Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Media Coach 1st March 2103

Hints and tips for media appearances, speaking and social media. This week; St David; Our Oscar speech winner; Jennifer Lawrence; Haven’t you run before?; Talk with your audience, not at them; Plan your answers; Listen all the time; An interview with Vinny Verelli; Music from Jim Boggia

Check out this episode!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

George Orwell's five principles of communication.

Sixty-seven years ago, Eric Arthur Blair, under his pen name, George Orwell, wrote an essay called "Politics and the English language", in which he set out five principles of clear communication. His essay was aimed at writers, but the principles apply equally well to spoken communication, and speakers would do well to consider them when constructing and delivering speeches.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Although these phrases are in common use - "It's not rocket science", "Out of the box thinking" etc, etc., they have lost their impact. Try to be original to make the listener sit up and think, or don't use metaphors at all.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. This is set in the brain of all newspaper sub-editors. It's just as easy (in fact easier) to state a message in simple words as in complex language.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. People use "filler words" in speech all the time - "Actually", "To be perfectly honest". These words and phrases have no meaning, and no place in your communication.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. For example; Active: The dog bit the man. Passive: The man was bitten by the dog.The word "by" often indicates that a sentence is passive. Active communication is more direct and easier to understand.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. I see this rule broken most often. English is such a rich language, there is no need to resort to another.

However, George also added a sixth catch-all principle:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I agree, and think that the bonus principle is most important of all. As the song goes "If you can't say anything real nice, It's better not to talk at all, is my advice". That doesn't mean you have to be nicey-nicey all the time, but name-calling and abuse is a poor approach.

Now, having set out the rules, I'm sure I'll break a few of them from time to time. So will you (and so did George). But as guidance for good communication, I'm signed up to them.

Picture credit: Creative Commons

Friday, February 22, 2013

Crucial advice for Oscar nominees #Oscars

Dear Nominee,

Here's some advice now you're on the Oscar shortlist for an award. It won't take long to read, and it is very simple to apply. It will avoid you embarrassing yourself, the audience, and us, and make the evening much more memorable for everyone. Thank you.

Our parents taught us to always say thank you. It's the right thing to do. If you win an award, here are some things to think about when you deliver your speech of thanks.

  1. Stay on time. If you have no guidelines, two minutes is enough.
  2. Stay relevant. Talk about the award, not your life story.
  3. Thank people who have helped you. It needn't be a long list, simply mention the three or four most significant, and add "and many others I don't have time to mention"
  4. Be humble. Winning an award is an honour, not an expectation.
  5. Avoid jokes. You're not there to do stand-up comedy.
  6. Avoid notes. You can easily speak for two minutes without prompts.
  7. Be sincere. And no, you can't fake that.
  8. Say how you feel. Being a little teary is OK. Blubbing constantly isn't.
  9. Be gracious. Praise the others on the short-list
  10. Remember to thank your hosts. First and last.
Lastly, smile as you return to your seat. You are entitled to! 

Picture Credit: Creative Commons

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Media Coach 22nd February 2013

Hints and tips for media appearances, speaking and social media. This week; The Baftas; The Oscars; A competition; Kevin Ayers; James Corden; Thank you very much!; We’ve won an award; Social Media Awards 2012; An interview with Thom Singer; Music from Katie Sutherland.

Check out this episode!

Once more unto the Britzzzzzz.... #BritAwards2013

The O2 was filled last night with the great and good of the music industry, handing each other small spotty statuettes designed by Damien Hirst. That was about the most edgy aspect of the Brit Awards, which used to be the enfant terrible of awards ceremonies, but now out-dulls the annual conference of forensic accountants (which is quite a knees-up by all accounts). The staging was spectacular, especially in the opening crescendo from Muse, but the whole event put me in mind of the old theatrical saw "the audience left humming the scenery".

James Corden is a gifted comic actor and a talented writer. His performance as "Smiffy" at the BBC Sports Personality Awards was a masterclass in comedy. Alas, his MC performance at The Brits was somewhere between a rabbit in the headlights and a geography teacher at parents' evening. Maybe it was his tonsilitis, a lack of rehearsal, or over-reliance on the autocue. His timing on the gag lines removed much of the humour (and there wasn't much). The script may well have been one left over from a Eurovision Song Contest, with most of the jokes carefully removed. Where are Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood when you need them?

The musical performances were all designed as mini-spectaculars, and everyone (except Muse and Emeli Sande) looked miffed that they weren't opening or closing the show. The huge stage extension into the arena seemed to be a challenge to most, with a mad race out and back during the middle eight. Some of them even made it back before the chorus.

As for the award winners, that's a matter of personal taste and judgement. Having seen The Rolling Stones in the very same arena a few months ago, I'm more than a little surprised that Coldplay edged them out of the "best live act" award. The lifetime achievement award was scrapped - presumably careers are too short these days, and replaced by the "Global Success Award', to ensure that One Direction turned up to collect it. 

