Saturday, December 08, 2012

Pranks - The Needling and the Damage Done

A few days before the tragic juxtaposition of a prank call from two Australian radio DJs and the sad apparent suicide of the nurse on the other end of the line, I was thinking a lot about the impact on people of pranks designed to be broadcast. I was watching a video from Brazil where people in a fake elevator are terrified by what seems to be a ghost child that appears and disappears. It has now reached almost 50 million views on YouTube. It's a prank, of course, and the video shows how it's done. But the victims are on the verge of panic. 

Even worse, there's another prank in the same vein where a woman in a car park is terrified to the point of hysteria by a series of apparent apparitions. Despite, or perhaps because of, her obvious distress, the cameras keep rolling and the scares keep coming. Even when the reveal happens, the woman is still in extreme distress, which turns to anger at the film crew. It may be a cultural difference, but I find this sort of thing way beyond humour, and not remotely funny.

So should media pranks be banned? Hang on a minute. Ever since the days of Allen Funt's "Candid Camera" in the 1950s, through Jeremy Beadle's "Beadle's About" in the 1980s, to radio pranksters around the world, these types of stunts have been broadcast without protest. Of course, there should be, and indeed are, guidelines. Such stunts are rarely broadcast live, and if they are, they should be done with the permission of friends and family of the recipient, who vouch for the fact that they can "take it". Otherwise, a recording of the prank is played only with permission of the person who has been fooled.

I don't know the details of the current case stemming from Australia. I know that such guidelines exist there, and if they haven't been followed, that's a matter to be dealt with. As for poor Jacintha Saldana's family, nothing will compensate for her loss. My deepest sympathies are with them.

One should always be aware of the possible outcomes of one's actions. That applies to radio DJs as well as everyone else. We don't yet know, and may never know, what role the call from Australia played in this tragic case. 

Should all media pranks be banned? Should we avoid poking fun at people and institutions? Of course not. However, it is important to be as sure as possible that the butt of the joke is comfortable with a broadcast of their embarrassment. That seems to me to be the real issue here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

10 ways to avoid a standing ovation

At the end of your speech, if audience members leap to their feet, clapping and cheering, it's so embarrassing, isn't it? It takes ages to calm things down again, and it ruins your walk off stage. Well here are ten ways to make sure it never happens to you. 

  • Introduce yourself at great length, including your books and qualifications
  • Begin by saying "I'm not very good at this, but I'll do my best"
  • Read your entire speech, word for word, from notes
  • Avoid any eye contact with members of the audience
  • Use slides with numerous bullet points (for extra protection, use the "fly in" effect)
  • Tell a few jokes with no relevance to your topic
  • Tap the mike and say "can you hear me at the back?"
  • Go way over your allotted time
  • Skip through your last 20 slides in 30 seconds
  • End poorly, with no takeaway message
There. That should guarantee that they stay in their seats, if they haven't already walked out. 

Image credit - Creative Commons license 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Are you a first-class you, or a second-class someone else?

The title of this blog is a phrase that first heard used many years ago by the great speaking coach, Patricia Fripp. She was coaching an up-and-coming speaker who had clearly heavily modeled their content, style and delivery on a famous speaker. Patricia was forthright in her feedback, asking "If you can't be yourself, why get on stage at all?"

In my opinion, it's terrific advice, and not just for speakers. Being authentic is what your customers respond to. If you pretend to be something you're not, your mask will slip at some point.

You don't need to copy phrases or funny lines from elsewhere.

You don't need to cut and paste content from other people's blogs and websites. 

You don't need to make false claims about being "The world's leading...." or "The UK's most sought after......".  

You don't need to pretend that you just had an idea when you really heard it years ago somewhere else.


You need to write your own stuff. 

You need to have your own point of view. 

You need to be authentic and honest. 

You need to be a first-class you.

Monday, November 26, 2012

12 business lessons from The Rolling Stones

Last night, I went to see The Rolling Stones celebrate 50 years in the music business with an unforgettable concert at the O2 in Greeenwich (right). In my opinion, they've never played better and the twenty thousand fans there gave them a rapturous reception. They delivered exactly what we wanted, and the fact that we'd all paid hundreds of pounds for our seats was completely forgotten, since they treated us to an experience none of us will ever forget. So it started me thinking what it is that has made them the best rock and roll band in the world, with their popularity higher than ever after half a century in business.

What can we learn from Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie? Here's my list of twelve things they do so well that we can all emulate.

  1. Turn Up. It's often said that one of the keys to success is turning up, and it's as true as ever. If you promise to be somewhere, be there. If you don't turn up, you'll never win the business. Mick and the band hit the stage at 8.30, and played for two and a half hours. They definitely turned up.
  2. Start strong. This is true for first meetings, speeches and really any type of communication or relationship. You need to hold someone's interest right from the start. You may lose their attention, but if you never had it to begin with, it's always lost. The Stones kicked off with "I Wanna be your Man", which went down a storm, even though it was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
  3. Give the fans what they want. You need to know your audience, or your customers. It's easy to find out what they want by listening to them, or even by asking them. No-one was disappointed by the 23 hits played last night.
  4. Practice. No-one reaches virtuoso standard without years of practice. There are no short-cuts. Experienced as The Stones are, they hired Wembley Arena the week before the concert to practice in.
  5. Be consistent. Keep doing what you do. If you change your offerings repeatedly, people won't know what you stand for, and more importantly what you can do for them. Before handing over hundreds of pounds for tickets, we knew from following The Stones for years exactly what we would get.
  6. Be the only ones doing it. Rock pro­mo­ter Bill Graham said of another iconic band, The Gra­te­ful Dead, “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” When you put yourself in a class of one, like The Stones, you know you've made it.
  7. Keep going. You may not have fifty years in your tank, but the ones who keep their businesses going are the ones who succeed. The Stones considered breaking up several times, but stuck with it. That level of dedication pays off big-time.
  8. Remember who got you there. The people who help you should remain important to you. The sight of Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman on stage with their old band-mates was a rare treat.
  9. Keep in touch. This is one of the most important lessons of all. Keeping in touch with people takes very little time, and reaps huge rewards. Even though The Stones hadn't played together for five years, they were still in touch with their fans through films, documentaries, interviews and other projects.
  10. Stay fit. Business is tough, and you need to be fit to cope with the demands. Staying fit is pretty much within your control. To see Mick Jagger, pushing 70 years old, charging round the stage like a sprinter was a sight to see.
  11. Take breaks. There are no prizes for working all hours. You need to get your head up and go and do something else, which will definitely make you more creative and productive. A five-year break may not be possible for you, but a week might.
  12. Have fun. This is really what it's about. When you have fun in business, others do too, and that makes you more attractive to work with. There's no doubt that The Stones enjoy their "work"!
Even if you do half of the things in this list, you'll make a difference to your business. Don't gather moss.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Speakers - 8 ways to stay on time.

