite executives are still concerned, and the issue never quite goes away.

Display your accent with pride

If this still feels like a major issue for you, take heart. It is certainly possible to reduce an accent if it really does get in the way of your career progression or business success. US actress Renee Zellweger, for example, adopted an almost perfect RP accent for her film role as the very British character, Bridget Jones. She certainly wouldn’t have got the part with her native Texan twang.

But at the risk of sounding repetitive, I find that most senior personnel who focus on their accent are worrying unnecessarily. My message to you is this: be who you are, be the best that you can be, and (as long as people understand you) accent be damned!

Enhancing your powers of influence, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. If you want to discuss how to communicate with impact and if you’d like to raise the game with your leadership communication, do get in touch. Let’s see how we can make you stand out even more positively from the crowd.

Make eye contact to boost your influence

Do you REALLY know what you’re doing?

Most people think they make eye contact perfectly well in a business situation. Most people fail to recognise that what they think of as eye contact is not really eye contact at all – at least not in the influential way that they expect.

This is hardly surprising. If you are at the unconscious incompetent stage of learning (where you don’t know what you don’t know), it takes someone to point out any lack of awareness before you achieve that ‘aha’ moment.

Once you realise your shortcomings, you can take action to overcome them. When you start making more effective eye contact, your business relationships will improve and work is likely to become more efficient and productive – and potentially more profitable.

Make powerful connections

Meeting someone’s gaze is one of the most intimate and powerful things you can do. It allows you to communicate and connect with another person on a conscious and unconscious level.

There are strong theories that maintaining this type of connection might be the key to happiness, well-being and longevity.

Let’s think about that realistically. When you are deep in conversation with your loved ones you look them directly in the eye. There’s no embarrassment, no concern, just a deep sense of connection.

When you want to win an argument, you look your adversary right in the eye. The two of you undergo an eye-to-eye power struggle and the loser usually looks away and backs down.

When you are giving a talk, meeting a client, pitching for business, or facing an investors’ gathering, eye contact is just as important. If you can make eye contact effectively, this will ensure you stand out from the crowd and it will tell those around you that you are an expert, not an amateur.

Connect with and understand other people

When you address other people – whether in an enormous conference hall or at a small meeting – true eye contact will draw people in and encourage them to listen. They will feel you are talking to them personally.

To make eye contact in a business setting, keep your gaze to a triangle between the other person’s eyes and their upper forehead. Looking down towards their nose or mouth is a social gaze, and is generally considered inappropriate at work.

It is, of course, rude to look away when someone is talking to you. So when you look people in the eye, they are much more likely to look back at you, creating an interpersonal connection that will help you ‘sell’ your message and gain buy-in to your suggestions.

Maintaining eye contact also helps you figure out how people are responding to you. When you make eye contact effectively with someone, they may well give you a nod, a smile, or some other acknowledgement that they are listening.

If you do not get a positive response, or if you feel that people are losing concentration, this is a very powerful sign that you need to change what you are doing. You might think about altering your pace or devising another way to keep them engaged and alert.

Getting it wrong and getting it right

There’s eye contact and eye contact. Staring is rude. Connecting gently is powerful.

So how do you connect powerfully?

First let’s look at what to avoid, using the example of Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK’s Labour Party. Speaking at a pre-election debate between seven party leaders, Mr Miliband directed most of his answers to the viewers at home, staring directly at them through the camera lens rather than addressing the studio audience or his fellow politicians.

Mr Miliband obviously hadn’t read the scientific research about the use of maintaining constant eye contact to change people’s minds. It doesn’t work. It just makes people feel uncomfortable. In fact, research demonstrates that holding eye contact for too long encourages the recipient of the stare to resist persuasion. It is completely counterproductive.

Contrast Mr Miliband’s robotic style with that former US President Bill Clinton, well-renowned for being a charismatic speaker. His performance is among the best. He connects with others through very careful and expert eye contact.

Windows to the soul

Your eyes can reveal your innermost feelings – often inadvertently – and this can put you at a disadvantage.

The former Premier of Alberta provides a classic example of this. In a debate between Canada’s political leaders, she made eye contact with her rival while her eyes flashed incredibly hostile and negative emotions. This made her look very odd, but she was probably unaware of her facial expressions until she saw the footage after the event.

You won’t always have TV footage to help you improve, so it is best to keep negative emotions under wraps.

Make eye contact to create rapport

When you converse with another person, that person should always be your main point of focus, but your line of vision should not remain static. If you stare at them without breaking eye contact, they will quickly start to feel uncomfortable.

