what not to do when making a presentation

5 Things Not to Do When Making a Presentation

This is a quick mini-post: revision notes for those that have already worked with us.

Doing a really good presentation is an art and usually requires a fair amount of work. But I am aware lots of people would be happy to just give an okay presentation, without feeling it might have damaged their reputation with colleagues or clients.

But here is my choice of the top five mistakes I see most often and are most easily fixed.

What Not to Do When Making a Presentation

what not to do when making a presentation

 

1. Don’t Read Your Slides

Look at the audience instead! You are the main event, the slides are there to support you and make the talk more interesting. It’s fine to glance at the screen, even better if it is on a laptop in front of you, but 90% of the time you should be connecting with the people who are listening.

2. Don’t Dance or Pace

Some careful movement to support your narrative can be effective, especially on a stage. But pacing up and down or dancing from side to side is distracting.

3. Don’t Rush

You may not want to be there, you may not want to draw attention to yourself but rushing through your presentation means the whole experience is poor for the audience and for you. It will not do your reputation any good. Speak slowly and clearly and pause sometimes. This helps you to collect your thoughts. You’ll probably say fewer words but land more meaning. You can speak too slowly but this is rare compared to the number of people who speak too fast.

4. Don’t Crowd Your Slides

Strip your slides to the basics, keep them uncluttered and a minimum of words. That means 5-10 words, not 40.

5. Don’t Make the Audience Work Out What the Point Is!

You should know what your message is and you should summarise it for the audience in a clear and concise way. This can happen at the beginning and at the end, or just at the end. But it must happen.

We love helping people with particular presentations or pitches, or to improve their presentation skills in a more general way. If you or your team need to up their game when it comes to presentations, give us a call on: 44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Communicating risk

Communicating Risk in the Media

Communicating risk via the media is really hard. A good case study for this came this weekend when The Sunday Times splashed with a leaked report from the National Police Co-ordination Centre about planning for a No-Deal Brexit.  

Risk of UK Crimewave

Under the headline ‘Police Plan for Riots and Crimewave if there is a No-Deal Brexit’ the paper runs through some alarming details of what might happen. This includes a rise in crime as Britain suffers food and drug shortages, an expectation that people will become sicker (presumably because prescription drug supplies are affected) and concern about food and goods shortages leading to widespread unrest. It also predicts widespread disruption to the national road network.

The list comes from a confidential discussion paper which is yet to be presented by the National Police Co-ordination Centre. It was not a definitive version of anything – and of course it was written by someone told to ‘imagine the worst’ so the police could plan for it.

Clearly, the report is highly newsworthy but what is not stressed in the coverage is that this was part of a process of preparing for possible events, rather than predicting the events themselves.

Risk Story Killed

It was alarming stuff and widely reported on the day, but the story has died quickly – and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the Home Secretary Sajid Javid did a great job of killing the story when asked about the report on The Marr Show on Sunday. The link is below and the relevant comments run 9:45 -11:45.

The Home Secretary’s (clearly prepared) line was ‘I am not going to comment on these things in detail but is a good thing that the police, like everyone else, is preparing’. As you can hear he repeats a version of this several times despite Andrew Marr doing his best to get something more. Had Sajid Javid said something different, such as ‘it is possible there will be food and drug shortages’ the story would have had a lot more coverage.

That probably reads as a very slight difference in the form of words but in terms of the way a journalist can report the next chapter, it makes all the difference in the world. One kills the story and the other gives it a second wind.

Editors Maybe on a Short Leash

There are probably other reasons that the story did not get out of hand.  I suspect the BBC and perhaps some others are being very careful about reporting No-Deal Brexit risk. I have no inside knowledge but, having worked in the Corporation, I suspect there have been some very serious high-level discussions – in the last few months – about responsible reporting of Brexit ‘risk’.  As I said the political sensitivities are huge and the dangers of panic, fear etc. are so obvious. Editors and senior correspondents are almost certainly on a short leash.

However, this is just the start and there are a lot more stories about ‘No-Deal Brexit risk’ to come.

The wider point is that being open and honest about ‘risk’ is hard for a number of key reasons.

Four Reasons Why Communicating Risk is Hard

Firstly, there is a general consensus that normal people do not understand the concept of risk. Personally, I am sceptical about this but it is a widely held view. It goes like this: if you say there is a small risk of a terror attack in London this weekend, what people will hear is there is a possible or even likely terror attack in London this weekend.

