Bringing impact to your business message

A problem that’s faced by those who are asked to talk about ‘dry’ topics is how to make it interesting. If you’re asked to make a presentation about tax strategy or debt recovery, it can seem a daunting prospect. But by careful use of language and storytelling techniques, even the most unpromising subject can come to life.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, travel writer Bill Bryson masterfully explains complex scientific theories in simplistic and entertaining ways. Of the Reverend Robert Evans, an amateur stargazer in Australia, he explains the cleric’s extraordinary facility for spotting supernovae (exploded stars) through a modest telescope, a needle in a haystack task if ever there was one! He writes, “imagine a standard dining room table covered in a black tablecloth and throwing a handful of salt across it. The scattered grains can be thought of as a galaxy. Now imagine fifteen hundred more tables like the first one – enough to make a single line two miles long – each with a random array of salt across it. Now add one grain of salt to any table and let Bob Evans walk among them. At a glance he will spot it. That grain of salt is the supernova.”

Now we can’t all write or talk like Mr Bryson, but we can draw lessons from the way he takes a difficult subject (science) and uses language to ‘sell’ it to a mainstream audience. It’s what a lot of us have to do in business, if we’re in an industry that involves technical knowledge. For the most part, we’re selling to an audience that aren’t experts in these areas – that’s why they hire us. So we have to moderate our language and talk in terms they can understand.

A good example is use of statistics. If you’re renting out office space, instead of saying you’ve got 1 million square feet of rental space in Manchester, say that if you added up all the rental space you hire out in the region it would fill 20 Old Trafford football stadiums. A friend of mine works for a company that provides total office furniture solutions. They deal with much more than just providing furniture and he describes the range of services they provide in an unusual way – “imagine turning an office upside down. We deal with anything that falls down.”

I was at an event yesterday where someone was talking about the lack of motorsport on the BBC. Instead of saying how many years ago the Beeb had last broadcast Formula One, he said, “When Formula One was last on the BBC, Lewis Hamilton was only 11 years old.”

When you’re writing or speaking about what you do, you want people to enjoy what they see/hear and remember it. With a little work and imagination, you can ‘sex up’ a description of what you do using metaphor, anecdote, case studies and other techniques. But when you’re formulating your message, remember that what people are really interested in is whether you understand their plight, and how you can make life better for them. Focus on that and you’re certainly on the right lines. But by telling a good story in a skillful manner, you can evoke an emotional response in your audience and elevate your message from good to great.

Meeting the Golden Bear

jn2I had the great privilege of meeting Jack Nicklaus yesterday, a childhood hero of mine and the most successful golfer of all time. Jack (AKA the Golden Bear) was spending time with some kids on the Empowering Youth Foundation, a scheme that teaches youngsters life skills through the medium of golf.

Pictured from right to left: Jack Nicklaus, Dawn Roberts (Empowering Youth Foundation), Stephen Black (Stephen Black Solicitors), Guest, Guest, Andrew Thorp.

I remember encountering Jack for the first time in 1976 in Southport. He was in his prime, an intimidating presence who was known for not suffering fools gladly. My brother pushed me forward to say hello, and although my mouth moved, no words emerged! Fortunately age and experience enabled me to communicate more successfully yesterday, and I asked the great man what he’d said to his old pal Tom Watson, the 59 year old with a false hip who so nearly won the British Open in July (narrowly losing out to fellow American Stewart Cink). In response, Jack said he’d consoled Watson. He told him he’d played beautifully throughout the week, and should remember that he did win the championship – he just didn’t win the play-off!

This struck me as a rather odd attitude. Like millions around the world I’d seen Watson choke over his final putt and play what might be described as ‘car crash golf’ in the play-off. But perhaps the mark of the uber-successful is to always see the positives and not dwell on the negatives? Earlier he’d been asked by one youngster what was the worst experience he’d had on the golf course. He thought…and thought…and ultimately couldn’t remember one! I’d thought he’s mention the painful defeat to Watson in the famous ‘Duel in the Sun’, the Turnberry Open of 1977. Of that he remembers little – only that he lost. Watson on the other hand says he recalls every shot he hit on that last round!

In many respects golf is like a metaphor for life. It’s a journey with a starting point and a finish, and on the way we have to navigate our way through a variety of obstacles – and cope with the ups and downs of the experience. Great athletes like Nicklaus make mistakes – they’re not afraid to. They work hard to put themselves in a position where they’re under pressure and tested in the extreme. They sometimes mess up, but they learn from it and move on, growing all the time.

It’s a great lesson for us all.

PS: Thanks to Dawn Roberts and the fantastic team at Empowering Youth Foundation – it was a great thrill!

You can’t bore people into buying

public-speaking-firstpointI attended a business event recently, hosted by a hotel chain, and as usual a representative of the host company was given a platform to address the audience. It’s a common scenario and one which presents both a dilemma and an opportunity for the speaker. The opportunity is clear – a captive audience of 80 business people, all of whom represent a potential source of business. The dilemma is that an invitation to speak in front of an audience puts many people into a state of fear and confusion!

On this occasion the speaker (a member of the chain’s senior management) extolled the virtues of his excellent meetings and conference facility. He had a perfectly good speaking voice and didn’t seem overly nervous. But he blew it. He’d lost the audience after about 45 seconds and essentially spent the 15 minute slot reading out the contents of the company’s web site. It wasn’t schoolboy stuff – he did make regular eye contact with the audience – but it was clearly read from a script.

But more than that, he blew the opportunity to wow the visitors to his venue. He played it safe and spoke about the facilities. I’m sure he’s well paid but there really was no need for him to be there at all. He might just have projected the home page of his web site and put on some nice background music. It was the lack of creativity and thought that really struck me – and it got me thinking about how he might have done better. So here’s a suggestion…

Everyone has a story to tell, something interesting in their background, their family, their outside interests. A good journalist who spent a day with the staff at the hotel would uncover some amazing things. The hotel boss should know these things about his employees. So start with a picture of STAFF MEMBER ONE and explain why they’re amazing – not in the workplace (we assume they are!) but because of something outside. Maybe Josie the Receptionist lost her mother to cancer and started up a charity, walking around Britain to raise £50,000? Next comes Pierre, the Bar Manager, whose passion is for cinema. He started a film appreciation club for local people and recently won an award for his contribution to the local community, handed to him by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle (it’s on display behind the bar). And then there’s Barbara who works part-time in accounts. She overcame a bought of depression following her divorce to become a part-time stand-up comedian, and helps others regain their confidence through the art of comedy.

So the new version might go as follows…

“in the *** hotel group, we only employ exceptional people. I can tell you about the facilities here but you can see they’re really nice – and of course it’s all on our web site anyway. But that’s the hardware. It’s the software that really makes us different – and by that I mean the people. It’s the people who deal with your enquiry, that spend time with you to understand your needs, that work with you to produce an event or service that gives you the outcome you’re looking for. It’s our people who ensure your room is ready and who anticipate problems before they arise so your delegates feel well looked after. It’s our people who call you up afterwards to ask if everything went well for you, and how we can make it even better in future.

We only hire exceptional people because they’re the ones that look after you and your delegates. We only hire people who care, people like Josie, Pierre and Barbara who show passion for everything they do. We only hire people who like people.

So I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit today and if you’d like to get to know us a bit better, do have a chat with us before you go. Thank you.”

On the TV show Mock the Week there’s a section called “things you wouldn’t expect a *** to say.” I think you could include this story and insert Hotel Manager in the above. But wouldn’t it be a refreshing change?