Humanity in communication

Why

People have been giving and receiving presentation skills training for years (actually several millennia) and in that time there have surely been some changes in what might be regarded as a “good” presentation. But I did think that the sort of course which abounded in the 1990s, typically extolling the style adopted by photocopier salespeople, would have disappeared by now.

Apparently not. I was startled to hear from some participants on one of my communications skills courses that they had recently attended a course in which they had been advised that:

  • making mistakes in delivery was never acceptable (because it would appear unprofessional)
  • movement and gesture should be minimised (because it was regarded as distracting or unprofessional)
  • it was not acceptable to refer to a note (because this would show that you were not on top of your subject)

So I thought I should reassure those whose aspirations are not to become completely robotic that humanity really can have a place in the business world.

The components of communication

People are persuaded by other people. True communication is the product of both message and personality of the speaker. One multiplies the other. And of course, the listeners also need pauses in which they can interpret, understand and create memory. The formula that Willie Macnair of the Rhetorical Company coined was: C = M x P + S. C is for Communication, M for Message, P for Personality and S is for Spaces or Silence. I still use it because it is so true.

Let us have a look at what personality means in this context. It is the believability of the speaker, the energy and passion conveyed. It is the cocktail of attributes that makes you want to believe the speaker. To quote from Simon Sinek – “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. The personality conveys why you can believe the speaker. It embraces both your reputation or ethos and your presence in delivery. This presence is created initially in the Head of the presentation.

As Cicero put it – “… open in such a way as to win the goodwill of the listener and make him receptive and attentive”. So, let us return to the three points of unfortunate guidance quoted above, and ask some questions.

Perfection

Does being perfect in delivery make you more believable?

No it does not. Being too slick creates mistrust. Losing your way on occasions and getting the odd word wrong, or occasionally struggling to find the right word, all show that you are human and therefore authentic. Let us consider a situation when a team is presenting and one of the speakers loses his or her way. If other members of the team help out and get the speaker back on track, it shows that this really is a team that care for each other as well as the audience. So, please don’t try and be too perfect!

Energy

Do we find people with energy boring?

Of course not. Audiences respond well to energy and excitement generated by a speaker. This will be transmitted by natural movement and gesture. It stands to reason that constraining movement and gesture will undermine the natural transmission of personality. What a waste!

Different people use different amounts of physical movement. So, if you are a relatively static person, forced gestures will appear exactly that – forced and untrue. If you tend to move or gesture a lot then this is who you are and the person the audience wants to see. So, be true to yourself.

Notes

Does using a note suggest you are ignorant or incompetent?

No. Many public speakers use notes, and sometimes autocues. There is nothing wrong with preparing and using a note, providing the speaker does not disengage from the audience and start to read from the note. Engagement – eye contact and shoulder movement – is essential in involving your audience.

I find it ironic that the people who are critical of the use of notes are often people who will display slide after slide of PowerPoint and read what is on the slides. In other words, they are using the projection as their own note. Now that is an odd behaviour!

Make sure that your note – the paper on which it is written – is not a distraction to your audience. Keep it small or leave it on a table and move over to it only when you need to. If you are using a prepared speech text, the sequence to adopt in delivery should be: read and memorise selection, re-engage with audience, pause, speak the words, pause, refer to note, read and memorise and so on. I have to admit though, this is extremely hard to do!

Referring occasionally to a note compliments the audience because the speaker has taken the trouble to prepare their talk. In addition, referring back to a note when quoting evidence – a fact or figure or quotation – shows that you want to get it right. In other words you will be much more believable as a result of your reference to the note.

Conclusion

The word professional is often used as an adjective to aspire to. I am not quite sure what people mean by it. Certainly, it should address ethics, beliefs and attitudes (the Why).  But please let us not interpret the word in a way which would mean we veer towards being over-controlled, inauthentic, or boring. People are persuaded by people. We are, after all, human. So let humanity in ….. let humanity win.

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Forensic delivery – a part of selling

Context and purpose

Having run training courses in communications and coached bid teams for many years, I set up this blog with the intention of passing on insights and tips associated with the design of the spoken word – essentially presentation design and delivery. This particular blog is really intended for people who have attended one of my company’s courses – Gareth Bunn Consulting Limited – (or The Rhetorical Company’s). If you have, you will understand the “kipper” – a tool for the design of messages devised by Willie Macnair and based on classical rhetoric. You will probably also have been introduced to the three main styles of rhetoric, two of which are relevant to this blog – “deliberative” and “forensic”.

