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Putting Stories To Work – extract two

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business narrative and story

It’s story time all the time at Anecdote.

A former client of ours Anecdote helps businesses find the stories behind their businesses. Founder Shawn Callahan has written a book encapsulating his wisdom on the matter: Putting Stories To Work. This is the second of four extracts. (Here’s the first.)

Part 2: To be memorable make your point first

A clever study showed just how important it is to make explicit the topic and the point of an oral story at the outset. New York University’s John Bransford and Marcia Johnson asked the participants in an experiment to listen to and try to remember the following paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

(I’ve shown this paragraph to thousands of workshop participants and needless to say they were universally bamboozled. I imagine you are too.)

The researchers tested several variations of this. One set of participants just got the above description and their comprehension and recall was then measured. Another group was given a little tidbit of information at the outset: ‘This is about washing clothes’.

Their recall was double that of the first group and their comprehension shot up. A third group got the tidbit at the end. In this case, the results were the same as those of the first group, which had not received any information about washing clothes.

Leaders should always be aiming for clarity and recall in their oral communication at work. The Bransford and Johnson study shows that simply by stating your topic at the outset, recall and comprehension will increase significantly among your audience—as opposed to what happens if you don’t clarify the topic or only mention it as you’re finishing.

Stories need this clear signposting because in business it’s often assumed that just listing facts is faster and more effective than sharing a story. The assumption is incorrect, of course: I’ve often heard people rabbit on for ages about something when a simple story would have sufficed. Regardless, your audience needs to be assured that your story will be worth listening to, that it has a useful point.

So your default storytelling approach should be to begin an oral story with its point, or what I call a relevance statement. The easiest way to come up with one is to ask yourself, ‘What’s the main point my story is making?’

For example, if I wanted to tell a story about the importance of nurturing networks of people as a way of keeping a business agile, I’d start by saying something like: ‘One of the best ways to guard against the unpredictability of a crisis is to keep relationships strong and well-connected across the company’. Then I’d launch into the 9/11 story I shared with you in Chapter 4. With practice, this will become a natural conversation pattern for you: point, then story; point, then story.

The relevance statement should pique the curiosity of your audience without giving too much away: if your story has a wonderful twist in its tail, for example, you don’t want to telegraph it. You just need to give listeners an idea of where you are going and why they might want to listen to you. In a sense, you are making a bold statement and the story will be the evidence for it.

Identifying the point of a story will also improve your storytelling no end. Your stories will become tighter because you’ll jettison anything that’s unnecessary in getting your message across. Above all, it ensures you actually have a point to make.

Remember: a business story is only a business story if it has a point. The practice of sharing the relevance statement before you share the story ensures you have a good reason for telling the story. Telling stories with clear business points will only enhance your reputation at work. If you just go on and on without making a point, you risk becoming known as a gasbag.

After delivering your relevance statement, it’s important that you make a smooth transition to the story. Ideally, the story will remain invisible, by which I mean that after laying out your point of view, you shouldn’t suddenly announce: ‘Right, now I’m going to tell a story to back up my opinion’. Similarly, do not dramatically change your tone of voice or your gestures when you start telling the story. Simply continue to engage your audience in a conversation.

Once you’ve told your story, resist the urge to tell your listeners what the story means. A simple restating of the main point is OK, but if you say something like, ‘So what this story really means is…’, you prevent the audience from taking ownership of the story’s meaning. It’s like explaining a joke: it just kills its impact. And as the experiment I described above showed, it doesn’t make a zip of difference to the listeners’ recall or comprehension. Let the audience members turn your story over in their minds and draw meaning from it themselves.

Shawn Callahan is the founder at Anecdote Pty Ltd. This article is adapted from Shawn’s new book Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling.

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Sydney – what do you want from us?

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Media training in Sydney

Squiggle loves Sydney.

Sydney!

We are on our way in late July to deliver two of our stupendous workshops. But which two? You choose below.

BTW: anyone know of a great venue somewhere central?

Which two workshops do you most want?

July public workshops: you choose

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melbourne media training workshops

Chalk and talk.

Hootville will be running two more public workshops in Melbourne during the week of July 18 to 22. But which ones?

Choose the two you’d prefer by ticking the boxes above the workshops that take your fancy and press Choose at the bottom:

Which two workshops do you most want?

Find more about all our workshops.

Building the Habit of Business Storytelling

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business narrative and story

The story of why it’s good to extract stories.

A former client of ours Anecdote specialises in helping businesses find the stories behind their businesses. Founder Shawn Callahan has written a book encapsulating his wisdom on the matter: Putting Stories To Work. Here we run the first of four extracts:

Building the Habit of Business Storytelling

Some people just seem to be able to tell the right story at the right time. I remember, for example, a British HR director who told me how, in the wake of acquiring a company, he’d handled the tough job of convincing a group of the organisation’s employees in India that they should resign and then sign up to a new employment agreement.

The HR director, who I’ll call Sam, knew this was a huge decision for the employees, that they needed to not only trust him but also be persuaded that the company would do the right thing by them. So he arranged to talk to them personally in the office where they worked in an Indian city.

As he was walking from his hotel to the office, he saw a little boy, no older than five, emerge from a side street lugging a tin pail full of eggs and a shopping bag full of groceries. Seeing that the boy was struggling with his load, Sam offered to help him.