The assumption then is that ‘normal people’ or a high proportion of ‘normal people’ will overreact.

Secondly, any journalist reporting that comment will report ‘risk of terror attack in London’, absolutely hardening up the story.

This is exactly what happened in The Sunday Times and in The Express who both hardened up the National Police Co-ordination Centre story to get the headline.  Here is The Sunday Times link and here is The Express.

Anyone glancing across the headlines without taking time to understand the story will be misled about the probability related to the risk.

Thirdly, there is another problem of communicating risk openly and that is that people get tired of being scared and under-react. Many risks do not actually happen. And that encourages people to think they will never happen. Public organisations are understandably careful about ‘crying wolf’. Too many earthquake warnings and people do not move when they are told they really need to.

And fourthly, being open about risk can be taken as a political act. And that is a real problem. Anyone will think twice about going public about a particular perceived risk if they think senior politicians will publicly attack them.

As a spin doctor and media trainer, I would like to be able to say there is a simple formula that answers this problem of communicating risk, but there really isn’t. It is complicated, it requires very careful planning and very disciplined communicators. And it is still difficult.

 

business storytelling

6 Tips for Business Storytelling

6 tips for business storytelling are detailed at the end of the article but first, let me explain where I am coming from here.

I was talking to a PR person at the weekend about her job hunt and she wanted to include ‘great storytelling’ as one of her key skills.

Now, I totally agree with her: both that storytelling is super important in PR and also that she is very good at it. But I am not sure she should mention it unless her potential employer indicates they think this way too.

business storytelling

Business Storytelling BS

The problem is that there has been a lot of BS about storytelling – fanciful executive courses that have people playing with bean bags and rewriting fairy tales. We all know the sort of thing. The result is there is a lot of scepticism about storytelling as a professional skill.

This and a couple of other conversations with clients set me thinking again about storytelling and how it relates to the communications work we do: media training, presentation training and messaging.

Why Storytelling works

I should say at the outset that I am absolutely one hundred per cent certain that stories work because of the way the human brain is wired. This is almost certainly dictated by evolution. I came to that conclusion many years ago and long before I started reading about the subject.

But don’t take it from me. Here is a serious and beautifully written article in Scientific American. It includes a quote from Professor of Ethical Leadership and Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt…

“the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor”.

While Professor Haidt has research and learned tomes to evidence his belief, mine is based on my own observations; that people remember stories much more easily than they remember facts.

And it is not just that people remember: if they hear a story they are more likely to connect.

A simple example that we can all relate to is the difference between walking around a stately home or museum looking at things, compared to walking around looking at things with someone telling you the stories that go with the inanimate objects.

Storytelling and the value of things

But it is also clear to me that stories increase the value of things, literally the monetary value. Pictures, furniture and jewellery where the story is known have a higher value. Here is an article about this on an antiques website.

And another delightful bit of evidence – the Significant Objects Project. You can read the full details here but in summary: In 2009 Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker bought a whole bunch of tat; chipped and tasteless ornaments etc. They then commissioned a bunch of writers to produce a short story about each object and then sold the story and the object together on eBay. In their own words, they sold $128.74 worth of thrift store (charity shop) junk for $3,612.51. This exercise has been repeated several times since and there are books of photos and stories that raise money for charity.

business storytelling

And my final bit of personal evidence is that stories help people fall in love. I have seen it and experienced it myself. The back story of a person or a family can have a profound impact on a potential partner. I am not aware that this has been explored anywhere but it would make a very interesting book.

6 Tips for Business Storytelling

So here are my 6 tips for using stories in business.

First – be clear on your objective. Boring but true. Don’t create great stories that somehow leave a different message than the one you wanted to communicate.

Second, business stories (anecdotes or examples) need to be carefully prepared, almost scripted. They are so powerful it is crazy to wing it and risk throwing away the benefits.

Thirdly – as you describe this story, anecdote or example use tangible language. Create pictures in people’s minds. There is a world of difference between;

The child loved dogs.

and

George had loved dogs ever since he was 4. His family had visited a distant uncle who kept two black Labradors. George had played with the dogs all day and during the night he crept downstairs to sleep with them in the kitchen – where he was found curled up in the dog bed the following morning.

