Everyone knows that communication skills are important, but sometimes the term can be so broad that it’s difficult to understand what it means in particular contexts.
Presenting complex information
Adapting your style for different audiences
Listening and responding
When applying for an academic role, it’s unlikely that you’ll be invited to expressly demonstrate ‘excellent communication skills’ at interview. More commonly, you’ll be asked about particular areas of your experience: your research interests, publications, ambitions, without being invited to reflect on the more generic competency of communicating effectively.
Beyond academia, you’re much more likely to be asked to evidence your communication skills in a written application or job interview. So, what are employers looking for when they talk about communication skills? Does this vary by sector? And how can you reflect on, develop and demonstrate your competence most effectively?
An ability to take complex information and present it in a way that’s easy to understand
“You need to be able to communicate your work in a way that makes it accessible to other disciplines so that they can understand and help you solve any challenges you have. You need to be able to see the bigger picture, appreciate someone else’s point of view and communicate in a way that is as simple and accessible as possible, while retaining the pertinent information.”
Dr Joe de Sousa, Senior Leader, Non-Executive Director and Consultant at Melhor Consulting
As a researcher, you are likely to be skilled at eliciting key insights from your data or source material. Whether that material consists of medieval manuscripts or lab results, researchers are skilled at synthesising information in order to identify findings and present these in compelling ways. Understanding what the pertinent or powerful messages within the information you have to work with and conveying this effectively to others is an important skill in any field.
An ability to adapt your communication style to the audience and purpose
“In industry you meet with a greater variety of people… You meet with experts in your area and the language may be more technical, but when you meet with clients, it will be more solution-oriented. For example, what is the problem? How can we solve it?”
Dr Lan Hoang, former postdoc turned Research Staff Member, IBM Research
You may have communicated your research findings to experts, other postdocs, school students, external partners etc. For different audiences you may present the message in a different way, adjusting the focus or level of technical detail to meet their level of understanding and interest. This is a communication skill that is also important beyond academia. Employers value the ability to understand the relevance of the context of communication.
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An ability to listen and respond to cues from others
“[Postdocs] have a huge wealth of communication skills. They will have written and presented at conferences. They will be familiar with writing manuscripts. They will be familiar at looking at data and extracting the key information from that data.”
Rebecca Douglas, Group Programme Director, IPG Health
A valuable skill is the ability to listen well to:
receive and understand information
feed it back to others
and respond appropriately.
Highlighting your communication skills to employers
Think about the different methods and forms of communication in which you have experience and what type of aptitude these might demonstrate. Outputs are important but most employers beyond academia are as interested in the skills you used to achieve the output as they are in the output itself.
Beyond Academia employers may not understand the range of skills involved in having a paper published or presenting at a conference, such as, composition of a powerful abstract which distils complex findings into no more than a few hundred works, and which is judged competitively. Be clear about this in applications
In addition to these more general considerations about what good communication entails, you may wish to explore the resources below about particular aspects of communication.
Giving effective presentations is an essential skill in getting and succeeding in almost any career you’ll go into.
In this resource we explore a whole range of presentation skills from content and audience to poise and posture. We look at your breathing, voice, eye contact, entrance, exit and everything in between.
