The second in a series of edited tips from one of our most celebrated and influential speakers
When we present our intention is rarely just to inform. We want to engage, entertain, captivate, inform and ultimately persuade. The most memorable speakers do all of these.
Great speakers make us sit up, excite and enthrall us and leave a lasting impression. We repeat nuggets of what we heard them say and vividly recall not just what they said but how they made us feel at the time. They spark something in us that changes our outlook forever.
That is the power we have at our disposal. It’s why I want to see more people develop their power of influence – it is one of the most prized skills to have in our locker.
After 50 years of performing as singer, public speaker and sometime actor I have learned some vital tricks. Now, I want to help others to become ‘persuasive speakers.’ I have made many mistakes, but those mistakes have been my best teachers. So, what I know comes from a lifetime of hard knocks– howlers, damp squibs and inattentive audiences. I learn something new everyday.
Here is my second set of tips on how to be a ‘Gobsmackingly’ great presenter.
Speak of a vision before a challenge
I learned the power of a compelling vision when I arrived on a building site in Earls Court. I was a labourer being moved from one contract to another. This time it was different. A Welsh foreman with a broken nose and a soft hat met me with a firm handshake and an arm around the shoulder. He then took me to a hut and showed me the drawing of the planned building. “This, he said, is the ‘palace’ you are building – this is one man’s dream and you will help bring it to vivid life. ” I suddenly felt part of a bigger picture. I felt empowered and significant. Not a bit part player but a vital team member. I walked taller that day and in the months that followed. I also worked harder than ever. That was in 1971 and my life had changed forever. Before this, my working life had been all about performing tasks – now I saw had a responsibility for creating something that would live on for generations to come.
A compelling vision excites people and is more likely to get them on side. See that vision in your mind’s eye, touch it, taste it and smell it. Describe it simply and evocatively. Words like ‘imagine’ get minds working and lift focus from today’s anxieties. “I have a dream” is so much more powerful than “I have a plan.” As a speaker, painting a picture of what might be puts down a marker and shifts people’s thinking away for a moment from the challenges, impediments and irritations. When Martin Luther King spoke all those years ago in Washington he focused on a vision of a nation in which black and white were equal. He turned anger into a positive mission.
Here’s a reminder of that power of that speech:
When I take to the stage I make a point of painting a vision early on. I want to give my audience a sense of the possible and generate a positive feeling. What do we mean by a vision?
Harvard Professor, Rose May Kanter describes a vision as ‘not just a picture of what could be’ but as an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more.’ When I led a series of Innovation Hothouses around Scotland on health – I asked people to picture a Scotland in which every child is confident, ambitious, active and in the best of health’ People sat up and listened. On all topics I speak of, from ‘innovation’ to ‘Inspiring or Creative Leadership’ it is easy to talk of a vision. When I hear people say ‘we must tackle health inequality’ or ‘’reduce absenteeism’ as calls to action, I might agree with the sentiment, but feel helpless in the face of challenge.
If I hear, “let’s make sure each child leaves a positive imprint on the world, something hopeful stirs. Then when I hear how we can achieve that and what role I can play, I feel empowered.
When Bill Gates set up Microsoft, his vision was a PC in every home and every office. How audacious was that vision and how exciting must those early days have been? The difference between those words and “we will produce and sell PCs” is stark. Therein lies the essence of human motivation. When we feel valued, important and have a purpose we find energy. Words excite us. But, they can also deflate us. I remember working in a biscuit factory and never actually seeing the finished product for the first week. Each time I tried to venture towards the end of the production line, I was told to get back and do my job. I was merely a link in the chain and should have known my place.
Virgin sets out to contribute to creating happy and fulfilling lives, which are sustainable. They argue that with their businesses spanning many sectors and touching many aspects of their customers’ lifestyles Virgin is in a perfect position to contribute to this vision. They also point out that the Virgin brand has always been about having fun in a unique Virgin way. To work for a company that wants to contribute to make the world a better place is empowering.