The boy was surprised and wary of the tall Englishman at first, but eventually he agreed to let Sam take the bag of groceries and follow him home. His mother was also surprised when her son appeared accompanied by the Westerner, but when she and her family realised what was going on, there were smiles and thankyous all round. Sam then realised that this would be a good story to tell at the employee meeting to illustrate his character and support his comments that he would look after everyone.

Indeed, the story put the employees at ease, so much so that they all took up the new employment offer—which, as had been promised, turned out to be a better deal than what they’d had.

Sam has the habit of business storytelling: he spots stories when he has new experiences and he frames what he is going to say using stories. As a result, stories occur to him that can be retold for a business purpose. They might stem from something that happened that morning or from a lifetime of experience. Regardless, if he’s in a meeting and making a point, it is second nature for Sam to remember an anecdote to illustrate what he’s talking about. He doesn’t have to try very hard to conjure these stories—they just pop into his head.

Effective communicators tend to have this habit. They share stories without thinking about it when they matter the most: in the cut and thrust of business conversations, in presentations, in meetings. They launch into narratives with words like ‘A couple of weeks ago…’, ‘Back in 2010…’ or ‘When I was with the customer…’. Yet most business leaders aren’t like this. Rather, they have the argument-and-opinion habit. When they speak, their sentences start with ‘I think…’ or ‘There are two things…’ or ‘Here’s what I think…’. If this applies to you, how can you change it?

Having trained many leaders around the world, I can tell you that a single training workshop will not miraculously give you storytelling powers. We are talking about the habit of business storytelling, and for it to develop, persistence is required—up to a year of effort—as well as repetition, especially in the early stages of learning the new skill.

book review the power of habit

A great book indeed.

Charles Duhigg’s excellent review of habit research, The Power of Habit, tells us that creating a new habit is a process of finding a cue, executing a behaviour and savouring a reward. So whenever you catch yourself making a point or sharing an opinion (the cue), seek out a story to tell to reinforce your point (execute) and then savour the response of the audience when it hears your story (reward). Of course, at first you won’t have any good stories to tell. You’ll have to work at finding some. But then the next time you find a cue, you’ll be able to execute the sharing of a story.

The most effective reward for habit formation is a variable one; that is, one whose intensity you can’t predict before you receive it. That’s why poker machines and email are so addictive. This also applies to stories: the reward you get when you tell a story is the impact it has on your listener, and this is always variable. But to get this reward, you need to consciously watch for a reaction.

Alternatively, you can ask your audience about what they are thinking and feeling, or whether the story has inspired them to action. Remember, though, that the impact of a story is not always immediately apparent, so pay attention to what happens in the days after you tell one. In particular, see if your listeners retell the story—this is the ultimate reward for storytelling.

While the storytelling habit takes time to develop, you don’t have to be regimented to be successful. On the contrary, try and have fun with it. Look out for times at work when you can make a point, tell a story to reinforce it, and collect your reward from the faces of the people around you. Eventually this will just come naturally. When it does, you can start thinking about how to make your stories even better. Much like learning to drive, all the parts of the process will seem a little clunky at first, but through repetition they will dissolve into the seamless effort of effective communication.

Shawn Callahan is the founder at Anecdote Pty Ltd. This article is adapted from Shawn’s new book Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling.

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When crisis threatens!

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Critical incident response advice. Also known as damage control.

PR crises happen; and when they do, damage control is required. Even if your organisation pays no attention to communications, invest time and energy considering how you will cope with negative attention.

Negative publicity can quickly undo years of good work. Critical incident response (CIR) planning is as close to reputation insurance as you can get. Some damage control advice:

crisis managment consultants melbourne

What does the future hold? We predict disaster.

See it coming. When I ask clients to imagine a crisis most of the suggestions are bolts from the blue – fires, injuries, takeovers, resignations. Unexpected, unwelcome, unavoidable and undeserved situations.

Unexpected crises do happen but most of the crises with which I have dealt are not at all surprising to those in the know. Expectable crises occur when disgruntled staff, volunteers or clients are ignored; dodgy financial transactions are undisclosed and poor work practices are tolerated. These are slow burning crises awaiting a puff of wind to ignite.

Slow burning crises are confronting to consider as they are not blameless.

I recently asked a group of 30 leaders – most of which head organisations that work with volunteers, children, public funding, dangerous activities – whether they could see the embers of a crisis glowing. None did. Perhaps they were being discreet but I did remark to them that it was highly unlikely that such a collection of organisations did not have something damaging en route to their front door. What’s that saying about stitches in time?

crisis management advice

From the track to the dock.

The origin of your crisis may have nothing to do with you. Crises may be inspired by a media investigation, community group or academic study. For example the greyhound industry – not a favourite of Hootville’s – was shaken to its foundations with the release of undercover reporting by Animals Australia which then worked with ABC-TV’s 4 Corners to create a national furore. Overnight the industry went from being the recipient of millions of taxpayer dollars to a national disgrace.

Animals create passion – if you are exposed to animal welfare issues – you may find yourself in the midst of a crisis. This applies equally to pony clubs and hamburger franchises. No animal cruelty to be concerned about? What else have you got to fear?

Gender and sexuality: in 2016 we have never been more aware of these issues. How well would your organisation stand up to scrutiny of your gender diversity at participant, employee or board level? What would happen if one of your franchises, clubs or schools had to deal with a female customer / participant / student who wishes to change gender?

social media crisis

Late night racist ramblings anybody?

Social media: it is now fair game to hold entire organisations accountable to the social media rants of one staff member about issues that do not pertain to the mission of your organisation. Even if that rant was made in private time.

