Tag Archives: communication

When John Noakes came to dinner

The death of a ‘TV personality’ who has been out of the public eye for a long time inevitably brings out reminiscences that have lain dormant for many years. Not so with John Noakes, a presenter with the renowned children’s TV programme Blue Peter from 1965 – 1978.

It was only last week I was thinking about Noakes when discussing after-dinner speakers with a group of young would-be entrepreneurs developing ‘elevator pitches’ to describe their business ideas.

Back in the late 70s when at university in London, I was involved with the Geographical Society –  an excuse for having fun rather than doing anything particularly geographical. Inviting John Noakes to speak at our annual black-tie Geography Society Dinner had started as a joke…  No one was more surprised than the organising committee when the great man agreed to attend (I seem to remember we discovered a connection with one of our fellow geographers which may have helped).

All went according to plan and he performed well, as you’d expect from a professional, although I now learn he was really quite shy and regarded each public appearance as ‘a performance’ as befits the trained actor he was. Four decades later I can only remember he spoke about his love of sailing. This was some years before his two failed attempts to circumnavigate the world. The second attempt in 1984 included a planned three-day stopover in Majorca where, instead of taking to the high seas, he stayed for the rest of his life.

Remembering that John Noakes talked about sailing is more than I can say about an after-dinner speaker at another Geographical Society Dinner. This time we had invited a professional public speaker (I don’t know how we could afford to have him there). To be fair, he did promise we’d remember nothing about his talk just moments before doing his party piece – clearing a space on the dining table in front of him before performing a headstand. His name was Gyles Brandreth and he’s quite right – I remember nothing other than his headstand!

I use that headstand as an example of a hook to grab audience interest when making a presentation. I suspect that the young entrepreneurs with whom I shared it will not be imitating Gyles Brandreth to grab attention at their next business pitches, but even something a little less dramatic will show they were listening to mine.

The business plan paradox

“If you don’t have a plan, you can’t change it”

In my work with young entrepreneurs, we set great store by them developing a business plan for each would-be enterprise. I describe it as the key that unlocks further support – including a start-up loan and a business mentor. And it can. That’s the carrot for young people hoping to start their own businesses and the stick is… well… it’s me giving them feedback on their various drafts at 1-2-1 meetings. It has to be  their business plan and after each encounter, I  hope they won’t give up; no one is going to force them to stay the course. Of course, many end up ‘doing their own thing’ and we lose touch.

But then I have mixed feelings about business plans. They are, at best, an informed estimate about how things might turn out. We know they’re out of date the minute the ink dries on the page and they can be knocked sideways, backwards, and forwards by unforeseen opportunities and obstacles in the weeks following. Business plans chart 12 months ahead in a linear, orderly fashion (with words and figures hopefully describing parallel journeys) but we know that real life – personal and professional twists and turns – mean that’s unlikely to happen. We say that the business plan should be a ‘living document’ – dynamic and being constantly updated – but I wonder how many really are…

Then there’s my guilty secret – in the three years I spent setting up The Repair Shed (a social enterprise in Hemel Hempstead) my business plan lay unopened,  unloved, and out-of-date on the shelf. In fairness, I did have a 12-month project plan for the funders and I spent a lot of time explaining why things didn’t turn out quite like I said they would.

And yet… and yet …

Young people starting a business plan, and progressing it from one draft to another, shows learning in action, and achievement – massive achievement is some cases – that is credit-worthy in itself. Transferring ideas from inside heads on to paper helps make thinking tangible and, can often clarify issues and gaps in knowledge. A written business plan can share understanding between strangers about the young entrepreneur and their new venture. Even if the business plan is abandoned, it can be retrieved at a later date – a lifeline if the business is floundering, a leg up if the business was never started. And there’s proof that the author of a well-worked business plan can become much more employable as a result of that planning exercise alone.

There’s a much-quoted saying “no business plan survives first contact with customers” but I’d be happy with that – it says our young entrepreneurs have actually started trading!

Coming soon – 10 questions your business plan should answer  

The power of networking

Many years ago I went to a talk in Cambridge by Hilton Catt, co-author of The Power of Networking. I don’t know whether the publicity was ambiguous or what but, it being Cambridge, there was a digital divide within the audience – one half thought it would be about virtual networks, the other half thought it would be about ‘real’ human networks.

I’m pleased to say it was about the power of the face-to-face – in Hilton Catt’s case, for job-hunting. I was unemployed at the time and, while the evening didn’t result in my immediate employment, it reinforced what I’d been told by other jobhunters and confirmed my belief in the benefit of seeking and nurturing contacts for both professional and personal progression.

To this day, I still think you can’t beat close encounters of the personal kind – even in our tech-rich, time-poor working lives – and more so in an age of faux online friends, false news, and reality TV shows that suggest that, in business, someone has to lose for you to win.

Call me old-fashioned, but my experience of working with small business start-ups for more than a decade is that they have far more to gain by sharing their ideas (rather than protecting them) and seeking partners for mutually beneficial relationships. I’m not starry-eyed about collaboration and co-operation (as opposed to competition) but I recommend it daily, and will do so until someone convinces me there’s a better way.