Fourthly, use emotion – even just a little – and you increase stickiness (the hip word for memorability and engagement). You may be talking about a business problem rather than dogs and children, but briefly describe the frustration, annoyance or fear felt before the denouement and you will make the story more memorable.

Next, if possible craft what is called in the trade a narrative arc that includes conflict or other nasty or bad stuff and has a point of transformation from bad or uncertainty to good. That can be boy kisses girl, missing child is found, accused is acquitted or the tractor part supply line problem is solved! The conflict and subsequent resolution will increase stickiness.

Finally, finish off with a feel-good scene in which the moral of the story or the point of the story is clearly stated. Don’t leave the audience to work it out unless you are absolutely sure they will.

If you can’t deliver the full suite above, at least use some of it: a bit of tangible language, a bit of tension.

Of course, your story may need to be very short if you are using it in a presentation, speech or media interview, and that is another skill.

Just remember the power of story-telling and go practice!

 

 

 

 

Preparing for a media interview

Preparing for a Media Interview: 5 Key Steps

Preparing for a media interview is common sense but knowing exactly what and how to prepare is less clear to most people. Almost all of us are time poor; knowing exactly what to do in the one or two-hour window allocated for interview preparation is not so obvious.

Pre-flight Checklist

So here is our five-step pre-flight checklist. If you are lucky enough to have good comms professionals around you, this will be a joint venture – but it is not something that can be delegated.

Preparing for a media interview

Like a pilot preparing for take-off, an interviewee should run through some disciplined pre-flight checks.

Step 1: Your Objectives

The first step is to be clear about your own or the business objectives of any media engagement. Why are you doing interviews? It may be something as general as ‘profile raising’ or something much more specific such as driving sales of a new product or trying to get a change in some regulation. Whatever it is, you should know before you start.

Step 2:  Ask Who is the Journalist? What is the Story?

Next, you need to know who you will be talking to. Who is the journalist, who is their audience and therefore what story will they be interested in? The journalist is never there to do your advertising for you. They will have a different perspective on the subject and you as the interviewee need to know what that is.  If you are dealing with a number of different journalists, for example at a media event or for a big launch, you must be aware of the different agendas of the different journalists: the Pensions Weekly freelancer will likely have a different angle than The Guardian columnist.

Step 3: Prepare your Argument

Once you have completed step one and two you are in a position to pull together your messages. This is an essential step when preparing for a media interview. We write a lot about ‘messaging’ as we call it, so no need to go into it here. However, it helps to understand that you want a smorgasbord of an argument or a Chinese buffet. Each little bit of the argument is carefully prepared and ready for serving, but what exactly gets served in what order will depend on how the interview goes. Despite that, it is crucial that your prepared argument is crystal clear.

If you want to make any bold statements, look for ‘proof points’; include anecdotes and examples and above all keep the language simple. Remember, the journalists’ two favourite questions, often not articulated quite as bluntly but there none-the-less, are: ‘so what?’ and ‘can you prove it?’

Preparing for a media interview

Once you have done the preparation for an interview, you can be confident, in control and above all compelling.

Step 4: Plan for Tough Questions

Once you know what you want to say, you need to then think about the difficult questions and plan the responses. There may be challenging questions related to your messages but there may also be uncomfortable questions about wider issues – journalists can ask anything and are always looking for a headline or a good quote. Anticipating these is all part of preparing for a media interview. Generally, on these anticipated negative questions, you want to make a convincing but dull response in as short a time as possible.  Remember, you don’t want the journalist to focus on the negatives. Depending on the circumstances, another option may be to simply tell a journalist that it is not appropriate for you to answer such questions, perhaps the issue is confidential or simply outside the scope of your role. If so, say so.

Step 5: Rehearse

Finally, we think a few minutes rehearsing aloud is worth several hours talking about your interview with advisors. Role-play is uncomfortable but effective. Don’t be afraid to change your messages if they don’t work. Anyone can ask the questions, it is the act of getting your tongue around the messages and articulating the reactive lines that is valuable. So, give the list of tough questions to your teenage son, if you have one, and ask him to role-play being a journalist. I think of it as creating the neural pathways in advance so that you don’t have to do all that thinking in the interview.

