Tag Archives: speaking

Presenters and trainers: watch your timing

Presenters, speakers and trainers all share one thing in common and we hate it: we are, as my friend and fellow speaker Graham Jones has been known to advise people, less important than the coffee. I’ve borne this in mind every time I get to present or MC something and it’s advice that’s never let me down.

Here are a couple of stories that illustrate why it’s important.

A couple of years ago I was editing something called “UC Insight” – a good gig – and a company asked me to come and give a talk over dinner at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. The fee was acceptable and I thought, terrific, Ramsay restaurant, pleasant people, this can’t go wrong.

The waiting staff told me timing would be tight because the starter was fish, being kept warm underneath those lights they have at the serving stations of restaurants. That was fine, I reasoned – I knew my timings.

Then the MD of the host company, whose job it was to introduce me, stood up and announced that he’d only been told he was speaking at midday. So, he thought, it would be a good idea if the entire room full of people introduced themselves.

Oh God.

There were about 40 people. All of them took about a minute. You can do the maths. Remember the fish was being timed around my 30 minutes, not his 40 intros plus my time. I cut it as decently short as I could but he insisted on a Q and A session…I’ll just tell you that a large number of guests were quite bewildered that someone like Gordon Ramsay would allow such dry fish to be served. Sadly there wasn’t a great deal I could do about it. Presenters should always talk to the catering staff.

Component speeches

After that experience I started to watch some of the better presenters more closely. I realised a lot of them, particularly the MC variety, actually broke their presentations down into chunks – a story here, a bit of content there…they could add or subtract bits at will. I adopted the technique fairly promptly.

It came in very handy when I was speaking at another communications event. My job was to give a 40-minute overview but the speaker before me overran, initially by ten minutes, at which point he announced “I think I’m over my time but this is important…”

(That’s a very good thing never to say, by the way – you might think it’s important but the other speakers may be important too; “this is important…” has that element of “knickers to everyone else, I’m staying on stage”.)

I was the last speaker before lunch. People look forward to lunch at corporate events, it’s a chance to get away from the speakers. The catering staff were, once again, serving hot food which needed to be eaten fresh, and they had their shifts and other duties to think about.

So I dropped a couple of my stories and did a 25-minute overview. The organiser came over during lunch and said how lucky it was that I’d underprepared so we were back on schedule. She went away too quickly for me to tell her otherwise, sadly – but believe me, it wasn’t an accident.

Presenters need realism

People get ratty when they’re hungry and irritable if they start to dehydrate. Most conference organisers have thought about attention spans, pee breaks, catering and networking opportunities in advance. If you’re speaking and especially if you’re facilitating, you need to understand these things and fit in as part of the event rather than as a star turn who can take an extra half an hour if they feel like it.

My job when I’m MC-ing is to see that people get their coffee and the staff get to clear up without working late – and to make sure nobody notices that’s what I’m doing!

The perfect soundbite and why you need one

I’ve never liked the term “soundbite”. They can look artificial and frankly calculated, and as a method it can be out of date. Think about Tony Blair and his “Education, education, education” or “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. With hindsight, did that let someone into power without the substance and judgment he needed?

Let’s not be party political. Remember “You turn if you want to: the lady’s not for turning” from Margaret Thatcher. These are all getting pretty old, though. The popularity of Bernie Sanders in the US and indeed Jeremy Corbyn in the UK led me to suspect the age of the soundbite was coming to an end.

Enter Hillary’s soundbite

I should have looked more closely at what was going on. “Jez we can” might not have come from Corbyn himself but it proved a very effective campaigning slogan indeed, and may do so again during the summer. However, the best example I’ve seen was yesterday’s pronouncement by US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

She said, in one of her best speeches: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons”. This is clearly a reference to Donald Trump, who has tried to accuse her of living in fantasy land.

The reasons this one’s so brilliant, though, start with the ability to fact check it. The underlying assumptions are twofold. First, any US president has to be trusted with nuclear weapons (that’s beyond dispute). Second, Donald Trump is a man you can bait with a Tweet.

Her reading of Trump – and I really don’t want to get party political here but to focus on the personal – was brilliant, because the first thing he did was to attack her. On Twitter. Here’s a Guardian summary. Others see his social media as inspired, like this New York Times piece; if you want to make him look petty, though, it’s easy, as the Independent found when he first entered the contest.

So it’s easy to substantiate, or at least to argue the point. Trump can’t refute the suggestion by saying he’s a lovely calming influence on social media.

It’s also a soundbite that gives out a sense of balance, in that it juxtaposes one premise with another. On the one hand, there’s the idea of nuclear weapons. On the other, there’s the notion of allowing Twitter members to annoy or provoke.

