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professional communicators

8 tips for professional communicators

Professional communicators, whether writing or speaking, need to remember these basic rules to ensure what they say is remembered by the audience.

A client asked me at lunch the other day to just give her the top 5 things we say when trying to help people communicate better. I couldn’t stop at 5 and ended up with 8 but this is what I said.

1. Speak in simple language

This is the key universal challenge. It is the one thing high-powered professionals struggle with most. But it is essential to work out how to tell your story in layman’s language.

professional communicators

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Albert Einstein

2. Be tangible

This is the advanced version of keeping it simple. It is much easier for people to understand and remember what you are talking about if you explain it in words that create a picture in people’s minds. Here are a few examples:

Rather than ‘access to financial services’ – say ‘open a bank account, take out a loan etc’.

Rather than ‘leveraging our resources’ – say ‘using the people, the money and the knowledge we have to do more …’.

Rather than ‘influencing health outcomes in a population of lactating women’ – say ‘improving the health of breastfeeding mums in a way that can be measured from month to month’.

3. Use metaphors, similes and analogies

All professional communicators will use metaphors, similes and analogies. Here are a few that have stuck in my mind over the years:

professional communicators

Economist Andy Haldane once delivered a speech about banking regulation entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’.

In 2012 the economist and regulator, Andy Haldane, delivered a speech entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’. He was drawing a comparison between catching a frisbee and preventing a financial crisis: his takeaway message was that writing down heaps of detailed regulation will not help anyone prevent a crisis. Here is a snippet:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity. Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans. …
Catching a crisis, like catching a frisbee, is difficult. Doing so requires the regulator to weigh a complex array of financial and psychological factors, among them innovation and risk appetite. Were an economist to write down crisis-catching as an optimal control problem, they would probably have to ask a physicist for help.

And here are a couple of shorter ones:

Love is like the wind, you can’t see it but you can feel it.
– Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
– Maya Angelou

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
– Albert Einstein

4. Throw in well-rehearsed hard evidence

I have a simplistic approach to this. For the media, three numbers make an argument. When I was on the board of the National Association for Gifted Children* we used something like this:

On a normal distribution curve of intelligence, the top 3% of children can be considered gifted. That is three in every hundred, which means there are more than 10 gifted children in your local primary school. If you, as a teacher or a mum, do not know who they are – it’s because they’re hiding.

Notice that in this case it is not three different numbers but the same number stated in three different ways.

[*NAGC has now changed its name to Potential Plus]

professional communicators

Jeremy Hunt will often line-up detailed numbers when explaining the challenges faced by the NHS.

You can often list your key numbers. Here is a passage from a speech by Jeremy Hunt UK Health Minister :

We have not stood still: compared to six years ago, our remarkable professionals are treating 1,400 more mental health patients every day, 2,500 more A & E patients within 4 hours every day, doing 4,400 more operations every day, 16,000 more diagnostic tests every day and 26,000 more outpatient appointments every single day.

This is the sort of paragraph, familiar to professional communicators, that is the filling in the sandwich between the first articulation of an argument and the second – as in the technique Point-Evidence-Point.

In a speech, you can include more numbers but too many and the audience gets bored. For an interview stick to three or four, neither you or the audience will remember more.

5. Tell stories

Stories, anecdotes, examples or case studies are by far the most memorable elements of any communication. Our brains are hard-wired to remember stories over facts. We have blogged about this extensively already, for example here and here.

6. Make sure what you are saying is interesting and credible

Sounds obvious doesn’t it but you would be surprised. In both presentations and interviews, even professional communicators will say things they know sound stupid but feel it is expected of them by their company or organisation. Never turn off your own judgment.

7. Have a clear argument

If you are a professional communicator you will know that you have to check and check again that your argument is crystal clear.

8. Craft then rehearse all the above

Your presentations and your messages for any interview should be rehearsed aloud. There is no substitute. Think you don’t have time? I can assure you it will be quicker to edit, improve, commit to memory and correct if you say it aloud.

If you would like help with your messages The Media Coach can facilitate bespoke message-building sessions for your organisation.

 

All images from Pixabay.

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When Offence Goes Viral: What can PR do?

