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”.

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.

Silence is golden

What is the most important part of any speech or presentation? My answer would be – the silence within it. The subject of silence and pausing is an essential part of message design and delivery, but is often overlooked or diminished in importance. A number of things came together recently which highlighted this business of pausing  – one of them being the Presidential nominations and forthcoming election in the US. More on that later.

Our need for pauses

Anybody with a theatre or comedy background would fully appreciate the importance of timing and the dramatic effect of well positioned pauses. A comment made by the Canadian sculptor Paul De Monchaux about Churchill’s war-time speeches (and the way that they were laid out on the page) resonated particularly well with me. He said that he “was struck by Churchill’s awareness of the way in which the shape of the spaces around words can amplify their meaning.”

But there is much more to the power of the pause than “dramatic effect”. This is the fact that as an audience we need silence in which to “unpack” what we have heard, translate words into ideas and meaning, and create memory. As an audience we find it stressful to have to listen to a continuous stream of words – and even if we can follow and understand what we are hearing as we hear it, we will not be able to remember anything unless the stream was broken up with pauses.

The speaker’s problem

The problem that the speaker faces is that the stress – even fear – associated with delivering a presentation will cause him or her to speed up the rate of word delivery and, more importantly, remove any hint of a pause. Often, this will be associated with breathlessness – no time to breathe!

I had the pleasure of running some communications training courses in India last month. One of them comprised eight delegates representing seven different mother tongue languages. In common with all groups I have trained regardless of geography, a number of the delegates experienced an overwhelming pressure to speed up delivery and they recognised it as a “hard to conquer” problem. With some, the shaping of the phrases (probably a reflection of their mother tongue languages) meant also that there was a rising tone at the end of each. This in turn created a breathless leap to the next phrase…. and the next.

The speaker gains too

We did some exercises to build in appropriate pauses of about 3 seconds (this is not easy to do!) and to try and phrase in a way which avoided the rising tone. The key learning for me was that everyone in the room testified to the very significant improvements made. This was not just in the ability of the audience to understand and create memory, it was also about the great enhancement to the credibility and authority of the speakers.

Then there was a Presidential election

Which leads me to politics. It is of course a fact that most politicians are rarely interested in helping audiences understand issues and create memory. But they are generally, at least, concerned to come over and be remembered, as someone with credibility and authority.

Some combine both and I have great respect for them. A characteristic of such orators is that they do – and indeed must – build pauses in to their delivery. I have frequently referred to Obama as a politician who practises this. (There are precious few in UK politics these days.) In his early days as US President I would sometimes listen to his speeches in order to time the embedded pauses – they were usually 2-3 seconds. This is at the lower end of what is needed – 3-4 seconds is more the accepted mark – but they did work well. However, I noticed in a recent broadcast (I cannot remember what it was about – sic!) that he was not pausing nearly so well.  As a result, he came over as less authoritative and perhaps a little superficial.

But when it came to him responding to Todd Akin’s statement about rape, the pauses were, fortunately, back in.  They were still a bit on the short side though, and with an irritating “ummmm” intruding. So, Obama, beware! One of the reasons you won the Presidential mantle was the authority that you exuded – and this came not just from your words but from the silences that enabled us to make sense of them, and of you. So, more pauses please!

It is worth comparing and contrasting with Mitt Romney. From the clips I have seen, he has certainly got himself a “good” speech writer. Good in the sense that the words are well crafted to create a knee-jerk emotional response and the minimum number are used in short phrases to create that effect.  And the pauses have been built in between these short phrases – wait for them to cheer! Romney is still learning though how to be comfortable during a pause – you can see him almost biting his tongue – but  at least there were no “ummmms” that I could discern.

If your view of politics and politicians is that it should be about whipping up emotions – hate, love, disappointment, blind faith and so on, then the Romney style of speech will appeal to you. I know it is only a nomination acceptance speech and perhaps one should not expect more at this stage, but let us hope that there will be time in the coming months for both candidates to argue and evidence their intentions and policies in more considered debate.

What is clear is that even though the men, their politics and their styles are very different, their success in communication relies upon silence as much as words.

So, I do wonder whether the US Presidential election will be won, not on what the candidates say or do, but on the power of their pauses – “the shape of the spaces around words”.

First Post

Well – I have finally succumbed to the blog! I and my company run coaching and training programmes about communication – especially the spoken word – and many of those attending my courses have suggested to me that I should do a blog.So, here goes.

My purpose is to remind people about how communication operates between human beings. New insights from reading and making connections, reinforcements from training courses, and new challenges to old assumptions will be the stuff of this blog.

I thought I would start with my 3 big bug-bears – common misapprehensions – which come up frequently in the corporate world.

Firstly – good speakers (presenters) are those who entertain. Not true! Particularly in the world of business, the primary purpose of a presentation is to affect the future actions of one’s audience. So, your message needs to be memorable and this is the test of a good speaker. If you believe it is about making people laugh, then become a comedian.

Secondly – often assumed by sales people – the first part of a sales pitch must be about your company – its services or products. No. All my experience (on both sides of the sales pitch) tells me that the most effective way of really turning off your audience is to talk about yourself or your company. “Make it about them” is a much more helpful mantra.

Thirdly – presentations are just about story telling. Not “just”. Although story telling can be a compelling part of a presentation  it is not enough. The purpose and the power of a story is to evidence a specific idea. But the ideas must be landed along with structure and signposting to help the audience create memory. Otherwise all that the audience will take away is the story, not the point in telling it.

Get in touch or reply if you find this blog of interest.