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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Golden Circle

Why?

It is not uncommon for insights drawn from one domain to be startlingly relevant to another. Indeed human creativity can be seen to be geared to making connections between otherwise independent and unconnected ideas. It is what we do in our working memory. So I thought to share with you some connections between Simon Sinek’s insights and the subject of this blog – presentation design and delivery. They might just affect the way you tackle your next presentation.

The Golden Circle

A participant on one of my training courses commented about having been inspired by Simon Sinek’s TED video on what he calls the Golden Circle. Co-incidentally I had downloaded this video a few weeks previously because it resonated so much with my work in the field of leadership and communication. The result was that there were many parallels drawn and references made throughout the course to the subject of the TED (the “Why” question).

I do recommend a viewing of his talk. It is inspiring and its simplicity speaks to us all. One of his mantras is that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. He argues that companies and people who understand and communicate in this way tend to be the successful ones.

Observation

It does seem that many companies are almost exclusively focused on the “what we do” rather than “why we do it” and having spent many years in the Consultancy and IT Services sector it is clear to me that this has led to the rather dull sameness of many companies in this sector when viewed from the outside. They espouse (or say they do) much the same values, have tag-lines which are almost identical and use methods and approaches which are pretty much indistinguishable. You see the result in company brochures, fliers, credential statements and written proposals.

This is not to say that, within companies, smaller groups with more visionary leaders do not exist. They do. But I would suggest that often their pursuit of the “why” question is not understood or even tolerated by managers who have been groomed in the “what” and “how” world, so may not always survive the corporate mill. I have though also seen some very successful and highly motivated teams inside companies – and the distinguishing feature is their sense of purpose (“why”).

As an aside, the public sector is, I believe, much more in tune with the “why we do it” way of thinking. I would suggest that there can be, as a result, something of a tension when functions and responsibilities are moved from the public to the private sector, and the “why” element becomes obscured and effectively replaced by the “what and how”.

I remember a senior executive in the Rail industry saying to me that you could create a contract for anything and that therefore any service could be delivered under a contract. I disagreed with him then, and I would still. Contracts are great for “what” and “how”. But even the much vaunted “outcome based” contracts cannot really deal with “why”.

Relevance to message design

In relating the Golden Circle thinking to message design and presentations, there are many intersections. I mention a few here.

Why am I giving it?

The first question to ask before designing a presentation is to ask the question “Why am I giving it?” Many people asked this might offer “to share knowledge or information”. But it rarely is just that. In the vast majority of cases, when you really think it through, the purpose of a presentation is to affect the future actions of an audience. Otherwise, what is the point?

That future behaviour or action is where your presentation must lead, so it is the starting point in design of your message. Presentations of this sort are fundamentally about persuasion. People are persuaded (and make decisions) on an emotional rather than rational basis. As Simon Sinek points out, decisions are made in the limbic part of the brain.

Why should they listen?

In a business setting, turn your ideas into the form where your audience is, as far as possible, the subject of discourse, not yourself or your company. People like to be talked about; they like their issues to be discussed. They do not like to have to endure generic descriptions of methodologies or technical specifications, unless they have specifically asked for that. See my previous posting on “Forensic delivery”.

An audience will be encouraged (or not) to listen and be attentive within the first few seconds of your presentation. So make sure you have a good “Eye” – and make it about them!

Why is it true?

Assertions do not convince on their own; evidence and examples in presentations are about answering the “Why?” questions. Indeed those of you acquainted with the “Kipper” structure for design of presentations created by Willie Macnair of the Rhetorical Company will know that the left hand side of the “middle” is concerned with points, propositions and ideas. They create (or should) in the audience’s minds one of two responses: “Why is that then?” or “OK, but now prove it….” And that is what the right hand side does with evidence and examples.

Why should they care?

If you are going to engage emotionally with your audience, make it about them. The only really important people are the audience. The presenter is there only for them. As Simon Sinek says about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the crowd turning up were not doing it for him – they were doing it for themselves.

Thank you, Simon.