Category Archives: speaking

To tie or not to tie

I had a great time media training Jellyfish last week – lovely people and one of their clients, Hari Ghotra, a chef who makes (as I discovered last night) very good curry kits.

It was a media company so I should have guessed – I was the only person wearing a tie (not the one in the picture above which is an old one, don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly put on a load of weight!). And a suit. But was this so wrong? Let me add that they said nothing at all to make me feel uncomfortable. This Daily Telegraph piece certainly suggests wearing a tie is essential for a man in business, but I do wonder.

The Telegraph points to a number of companies that actively discourage tie-wearing. Google, Amazon and a few others will actively dissuade the tie-wearers among us.


This, frankly, is where I draw the line. You can turn up to a meeting with me wearing what you like and I won’t bat an eyelid, I promise. It’s entirely up to you.

I will object, though, if you try to tell me what to wear. And if I decide I look better tailored than casual, that’s probably what I’ll do.

I suppose I’m just being lazy. Historically, business attire has been very easy for men and less so for women. Granted in the summer it can get uncomfortably hot but essentially, if you’re a bloke, “put on a suit and tie” is a passport to acceptance just about anywhere. Well-fitted is best and a lively tie is better than a boring one (be careful though: an old friend had a wedding anniversary once and wore the Scooby Doo tie he’d been given to church that morning, only to be greeted with the news that Princess Diana had died that morning).

If you have an important client (hint: every client is important) or if you’re being put in front of an audience, a tie is a signal not that you’re serious or competent but that you’re taking them seriously, you’re playing the game and making an effort for them.

It’s no substitute for content or manner, of course. But I don’t think I’m going to go tieless habitually just yet when there’s a client involved.

MCs and Compères – give it some thought

I go to a number of conferences for my work, and I MC or compère a few. I’m gearing up for another now and here are some of the things I’ve seen going wrong at others – I’ll be watching for them:

  • No-shows from speakers. How many times have you had a speaker agree to turn up and find something better to do on the day? Or not turn up because of illness, or a misunderstanding? Your MC had better have an emergency keynote speech in his or her back pocket. It might not be utterly brilliant but if it fills the gap and offers something of value, the audience will be happy enough and won’t know there was a disaster behind the scenes.
  • Lack of audience control. I attended a conference last year hosted by a brilliant businesswoman – no, she was highly reputable – whose idea of getting the audience’s attention after coffee was to stand there with the microphone going “Ssh” repeatedly. The audience behaved eventually but they weren’t happy. Microphone close to the mouth and “Ladies and gentlemen we are about to start again, please take your places” is better – the voice fills the auditorium but you’re speaking quietly so it sounds respectful.
  • Timings. Oh good grief, timings. I’ve been up as “next speaker” to find the speaker before me overrunning by five minutes and announcing “I know I’m overrunning but this next bit’s important” and going on for another 20. Of course I cut my speech down – I don’t think I’m important as speaker, however I think the fact that people will find their lunch ruined or the coffee cold is vital. That’s what they’ll Tweet about and never mind the “importance” of a speaker of whom they’d never heard before they turned up. The MC on the day just sat there.
  • Timings 2: Controlling speakers is difficult and the audience can think it’s hilarious. A few years ago I was chairing one of the streams at Social Media World Forum, and we had the CEO of a guitar company as a speaker. We knew we were in trouble when a) his PR team told me it was my job to get him upstairs to a panel discussion for midday (my job??? Hello, you’re his PR team..?) and b) he started his speech talking about Elvis and Johnny Cash and how they never had social media. Ten minutes after he was supposed to finish I had to intercede, reminding him he had a panel: “But I’m not finished with these folks,” he told me. He reluctantly came off stage and I thought he was going to the other hall, but he stopped again: “Can we get a photo together..?” so we had to stop for a pic. I need hardly add that the audience in my auditorium loved every second of my discomfort; the audience waiting for him in the panel session might have felt very differently.
  • AV: I’m not an AV man but a competent MC absolutely keeps an eye on the AV people, brings coffees, makes sure they’re happy – they can make a good conference spectacular. I was at an event this year at which the speakers were on a low stage so difficult to see already and the lighting was poor so they were quite indistinct. The hosts had saved money by bringing their own audio kit and from the back the sound was indistinct. It’s an old trope but if you think it’s expensive to use a professional, see what it costs you (at least in terms of reputation) if you don’t.