When you're on stage, you have a responsibility to your audience. Naturally, you have to provide them with great value, but you also have a responsibility to respect their time. You have the same responsibility to your fellow presenters. For a speaker whose slot is scheduled just before a break, having their time cut sort by previous speakers who over-ran is very frustrating indeed. 

You need to be aware of timing throughout the event. If it looks as though the timings are slipping, you must speak to the organiser to find out if you can deliver your full speech, or need to shorten it to get the event back on schedule. It's their call, not yours. You also need to finish your speech on time, or ideally a minute earlier. Remember that a speech delivered live on stage will always take longer than a version delivered solo to a mirror. 

So if you do need to shorten your speech at short notice, what can you do? Here are some tips:

  • Prepare by highlighting the most important elements of your speech in your notes (if you use them).
  • Stay calm.
  • Never apologise for missing out content, since your audience won't know.
  • It's easier to leave out a story than shorten it.
  • Learn how to skip to a slide, rather than paging through them.
  • If you lose your place in your slides, use the "B" key to turn the screen black, and just talk to the audience.
  • Don't hurry, or speed up at the end.
  • Take out content from the middle of your speech - keep the ending intact.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Are you recommendable?

Paul du Toit CSP - very recommendable!
People are prepared to pay for exactly the set of skills you have. How do they know you are the right person for the task? More often than not, it's because you've been recommended by someone they trust. So how recommendable are you?

Firstly, do people know what skills you have, and have an idea how you transfer them to your clients? You best advocates will know you well, and have a very clear idea what you do, and just as importantly, what you don't do. The reputation of the person who recommends you hinges on whether you do a good job, which means they need to have enormous confidence in you. You should never claim to have skills that you don't possess, since you'll not only upset a client, you may well lose the trust of your friend.

Secondly, do you refer other people? It's not a straightforward reciprocal deal. You don't have to immediately recommend the person who refers you, but it helps a great deal if you are seen to be a giver of referrals as well as a taker of them. My advice is to always try to refer more than you receive, but clearly we can't all do that all the time, or it wouldn't add up. It's about an attitude.

Thirdly, do you show your gratitude?  Some people agree referral fees in advance, but in every case, a thank you is the bare minumum, and a small gift, or taking your pal out for a meal is the least you can do. It not only says "thanks", it also strengthens your relationship, and will lead to more referrals between you.

Fourthly, do you say "no" when you're asked to do something outwith your expertise? However, desperate you are for business, this is a poor policy. By all means try to find someone else to fit the bill, but never, ever go for something that you aren't equipped to handle.

Lastly (and this is my personal bugbear), try not to recommend yourself. People who respond to an appeal for skills saying "I can do that" give the requester very little to go on. OK, you can demonstrate your expertise with testimonials from happy clients, but why isn't one of them recommending you? I can hear you thinking "But Alan, they didn't see the request". Fine - in that case send it to them, and ask if they would recommend you. If you're as good as you think you are, they'll be happy to.

So make yourself recommendable.

This topic is covered in great detail in the best book on the topic - "Recommended" by Andy Lopata. If you really want to be recommendable, invest in a copy now.

Could you come up on stage, please?

Audience participation is not to everyone's taste. Some members of your audience (including me) will get up and look for the exit if you try to get them involved in a group exercise, such as "turn round and tell the person next to you how good they look". Probably because I cringe at the thought of mass participation, I rarely include it in my presentations. 

However, I do sometimes involve one or two audience members in simple exercises to make a strong point. If you want to get someone on stage, asking for a volunteer does not always work. Of course, you can ask someone in advance, or find a friend or colleague to work with. I prefer to ask someone I don't already know, because I think it makes the point more effectively. 

Here's a technique I use. To begin with, I ask the audience for a show of hands on two or three topics. I then ask if anyone has a question, or an experience they would like to relate. There are always several people that are happy to engage in dialogue, providing the opportunity to build a relationship. When I need a "volunteer", I return to one of the people I spoke to earlier, and ask them if they could help me out for a minute or two. They always say yes. 

One more thing - never humiliate or patronise (as if you would). You're not a stand-up comedian (OK, if you are, look away for a minute). Be respectful and polite. And give them a reward for taking part - such as your latest DVD (yes, it's an advertising opportunity too).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Talking to friends in Tehran

Alan on stage in Tehran
I returned recently from a trip to Iran with fellow speakers Geoff Ramm, Ayd Instone,  Jerome Joseph and Peter Sylvester with whom I spoke at the 4th World Advertising and Branding Forum in Tehran. Advice on Iran from the UK Foreign Office is unequivocal - "Avoid travel to the whole country". However, the trip was organised by a very experienced Iranian conference planner, Dr Sepehr Taverdian, and I know many speakers who have been there on several occasions. It made sense to go and see things for myself.

