“Hello” said the young comedian who had just bounced on stage for a recent edition on the BBC’s Live at the Apollo, “my name is Rob Beckett and I’ve got massive teeth”. At last, I thought, I have a new high profile example of a principle that can be very useful to anyone giving a business presentation.
If there is something that will inevitably be on the minds of your audience as you start a business presentation, you need to address that issue head on, right up front. Only then can you engage your audience properly without what will inevitably be an on-going distraction. So I tend to say to those I am coaching something along the lines of: “Had I arrived today with a black eye, the first thing I would have said was ‘hello, I’m Nick and I’ve got a black eye because….’”. Then, and only then, would I have a realistic chance of engaging the person I am coaching without them continually thinking ‘I wonder how he got that black eye’ and imagining a range of different scenarios in which it might have occurred. It would have been, in modern business parlance, what you might call a ‘mini elephant in the room’.
Bearing in mind that the whole point of being full and frank upfront is that it allows you move on, be sure to say absolutely no more about the matter once you have addressed it. When we open up in an awkward situation and admit a faux pas or make an apology, human nature dictates that we do so in a fulsome manner. Which means that we invariably go on and on about it, making everything increasingly awkward for both sides. As the actors alongside whom I sometimes work always say: “if you drop a brick, don’t keep kicking it around!”
Before closing I am going to risk being just a tiny bit politically incorrect. I say this because we are meant to be ‘tone deaf’ to accents these days but, whether we like it or not, an accent is one of the first indicators that we use when forming initial impressions of people. Jon Snow has recently admitted that, like everyone else, the first thing he thinks about when meeting someone is sex; the same applies to accents. So there is nothing right or wrong about having a regional accent – unless, it seems, if you work in TV presentation where it has become almost obligatory. If, however, you have a distinct accent and you want your audience to focus on what you are saying rather the origins of the voice that is delivering it, then find a subtle way at an early stage to slip in where you come from.
Finally, why was I so keen to find a new example of coping with a mini elephant in the room? I always like to give the business people I am coaching examples from the worlds of music, movies and particularly magic. I used to know a young magician who used this technique particularly well to address - and so move on swiftly from - the fact that he had a very wide girth. His opening line was invariably: “I may not be the best magician in the world, but I am certainly one of the biggest”. The audience immediately warmed to him and focused on his magic and his character rather than his size. Very sadly he died, so it didn’t seem right to keep relating this excellent example. RIP Pete McCahon.