Whether or if offence goes viral is one of the really unpredictable bits of PR.  We saw a couple of high profile examples of ‘offence taken’ in the last week.

Offence goes viral

When Offence Goes Viral: This Week’s Tally

The National Trust managed to ‘offend’ the nation (or some of it) by dropping the word Easter from its annual Egg Hunt. Previously called the Great Easter Egg Trail, it is  this year the Great British Egg Hunt.

The next example of offence comes from across the Atlantic, where Pepsi put out an advertisement that took images (or imagery) from a Black Lives Matter movement demonstration and used them as part of an advert suggesting that all people needed to live together in harmony, was a can of fizzy drink. They quickly apologised and withdrew the advert.

A few days earlier Ken Livingston got himself into hot water again, this time by saying that, in 1933, Hitler’s government supported Zionism. This caused him to be suspended from the party a few days later. In this case the offence was completely predictable. Livingston, who has a lifetime’s experience of the British media knew exactly what he was doing and did it anyway. 

Offence goes viral

There are a few things to say about these incidents.

Offence is not always predictable, there is an element of luck

First there is an element of luck or bad luck about something said or done in public going viral. Once it has happened, lots of people will claim it was obvious, inevitable and predictable that there would be an outcry. But in my view lots of things are said and done that should cause outcry and don’t. The pick-up is pretty random.

Sometimes ‘outrage’ is manufactured by someone with something to gain. In the case of the missing word ‘Easter’ I am suspicious. If the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, a charismatic and much-loved Church leader, hadn’t chosen to be offended, I rather think no one else would have noticed. I have no idea whether this was cynical manufactured outrage to get publicity for the Church at an important time of the year (and remind us of the religious story behind the Easter Public Holiday) or whether the Archbishop was genuinely outraged and felt something had to be said.

[Some have been surprised the Prime Minister Theresa May was prepared to step firmly into the fray and voice her opinion as ‘a vicar’s daughter’ but I am not. This would have been judged by someone as a safe and fluffy thing to be outraged about, rather similar to John Major talking about not enough places to have a pee on the motorway. It gets good publicity with very low risk.]

Pepsi advert objections could be cynical

The Pepsi case is more likely to be cynical. If you watch the advert, which is half way down the New York Times report linked to here, you would have to be a pretty close observer to even spot the Black Lives Matter connection. However, even as a supporter of the campaign, I can observe that it was certainly worth rallying the troops against the Pepsi advert. The move generated lots of publicity for the cause and by calling for a boycott, increased the sense of community and ability to contribute to the campaign. It gave a focus for that eagerly sought after ‘call to action’.

Ken Livingston is Ken Livingston, some will say he hates being out of the limelight and, every now and then, he needs to either be outraged himself or outrage others to prove he is still alive. I am less cynical about Livingston. He believes what he believes and is fearless about saying it. He learnt a long time ago that there was little point to softening his radical views for public consumption. I suspect he is immune to others disapproval.

When Offence goes Viral: What are the Options

Let’s turn to the PR takeaways. What do you do if you, your spokesperson, or organisation causes outrage by mistake? Well in my view the options are pretty simple.

The big decision to make is do you want to fight or explain –  or do you want to take the path that gives you as little publicity as possible.

Here are my options in the first category:

  • Tough it out and explain at length until it is no longer newsworthy. The downside of this is you will generate lots of copy and search engine results in the process.
  • Apologise at length and explain on the airwaves and in the newspapers. Again the downside of this is that it generates lots of coverage that will forever link the original offence with the person or organisation. This was the Ken Livingston approach. 
  • Claim loudly and often that the offensive remark was taken out of context and it was all the media’s fault. (My least favourite option.)
  • Claim someone else is making mileage out of an incident that does not really cause anyone else offence. Again, the danger in this is that you create a ‘them and us’ version of the narrative which the media will run with. You may end up with a lot more coverage than you started with.

And if you want the minimum of publicity:

  • Tough it out and explain as little as possible – a simple statement perhaps – and hope it goes away. This seems to be the choice the National Trust took 
  • Apologise with a statement. Again hope it goes away.
  • Claim you or the spokesperson misspoke (and apologise).
  • Make amends by withdrawing the comment, the advert or making a donation to charity etc. This was the tack Pepsi plumped for. 