I must also thank Willie Macnair for his commentary on my first draft of this piece. This is a summarised version.

Deliberative style

We tend to focus on the “deliberative” style of rhetoric – where the objective is to persuade others to specific future behaviour. This is applicable to most circumstances in business not least to business development – selling.

A complication in business development

Procurement processes though often make the design of presentations extremely difficult. This is partly because the presentation can sometimes be deemed (unhelpfully) to be a part of the bid documentation. In other words the presentation is regarded as, primarily, a visual production rather than aural – a projected document augmented with an opportunity to interrogate! However inappropriate this might be, we have to respect the expectations of a client and its advisors.

Design for the purpose

Different styles of presentation may be effective at different points in the selling process. It is essential therefore that the audience analysis undertaken by the bid team includes and thoroughly assesses the objectives of each interaction or presentation from the perspective of the client. This will determine not just the content and style but also the presenting team.

Typically, the initial stages and the final stages of a procurement will be more orientated to people, personalities and persuasion. This fits well with the deliberative style. However, during the central parts of the procurement there may be a stronger focus on technical content. This may demand more of a “forensic” style to afford the richness in content.

Helping your audience through detail

The spoken word is not great for detail, so it is likely that visual aids – models or diagrams of architectures, processes, spatial layout etc. will be needed to enable understanding. In addition, if your objective is to create long term memory, and bearing in mind the rule of 3, you will need to think creatively about what will help an audience preserve the “shape of things”. Spatial representations – maps and models – are especially useful. Do though bear in mind that “less is more” and an audience can cope with only a limited amount of detail.

You can build in the detail – for example explaining a complex technical solution or describing a multi-stage process – using workshops and walk-through sessions. These can be components of the event designed using the “kipper” approach for team messages.

Forensic design using the “kipper” – some pointers

You may decide to configure an entire “kipper” in forensic style. In this case, I suggest you take on board the following.

  • Ensure the Head is complete. Just as with the deliberative style, it is vital for your audience. The piece which may be different is Structure. Instead of 3 labels, tell and show your audience how they will be able to navigate the component parts of your presentation.
  • The Body of the presentation may not fit the 3-bones structure – there may be a greater number of steps. But it is still important to remind your audience (verbally and visually) where they are at the beginning of each step. Use mini-summaries at the end of each main step.
  • Use visual aids where they will be helpful in explaining concepts. Keep these as simple and uncluttered as possible. Before you show the visual aid, describe the points you are making and let your audience know what they are going to see and what to look for. Note that hand drawn flipcharts or whiteboards, are often a welcome relief to projected slides.
  • Design a handout for the audience to take away and refer to. This is not the same as a simple paper copy of the visual aids. Additional material – narrative and textual description – is most likely to be needed. Design a document!
  • The Tail needs to include a Summary of the kipper. Try and stick to the words and phrases you have used during the presentation. The purpose of the Summary is to remind the audience of the journey they have been through and reassure them it has been complete, believable and relevant – i.e. it “ticks all the boxes”.
  • The Big Idea is much the same as in a deliberative kipper, although one subtle difference is that it may not contain a verb in the imperative. Rather than “So… make your aspirations real” it may be “So, your aspirations made real”. In other words it is a statement of QED – case proven.
  • Build in consolidation. Often the technical or forensic parts of a team message are needed for the acceptance of later deliberation. It is often valuable to ensure that those parts have been assimilated beforehand. So, design in some consolidation in the form of an exercise or a discussion before moving to the next part of the event. Seek confirmation at the end that you have indeed “ticked all the boxes”.

End of year round-up

Some interesting things emerged in the last few weeks which might cause me to ask – what is it that David Cameron, a chimpanzee, and the company Atos, have in common? Well, all have figured in news reports during December, and all related to communication – the focus for this blog.

