Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Does the whole truth matter? - it's ARGOable.

There's always been a debate about the veracity of films "based on a true story", and one of the Oscar favourites, Argo, is no exception. It's a great story, and a cracking film, so does it matter if it changes the narrative for the sake of drama? 

Argo charts the story of six Americans who escape the storming of the US Embassy in Iran in 1979, are given a cover story by the CIA and pose as Canadian film-makers before making their escape. Though the basic story is true, in reality their cover was never threatened, and the role of the CIA in their escape has been somewhat enhanced. In reality, the escapees were initially sheltered in the British embassy, and then moved to the Canadian embassy where the role of the Canadian ambassador was crucial. In the film we see the fugitives turned away from the British embassy, and the Canadian ambassador is reduced to a bit-player in favour of the film's real hero, a CIA mastermind played by Ben Affleck, who also directed the film (in a manner deserving of an Oscar).

So what? Films are drama and entertainment, so what does it matter if they don't depict the whole truth? Provided that's how people see it, then there isn't a problem. However, the line between truth and fiction is a blurry one at the best of times, and some people are likely to see events through the lens of Hollywood and imagine that's how it was. Maybe films "based on a true story" should also include the word "loosely" or simply finish with a disclaimer that says 'look guys, this isn't really what happened, but trust us, it's way more exciting than the true story".

Which brings me to the world of speaking, where stories are told and re-told. Is it fair to change what actually happened in order to make a stronger point? I tend to think it is. All speakers embellish stories to increase the drama and interest. Sometimes we enhance the role of minor characters. Sometimes we shift the action to a more exotic location. Sometimes we even edit the dialogue we used at the time to make our point more strongly. I mean, who hasn't ever walked away from a conversation and then thought of exactly the bon mot they should have used at the time? What's more, who hasn't felt their eyes heavy with boredom listening to someone relate every single detail of a story which is completely true, yet stultifying?

So perhaps "based on a true story" is how we all communicate at times. Maybe we shouldn't criticise Mr Affleck at all, since he's made a terrific film and if he wins the Oscar, will do so deservedly.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Out of Africa - how to present like David Attenborough

David Attenborough is 86 years old, yet he's still making and presenting marvellous TV documentaries about the natural world. His latest opus, called simply "Africa" has become a must-see in our house. The photography is stunning, and David's narration is both low-key and informative. It made me think - "What is it that he does that comes across so well on TV?". Here's what I think it is: 

1) Simplicity, without condescension It's about using a simple vocabulary, yet explaining something new in a fascinating way. When you're in a TV interview, you're there to inform, not to impress. Communication is more important than demonstrating your vast expertise. 

2) A genuine interest in the topic There's no doubt that David is an enthusiast for his subject. He'd hardly have pursued it so long if not. The important thing is to show that enthusiasm without appearing to be obsessive. He hits the mark perfectly. If you aren't enthusiastic about your topic, or at the very least interested in it, viewers will notice. 

3) Humility One of the most endearing features about David is that he has retained both his sense of wonder and his humility. He never comes across as superior or all-knowing. He's clearly still learning, and is amazed by what he finds. It's a very important characteristic to remember, especially when being interviewed about a crisis. Always remain humble.

4) Planning None of the spectacular scenes in his documentaries just appear. They are filmed after long days of careful planning and patience. It's the same with interviews. You must plan, and you must be patient for your opportunity to make your point.

And if you haven't ever watched one of David Attenborough's programmes, I urge you to seek one out. 

Picture - Creative Commons License

Sunday, January 20, 2013

10 survival strategies for retailers

For 21 years, I was a consumer journalist, researching and reporting on the products and service from UK businesses. Some of my time was devoted to looking at retail outlets such as HMV and Comet. But that was some time ago now, when customers were plentiful, and all companies had to do was have stock in their shops, and a reasonably efficient way of taking people's money.

That was then. Now everything is different, with shop closures being announced on a daily basis. They are inevitable casualties of the way things are. But are they really? There are many retailers who are doing just fine. Is it the impact of the of the internet then? Well, maybe not that either, since only 9% of retail sales last year were online. Maybe it's the economy. Well, that makes some sense, since everyone is feeling the pinch, though the British Retail Consortium reported a 0.3% increase in like-for like retail sales in December 2012 compared to December 2011. That's not the harbinger of retail armageddon.