After Thoughts

My last thoughts refer to after the interview rather than before. If you are senior in a big business many things in your world are tightly controlled and outcomes are predictable. If you tell someone to do something, they do it. Media engagement is not one of those things. The outcomes are not entirely predictable.

We often come across execs who have been upset or infuriated by journalists in the past. We also come across plenty who, while not being devastated were mildly annoyed or disappointed by some write up or broadcast. Preparation will limit the risks and potential for disappointment – but in the end, you are not buying advertising and you cannot tell the journalist what to write. If it goes wrong put it down to experience.

Above all do not blame the press officer! They have no more control than you do, but just like a professional investor, they do understand the risks and rewards better. They are advisors, not magicians and only a fool alienates their expert advisors.

Every day The Media Coach team help people preparing for a media interview. We also help organisations embed a media-aware culture, so media engagement becomes part of business as usual rather than something squeezed in after the day job. If you think we can help your organisation please give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photos used under creative coms licence
Pre-flight Checklist  – Credit US Airforce
Thumbs up – Credit Centre for Aviation Photography

 

 

Rudeness in politics Boris Johnson

Rudeness and its Role in Politics

Rudeness in public life is not new and gives guaranteed headlines. Boris Johnson has won another huge raft of headlines and is being ‘investigated’ by the Conservative party on the grounds he may have breached the party’s code of conduct with remarks he made about women wearing the niqab.

Rude: Boris Grabs the Headlines (again)

Rudeness in public life Boris Johnson

Former Cabinet Minister Boris Johnson offended Muslims with his remarks about the niqab.

He was commenting on a new law in Denmark which bans the niqab (which leaves the eyes visible) and the burka (which covers the full face and body). Although Johnson argues against such a ban, he caused great offence with the following comments:

Rudeness in public life Boris Johnson

The whole article is here but behind a paywall.

The comments are certainly rude and disrespectful but many will identify with them.

And this is the dilemma as I see it.

If you are PC, some will assume you are not being straight

If you are always politically correct and polite in public life, and on the media, people think you are not being straight, you are not getting to grips with the issue, and you care more about style than substance.

Being polite and diplomatic about a controversial subject can also be interpreted as ‘weasel words’. Some will assume you don’t believe anything you are saying.

On the other hand, if you are undiplomatic or rude people think you are genuine, straight talking and you are ‘calling a spade a spade’, ‘telling it like it is’ and other positive sentiments.

Rudeness and Political Gain

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and many others including Disraeli I am told, all in their time have flown in the face of political correctness for political gain.

For a myriad of reasons, social media has magnified the benefit of being rude.

It is naive to see Boris Johnson’s recent comments as him ‘misspeaking’ or unable to control himself. This is a clever political operator playing political odds and building his political base outside the current government. All the hand-wringing in the Tory party and the official enquiry will not make a jot of difference to his future behaviour. It might, of course, serve to deter others with less courage, from using the same tactics.

Recently a website called The Conversation published a detailed piece asking if rudeness has a legitimate place in politics.  The author, Amy Irwin, a lecturer in psychology, writes about how rudeness affects not just aggressor and victim but bystanders as well and mentions the ‘incivility spiral’ – which is the rather obvious truism that rudeness begets rudeness.

The piece also argues that while rudeness has some benefits it puts normal people off politics. Sadly, I think the opposite is true. Rudeness makes politics more engaging and easier to understand. Of course, some will find it tedious or distasteful but many more will find themselves talking politics in the pub and around the water cooler as a result. And that is political engagement.

If all that makes you think I am in favour of rudeness, I am not. For the simple reason that, well, it’s rude. I do think however, many who are otherwise on-the-side-of-the-angels, lose out politically because they are too careful not to cause offence. As with most things, wisdom lies in the middle ground.

If you would like help with crafting careful effective messages, The Media Coach can facilitate a message building workshop for your organisation and you will end up with messages that have widespread buy-in at a fraction of what would be charged by a PR agency. Call us on 020 7099 2212 to book your session.

 

Boris Johnson image used under a Creative Commons licence.

 

 

 

media training

Why critics of media training miss the point

Media training has long had its critics among journalists. As far back as 2001, Anne Robinson’s appearance on the TV show Room 101 became infamous for sparking hundreds of complaints when she nominated ‘the Welsh’ for fictional oblivion. What has largely been forgotten is that she also included media training on her list.