A parsley shop in the bazaar
The experience was well worth while. The welcome was warm, the hospitality was outstanding, and the people were friendly and keen to hear our stories. Of course, we were circumspect. We didn't discuss religion or politics. We didn't stray far from our hotel without local colleagues, and we made sure that there was nothing to offend in any of the slides we showed or videos we played. That's the normal behaviour of professional speakers anywhere in the world.

Delicious fresh bread on a stall
One of the things that struck me was the sheer normality of Tehran. It's like any major city - its streets are crowded, there are traffic jams, bazaars, roadside stalls selling delicious bread and fruit, and shopping malls with global brands such as Zara and Mango. Though the economic sanctions are clearly starting to bite, people are still getting on with everyday life. There was one element that was stood out (if that's the right term) from many many other cities I've visited, and that was the way people drove. Whether it's fatalism or a desire to be spotted by a Formula 1 team owner, the majority of drivers apparently have only accelerators underfoot. One taxi driver in particular, who for some reason became known by the un-Iranic name of "Crazy Moses", gave us a couple of rides that I still recall with mild terror.

The former Shah's palace
We had time to visit the former Shah's palace - now a military museum, and strolling round the grounds was a tranquil contrast to the bustle and noise of the city centre a mile or so away. It was interesting to make cultural connections between Iran and renaissance Europe - I recall seeing a pair of French duelling pistols presented by Louis XVI to the then Shah - along with a tableau of military uniforms dating back thousands of years. For me, one of the most fascinating insights was the cultural history of Persia, which was arguably the birthplace of civilisation, as my good friend Ayd Instone pointed out in his speeches (by the way, Ayd has written a more detailed account of our trip, which you can find on his excellent blog)

The end of the conference
The large conference centre was modern and well-equipped, and though we spoke through a translator (the excellent Dr Taverdian again), all of the speeches were well-received and appreciated. We were showered with gifts, including hand-made chocolates, trophies and some very substantial portraits (see picture) that will serve as mementos of an extraordinary week.

The speakers, sponsors and organisers
Before I left the UK, the question that I was asked by professional colleagues was "should you really be gong to Iran under the circumstances?" Of course, it's something I had to ponder before making the decision to travel. I had no desire to put myself in harm's way, or to start taking sides in an international dispute. However, my view is that as an international speaker, my job is to be a rapporteur. It's up to me to seek out experiences and stories so that I can provide informed insights to my audiences. I need to be, as far as possible, free of prejudice based on hearsay. I have to go and see for myself, which is exactly what I did.

I'm grateful to my fellow speakers and hosts, particularly Dr Sepehr Taverdian, for giving me the opportunity and making the trip so memorable. As Maya Angelou put it "Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Advice for speakers - Stay in the spotlight

Lee Bowman, who was one of the most respected speech coaches in the world, once said "A speech is like a spotlight, since it focuses intensely on a small area."
Clearly, Lee was talking about good speeches. Alas, too many speakers try to pack in huge amounts of information into a short speech, leaving the audience dazed and confused. Often, it is because they are worried about running out of material, or appearing less than expert about their topic. Even worse, some use their slides to add another level of complexity, even using the terrifying phrase "This slide is rather complex - let me explain it to you"

Back to the spotlight. That's where you need to stay throughout your speech. Ensure that you keep in mind the simple message that you want your audience to remember. One speaker that I met many years ago used two huge prompt cards - one had his core message on it, the other had the three main points of his speech. He kept both in view as he spoke - a constant reminder of what he was communicating. In fact, he taped them to the stage like a set list for a rock band, so he literally walked (over) his talk. (That's his phrase, by the way). The thing is, it worked.

Don't be a speaker of whom the audience says "Great speech - wish I could remember what the point was". Get in the spotlight and stay there.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Why speakers need a bra

Many people use filler words in conversation. These include "er", "um" and "like". Provided they are used sparingly, they don't interrupt the flow of a dialogue. However if used during a speech, these vocal tics can become distracting and may even prevent the audience from hearing the main message. I've found from working with many speakers that it's fairly easy to eliminate these distractions from a prepared speech, but much tougher to eliminate them from answers to questions. That's when you need your bra. 

It may not be what you're thinking. In this context, I use the acronym BRA to remind speakers of a three-part technique to remove the ums and ers. Here's how it works: 

Break. Make a deliberate effort to leave a break between the question and your response. (You might remember it as B for Breathe if you prefer). There's often a temptation to rush in with a response, and in the moment while your brain is composing it, your voice is saying "um". Pausing for a few seconds is absolutely fine. 

Reflect. The pause allows you time to reflect on your answer. There are no prizes for answering quickly. The idea is to give a valuable and appropriate response, and that requires a few seconds of reflection. 

Answer. Once you know what your answer is, deliver it in a seamless manner. Giving yourself a moment to breathe and reflect will also make your answer flow more easily, since you will have time to compose a full response, rather than starting before you know how to finish.

In short, when you need support to eliminate those ums, use a bra.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Social media: time to get serious

The hype around social media is beginning to die down. Now it's time to get serious. If you are going to make use of social media in your business (and you don't have to), then you need to have a strategy, a plan to measure the results, regular checkpoints, and a willingness to put some resource behind your efforts. 

Here are a few tips to crank up the volume on your social media campaigns.

* Make sure you can measure your results. If you can't measure, you can't judge how well you are doing. There are plenty of tools available.

* Behave professionally. Don't leave your Twitter feed to the office junior (unless they are very good).

* Get your internal people trained, so they are confident to use social media responsibly.

* Look for niches and special areas where your customers are speaking. You don't need a presence on every social network.

* Don't hide your involvement. It's no longer the time for limited test sites. Go mainstream.

Finally, don't believe what external advisors and consultants tell you without reviewing their evidence. By now, anyone who advises on social media policy should have a track record of success. If you're serious about social media, you need solid professional advice.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

7 ways to build a stellar reputation

Building a brilliant reputation isn't easy, but the benefits are immense. Your reputation is your biggest marketing asset, and will help you to win business in even the toughest times. Here are seven tips to help you become a company that everyone wants to work with.