Related-party transactions: Many boards have directors with business dealings with the organisation that they serve. In many instances that’s entirely justified on many occasions it could cause you pain.

Child protection / physical abuse: the cone of silence has lifted and people rightfully have long memories. Are your policies and practices ready to stand scrutiny.

Faith-based and tax-free: religious nonprofits need to be able to justify their tax -free status. Particularly when they compete for business alongside private enterprises.

IR: paying staff half the mandated rate? Expect twice the crisis.

In short, crises are many and varied and given enough time, inevitable. They may be warranted, they may be not – that hardly matters.

Officially declare a crisis. When you identify a crisis it needs to be declared as such and all your VIPs alerted to the fact that the crisis plan is now in effect. Have a specific crisis plan and stick to it. Many aspects of your plan are covered in this blog post.

Correct the mistake ASAP. If you have made a mistake – admit it. Don’t lie, half apologise, stay silent or grumble. If media or a third party is in error correct it swiftly and without room for misinterpretation. See how to make an apology.

Have a single point of contact for media. Media and other enquiries might be made through any variety of channels. The dastardly media may well approach your staff or volunteers in the most unlikely of situations hoping to get a comment. Tell all staff and stakeholders to refer media inquiries to the anointed media person.

media trainer Brett de Hoedt

You need someone comfortable in the spotlight.

Have a single, trained spokesperson. This may not be the boss. It should be someone across the issues, with real authority who can communicate to the media effectively. Note that in Australia it is less common for organisations to have a designated media spokesperson and it will be counted against you if your spokesperson isn’t your leader.

Address just the key issues with specific, refined messages when speaking to stakeholders or media. This is not the time to address broader criticisms of your organisation.

Use press conferences and door-stop interviews as ways to communicate your message. They give you maximum control. (That’s why they are used by corrupt cricketers and punch-happy footballers.) Press releases and written statements look defensive though it is likely you will use them in a crisis. Despite your natural reluctance to go public in any crisis it’s important to create the impression that you are happy to communicate.

Have a remedy. It is vital for leaders and CEOs to demonstrate specific actions they are taking to make the crisis better.

damage control advice

Pro-tip: don’t cross this man.

Fundamentally unethical franchise 7-Eleven recently attempted to demonstrate their willingness to take action by appointing Prof Alan Fels to an independent committee to redress their systematic and long-term underpayment of workers.

It was the beginning of their remedy to deal with the crisis that was years in the making and entirely their own fault. Prof Fels is one of our most trusted citizens and his appointment showed that 7-Eleven was taking the matter seriously. This of course ended with the termination of his engagement.

A private Australian fundraising consultancy recently contacted Hootville to discuss a crisis that had been brewing for a long time. You guessed it – the underpayment of their employees.

Brett advised the CEO that it was vital to calculate the underpayments that would belatedly be made to underpaid staff. This, I instructed, would show both remorse and responsibility. Without being able to demonstrate a remedy it would be difficult to demonstrate remorse. Strangely the conversation ended shortly after this recommendation.

Make sure you can genuinely claim to have taken specific action before making your public apology. Talk to people, call a meeting, send a cheque, call in the external consultants ASAP and you’re already three steps down the road to putting the crisis behind you.

Throw out the bad apple.  Too often we see organisations defend the indefensible. Churches, unions, ethnic associations and big corporations regularly do this. The public will respect an organisation that is willing to make the hard decisions.

Prioritise your key audiences such as staff, volunteers and donors - as they will follow the story more closely than strangers. Media isn’t the way to reach these people – ideally you’ll be able to talk to people face-to-face or on the phone though it is likely you’ll have to resort to your website or email.

When a crisis hits you need clear healthy communications channels to your key stakeholders. It’s too late to start building up a media list or an email database of your stakeholders. These need to be put in place long before the proverbial hits the fan.

Media management. Media is an accelerant to any crisis. Here is some confusing advice: sometimes you can snuff out a crisis by delay, refusing to share information and keeping the crisis close to your chest. You may even seek legal action to keep things quiet. Sometimes this works, as it did for the Catholic Church for decades. However if your crisis eventually becomes public your delay compounds the sin in the eye of the public. So if you have any intention of going public with your crisis go public earlier rather than later

Don’t think that your past media experience will hold you in good stead. Some organisations can get accustomed to soft, supportive media. C.I.R media is different. You’ll be speaking to different media and different journalists with different expectations and attitudes.

Have a non-perishable story in your bottom drawer. This is a story (obviously positive) that can be told at any time. Use it to deflect attention.

Finally – a crisis is an opportunity. Plenty of individuals and organisations have faced crises and lived to play another day. Bankruptcies, allegations of sexual assault, infidelity, salary cap breaches, mass resignations, exploding appliances, workplace deaths and politically incorrect gaffes have failed to derail the careers and corporate profits of many. How openly and effectively you deal with your crisis will have a huge impact as to how well you rebound.

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How to make an apology

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How to make an apology

making an great apology

Listen to this man.

Elton John said it best – sorry seems to be the hardest word. Maybe that’s why so many CEOs and leaders fail to deliver an apology that makes the grade when the time comes to admit that they or their organisation have done something wrong.

Here’s how your CEO can make an apology that leads to forgiveness:

Faster, faster: decide whether you need to apologise as soon as possible. If an apology is deemed necessary don’t waste any time delivering it as apology delayed is considered an apology denied.

advice for crisis management

It’s leadership time.