Of course, if your PR minders spotted a potential land mine and stopped you stepping on it in the first place, then please – give them a pay rise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PR Basics

PR Basics: Don’t overpromise  

PR basics include a rule that you don’t promise something you may not be able to deliver. If there was one outstanding headline from last week’s UK budget it was that the Tories had broken a promise not to raise National Insurance. Chancellor, Philip Hammond announced in the budget on Wednesday measures that included a tax rise for the self-employed despite the previous manifesto promise not to do so.

PR Basics, Philip Hammond

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have broken a manifesto promise not to increase National Insurance

According to the Guardian newspaper: ‘The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto was unequivocal, promising four times that a Tory government would not increase National Insurance. It did not mention the self-employed and offered future chancellors no wriggle room.’

PR Basics: Avoid public U-turns if possible

For us, the PR Rule broken here is don’t say something that you might later have to backtrack on.

If we want another hugely damaging example from politics we have only to remember the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees. This was an election promise made before they found themselves in a coalition with a Tory party.  Personally, I feel that makes a material difference but the electorate is much less forgiving and the tuition fees broken promise seems to have ruined the career of Nick Clegg, one of the most able politicians of his generation. Not to mention wiping out the LibDem presence in the House of Commons. 

PR Basics

Even incorrect forecasting can be damaging. During the Brexit debate in the UK, those who argued the markets would ‘punish’ the UK if Vote Leave were to win, have since been publically lambasted because their predictions did not (fully) materialise. The public often does not make the distinction between a forecast – a best guess about the future – and a firm warning of what might happen. (My mother constantly rails against the weather forecast, which she says is ‘always wrong’. No amount of me pointing out it is a ‘forecast’ and not a promise makes any difference. These people are ‘misleading’ her.)

PR Basics: Avoid any ‘hostage to fortune’ 

Businesses too can fall foul of overpromising. Way back when, I clearly remember the, to me, avoidable pressure on the Chief Executive (later Chairman) of Rentokil who had overpromised. Sir Clive Thompson was always described as the ‘self-styled Mr. 20%’. I am not sure who used the phrase first but Sir Clive was certainly not unhappy with it. He delivered something like 20% growth in Rentokil profits every year for 13 years! But when in 1999 he moved to lower the target investors took their revenge. Even as a journalist I thought Sir Clive crazy to set this near impossible target for himself. He was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Chairman and finally ousted in 2004, apparently for ‘being too obsessed with meeting short-term targets’.  It seemed he could not detach himself from the Mr. 20% label.

It is something we come across often in training. Enthusiastic executives of course have a vision they are working toward. But while talking in broad brush strokes is fine, often it does not do to share the detail of that vision with journalists. The media just love to write that people or companies have ‘missed’ their target, done a U-turn or a flip-flop.

PR Basics

Executives are often tempted to overpromise in an interview

 PR Basics: Highfalutin promises can cause negative headlines 

Good PR people always caution against this. They know that being too clear about targets or making highfalutin promises can often cause negative headlines further down the line. Here is an incomplete list of mundane things we would advise against being too definite about.

  • There will be no further job losses. Who knows there might have to be?
  • We are expecting 20% growth in sales/profits etc. You might be confident but such a public prediction turns a 10% increase into a failure.
  • We want to be number one in the market within two years. Better to say one of the leading players in the market.
  • We expect to be profitable by Q4 2018. This is a difficult one because it is the sort of information you have to share with investors and therefore it may already be in the public domain. My advice would be not to lie if asked outright – stupid if it’s already published – but if possible not draw attention to it in media interviews, and if asked be cautious about it rather than bullish. If it is a major important element of a story that won’t help but hubris is easy to spot and may lead to mischief from the journalist. All in all, this would be more of a judgment call and our advice would depend on what else you have to say.
  • Margins are set to rise to 25%. Here again being vague is the standard. Unless they are published in your annual accounts you may be best to avoid talk of margins. Again you may have an internal forecast but is there really any benefit to being specific?