I’m Luke Dixon. My background is a mix of theatre-making, writing and academia. For 20 years I toured around the world with a theatre company from Siberia to the Rocky Mountains, from South Africa to Hong Kong making performances, running workshops. I then based myself in London running something called the International Workshop Festival which did what it said on the tin. It brought people from around the world to run workshops in all sorts of different fields, not just theatrical ones. My doctorate is from Middlesex and it’s in the performance of gender. Yes, today we’re going to explore a whole range of presentational skills from content and audience to poise and posture. We’ll look at breathing and voice. There’s 11 segments, so each is just about five minutes long. Some will be of relevance to you. Some may not be relevant at all, but don’t worry if one segment isn’t particularly useful to you, there’s another one coming along very swiftly that might be more useful. At the end of each segment there’ll be two minutes of exercise. It’s participatory in the sense that I’m going to give you tasks to do every few minutes and you can respond to the tasks in the chat here or you can just make notes to yourself, or you can just respond to them in your head. There’s no right and wrong. As this is a Zoom workshop, it’s not participatory and we’re not all going to be sharing our experiences together in quite the way we would on a live workshop in a physical situation. We’ve got some time for Q and A at the end, so I’m hoping that there’ll be a bit of feedback from you then. You’ll need something to make notes. That can either be your head or it can be your phone, or it can be a piece of paper and a pencil, whatever works for you. It will be useful to have a mirror or your smartphone with you for one of the exercises, but don’t panic if you haven’t got that. You can always use your laptop screen or your computer screen. You’ll need a presentation to give, but don’t worry, we’re not going to have all of you give presentations. It’s just so that you’ve got a concept in your head that you can apply some of these exercises to. Maybe there’s a presentation you’ve given recently, one you’re about to give or just think of a presentation that you could possibly be giving in the future. Those are the things you’ll need, a presentation of some sort, conceptual or real, something to make notes on, whether it’s in your brain or on a piece of paper and a mirror or a smartphone just so that you can see yourself, those of you who can bear to do that. I know not everyone loves seeing themselves on screen. Section one. This is a presentation we’ll all be familiar with, a cabin attendant explaining what you should do should there be an emergency on the aircraft. I’m guessing there’s none of us who haven’t seen this and some of us who’ve seen it endless times. We’ve listened, we’ve watched, but how much attention have we actually paid? If the worst was to happen and you were flying, as I was last week from George Best Airport in Belfast to John Lennon Airport in Liverpool and we had landed in the ocean and tried desperately to remember what the flight attendant had said in the presentation, I wonder how much of it we would really have remembered. That’s my starting point, thinking about this presentation and also then applying that to thinking about your own presentation. What form would it take? You’re not going to be standing in the aisle in an aeroplane, almost certainly, and it could be a talk. It could be a lecture. It could be a discussion. It could be a performance. It could, as this one is, be on Zoom or Teams or it could be a hybrid of the two. I want you to think what the differences are between these different formats, what you’re presenting, to whom you’re presenting and what form works best for the task in hand. Having decided what form works best for the task in hand, how will that work best and how most easily would you engage with your audience? Having thought about your presentation, let’s take ourselves to exercise one which is what that flight attendant could do to improve their presentational skills. I’m just going to give you a minute or two to think about that and come up with some answers. Is there anything that could be done in the ubiquitous cabin crew emergency talk that would improve the presentation and what are those improvements that would need to be made? As I say, you’re welcome to jot ideas down in the chat or just have ideas in your head or make notes on a piece of paper. Yes, just have a think about this very real presentation that has potentially lifesaving reasons behind it and how might it be improved? Okay, so just a couple of ideas is fine, and we will move on. A thought about audiences and attitudes. Who are our audience? I want to think a bit about our relationship with the audience. Is it an audience of peers? Is it an audience of students? Is it the public? Is it politicians? Is it children? With COP26 happening at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the different audiences that are up there and the different ways in which speakers are having to engage with very different audiences, but all with the same intention at the end. It might be a hybrid audience. It might not be homogenous, so you might have an audience that includes your peers. It might