Take us to your leader: an apology must be delivered by the person in charge. Of course this means that leaders and CEOs may have to apologise for behaviour over which they realistically had no control. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. An apology delivered by a genuine leader of an organisation adds authenticity – and authenticity is key.

Face-to-face is best: a written statement only goes so far to convey regret. When possible, have your leader or CEO apologise on camera, on microphone and face-to-face. That said, use every channel you have available

Content: keep your apology simple and direct. Ensure that you specifically say that you apologise, that you are sorry and that you regret. Use those words. Name specific audiences or organisations to which you apologise. Don’t obfuscate or meander – keep it short, sincere and sweet.

Similarly the CEO or leader making the apology should use the word “I” rather than “we” even though using “I” may seem inappropriate when speaking on behalf of a company. However “I” more effectively implies to the listener that the person making the apology genuinely takes responsibility

how to make an apology

No asterisks. get out clauses.

No conditions apply: we all see attractive offers from retailers offering us a bargain accompanied with an asterisk indicating that conditions apply. Our hearts sink. Similarly your apology must be wholehearted and without condition. Resist the temptation to explain mitigating circumstances as it dilutes your apology.

Don’t do what former UK Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg does in this awkward video that attempted to counter the massive criticism of his policy backflips. He opens up by commenting that many people extend compliments to him as he travels around the country. It’s a lily- livered effort. No wonder it was parodied so well.

how to apologise

Notes are fine. Scripts are not.

Script? Do you need a script when you are fighting with your beloved? Of course not. The words pour out of your mouth because you’re speaking – at least at that moment – from the heart. Similarly the CEO or leader making his apology should be able to make that apology with minimal reference to notes or script. Reading out an apology word-for-word from a piece of paper makes the apologist look weak. That’s the sort of thing people do on advice from their lawyers.

Video? A long time ago a short-lived Governor General Peter Hollingworth issued an apology in a series of pre-recorded video grabs to be distributed to television news services. This was on the advice of a blue-chip public affairs consultant. It was stupid advice. The raw video clips were leaked and made him look calculating and insincere – after all who needs a script and rehearsals if they’re making a sincere apology?

delivering an apology

Many emotions! All of them fake.

Emotions: ideally your CEO’s apology will not look robotic. However don’t let your leader blubber her way through the episode. Cynical audiences will interpret this as the CEO being self-centred, self-pitying and “all about herself”.

Rinse & Repeat: don’t think that an apology is a one-off. Repeat your apology to different audiences via different channels ad nauseam until people are sick of hearing it. By this time your CEO will certainly be sick of saying it. Now read our blog on crisis management.

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Domestic violence campaign is correct. Politically.

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Australian domestic violence campaign commercial

What a piece of work he is.

By now, you and most of television-watching Australia have got your share of the $30 million awareness campaign aimed at curbing domestic violence in Australia.

The Let’s Stop it at the Start campaign is another in a long history of taxpayer-funded television commercials created – allegedly – with the intent to create social change.

We have blogged at length about this governmental go-to tactic before. Suffice to say that Hootville believes that there are many ways to create social change in 2016 and television advertising would be far down our list of tactics. Particularly so if the campaign comes with a $30 million price tag that could be directed at services or other social awareness options.

Television commercials, along with fridge magnets and mass letterbox drops risk being criticised as guilt-easing governmental expense motivated by the desire to appear to be seen to be doing something.

TV campaigns have their supporters. Many people point to anti-smoking and anti-drink-driving television campaigns and credit them with massive improvements in both attitude and behaviour.

These people are often the same people that have commissioned such campaigns or profited from their creation. These boosters forget that it is legislation and enforcement which made smoking expensive, inconvenient and often illegal. No doubt anti-drink driving and speeding commercials help shape driving habits but we dare say they don’t have the same pre-emptive impact as booze buses, speed cameras and demerit points. Fines may have played their part too.

So to our new taxpayer funded anti-domestic violence commercial. Rewatch it before you read on.

A few observations:

We like that this commercial exists. We really like how the commercial focuses not on broad attitudes but on small everyday, changeable behaviours. Rather than asking people to evolve to a higher level of being it demonstrates specific ways to combat everyday aggression and sexism showing phrases such as: “Don’t throw like a girl” in a negative light. Likewise sexting or being too quick to forgive a young boy’s aggressive behaviour towards a girl.

This is good advertising aimed as much at parenting as it is aimed towards curbing domestic violence.

One of the biggest mistakes any campaign can make – and we see it often – is to make the audience feel guilty or accused. People of all persuasions reject environmental doomsdayism and resent being told that their meat-eating, car-driving, central-heated lifestyles are to blame for rising sea levels and Indian summers.

Rightly or wrongly, many men – the prime target of this campaign – feel offended at the suggestion that they are inherently violent or sexist. They are inadequate idiots but we probably need to reach them with the message this commercial contains the most. Could humour / irony help? We think so. And yes, you can tackle any issue with humour.

This campaign risks offending a lot of people beyond just men. After all – when was the last time a parent took kindly to your feedback on their parenting?

We don’t like the very first lines  in the commercial.

When people are sympathetic to an argument they can easily overlook some miscalibration. The Let’s Stop it at the Start commercial opens up with a curious line of dialogue with the mother saying to fallen girl: “You’re OK. He just did it because he likes you.”

Is this really something that mothers tell their daughters after they have been the subject of some little bastard’s behaviour? It struck a strange note with us and we suspect that the oddness of it will create a convenient distraction for people who should be absorbing the commercial’s message. “He’s tired.” “He didn’t mean it.” “Did you do something to Tom?” may have been preferable.