It was hard to argue with the destination of most of the awards, but where were moments like Oasis taunting Blur, or Chumbawumba dousing John Prescott, or Vic Reeves playing microphone wrestling with Sharon Osbourne? These days, we just have to listen to the bland, as the record company executives nod sagely. The Brits are no longer a rebellious teenager, and have grown up to become a train spotter in a nylon anorak (actually that's a bit unfair to train-spotters).

For me, as a professional speaker and media bloke, the acceptance speeches were even more dire than usual. Does it not occur to people on a short-list of five that they might win, and therefore should have prepared a few appropriate words? Obviously not. Most winners shuffled about looking nervous and embarrassed, said "er - thanks" and wandered off. Quite remarkable when you think that they earn their corn on stage in front of huge audiences. 

As Danny Baker, the Pepys of our times, pointed out from his vantage point in the middle of the sorry debacle (I may be paraphrasing slightly) "If this was the day the music died, The Brits will be taken in for questioning".

Picture Credit : Alan Stevens

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

10 things that event planners do to upset speakers

I hope this is not a career-damaging article. It's not intended to be. It has been compiled following a challenge from two fellow members of MPI (Meeting Professionals International). Since I have a foot in the camps of both professional speakers and professional meeting planners, I hope both groups will forgive me. The idea is to make the relationship more harmonious, honestly.

So here’s my list:

1) No confirmation of the event. A booking has been made months ahead, it’s in pencil in the speaker’s diary, but there is no further communication until a week before the gig.

2) Sudden re-organisation of the agenda. An opening keynote becomes a closing keynote, or a workshop becomes a breakfast seminar. The last person to know may be the speaker.

3) No time for rehearsal. A professional speaker will always want to run a sound check and room check well before their speech.

4) No-fee events, with no obvious benefit to the speaker. There may be promises of “great networking opportunities”, but when the tea and biscuits cost more than a top-quality speaker, something is wrong.

5) Filming the speaker without permission (or a release form which gives away the speaker’s copyright). This should never happen, and should be negotiated in advance.

6) Telling the speaker as they begin “Can you cut your speech by 20 minutes” or “can you keep going until coffee – the next speaker hasn’t arrived”

7) Demanding copies of slides three months in advance. Many speakers don’t use slides. Some event planners don’t understand that

8) No briefing for the speakers, or no contact with the end client. This is all too common, and can lead to a mismatch between speaker and audience. Building a relationship between speaker and client is crucial.

9) No speaker liaison person and no response to enquiries from speakers.

10) Late cancellations and subsequent debates about cancellation fees.

Other than that, everything is fine! Of course, the above happen only rarely – but I hope they never happen to you.

And yes, there'll be a piece shortly on what speakers do to upset event planners. 

Saturday, February 09, 2013

"My kingdom for a burger, lasagne, etc..."

Richard III would have been spinning under his car park, if he hadn't been rudely awakened recently. Of course, he wasn't looking for a horse to eat, but then nor were the customers of Tesco and Aldi, or those who favour popping a Findus ready meal in the microwave. Of course, one option is not to eat meat, but how dull that would be. Due respect to vegetarians and vegans, but I'd give a kingdom for a bacon sandwich or a rare, pink fillet steak (with known provenance, of course).

Whether it's an international criminal conspiracy, a lack of control, or an attempt to cut costs along the food chain (horse meat is much cheaper than beef, apparently), both the supermarkets and the producers now have a reputation problem. So what should they do? Here are my ten steps of reputation management:
  1. Recognise that you have a crisis
  2. Prepare for senior staff being door-stepped and ambushed by reporters
  3. Be seen and heard doing the right things
  4. The media must not be ignored during a crisis. TV is the most important medium
  5. Set up a communication process with the media as quickly as possible
  6. The most senior staff must take charge and be seen as company spokespeople
  7. Talk about the impact on people first
  8. Focus on your feelings about the situation, and how it will be prevented from  happening again
  9. Become the single most authoritative source of information about the crisis
  10. Keep a close eye on media coverage, and take every opportunity to correct inaccurate reporting

I'm not convinced that any of the key players have done all of the above. Perhaps they should give me a call.

Picture copyright Alan Stevens

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Bad words and biscuits. How to handle aggressive questions.

One of the worst nightmares of speakers and presenters is someone in the audience who asks as hostile question. However, there is a technique you can use to defuse even the most angry interrogator. 

Firstly, do not assume that a question is hostile because it is asked in a hostile way. Separate the content of the question from the manner in which it is asked.

Secondly, there is a very effective technique known as “neutral rephrasing” which you can use to remove the hostility from questions. It works like this:

If someone asks a very hostile question, possibly using strong language, you listen carefully and respectfully, and then say “let me see if I understand exactly what you are asking”. Of course, you probably understand their question perfectly, but this phrase allows you a brief time to think, and to create the second phase of the technique.

You then re-phrase the question they have asked, but using non-hostile language. For example, they may have said “You’re hopeless. You clearly haven’t got the faintest idea about the issues here, and you sound like a complete idiot. What can an ill-informed person like you possibly have to offer”. You reply with; “Thank you for the question. Let me see if I understand exactly what you are asking. You suspect that I don’t fully understand the situation here, and therefore may not be able to help. Let me explain what I do know, how I came to my conclusions, and why I think they represent a valuable approach”.  