In my day-job I support young people in their efforts to turn business ideas into viable and hopefully sustainable enterprises. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road to take, so I encourage then to seek out like-minded people – even the competition – for advice about mistakes made, lessons learnt, and what works well.

The young entrepreneurs are constantly astonished and delighted by the helpfulness of others (people who remember when they were starting out maybe) with no expectation of a payback. I also pull in my own personal and professional contacts when I can. In the last six months, I’ve fixed a fence erector up with a van, I’ve arranged a would-be photographer’s night at a music awards ceremony in London as professional snapper’s assistant, I’ve unearthed (pun intended) a garden designer to pass judgement on a newbie designer’s work, and I’ve steered others towards potential collaborators, including business networks.

The day that ‘who you know’ becomes less important than ‘what you know’ and online communications make face-to-face connections unnecessary, I think I’ll pack up and head for the hills (preferably somewhere there’s no broadband).

Nine Healthy Signs (NHS)?

Some years ago a wiser man than I observed that, while the ability to demonstrate on the streets is often cited as a manifestation of democracy in action, this is not necessarily the case.

He argued that a public demonstration is, in fact, a last resort when all other means have failed to get our voices heard – as such is it a failure of the democratic process. He’d had more than enough time to come to this conclusion having spent many years in solitary confinement in a Middle Eastern jail – fallout from a clampdown on free speech.

Without meaning to make a trite comparison, it felt a bit like a last resort to me last week as we gathered in Tavistock Square (home of the British Medical Association’s HQ) to proclaim and reclaim #OurNHS. The march from WC1 ended in Parliament Square, home of a government that seems bent on dismantling the NHS in the name of increased efficiency – by which they mean meeting an ever-growing need with ever-decreasing resources. Even the best miracle cures cannot square that circle.

In the face of such apparent indifference to reality, ignoring the views of health professionals at the frontline, and a dogmatic refusal to consider other views, maybe marching, chanting, and singing is all we have left in our armoury to foster a sense of common purpose, fellowship and, however small, power and influence?

In the end the #OurNHS march was a great day out with family and the weather was kind. But it didn’t feel like a mass demonstration and the mainstream media coverage was disappointing, even the rallying speeches at the end seemed a bit tired. But in one respect the loudest noise was made, not by voices, but by the messages on placards and banners. Each competed for attention with their soundbite 140-character quips and some seriously clever imagery.

 

With camera phones capturing and communicating every detail, we live in hope that social media might somehow magnify the impact of the march itself and make it all worthwhile. Maybe those placard bearers will have the last laugh. I share some of their messages here in the hope they will help lift your spirits and stave off the need for you to use the NHS for a little longer.

The story so far

latitude-books-2I was thinking about the power of storytelling the other day when advising young entrepreneurs about how to present their business ideas without using jargon, exaggeration or clichés. In other words, without bullshit. How do you grab attention in a matter of seconds; leading to the much-talked about ‘elevator pitch’?

One way is to say something that surprises your audience. I recently saw a beautifully designed standing desk. It was being promoted with a question – ‘did you know that standing for an average three hours a day at your desk for a year burns more calories than running ten marathons?’

Yes – it surprised me as well. I regret I couldn’t afford to buy that particular standing desk, but the appeal of such calorie loss (even if it’s not true!) while using my laptop was enough to inspire me to design and make my own not-so-beautiful standing desk from an abandoned wooden garden chair.

Another way to connect powerfully with an audience is through storytelling. Antony ‘Tas’ Tasgal, author of ‘The Storytelling Book’, believes stories are under-rated and under-used in business. After being exposed to around 6,000 business presentations, Tas is leading the fight against the debilitating effects of Powerpoint (which he describes as “people in power who can’t make their point”).

But the battle is not yet won; we continue to be bombarded by bullet points and deluged with data. Too often we still experience the mind-numbing effect of the presenter reading each slide as if s/he is seeing it for the first time, which may be the case. And often all this follows a delay to get the computer to talk to the projector. Never perform with children, animals … and technology.

Tas believes we need to develop and polish our story-telling skills, to bring the human element back into business transactions. “We often forget that all of us in sales, marketing and communications are – at least partly – in the business of storytelling” he says “We seem to have fallen headlong into a culture in which business thinking, business talking and business doing have been overtaken by a system that is contrary to our hard-wired storytelling instincts…”

Which is not to say that words alone can always tell the full story. Despite widespread condemnation of the misuse and abuse of statistics, figures do, of course, have a role to play. A fellow business adviser once suggested ‘never present figures without a story, and never tell a story without figures’. Accountants would, of course, argue that a set of figures tell a story without need for further embellishment…

latitude-books-1In the non-for-private-profit world, the art of storytelling can also be used to communicate a charity’s mission effectively, particularly when the stories feature real life experiences. A useful communication tool for trustees and directors is a small set of postcard-sized profiles of individuals who have benefited from the charity’s support. Each one describes the individual’s situation when they first contacted the charity, how the charity worked with them, and their new situation after the charity’s intervention. It has everything – a focus on real people and real benefits, bringing authenticity to the illustration.