Do the basics brilliantly You need to build on a solid foundation. Whatever business you are in, you need to to the simple things really well. People won't notice if you get them right, but if you get them wrong, they will complain bitterly.

Do little things that others don't Small touches can make a huge difference. It's not about delivering expensive add-ons, it's about unexpected delights. It's not the chocolate on the pillow, it's the "welcome back' from the receptionist when you haven't stayed there for years.

Make sure everyone delivers great service Everyone in your organisation is a reputation manager. It takes only one bad rude exchange or poor delivery to cause immense damage. Everyone needs to be trained, and given the responsibility, to offer exceptional service.

Make it personal This works both ways. People love to be recognised and addressed by name, and they also like to see the "face of the company". Who is your Richard Branson?

Fix mistakes quickly In every organisation, things go wrong. Everyone realises that. you need to take responsibility and fix things fast. Your reputation will be enhanced if people know that, should bad things sometimes happen, you will look after them.

Talk to the media You don't need to over-promote, but you do need to be available for comment. If you're delivering exceptional service, your comments will be sought, and you must be prepared to give them.

Have fun People love companies that inject humour into what they do. Aim to leave people with a smile, every time.

That'll do for starters. Get building!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Savile, Armstrong - Would I lie to you?

It's too late to challenge Jimmy Savile, and Lance Armstrong seems unlikely to recant, so we can only draw our own conclusions about who lied to whom about what. It seems undeniable that iconic public figures such as Jimmy Savile and Lance Armstrong created a web of lies so complex that we may never know the full extent of their duplicity.

We all lie from time to time, whether it's to our children about the tooth fairy, to our friends when they ask us out and we're just too tired, or to our partners when they ask us whether they're looking overweight. We tell ourselves that these lies don't matter, since they are well-meant, and no damage is done.

However, when people tell really big lies, as in the cases of Jimmy Savile or Lance Armstrong, people do get hurt, both physically and emotionally. It's not just the initial liars themselves who must bear the responsibility, since in both cases other people either knew of the misbehaviour, or turned a deaf ear to the rumours and allegations. Now that their actions have become public knowledge, there's a queue of people explaining the reason why they kept quiet at the time. 

Of course, I don't blame any of the abused victims of Jimmy Savile. They have suffered not only from the initial assaults, but from the guilt and fear of disbelief that they have lived with for decades. I do blame those who witnessed such acts and kept silent, or who heard the allegations and did nothing. I also blame the cyclists and team members who acted with Lance Armstrong to maintain a shroud of secrecy over many years of doping.

Yes, it can be hard to speak out when it could threaten your career. It may also be that if you don't have enough evidence, you aren't believed, and the misbehaviour continues. But put yourself in the position of those who knew about abuse or drug use. Would you have kept quiet? I hope not. 

As a speaker myself, and as one who helps others communicate, I talk a lot about authenticity. That's about not only being true to yourself and your principles, but also about being honest. The thing is, it is never the initial lie that brings people down, it's the complex measures undertaken to keep the lie hidden. In the cases of both Jimmy Savile and Lance Armstrong, the effort taken to keep the lid on things was enormous. 

There's no easy way back from a big lie. The only thing to do is not go there in the first place, or stop immediately and try to implement a recovery strategy for everyone involved. I strongly urge the former.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Skyfall - Two tickets to embarrassment...

UPDATE: I have just received an email from Peerindex offering two free tickets for Skyfall at a time and place we choose. Well handled, Peerindex. The cautionary tale below should be read in that context.

Today my wife and I set off to see the new Bond film, Skyfall. We were looking forward to it, especially since the nice people at PeerIndex had sent us a couple of vouchers which read;

"Take this voucher to your local Picturehouse cinema to get free entry to the movie of your choice. Enjoy!"

Well, that's an offer which is hard to resist. Of course, there was some small print, which read;

"Terms and Conditions. This voucher is valid only until 01/11/2012 and redeemable at Picturehouse cinemas only, and cannot be used to book online or by phone. Excludes all opera, live satellite and premium-priced events. Standard terms of admission apply - see Picturehouse website for details."

Well, that all sounded fine. Our nearest Picturehouse cinema is in Stratford, close to the Olympic site. It's a few stops on the central line from our home. Since we couldn't book online or by phone, we set off this afternoon, aiming for the 3pm performance. When we arrived at 2.45pm, there were half a dozen people in the queue. It was clear that the showing would be far from full. A good sign. I reached the front of the queue, handed over the vouchers and asked for two tickets to Skyfall. The cashier looked at the vouchers and read them carefully. She said "I've never seen these before, I need to call someone" She meant it literally, shouting into the foyer for the manager. She also decided to call his phone, and as the queue was now building behind us, asked me to step to one side.

After an embarrassing (for us) wait, the manager arrived and reviewed the tickets, shaking his head. He said "I'm sorry, I can't let you in with these, since the Terms of Admission say that they aren't valid for this film. If you want to complain, contact Sony - it's their film."

That was it. No admittance. We left to the stares of the queue, and I felt almost as though I'd been caught trying to cheat. There was no indication anywhere that the vouchers couldn't be used for any particular film. We'd had a round trip of an hour, spent a fiver each on tube fares and ended up being both disappointed and embarrassed.

Naturally, I checked the terms of admission on the Picturehouse website when I got home. It took quite a time, since they are over two thousand words long. I finally found the relevant rule, 5.14, which states:

"5.14. Complimentary tickets cannot be used for free-list-suspended films. These are films whose distributors have suspended the use of complimentary tickets during the opening week(s). This restriction does not apply to Members' free tickets."

Clearly, Skyfall is currently a "free-list suspended film". But who is to know? The fact is not mentioned anywhere on the Picturehouse website. The only way to discover it is to go to the cinema, stand in a queue for tickets, and then be turned away. 