Media training often misunderstood

That acrimony has continued over the years with several of my former journalistic colleagues – on hearing I had ‘gone over to the dark side’ to become a media trainer – grumbling that ‘all it does is teach people how to avoid answering the questions’.

Alastair Stewart is just wrong

media training

Veteran newscaster Alastair Stewart says people should just answer questions. We disagree.

TV presenter Alastair Stewart illustrated this misconception again recently when offering advice on how to prepare, as a subject matter expert, for an interview. (The whole piece is at Jul28 on his Facebook page but as he is a prolific social media user it is hard to find! ) His top tip was “listen to the questions and answer them” rather than go in “with a predetermined set of must-make points”. And yet two of his other tips, “you know more than your audience” and “you won’t have long” run counter to his first point and highlight exactly why most people do need GOOD media training.

media training

Experts know too much

In nearly 30 years of journalism and media training I can’t remember coming across an interviewee who didn’t know their subject matter. In fact, the problem is usually quite the reverse; they know it so well that they can’t see the wood for the trees! During the initial interview in a media training session people often give rambling answers while they desperately try to make their point. Alternatively, some are virtually monosyllabic, assuming that lots of interesting information is ‘too obvious to mention’. Indeed many experts, particularly from the worlds of academia, science and technology, believe that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ and are surprised when, for most people, they actually don’t. Good media training is about helping people distil everything they know down into short, coherent points that they can deliver in a matter of seconds, in a way that a general audience can understand.

It’s also about sense-checking the way people talk and the language they use. I have lost count of the times when having asked what should be the simple question ‘What does your company do?’ I received an answer along the lines of:

‘We create compelling customer journeys by engaging with our clients and offering end-to-end solutions. We optimise operations and help our clients transform their value proposition.’

Virtually every sector and every business is full of jargon and acronyms that mean absolutely nothing to outsiders and what critics of media training fail to realise is that not everyone is a natural communicator who can switch easily from ‘the day job’ to being a media star.

Media interviews are often turned down

In fact, the world of the journalist is completely alien to most people and, as a result, many turn down an interview through fear. I often hear ‘What if I say the ‘wrong’ thing?’ and ‘What if they ask me something I don’t know? I don’t want to look stupid.’ Alastair Stewart’s view that interviewees should not have some predetermined talking points and, instead, simply answer the questions, ignores the reality of many expert’s experience – that their interviews were frustrating because they felt the journalist didn’t ask the right questions so the interview never really got going. Having some carefully thought out points that are well crafted, with proof points backed up by good examples, ensures an interview can be a win-win situation for both the journalist and the expert. For most interviewees this doesn’t happen magically on the spot, it is the product of good media training.

Here is a blog I wrote earlier on media on interview tips.

If you would like to book media training please call us on +44 (020) 7099 2012.

 

Alastair Stewart image from YouTube

 

 

body language

Body language always tells a story

Body language is in the news this week.

The rich and famous spend their life in the public eye and with cameras always on them and plenty of paid pundits to give an expert opinion it is difficult not to offend someone somewhere.

The brain is wired to take in and interpret visual information above all else. Neuroscience has in recent years confirmed what many had already deduced.

Body language – why we notice

It’s said that 50-60% of the brain is involved in processing visual images and that the brain will not only see but interpret an image in about a tenth of a second.

So it is not surprising that relatively subtle visual clues can set Twitter alight.

Trump’s misstep sets Twitter alight

And that is what happened when President Trump apparently walked in front of the Queen while inspecting her honour guard at Windsor Castle.

And this is how the New York Times reported the incident.

Body Language

It was really just a few seconds and if you watch the start of the video you can see The Queen gestures to Trump to go in front.

The actual incident doesn’t seem to me to warrant the storm of protest. And in fact, at least one commentator suggests that Trump was really trying to obey the normal rules of etiquette during this short visit with the Queen and mostly did rather well.

Royal sisters-in-law body language made the news

There was a similar rush to interpret the body language when Kate and Meghan – Royal sisters-in-law – got together at Wimbledon. This was written up in the Mirror, the Express and the Daily Mail.

This is probably not the sort of news that I normally care much about but it does illustrate an important point. People are wired to read body language and they cannot help themselves interpreting it.