So what is going wrong? Why are some retailers going down like a house of cards while others are flush with success? 

I believe it's mainly to do with how the businesses are run. In short, it's a management failure. It's a failure to see how consumer expectations are changing. It's a failure to react to changes in consumer behaviour. It's a failure to blend online services into the in-store offering (what used to be called "clicks and mortar"). Most of all, it's a failure to recognise that simply having a shop full of stock, with low-paid and untrained staff is a fast-track to administration.

What do the survivors do that the casualties don't? Here's my checklist of ten key survival factors:

1) They treat their customers with respect.
2) They offer advice from well-trained expert staff.
3) They employ staff who are enthusiastic users of the products, and proud of them.
4) They incorporate online features into their shops, allowing ordering online and pickup in-store, as well as returns from online orders in the stores themselves.
5) They create shops that people want to visit.
6) They have thriving online communities, with staff offering advice.
7) They involve customers in decisions about service levels.
8) They create customer advocates.
9) They know exactly what their customers want.
10) They react immediately to customer demand.

You get the picture. If you don't, visit an Apple store, or Abercrombie and Fitch. The picture to the right shows part of the queue outside their store in Paris. People waited over an hour to get in. Do you think that store will survive?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Lance Armstrong - it's definitely not about the bike

I've just watched the first part of Oprah Winfrey's interview with Lance Armstrong. He admitted doping in the first 60 seconds. From then on, it was all about "justification". How can he possibly recover? Well, being honest is a start. He remarked that the doping operation "wasn't as big as the East German sporting programme". Er - that's not a justification, Lance. He gave some details of the doping scheme he was involved in, and described it as "smart". He explained his behaviour, but wasn't very apologetic. I don't recall hearing the word "sorry".

There was a weird exchange as Oprah questioned him about why he sued people who he knew was telling the truth. His reaction was odd; "I was on the attack" he said.

Oprah mentioned Floyd Landis, a former Armstrong teammate who won the 2006 Tour de France and then tested positive for testosterone, and had his title taken away. Armstrong said the "tipping point" in his fall from grace was Floyd Landis’ testimony.

“The comeback didn’t sit well with Floyd,” he remarked. Quite.

His body language throughout was very uncomfortable-looking, with crossed legs, arms in front of his body and poor eye contact. it looked as though he may still be lying, but who can tell?

It seems to me as though his ego is as large as ever, and despite a fairly soft encounter with Oprah Winfrey, his reputation is in tatters. Compulsive viewing though.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

HMV - How the Mighty Vanish...

Just over ninety years ago, Sir Edward Elgar spoke at the opening ceremony of a huge shop in Oxford Street. The Gramophone Company had decided it was time for a retail presence, and His Master's Voice, or HMV as it came to be known, was born. Now it looks as though the business is in its death throes. Yesterday, with a heavy heart, I blogged about the demise of Jessops Today it gives me little pleasure to repeat the eulogy for another former high street behemoth.

As I wrote yesterday, and has been well documented by retail experts, it's no real surprise that high street shops are going down like skittles. What I do find surprising, and not a little galling, is the failure of their management to react to changes around them. They carried on, Canute-like, as the waves of downloading and internet retailers washed over them.

Twelve years ago, I was in discussions with HMV managers at the Oxford Street shop. They had developed a system that allowed customers to make their own playlists from an immense database of music, and burn their own personalised CDs in the shop. They had a bank of half a dozen computers and several dedicated staff in the basement of the shop, with a huge display as part of trial. As a consumer journalist, I was invited to try the system out and report on it. Although it was clunky by today's standards, it was something no-one else was doing, and I was impressed. However, the project was cancelled after only a couple of months, as managers feared that if people could chose their own music one track at a time, they might stop buying single-artist CDs. What a pity. HMV had a chance to be a pioneer and they rejected it.

So what could HMV have done to avert the crisis? For one thing they could have embraced online sales much more enthusiastically. They could have created a huge buzz around new releases, with queues stretching along high streets. They could have moved into concert promotion. They could have offered free wifi in stores, with samples of songs and free downloads as part of the service. They could have held competitions for new bands. They could have developed an app with breaking music news and special offers. They could have done a whole lot more to make HMV a cool brand that people wanted to be associated with.