It is generally acceptable to hold eye contact for around three to ten seconds. Any longer than this might make you appear aggressive. Or romantic. People need a little respite from your gaze, or their discomfort might prevent them from taking in your words and distort any message they are trying to convey.

Research shows that in social conversation people normally look at one another for around 30% – 60% of the time. For people in love, that figure rises to 75% of the time. And for business conversation it can be anything up to 90% of the time.

There seems to be more invested in a business meeting than in a loving relationship. Perhaps the stakes are higher when money is concerned. You can usually kiss and make up with your significant other after an argument, but if you miss out on a big deal, there are no second chances.

It’s fine to look away

It is hard to speak and make eye contact at the same time. When you talk, you need moments for your brain to work out what to say, and this usually causes you to avert your gaze.

A speaker always looks away more than a listener. It is even acceptable to close your eyes briefly, as this helps your brain to retrieve information. Don’t be afraid to do this if necessary – it won’t seem rude.

The duration of gaze in business conversation is gender specific. When two businesswomen speak, they spend 80% – 90% of the time looking at each other. It’s the same when a man and a woman speak at work. But when two men converse in an office situation, they hold each other’s gaze for only 60% – 70% of the time.

Why men and women make eye contact differently

I suspect the gender differences in eye contact relate to the different neurophysiology and/or neuropsychology of men and women when it comes to listening. Research suggests that when men listen, this activates only the left half of their brain, which stimulates changes in the direction of their gaze.

We all move our eyes to access information in our brain. There is evidence to show that eye movements can prompt memory recall and there is a theory that we also move our eyes to create ideas.

The psychological discipline of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) believes it is possible to recognise what is happening in someone’s mind by watching the direction of their gaze.

Make eye contact

NLP suggests that when one brain hemisphere is active, we move our eyes away from that hemisphere and look in the opposite direction. In other words, when the left side of our brain is active, we are liable to look to the right.

However, while there is research to support the ‘direction of gaze’ theory, many scientists and NLP practitioners admit it is contentious.

It also clashes with the well-held theory that men tend to create solutions while they listen. In NLP terms, problem solving involves looking to the left. Yet we know that the left side of men’s brains are stimulated by listening, so as far as NLP is concerned, they should be looking right. I take the NLP map with a large dose of salt.

Leaving the actual direction of gaze aside, if both sides of the brain are activated, as they are when women listen, the concept of ‘opposite direction’ does not apply. In this context there is no such thing as an ‘opposite direction’, therefore there is no stimulus for a woman to look away from a speaker. It follows that there is less break in eye contact. It appears that women literally stay more focused on the person speaking, which is why they make more eye contact in a business situation.

The eyes have it

Your eyes could seriously let you down if you are not careful. Or they could be the making of you if you use them well. Simple techniques can significantly improve how you make eye contact, and can help you become more successful, respected and influential at work.

While this article provides food for thought, it is only a glance into the window of a world of information about eye contact. It can’t offer individual feedback about how well (or otherwise) you make eye contact. Neither can it advise you on a personal level how to enhance your visual connections with other people. That can only be achieved in person.

I’m passionate about helping leaders connect with others more deeply, and that includes developing the skills of optimum eye-contact. So if you’d like to assess your style and techniques in creating those all-important interpersonal connections, and if you are a leader who wants to communicate more successfully, drop me a line and let’s talk. I’ll be watching out for you.

The power of communication in leadership

How much truth is there in the old adage, “it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it”? Is this merely urban myth? Can you really engage an audience and hold them in the palm of your hand while speaking pure flimflam?

Well yes, actually you can. You might not keep their attention for very long, but you can certainly get away with it for a few minutes before the novelty wears off.

As a gift for the festive season, I’d like to introduce you to a man who knows how to get an audience going more than most. He’s Pat Kelly, self-proclaimed thought leader, but in reality a comedian, actor, improviser and people watcher.

Pat hosts a satirical (and often fabricated) current affairs program, “This is That”. One of his extremely clever sketches revolves around a presentation in the style of a TED talk. He spends nearly four minutes demonstrating how communication in leadership can make a significant impact without actually imparting anything of value.

Is true communication in leadership based on executive presence?

The “Thought Leader” sketch is a spoof. It is the subtlest, politest form of satire, yet it teaches a surprisingly strong lesson.

Pat Kelly’s physicality, the way he presents his slides and his slick changes in vocal tone, pace and pause combine to make the audience feel he is an expert (although an expert in what remains to be seen).