PR Basics: There are always exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. I have taken part in discussions where CEO’s or other senior bods have weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘hostage to fortune’ pledge and decided to take the risk  – because the benefits outweighed the possible costs.  That is sensible and their prerogative.

Often our role is to bolster the PR advice and ensure ‘enthusiastic’ interviewees don’t make casual public promises or forecasts without understanding this basic rule of PR: avoid a hostage to fortune comment unless there is a very good reason not to.

Don’t forget, if we can help you prepare your spokespeople for a public announcement – results, product launch or a new direction – give us a call 020 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

Photo used under Creative Commons Licence

humour in pr quidditch goal posts

Humour in PR: hats off to hospital PR team

Humour in PR is rare and for good reason. It is difficult to get right. But this week, amidst all the EU In or Out campaign headlines in the UK, was a story that brought a smile to all Harry Potter fans. And a very well-judged response from the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children’s PR team.

Pictures of giant hoops, reminiscent of Quidditch goal posts, were all over the news because it came to light that an official-looking plaque set up alongside the art installation was anything but official.

humour in pr quidditch goal posts

The art installation outside Bristol Royal Hospital for Children

Humour in PR: the Quidditch goal posts

Two years ago the plaque was conceived, funded and installed by a former Bristol University student Cormac Seachoy. He found the art installation outside the hospital constantly reminded him of the goal posts in a fictional sport that forms a central theme in the Harry Potter books. He raised the money from crowd funding and with a mate, stuck the plaque up in the middle of the night in November 2014, then posted it on Facebook and tweeted it.

It reads: Dedicated to the children of Bristol, the 1998 Quidditch world cup posts enchanted by Adou Sosseh. Have a magical day.

humour in pr quidditch goal posts

The plaque looks official but was added without any authority or approval

If you are not a Harry Potter fan you might not know that Quidditch is played by wizards and witches on broom sticks. You would have to be a real Potter aficionado to know that Malawi won this fictional sport’s world cup in 1998 beating Senegal. Or that Adou Sosseh was the captain of the losing team.

humour in pr quidditch goal posts

Cormac Seachoy wanted children to believe a wizard had magically installed the ‘goal posts’

The prankster, Cormac Seachoy, was subsequently diagnosed with terminal cancer and died almost exactly a year later. The story of the plaque was out there on twitter and Facebook but went largely unreported. The hospital administration had either not noticed the plaque or assumed it was part of the art. They only realised the whole story when asked about it by the Bristol Post last week.

Humour in PR: Bristol Children’s Hospital response

This is their response: “The appearance of this plaque was a magical and mysterious event that we did not know anything about – but we are sure that our patients and their families will appreciate it. We do plan to keep this but ask that any other magical beings that wish to erect plaques on our site do speak to us first so that the muggles amongst us can say thank you and look after and maintain these gifts”.

(Muggles are non-magical beings in the Harry Potter books).

Of course, had the hospital administration said or done anything else they could have landed themselves in very hot water. Taking the plaque down could have made them very unpopular. Being anything other than appreciative of the prank would have seen them branded spoilsports, dishonouring a good man who died too young. But whoever came up with this response got it just right.

Humour in PR: some pointers

If you are inspired to use humour in your own PR here are some pointers:

  • Be careful, something that is funny to one person can easily offend another.
  • Self-deprecating humour is probably safest.
  • Paying homage to someone or something else often works well. In our example, the use of ‘magical’ and ‘muggles’ in the response does, in its way, pay homage to JK Rowling the author of the Harry Potter books.
  • Referencing something that is well known and understood by your target audience helps to create the idea that you and your business are all part of the same community.
  • Almost too obvious to state, but use colloquial not formal language.

Humour in PR: other examples

Picture credits: Art installation, Bristol Hospital Education services. The Plaque, Cormac Seachoy Facebook page. Cormac Seachoy Facebook.

 

social media risks nah shah

Social Media risks exposed again

We were reminded again last week of Social Media risks of old posts coming back to wreck the present.  This time, a post from two years back has cost Labour MP Naz Shah a prominent role as aid to the Shadow Chancellor and has led to her having the Labour whip withdrawn. It is a story that will make many of us sit up and reassess our exposure to Social Media risks and a reminder to business that all employees that tweet or post in a professional capacity need to be given clear social media guidelines.

