I’m Fed Up with Boring Presentations

In a world that expects the wit of Jimmy Fallon, the wisdom of a TED talk and the visual stimulation of Snapchat, giving a PowerPoint presentation with complicated graphs and bullet points sheds about as much light as a birthday candle in a coal mine. If you can’t give a straightforward, dynamic and passionate presentation you should stay home because you are wasting your time and turning everyone in the audience against you.

And don’t give me that crap about the need to cite references and give detailed explanations.

A video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explaining quantum computing went viral.  He did it in 35 seconds. A few days later a university professor said on CBC radio that Trudeau did a pretty good job.

You probably already know the difference between a great and a horrible presentation. It’s the difference between being held hostage for 20 minutes at a boring meeting versus 40 minutes of thoughtful bliss as a speaker paints evocative words and ideas that make you forget about checking your cell phone. It’s passion, not a 20 data point chart that gets you excited.

A presentation is not a peer-reviewed paper. It is not a university thesis. It is not an engineering stress test report. It is not a learned legal opinion. A presentation is a conversation and an exchange of ideas between you and an audience. If the presentation is done well, it will entice the audience to seek out and discover more about the topic.

Most importantly though, a presentation is not a document. If you are printing out your slides to leave behind as a hand-out you’re doing it wrong. Think about this: If people can read the printout (in about five minutes) and get what your point is then why the hell did they spend 20 minutes listening to you?

When you’re speaking, the only thing on a screen behind you should be a visual that supports what you’re saying. If there are words on the screen, the audience will read them and stop listening to you. Several studies have shown that comprehension and retention plummet if you put words on a screen and then read them to your audience.

Professor John Sweller has been studying teaching methods for more than a dozen years and says that when the audience has its attention split between what you say and what they read they are less likely to remember anything. Professor Richard Mayer reached a similar conclusion; that listening to spoken narration without text on a screen increases understanding by 79%.

Stories will always be more compelling than a chart of facts and figures. Just ask any kid at bedtime.

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A Presentation is like a Love Letter

Doing a presentation without thinking of your audience is like starting a love letter with “To whom it may concern”.

Even if you’re trying to convey the same messages to different audiences, you will be much more effective if your presentation is personalized to the people you are trying to engage.

Whenever I’m asked to speak, I ask a lot of questions about the audience; what’s the age range, the gender makeup, experience, background and more. I want to be able to form a mental picture of the people I’ll be speaking to so that I can bring stories and examples they will understand and enjoy.

Then, I start at the end of my presentation. I think about the audience and decide what I want them to be thinking or doing when my talk is over. I set a goal. I imagine their acceptance of a concept or an idea that they hadn’t considered before. Everything in my presentation must lead to that conclusion and the more my material is relevant to my audience, the more persuasive I will be.

If I’m speaking to employees of a specific company or organization I try to understand its work and look for recent examples either directly from the group or from their field of interest. If the company works in aviation for example I will illustrate my points with examples taken from that industry.

Even including recent events of significance to the audience is useful. Right after an election or a major news event, I might make reference to it where appropriate to my audience.

If I can’t find out much about my audience, I will often start my talk by asking them a few short questions. Someone will likely tell me of a key event or situation that I can reference back to throughout my talk.

So to go back to my imaginary love letter, imagine how effective it would be if you waxed on about your partner’s beautiful brown eyes . . . and they were blue.

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3 Signs You’ve Hired a Horrible Media Trainer

1) Tells War Stories. Years ago, when ex-journalists became media trainers they would spend a full day or even two days revealing the mysteries of their craft. The journalist sometimes spent a full morning talking about how great an interviewer he or she was and revealed “behind the scenes” secrets of interviews with famous people.

Sometimes the media trainers would show a funny video from the Bob Newhart show of the affable doctor being cornered with tough questions from a TV host. It was all very entertaining but not very useful.

Clients today are busy people and not as star-struck with the media as they were in the past. A good media trainer today talks about interview objectives, message development and reporters’ agendas and then gets you to practice specific techniques. Most of my sessions are with small groups for a half-day, sometimes with a couple hours of follow up practice at a later date.

2) Tells You to Ignore the Questions. Going straight to a key message and repeating it over and over just doesn’t work anymore. It makes reporters cranky and they might even do something nasty like string all your answers together to make you look foolish. This trick is often used on politicians.