It's a daft way to behave. I'd have been perfectly happy to be made aware that certain films weren't included in the offer, and provided with a list to check. It wasn't about the potential for free tickets - we'd happily pay to go and see Skyfall, and instead of the cinema, we ended up going to a restaurant. The frustration was the fact that we had an unavoidable pointless journey, on the basis of receiving a "reward". I wonder what Bond would have done?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hyperbole Anonymous now offering free coaching

I've just set up an organisation called Hyperbole Anonymous or HA! for short.

The objective is to help victims afflicted by excessive overstatement, inappropriate hyperbole and overblown claims. Hyperbole can affect lives by making people look and sound ridiculous, damaging both their business and personal relationships. In some parts of the world, it is already endemic, and the aim of HA! is to stop it spreading further.

The signs of early-onset hyperbole are easy to spot. If you notice anyone using certain phrases, try to calm them down with a cup of sugary tea while persuading them to seek help.

Some of the tell-tale phrases are:

"It was awesome..."

"I'm the country's leading practitioner of...."

"You can be anything you can dream...."

"This is the most unbelievable offer ever...

"Make millions working at home in four hours a week...."

Fortunately, there is a cure. I am able to offer free coaching and therapy sessions for a small number of individuals. The sessions are brief but effective, and use the technique of slaps in the face with a large wet fish every time hyperbole is used. A few sessions usually sort things out.

If you, or anyone you know, is suffering from this debilitating ailment, don't hesitate to get in touch.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Social media is a big con trick

Social media is a big con trick. In fact it's at least three cons; Conversation, Content and Consistency. 

Conversation - You need to get involved. It's no use simply posting messages saying how wonderful your company is, or what an interesting blog you have just written. You need to respond to questions, add to debates, and offer a point of view on issues. That's what engages people. Don't be scared of getting into a debate and then leaving it again, since it may run for days or weeks. Simply add to the debate while you are there. 

Content - You need to offer something useful and of interest. This may seem contrary to what I said above (I'm even debating with myself here), but if you post an interesting and valuable article, other people will publicise it for you. Your comments on other people's blogs may also offer useful content, so don't simply say "I agree" or "This is rubbish". 

Consistency - you need to make regular appearances. That does not mean every day, and certainly not every hour. However, if you only appear once or twice a month, post a ton of material and then disappear again, you won't attract many friends. Small, regular postings seem to be much more effective than rare long ones. Little and often - that's the way.

Of course, there is also Connecting, Confidence, Consideration, Congratulating, etc.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why not try being the same person on all social networks?

Are you always who you really are? I know, it's a silly question. Of course you are. But think again. Do you post in a different way on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter? Many people do, since the advice from "experts" is that you should treat different audiences in different ways. I'd tend to agree, if it wasn't for the fact that the people I know on LinkedIn are often the same people I know on Facebook and Twitter. OK, I can hear you muttering "Come on Alan, LinkedIn is for business networking. It's full of serious business people. Those guys don't want to know that I just enjoyed watching X Factor, or that I finished 3,478th in the Great North Run".

I beg to differ. People do business with people they like. More often than not, the first few minutes of any business meeting are taken up with what is wrongly called "small talk". In fact, this apparently idle chat about holidays, shared friends and experiences is the social glue that holds society together. We do need to get down to the serious stuff, but not until we feel comfortable with the people we're getting serious with.

Provided you lead a fairly blameless life (you do, don't you?), than sharing your photos of family barbeques and tweets from rock concerts is not going to lose you any business. Quite the reverse, in fact. I used to find it was quite stressful to remember what sort of content I could post where. Can I put a blog about business strategy on Facebook? Can I mention a great film on LinkedIn? Is it OK to have a conversation about business in the public Twitter stream? In just about every case, I now think the answer is "yes". Sure, you wouldn't breach any confidences, or make personal remarks, but that's always been the case.

So here's an idea. Why not, just for a day or two, not worry about what content you post to what social network. Just be yourself. You may be surprised to see that the reaction is positive, and good for business too.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Running an event - Tips for top MCs

Being the Master of Ceremonies (MC, which I use to cover both genders) is a critical task at any event. I took on the role at the recent Professional Speaking Association convention, and received some great feedback, so I thought I'd offer some tips on being the person who links everything together on stage. 

Firstly, and most importantly, the job of the MC is to make the other speakers look as good as possible. It's not about stealing the show. You aren't there to tell jokes and stories (unless you have to fill, but more of that in a moment). Preparation, as ever, is very important. As soon as the speakers have been selected, make contact, explain your role, and ask them to supply an introduction. Be sure to ask if there are any matters that are concerning them, such as rehearsals and audio-visual requirements. It isn't your job to resolve these issues, but you should act as a go-between to ensure that everything is covered. 

There will usually be an event organiser who will arrange a timetable for the event. They are a critical contact for you, and you should keep in close communication with them at all times. When the speakers arrive for their rehearsal, you should be there with them to check their introduction, handover, and what to do if the technology fails. You will be expected to literally step in and cover if anything should go wrong. 

It's perfectly acceptable (in fact essential) for the MC to take notes on stage. There may be formal announcements, or a precise form of words that a speaker insists on. You don't have to learn their introduction, but you should practice the technique of reading a phrase at a time and looking at the audience when delivering it. Ideally, you should mention the name of the speaker only at the end. 

During the speech, you need to keep an eye on timing, and alert the speaker with a pre-agreed signal if time is running out. Your job as a professional is to keep the event on time. If that means shortening a break, that's what you do. Slippage through a day is a common fault, and is disrespectful to both the audience and the later speakers. 

