Saturday, January 31, 2009

How Google managed a "crisis"

Today, for a period of around 40 minutes, every Google search result was accompanied by the words "This site may harm your computer". The chatter on Twitter was one of the first places where the problem was raised, and the surprising thing was that there was no obvious Google response to the hundreds of Twitter users reporting problems. One sharp-eyed Twitter user, Mark Shaw, spotted the problem and captured this image.

It was also clear from Twitter comments when the problem was fixed. An explanation has now been supplied by Google. So far, so good. But how did Google do in terms of managing the incident? 5 out of 10, I'd say.

Firstly, they failed to respond as quickly as they could have done, and clearly need to have a presence on the Web's early warning system, Twitter.

Secondly, though they fixed the problem quickly, there was no apparent pro-active move to deliver the information to their users (all of us). There is no status link from the Google homepage, for example.

Thirdly, the statement they released is good. They explained the problem in simple terms, took responsibility, and gave an assurance that they'd be more careful in future.

It won;t go down as a case study in crisis media management, and may just become a footnote in web history. But Google need to learn a lesson from this. I hope they do.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

News Never Sleeps

Today, more than at any time in history, news is a 24-hour rolling stream. It never stops. This has both advantages and disadvantages. News media are engaged in constant competition to break stories, provide new angles, and secure the services of the best analysts and pundits to comment on and analyse stories.

If you appear on TV, you may find your remarks repeated on radio, quoted in newspapers, and appearing on websites. In short, there is no hiding place. Exclusivity, if it exists at all, is measured in seconds rather than minutes or hours. Once a story has broken, somewhere, you become fair game for reporters to chase.

How do you cope? Well, luckily, there are some things you can do to relieve the stress. Google Alerts are email updates of the latest mentions of any word or phrase that you specify. They can be sent to you daily, weekly or as they appear. You should definitely have Google alerts set up permanently for your name and your organisation name. If a crisis occurs, set up new alerts that relate to it. Monitor them constantly so that you will be ready to respond.

The other important thing is to have a 24-hour news contact. That doesn't have to be you, but it must be a real person, with a number that is made known through your press office, or (very importantly) on the press area of your website. You do have a press area, don't you? Well, I'll tell you more about setting one up soon.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Stuff comes in threes

I'm sure that by now you know the speaker's "rule of three". Whenever you are giving a list of items, always try to make it a list of three. It's easy on the ear, and is also easy for both you and the audience to remember. The "speaker's triplet" is also often used to trigger applause in political speeches, since the audience recognises that the list is complete as the third item is spoken.

Why does it work? I don't know, and don't really care (though I'm sure that I will receive some explanations as a result of this post). The thing is, it does work, so you should use it. You can use the same word ("education, education, education"), three different words ("faith, hope and charity"), or three phrases ("Government of the people, by the people, for the people") You can even use three complete sentences ("The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us" - Nelson Mandela)

Even in debates, if you are unsure about how to deliver a list, just give the first two that you can think of. Other listeners, aware that the list cannot be complete, will wait for several seconds before speaking, giving you time to gather your thoughts.

Finally, consider making the last item longer than the others ("life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness").This gives an implicit emphasis on the importance of the last in the list, and allows you to finish with a flourish (or maybe three flourishes)

Monday, January 19, 2009

And I quote...

Quoting the wisdom of others in your speech can help to make a point. However, you must always remember that the audience has come to hear you, not someone else's words. When you quote someone, always attribute the quote to its original source. Make sure too that it is someone your audience will have heard of. It makes no difference to them what John B Snodgrass said if they have no idea who he is. You may help them by qualifying the name, such as "The great philosopher Plato once said...", but you shouldn't really have to.

Quotes can be over-used too, so avoid using familiar ones like "Ask not what your country can do for you..." (especially at the moment, with comparisons between Obama and Kennedy).

Quotes can be direct (where you use the precise words) or indirect, where you paraphrase. It doesn't matter as long as it makes sense, and is in context with the rest your speech.

Don't say "and I quote.." Don't ever use that awful gesture where you draw quotation marks in the air with your fingers. And never, ever, quote yourself. That way lies madness.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Speaking with Clarity

In order to get your message across, you must speak as clearly as possible. Many speakers, particularly when they are nervous, tend to speak more quickly, making them harder to understand. You need to make a real effort to speak more slowly - in fact, it is almost impossible to speak too slowly. The point is to get your message across, not finish as quickly as possible.

Clarity and diction are important too. Some people worry about their accents when they are speaking. These days, this is not a problem, since all types of accent are now commonly heard. However, you do need to be aware of any local dialect words that may confuse a wider audience. A friend of mine, top professional speaker Kenny Harris, tells of the unusual way that certain Scottish folk sometimes respond. "If you ask a Glaswegian a question, and he says 'Aye, right', he means 'No'" says Kenny. "They're probably the only people who can put two positives together to make a negative". All over the world, there are words and phrases that can puzzle your audience. As ever, the best advice is to keep it simple

Using pauses is one of the most effective ways to improve communication. Not only does it help you to gather your thoughts, but it also helps your audience to digest and understand what you have said. It can be very difficult to get used to using pauses, since we all have set speaking patterns. It is well worth the effort, though. You can practice pausing by counting silently to three at the end of each phrase or sentence. The first time you try, it will seem like a lifetime, but persist until you are used to it. You will find it much easier to do if you talk to someone else, as they will be able to give you the feedback that it sounds just fine.