Another distinct criticism we have of Let’s Stop it at the Start is that it is utterly Anglo-centric.

We hope that the many critics of our Anglo-centric media landscape waste no time in protesting the mono-faceted cultural palette on display. (We don’t think many will though.)

We have witnessed with increasing discomfort a ‘party line’ in the domestic violence debate that is at pains to present DV as everybody’s problem. It is everybody’s problem but just like other problems -  illiteracy, unemployment, pay day lender debt, diabetes – this problem does not impact equally across the demographic smorgasbord. No problem ever does. Not even in death are we equal – rich folk live longer.

The 2015 Dropping Off The Edge report by Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services states that those living in the least advantaged 3% of NSW postcodes have a 300% higher than average experience of domestic violence. Indigenous women are 34 times more likely than average to be hospitalised due to domestic violence according to Professor of Indigenous Studies at University of Melbourne, Marcia Langton.

Does the commercial reflect this? Nope.

Though this commercial is aimed ultimately at targeting domestic violence, in the short-term it is a commercial aimed largely at parents. We should be aiming at parents from all cultures particularly those – and this will lose us some friends – who have grown up in cultures with different social norms around gender, violence and parenting.

Those groups in the community need to see themselves represented in this commercial. It’s difficult to see how the creators of this commercial overlooked that point. There’s not an indigenous, Southeast Asian, sub-continental, Chinese, middle-eastern, African, Eastern European or Maori face to be seen. All of these groups are huge components of contemporary Australia and they need to see themselves in such commercials along with those who look like they belong at Summer Bay.

Is political correctness getting in the way of an important social message? We wouldn’t be surprised. Sometimes a diverse display of people is politically correct. At other times an all-Anglo display is just as politically correct.

This recent anti-gambling commercial failed to show key cultural groups with a proven penchant for betting. What a wasted opportunity! And that scene in the park! And that music! Oy vey!

To pretend that only Anglo-celtic people need to consider their attitudes is a great disservice to us all. It also tends to tar a great many innocent people with a brush we’d rather avoid.

Note: the campaign website has content in non-English languages for those keen enough to seek them out. There’s also an Indigenous-themed radio commercial.

To be 100% clear – we understand that domestic violence happens everywhere. It is a cancer on our community and should be stopped everywhere. Priority #1. Everyone needs access to education and services but those services and awareness campaigns need to be targeted at those who need them most. The problem is too wicked to let political correctness stand in our way.

anti violence commercial

Feedback

Response from Citizen Clare McHugh:

Thanks for your blog. Interesting analysis but I can’t let it go without a quick response. What follows is a personal view.

No ad can be all things to all people. I’d love to see—and hope the government plans—subsequent ads and strategies shaping messages for particular groups and communities. However the poverty/cultural dynamic that you correctly identify as missing could make this ad a melange that does not penetrate with any message (and which you more than likely would analyse for its failure to send a clear message).

I suspect the pitch is deliberate (notwithstanding the much commented on middle-class Anglo-ness of our massmedia generally) so that ‘average’ citizens can’t let themselves off the hook. The ad does a good job in identifying how our own innocuous comments justify small incremental attitudes and acts of violence.

The people who want to be part of the change in society may recognise their own everyday comments and begin to think about their influence on children. By the way I don’t think the ‘prime target of this campaign’ is men. I think it’s trying to show how all of us, even well-meaning non-violent people, contribute to a community problem.

The ad does seem to target parents and parenting. What would an adult really say? See this six year old’s birthday party to hear what adults do say to children and each other in real life. Unfortunately it is still pervasive that too many adults care about their own social standing with other adults than about intervening positively or stopping something terrible.

The Royal Commission into sexual abuse of children tells us this in too many painful stories, repeated over decades across multiple institutions in society. This is what happens when adults do not want to look like they’re interfering, are worried what people think about them or their parenting or worried that their child’s behaviour reflects on them ie  looks sooky, will rock the boat or looks badly behaved.

My other major project at ECA is Start Early. Respectful relationships for life. You can see ECA’s Start Early site here or the modules themselves, which are aimed at educators of young children.

Love your work. Don’t always agree. But obviously it got a reaction!

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“Hi. I’m Troy and I’m a bisexual”

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human resource conference emcee

Pro tip: unbutton one’s jacket before picture opps.

Have you, with your professional reputation on the line, ever asked a room full of strangers to turn to the person next to them, extend a hand and introduce themselves with the line: “Hi I’m Troy and I’m a bisexual.”?

Thought not. But that’s exactly what happened at yesterday’s Future of Work conference. That’s quite an audience participation exercise wouldn’t you agree? We’ll explain it later.

Over the last six weeks or so Brett has been working with three speakers – Varina Paisley, Sylvia Roux and Bamini KPD Balakrishnan- who yesterday shared a session at the Future of Work event at Melbourne’s Federation Square. Each is an emerging leader in their field, with experience in more formal and academic presentations though mainstream conference presentations on this scale were newer to them.

The Future of Work event is quite a big deal with international speakers drawn together by the Centre for the Workplace Leadership, which is part of the University of Melbourne. Lots of smart high-powered, good-looking people gather to discuss people, place and technology as it relates to our working lives. Brett was fortunate enough to emcee the conference last year and this year was tapped to help the trio of speakers make the transition from academic to mainstream conference presentation.