Finally, ensure that everyone is thanked before the event closes. Then you can relax and have that refreshing beverage you've been looking forward to all day.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Speechwatch: David Cameron's speech to the Conservative Party Conference, October 2012

David Cameron's warm-up man, Mayor Bloomberg of New York, called him a "gold-medal winning Prime Minister", but did he live up to the accolade? By the way, Mayor Bloomberg also referenced Winston Churchill as an example of "putting the good of the country ahead of party politics". That didn't go down too well in the hall. I'm not sure it was a great piece of scheduling to put an orator like Bloomberg on just before David Cameron's big moment.

There was an uneasy and rather bizarre pause before William Hague appeared to do the intro. It wasn't the greatest intro, either. More golf club dinner than party conference, in fact. The usual video played, reminding people what he does. This is now a cliché at every party conference, and is seen and heard only by the delegates in the hall, as the broadcast channels either play music over it or continue with the punditry.

David Cameron began by saying "In May 2010, this party stood on the threshold of power for the first time in more than a decade..." He adopted a sombre demeanour before explaining the potential problems we face in the future. Unlike Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg, he stood behind a lectern, adopting the statesman-like pose rather than the chatty leader. Like Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg, his choice of neckwear was a purple tie. Perhaps it's now the law for party leaders.

He invoked the spirit of his son Ivan, in an emotional reference to the Paralympics, leading on to a "one-flag" reference and a dig at SNP leader Alex Salmond. He called the audience to their feet for an ovation on behalf of the armed forces, which was the longest sustained applause until the end of his speech. When he claimed "this is the party of the NHS", the applause was much more limited. On a personal note, and as a gamesmaker myself, I'm not convinced that all of us felt we were demonstrating or representing the "Big Society" as David Cameron claimed.

His tone throughout was more management consultant than orator, which was probably deliberate. It was intended to show a steady hand on the tiller in rough seas rather than an inspirational vision of the future. He used "one nation" as part of an insult to Ed Milliband, saying "We don't talk about one nation but practice class war". However, he also said "they call us the party of the better-off...but we're the party of people who want to be better off" which was a mistake, in my view. Never remind people what opponents say about you. It was a technique he used several times: "They say cruel Tories...." "They say elitist Tories.." before gainsaying the statement.

The speech was littered with standard content-free phrases that are the stock-in-trade of all party leaders: "Let me put it like this..", "Let me tell you this...", "I say this to you.." As ever with party leader speeches, it was also short on jokes, but did include a moderate pun at Ed Milliband's expense: "Labour - the party of one notion - borrowing"

He returned to the home-owning vision of his hero, Margaret Thatcher, before addressing the issue of welfare reform: "Welfare isn't working and this is a tragedy". There were several references to that political favourite "hard-working families". He likened the government to "pushy parents" when he turned to education. He outlined his vision of "millions of children sent to independent schools in the state sector".

There was one great sound bite that summarised his speech, though it was almost a throwaway remark: "I'm not here to defend privilege, I'm here to spread it".

He delivered a rousing finale, which is the first time he really became animated: "This is still the greatest country on earth....hard work, strong families, taking responsibility, serving our best we are unbeatable.....there's nothing we can't do....Let us build an aspiration nation....Let us get out there and do it"

Overall, it was a speech to get the job done. It was strong on encouragement for party loyalists, full of praise for hard-working people, and included jibes at opponents. My assessment - seven out of ten.

Here's my review in video form:

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Speechwatch: Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Party Conference, Manchester, October 2012

Ed Miliband needed to nail this one. He decided to take on the mantle of a former Tory Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who became known as a "One Nation" Tory 140 years ago. Mr Miliband's theme was 'One Nation" Labour, in an attempt to position himself as the leader of a party that represents everyone (and by implication, not a party representing a particular class). The "elitism" of the other parties was a theme that was threaded through the speech, either explicitly or by implication. 

Like at a Jimmy Carr gig, the pre-speech visuals warmed up the audience and delivered generous applause. The video was like a minature Olympic opening cermony (images of the Olympics mandatory). His opening lines.. "It is great to be in Labour Manchester" were followed by a few comedic (or at least intended to be comedic) asides. He adopted a very conversational style, and told a story about his three-year-old son, Daniel on a  trip to the park. Daniel asked for "flying dinosaurs", and then hit a very poor punch line about "predators last year". By the way, his tie is the same colour as the one Nick Clegg wore last week. Is purple the new yellow and red?

He used the classic technique of the personal history; "My family hasn’t sat under the same oak tree for the last five hundred years. My parents came to Britain as immigrants, Jewish refugees from the Nazis."   He developed his theme; "I was born at my local NHS hospital, the same hospital where my two sons were born. And I went to my local school with people from all backgrounds". For a while, it was a bit like an episode of "Who do you think you are?".

Despite being "improvised", it was clear that much of his speech had been memorised. He overdid a few phrases, especially "but you know what?" and "that is who I am". Most of all, he repeatedly used the words "us", "we" "we the British people", and especially "one Nation". 

He used the "no notes" technique as a way of making an impression (actually, we professional speakers never use notes, but never mind). That meant no copies of his text for the assembled hacks, which appeared to make them pay close attention. As Channel 4's Jon Snow tweeted from the hall, it made reporters listen to what he said, rather than how he said it. There was no podium or lectern either - a good move in my view.

He had the alliterative slogan - "the forgotten fifty per cent who do not go to university" (with perhaps an implied criticism of former leader Tony Blair and his "fifty per cent to university" pledge).  He also had a lot of choreographed gestures; You (points at audience), Me (points to himself), This party (points to the floor). He delivered the tributes to the Olympic and Paralympic gamesmakers (thanks, Ed, that's me), the army and the police. He still has the political empty phrases "I say this" and "I tell you this", but so do many politicians these days.

There was a huge cheer for his criticism of Andrew Mitchell, followed by a jibe at the "born to rule" government, and a very good rising cadence of a list designed to evoke applause (what the speech expert Max Atkinson calls a "claptrap") - a clearly rehearsed sound bite. He followed it up with a few decent comic remarks. Never a comedian, but not bad for a politician. 