That’s why I have my seven-point system as an MC when I’m working on an event. If you’d like me to come and help with yours, have a look at my Speaker/MC/Compere page by clicking here or just drop me a line by clicking here and we’ll talk.


Camila Batmanghelidjh and crisis management – managing the media


Let me say first that I know nothing about Kids Company, the charity run by Camila Batmanghelidjh in London that closed down on Wednesday. I’m not a specialist, there appear to be investigations ongoing from the police, for all sorts of reasons commenting would be a bad idea.

What’s clear, though, is that she’s been very loud in the media. And in terms of crisis management I’m not certain this was a wise decision – although it’s better than hiding yourself away and refusing to comment at all.

I’ve prepped a few people for crisis management before now, and had I been advising Batmanghelidjh here are some thoughts I’d have offered.

  • Try not to look or sound defensive. Journalists are going to ask questions on behalf of the viewers and it’s never personal. If there’s been a crisis, your first concern is with those affected. Looking contrite, whether you feel it or not, is an appropriate reaction when your organisation has just been closed down, however unjustifiable you might feel it was.
  • Try not to accuse the media of being irresponsible. No matter how strongly you feel that a report has been put together for the media’s benefit, don’t rise to it. It will sound to many listeners and viewers as if you are blaming everyone else for your misfortune and lashing out.
  • Don’t comment on anything subject to an inquiry. If the police are checking something, bow to their pre-eminence in the case. “I’d love to help but there’s a police inquiry going on, which we welcome and with which we will co-operate – the important thing is to find out what’s actually gone on and to help the kids who were in our care” is a summary of the only appropriate response, even if you don’t use those exact words.
  • Have some short answers prepared to a number of obvious questions. The temptation is to answer as fully as you can but in print/online journalists will select parts of your comment – they have little choice – and in broadcast settings they will have to keep you to time. Trying to put long answers leaves you saying “let me finish” and “you’re not letting me answer the question” – which can sound defensive and ill-prepared. Have some shorter answers ready and you can stay in control.
  • Stay calm and don’t speak too quickly. If you sound panicked, no matter how convinced you are of your case, listeners and viewers will not trust you and you don’t want to prejudice opinion.
  • Get advice on the best interviews to do. Not hiding when things get difficult is admirable, too many businesspeople and others retreat into their shells when the going is tough; however, getting saturation coverage can look like an orchestrated PR exercise. Have a statement ready for the interviews you don’t do and get advice on those that you should.

I’ve helped companies with crisis management – do you need a crisis session? Click here to drop me an email and we’ll talk.

Image from Flickr:NHS Confederation, showing Camila Batmanghelidjh on stage with Sarah Montague

Check your quotes

Quotes are tricky things in the press. Not when someone is quoting you, of course; that’s what we journalists do for a living and you need to make sure you say the right things. We may not allow you to check your words afterwards.

No, on this occasion I’m talking about using other people’s quotes to add some weight. The Sunday Times had a piece yesterday on students using them to start off their applications. I’ve seen loads of them on Facebook (try joining a speaking society and watch your timeline fill with inane quotes that someone thinks are impressive because they’re against a coloured background or in italics or something) and increasingly, they’re in press announcements.

This means you end up presenting them to journalists. I can think of three reasons not to put them in.

  • The first is actually pleasant and non-cynical – so enjoy this while it lasts. Put simply, if you have something to say about something, I want to hear it. I don’t want to hear what Shakespeare said about competition in the smartphone market, I don’t need to be dazzled with your knowledge of Disraeli and how you can prove what he’d have thought of the competition. I want your view. I will listen and I may well quote it. That would be in your words, not someone else’s.
  • Back in the world of journalists, we’re a cynical bunch and sometimes, when we’re in the mood, we’ll have those platitudes for breakfast. We’ve heard them before and we’re quite likely to assume you’re using them because you have nothing else to say, no matter how wrong this impression may be. You use them to add weight, to us it does exactly the reverse. Oh, and equally importantly…
  • We can check up on them. With our smartphones, on the spot. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” you say on a slide, attributing it to Gandhi. Except we can check and find that this wasn’t attributed to him until long after his death. Someone committed to democracy might well quote “I disagree with what you say but I would die for your right to say it” – and attribute it to Voltaire, except a quick check on Google will tell you that he didn’t say that either.