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Naz Shah has been suspended from the Labour Party because of Facebook posts from two years back

Social Media risks from Facebook sharing

Naz Shah’s crime was that in a Facebook post in 2014 before she became MP for Bradford West, she ‘shared’ a graphic. It showed an image of Israel’s outline superimposed onto a map of the US, under the headline “Solution for Israel-Palestine Conflict – Relocate Israel into United States”.  Shah added the comment “problem solved”. For the un-initiated sharing is not the same as originating the material yourself, you are just passing on something someone else has posted, in this case with a two-word comment. There was another post that likened the Israeli policies to those of Hitler.

It is for others to comment on the offence itself but the dangers for all or any of us are clear. A moment of misjudgement or high spirits or indiscretion can come back to haunt you months or years later and turn your life upside down. Naz Shah is not alone.

In 2013 at age 17, The Kent youth PCC Paris Brown, lost her £15,000 a year job just a few days after being appointed because of tweets she had posted some time earlier. These were things she had said between the age of 14 and 16 which, it was judged, were considered racist and anti-gay. For the record, Paris Brown denied being racist or homophobic but said she had ‘fallen into the trap of behaving with bravado on social networking sites’.

To be clear we, of course, do not approve of social media being used for racist, anti-Semitic or anti-gay trolling. But we do see that this is an area of risk that is not yet fully understood and a whole minefield for businesses that are increasingly embracing social media for PR.

So what are the learning points:

Social Media risks: management for individuals

  • Personal and business social media accounts need to be separated but they are still linked unless an individual clearly states that the opinions given are their own and not the views of the company.
  • Before applying for a job, particularly one in the public domain, do an audit of your social media. Go back over years worth of posts and delete any that are ill-advised. Be aware that they can still exist if they have been shared or made into an untraceable image.
  • If you have been an early adopter and it would be an impossible process to go back and clean up your social media trail make a note of any you regret and be prepared to answer any questions that are raised.
  • Think twice before posting anything. Ask the question if my bosses read this will I still have a job or even a basic principle “will my mum be proud”?

Social Media risks: management for business

  • Provide clear guidelines to anyone who uses social media about what is personal and what is business and how they are only separate if an individual clearly states that they are not representing the company.
  • Provide clear guidelines about what is acceptable and what is not.
  • Have in place a recovery plan and system that can swing into action if an ill-advised post or tweet is out there. Usually, this involves withdrawing the offensive post and posting an appropriate apology.

People in public life have always been held to account for earlier misjudgements. The difference today is that everyone online is in the spotlight and it’s so much easier to check a social media profile.

Social Media risks

Other examples of people caught out:

  • Justine Sacco the PR officer who lost her job after tweeting an insensitive message about AIDS in Africa.
  • Connor Riley inadvisedly tweeted “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.”
  • Scott Bartosiewicz was a social media strategist working with Chrysler. Thinking he was signed into his own account, he accidentally tweeted a negative comment from Chrysler’s account about Detroit drivers.

Picture credit: CC by SA, Alchetron 2016

Seven things every press officer should have to hand

Seven things every press officer should have to hand

The lull of New Year is a good time to take stock and get organised for the months ahead. We work with many large multi-faceted press offices which have systems and procedures galore. But we also often come across the odd poor marketing person who has had PR added to their job description without ceremony, briefing or training. And there are plenty of one-man-band press officers who have never worked in the large organisations. If you recognise yourself here, this article is for you. These are the seven things I think all press officers need to hand.

Unhappy woman

Many people have PR responsibilities dumped on them without training or support

1. Media List
Sounds basic but is often missing. As a proactive PR you will need an up-to-date list of all your relevant journalists. You might want to add other useful information such as how they like to be contacted: phone, email, twitter or (heaven help us) fax machine. You might want to add their publication or deadline dates or times as it is well worth avoiding these if you want to get their attention.

2. Spokesperson List
You will also need a list of your company spokespeople, and their out-of-hours contact numbers. Notes on anything relevant, such as what they can’t or don’t want to talk about and what their family responsibilities are, will all save time if you need someone in a hurry. You might also want to make a note of when they were last media trained!