Rhetorically speaking, he was on form with "those with the broadest shoulders will always bear the greatest burden" and "We can't go back to old Labour....we must be the party as much of the private and the public sector....south just as much as much of the squeezed middle as those in poverty". Nice example of anaphora there. He had a good tricolon: "A one nation party, a one nation government to build a one nation Britain" and a neat example of chiasmus "we need banks that serve the country, not a country that serves its banks"

He focused on one of his most potent weapons - the National Health Service, and a great piece of call and response with the audience. It was Obama-like. His conclusion was a personal one "this is where I am, this is who I am, this is my faith". He told a story of his Polish roots, and said "Britain has given my family falls to us to re-build Britain". His final phrase: "One nation - a country for all with everyone playing their part, a Britain we re-build together"

His real task, of course, was to convince voters that he is a credible Prime Minister in waiting. He made no spending commitments. He announced no new policies. This was about Ed Miliband as himself. It was a clear pitch for the centre ground, and an attempt to marginalise the coalition government as unrepresentative. My assessment - his best speech so far as leader. Eight out of ten. 

Here's the summary in video:

Speakers: Tell them YOUR story

Storytelling is a great way to engage an audience, but you need to be careful about the stories you tell. I was reminded of this today when an email arrived from a client I've been coaching on speech construction and delivery. She recounted a visit to a political event last week when two speakers told the lighthouse story. A few years ago, I was working in the US with Stephen Covey, and he opened his speech with the lighthouse story too. In fact, I must have heard the story directly, or second hand hundreds of times.

There are a number of stories which fall into this category. They include:

1) The lighthouse story, where a night-time conversation between a US warship and another "vessel" builds up, with each asking the other to change course. It ends with the line "We're a lighthouse - your call"

2) The starfish story, where a man meets a boy throwing beached starfish back into the sea. He say "With so many starfish, how can you hope to make a difference?" The boy replies "It made a difference to that one". Even Barack Obama has been caught telling that yarn, attributing it (wrongly) to an original experience of Ed Kennedy.

3) The boiling frog story, where we're told that a frog placed in boiling water will jump out, but one placed in cold water that is then boiled will die, because it doesn't notice the change. Charles Handy used to tell that one many years ago.

There are many more - the three bricklayers, the shoe salesman in Africa, the lipstick on the mirror, etc, etc. They may have happened once, but they won't have happened to the storyteller. What's worse, they are used so often, they have lost their impact.

Professional speakers don't use these types of stories. They use their own, because they won't have been heard before, they are easy to tell, and they can still make a strong point, For example, I talk about founding a pirate radio station in 1967, playing a Glaswegian shopkeeper on Italian TV, and being the holder of an unbreakable TV Guinness world record. No-one else can tell those stories (and if they do, I will be after them).

So if you use stories in your speeches, as I hope you do, use your own. It's the professional thing to do.

Monday, October 01, 2012

On the panel tonight....

Panel debates often feature on broadcast news channels or may be set up to give audiences a chance to ask questions of politicians. If you find yourself on a panel, here are a few tips which may help: 

  • Find out who else is on the panel, and do some research on their opinions
  • Prepare a couple of stories that make your point
  • Never interrupt. Listen and plan your response
  • Lift your hand to indicate you wish to speak
  • Address your responses in general to the person chairing the debate.
  • If you speak directly to the audience, make it brief.
  • Never insult another panellist, or use abusive language
  • Respect the views of others. Don't react. Directors love reaction shots.
  • Stay calm, even if others become angry
  • Have a prepared and powerful statement to finish on
Finally, stick around after the debate to chat to the presenter (if they have time) or production team members. You could find that you are asked for a one-to-one interview.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Speechwatch: Nick Clegg, LibDem Autumn Conference 2012

Here's my instant review on Nick Clegg's speech to the LibDem Conference in Brighton, September 26th 2012. It was a tough speech to deliver, with the LibDems plummeting in the polls, cracks appearing in the coalition government, and the economy still flat-lining.

The overall tone was serious, though he did make the effort to deliver some funny lines. Not many politicians have the timing or the material to generate belly laughs, but the line about being praised by Boris Johnson was at least adequate. The line "To make blue go green you have to add yellow" was even flagged as a bad joke by Mr Clegg himself, and during the laugh he remarked "what a lovely audience". Politicians should never try to be stand-ups.

He began - after the smooth video that has become de rigeur at party conferences - by harking back to the Olympics, dropping the names of a few gold medallists, and using the analogy that everyone needs a coach, and a strong team behind them. I'm not sure where he was going with that one, but he then flipped to contrast 2012 with 2011, when there were riots in cities around the UK. He then used the rhetorical device of antistrophe in the phrase "When the images beamed to the world were not of athletes running for the finishing line, but the mob, running at police lines.". Ah - it was a set up for a sound bite.

The stage set-up was interesting too. Almost in the round, with a smattering of diverse faces behind him, perhaps to overcome the impression given by watching the parade of conference speakers that LibDems are mostly white middle class men.

There were personal stories - they always draw applause, and plenty more Olympic references. He spoke strongly and confidently, delivering the claptraps well (no offence, they are lines included to induce applause). However, after a brisk start, it all got a bit bogged down in economic detail and gloom, a bit like some of David Cameron's speeches. Actually if you close your eyes and listen to Nick Clegg, it's hard to tell him apart from David Cameron. Actually, when both are at full throttle, they are indistinguishable.

He fluffed a few strong lines "Let's no - er let's take no more lectures...". "admitting, admittering.." Generally, his pacing was good, and he hit most of his marks.

The audience response was muted throughout. Even the section on green issues, a topic many LibDems used to be passionate about, was met with polite applause. The central core of the speech was an attempt to set out what LibDems stand for - strong on education, evidenced by extra funding for children falling behind in maths or English. A popular move, at least in the hall. The phrase "We're raising the bar, but ensuring every child can clear it too" must have worried and puzzled any teachers listening.

