Thursday, June 28, 2012

A tribute to Kenny Harris

Kenny Harris, creativity expert, speaker and all-round great bloke, passed away on Wednesday. He leaves behind a loving family and many, many friends grateful for his presence.

Kenny was he funniest guy I ever met, not to mention being a creative genius. His company, Headsurfing, had clients all over the UK grateful for the shots of creativity he provided. His commitment to the speaking profession was evidenced by the fact that he kept the Scottish region of the Professional Speaking Association running by putting in his own money. On stage, he had audiences crying tears of laughter as he delivered line after line of original humour.

He was my best friend in the speaking world since the day we met at our first speaking conference many years ago. We shared many long slightly woozy evenings together and through our long-standing mastermind group with Lesley Everett and Sean Weafer, were the greatest influence on each others' success in business.

We will all miss him terribly. My thoughts go to his wife Diane and his children Alex and Ellen, as well as the rest of his close-knit family.

Kenny, you were a gem.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chloe Smith in the Paxman's Den.

George Osborne sent Chloe Smith, one of his Treasury ministers, to her political doom on Tuesday by putting her up against veteran interlocutor Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Maybe the chancellor was washing his hair, or perhaps there was something the Osbornes had Sky Plused and the takeaway curry was already ordered. Whatever the reason, it was a humbling experience for Ms Smith, who got both barrels from Mr Paxman, squarely between the eyes.

It's one of those interviews that will be replayed over and over again, not least on media training courses run by people like me, showing how an interview can go horribly, horribly wrong. If you can bear to watch the video above (I suggest for the faint-hearted that behind the sofa, or at least through your fingers would be the appropriate pose), you will see an interviewee being torn into strips, then shredded again, and finally left a quivering wreck on a studio chair.

So what went wrong? Here are five things I noticed.

1) The Chancellor should have been the one in the chair. A u-turn on a major piece of Government policy, with cost implications of half a billion pounds is a big issue,. Big issues need big hitters.

2) Ms Smith should have been better prepared. She clearly had no idea how to respond to the most obvious questions. Whoever preps MPs at the Treasury for tricky interviews must have also gone missing last night.

3) There should have been a Government line that Ms Smith knew and stuck to. She was clearly discomfited by the simplest questions, such as "When were you told about this change of policy?"

4) The Government should have provided a briefing in advance with facts, figures and explanations. Ms Smith could simply have referred to that in her answer.

5) Someone needs to remind Ms Smith that the reason for doing an interview is to put up a strong case, not be on the defensive. Drivers and haulage companies will be delighted by the change of policy (There's a quote she should have used), and she should have made much more of the benefits, dismissing Paxman's jibes about process and timing.

I feel very sorry for Chloe Smith. That YouTube video will haunt her political career for years to come. It's already been filed under "classically bad interviews" by many of us. I wonder if George Osborne enjoyed the curry?

The 7 deadly assumptions of speaking

There are many ways make your presentation better, and I often post my thoughts which may help other speakers. From time to time (this time to be precise), I like to recommend what NOT to do when you're presenting. So here are my seven deadly assumptions to be avoided by all speakers at all times. 

1) One speech fits all. No it doesn't. Every audience is different, and even if you are telling them the same story, you need to consider their interests and background.

2) More is better. Trying to pack in a huge amount of information is counter-productive. It's far better to focus on the key message that will be of most benefit. 

3) You're there to impress. Your sparkling wit and well-crafted visuals may be impressive, but that's not the reason you're there. It's about serving the needs of the audience.

4) You don't always need to prepare. You should prepare for every speech. You're there to deliver your best performance, every time. 

5) You're there to speak, they're there to listen. Not any more. Audiences are much keener to interact, whether via direct questions or social media. You need to be ready to engage with them.

6) You're not expected to be there all day. Just being there for a few minutes before and after your speech is short-changing an audience. They and you will benefit from a longer stay. 