As you deliver your response, the questioner will nod in agreement, sensing that you have understood the question, and therefore will have to answer it. In their mind, they are still hearing the question they asked. However, the rest of the audience hears your rephrasing of the question, which has removed the hostility.

You then answer your rephrased question as fully as possible, in a calm and measured way. The angry questioner can't claim that you didn't answer their point. The audience will be impressed that you responded in a respectful manner. There are now only two possible outcomes. Either the questioner accepts your response (possibly with a scowl, but that's their problem), or they become aggressive again, which will do them no good, since the audience is now on your side.
One last thing. This is a technique to use sparingly. If you answer every question with a plea for clarification, you won't impress anyone. As the phrase goes, it's a biscuit to keep in your pocket for when you are really hungry.

Picture copyright Alan Stevens 2013

Monday, February 04, 2013

"An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told" (Richard III, Shakespeare)

It's a pity that Leicester University researchers didn't heed this blog's title, which was dialogue given by Shakespeare to Queen Elizabeth in his play Richard III (Act 4, Scene 4). If they had thought about things in more detail, they may have realised that keeping the assembled hacks at a press conference in suspense about the skeleton found under a Leicester car park may have been a mistake. There had been much excitement when the skeleton was found, with speculation that it was that of the last Plantaganet king of England. The press conference was the "reveal", but the researchers were coy to begin with, planning a big announcement as the event concluded.

Alas, academics aren't aware of the pressure of 24-hour news, and the hierarchy that naturally occurs as stories break. Before they could say "Richard Crookback", a fair proportion of the assembled media had headed for the door. The reason was that their iPhones had buzzed with the news that former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne had pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice, which is a far bigger honeypot for media bees than even a rediscovered royal. 

Mr Huhne, you may recall, had apparently persuaded his former wife to pretend she was driving his car when he was caught for speeding on the M11 between Stansted Airport and London. After ten years of claim and counter-claim, he's finally admitted his  guilt, and could even go to prison as a result.

Back to King Richard III. What's the message? If you've got news to share, don't tease the media with it. Tell them the big headline to grab their interest, and then talk in more detail.

As for Mr Huhne, archaeologists are now speculating that the remains of his career are buried under the M11 in Essex.

By the way, many thanks to my good pal Andy Lopata for alerting me to this story.

Are you a bargain basement speaker?

One of the first questions speakers are asked is "What's your fee?". Of course, seasoned negotiators know that discussing the price before the benefits is a poor strategy, so your response is often about what you can offer, what others pay for your services, and the disadvantages of not hiring you. So you dance around the fee question, discussing topics, timings, venue and the huge list of outcomes that your speech offers.

However, at some point you have to deliver the news, and that's the point when you may start to get the "fee nerves". Even if you have charged the fee before, there may be a little voice in the back of your head saying "Don't go higher than they can afford, or you'll lose the gig". You try to second-guess their budget (assuming they've ducked your "what's your budget" question), which inevitably means that you offer them a reduced fee that you think they can afford.

Here are a few rules that may help you through that moment:

1. Stick to your fee
2. Don't cut your fee
3. See rule 1

Even if they say an initial "no" to your full fee, there is plenty of room to negotiate around the deal without cutting your fee. If they say an immediate "yes" to your reduced fee, how will that feel? You'll never know if they would have agreed to pay what you believe you are worth.

Your full fee represents the value that you believe you deliver to clients. That's what you tell people when they ask. You're not a bargain basement speaker, are you?

Picture copyright Alan Stevens 

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Calling all conference speakers...

Of all the feedback that I hear about speakers, the most critical emerges from the conference circuit. There are, of course, some brilliant conference speakers (including you), but there is also a huge army of ne'er-do-wells who trudge from platform to platform, curing any semblance of insomnia in all but a few of their audience members. 

It shouldn't be like this. You would never bore an audience, so why should you have to listen to terminally dull speeches? I believe that often it is down to speaker and topic selection. It's tough for a speaker to connect with an audience that does not care about their topic. However, the responsibility lies not just with the conference organiser. If you are asked to speak on a topic which is not part of your core expertise, you should politely decline and recommend someone else. That's what professionals do.

It's tough to turn down a gig, particularly a well-paid one. But it will benefit you in the long run. People want to book speakers with specialist expertise. Generalists, (or worse, people with little knowledge) will receive fewer enquiries, and fewer bookings. 

Here are a few tips about conference speaking that will make it likely you are asked back: 

  • Work with the organiser to deliver what they need
  • Research the audience to find out their interests
  • Keep the number of slides low, and favour images, not text
  • Be entertaining as well as informative
  • Listen to the earlier speakers, and back-refer
  • Stay around for a few hours after your speech to chat to delegates
  • Leave something behind - a fact sheet or the slides of your talk
  • Ask for feedback (and take note)