He didn't refer to his apology over tuition fees, other than to lament that his single had not reached the top ten. That video was clearly designed to get the issue out of the way before this speech.

The biggest cheer was the announcement of Paddy Ashdown as the chair of the 2015 election team. Do the faithful prefer him to Nick? Oops.

In his final words, he managed to hark back to David Steel's "prepare for government" sound bite. It got a groan. then an apologetic laugh. By the way, Nick, saying that LibDems may "march towards the sound of gunfire" is not the ringing phrase some want to hear.

His final words were "Let's go for it", which seems a bit light to me as a campaign slogan.

Overall, it was a competent, though uninspiring speech. Definitely not a barnstormer. No brilliant sound bites. One appalling joke. Not one for the speech manuals. Five out of ten.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cyclist fails proficiency test in Downing Street

Normally when the words "Mitchell" and "foul-mouthed rant" appear in the same paragraph in a tabloid newspaper, it's about a scene from Eastenders. But this time it's not fictional Phil or Grant, it's Andrew, who in real life is the government's chief whip. Of course, it's his job to rant and rave at misbehaving back-benchers, so no doubt he has the Malcolm Tucker swearing lexicon in his jacket pocket. But he appears to have picked the wrong targets for his wrath if police notes of his altercation with two diplomatic protection officers at the gates of Downing Street turn out to be true. His timing could hardly be worse, in the same week that the Prime Minister was in Manchester expressing his sympathy for the murder of two women police officers.

It remains to be seen exactly what Mr Mitchell said, but as things stand, the evidence looks pretty damning. According to the head of the Metropolitan Police Federation, John Tully, the notes taken shortly by two police officers after the incident agree that the words "f***ing plebs" were used during Mr Mitchell's tirade, as well as the word "morons". 

There can be no excuse for treating police officers in the manner that has been reported. Had Mr Mitchell been a member of the public using the same language on a street corner to a police officer, there is a distinct possibility he would be spending a night in the cells. Surely a government official should behave with even greater respect to someone who would literally put his life on the line to protect him.

Mr Mitchell is reported to have apologised to at least one of the officers, though apparently over the phone rather than in person. I suspect he will have to go a lot further if he is to save his position in the government. In fact, I will be very surprised if he is still chief whip on Monday morning.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Start your speech as you mean to go on

There's a saying that runs "how you do anything is how you do everything". There may be some exceptions to that, but as a general rule, I think it's sound. That's why I believe it is so important to begin a speech in exactly the way you intend to deliver all of it. You need to be confident, interesting and entertaining. Alas, some speakers think that they have to break the ice by telling a joke or wittering on about their qualifications and achievements before turning to the topic that people expect to hear. 

In my view, you are not only short-changing the audience if you begin with irrelevant detail, but you are also running the risk of losing their interest before you have told them what the speech is about. There are many ways that you can begin a speech with relevant material while keeping the audience engaged. You can make a promise to help them overcome business issues that we all share. You can pose a tricky question that makes them think, and explain how you will show them the answer. You can use humour as long as it is relevant.
In short, your speech opening should:

  • Set the tone for the rest of the speech
  • Engage the interest of the audience
  • Make a promise
  • Establish a common interest between you and them
  • Move smoothly into the body of the speech
In the fictional West Wing TV show, written by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin, there's a clip that shows exactly how a bad speech opening can be transformed into a good one. If only everyone had speechwriters like this.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Make your phrases ring

A few weeks ago, I wrote a cautionary piece advising you to avoid clichés (like having a picture of a bell on a blog about ringing phrases). However, there's nothing to stop you creating phrases of your own that others will re-use. It's something politicians are very good at. Some years ago, William Hague was in opposition to New Labour, and used the phrase "culture of cronyism" in several interviews. The phrase stuck, and became associated with Tony Blair and his colleagues, being used by his opponents repeatedly until he stepped from power. Prior to Mr Hague's use, the phrase had hardly been recorded. He made it into a phrase that stuck. Another Tory politician, Michael Howard, will forever be associated with the description by Anne Widdecombe as having "something of the night" about him.

One way of creating a ringing phrase is to look at a news story and make a comparison with it. Another technique is to make up an alliterative phrase including an unusual word, such as William Hague's example.

Once you have such a phrase, use it several times in an interview. Ideally, the interviewer will repeat it back to you, or use it in a question to another guest. The more controversial it sounds, the better. Use it in your blogs, and drop it into your social media messages too. You'll know when you've done a good job when you are on the front page of Google when people search for it. It works. A few years ago, I used the phrase "Twitter is the collective brain of the planet". It' hasn't gone global (yet), but at least I am getting the credit.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why do audiences remember you?

If you think back to your schooldays, and the teachers you loved and hated, I bet that many of your memories are about their mannerisms, voice or appearance. It's the unusual characteristics that tend to define people, and live long in the memory. None of us is perfect, and we all have little quirks that we may display when we are speaking. The thing is, you are not there to be remembered for your strange turn of phrase or odd socks. Your aim is to be remembered for your message.

That's why attention to detail matters. It's also why you need to analyse your speeches on video, as well as taking feedback from trusted colleagues. That doesn't mean you have to appear in a bland, unadorned outfit and eliminate every bit of character from your voice. Far from it. It does mean that you have to be aware of how your audience is reacting to what you wear, how you move and how you speak, and to ensure that whatever quirk you display does not overwhelm your main purpose.

Every stand-up comedian knows that they need to draw attention to anything unusual about themselves as quickly as possible, and turn it into humour. It then ceases to be of any great interest to the audience. Speakers can do exactly the same thing, or even have it mentioned as part of their introduction.

Every time you are about to speak, check yourself out in a long mirror. If there's someone else around, ask them to check you over too. When you analyse your speeches, look out for over-used gestures or repeated phrases. Being aware of them will help you to stop them from being a distraction. Make sure that your message is the thing that is remembered.