Meaningless as his points may be, his audience laps up his words, nodding and applauding in appropriate places. Pat’s presence gives him credibility and authority, making him both impressive and reassuring. His drivel-based speech is a triumph of executive presence over true communication in leadership.

You say it best when you say nothing at all

Pat Kelly certainly does not connect to the audience through any strong message. In fact he admits point blank that he has nothing to say and that he is purposely hamming up his performance. But the audience still leans forward to take it all in.

In the words of singer Ronan Keating, “It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart without saying a word”. That is exactly what Pat Kelly achieves.

And yet….if you listen to Pat’s sketch from another angle, it presents a four-minute deconstruction of a TED talk. It is brilliant in its simplicity, and highly educational. If you are giving a talk you can certainly take a few tips from the Thought Leader.

Performance enhancers or gimmicky ploys?

The Thought Leader reveals a variety of performance enhancing techniques. While these are parodied as mere gimmicks – and some of them are – many are also valuable presentation tools when used appropriately.

For example, if you change your vocal tone, pace and volume for different elements of your story, you will help your audience to journey through the story with you. With vocal congruence between what you say and how you say it, people will connect with your words and are more likely to buy into your message.

If you change the way you move – from walking to standing still, from gesticulating minimally to gesturing widely, from smiling to looking serious – you will engage your audience more productively. But (and this is a big but) … only if you move with authenticity and communicate with integrity. A talk is not an illusionist’s stage show. It is an opportunity to converse with people, even though they don’t immediately respond in words.

Communication in leadership – a valuable video parody

While the Thought Leader speech is all smoke and mirrors, if you peer through the smoke you will see some very clear ways to engage an audience.

Unlike the Thought Leader, you need strong content to achieve your aims. But if you take some of your lead from Pat Kelly’s communication style, you are likely to strengthen your performance and enhance the way the audience perceives you.

This gem of a video is worth seeing again and again. Watch it with an enquiring, open mind – you may well learn something new each time.

Could the nightmare happen to you?

Speaking in public. We all fear getting it wrong. And when it goes dramatically wrong, the embarrassment is all-consuming. Not to mention the frustration.

Perhaps this rings uncomfortable bells for you. Have your leadership communication skills ever flown out the window at a critical moment? Have you ever wished the floor would open up beneath you?

Many prominent people have come to a sticky end during a presentation that should have promoted them rather than mortified them.

Today, for your voyeuristic entertainment (and education), I’ve compiled five classic examples of catastrophic presentation failures, with advice on how to avoid similar situations.

1. Think before you speak

The top prize for talking rubbish (quite literally) goes to Gerald Ratner, the former Chief Executive of Ratners – a successful jewellery business in the UK and the US back in the 1980s.

In early 1991 Ratners was bringing in profits of £112 million. But one year later, after a single disastrous speech by its CEO, the company was £122 million in debt, with £500 million wiped off its share value. Gerald Ratner, unsurprisingly, was sacked. Ratners changed its name and eventually became a profitable business again. But people still talk about ‘doing a Ratner’.

So what did Mr Ratner do that was so bad?

He showed contempt for his customers by denigrating his own products – the very products that kept his company in business. At the time, Ratners sold a set of “cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95”. Speaking at an Institute of Directors conference, Gerald Ratner confessed that people often asked how he could sell this set for such a low price. “I say, because it’s total crap,” he revealed candidly.

He went on to tell the audience that Ratners’ earrings were “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long”.  The comments that that sparked multi-million losses were filmed for posterity, and you can watch them here, with the ‘crap’ remark just after four minutes from the start, and the ‘prawn sandwich’ statement just after six minutes in.

So how can you avoid doing a Ratner?

If your leadership communication skills are up to scratch, you will always assess your material critically before you speak. Think about what you say from the audience’s perspective. Will they understand you? Is there any way your words might have a different meaning? Does your message come across clearly? How will it be perceived? If it gets out on social media or in the press, will there be any repercussions?

This all sounds so simple and straightforward, but as Mr Ratner proved, even the most successful among us can come a cropper. Talking of which…

2. Failing to prepare means preparing to fail

If you want to fall flat on your face in a talk, don’t bother preparing it. There is a classic example of this from Sean Penn, who won an Oscar for Best Actor in 2004.

Famous actors speak fluently and effortlessly when they’ve learnt their lines. But when there aren’t any lines, even Hollywood icons can make us cringe.

Sean Penn hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech, and the video shows him shrinking into himself as he realises that he should have planned for the moment when the eyes of the world were on him, not to mention all his colleagues in the audience, who were watching too.