include students. It might include members of the public, so think about the audience, how you know them and how well you know them. Think about what your relationship is with them and what your purpose is with the audience. Are you educating them? Are you informing them? Are you persuading them? Again, if you think back to what’s happening at COP26 at the moment where there are, I guess, thousands of presentations going on in Glasgow, and all of them will have a slightly different purpose behind them. Think about what your audience knows already, so that there are things that you don’t need to be explaining to them or telling them and what it is that they need to know. Think about how you can be ready to change and adapt to unexpected changes in your audience. It might be that you arrive to give your presentation and there are people there who you weren’t expecting. That there are people there who have a different basis on which you’re building from the one you expected. Think about what research you need to do about your audience before you engage with them. Think about not just their expectations, but yours as well. How many people are going to be there? What sort of space are they going to be in? If it’s a Teams or Zoom meeting like this one, how are you going to use the format and how are you going to engage? You can choose to see everyone. You can choose not to see anyone. You can choose to have people muted or unmuted, all of those things which is quite good to make some clear decisions about before you start. Now to exercise number two. What does your audience know and what do they need to know? Just a couple of very simple answers to that on your conceptual or real presentation. Getting to the heart of what the purpose of it is, what does your audience know and what do they need to know? Making an entrance. Every presentation has to begin with an entrance and whether it’s onto a stage, whether it’s standing up from behind a desk, whether it’s appearing on a Zoom screen… You wouldn’t know it, but I did invest in a nice brand-new camera for this presentation, which I haven’t dared plug in because it might have just been one too many things to tip my laptop over the top today, but think about that, how you appear, how you make your entrance. There’s a moment when you’re off and there’s a moment when you’re on and there’s a brief moment of transition between the two. It’s important to make that transition clearly, strongly, both for yourself and for your audience because a strong entrance will make your audience feel secure and it will do a lot to increase your confidence and your security in what it is you’re doing. Once you are on, you must stay on. In the theatrical world, we use the word on to describe not just the physical state of being on a stage or on a screen, but also something about the performative state. I think that’s quite useful to apply to presentations as well. Once you come on, once you’re all hyped up, your adrenaline’s going, you know what you’re going to say, you know who your audience is and you’re ready to give your presentation, you need to hold that state through to the end. Once you’re on, of course you’ve then got to open your mouth and speak. Sometimes that’s the most scary thing of all if you’re not used to speaking in public and think about that transition from physically being on to speaking. Your task, again, a really simple one is to write an opening greeting and think about how and when you’d deliver it. Imagine, it could be just on this Zoom workshop, or it could be in a big space at the university, or it could be in a public hall, or it could be in a seminar room, but have a think about an opening line. Again, it might seem a very obvious exercise to have to do, but it’s surprising how you can spend so much time on everything else you’re going to say that you can get tongue tied when it comes to actually starting. I’m going to talk a bit about poise and posture and holding the stage. This, obviously, is Barack Obama, the king of poise. You can see just the way he’s standing there at his lectern that he absolutely commands the space. Of course, he’s got charisma and charisma is slightly more difficult to teach in a 60-minute Zoom workshop. Think about how he enters the space and how he postures himself, how he holds a pose, how he holds his poise and how he commands that space. He takes charge of the space, and it goes back to something I said earlier about having… I’m going to hold onto this picture for a bit while I talk. There’s something about commanding the space and making your audience feel secure and comfortable and that you know what you’re doing and that you know what you’re talking about. Obama has this great ability to do that. He takes all in front of him with his eyes and his smile and he’s got this ability to engage with the entire audience in front of him. Some of you might remember him at the Berlin Wall before he got elected speaking there in his election rallies. Sometimes you see him at a meeting at a school, talking to school kids. He’s got this great ability to size up the situation and take complete charge of it. Having made our entrance, held our poise and held onto it for the entire presentation, just think about monitoring yourself as you go so that you don’t lose your energy. Bound on with all that Obama like energy, hold it for the entire presentation, keep a note of how your body is responding as the presentation goes. Note if you’re slumping, if you feel your energy levels going. You might want to do something just to get yourself back into that zone. You might want to pause and take a drink of water, make a slight movement just to readjust your body. Leave your nerves behind as soon as you come onto the stage and don’t let them return until you go off. Set the tone. Do something positive with your hands. People often ask, ‘I don’t know what to do with my hands.’ Something positive is the answer. It can be something simple. Obama waves. In the image we just saw, he’s got his hands on the lectern, but usually he just waves and takes everyone in as he comes on stage. For the benefit again of balance, you can think about Trump as well. I know, I know, I apologise for bringing him into it, but he too, in a very different way, can command a space. What he does is he points to individuals in the audience, even though he almost certainly can’t see anyone from the lights, as if he knows individual people within a crowd of tens of thousands. He’ll point particularly up towards the top and the back of an auditorium. It’s a great way of bringing people in. He also has this little puppy-like thing he does with his head. Those of you who’ve got a puppy… I’ve got a puppy at the moment and the ability of the puppy just to cock his head on one side and look loveable. Not that I’m saying remotely that Trump is a loveable character, but he’s certainly got one or two tricks up his sleeve. Let’s cleanse ourselves of the Trump image and come up with one slightly more agreeable. This is about a workshop I took part in a couple of months ago with Laurie Anderson, the musician some of you might know. She was running a workshop on Zoom, and I was very lucky to be able to take part in it. She was on the sofa of her New York apartment, so there was something wonderfully special about being a part of this. Again, it was about the tone. It was a very relaxed tone. It was a workshop about listening and so there was something about her setting a tone from the way she was sitting on her sofa that allowed all of us taking part to be relaxed. If you can move from where you are, I just want you to do this. Very, very simple, relax and I just want you to sit, to stand, to perch on the back of a chair or on the front of your desk. Again, if you don’t want to do this now, you’re welcome to do it later, but just find out what is the optimum position for you when you’re giving your presentation. What’s going to make you feel most relaxed? What’s going to make you feel most confident in yourself? What’s going to make the audience feel most confident in you? If you want to use this as an excuse to move around from wherever you are, it’s a good moment. Part five, breath. Now, I know you’re all breathing, at least we hope everyone’s breathing, so I’m not going to teach you how to breathe. I just want you to think a bit about your breath. Whilst I’m talking, I just want you to think a bit about your breath and monitor your breath. I had a very dear friend and colleague who was a phenomenal lecturer, university lecturer, but he had a terrible, terrible problem of holding his breath. When he was speaking, he would just keep going and going and going and going and going until he literally couldn’t speak any more because he had no breath left. Spend a little bit of time monitoring your breath and think how your breath relates to your speech. Do you write as you speak? That might seem a silly question, but very often we write in sentences and in cadences that we don’t actually use when we’re speaking and so, sometimes there’s a conflict between the words that we’ve got on the page and the way in which those words come out of our mouth. Think a bit about how your breath affects your voice and think a bit about how the way in which you write is related to the way in which you speak and whether there’s a way in which those can be brought closer together. It might be, if you’re interested in taking this further with your breath that you can use something like Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais technique. I’ll mention these in the notes which I give you after the session, or mindfulness, whatever works for you. When you rehearse, rehearse not just in your head, not just mumbling in front of your screen or with your notes in your hand, but always rehearse so that you can hear your own voice and tailor your words to your voice. Think about standing up and speaking. Think about whether you’ll use a microphone. There could be one on your laptop, like I have here or on your phone. It could be one on a stand. How many of us, rather in the way we’ve seen so many people give us presentations in aircraft, how many of us have either watched someone or done it ourselves, gone up to the microphone stand to speak at the microphone and the microphone’s not been high enough? Or it’s been too high or we’re not sure whether it works, and we’ve done that horrible thing of tapping on it? How many times have you seen someone go to give a presentation, tap on the microphone and look around rather forlornly and go, ‘Does this work?’ Just think about rehearsing, not just with yourselves, but as I found to my cost today, with any technology you’re going to use. We’ll talk about space in a minute, but if you do get a moment to be onto that stage, in front of that microphone to try it out before you use it, it’s always advisable. In my experience, technicians are always very, very happy to help. I just want to guide you through this very short exercise which is just to sit quietly wherever you are and just breathe. I want you to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. This is something we could spend five, ten, 15, 20 minutes on different ways of breathing and different ways of using the six million little air sacs that are in our lungs. Most of the time, we don’t use our lungs to the full extent of their ability, so thinking about breathing in and in through the nose to give you inspiration and then out through our mouth. Just thinking about a circle of breathing and just thinking about how much capacity we’ve got in our lungs and how much more perhaps we could be using them. Spend a moment or two just noting the difference between how you might just be breathing normally and how your breathing might get interrupted by concentration on something, by naturally holding one’s breath, whatever it might be. Okay, we’re going to move on to eye contact. Let’s think back to Obama. We’ve made our entrance. We’ve held our poise and now let’s think about making eye contact with your audience. This could be through the lens, or it could be eyeball to eyeball in a live situation. Somehow, we need to maintain eye contact with our audience. It’s easier said than done because there’s so many things to get between us and eye contact with our audience. We might have notes to read from, as I’ve got… You can almost certainly tell I’ve got notes to the side of my screen. We might not be able to see the audience because of the lights in our eyes. Again, that’s something to just be prepared for. Very often if you’ve not given a presentation on a stage before, it’s quite alarming to stand on a stage and realise that actually there’s a lot of people sitting out there, but you can’t see any of them because of the lights in your eyes. On your laptop your lens will inevitably be in a different position from where you’re looking if you’re looking at other participants on the screen. The lens is never in the middle of the screen, which is where you’ll almost certainly be looking, but it’s always above the screen. If you’ve got a separate camera then it might be higher still. Again, it goes back to rehearsing. Rehearsing either in the space if you can, imagining the space or rehearsing on the screen. Think about finding a way of including everyone. That American politician, whether it’s Trump or Obama in a big auditorium able to somehow make a personal contact across the space with everyone, even those in the cheap seats. Exercise six. I want you, if you’ve got a mirror there or you’ve got your phone with you or if you’ve not got time or don’t want to do it now then do it later. I just want you to make an entrance, to use the mirror as a stage or a screen and come on and engage with the person at the other end of the lens, or if you’re in your kitchen or in your office or wherever you are, go out, come through the door and engage with a huge audience that’s waiting for your entrance. Okay, well done. I’m sure that those of you who have just entered your office to try this exercise got tumultuous applause from whoever you’re sharing your office with. If you didn’t then you need to go and do it again until they do applaud! Okay, mapping a route. We’ve talked about the beginning of your presentation. You obviously know where you’re going through it. You’ve got all your content there. You’ve got all your material, but it’s always useful to just have a map of that journey. This one’s very simple. It’s 11 sections and they’re numbered and I’m just going from one to 11 and I’m on seven now, so I know how many more I’ve got to go. It’s always useful to have markers on that journey so that you can’t get lost, like Hansel and Gretel with stones in the forest or, those of you who are musicians, musicians always have a song list on the top of their guitar, so they know where they’re heading. It’s like having a treasure map and the treasure is the successful conclusion of the workshop. The other advantage of a map is that it can help you take your audience with you. If you’ve got a map in your head and maybe you’ll explain it a little as you go, then the audience will be with you on the journey rather than the audience starting on a journey with you and knowing nothing except that it’s going to take 60 or 90 minutes. Help with negotiating that journey is always important. Think about whether you want interruptions. It goes back to your relationship with the audience. Do you want to invite questions as you go? Do you want to invite people to stop if they aren’t following you or don’t understand something you’ve just said? Clarity before you start will do a lot to make you more confident and the audience more confident. If they know that they can interrupt because they’ve not understood something you’ve said or want a bit of clarification, much better that they know they can do that before the beginning. Keep an eye on the time. It’s twenty past three, so we’ve got about 15 minutes to try and knock through the rest of these. Have a clock somewhere. There’s