Economist Style Guide

Economist Style Guide is the gold standard

3. Style Guide
Some organisations will have a style guide. If yours doesn’t you may want to create one to ensure all external written communications are standardised. The style guide will lay out such things as which terms need to be capitalised, whether you use British English or American English spellings and how you use names e.g. first and second name on first outing but just surname on second.  If you don’t know where to start you could do worse than browse the Economist Style Guide which is the gold standard. If you are starting from scratch don’t assume it has to be complicated: start with the obvious and add to it over time.

4. Jargon Buster
We think every organisation needs this and we have drawn them up ourselves for one or two clients. Jargon is the bane of a journalist’s life and if you can do the work to translate your internal jargon you will win better coverage. It is very hard for spokespeople to come up with alternative colloquial phrases during an interview. Much easier, if the PR person suggests some considered options as part of the interview preparation.

5. Events Calendar
We all have diaries and calendars of course but you might want to create one specifically for internal and relevant external events. Launch dates, executive board meetings, trade shows etc. are all relevant to the timing of press releases and other PR events. So are the introduction of new regulations or the launch of a rival company. It is much easier to plan if you have these all laid out on one at-a-glance calendar.

6. Prepared Reactive Lines
Most organisations have the negative questions that spokespeople dread coming up in an interview.  Often they will relate to issues that go back years. It is essential for the press office to know what the line is on all these issues and useful to capture these reactive lines in a document. Updates will be necessary at frequent intervals but it is much quicker to update than to start from scratch.

Crisis Communication Plan

Consider drawing up a Crisis Comms Plan

7. Crisis Comms Plan
Crisis Communications Plans come in all shapes and sizes. You can hire the big PR agencies to provide a ‘risk audit’ of your organisation and then, at some expense, provide detailed plans for each eventuality. This is probably way over the top for most organisations. But a couple of hours spent identifying the awful or disruptive things that could happen and then working out the PR strategy could be useful. If you put it in writing and get senior management sign-off this will save you time if something does happen; rather than waiting for decisions you will be able to swing into action.

Let me know what I have missed. Wishing you all a safe and prosperous 2016 from The Media Coach Team

 

 

public-speaking

How to banish nerves from public speaking

At the start of my career I worked with a well-known and popular broadcast journalist with a ton of experience in presenting live TV.  He was confident, energetic and highly skilled at building empathetic connections with interviewees in a short space of time.

He was also crippled by nerves and once told me how he used to experience acute attacks of butterflies and adrenaline surges just before the lights went down and the cameras came on at the start of 3 hours of live TV. His description was so intense that it amazed me that people watching from home weren’t able to see what he was going through. It also made me think he was a fool for working in live TV if he still couldn’t handle his physical responses and stress after 15 years in the business.

Of course, what I later learned was that riding the adrenaline was his ‘thing’. But the broader point here is that people who get nervous about public speaking or media interviews often assume that those they consider to be good don’t suffer at all.  But that often isn’t true. Many good speakers get nervous – they just have strategies for helping them cope with stage fright.

Here are a few tips that our clients have often told us they find helpful for managing public speaking or media interview nerves.

1. Manage your expectations of yourself

Accept that that your personal experience of discomfort is not the same as the audience’s view of your performance. You might be dying inside but there is often no correlation between how you feel and what an audience (live or TV) sees.  And don’t forget that a bit of nervousness can sometimes endear the speaker to the audience, provided it doesn’t get in the way of what they are saying.

public speaking

Nerves are one of the most common issues people have with public speaking

Not comfortable with speaking into microphones or to cameras? You aren’t alone. Many seasoned speakers don’t like the podium, or staring down the barrel of a massive broadcast camera. However, they are good at accepting the artifice and managing their response to it.  Practising regularly on camera can also help, partly because it gets people into the habit of treating speaking as a workable skill, while reassuring many that they aren’t as bad as feared.

2. Preparation includes practice

Preparation of message houses, PowerPoints or speaking notes is not complete unless you have rehearsed your prepared material aloud several times and got your tongue familiar with what you want to say. Trust me, it will help the nerves enormously. Particularly if you are not going to be speaking in your mother tongue.

