No smoke without fire

How you start matters most

One of the most difficult parts of designing a presentation (or speech) is deciding upon and delivering the first few words you say. These will determine whether your audience will feel benign towards you and whether they will be receptive to you and your ideas – and attentive to your presentation. So the success of your message hinges upon these initial words (and the manner in which they are delivered). As Cicero put it in De Oratore  “For they bid us open in such a way as to win the goodwill of the listener and make him receptive and attentive.” Knowing exactly what you are going to say at the outset will also do wonders for your own confidence.

The power of the “Eye”

So, for any public speaking or presentation, I would advise you to spend significant effort and time in getting this initial part well tuned to the tone you wish to create with your audience. My great friend and colleague Willie Macnair who runs The Rhetorical Company (and devised a tool called the “Kipper” for the design of messages) calls this part of the message “the Eye” and this is either the very first thing you say or, if your audience does not know you, it may follow immediately after your welcome and self-introduction.

The danger

The criticality of the “Eye” was brought home to me recently when a delegate on a 2-day course I had run commented (amidst I hasten to say – and thankfully – some very complimentary comments) that I had not got the tone right at the beginning of the course. I know why. I had added, on the fly, some words to the “Eye” I had designed and these extra bits referred to me and my business. They were delivered on the spur of the moment (dangerous!!) and intended to be light hearted. But I know so well that talking about yourself is never a good idea, and can be disastrous if done during the opening words or “Eye” of a presentation (or course). I thank the delegate concerned – it was a salutary reminder to someone who should know better!

Human response

And this leads to something which reflects the title of this blog. I thought long and hard about whether to cover this point but decided, at the risk of upsetting some people and appearing hypocritical to others, to do so. My friend Mike the Mentor gave me the resolve to “publish and be damned”.

As humans, sight and sound are by far our most important senses, and one can easily dismiss lower order senses such as taste, touch and smell. However the first impressions you make when you start your presentation – including how physically you take up your position – are massively important. One can argue that they all contribute to the “Eye”. Those first impressions are certainly going to create, reinforce or destroy your personal “ethos”, and they include all the impressions created and received through all senses.

And that includes smell.

To the point

I have been a smoker all my life until in 2011 I had a replacement hip operation and used the 5 days in hospital to begin to break that habit of my lifetime. I am not going to pretend it was easy, but neither was it over-facing. During a year of abstinence I have become increasingly conscious of how smokers are actually tolerated quite well in our society. But also how they are not necessarily tolerated – most particularly in the way they smell – when it comes to making discretionary decisions about business. I am very clear in my mind that as a sole practitioner in professional services I have lost business as a result of my smoking. Arriving at a meeting to discuss an opportunity carrying the thick and acrid smell of tobacco in one’s clothes or breath is not a good idea. And mints don’t make it go away. It does all come down to first impressions – both from physical signals and verbal messages.

If you are a smoker and in a professional services business, and you don’t want to lose new business unnecessarily, do please think this through. Physical health may be a good objective. If it doesn’t work for you, perhaps business health might act as a motivator.

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