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.