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Post-truth era

Post-Truth era: weaponising numbers!

Post-Truth era communications hold a particular challenge for companies whose marketing is based on some form of science or data. How should companies communicate in the Post-Truth era, particularly when it comes to the use of numbers?

For a re-cap of how Lindsay and I view ‘Post-Truth’ please see our previous posts here and here.

Post-Truth Era communications: case study

Post-truth era

As a case study, let’s look at the most famous Post-Truth number; the £350 million a week that the Vote Leave campaign continued to claim the UK sends to Brussels even after it was debunked as ‘misleading’ by the UK Statistics Authority. 

Here are some lessons for communicators.

Post-Truth numbers are not about factual accuracy

It didn’t matter and it didn’t hurt the Leave Campaign that the £350mn figure wasn’t true. By keeping it out there, the campaign intended to create confusion and crowd out Remain messages and arguments. Like its larger cousin (fully fledged fake news articles), the £350mn figure is part of a broad family of misinformation that is designed to muddy the waters. The Russians even have a military term for it- maskirovka.

Post-Truth numbers are about forcing opponents onto the defensive

In his 2004 book Don’t Think of An Elephant, cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued that conservatives are much better at winning arguments than liberals because they use powerful language to frame their ideas (e.g. ‘tax is theft’) and then force their opponents to argue on that territory (as opposed to the ‘tax is investment’ argument ). The £350mn is the numerical equivalent of a linguistic frame. It forced the Remain campaign to come out and argue that the number wasn’t true, which kept the conversation going and also kept the idea that it might be alive in people’s heads.

Post-Truth numbers link to a powerful organising story

The £350mn figure evoked powerful images associated with the deeply embedded Eurosceptic tropes of waste and a lack of financial control. Throw in the NHS (the ultimate British identity meme*) and the figure goes from being an example of hard data to an expression of the powerful and simple story.

Post-Truth Era communications

Paul Stephenson was Communications Director of the successful Vote Leave campaign. 

All three of these ideas are on the record in a recent article by Paul Stephenson, the Communications Director for Vote Leave:

“Of course, our campaign claim of the now infamous £350 million a week that Britain sends to the EU was not completely accurate … The Remain campaign couldn’t stand it. They constantly tried to rubbish these official statistics and accused us of ‘lying.’ These attacks were entirely counterproductive for them; it kept the debate focused on an area where we were strong: just how many hundreds of millions of pounds the U.K. gives the EU every week.”

So, the question still remains as to whether companies should engage in these kinds of tactics.

And quite simply the answer is no.

Donald Trump isn’t even in office and Brexit hasn’t yet happened, so no one knows what, if any, price will be paid by the members of the public who did believe what they were saying.  But organisations that have shareholders and/or regulatory constraints will almost certainly get clobbered for putting bad information into the public domain.

Post-Truth era communications: a commercial case study

Equally damaging is withholding information that could contradict the powerful story which a company uses to justify its ‘social licence’. Like many others, I have been gripped by the downfall of Theranos, the ‘revolutionary’ US blood testing company founded by Elizabeth Holmes, a 19 year old Stanford dropout who managed to convince the stalwarts of Corporate America (including Rupert Murdoch and Henry Kissinger) to either invest or be on her board. Worth an estimated $9bn by the age of 32, Holmes’ built the notoriously secretive company’s brand on an emotion-drenched-story which lacked the transparent data to support it. The image was shattered when the Wall Street Journal started digging around for numbers and discovered that the supposedly ground breaking blood testing technology was in fact deeply flawed.

Companies are right to see storytelling and emotion/issue based campaigning as a way of engaging the public around the issues they care about. And planting memes and tropes* over a period of years can be incredibly helpful for shaping public opinion around core images and ideas (particularly if supported by a willing media).

But when it comes to hard numbers they should never weaponise them. Handled badly they can go off on in the wrong hands and cause injury, not just to the public but also to the user.

For the record here are a couple of definitions:

*A meme is an element of culture (it can be a video, an institution, or a type of behaviour) that is shared, copied or mimicked by lots of people.

A trope is a figure of speech, a metaphor and sometimes a cliché. It’s a shorthand for something the audience will instantly recognise. It has a slightly different meaning in politics, literature and TV drama.

As those of you that read this blog regularly will know, the Media Coach team don’t just teach people where to look and what to wear on TV. We offer a broad range of bespoke media and presentation training workshops and message building sessions – all run by  experienced communications professionals. If you need help building or refining messages just give us a call. 