So, go on, be brave. Think of the mot juste, the pithy quote you’re sure you’ve heard from somewhere and you reckon you know who said it…and then leave it out. Honestly, we’d much rather hear from you. It might not sound as distinctive but it will certainly be original.

Do you need help with your press engagement? Click here to drop me an email or fill in the form below to leave a message.

Imitation: not always flattering

I read about the American Senator Ted Cruz‘ attempts to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with some bemusement over the weekend. For people not reading this immediately, this was the weekend on which America made equal marriage for gay as well as straight people legal throughout the country, and – significantly – a couple of days after President Obama started singing “Amazing Grace” at the memorial of his pastor friend Clementa Pinckney, so horribly murdered.

Obama had whoops of appreciation from the congregation, which was used to breaking into song and which saw this as a genuine gesture. Cruz was met with silence and according to the story above, his security people asked anyone with their phone out to delete the footage.

So, you’ve seen a speaker or a spokesperson do something that works. Should you “borrow” it or not, and how do you know whether it’s going to look cynical?

Borrow but make it yours

Personally I borrow stuff all the time. Until recently I didn’t have a formal “sales funnel” but on deciding I needed to sharpen my speaking and media training business, I put one in. Whilst media training I speak about the bridging technique to get people out of difficult subject areas; I imagine most media trainers will to this, it’s commonplace and certainly not my own intellectual property.

I’ll even “borrow” a news story as I’ve done to write this post, and I see nothing wrong in this. What I won’t do is imitate the participants – I’ll add or overlay my own commentary so that the content is mine, and this is where I believe Senator Cruz went wrong. However sincere he may have been, it ended up looking as though he thought, “that worked for Obama”, took all the context away – the friendship with the pastor, the fact that this was an act of remembrance in a church – and tried doing exactly the same thing.

It’s the same when you find someone referring to a story you tell on stage, or something you’ve written, as if it’s their own. A colleague of mine was around the music industry a lot in his youth, mostly through his father, and as a child brought tea to a number of people who are now pretty much legends. He’s told the stories on stage, and was once surprised to hear someone else doing a speech claiming to have done exactly the same thing at the same gig (book Alan Stevens if you want to know the stories, I’m not nicking them!).

It’s never a good idea to pinch someone else’s idea too directly. Refer to it, put your own interpretation on what happened by all means, but don’t just nick stuff. It will always catch up with you.

Do you need help with your media engagements or presentation skills? I can help – drop me a line or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Five media training tips from the General Election campaigns

This entry updated 8 May after a Conservative win. 8 May comments in italics.

The run-up to the General Election in the UK has made for fertile ground for communications specialists and media training companies such as mine. Here are some key lessons, both from delivery and from the messaging point of view – my own politics may show through here, which is not my intention; I’m aiming to offer neutral insights on all of the howlers that have been dropped.