Here are a few observations:

Big improvements happen: it is remarkable how deliberate investment in your presentation skills improves performance. The difference between our first and second session, held over two consecutive days six weeks ago, was remarkable. The best public speakers are those who are willing to deconstruct their presentation and prioritise the experience of the audience. A willingness to try new things – such as polling the audience or launching immediately into your presentation – is vital.

In the last six weeks however real life intervened. Our ‘dress rehearsal’, held less than 24 hours before showtime, was invaluable. Performances were, we all agreed…underpar.

Two of the presentations, planned to be 22 minutes in duration were suddenly completed in 12 minutes. Close to 50% of the content had been forgotten! Unprecedented. Without the dress rehearsal, this could have happened in front of a live audience. Some rust had settled in and so it was a prime opportunity to get back into the right headspace.

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Would this shirtless big- haired man lie to you?

Listen to Andre: You will find few sporting references in the Hootville canon. Andre Agassi is an exception. His advice – to train at an intensity as close as possible to the intensity required on match day - is valuable. It is easy to get comfortable with rehearsing at a low energy level and stopping for any mistake or interruption. Get used to delivering your presentation at 100%. Get used to recovering from a memory lapse and delivering your presentation in your fancy clothes as opposed to your pyjamas. Get used to pausing to allow your audience some white space and speaking at a volume and pace different to those you use every day. By the way Agassi’s autobiography Open is one hell of a good read.

Apples and oranges are different: There is a significant difference between presenting in more homogenous environments such as academia and a broad, mainstream event such as the Future of Work. It is not an easy transition to make for speakers who have had their noses in data and dissertations for years. It takes a willingness to try and fail and change KPIs.

public speaking tips

Consider some dot points or flowchart.

Working without a script is tough: all three speakers chose to work without any notes whatsoever. This was not on Brett’s insistence. While being note-free is the gold standard, working without so much as an index card in one’s hand does force speakers to devote a lot of energy into simply remembering their script. It is totally acceptable at any level of presentation to have notes. No audience will hold this against you, though reading a speech word for word is utterly unacceptable. Of course visual presentations can act as a jog to your memory, inspiring you to recite a passage of your presentation confidently but not word-perfectly.

Foreshadowing: anyone who has ever watched a movie, read a book or listened to a skilled storyteller knows the power of foreshadowing. It builds anticipation, maximises attention and gives the speaker control.

Foreshadowing is a particularly showbiz characteristic. It does not come naturally to people who present in a very straightforward and linear manner. Here’s an example of foreshadowing:

“I spent two years researching 800 workers in one financial services company investigating why some workers truly believed in their employer’s mission and others frankly saw their job as nothing but a means to an end. I could talk all day about how to create a positive, resilient, passionate culture but with so little time I’ll simply share my top three tips to dramatically improve your organisation’s culture. But before I do that, can I ask you a question? Are you even measuring how your workers perceive your corporate culture?”

You have already created an appetite for your top three tips even though you might not share these for quite some time. Regardless, when you get to them your audience knows that they are your top three tips and you will have gained the maximum amount of attention for them.

Leave a little whitespace: every graphic designer knows about the value of whitespace. Leaving some space uncluttered gives a sense of calm and ease. The more upmarket the publication the more whitespace we see. It’s no different with spoken presentations. Give people time to consider what has been said, imagine a scenario or simply absorb information. Deliberate pacing and the occasional pause conveys confidence – whether you feel it or not. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve felt anxious and as a result prattled on without cessation. Try not to repeat this on stage.

Time is limited so cut to the chase: our Future of Work trio were allotted 22 minutes each with some question time after all three presentations were complete. Brett recommended that all speakers leave their opening thankyous and acknowledgements to the end. The opening minutes are when you have the maximum amount of attention from the audience – don’t blow it on thanking the organisers or your public speaking trainer.

Time is limited so prioritise: our speakers could have spoken all day – such was their knowledge of their various fields. There was no way to do justice to everything they had to say in 22 minutes, particularly when you subtract the amount of time required to simply explain some of the key concepts and background that gave context to each presentation. Brett emphasised the need to deliver the audience some value and take-home messages at the expense of other content. All three speakers obliged in spades.

Keep it simple: it’s not cool to say so but if there is one presentation software that every venue can run it is erstwhile PowerPoint. Alternatives to this industry standard can create complications for you. Complications that tend to arise at the very last minute. Similarly, running presentations directly off your laptop or from the cloud creates awkward challenges for the tech staff. Yes, it’s annoying to have to prepare and send your presentation in advance but it a gets the job done and minimises technological dramas. Some tips on PowerPoint above.

Observations for dress and earring wearers of all genders: we take pride in not telling speakers what to wear but two unusual dramas made themselves felt in our 90 minute session. One speaker wore a dress with no belt or pocket which meant that she was not able to hook her microphone battery pack onto anything. This meant that she had to hold the pack throughout her presentation with her other hand holding the clicker. All three speakers wore Madonna headsets which tapped against two of our speakers earings which was a percussive distraction we had not anticipated.

The show must go on: is the fundamental showbusiness tenet.  Regardless of the size of the audience, technological breakdowns or lack of sleep one must do do one’s voodoo. Varina, the first speaker in our trio, proved herself a trooper when she calmly waited for the wrong presentation to replaced with her own. This awkward interruption could easily rattle any speaker. Don’t let any interruption interrupt you. That’s showbiz.