People are wired to read body language

People often ask me for specifics on how they can change their delivery style to appear, for example, more authoritative, or more approachable. I have learnt that saying smile less, nod your head less or lean forward, has a limited impact. You need to change the mindset. Just as an actor needs to get into character, so does a presenter or an interviewee. If it’s you, try imagining you are delivering this presentation as an older sister or doing this television interview in front of your son’s classmates. Change the programme running in your head and the body language will sort itself out.

If all else fails you could try ‘power posing’. I am told it is a discredited theory (Wikipedia is clear on this point) but I know therapists that still advocate it. Stand in a powerful pose for a minute or so (perhaps in the cubicle of the loo to avoid embarrassment) and see if it changes the way you feel.

Body Language
I have written before about what sort of on-air presence gives the best television interview. To read this blog click here.

If you would like help with your presentation or on-camera interview style we have a stable of excellent coaches who would be delighted to help. Just call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Power Pose image used under creative commons – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

 

 

 

message dicipline

Message Discipline and Resistance to Towing the Line

Message discipline is one of the key things we teach in Media Training. And it has been interesting this last weekend to see the issue of discipline in communications move right to the centre of the political debate.

Message discipline and collective responsibility

Following a long meeting at Chequers, Prime Minister Theresa May has re-imposed the principles of collective responsibility and persuaded (!) Cabinet members to stop arguing against each other in public over Brexit or leave the Cabinet. As we know, at the time of writing David Davis and Boris Johnson have both chosen to leave.

Message Discipline

Prime Minister Theresa May is attempting to re-impose collective responsibility on her Cabinet.

Collective responsibility is a democratic convention which means members of the Cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet meetings, even if they do not privately agree with them. This support includes voting with the government in the Commons and towing the line in media interviews.

There are clear parallels in business where executive boards operate a similar system.

However, it does, of course, lead to difficulty if there are individuals who have strongly held beliefs which they feel they are unable to express.

Having clear, written, agreed messages is another version of collective responsibility. If you have several senior leaders speaking to the media it is important that what they say on sensitive subjects is aligned: with each other and with the organisation.

However, imposing the sort of discipline required to make this work can be very tricky.

Here is a selection of the problems we come across and the possible solutions.

PR professionals are too junior to demand discipline

Telling people what they can and cannot say in public can be tricky if your job title or seniority band is lower than your spokesperson. This usually arises only if the spokesperson lacks experience. Experienced operators know that the PRs are their best friend and they take the advice unless there is a very strong reason not to. However, I have personally had situations where it has been helpful for the CEO to pop-in and lend his authority to a set of messages. It’s all about having someone higher up the food chain to make it clear this is the way things are done.

Spokespeople worry about their professional reputation

This is very common and I have written about it before. The fear is understandable. Senior, clever people do not want to be quoted in public as saying something that lacks credibility or sounds stupid. And they don’t want to sound as if they are parroting lines written by someone else. Typically this is resolved by negotiation over the message but can also require a robust explanation of why a message is necessary in the first place. As PR practitioners we must remember that the risks of random media comment are not as clear to others as they are to us. Sometimes we need to spell them out with examples of where it has gone horribly wrong for other people.

Media Training is very helpful here because, by role-playing interviews and then discussing them, it often becomes clear that there is a way for corporate messages to be used but still sound and feel credible. The fear of using messages is dispelled by a bit of practise and playback.

Message Discipline

Media Training can provide the opportunity for spokespeople to get comfortable with messages.

Messages are too bland

This is another really common objection. If the chosen messages are too obviously based around marketing or just too corporate, spokespeople will quite rightly baulk at using them. It is initially not obvious to everyone that marketing messages and media messages — whilst having some relation to each other — are not the same thing. There is a whole science behind this but at its simplest marketing messages are about creating interest while media messages are much more about a compelling, often multi-faceted, argument.

One of the most successful marketing slogans of my lifetime comes from the mobile phone company Orange (now swallowed up into EE). Many people will remember the phrase ‘The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange’. But in the 1990s the CEO sounded stupid when he repeatedly used this phrase in media interviews with me and others. It was a good marketing message, not a good media message.