3. Get familiar with your environment

Clearly, you aren’t going to be able to walk into a live broadcast studio and conduct your own pre-interview audit but you and your PR team can do as much due diligence as possible on what to expect in terms of technology and interview flow.  Likewise, if you are speaking at a conference or an event, it’s worth getting into the room early to see what the room layout will be like and where the podium or desk is. If you can rehearse your opening points even better.

4. Centre yourself

Everyone is jumping on the mindfulness band wagon these days but many people do find it enormously helpful for centering themselves, putting things into perspective and remaining calm. As a keen but poor runner I can also add that doing several mental run-throughs of the Brussels 20km route ahead of last year’s race helped me enormously when it came to not giving up on the final nasty uphill stretch. This may sound touchy-feely but anyone who has seen me run and done the 20km will know what I am talking about.

5. Fake it

Seriously. Lots of people worry about being in the ‘zone’ when it comes to public speaking or an interview. And while I do agree that taking a few minutes ahead of time to get into ‘performance mode’ can be helpful, I also think that a good way to create confidence is to fake it.

And who knows, you might even get so caught up in your performance that you find yourself enjoying it…

What tips work for you?

juncker1

Juncker disappoints: We want more from EU speakers

This article first appeared on Hearings.Digital-Diplomacy.EU

What is the purpose of a speech?

Judging from some of the conversations I’ve been having with people on Twitter, I have been unfair to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, because I wanted him to deliver his State of the Union speech in an engaging and convincing manner.

When I make comments like this, people in Brussels often assume that this is somehow a dig at the speaker’s English (which is usually perfect) and that I should cut them some slack because they are often talking in their third or fourth language.

So before I start this blog in full I want to make a number of things clear.

I am in awe of people who work in several languages

As a Brit who works almost exclusively in her mother tongue and speaks passable (but not professional) French and Spanish, I know how hard it is to work at an effective and nuanced level in other languages.

Doing speeches in multi-lingual environments is tough

This is partly because of language but also genuine cultural differences which exist over what makes an authoritative public speaker. Personally I think speeches should be banned from EU policy environments because they don’t add anything and almost all policymakers do better when taking questions rather than delivering set piece speeches which they aren’t good at.

I don’t want everyone to sound like Tony Blair

 

Or Angelina Jolie.

Far from it. I want them to be the best possible version of themselves if they are going to convince an audience to listen to their message. This does not make me superficial and unduly fixated on metaphors.  Nor does it mean I overlook substance in favour of rhetorical flourish (whatever that is). Rather, it means I accept that all public speaking is an exercise in creating and sustaining a convincing connection with an audience over a set period of time.  The Greeks knew this thousands of years ago when they were using speechmaking to cement ‘democracy’ in Athens. And not being boring matters more than ever in the increasingly impressionistic digital age we now live in.

So, caveats aside, the speech was a game of two halves. It was beautifully crafted, with lovely soundbites, great numbers and sticky stories but delivered in such a flat and listless way that it made me want to put a biro through my eyeball.

Quite simply, you wouldn’t have known this was the make or break speech it had been trailed as.

juncker

Juncker’s well written State of the Union was undermined by his flat delivery

The Good

Beautifully written: lots of sizzling soundbites such as  ‘There is a lack of Europe in Europe and a lack of union in the European Union’ and ‘Europe cannot house all the world’s misery’. Chapeau to Juncker’s speechwriters, who have done a very good job in focusing the content on the audience.
Great numbers – such as 20mn Poles live outside Poland – helped create a strong narrative arc and context for discussing the refugee crisis.
Strong storytelling and examples to help make the speech visual and real. There was also very little jargon. Good, good, good.

