Three principles I find myself instilling in business presenters on a regular basis are as follows:
1. Focus on your audience first, rather than what you want to say
2. What is the one big thing that you want to say and have your audience remember?
3. Don’t even think about opening with a joke
I tell them how PM Tony Blair was slow handclapped by the WI for failing to think about their particular needs and concerns. I ask them to consider how they will recover if no one laughs at the joke that is meant to get them off to a good start. I stress the contextual differences between trying out the joke with their mates one night in the bar and the cold light of the conference room first thing in the morning.
Recently though, I was presented with an array of much more vivid examples of presentation pitfalls on a radio phone-in as I advised callers on speaking at weddings and other family gatherings. Jeremy Vine had invited me to join him on his Radio 2 show and I reassured him that I could adjust the advice from my usual business tips to the day-to-day situations that were likely to be forthcoming from his mid-day listeners.
The calls kicked off with a father-of-the-bride who had been researching jokes on the internet, and was feeling increasingly unsure of himself. “Are you a natural comedian”? I asked him. “No”, he replied without equivocation. “So why have to decided to have a go at something really quite challenging on the most important day of your daughter’s life”?
“What should I do instead of telling jokes”, continued the caller. I advised him – as with business presenters – to focus on the one thing he most wants to say about his daughter, which was probably about how beautiful, precious and loving she is. “You might even open up with this; you should certainly close with it; and anything else you say in between – probably in the form of ancient anecdotes - is simply to bring that message to life. Apply that principle and the speech will start to write itself”.
As more calls came in, we heard of brothers who had not spoken since telling inappropriate jokes and stag night tales as part of their wedding speeches, and wedding celebrations that had been abandoned mid-speech. In many, less damaging situations husbands had neglected/forgotten to say how much they loved their new wife – rather as Ed Milliband famously forgot to mention the economy.
The consistent theme throughout was the need to think first and foremost of the audience you are addressing on this particular occasion. Even if you have an absolutely brilliant joke (and ironically Jeremy Vine’s best man was his comedian brother Tim), is a wedding the time and place to roll it out? You should be thinking first and foremost about the bride, the mother-in-law and various, often elderly relations for whom it is meant to be the most special of days. What can you do and say that is definitely going to make it special for them?
As the phone-in progressed it was fascinating to find that the general principles of business presentation, together with the problems and challenges that arise, were equally applicable in a whole range of day-to-day public speaking situations. And it’s well worth observing them, because it’s in those situations that the essential dos and don’ts really come to life.