But they didn't. How the Mighty Vanish.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Cameras 0, Ukuleles 1 - why Jessops failed

To no-one's surprise, the last chain of specialist camera shops, Jessops, has clicked its final shutter and closed their darkroom door. 187 shops and 1,370 jobs are no more. As a camera enthusiast, I'm saddened. As an observer of business, I'm annoyed. Jessops failed to react to market trends and paid the ultimate price. The popular argument for their demise is twofold. Firstly, the presence of a camera in every smart phone meant that people no longer needed to buy cameras at all. Secondly, Jessops became a showroom for shoppers to view and try out cameras before buying them online. 

Let's consider the first point. Yes, most people have smart phones with cameras of excellent quality. People take pictures all the time. Yes, sales of digital cameras have fallen by 29% in the last five years (source: Mintel research) to a mere £598 million in 2012. So there's still a market of nearly £600 million for sellers of digital cameras, not to mention the lenses, tripods, memory cards and other accessories. Despite a potential market of nearly a thousand million pounds, Jessops has thrown in the towel.

OK, maybe it was the second reason, online sales. There's no doubt that consumers use retail shops as places to browse and select goods before buying them at lower prices from online retailers. Maybe that's the real reason for Jessop's closure.

Which brings me to ukuleles. To be more precise, it brings me to a small shop just off Brick Lane in East London called the Duke of Uke. To no-one's surprise, it sells ukuleles, ukulele music and ukulele accessories. That's about it. It's very easy to find and buy ukuleles cheaper online, yet the shop thrives. Why? It's because of how they treat the customer. I visited the shop with my teenage daughter just before Christmas because she wanted a ukulele as a present. When we arrived, a couple of young women were singing beautifully while a chap behind the counter accompanied them on a large and sonorous uke. We waited until the song was over, applauded, and then sought advice. The staff couldn't have been more helpful. They explained the different types of ukuleles, let us practice with them, and gave us advice on tutorial guides and sheet music. In short, they were brilliant, and gave us a level of service you couldn't get anywhere near on a website.

So back to Jessops. Faced with a shrinking, but still huge, market, and competition based on price, they did nothing. My experience with them was that staff were poorly trained, had little knowledge of what was in the shop ("if it's not on display we haven't got it"), and weren't very skilled at using the cameras they were selling. They did re-launch their customer training program (Jessops Training Academy) in July 2012, but reports from attendees were somewhat mixed. In short, Jessops unlike the Duke of Uke, failed to become the Sultans of SLRs. What a great pity.

Are you a Jack (or Jill) of all trades? Oh dear.

It's understandable, especially when times are hard and work is hard to come by, that people will grab any offer of paid business that presents itself. After all, if someone is offering to pay for your services, it would be a crime to turn them away, wouldn't it? Well, that depends. If you're looking for someone to do some work for you, I suspect you'd want a specialist - someone with a great deal of expertise in the work you want to pay them for. The people who employ you want the same thing. If you're offered something which is outside your competence, requiring skills and knowledge you don't possess, the best thing to do is to politely decline, and recommend someone with the right skills and knowledge. 

Alas, many people short-change not only their clients, but also themselves by taking on work that they aren't suited to. That's no way to build a long career, or to get recommended.

I see it happening with speakers, especially those early in their career, who understandably want to speak as much as possible. Of course, it's always possible to bluff your way through a gig, but how authentic is that? Another approach, which I see used across professional services, is to respond to a request by saying "I know you asked for that, but what you really need is this - and that's what I do". In my opinion, that's just as bad, if not worse, since it's suggesting that the potential client has no idea what they want.

So if you're trying to be a Jack or Jill of all trades, think again. The most successful professionals are those who specialise in a small niche, so that they not only have a huge body of knowledge, but everyone knows what they do. They are the people who get recommended. They are the people who can charge the highest fees, because they offer the highest value. So find your niche, stay in it and become the best there is. Then you will never again have to take work that you really shouldn't do.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Speakers - 7 ways to be like Michael MacIntyre

The highest-earning stand-up comedian in the world last year was Michael MacIntyre, with an estimated income of twenty-one million pounds from his nationwide tour and product sales. That's pretty good going for a man who skips on stage and tells a few stories. I watched him live last month, and noticed seven things that we can all emulate in our speeches. 

1) Be in the moment One of the things that Michael does brilliantly is to react to what is happening. He prompts this by asking questions of people in the audience, and returning to them at points throughout his act. Remembering names and comments is a crucial skill, and helps to keep the whole audience feeling "connected". 