Presentation Tips Prime Minister Speaks at the CBI Conference 2016

Presentation tips: lessons from the PM

Presentation tips can be quickly garnered from watching someone else present. I was fortunate enough to hear Theresa May speak yesterday to the CBI Annual Conference and despite the fact that she must be one of the most experienced speakers in the country, and a great deal more experienced than the business people we train, she made a few mistakes.

Person

Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to the CBI Annual Conference this week. Lindsay Williams was there.

 

Presentation tips: before I start

However, before I dissect the Prime Minister’s speech I should say that there are more important things in life than how you come across on stage. May became PM at one of the most difficult times in modern British history: steering the UK out of the EU in a way that doesn’t tip the whole ship over into a major recession or lead to civil strife is a heck of a project. So this blog is not really criticising someone who has bigger fish to fry. It is pulling out what us less experienced presenters can learn from it.

Presentation tips: Coaching Notes for the PM

That said here are my Coaching Notes for the PM.

  • Theresa May did not say ‘Hello, it’s nice to be here’ or in any way acknowledge her audience before beginning to read her prepared speech . This seemed very odd. A smile and a nod, and ‘hello’ seems the minimum to be polite.
  • It was a well-crafted speech and the messages were very clear. I would summarise them as ‘we support business but we all have to do things differently in the future’, and in particular, ‘we have to condemn bad practise that gives you all a bad name’. She wanted to put a ‘fairer society’ and ‘social inclusion’ on the business agenda as well as on the social agenda. On Brexit she said ‘I hear what you are saying but I cannot give you certainty ahead of the negotiations’.
  • She mentioned speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet which could have been a nice anecdote but she added no colour and made absolutely no attempt to entertain with it. In fact that was true through out the speech.

The full script of the PM’s speech can be read here

  • As you would expect if you have experts to write your speech for you, May had some good examples: a longish list of recent announcements of investment in Britain from Nissan building new models here to 500 more jobs at Facebook.
  • Similarly, she had some good numbers to hand.

Presentation tips: it is rude to rush

  • But the whole thing felt rushed. People we train often find it difficult to speak at a slow enough pace for an audience hearing information for the first time. This is not an issue that Mrs May normally has – she was rushing because she was in a hurry. There were no gaps, no dramatic pauses. I felt this was rude and disrespectful of the audience. I have no doubt she is very busy but for the short time she is with the audience – they should feel as if they are special. Bill Clinton was famously brilliant at this, one to one or with an audience. (I have heard people who met him say he made them feel extraordinarily important, even if just for a couple of minutes.)
  • I would add that May shows little ‘warmth’ in public. She may be choosing to be the ‘ice queen’ for political reasons but it is not a tactic I recommend. On the whole, it is a good idea if the audience like you. A few small changes, the odd small, the odd self-deprecating comment would do the trick.
Presentation tips: from the PM

Theresa May is particularly prone to ignoring questions. We think she should at least acknowledge before moving on.

Presentation tips: at least acknowledge the questions

  • As I have noted previously, my biggest criticism of May is that she does not even pretend to answer a question. It was very easy to ignore a question in the formality of the CBI gathering, there is no follow-up question. But that doesn’t mean that the audience doesn’t notice. As we have mentioned before, even if you cannot give a full response to a question you can at least acknowledge it.
  • Finally, please can someone tell our new Prime Minister to stand up straight. I fully understand that it is a curse of tall people and particularly of tall women (especially those with shorter husbands); you want to make yourself a little shorter so you curve your body over ever so slightly. But she would look so much more authoritative, not to mention elegant if she pushed her shoulders back and stood straight.

Presentation tips: what was reported

Here are the comments of Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC 

And here is the opinion of the Independent 

The Daily Mail picked out the theme I spotted but the fact there is so much diversity in the headlines is evidence that there was not a stand out angle from the speech.

 

Key Messages are magic

Key Messages are magic: you almost certainly need some

Key messages are something that when I was a journalist I would have scoffed at. I remember the BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys saying that anyone who says you need three key messages to do a radio interview is talking rubbish. Now with more than 10 years media and presentation training experience, I am confident in saying he is utterly and completely wrong.

Key Messages are magic

A few hours with a trained journalist could save you days of frustrating email negotiation

Key Messages helped George

To illustrate let me introduce someone we will call George. George is an old friend of my family. I have known him since he was 12 and he is now in his late 20s. He is ferociously bright with a brain that is capable of holding huge amounts of detailed and diverse information. He has encyclopedic knowledge of geography, global politics and the railways of Europe (!). But when he went for his dream-job interview, he lost out. They gave him very specific feedback; he had bombarded them with too much information and too much detail and they had not fully followed his arguments. (My interpretation is they were not sure if they were dealing with a genius or a nutcase.)  So he came to spend an afternoon with me and we sorted out his messages: how he would describe his professional skills and how projects he had completed in other jobs were evidence of his knowledge and ability.