One of the best ways to improve your clarity is to change the pitch of your voice. We have all hear speakers who deliver in a monotone, causing most of their audience to doze off. You should aim at raising and lowering the pitch of your voice occasionally to maintain interest. Overall, try to lower your voice more than raising it, since this is easier on the ear of your listeners. So - just speak slowly and clearly. Simple, Eh?

Monday, January 05, 2009

On the way to the Lectern, not the Podium

OK, you are speaking at a conference, and they have asked you to use a lectern. Being a professional, you defer, saying that you don't want to create a barrier between you and the audience. The organisers respond that the only microphone is on the lectern, there is no radio mike, and all the other speakers are happy to use the set-up. What do you do?

You keep the client happy, that's what. And you remember these tips on the way to the lectern -

* Check the floor between your chair and the lectern for bumps and wires
* Make sure there are no keys jingling in your pocket
* Don't lean on the lectern
* Don't lean towards the microphone - stand tall, and let the technician adjust the sound
* Next time, think about bringing your own radio mike

And by the way, the podium is what you and the lectern are standing on.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Let me make things clear

When you deliver a message, you need to make it as clear as possible. It's impossible to over-simplify it. There's an old set of rules about how to make your communications as clear as possible -

1. Emphasise what is important
2. De-emphasise what is not important
3. Remove what is irrelevant

Easier said than done, perhaps. But it's a good discipline to review your speeches in the light of those rules. You may get a shock the first time you do it. And if you think "everything is important", you'll never get a message across.

Don't forget that the clearest messages are also concise. In other words, as long as necessary, but as short as possible. I hope that's clear.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Tough Interview Questions - and how to deal with them

"Anticipate the worst, and you will always be pleasantly surprised." That's what a journalist told me 30 years ago, when I was learning how to cope with media interviews. I wasn't too sure about the advice at the time, but it turned out to be invaluable. If you prepare yourself for the toughest questions, you will never be stuck for an answer.

Here are a few tough interview questions - and how to cope with them.

1) The incomprehensible question.

Don't even try to untangle it. Simply take from it what you will, and talk about your core message. You can even ignore it completely and talk about your message. Don't ask the interviewer to explain.

2) The leading question

Don't allow the interviewer to take control, and never repeat an accusation in order to deny it. As above, state your case, clearly and concisely. However, if the assumption in the question is damaging, make it absolutely clear that you have spotted their tactic, and demonstrate why their assumption is incorrect.

3) The pause

OK, not strictly a question, but a technique. You have two options. Firstly, you can say nothing, in which case the interviewer will have to fill the space. Alternatively, you can say something like "I have nothing to add on that point. However, another interesting aspect is...."

4) The post-final question

This is the one that comes after the interview appears to be over. It shouldn't worry you, since you should never assume the interview is over until you are well away from the microphones and cameras. Stay sharp until then.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Who won the bragging rights for TV New Year coverage?

A very Happy New Year to you all.

Unlike most years, I was with a family gathering round the TV on the eve of 2009, having spent the afternoon in a dentist's chair. I'm feeling no pain now, thank goodnes.

So we flicked channels to try to find the best TV coverage. BBC1 was having a party on HMS Belfast, BBC2 had the usual Jools Holland Hootenanny (the only time that word is ever seen), ITV was at the 02 with Sir Elton and friends, C4 had Jimmy Carr hosting a quiz, C5 copped out with a compilaton of film clips, and Sky didn't bother.

BBC1 - Well, it was live, so that's a plus. The music was OK, especially Russell Watson, though Aleesha looked out of place, cold, and mimed terribly. The worst part was at 2 minutes to midnight when Matt Baker had to fill airtime with inane comments like "It's all going to go off like a multicoloured pizza".However, the fireworks from the London Eye were stuning, though we could hear them seven seconds earlier bystanding in the street, which was a bit odd.

BBC2 - As usual, Jools and the gang put on a great show, with Duffy, Annie Lenniox, Adele, The Ting Tings, and a particularly brilliant Kelly Jones. There was a very large lady who claimed to be Martha Reeves, and a bizarre five-piece harmonica band from Finland (I'm not making this up) who would have been fine on a Saturday night variety show 40 years ago. It would have all been great, had it not been recorded several weeks ago. All a bit of a sham, really.

ITV - Had the benefit of being live (well, sort of) Dear old Elt was on good form, despite now looking like Miss Piggy with hair borrowed from another muppet. Alas, the comercial breaks were a problem since you don't have them in live concerts. As a result, the digital editors worked overtime, so we saw songs time-shifted back and forth.

C4 - Well, Jimmy Carr is always good for a laugh, and this was probaly the channel of choice for those people who "don't do New Year". Alas, the format was the usual carefully scipted ad-libs and extra canned laughter on the soundtrack.

C5 - If you like clip compilation shows, featuring talking heads who you recognise but couldn't name, then this was decent fare, though it could have been broadcast at any time.

Sky - Nothing need be said.

So who won? No contest, in my view. This is what the Beeb excel at. BBC1 by a mile.

However, next year I'm going out.

Happy 2009.