Set-ups matter: One of our speakers twice asked the audience to spend a minute considering a question and jotting down their thoughts. We worked specifically on how to best explain what our speaker wanted the audience to consider. It underlined to me that any exercise you give the audience has to be clearly explained if it is to be effective. In our case it was.

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A good voice is a real career booster.

Voices matter: it pains us to admit it but all things being equal a good voice is an advantage. Note that voice concerns matter only when you’ve got your content, audio-visual, audience engagement and stagecraft in order. We can’t all be Morgan Freeman but we can all pace ourselves, speak clearly and deliberately and work on keeping our pitch a little low. Rightly or wrongly a voice that is pitched high can begin to grate on audiences. Readers who wish to add another level of complexity should try to vary volume, tone, pitch and pacing. Please note this is the absolute icing on the cake. You would be better off honing your stories, examples and means of audience engagement.

Refer: A couple of our trio referred to points made by previous presenters from earlier in the day. This is always a great move as it shows you are as interested in the content as the audience. It shows you give a damn.

Test everything: no matter how obliging or negligent the technicians on site appear, ensure that your microphone, audio-visual and other practical concerns are met. Don’t just try the clicker and microphone while standing next to the technician – walk the stage with them and see if they work at a distance. Go through the slides of your presentation to make sure that they all show and that your groovy transitions are grooving as expected.

Flick the switch to vaudeville: we have spoken repeatedly about the need to engage audiences with an exercise, a poll, a hypothetical. It’s only fair to audiences and it keeps the energy high. Academics do not traditionally do this. Brett was delighted to see his speakers take the opportunity and engage their audience.

Varina, addressing diversity in the workplace, gave us a fictional case study of ‘Troy’ a middle-aged executive who is bisexual. Varina wanted to challenge the notion that being non-heterosexual in the workforce is straightforward in 2016. We decided that she should conduct a quick piece of audience participation by having audience members turn to a stranger and introduce themselves with the line: “Hi. I’m Troy and I’m bisexual.”

The little exercise served several purposes: it created a giggle in the audience, it showed that it is a big deal in 2016 to explain that you are not straight and as a result gave more control to Varina. Varina had progressed from telling to demonstrating.

Our thanks to Varina, Sylvia and Bamini for being so willing to try something new on the advice of someone so less educated. Our gratitude too, to the Centre for Workplace Leadership, particularly Angus Blackman for the opportunity.

Need some training for your staff, event speakers or yourself? Find out more.

Are media releases still relevant?

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Are media releases still relevant?

The one thing non-communications professionals know about the world of public relations is that you write media releases. Those who are unfamiliar with how media coverage comes to pass, see the media release as the be all and end all. It is not. The media release is to media coverage what the Hallmark invitation is to the party – just the beginning.

Sadly your boss may not have a nuanced understanding of how stories are made.

Can you write a media release about our new program / campaign / product / milestone?” she asks / commands.

What she really means to say is: “Can you get me lots of media coverage through whatever means necessary?

Some media trainers still offer full day workshops in the art of media release writing. We kid you not. When Hootville delivers our Media Savvy workshops we devote about 30 minutes to the gentle art of media release writing. We minimise our time on this topic because the impact of the media release has been minimised in the digital age during which millions of words appear on screens competing for the attention of journalists’ hearts and minds.

A radio producer once told me that she receives around about 140 media releases a day. In an environment as crowded as that don’t be so arrogant as to think that your media release will make an impact. Far more impactful will be your telephone call which is why we devote time in our media savvy training to the art of the telephone pitch.

So why write a media release?

At some point in the journey from pitching a story to publication you will have to provide the journalist some information in writing. This may well be your media release or it may be a simple email giving more background and detail. Make sure you use this to influence the way the journalist understands your story and have it ready in advance of your first telephone contact.

Media release vs the telephone pitch

The phone is mightier than the media release. Why? Well no journalist has ever said that our story idea was dull, had been covered before, was two weeks too late and is irrelevant but that because the media release was so well written they decided to give the story a run anyway.

On the other hand most of the 1000 stories we’ve successfully got up for clients was initiated and essentially sold via a short telephone conversation.

The phone call has more impact with journalists and takes less time for the publicist. Talking to each other can also help develop a working relationship.

media release writing

Don’t waste time perfecting releases with no impact.

Your superiors like media releases because it gives them the opportunity to correct something. This is old school. The amount of time devoted to writing, then perfecting a media release is a wicked waste of time that could be spent on packaging a better story, finding more prospective media targets and working the phones.

By calling first and sending your written information later you don’t have to provide a word-perfect media release. Instead, you can supply an email. It will still have to be well written and full of interesting information but it doesn’t have to have the headline, the logo in just the right spot and the three quotes. This will save you time – maybe a few hours by the time approvals are factored in. If you do this 20 times across a year you’ve got the best part of an extra working week up your sleeve. Use the time sit by your company pool with the daiquiri of your choice.

media release writing

Mention them and they will be notified.

Other alternatives to the media release: Twitter. Along with politicians, journalists are the most passionate users of Twitter.

Consider using Twitter to gain attention of individuals in the media. A-list journalists will rarely be moved by a mention in a tweet but less well known journalists and producers may be. Certainly a Twitter mention will gain more attention that another email. Be sure to use an individual’s Twitter handle, not the media outlet as a whole.

How to improve your media releases.

You can improve your media release writing by concentrating on a few key factors:

An attention getting headline. Extra points if your headline is funny, punny or a witty play on words. The secondary headline, called the strap, has the job of more soberly explaining what your media release is all about. Get that right and  you’re 20 per cent of the way there.

are media releases relevant

Short but effective.