I tell my clients to listen very carefully to the question, answer the essence of it and look for a connection to their own message. I show them ways to appear to be answering the question. Although you can’t ignore the question, that doesn’t mean you have to provide an exhaustive response. Sometimes the easiest way to answer a reporter is with a simple yes or no. It can also sometimes catch them unprepared for their next question.

3) Beats You up With a Tough Interview. The theory used to be that the toughest interview you ever had was in media training and if you could survive that you’d survive anything. Don’t believe it. A media trainer who goes hard core on you right away is just showing off.

Media training should teach you a skill, not replicate an unpleasant experience. People learn when something is hard but accomplishable. If it’s too difficult they shut down and tend to avoid the situation. Of course if it’s too easy they’re not prepared for the tough interview.

Over the years I’ve had many people approach me with trepidation because of a bad previous training experience. A good media trainer should help you understand and practice the techniques and then leave you confident that you can execute them in a real interview.

Once you get the hang of things, a good media trainer will definitely turn up the heat but never give you more than you can handle. Unless you’re being arrogant.

 

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Good Stories are True Stories

Story telling is all the rage these days. It’s touted as the new best way to give presentations and to be persuasive.

I agree that stories can be powerful and I’ve shown many clients how to work them into their speeches with great results. A good story, well told, is powerful because it connects with the emotional side of the brain. When we bombard people with facts and figures we engage the logical side of the brain which is inclined to examine the veracity of those facts rather than trust the credibility of the speaker.

Good stories also make us feel good. And they are easier to remember than a long list of facts and figures. So, I am a strong proponent of using stories in speeches and presentations. But they have to be true stories.

Politicians, I think, were the first to pervert the art of story-telling into a way of getting across a specific message. When a politician says, “I was door-knocking the other day and met a woman who told me she fears international monetary agencies will lower our credit rating if the government doesn’t balance the budget,” you know that it isn’t true because real people just don’t talk that way.

Good stories, true stories, are messy. They have very specific details but not too many details. They lead us to larger wisdoms, not specific messages. Good stories paint with a very broad brush and set the scene for us to fill in the detail or message that we want to convey to the audience.

One of my clients made a presentation to his senior executives and had to explain some complex relationships that the organization had with its customers. He started with a drawing and a story from his five-year-old daughter. When he connected the dots to the customer relationship everyone in the room got it.

Stories are metaphors and they don’t need to be long or complicated. The way you were treated when you bought your morning coffee, missing your train on the way to the office or even your daughter’s art work can be used to illustrate some greater truth in a way that a mountain of data never can.

Good stories are all around you every day. Train yourself to recognize them. And don’t make them up.

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Communicating in a Crisis

I’ve been asked to teach a one-day workshop at a local university this fall on Communicating in a Crisis so I’ve been spending hours reviewing my notes and materials from the many high profile events that I’ve worked on over the years. I’ve written in the past about the three things the public expects to hear in a crisis. They are; I’m sorry, I’ve fixed it, it’s never going to happen again. Those refer specifically to the event that has caused the crisis.

Here are three more essential actions that every organization needs to do when a crisis presents itself;

1. Act quickly but not impulsively. The first things you do and say in a crisis will set the tone for everything that follows. The longer you delay in responding, the more you allow someone else to set the agenda. Make sure, however, that your messages are sound. And don’t speculate.

2. Remember internal as well as external audiences. Employees can be your advocates or your enemies in a crisis. Keep them in the loop as much as you can. Also, if you already have a solid reputation among your stakeholders, be prepared to draw on your advocate army to help preserve that reputation.

3. Make every decision defensible. At some point the crisis will be over and you may be judged more on how you handled things than on what really happened. As chaotic and confusing as things may be when the crisis strikes, things will eventually calm down and the rebuilding of your reputation will begin. There may also be regulatory or customer fallout to deal with and decisions made during the crisis will be scrutinized.

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Why PR People Hate Reporters

My last post was written for journalists, to explain why the head of a company might not be inclined to drop everything to do a media interview (Hey You Reporters, Get off my Lawn). I remember from my days as a journalist thinking that everyone, including the CEO, had an obligation to answer my questions.

I also remember the many calls from cheery-voiced PR flacks who actually did want me to interview their CEO so that they could promote some new product or service. Often I was rude. A journalist’s day is always busy and I felt I needed to get on with the real news.

