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”.

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.

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 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

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.


I run a company ( which as a core provides coaching and training  in the field of communications especially the spoken word – the world of presentations and conversational interaction and at the heart of everything we do in business.

The techniques and frameworks we use are well-researched – not  just the whim of the trainer. Technology evangelists would have us believe that  presentations should be state of the art in terms of multi-sensory  sophistication. But of course, much of this is counter to what we know about  human beings from neuroscience – and indeed our own experience.

So, we are continually searching for the real art and science of communication, while at the same time defeating some of the notions and assumptions that are  pressed upon us. As my friend and colleague Willie Macnair formerly of The Rhetorical Company often says – “Just because the majority of people do it, that doesn’t  make it right”.

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.