7) You're the most important person in the room. You know this isn't true. The only successful speech is one that the audience benefited from. That makes them the focus of attention.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Stephen Hester, RBS - Should he stay or should he go?

The shambles resulting from a failed computer update at RBS, NatWest and Ulster Bank is now extending to a week, and there are predictions that the knock-on effects and compensation claims may last for months. It's now been revealed that "control" of the failed update was with a support team based in India. RBS has denied that their outsourcing programme has anything to do with the disaster.

Since Mr Hester took the helm at RBS following the interesting stewardship of Fred Goodwin, 30,000 jobs have been shed, and thousands of posts outsourced to cheaper locations. The current debacle seems to have involved the deletion of critical files on two successive nightly "updates". Was no-one watching what was going on? The re-processing in sequence of all the failed transactions is one reason for the slow recovery, but surely there should have been better checks in place?

Hundreds of thousands of people are inconvenienced, out of pocket, and may have their credit ratings damaged by this fiasco. However, the highly-paid executives at the top of the banks will have little problem paying their weekly bills, and are no doubt still looking forward to tidy bonuses as a result of their work. I find it inconceivable that a CEO presiding over one of the worst banking cock-ups in recent memory should even consider holding his hand out for a seven-figure bonus. At least bank robbers have the decency to wear a mask before heading off into the distance with our cash.

But it's not just about bonuses. A CEO is the person with whom responsibility rests when a company fails to serve its customers. If I was in Stephen Hester's shoes, I would be pondering the words of the great Wandsworth philosopher Mick Jones; "Should I stay or should I go?"

Monday, June 25, 2012

Speakers: Tips to hit the ground running

I picked up my Olympic volunteer uniform this week (no, there won't be a picture for a while, it's not exactly fashionable). It set me to thinking about the athletes who will be turning up to compete this summer. They will be doing everything possible to be on top form when the starting pistol is fired. So should you when you're a speaker. You can't be at your best if you wander in a few minutes before your speech and expect everything to work perfectly.
So here are some tips to help you hit the ground (or the stage) running.

  • Plan everything well in advance - including travel arrangements
  • If you use slides, have several backup copies, both electronically and on paper
  • Aim to arrive several hours before your speech
  • Meet the organiser and run through all the timings
  • Meet the technicians and do a sound check
  • Rehearse any technology switches or microphone swaps
  • Practice your walk on and off stage, as well as moving around on it
  • Just before your speech, warm up your voice (well away from any mikes)
  • Do some physical exercises to warm up your body
  • Hit the stage with a smile
In short, never go on stage "cold". You need to be on top-form from the moment you deliver your first line.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

RBS, NatWest, Ulster Bank - Banking makes you go blind

Once upon a time, banks were at the centre of communities. The local bank manager was a well-known and respected figure, and it was possible to go into your branch and be greeted by name. Both personal and business accounts were administered by kindly, bespectacled clerks who were sympathetic to peoples' circumstances. All was well.

But that was long ago and far away. For many years, banks have turned their interests to complex financial systems and call centres with automated responses and interminable waiting times. Despite their adverts, with smiling bank staff singing rubbish versions of pop hits from 20 years ago, and grinning actors talking about "personal service", banks have lost their souls.

We now have the spectre of NatWest, RBS and Ulster Bank wringing their hands and offering media apologies for a catastrophic breakdown of their systems. Millions of people have no idea what is happening to their accounts. There still has been no clear explanation of what went wrong. I'm surprised that it took several days until RBS chief executive Stephen Hester issued an apology to customers. He should have spoken out immediately the problem was observed. That's what CEOs should do. A statement on the RBS website says "We can assure our customers that this problem is strictly of a technical nature..". I have no idea what that means, or how is is supposed to reassure anyone. Do they mean no humans were involved? Was it those pesky computers that did it?