always either a clock at the back of the room, on the corner of your computer, take your watch off an put it on a lectern. Much better that it’s there rather than you’re looking at your watch all the time which some people have a habit of doing. It’s a sort of security thing for people, but it’s an insecurity thing for your audience. With your presentation, whether it’s conceptual or real, map it in exactly ten words. Now, beginning, middle and end, I’ll give you those three, but think about the other seven. Who was the French film director who said all his films had beginnings, middle and ends, but not necessarily in that order? Okay, so ten words. I don’t know if any of you do any stand-up comedy in your spare time, but again, comedians do the same as musicians do. They have a little map of how the set is going to go. Even though it can seem completely informal, they’ll have a little map. Again, it can be ten, it can just be a dozen words or, as with the musicians, just the aide-mémoire, the titles of songs. It also helps in case you get lost. I think we’ve all fallen prey to it. We’ve been in the middle of presenting something and forgotten where on earth we were because we get side-tracked, or someone asks a question and to just find some way… If you’ve got a map there, you’ll know where you are. This is where we are next. A word about PowerPoint. Now, I’m obviously using PowerPoint now. It’s ubiquitous. There is no escape from it, whether it’s on a screen like this or projected onto the wall behind you, however it is, it is ubiquitous and there is no escape. I just want to have a think about words, reading them and listening to them. I’ve given you a lot of words to look at and I’ve bullet pointed them as much as possible. Sometimes I’ve been to presentations where PowerPoint has been used and I’ve just spent the whole presentation just reading the screen. There might as well not have been someone doing the presentation in front of it. Have a think about, do you want your audience to read or to listen and what’s the difference between the two? How can a PowerPoint enhance your presentation and not distract from it? How can you use PowerPoint in such a way that people aren’t just staring at the screen reading? How can you get across that problem and make the PowerPoint presentation an addition and an adjunct to your presentation and not a distraction from it? I’ve used the phrase audience up to now. Of course, audience implies listening. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, no one ever went to see one of his plays. It wasn’t till after he died that Samuel Pepys used the phrase, ‘I went to see a play.’ Before that, everyone had gone to hear a play. I think that’s quite a useful reminder of the importance of our ears and the relationship between our ears and our eyes when we go to see or hear a presentation. Do you want your audience to be an audience, or do you want them to be spectators? Why are you not just printing out your presentation and sending it to them by email? What extra is coming from you doing it live? Just have a think about that difference and with this presentation of yours, what aspects of it are going to work better as images and what aspects are going to work better as words and in what way can the words enhance the images, and the images enhance the words? Do you need both? Okay, nine. What to wear? Whatever you wear for your presentation is a costume of sorts and it needs to be appropriate to the situation and it needs to be appropriate to the audience’s expectations. There’s no right and wrong. There are no no-go areas in terms of what you might wear, but there’s something about making it appropriate and so that it doesn’t become a distraction. Think about what it is you want your audience or your spectators to be concentrating on and if they’re spectators, what you want them to be looking at is not what you’re wearing. Again, it might seem a really obvious point to make, but it’s not an unimportant one. The same is true of background. You’ll see I’ve got a rather busy background here in my little office of lots of bits and bobs that I’ve collected over the months. Maybe that is a distraction. I’m sure you’ve all, particularly if you watch any news programmes, the ubiquitous background of books. I don’t know, but I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out what people are reading more than I’ve spent trying to listen to what they’re saying. Again, it’s a simple thing, but think about your background. Of course, if you’ve written books yourself or you’ve just got a new book being published or a new paper in a journal published then nothing wrong with having that prominently behind you, or the University of Liverpool logo or whatever works. One or two people tend to put football scarves in their background, I’ve noticed. You’re not going to win everyone over with one particular football scarf in your background, whether it’s Liverpool or Everton, you’ve already lost half your audience. If you’re sharing a screen, do be careful what else is on it. I’ve fallen prey to this once when I was giving a workshop for Marks & Spencer and the previous week, I’d been doing a burlesque workshop. Anyway, when it came to sharing a screen, let’s just say there was a slightly embarrassed moment when one of the images on the screen