The Bad

Just one major point: the delivery was flat with terrible energy  and no light or shade (in all three languages, not just English). This is not a language issue. It’s a performance issue. No speaker will be convincing if they do not seem interested in and engaged by their own subject. Most of us have to fake energy and enthusiasm when it comes to public speaking. It does not mean you have to be a fake to do it.
I am a broken record on the energetic delivery point. I cannot emphasize this enough. You can have the best or worst content in the world but if you have no ooomph as a speaker  then you will always fail to ignite or even connect with your audience.
A strong speech certainly helps. But performance, passion and conviction are everything

 

Paxman

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

The tricks journalists use in an aggressive interview are small in number and well known; and in reality, really aggressive interviews are rare. But if you think your spokesperson or you could be facing aggression here is a checklist of things to do or think about.

1. Rehearse your messages 
As with all interviews there is a need for rehearsed, thought through messages. Always ensure there is something credible to say.

2. Tough questions 
Once you have your messages, work out what the tough questions are likely to be. Politicians and even senior bosses are in a much more difficult position than most because they can often be legitimately asked about a very wide range of subjects. For most others the scope is more limited and anything outside the scope can be ‘closed down’ by simply explaining you are not the right person to answer the question.Top tips for aggressive interviews

3. Work out the answers!
Now you have worked out the tough questions, work out the answers but keep them as short as possible. These are called ‘reactive lines’ and are different to your messages. You don’t offer a reactive line unless asked the question.

4. Don’t lie
The hardest ‘reactive lines’ are the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie. In my experience there is always a way but it can take a few minutes to work it out. However tempting it is, never ever lie.

5. Beware the rabbit-punch
Beware the ‘rabbit punch’ question: a tough destabilising first question, often unexpectedly personal. It’s a technique that was often used by the now retired UK journalist, Jeremy Paxman. A couple of his classics: to politician and former cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe ‘Were you a little in love with Michael Howard?’ To the Iranian ambassador ‘Sir, your country is lying to us isn’t it’. To deal with this you need to respond briefly and if appropriate with wit and then move on to saying something credible and relevant.

Newsnights Jeremy Paxman perfected the 'rabbit-punch' question

Now retired, Jeremy Paxman perfected the ‘rabbit-punch’ question

6. Slow down
If the questions get tough, slow down your answers, it will give you more thinking time.

7. Avoid jargon 
Do not start using jargon and technical language; you will immediately loose the sympathy of the audience.

8. Be reasonable
Stay reasonable, even if the journalist isn’t, and be humble.

9. Say sorry 
If you have made a mistake admit it and say sorry.

10. Don’t say ”you’re wrong”
Don’t fight with the journalist. It’s better not to say ‘you’ at all i.e. don’t say, ‘you are wrong’, ‘I don’t know where you got that number from’, ‘you guys are all the same’, etc. If you make it personal the journalist is likely to increase their aggression. Your job is to stay reasonable and professional. In this recent Sky News interview Kay Burley uses that classic question, ‘if nothing was wrong before, why are you fixing it’. Note that Nick Varney, the CEO of Merlin Entertainment, the owners of Alton Towers, never loses his cool.

Abdallah

Abdallah Touqan from Dubizzle wins our Message in a Minute Challenge

In case you couldn’t work it out from Twitter, Lindsay and I were at the European Communication Summit in Brussels last week.

While there we ran the first Media Coach Message in a Minute competition in which we asked the professional PRs to describe their organisation in a colloquial and interesting way in 60 seconds and record it on our onsite camera.

Many people often forget the value of an efficient Message in a Minute, or elevator pitch. They often (wrongly) assume that people know what they do (even after an hour of talking to them) when actually they only have a vague idea.

Abdallah

Abdallah Touqan did an excellent elevator pitch for Dubizzle

So doing it well can be a challenge but is worth getting right.

Even by the standards of professional communicators, we had some unusually strong entries and were really impressed by what people came up with virtually on their spot.

Although it was a tough call in the end we gave the prize to Abdallah Touqan for his description of Dubizzle, the company where he heads up communications.

What clinched his win was his arresting and imaginative use of numbers, examples (e.g. Egyptians having the equivalent of Swedish GDP in unused goods in their homes) and enthusiastic but measured delivery. He also managed to convey Dubizzle as a ‘movement’ in the ‘collaborative economy’ rather than just being  a company, which was very effective.

He was just a great spokesperson in terms of content and style.

Well done to everyone who took part and we hope you enjoyed it.

See you next year.