I see myself as a …

What I feel I would bring to this organisation is…

Etc…

We also worked out what he was going to say, if asked, about a ‘hole’ in his CV. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation but it was complicated.

And then we rehearsed.  Which is exactly what we do in Media Training.

Key Messages organise thoughts

It is understandable that John Humphrys would not see the necessity for this sort of preparation for either a job or a media interview.  After a lifetime as a journalist and broadcaster, Humphrys and his ilk need only to think about something to be able to articulate it as a simple argument. It is their professional skill. (Interestingly, journalists rarely recognise this as a skill. They assume everyone can do it despite daily evidence to the contrary.)

Let’s take another example. Imagine someone has spent the last five years managing clients and designing an ‘end to end process solution’ for automating the work of people who pick the items for your on-line order in a vast warehouse. What are the chances of that person being able to articulate the advantages of 3D barcodes or warehouse management software in simple language?

Absolutely zero.

This does not mean that particular professional is inadequate.  It just reminds us that experts often find it hard to articulate a helicopter view. Under questioning they often get lost in the detail and led down blind and unhelpful intellectual by-ways.

Key Messages are useful everywhere

I recently facilitated a meeting helping draw up the talking points for a new international strategy for tackling a specific set of problems in emerging economies. It sounds a long way from media and presentation training but actually is remarkably closely related.

This gutting of a detailed strategy document to identify a few easy-to-grasp core ideas is a task regularly faced in many different forms by all sorts of teams in business. But it can take weeks. Putting all stakeholders together with a former journalist will save hours if not days of frustrating email negotiation.

Back to George. I am delighted to report that George got the next job he applied for and is now being offered a promotion and a new role in another European country. Well done George. And another triumph for the magic of messaging.

If you know people who need help sorting out their messages give us a call.

 

Key Messages: online articles

There are plenty of online articles explaining the basics of key messaging. Here are a few:

Media Training Basics: on air presence

Media Training Basics: on-air presence

Media training basics include how to behave on-air so that your audience trusts you.

Whether you are a US presidential candidate, a new prime minister or a business leader launching a product or vision, we think this requires three key things:

  1. Warmth – because it is a good idea if the audience likes you.
  2. Authority – because it is an even better idea that it sounds as if you know what you are talking about.
  3. Animation – because the studio and the microphone will ‘shrink’ you.  Most people have to be themselves plus 10% to come across well on-air.

But if you don’t have these great attributes how do you acquire onair presence?

Media Training Basics: on air presence

Our tips for improving your on-air presence

Media Training Basics: animation

Animation is perhaps the easiest attribute to acquire. The people who are naturally good on television are those that are larger than life and often rather hard work at dinner. This is not always true but people who seem quite normal on TV are often really big characters. An occasional interviewee doesn’t need to cultivate a whole new persona but just use a little more energy when speaking. Hand movement and head movement can be good so long as they not so noticeable that they are distracting.

Media Training Basics: authority

Authority is more intangible. We know it when we see it but trying to cultivate it can be challenging. There are, though, some basics.

  • Don’t speak too fast. This is probably the most common way that people undermine their own authority.
  • On television make sure you are looking in the right place. This can be straight at the camera or at the interviewer depending on the set-up. But hold a steady gaze and don’t let your eyes flick up, down or sideways if you can help it.
  • Don’t use highfalutin language. We mention this every other week so do not need to labour the point here, but jargon and professional language does not make you sound clever; it makes you sound arrogant and out of touch. Be colloquial.
  • Consider a personal anecdote. People trust the opinions of those that have relevant personal experience. These need to be planned, rehearsed and above all short but they can really work.

Here are some other tips about being more authoritative in general. And here are some tips written especially for women in an article in Forbes, although most apply to men as well.

Media Training Basics: on air presence

Having a coach to help you improve can make a big difference

Media Training Basics: warmth

Warmth is perhaps the most elusive. Some people have it by the bucket-load even if they are not the most polished interviewee. It is worth a lot. If you don’t have it naturally on-air you can try the following things.