  1. Don’t insult your audience. Last week UKIP leader Nigel Farage accused his audience of being left wing and referred to them as “this lot”. He’s now asked lawyers to investigate. Let’s leave politics out for the moment; even if he’s correct, he handed everybody else the moral high ground by dishing out insults. If you’re presenting on behalf of your business and you feel the audience has been stacked against you, remain above it – don’t hand them a moral victory without a fight. I stand by this one. Farage could have kept the audience on side and failed.
  2. Take part. The Conservatives have tried to paint David Cameron as Prime Ministerial and above last Thursday’s debate; however, in absenting himself he left the other leaders to say what they wanted about him unfettered. For him it’s a calculated risk, for you the gamble might not be worth taking. If there’s going to be a debate that concerns your brand, make sure you’re there to put your side when given the opportunity. I’d stand by this one too except three of the other leaders in the debate have now resigned. Whatever your politics, I suspect you have to concede that Cameron and his team read this exactly right.
  3. Don’t assume the other people will fall to pieces when you want them to. I have no inside information but it looks a lot as though the Conservatives gambled on two things. First, they assumed the rather awkward Ed Miliband would fall apart in election debates. Second, specifically last Thursday, they assumed the other parties, without the coalition members present, would end up bickering and a sprawling mess and put the public off. Neither thing happened. All Miliband has had to do during this election, and all he and the other leaders had to do last week, was to look averagely eloquent and civilised and undecided voters were left wondering whether these people were such a bad alternative..? If you’re pitching your idea to the public or to the press, make sure you’re not assuming the others will screw up and leave you to it. They may not. Make your own case. I’d still suggest clients make their cases properly but, once again, I suggest Cameron and the team read the electorate’s collective view correctly.
  4. Stick to your message. Since neither main party has pulled significantly ahead, we now have Labour claiming to be the party of economic competence and the Conservatives aiming for the workers’ vote. Now, I don’t believe for a moment that the previous caricatured extremes were ever true – but the sudden switching of priorities looks cynical and artificial. If you’re promoting your business and detect a lull in interest, don’t panic and change all your messages – nobody will believe you and your clients are bright enough to know panic when they see it. See above. It’s a gamble and a gamble that paid off for one side and may have been part of the disaster for the other.
  5. Prepare, even if you’re under the impression it’s an interview about stuff you know. The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 had an excruciating interview on Saturday, not with a politician but with a community leader(ish) of a group of American émigrés in Scotland. James Naughtie asked her about comparisons between our current election and the forthcoming US Presidential version; it was clear from the umm-ing, the aah-ing and his attempts to finish sentences – not putting words in her mouth but trying to help – that she’d put no thought or preparation in at all. That didn’t matter this time around, she wasn’t pushing anything or standing for election. However, if you’re ever invited to take part in a media discussion, even if you have only a short time to prepare, you need to make sure you have something to say. Make a point, be memorable – whatever you do, don’t let your first word be “Ummm…….” This remains completely right!

Need media training? Talk to me – check my media training page here or just email or phone 07973 278780.

A word about copyright

Something that happens to writers and speakers a lot is that people nick our stuff. They don’t mean to, they just don’t understand that if they commission something, if we speak at their event, our slides or our content remain our property unless we’ve specified otherwise.

People are sometimes shocked at this. It dates back to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. This specifies that where there is a creative work, the originator retains all rights. What you buy from a contributor is a license to use it, once unless specified otherwise (this applies to freelancers; if you’ve commissioned staff to create something then it’s deemed that your company is the creator, so you’re covered).

It’s at this point that a lot of clients throw their hands up in alarm and say “but I’ve paid for this, it must be mine”. To which I have one response: “Wedding photographers”. They turn up, they charge you a fortune for some pictures and then they sell them to you and absolutely prohibit you from reproducing them. How and why? It’s you in the pictures, after all? Well, yes it is. Nonetheless, in law they own the pictures.

It’s the same with book authors; we get royalties on sales because we, not the publisher, own the rights to our text. The publisher may well own the cover design and the layout, so I have to get permission when I’m using a cover to promote myself as a speaker or author.

Restrictive v. co-operative

Now, many writers and speakers take a flexible view of this. If you commission me to write for your publication, for example, and I’m doing a half-decent job of addressing your reader specifically, the work should be unusable by anyone else. And if I’m speaking at your event then absolutely, you can send my slides out afterwards (I use mainly images so they won’t mean much without me standing there explaining them anyway).

It’s worth putting this stuff in writing, though. A magazine publisher I used to know was at one point thinking of putting a book together of some of the best contributions he’d run – and his face fell completely when I pointed out that if he hadn’t sent out an agreement in which people allowed re-use of their material, he would have to ask for the rights all over again. I’ve seen event organisers announce that slides will be available after a speech only to have the speaker announce that they won’t; worse, I’ve seen organisers giving out slides on memory sticks and ending up in dispute with speakers who didn’t fancy giving away the crown jewels with no further payment, thanks. I’ve even seen small companies dismayed to find that their web designer owns their site, not them.

Most of this can be overcome by negotiation. I’d always advise speakers and writers to expect to share their stuff, the current audience expects it and frankly you’re going to get a better response and more chance of repeat commissions.

Just be aware that if you’re going to commission someone to create something for you, you need to have a look at what rights are assigned to you and just what you can do with it. Get it written into a contract and there will be no problem later; both walk away assuming you own the work and you’re heading straight for a clash.