The first was Cameron at the EU summit in Brussels. While the news media became very excited by the “long night of negotiation” and the apparent isolation of Cameron and the UK, I found myself puzzled by the issue. The question I really wanted an answer to was not whether the outcome was the right one (however one may try and judge that) but whether it was the one that Cameron intended, since this is the test of whether a message has been successfully designed and delivered. I find it hard to believe that it was.

Of course there is a difference between designing a message for presentation and preparing for a negotiation – we assume that the summit was the latter. But this puzzles me even more. I remember that before the summit had started, Cameron laid out his requirements explicitly – this was surely not a negotiating stance but his demands for the conclusion.

I am frequently asked on training courses whether it is a good thing to state one’s “Big Idea” at the beginning as well as at end of the message/presentation. (The Big Idea is the first thing that you would design to be the last words that you would say.) The answer is that there are circumstances when you can, and indeed the symmetry of beginning and close is appealing to the ear. But of course you cannot articulate your Big Idea at the beginning if you need to take your audience through a logical, emotional or psychological journey to be able to accept your conclusion. Indeed, being explicit at the outset can alienate your audience in a way where there is no return.

One of the other key differences between presentation and negotiation is that, in the latter, you do not retain control as the speaker. We are therefore in the business of interactions between human beings and the attendant emotional responses. I wonder whether there might have been a soupcon of Critical Parent in Cameron’s delivery? If there were, Sarkozy’s rebelliousness would be easily explained.

So, the chimpanzee. A few days ago BBC Nature reported on research undertaken by The University of St Andrews. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/16305600

Dr Crockford has identified that chimpanzees will modify their communication to other chimps dependent upon what they (the others) know or are ignorant of. This is regarded as an important finding since this ability to assess others’ knowledge or ignorance is regarded as an essential underpinning of more complex communication and language.  Dr Crockford explained: “Why would I bother to communicate something to you unless I realised that you didn’t already know it?” One of her comments on the research was: “when the primates called out, they were ‘very focused on their audience’.”

Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, explained that “imagining what another individual is thinking” is a crucial part of human language.

My reason for drawing attention to this research and associated articles, is that it is a reminder to those engaged in communication design, that a message or presentation is for a specific audience at a specific time and place. And imagining (or better, researching) what members of the audience might be thinking or feeling, before, during and after your presentation is a crucial part of design – but sadly often neglected in the world of corporate presentations. Possibly politics too.

In early December, ATOS announced its intended internal email ban. Thierry Breton is the CEO and an interview with him can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16055310. There were two main reasons for changing course in this way. Firstly new (younger) recruits were not used to using e-mail, having adopted other tools such as instant messaging and Facebook. The second reason was the amount of time employees were spending servicing their email in-box – about 50% of their time.

Knowledge about this corporate inefficiency has though been around for many years. I remember doing a small sample audit of email use back in 2001 in a firm not dissimilar to ATOS. We came to similar conclusions (although the view about the proportion of emails that were regarded as useful was much less than the 15% that  ATOS observed). But we also identified that, at that time, the source of the non-useful emails was largely the company support functions – mainly HR and Finance – areas that one would have thought could have been targeted.

So, the question is why nothing has been done to control and direct the use of email in companies. I am sure there must be some organisations out there that do have enforced policies and standards relating to responsible email use. It would seem though that, for some reason, CIOs have been reluctant to do much about what is a scandalous waste of human effort inside their companies.

A final thought. Where there is a technological tool, there will be abuse of it. Email is one of those tools. Powerpoint is another – vastly over-used and massively abused. John Bohannon has an intriguing angle on presentations and suggests that dance might be used as a replacement for Powerpoint. In some circumstances I am sure he is right. A couple of years ago my wife and I (it was her suggestion) went to see Babel by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet & Antony Gormley at Sadler’s Wells. The subject was language – the medium was dance. It was stunning and memorable.

I am not of course suggesting that your next pitch should be choreographed but there are many powerful ways of evidencing and illustrating your ideas. Don’t be a slave to Powerpoint!

Watch John Bohannon’s video at http://www.ted.com/talks/john_bohannon_dance_vs_powerpoint_a_modest_proposal.html?awesm=on.ted.com_Bohannon&utm_campaign=&utm_medium=on.ted.com-static&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_content=awesm-publisher

It is well worth watching. Thank you to Kath Burlinson for sending me the link (and to Satya Dunning for emailing it to her!). A good use of email I think.