My first foray into business came late in life but the decision to leave a safe job, in which I was unhappy, was inspired by a speech I heard by the aforementioned Harvard Professor, Rose May Canter, who spoke in Glasgow of no human achievement being accomplished with risk and how adversity can be a powerful ally.” She reminded us that “to get profit without risk, experience without danger and reward without work, is as impossible as it is to live without being born.” She gave the real life example of Fruit Grower in the USA who, when his crop had been damaged by a flood, used the affected fruit to make juice. He then went on to create a new and much more profitable business. A great example of how ‘Out of adversity can come success.’
The next day I handed in my notice and planned a new phase in my life in business. The rest is history. But, it was the power of that one speech that stirred me to act. That is the impact a great speaker can have. She made me realise that I had settled in to a routine – yet all my previous life had been based on living on the edge not on comfort and predictability.
I now talk of how workplace cultures that embrace ‘risks’ and ‘mistakes’ and ‘create an atmosphere of fun’ are much more productive.
So, if I set out a vision like this: “You go to work and return home with a spring in your step.” It touches everyone and finds agreement. Then you can look at what needs to be done and get people enthused and creative about how to get there.
When I speak, I judge the real impact of what I say by the emails that later come to me. They are sent from individuals in privacy and usually refer to how I have changed something in them, given them a new sense of purpose or reignited their passion. That is music to my ears. But it is also the reason that I do what I do. Surely, all presenters want to move people to a better place.
Make facts and figures memorable
My task was to report progress on how many homes we had draught-proofed and lofts we had insulated in Glasgow. Each month, I would slavishly add a figure as it was reported to me. In my marketing role at Heatwise Glasgow it was important to demonstrate the scale of our contribution to the city. I wanted to do something more visual and stick able. so I asked the production manager to calculate the total length of all the insulation materials we had used since day one. A few days later I was able to tell people inside and outside the organisation that laid end to end the insulation we had fitted in Glasgow homes would stretch from Motherwell to Moscow. Wow! That stuck in people’s minds and it demonstrated scale. That was in the early 90s.
It was earlier in my life that I had learned the beauty of using more imaginative approaches to figures. It was trainer, Bernard Ross who, in representing a training organisation to potential funders, wanted to demonstrate the low cost and high impact of what they did. This was in the mid-70s and long before Powerpoint – on a screen appeared a photo of a second hand Ford Cortina. On each part of that Cortina had been written its scrap value. But beside each value was a training output. “For the cost of four wheels a young person can learn to type.” I will never forget the impact that day had on me. I saw that even the most tedious information can be made memorable.
Heinz produced a brilliant annual report in the 1980s that used the history of the tomato as its theme. 85% of Heinz products have tomato as a constituent ingredient. It was brilliant and it was compelling.
Fact and figure churners at best confuse, and at worst lose their audience.
When we talk of making complex information accessible, I can think of no better example than the London Underground map. What was a complexity of spaghetti loops was turned into a simple graphic – recognised the world over and guiding a billion and half passengers around London each year. To create a map that shows 270 stations and 11 lines that people from all corners of the World understand is a piece of graphic genius. When we speak and link our words with the human capacity to visualise we have a formula that works. You don’t have to show the London Underground map because everyone has seen it.
When we present we can help people plot a new journey. The choice we have is to make that journey simple, inspiring and fun to navigate. Can we bring facts and figures to life? Can we make them memorable?
If I want to get across how innovation is rooted in curiosity, I mention that the average four year old asks 400 questions each day. I then set the audience the challenge of rediscovering their questioning self and not simply accepting the world as it is.
I never stop questioning the world around me. But, I also ask myself daily if there is a more compelling way to present information.
U2 singer Bono struck on a brilliant way to get a serious message across. At a concert in Glasgow he asked for crowd silence, before he started to clap his hands, every few seconds.
With the audience in total silence, he said into the microphone, “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies.” It was a powerful way to get the message across. Mind you, you have to know your audience and this was Glasgow.
From the front of the crowd a voice pierced the quiet …
“Well, f******* stop doing it then, you evil bastard!”
Laughter may have broken the tension but, the message had embedded itself in the audience. Many of them will have later repeated the gesture.