The Magical Missing Ingredient

October 28, 2010

I saw a talk recently which ticked many of the important boxes for a good talk. It was well-constructed, the speaker knew her talk exceptionally well without needing notes or slides, there were persuasive points, she spoke clearly and with good use of pauses, and there was a clear message.

Why, then, did I feel it wasn’t a great talk? It’s because there was a missing ingredient, and without it, the talk felt like an eclair without chocolate, or a balloon with no air.

So what was this magical missing ingredient? Herself. There was nothing personal at all in her talk. Why was she talking about this topic? Why did she care? The listener had no idea. Her theory and second-hand examples were not nearly powerful enough.

People don’t want you to spout facts or talk about things that happened to other people. If you’re not the best person to talk about your subject, choose another subject – or another speaker.

Let me illustrate the alternative. This morning I watched a fantastic TEDx talk which had a massive personal element. Scott Stratten (of Unmarketing fame) talked at TEDx Oakville about himself, his family, and things which happened to them. He talked about this story with passion and real emotion, and truly invested himself in his talk.

Watch and enjoy – and try not to cry.

Right, now you know what I’m talking about. Could you imagine that talk being anywhere near as powerful if Scott had talked about these same things happening to someone else? Of course not. Scott had a message for us, and he got that message across by engaging our emotions.

He laid himself bare. This was extremely naked presenting. Scott talked about things he did and felt which he’s not so proud of now – his human failings. He spoke with genuine emotion about his son, his ex-wife and his girlfriend. He didn’t just relate facts – he brought us into his story and made us feel what he was feeling. That’s the magical ingredient which all too often is missing. Scott was the absolute best person to talk about his subject, because it was HIS subject.

He also used some very good techniques, which I’ll mention in passing:

  • An amusing opening, about him and Justin Bieber – which also served to introduce him as a well-known social media influencer for those who weren’t aware
  • Frequent repetition of key themes (“being a big deal isn’t a big deal”, “you just keep going”)
  • No distracting slides – this story didn’t need any
  • A clear conclusion which speaks directly to TED audiences (“I think that’s an idea worth spreading”)

CONCLUSION

The magical ingredient for your talk is yourself. Think of your talk as a balloon, and yourself as the air to pump it up. Make sure you put enough of yourself into it, your own experience, your passion, your emotions, your convictions and even your failings, and the balloon will fly.

However, don’t pump it up too much with “look what I did, look how great I am” – otherwise the balloon will burst. Nobody wants to hear someone talk about how fantastic they are. If you give a great talk full of passion, experience and personal emotion, and have the strength to show your human failings, they’ll realise for themselves how fantastic you are.


Do Americans present better than Brits?

October 26, 2010

I should declare right at the start: I’m British, so of course I’d love to say the Brits are the best presenters. Contrary to what much of the non-Anglo-Saxon world thinks, Brits and Yanks love little more than showing off their superiority over their transatlantic cousins. We’re very competitive. And in this unequal friendly combat, it’s rather lucky that Brits are good losers.

(Americans would say it’s because we have so much practice. Although they’d spell it ‘practise’.)

I am often struck in France about how people talk about “the Anglo-Saxon world” assuming that we’re all the same, particularly between America and Britain – and there are significant minorities in both America and Britain who would dispute whether either country could fairly be described nowadays as Anglo-Saxon at all.

For example, I was recently asked in an interview on French national TV: “Do you think presentations are better in the Anglo-Saxon world?” Yet we’re not the same at all. As Shaw pointed out, we are “separated by a common language”, but there are far more differences between Britain and America than between Britain and France in my view.

Perhaps at one point I will go into that on another blog, but this one is focused on presentation skills, and I’d like to talk about a recent speech by fellow speaking coach Phillip Khan-Panni at the UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference, about how Brits and Americans present differently. Here it is.

I found his speech was well-constructed and contained a number of very good points, which I’ll summarise below. Phillip has a delightfully clear and crisp voice. It is a pity the lighting was so poor and the unused screens were not switched off for the duration of his talk. The speaker was the dark shadow between the two distracting sources of light. That’s not the speaker’s fault, but if I were him, I would have been rather angry (although, as a Brit, it would have been a very polite and reserved form of anger).

So what are the differences? Here are some that Phillip found:

Body language

Americans perceive that British speakers often have their hands behind their backs. This isn’t a very good way of speaking, but indeed it is common. Many young Brits learn as Scouts to stand with their hands behind their backs, and it is a natural choice for a formal pose – because speaking in public is considered a formal activity. You would rarely see an American speaking with their hands behind their backs. How can you convey passion like that?

Passion

Passion is perhaps the key difference between the nations. American audiences expect their speakers to care, to be passionate about their subject. In Britain, a speaker can be criticised for appearing to care too much. Brits tend to be more reserved, certainly more modest, and audiences tend to expect that. It is hardly surprising that passionate American speakers make a better connection with their audiences, yet an animated, passionate American speaker might fail to make a connection with a British audience which may consider him brash, self-important and conceited.

Objectives

Typically, Brits see presentations and speeches as an opportunity to communicate information, whereas Americans aim to change people, to inspire them, to motivate them. This works much better, since presentations are usually very poor forums for communicating information: most of it is forgotten within days if not hours. A feeling can persist, however; an emotion can help you to recall what was said; and a change of mindset could be permanent.

Interaction

American presenters tend to interact with their audiences far more than British presenters. Perhaps again it is part of the British reserve. I always ensure my audience participates somehow, even with a very large group, but I know that I am the exception and not the rule. Connection is key to the success of your presentation, and if you can get your audience to participate, they are far more likely to listen, learn and care about you and your message.

Storytelling

This is an area where Americans are years ahead of the rest of the world in presentation terms. Great American presenters use personal stories to drive home their messages. These work far better than theory, and also better than the second-person or generic stories occasionally told by Brits.

Language

Here is a major difference: while British speakers and audiences appear to care about the beauty of the language, Americans want a simple message in everyday language. Are you aiming to impress or to communicate? Brits in America therefore need to tone down their long words and obscure idioms, and use clear and simple language. American audiences aren’t dumb – they are just more interested in your message than your vocabulary. Equally, Americans in Britain may want to engage a British speechwriter to ‘tone up’ their speeches a little, otherwise British audiences may feel they are being talked to as if they are children.

Variation of tone

I found this point particularly interesting. British speakers vary their tone of voice very little, usually using only three notes of the musical scale. A passionate and energetic American presenter, in contrast, will use far more. Variation of tone, volume and speed are key tools to convey emotion and keep the audience interested. It is no coincidence that ‘monotonous’ has come to be synonymous with ‘boring’.

Conclusion

All these points are of course generalisations, and naturally there will be many exceptions. Phillip is one, and I like to consider myself another, just as there are many boring passionless American presenters out there. There are, however, enough differences between British and American audiences and speakers to demonstrate that when it comes to presenting, there is no single uniform “Anglo-Saxon world”.

I wouldn’t say that Americans present better than Brits because it’s all about adapting to your audience. However, it would be no bad thing if the rest of the world learnt more about passion and storytelling, and found ways to adapt those techniques to their audiences. What do you think?


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