This sort of tactic can actually make a soundbite work even when there’s no link between the two. The fact that it sounds balanced gives it an air of authority (in this instance I suspect the link is genuine enough). It’s satisfying and therefore it’s memorable.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s 78 characters long including spaces? That’s handy for Twitter. Add a hashtag or attribution and it probably still fits. Nobody’s going to tell me this is coincidence.

Do it yourself

Lessons from this sort of soundbite are many and can apply to any sort of business, not just politics. First, they still work, whether during an interview or during a presentation. Second, if you can embed some sort of verifiable fact in them and make them sound elegant, they’ll be memorable. Third, keep them short enough for Twitter and other people will amplify the message for you.

Image: Flickr: Mike Mozart

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Katie Hopkins: publicity master?

This week, a group of students at Brunel University first stood up and turned their backs on, then walked out on former candidate on “The Apprentice” and now columnist Katy Hopkins.

Hopkins has built herself quite a reputation. She is right wing and has made numerous controversial comments about refugees, women, overweight people…I could go on. She behaved pretty badly during “The Apprentice”, trying to plot the downfall of a couple of the candidates. And failing.

She is also a master at publicising herself and making a great deal out of what appears simply to be a particular outlook on life.

If I were here I’d be thanking those students at the moment. Look at what it’s done for her. She would have been unlikely to get into the Guardian and the Independent without their actions, these papers are not her spiritual home. She would also not have had the ammunition to launch an attack on universities and freedom of speech in her Daily Mail column, in which she has some justification for accusing the students of having closed minds and not researching other speakers with the same diligence. There’s an important lesson about handing people the moral high ground in there.

How do you solve a problem like Katie

It’s an old difficulty: how do you efficiently protest against someone without drawing attention to their views? There are a number of ways, and the students in this instance blew most of them.

First, you ignore the speaker. Just don’t invite them to speak and they won’t force themselves on you.

Second, if your uni or other organisation has invited them to speak and you object, don’t go. An empty or poorly-attended hall is not a news story.

Third, if you do turn up and want to object, give the speaker a chance to make his or her point first. Whatever objections you have, walking out before he or she has spoken is always going to look unreasonable. Putting a film of it on YouTube is going to hit the papers – Hopkins can probably charge a larger fee as a result of the last couple of days’ notoriety.

What Katie should do next

On the other hand, you might be the Katie figure rather than the listener in this case. If I were advising her or someone like her, I’d suggest:

  • Turn up to anything to which you’re invited and get a friendly colleague along with a camcorder, DSLR, phone with good video recording or something like that. Get any protest on disk.
  • Stay calm and be reasonable. Don’t allow yourself to look flustered. It’s your right to express an opinion in a democracy and the fact that I wouldn’t vote for you/buy your newspaper/whatever takes nothing away from that right.
  • If there’s a walkout, make it a bigger news story than it is – as indeed Hopkins appears to have done. Wait and see whether someone uploads their own footage for sharing, and use the copy you’ve made only if they fail to do so – so it doesn’t look like self-publicity.

I hold no brief for Katy Hopkins. The audience, however, has handed her an incredible win. I suspect this wasn’t their intention.

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Pitching: it’s not about you (or your client)

I had a fine afternoon media training yesterday and in one of the exercises the PR team pitched their event to me. The idea was that they needed to get journalists to their show in another country, so they tried their real live pitches on me. Some were pretty good.

They all had the content. They told me about:

  • Speakers
  • Previous successes of the event
  • Other contacts in the audience

So, so far, so good. Except I would never have attended in a zillion years.

It’s not about ego, but…

If you’re talking to journalists, you need to be talking to us about our readers. Before we do anything at all we need to know there will be something in it for them, or else there will be no point in engaging.

Think of it as a headline and some bullet points. If your headline is “we think our event will be really interesting” then great, I hope you do – if you don’t, nobody else will. It won’t engage my attention, though, and I’m unlikely to attend. Massage that slightly to “your magazine covers X subject and there will be exclusive content at my event” and I’m slightly interested. Add “Your readers have shown interest in such and such a topic and the world specialist will be speaking exclusively for us” and I’ve gone past “interested” and am bordering on “fascinated”.

Then you introduce the detail. Who exactly will be there, what they’ll be speaking about and above all whether I can get some time with them away from other hacks – I’m looking for an exclusive story rather than something everyone else has as well.

Then feed me some proof points. At last year’s event, company X succeeded in getting its first round of funding, so it’s a heavyweight event (this is a real example from yesterday’s pitch).

Journalists get swamped with requests for our time so “no thanks” is still the easiest default answer. However, structure your pitch around my readers rather than around what’s important to you, and it’s a lot more difficult for me to write off immediately.

Guy Clapperton’s media training offering can be found by clicking here.