This example from the Property Council of Australia is straight to the point. When we wrote a release for a well-known Victorian charity facing financial ruin our headline was:

Elderly Victorian Icon $2 million in debt. We were happy with that because it created the thought that the icon was a famous person – few journalists could resist clicking to read who the debtor was.  

Next; the opening paragraph has to be all encompassing and continue to hold the interest of the journalist. Summarise the situation and explain why it’s important.

Are your quotes boring? Probably. If your quotes can be read and pretty much make sense without the quotation marks, your quotes are too similar to ordinary text. Quotes have to sound like a real person really spoke to a real journalist with real passion. Again the Property Council example is good and real.

Conclusion: So yes, media releases still belong in the PR world though their status is far diminished. Tell your boss.

 

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What to wear on stage. Spoiler alert: whatever the hell you want*

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Some thoughts on appearances, class, gender, age and ethnicity…

I was recently delivering public speaking training to a group of high-performing young people who had been earmarked as future leaders. The aim of the day was to turn them into gun public speakers. Of the 14 or so participants six expressed their desire to become Prime Minister.

“Fine,” I said. “But take turns.”

public speaking workshop sydney

Notice anything? Nor did we.

At one point I showed them a TEDx talk to demonstrate several of the possibilities and variables of public speaking including storytelling, the importance of the opening minutes and the value or otherwise of taking on stage a prop.

Immediately upon asking for their observations, a young woman in the front row embraced her inner Joan Rivers and criticised the speaker’s appearance.

“Those colours are all wrong. People won’t respect her. She should wear…”

And so it went. So much for the sisterhood. I noted that the fashion police officer was of a gender, age and ethnicity that many people find easy to stereotype and limit. Her dress sense would be the least of her concerns.

For the record I had never noticed anything noticed anything peculiar or off-putting about the TED speaker’s appearance and I certainly hadn’t put her on screen to discuss fashion.

We took a turn in the course of our discussion towards an age-old question many inexperienced public speakers consider: What should I wear on stage / on camera? This is what I told the young fashion critic:

Where whatever you want. Where whatever makes you feel your best but be aware that no matter how you expect your appearance to be interpreted and appreciated there will always be some people in the audience who view you unexpectedly.

public speaking workshops

Suit and tie for this edgy young up and comer.

Offering myself as an example I explained to this neophyte that some audience members might be sub-conciously reassured to see a man walk on stage in a suit while the person next to them might be thinking: “Oh God. Not another man in a suit.”

In another mood I may present myself to the public in jeans, red loafers, argyle socks, spotted shirt and linen jacket in the hope that I will fit the bill as a hip, free-thinking cultural creative. I know, of course, that 50% of the audience will simply respond to my stylings with: “What a tosser.” Another quarter won’t notice what I wear. That’s showbiz.

Dressing up can make you look insecure. Dressing up can make you look supremely confident. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. So are most things – gender, class, age and ethnicity among them.

A lot of public speakers go to a lot of effort to appear as attractive as their genetic limitations will allow. Some members of the audience might take this at face value and find a speaker very appealing. Other audience members will note the speaker’s attractiveness and hold it against them. Others won’t notice a thing. (This final group is deeper than the rest of us.)

public speaking training

We guess she’s kind of pretty. If you like that kind of look.

All things being equal, being attractive is a big fat help to your career. There have been studies to back up this claim. That said; you can be Cate Blanchet or Benicio del Toro and for a few minutes have the audience in the palm of your hand as a result of your supernatural good looks. However the impact of high cheekbones and husky foreign accents will quickly diminish if you do not deliver the goods.

Similarly I have seen some unprepossessing speakers slowly take their audiences by the scruff of the neck due to their knowledge, storytelling and dry humour.

This is a politically incorrect piece of advice but generally speaking audiences do admire someone who is dressed up for the occasion and if you can throw in a little flair all the better. Of course this does not preclude the shabby and shambolic from having a place in the spotlight. Nor does it mean than you can prepare for a presentation by going shopping as opposed to doing research.

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Have your tailors run something up.

I do like the old one level up rule which for men in particular this is very simple. If you can get away with wearing a T-shirt level up to a collared T-shirt.  If you can get away with a collared T-shirt level up to a short sleeve shirt. If you can get away with a short sleeve shirt opt for a longsleeved shirt etc.

To summarise: dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable and confident on stage, secure in the knowledge that even the most conservative or outlandish of ensembles can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Such is life.

what to wear when public speaking

Is this woman (Lucy Perry) cool, credible and colourful or just plain attention seeking? Probably all of the above.

The bigger issue and harsher truth that I kept from my opinionated student was that your dress sense will be a minor influence on how people respond to you. Far more significant is the influence one’s gender, age and ethnicity. Once again this can play out in a myriad of ways. One person’s voice of experience will be another’s smug baby boomer. One person’s young go-getting woman is another’s inexperienced, entitled pain in the backside.

I’m not sure what the answer to all this is except to ignore it and do your best. And don’t bitch about other people’s looks, age or race. Content and intent however are grounds for comment.

What is vital is that you don’t rule yourself out as a credible speaker / interviewee / expert because you fear that your age, appearance, ethnicity or gender make you somehow implausible. Just get out there and give it your best shot, letting the critics carp. Often their response is more telling them than it is of you.

*Just be prepared for people to grumble regardless.

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