A final word from marketing man Andy Bounds “Facts tell, stories sell. Tell stories about what you’ve done for others; don’t just list facts about what you do.” Andy Bounds has made a name for himself writing about ways to make ideas sticky. But that’s another story…

Further insights into the use of stories:

The Storytelling Book http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Anthony-Tasgal/The-Storytelling-Book–Finding-the-Golden-Thread-in-Your-Communications/17487848

A great infographic on capturing and using stories  http://www.imaginepub.com/Image/zTSY2BGi00imRglC0cmfgw/0/0

A word of warning from Seth Godin http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/01/3-d-printers-the-blockchain-and-drones.html

Why stories are good for our brains http://lifehacker.com/5965703/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains

Storytelling and presentations http://blog.strategicedge.co.uk/2015/03/better-storytelling-in-your-presentations.html

 

 

In praise of praise

standing-ovation-croppedA decade ago I was on a 12-week train-the-trainer course. The tutor was brilliant and I hope and believe I’ve applied what I learnt from him in a number of teaching roles over the past 10 years. He told us there are very few hard and fast rules about how to inspire learning in the classroom, but he stressed one; “Praising your learners will achieve more than any amount of negative criticism”.

We were then asked to describe a bad learning experience to the class; mine was singing in a choir. At that time, I’d been one of ten tenors for five years and I said I didn’t feel my signing technique had improved much since joining. I was asked to describe a typical rehearsal – “We turn up every Tuesday evening, our choirmaster shouts at us, particularly the female singers, and we go home two hours later.” The tutor didn’t need to say a thing – I’d made his point for him. “But our concerts go well” I added, out of loyalty to our choirmaster.

Fast forward to the present and a new choirmaster has, as reported in an earlier blog, transformed the choir over the 12 months. I feel he’s also improved (‘transformed’ would be an exaggeration at this stage in my singing career) my technique. A typical rehearsal now is one I relish –  singing technique is part of each two-hour session alongside note-bashing and attention to our diction. We are encouraged by frequent praise (although I’m not sure we always deserve it…) making any criticism more effective when it comes. Being harangued under the old regime meant we tended to simply switch off and stop listening; a few people voted with their feet and left the choir altogether.

Our new choirmaster’s impact was almost instantaneous. Unlike the arrival of a new football manager (reference my earlier blog) he raised our game and we have sustained it.

I was reminded of the motivational power of praise when reading a fascinating ‘pop psychology’ book by Claudia Hammond – ‘Mind Over Money’. The author reports on research showing that praise is more motivational that money – increasing both commitment to the task in hand and, it would seem, the pleasure in undertaking that task.

These lessons have stood me in good stead in a new role – working with young people who live complicated lives and, where possible, I support their efforts to start viable businesses. Our four-day enterprise course talks about passion and profit in equal measure. Both are important but I suspect that, in the long term, job satisfaction and the approval of others will ultimately out-motivate the understandable desire right now to make money.

Further reading:

Something to sing about: https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/something-to-sing-about/

Mind over Money: http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Claudia-Hammond/Mind-Over-Money–The-Psychology-of-Money-and-How-to-Use-it-Better/20322471

Will my smartphone make me smarter?

DumbphoneToday is special for me in my relationship with social media – tweet number 10,000 – and I’m proud to say that all were sent from my laptop.

One reason for this is that the first and only mobile I’ve ever owned (until recently…) couldn’t connect online. My dear old Nokia was good for making phone calls and I took some pictures when I first bought it over a decade ago, but the novelty soon wore off. I didn’t demand much of it and (to the annoyance of my daughter) I had it switched off much of the time, which is probably why it served me so well for so long.

Which is the other reason I’m proud not to have had the facility to tweet anything, anytime, anywhere. I don’t believe my life is so important that I should have Twitter, or any other social media, at my fingertips 24 hours a day; particularly when I’m at conferences, as regular readers of this blog will know.

Now all that could change. My faithful and functional phone is knocking on heaven’s door as I can’t switch it on. I’ve had to dump my dumbphone and replaced it with what I think they call a ‘smartphone’.

Will this change my tweeting habits? Probably not. It’s not that I’m a Luddite (if you don’t know what one of those is, you’ve probably never known life without the internet – look it up via the link below). It’s just that I’m influenced by Richard Uridge at ACM Training who, leading a brilliant social media workshop almost exactly four years ago, suggested that Twitter, Facebook and newer kids on the block are simply communication tools – to be used if they do the job; not if they don’t. And before using them you need to know what that job is. “You wouldn’t get a saw out of your toolbox unless you had a job that needed one” said Richard at the time.

Now I have a smartphone, I can probably interact with the world far more than I will ever know (my daughter’s got me hitched up to WhatsApp – it’s brilliant…try it) because I don’t want to be available, worldwide, 24 hours a day. For me the smart move is to stay in control of my waking and sleeping hours and invest in real relationships.

Further reading:

My top tip for live tweeting… https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/my-top-tip-for-live-tweeting-dont-do-it (February 2014)

On Luddites… http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-the-luddites-really-fought-against-264412/?no-ist