The thing is, banks lost sight of the interests of their personal and small business customers years ago. If this glitch had affected systems that service massive international money movements, it would have been fixed very quickly. The whole shambles is evidence that banking makes you go blind.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Jimmy Carr and the decline of Western Civilisation

It's all Jimmy Carr's fault. And maybe Gary Barlow too, though he writes songs for The Queen, so we may let him off (even if he rhymes "sing it clearer with "everyone will hear yer"). How foolish we were not to notice what was happening. While many of us were focused on enormous severance packages paid to CEOs whose companies were failing, massive bonuses "earned" by people who simply moved money from one place to another by pressing a button, and dreadful financial decisions by governments, it was the entertainers who let us down. 

After all this time, it's taken a fearless investigation by The Thunderer, in the spirit of the old Sunday Times Insight team, to uncover that fact that an entertainer has been taking the advice of an accountant who he paid to deliver - er - advice. A shocking revelation. Even David Cameron has been taken aback by the scale of the scandal. In fact, he's been literally dumbstruck, and therefore unable to comment at all on apparently similar practices by people he knows well. 

Mr Carr has now accepted responsibility for the enormous damage that his thoughtless actions have wrought. He is believed to be changing his stage name to Mr Bicycle to reflect his contrition. It's even rumoured that on his forthcoming tour he may offer to pay the taxes of everyone in his audience. But it may not be enough. There may need to be a radical solution.

So here's the idea. We're all feeling pretty low right now. It's pouring with rain everywhere. We're all running up frightening credit card bills. Have I Got News for You has finished its run. We need cheering up, and people like Jimmy Carr can do it. I'm proposing a tax amnesty for comedians until we all feel better. Happy people work harder, produce more, and don't turn to crime. Jimmy Carr, and comics like him, should be national heroes. We need him in this dark hour. We could even extend the amnesty to Gary Barlow, but he has to promise to write proper rhymes in future.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Midge Ure special

Here's the latest Media Coach Radio Show featuring an interview with Midge Ure and music from Ultravox

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's all new to someone

It's easy to become a bit lazy in media interviews, especially if you are doing a number back-to-back. It's very important to remember that many of your audience will be hearing your message for the first time, and so you need to explain it in the simplest terms. You should never assume any prior knowledge of your organisation unless you work for a household name, and even then it does no harm to remind people what you do. 

There's a simple three-part formula that ensures you place your message in the appropriate context:

1) Remind people of the purpose of your organisation. For example, a spokesperson for a supermarket may say "Our aim has always been to deliver the freshest food at the lowest prices"

2) Summarise your achievements to date. This need not be a long list of awards, but simply a statement such as "For the past five years, we have had a higher percentage of repeat customers than any other car dealer in London"

3) Make a promise. Of course, this must be something you are certain that you can deliver (or may already be delivering but haven't publicised yet). An example might be "We aim to ensure that no caller waits for more than thirty seconds before having their call answered"

You may have a specific message in addition to the statements above. That's fine, as long as you remember that many people are hearing it for the first time too.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Do not Tweet like The Queen

To be fair, The Queen doesn't tweet at all. Someone tweets on her behalf. I'm not sure it's a generational thing, more likely an appropriate use of time. She has a lot of ribbons to cut, plaques to unveil and people to give awards to. It would be too much to expect for her to have digital chats on her royal iPhone with the likes of us.

So how does the royal tweeter-in-chief (whoever they are) engage with the twitterverse? Not much, according to their tweet stream. They are almost exclusively a broadcaster, though they have been retweeting lately, but only tweets with the hashtag #DiamondJubilee. There's been a bit more activity from Clarence House, who have even set up a Storify collection from followers' Jubilee stories.

My advice is to do the opposite of the royal tweeters. In short:

  • Tweet more often about other people's content rather than yours
  • Get involved in real-time conversations with other tweeters
  • Don't set yourself up as being more important than other tweeters
  • Base your retweets on valuable content rather than hashtags
  • Offer advice rather than just information
  • Tweet regularly, not just on special occasions
  • Use informal language (not slang)
  • Vary the format of your tweets
  • If tweeting on behalf of an organisation, identify yourself