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Tips on creating presentations with personality

Posts Tagged ‘language’

Good Manners Cost Nothing, Win Audiences

Monday, August 10th, 2009


France: can you believe what you hear?

That’s it for the re-runs folks, the five week expedition is over and I’m back reporting live at the blog desk. Dammit!

Apart from the obvious delights of wandering around Europe in summer, it was bliss to be totally free of media as (so I’m told) week after week of Michael Jackson news analysis unfolded.

It’s always instructive to see how communication works when you can hardly do it at all. I know enough Italian and German to order food and understand childrens’ books on which farm animal is which.

With French I’m on shakier ground, with a high probability of ordering the horse. With lots of goofy miming.

And then there’s the French themselves. Oh, how people like to warn you about their national character. Haughty. Arrogant. Dismissive. Disdainful. All qualities that every French person we met showed absolutely none of. They were all perfectly pleasant and hospitable.

Why so? It takes about 10 minutes in the country to learn that the French have a rigid system of manners that requires you to say a cheery ‘Bonjour, madame!’-style greeting when you enter a shop. And learn how to say, in enthusiastic French, “I am a confused Australian and my French is non-existent, do you speak English?” and they’re just fine. That’s all it takes.

But if you walk in and don’t say ‘hello’, you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to the conversational leper colony, my friend.

No matter who you’re talking to, manners are important. We’ve spoken many times here about the importance of learning your audience’s language as the first step to winning them over.

Next time you have to talk to a tough audience, ask yourself if the perceived threat is a little overblown, like all the warnings about French people from people who’ve tried speaking to them in English, then tried SHOUTING AT THEM IN ENGLISH. With a little research into how your audience sees things, you’ll probably get on perfectly fine.

By the way, another French stereotype that proved to be untrue: I did seen a Parisian organ grinder, but where there should have been a mischievous monkey, there was a ginger cat attached with string. That must really kill the cash flow.

French stereotypes that are totally true: small dogs where small dogs shouldn’t be, people sitting on trains reading existentialist novels with titles like ‘The Man Without A Head’, and pretty much everyone smoking like they’re at an audition for Mad Men.

Mind Your Language

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

No matter what our background, most of us can speak a foreign language. One that’s completely opaque to anyone who might be listening in. It’s the language of your industry.

Every industry creates jargon, acronyms and product-words that aren’t in any dictionary, and mean nothing to outsiders. And then individual companies have their own variations on the dialect.

Some industries don’t use any uncompressed nouns at all, like travel people:

“FYI we’ve got 250 VIP’s coming on QF from LAX, we did a deal with SCVB at IT&CMA to keep their ADR at $750.”

Speaking the jargon fluently is like a secret handshake that admits you to the club.

That’s why they hold association conferences – so people can cluster around the bar happily chatting in fluent industry-speak.

Because if you belong to, say, the Australian Asphalt Pavers Association (Official motto: ‘There’s a lot more to asphalt than meets the eye’), there’s nothing better than some quality time with others who share your black, sticky passion. They never tire of hearing about it, unlike your friends and family.

There are two important lessons in this for presenters.

Communicating with Civilians

If you spend a lot of time surrounded by industry people, you can start thinking everyone talks that way. If you’re planning a speech to a general audience, try to weed out as much jargon as possible. If you have time in advance, run your script past a ‘civilian’ and ask them to point out anything they don’t get.

Impressing Insiders

If you’re an outsider talking to people from a specific industry, take the time to get to know their language.

Go and meet some of them in advance, pick up some terms, and put them in your presentation. It’s like visiting a foreign country – the locals appreciate that you’ve taken the effort to learn a few phrases, and they’ll be nice to you.

This approach works particularly well if your presentation is a new business pitch. The first time you meet the potential client, write down as many of their jargon words as you can, and use them when come back to make a presentation.

“Now you’re speaking my language,” they’ll think, because you literally are.

How Do You Tell People They’re Wrong?

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Someone recently asked me who was the best speaker I’d ever seen.

I’m not a big fan of the holy-rollin’, pump-‘em-up, Nine Steps to Success school of speaker. They’re all the same, every last one of them.

I prefer presenters that break with the conventional templates, like Edward de Bono slumped over in his chair in the middle of the stage drawing squiggles, the Tom Waits of the overhead projector.

The best speaker I ever saw, coincidentally at the same conference as de Bono, was Noel Pearson, Director of the Cape York Institute, lawyer and aboriginal activist.

His passion is ending the handout mentality among his people, built up through years of good intentions from government and welfare agencies. He believes passive welfare is at the root of the social deterioration of indigenous people, and speaks of the balance between rights and responsibilities.

Not a standard topic for a conference on current business issues, rather than social ones, with an audience of overwhelmingly white finance and marketing types. He had the audience spellbound for an hour, without raising his voice or leaving the lectern. He painted a vivid picture of a world that few of us know or understand, and methodically explained how well-meaning actions can have the opposite effect.

If you define the success of a presentation by how effectively it changes the way the  audience thinks, then this was up there with the best. It was a stunning display of… reasonableness.

Some lessons from Noel Pearson’s presentation style:

The Power of Not Being What They Expect

Pearson was calm, reasonable, and logical, which was not what the audience expected from an aboriginal activist. That instantly changed their willingness to listen. Kind of like Barack Obama’s success in escaping the stereotype of the Jesse Jackson-style firebrand.

Without wanting to trivialize what Pearson or Obama have overcome, we all have our stereotypes when we get up to present: Self-Indulgent Marketing Guy, Out-Of-Touch-With-Customers Finance Woman, Dandruffy IT Man. If you can break these expectations, their minds open up to your message.

You Don’t Have to Shout

A lot of speakers are really concerned about being ‘energized’, and that’s generally a good thing. But if you’re energetic all the time, there’s no light and shade. Speaking quietly and calmly can draw people in, making it seem more like a conversation than a broadcast. It creates intimacy, even in a large hotel ballroom.

Eye Contact: Show You Know Your Stuff

Pearson rarely looks down, even when he’s delivering a really complex message. Obviously his legal background helps. Apart from the non-verbal benefits of looking the audience in the eye, it shows that he knows his material, and he believes in it. When you see politicians reading from a script, you tend to think: “She doesn’t really believe that. She’s just reading something one of her staffers wrote.” If you’re really passionate about your topic, you should know your material.

The clip below shows Pearson speaking at a breakfast. He gets off to a nervous start, with lots of ums and face-touching. But once he gets the flow going, he has a superb command of language. It’s a compelling demonstration of the delicate art of telling people their views are wrong without causing offence.