  • Try smiling more, particularly at the beginning or end of an interview. Even on radio, you can hear a smile.
  • Try to be less formal. Often people lack warmth because they think they are required to be very, very serious and correct.
  • A trick I have often used is to ask the interviewee to pretend they really like the interviewer. Of course, in reality, they probably hate the presenter and the process but if they can pretend or act ‘attraction’ or ‘affection’ it will come across. Clearly, this could be taken too far and it will be acting. When coaching people we find that once they hit the right tone – and then watch it back on video playback – they can usually find it again. With coaching, it will become their default on-air tone at which point it is ‘job done’.
Media Training Basics: on air presence

Think about the tone as well as the words when preparing for an interview

Getting the tone right is half the battle and will compensate for other missteps in an interview. In the end ‘people buy people’ as the saying goes: so developing a good on-air presence is something worth working on.

 

 

great science presentations

Great science presentations: TED Talk case study

Great science presentations are something of a rarity. As an academic scientist and a media and presentation trainer I am caught between two worlds. I know science has to be credible and sourced and that detail can be necessary but I have also sat through way too many fascinating subjects made dull by a bad presentation. So here are some tips for science presentations to non-specialist audiences.

Great science presentations: a great source of best practice

To help illustrate what works, we’ve found a recent TED Talk that is based on real science but has been ‘moulded’ to fit the TED Talk formula. If you don’t know TED Talks then you are in for a treat. It is an impressive library of 13-15 minute presentations with the tag line ‘Ideas worth spreading’.  For those of us who often have to present to audiences of varying levels of scientific knowledge TED Talks provide a huge resource that illustrates best practice.

Great science presentations: case study

great science presentations

Can you really tell if children are lying?

The talk I have picked to illustrate my tips for science presentations is this one by researcher Kang Lee. It’s called ‘Can you really tell if a kid is lying?’ – which is always going to pull in a bigger audience than a title like “Novel applications of transdermal optical imaging” – which is what many academics would have been tempted to title this talk. Watch it here and then see if you agree with me about what works.

 

  • Lee starts with a personal story. Professional communicators are often reluctant to talk too much about themselves, but a short personal anecdote will engage your audience from the outset.
  • He speaks at a good pace. Many people rush their presentations. This may be to do with nerves but it may also be a fear of being boring. Lee has a strong accent which can be an obstacle to comprehension, but his careful pacing ensures the audience has time to process what he is saying.
  • The slides are very simple – little data and picture led. This is not always possible in scientific talks and you will likely need to share some detailed data but if you mix this with some pictures and anecdotes it makes your talk more engaging. When Lee does use data it is very simply presented with minimum information on the slide. Again most scientific presentations need more, and in particular need ‘sourcing’ but it is good to keep it as simple as possible.
  • Lee has kept his own appearance simple so there is nothing to distract from his presentation.
  • Another professional presenters’ trick is to ensure the data is revealed to follow the narrative, rather than all arriving at once and then being dissected by the speaker.
  • Lee asks his audience questions but not ones that expose or challenge. Asking a question that you know the answer to and the audience has little chance of getting correct is not a good way to build empathy. But asking for a ‘show of hands’ to gauge life experience is a good way to keep the audience interested.
  • A bit of humour helps keep people engaged. Humour is difficult especially when addressing multicultural audiences. Lee uses the well known fairy tale (or Disney Film) Pinocchio and his humour is gentle and unchallenging.

Great science presentations: make it relevant

  • Lee also works hard to make ‘transdermal optical imaging’ relevant to the audience. He says, for example, they might in the future use it when they Skype their parents to check if they are being truthful about their health, or when they want to reveal that a politician is lying. Making science relevant is good but I personally found some of Lee’s examples a bit ‘Big Brother’ and unsettling and would have chosen different ones myself.
  • A trick he didn’t use but could have done, was to tap into a more sci-fi reference. Transdermal optical imaging is very much like the Voight-Kampff Test used in the movie “Bladerunner”. This would have been another way to make the subject accessible to a general audience.

  • Lee in several places makes use of the ‘power of three’. This is a technique whose effectiveness was noted by Aristotle in his work Rhetoric written in the fourth century BC. More on this technique here. 

Great science presentations: keep it short

  • Finally, Lee doesn’t go on too long. At 13 minutes 30 seconds, his presentation is actually considerably shorter than allowed by the TED talk format, which demands that presentations be no longer than 18 minutes – “long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention”.  While you may well be allotted a longer time-slot, remember that people rarely complain that a presentation was too short – especially if previous speakers have over-run.

At the Media Coach we help people make their presentations and interviews more entertaining and interesting by using these ‘tips’ and many others. But the key take-away is:  just because a subject is technical doesn’t mean it has to be dull.