So, now that I’ve switched sides this is an apology of sorts to those cheery-voiced flacks and a wake-up call for smug journalists who like to torment anyone in public relations. They may have to phone you to pitch a story but that doesn’t mean they have to like you. In fact, here are six reasons why PR people hate reporters;

  1. Reporters won’t return calls for a good news story but they scream bloody murder if PR people don’t call back immediately during a crisis.
  2. Reporters never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
  3. Reporters will interview any crackpot who voices a contrary opinion even if an overwhelming majority is in favour of something.
  4. A PR person might spend the entire day lining up interviews and the Reporter will cancel at the last minute without so much as an apology. But if something happens a day later, the Reporter expects the PR person to set up the interviews again.
  5. Reporters never do a follow up story when a problem has been fixed.
  6. If a PR person tells a Reporter something off the record, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s off the record. Reporters often print the information anyway and might even use the PR person’s name if it will make a better story.

Over to you, my PR colleagues – did I leave anything out? And I’m happy to give equal time to any reporter who wants to make a rebuttal.

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Hey You Reporters, Get off my Lawn! Why the CEO Won’t Talk to You.

When I was a journalist, I pretty much believed that everyone had an obligation to answer my questions. In the grand tradition of 60 Minutes, people were assumed to be guilty unless they could come out of an interview unscathed. Back then, mainstream media was a major conduit to a company’s stakeholders so, like it or not, CEO’s often had to put themselves under the media spotlight. But things have changed. Now, there are many more ways to connect with stakeholders. And frankly, reporters just aren’t as scary as they used to be.

Since crossing over to the dark side, I have worked with dozens of CEO’s to help them through both positive and negative media interviews. Less than a handful looked forward to the experience. A lot of my work is crisis communications and, contrary to conventional wisdom, presenting the CEO for a public flogging by the media is not always the best course of action.

So this post is for journalists, here are five good reasons why the CEO may not want to talk to you;

  • It’s not free publicity. Reporters who think they are doing the CEO a favour by publicizing the company don’t understand marketing or public relations. Publicity is the distribution of a controlled message with measurable results. Unless it’s a start-up company with no track record, an ad hoc story isn’t of much value. The CEO doesn’t know which clip you’ll use or what context you’ll put it in which can be dangerous so he’ll probably hire someone like me to help develop messages and practice delivering them as answers to your questions. If you take a strange angle or misunderstand the business, there will be more work to communicate the real message to stakeholders. So your interview is anything but free publicity.
  • It’s someone else’s job. You may think the buck stops on the CEO’s desk and in most respects it does. But companies have executive teams and it’s quite possible that someone else is better able to answer your questions. Although it might be fun for the reporter, no one in the company wants the CEO to look foolish and that can happen if he didn’t have daily involvement in the issue you’re asking about. There is also an implied importance attached to an issue when the CEO speaks and his availability (or lack of) may be a strategic decision. During a crisis, it may not be appropriate for the CEO to be the first to comment because that could make the situation appear more serious than it really is.
  • You’ll get it wrong. You frequently do, much more than you realize. That’s understandable because there are very few beat reporters any more. Reporters might report on forestry, aerospace technology and the ballet all in one week. Your job is to simplify the story for a broad audience. Your generalizations may work for your readers or viewers but sometimes they have different implications for an industry audience. Your reporting errors may not be grievous enough for the CEO to demand a correction but they might be enough to affect the credibility of the company. I once knew a business reporter who complained about having to deal with “icky numbers”. Those numbers mean a lot to the CEO.
  • Someone else is listening. Companies have competitors as do media outlets. A newspaper or TV station won’t phone its rival to discuss their main story that night so why would you expect a CEO to spill all of his or her secrets? Even general cover footage in a company plant can give competitors clues that might have major impact down the road. That’s why we often provide handout photos or video. The CEO might be in complex negotiations that his competitors are unaware of. There could be layoffs coming, restructuring or a major contract in the works. Companies time such announcements very carefully and don’t want details revealed inadvertently during an interview. Your scoop of leaked information lasts about a day but the repercussions for the CEO go on for a while.
  • CEO’s have bosses too. They report to Boards of Directors, investors and shareholders. They also need to comply with sometimes strict and complex regulatory regimes set out by various governing bodies. A publically-traded company, for example, has to follow strict disclosure guidelines when it reveals any information that would affect its share price. And then there’s performance. A CEO needs to project confidence and leadership while reporters are often just trying to trip him up. If the reporter holds all the cards and there is more to lose than to win, why would a CEO talk to the media?

Over to you reporters, want to give me five good reasons why a CEO should talk to you?

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