People find it difficult to use prepared messages

This is a funny one. I come across people who have never heard of ‘messaging’ before but who, given a modular script in the form of a message house, can use all the elements in a credible way, in their first role-play interview. But I also come across many other, equally smart people who find it extremely difficult to remember the prepared elements or to stitch them together in an interview, in a way that makes sense. It seems to me it’s all about the way each individual’s brain is wired. People think differently and process information differently. Whilst there is the odd person who is a natural, most need to be taught to use messages. But it doesn’t take long. It’s not rocket science. I have lost count of the number of clients who say to me ‘how come you can remember my messages better than I can?’. And the answer is: because it is a formula. I spend my life crafting and using messages for my clients. I have learnt how to learn messages!

(If you are wondering what I mean by messaging I have written about this here and here.)

If we can help install message discipline into your spokespeople — in the nicest possible way, of course —please do give us a call on 020 7099 2212.

 

Image of Theresa May from Wikimedia Commons

journalist threat

Journalists under threat and why we should care

My father was uncharacteristically jovial when I told him I had got a job as a journalist. “Have you heard the one about the journalist who married a prostitute,” he said, “… and dragged her down to his own level!”

Or, as the poet Humbert Wolfe famously put it:

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

journalists under threat

Press passes collected by the author Oliver Wates in the early years of his career as an international journalist.

My father knew perfectly well that I was not proposing to don a shabby raincoat and lurk outside nightclubs to catch celebrities leaving with someone they were not married to. I was joining Reuters, the international news agency which has the job, indeed the mission, of informing the world accurately and impartially what is going on in other parts of it.

British ambivalence

Here in Britain, we’ve always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the ladies and gentlemen of the press. On the one hand we value them as sturdy champions of our democracy and liberties, on the other we despise them as grubby hacks; clearly to blame for whichever recent public vote went against our preferences  — and guilty of playing fast and loose with the truth.

In the aftermath of the chilling slaughter of five journalists in the small US town of Annapolis last week, it was the former that came to the fore across the Atlantic. Journalists, politicians and the public came together to express their admiration for the survivors, (who heroically put together the next edition that same day) and their determination to protect the freedom of the press.

journalist threat

Here’s a typical comment from a Tennessee newspaper:

“We can promise you that we will not be intimidated or deterred. We will continue fighting for your right to know, holding public officials accountable for their words and actions, and maintaining the free press’ rightful place in this democratic republic.” – Johnson City Press.

Journalists under threat across the world

But things are more complicated in many other parts of the world. The word “journalist” disguises two separate, but often intertwined, functions; the first is the purveyor of information as objective and balanced as humanly possible, in the style of Reuters, the BBC, and other news agencies and broadcasters.

The second is as the activist seeking to make the world a better place, as the journalist sees it, by using the media to campaign to change certain policies or attitudes. And this is where we get into politics and where journalism can become a dangerous calling.

The Annapolis shooting is unusual in that it was a disgruntled former subject of the paper’s reporting who, allegedly, fired the shots. Far more common is the assassination of journalists to prevent them investigating things or to intimidate others from tackling certain matters.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US non-profit organisation, 1,800 journalists that we know of have been murdered worldwide over the past quarter-century. Prominent cases like Anna Politkovskaya in Russia (2006), Georgiy Gongadze in Ukraine (2000) and Ján Kuciak in Slovakia (February 2018) got widespread coverage in the international media.

Equally shocking was the 2015 murder of 12 journalists and other media workers at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, this time for extreme ideological reasons.

Journalists regularly murdered

But the vast majority of the murders of journalists get far less publicity and take place in countries like Iraq and Syria when civil war is raging. Even these risk being overshadowed by violence-riven Afghanistan, Mexico and Somalia and even supposedly peaceful countries like Philippines, Pakistan and India

When improving the lot of the people means tackling corruption and political skullduggery, inevitably there will be those with a lot to lose and often the ruthlessness to murder journalists. And for every journalist actually murdered, there will be dozens who put their safety and their families first and steer clear of dangerous territory, and others rotting away their lives in prison cells for offending the powerful.

The Paris-based NGO Reporters without Borders sees the profession increasingly under threat; as authoritarianism advances apparently inexorably across the globe, the traditional respect for independent journalism as one of the pillars of a democracy is similarly under the cosh.

For let us be clear. The primary political role of journalists in society is to hold the powerful to account. If they do not have the freedom to do that, governance suffers and our democracy is diminished.