Scroll to three minutes in, where his speech begins, and you’ll  see him shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. He stutters as he hunches into the microphone. You can feel the tension during the long pauses as he sighs and tries to figure out where to go next. His voice shakes slightly, giving away his nerves. The audience smile, but I’m sure they are squirming inside.

To ensure you never make an audience feel awkward, you need to know exactly what you are going to say. Create your speech very carefully beforehand and practise it well. But unless you happen to be an actor, don’t script it. You’ll never remember it word for word. Just know what themes and messages you want to put across, and how you want to people to receive them.

Run through your talk two or three times before the event to give you an idea of how it feels to verbalise. It will never come out the same way twice, but practising will allow you to improve your performance. It will also help you to firm up the content and structure in your mind, making you less likely to go blank while all eyes are on you.

3. Plan for the worst case scenario

Technology is all very well, but in this day and age we tend to rely far too much on PowerPoint, Prezi and teleprompter (autocue). And when technology fails – as it is prone to do at important times – it can ruin even the most carefully prepared presentation.

Early last year when former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin fell victim to a failed teleprompter, she started burbling a stream of nonsense. The words were English but the sentences didn’t make sense. Her leadership communication skills were sadly lacking.

To her credit, she kept on going. But as the queen of controversial noise-making, Sarah Palin’s incomprehensible ramblings must have damaged her credibility, which was already pretty low with many people.

The main thing she could have done for herself was to work out her messaging clearly beforehand. What was she trying to say? How could she best convey that message? How could she remember it?

Knowing your content well will help you remain calm and collected when things go wrong. If you have no back-up plan, you can always return to your main message and reiterate it to reinforce your point.

You’ll know your call to action – what do you want people to do as a result of hearing you speak? Your whole talk should be focused around achieving this aim. So if you do get horrendously lost, just repeat your main message, go straight to your call to action and end your talk there. You’ll finish with aplomb and you’re more likely to come across with authority and credibility.

4. Remember – the show must go on

I mentioned a back-up plan – and no good speaker should be without one. Sadly, film director Michael Bay, was not a good speaker. When his teleprompter went down, the event became embarrassing for the organisation involved and humiliating for Michael Bay.

Mr Bay had been brought into a Samsung press conference to promote their new, curved television screen. He was obviously nervous and was more used to being behind the camera than in front of it. Video footage shows him almost wringing his hands as he desperately tries to think of what to say. The compere attempts to help – asking questions which should have elicited a good response. But it is no use. Michael Bay’s nerves overtake him and he turns around shamefacedly and leaves the stage with his head hung very low. It’s an awful moment.

This incident could have been avoided very easily. Whenever you use technology to support your talk, a simple back-up plan is to print your talk as bullet points on cue cards and place them on the desk or podium in front of you.

The rule of thumb is to have no more than four bullet points per card, and no more than four words per bullet point. That way, if there’s a problem with electronic equipment, you can just glance down at the cards to know exactly where you are and what comes next.

Oh, and do number your cards properly. There’s nothing worse than dropping them and messing up the order. Very embarrassing.

5. Always be yourself

You’d think that politicians would demonstrate great leadership communication skills to encourage people to vote for them. That isn’t always the case.

For some reason, this US politician decided to batter the audience with his words. Bellowing wildly at his potential voters, while pacing the floor like a caged tiger, Phil Davison was determined to shout out his qualifications – including a Master’s degree in communication – and roar that they make him the right man for the job.

How I laughed, in the light of his performance. Oh dear. Poor man. He seems completely unhinged, and definitely not someone to put into a position of power.

But is he like that at home? Does he communicate with his family by barking at them? Does he wander back and forth across his living room – three steps to one side, three steps to the other? I imagine that the answer to these questions is ‘no’.

Mr Davison was trying to create an authoritative persona. He was aiming to sound like a leader. Instead, he opened himself up to ridicule. The Youtube video of his talk is entitled “Hilarious politician – worst speech ever”. I feel rather sad for him.

If you can’t be yourself when you are speaking, people will see right through you. Authenticity is vital, so don’t ever try to be what you are not. Allow your true self to shine through. (And do stand still unless you have a reason to walk.)

If you are truly passionate about your topic and if you want your audience to benefit from your suggestions and ideas, they will treat you kindly and you are much more likely to succeed in your aims. Being yourself will serve you well.

Of course many people aren’t exactly passionate about their topic. Perhaps it’s rather dry, or dull. If this is something you struggle with, do get in touch and I’ll show you how to boost your leadership communication skills, make your speech sparkle and avoid any gut-churning presentation nightmares.