2) Use your own stories You will never hear someone else's joke or story at one of Michael's gigs. All of his stories are personal experiences, though they have always been embellished to create more humour. Speakers can do exactly the same thing by keeping the essential truth of a personal story, while adding elements that engage and entertain. 

3) Change your material Everyone knows that wherever he appears, Michael starts by announcing that he's in his favourite city. It's become a standing joke and always gets a laugh. However, he then goes on to include local references before returning to his regular material. When speaking, it's always a good idea to include something local and/or topical to show that you aren't just turning out the same old stuff. 

4) Stick with it  Despite the allure of X Factor, there is no real overnight success. Everyone who makes it to the top of their profession, just as Michael has, knows that it takes hard work and a lot of repetition. You need to learn the basics, add your own uniqueness. and practice, practice, practice. 

5) Develop your own style Many people start out by copying other successful artists. That's OK if you're an impersonator (in fact essential), but otherwise you need to develop your own unique style. That's what people want to see. No-one else arrives on stage like Michael.

6) Try out material, and cut out the rubbish All performers include new material to find out how an audience will react. Michael tries out his routines in small venues before using them in his big tours. He keeps what works, and discards what doesn't. Successful speakers do the same.

7) It's not just about stage time Your audience will want to take you home (some literally), so you owe it to them to do what Michael does, and offer DVDs and books. It's a way of keeping the connection off-stage as well as on-stage/

You may not earn over twenty million (though I hope you do), but you can make your audiences more appreciative. 

Image of Michael MacIntyre - Creative Commons via Last.FM

Saturday, January 05, 2013

12 things to try in 2013

It's a New year, and time to try out some new stuff. Here's my advice for speaking, media and social media, which is the stuff that I know about. There are 12 things, some of which you may already do. No matter, just pick one you haven't tried yet and give it a go. Good luck, and have a terrific year.

3 speaking things

1) Drop the PowerPoint OK, maybe not every slide. But if you're a slide user, think about how you would present if you had no visuals. It happened to me last year when I spoke at a TEDx event and the projection system failed. However, no-one except the other professional speaker who was there noticed my brief look of panic, and all was well. So, maybe just for one speech, forget the slides. (Or if you never use slides, try working one or two into your speech). 

2) Use the back-channel Encourage your audience to use Twitter, Facebook and online surveys to record their thoughts during your speech. If you're feeling brave, interact with them directly, and work their comments into your content. They're going to be using social networks during your speech anyway, so try to join them there too.

3) Use video feedback There's huge value in watching your speeches on video, and analysing what works and what doesn't. Aim to video (and watch) as many of your speeches as you can. You will see improvements immediately.

4 media things

4) Know your organisation Yes, of course you know what your organisation does. But if you were asked detailed questions about its past activities and future plans, would you sound knowledgeable? I always recommend to my clients that every media spokesperson should have a one-page company background sheet with them at all times. It needs to be updated and re-issued regularly (now is a good time), so that everyone is informed and up-to-date. 

5) Keep ahead of the competition People used to say "knowledge is power". It's still true. Aim to keep up to date with your rivals' activity by setting up Google alerts on their company and products. You will find that you are often better informed about their business than their own media spokespeople.

6) Listen to other experts Make sure that you have feeds set up to provide you with the thoughts of other experts in your area. They will let you know what the big issues are, and what the prevailing mood is.

7) Upload your own shows These days, anyone can set up a video or audio archive, and live streaming is much easier than it used to be. If you can't get on TV or radio, make your own.

5 social media things

8) Google hangouts Google+ provides the opportunity for live video chats with a group of people. Many experts are now using scheduled chats to demonstrate their services and help others. It's a great thing to try. 

9) Facebook groups A lot of the real interaction on Facebook is happening in the groups. They are easy to set up and run, so why not create one in your area of expertise?

10) Twitter chats These have been around for some time, and attract hundreds of users who gather at the same time each week to exchange information and answer questions. Being the organiser is a great way to position yourself as an expert.

11) Go live on YouTube Live streaming on YouTube lets you broadcast just as though you were on TV, and your audience will probably be more engaged.

12) Blog controversially People love to hear a well-argued contrary view. Pick one issue each week and write your own alternative view on it. You will quickly build a following.