Image of Capita Gazette front page from twitter.

writing a speech

Writing a Speech – Forget Good Grammar

Writing a speech? There are some tips to be gleaned by reading two high profile speeches delivered late last week. Both the Chancellor, Philip Hammond and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney gave their annual Mansion House speech to city grandees. Here I am not going to comment on the substance of the speeches – you can see mainstream coverage here and here – but instead I am pulling out a couple of tips for writing a speech or – importantly – any script.

writing a speech

Philip Hammond made the Chancellor’s annual Mansion House speech last week and there were a lot of very short sentences.

I am prompted to do this because both the Treasury and the Bank of England publish important speeches, so it is simple to read them online, making them a useful resource.

Remember the bulk of each of these speeches will have been written by professional speech writers. (This is probably not their job title but much of the substance of the speech will have been provided by someone other than the person delivering it. It is usual for early drafts to be discussed and commented on and the final draft tweaked by the deliverer.)

The crucial thing to understand, when writing something that will be read aloud, is that you need to use ‘spoken English’ not ‘written English’. You can usefully forget much of what you were taught in school about good sentence structure and paragraphs.

You can find Philip Hammond’s speech here.

Short sentences or even fragments can be effective

The key thing that stands out for me – reading rather than hearing the Chancellor’s speech – is the, often, very short sentences.

The good news is that we build on strong foundations.
Britain’s economy is fundamentally sound.
Unemployment is at a 40-year low, and employment is at a record high.
Real wages are, at last, beginning to rise.
Last year investment spending grew at the fastest rate in the G7.
And goods exports grew by over 7%.
But there is no room for any complacency.

The writer sensibly does not keep up this staccato style all the way through but instead mixes it in with longer more complicated sentences. Listeners would get bored if the pattern is repeated too much but, used intermittently, it has the benefit of being very clear, and very easy to deliver.

Secondly, some of Hammond’s short sentences are technically not sentences at all. Take this snippet.

But, (the Prime Minister) also confirmed we will stick to our fiscal rules.
And will continue to reduce debt.
So, as the Prime Minister said, taxpayers will have to contribute a bit more, in a fair and balanced way, to support the NHS we all use.
While delivering on our fiscal commitments

If you were an English teacher you would want to put red marks all over this, introduce some commas or colons and correct those capital letters. But this is not a document, it is a script and the rules are different.

Here is Mark Carney’s speech.

Writing a Speech: Use the dash

writing a speech

Mark Carney’s script for this year’s Mansion House dinner made liberal use of dashes.

The Bank of England Governor has a different style with longer sentences. But his speech writer makes liberal use of dashes.

As here:

That includes hard infrastructure – from liquidity facilities to payments architecture – and soft infrastructure – from the rule of law to up-to-date codes of conduct and effective regulatory frameworks.

I remember an early news editor at Radio Norfolk complaining about my use of dashes in a news story I had written that she had to read on air. She had a long history as a print journalist and railed against the youngsters who took a relaxed view of punctuation. I still think I was right. Dashes are more useful to the performer than commas.

At The Media Coach, we run special training courses for some clients who are using scripts and even autocue to produce videos for the web. Nearly always, a key reason why these brave people are not sounding as good as they would like, is that the script they are working with is not a script at all – but something that reads like an internal document. It’s the wrong style.

Writing a Speech: Say it aloud first

So how do you work out how to write a script?

Well, a good place to start is: say it aloud first. To see this in action watch Gary Oldman’s depiction of Churchill in last year’s film, The Darkest Hour. Churchill wrote his own speeches. But actually, as we see in the film, he didn’t write: he famously dictated speeches to his secretary Elizabeth Layton. These days we don’t have someone taking dictation but you can still speak first and then write down what you say.

And of course to check it works you need to read it aloud…not in your head.

Writing a Speech: 6 top tips

To summarise here are my 6 top tips
1. As with all professional communication be clear on your audience and your objective.
2. Write in plain English and avoid jargon, even for specialist audiences.
3. Write in short sentences. Don’t be afraid to use some very short sentences.
4. Use more paragraphs. Break up your prose, usually just 2 or 3 sentences per paragraph but one sentence or fragment is fine.
5. If you (or the person delivering the script) are reading from paper rather than autocue, set wide margins: give the eye less distance to travel across the page. The reader is less likely to lose their place.
6. Say it first, then write it, then read it aloud to check it works.

If you want to read other tips from me on speech writing, I last looked at this in a blog a couple of years ago and you can read that here.