wasn’t… It might have been burlesque, but it wasn’t M&S burlesque, let me just put it like that. Okay, so you want your audience paying more attention to you than your background, to you than what you’re wearing. Sometimes a prop can be useful. A prop is something you’re going to hold in your hand or use to demonstrate with. Sometimes it’s useful just because it keeps your hands busy and if you’ve got nervous hands, gives you something to hold onto. Sometimes it’s just useful for the audience. Perhaps the most famous example of this I know is when Bill Gates was giving a TED Talk and it was about malaria and the dangers of malaria and how it’s the biggest killer in the world. He had a box which he opened, and the box was full of mosquito. The mosquitos just went out into the audience that he was giving the TED Talk to. Obviously, it made a big impact. They were obviously, non-malaria mosquitos, but it made a really, really big point really quickly. Just a quick thought about the pros and cons of formalwear. There’s no escaping the suit and I know there’s all sorts of issues around it being patriarchal and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but there are reasons for it and reasons against it. Just spend a moment or two thinking about what those reasons are. Think of an imaginative prop, one thing you could have in your hand that will make people remember your presentation, preferably not a box of mosquitos, but something. Everyone who was at that TED Talk… Obviously, it was recorded live, but you can, of course, see it on the TED Talks website. Everyone will remember that talk and remember the dangers of mosquitos and malaria. Section ten of 11, sharing your screen. You’ll rarely perform or present on your own. There may be others on Zoom with you who are sharing the presentation. You may, if you’re on a stage, have a screen behind you. If you’re on a panel, you may have people sitting alongside you on the panel, so where do you look? How do you engage with a screen behind you, people on a panel next to you, an audience in front of you? Just have a think about how you’re going to use all those different elements, how you’re going to relate to different people, how your previous decisions about poise and breath and stance and entrance are going to be affected by what and who is going on around you. Decide how to come out from behind the table, if you have to come out from behind the table. Think about all these movements. There’s a surprising amount of movement you sometimes have to do in a presentation, how you walk to the lectern. Again, you get to the lectern, and you realise that you haven’t asked for a box to stand on because you’re short or there is a box there and you don’t want it because you’re tall. Decide how to make those moves around the space. Again, rehearse as much as you can. Your penultimate exercise is this, choose your dream panel. For your presentation, you’re doing it as part of a panel, and I want you to choose two or three people who are on that panel with you. They can be dead or alive, fact or fiction, but who would be the dream panel that you would like to be a part of? We’re going to move on now into the final section which is making an exit. It’s the reverse of how we started. The, ‘Are we there yet,’ of the children in the back of the car. Plan your exit. Have an exit strategy and guide your audience towards the finish so that the audience know where they’re going, as we did with the mapping, but also how close they’re getting to the end. Guide them to the finish. Keep an eye on the time, as mentioned before, a watch on the lectern, the clock on the back of the wall, the digital clock on the corner of the screen. Decide before you start whether you’re having questions and answers, or at least decide whether you’re having questions, even if you haven’t got the answers to them and how they’re elicited. There’s nothing worse than that awful silence at the end when you ask for the first question and there isn’t one. It’s not because there aren’t any questions in the room. It’s because no one feels empowered to ask the first question. People don’t want to be pushy, or people are embarrassed or nervous, so have a think about how you elicit questions at the end. Let me just give you your final exercise which is to write a closing sentence so that you wrap up neatly. You thank people, as I’ve said, but that somehow you bring it to a conclusion that makes the audience again, feel secure, relaxed that things have finished and ready to either throw you really awkward questions, make comments because they’ve disagreed with everything you’ve said, give you tumultuous applause. You don’t know, but hopefully you’ve got some idea of how you want it to finish and have headed towards it. I’m just going to leave you with these closing remarks. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Now, obvious, I know, but Bruno Giussani, who’s the guy who runs TED Talks, he said that the only three words of advice he ever gives are, ‘Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.’ He said he even said that to the pope. The pope asked him for some advice about his TED Talk. Apparently, Giussani just said, ‘Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.’ I think he probably also said, ‘Don’t say it in Latin,’ but that’s another matter. I think I’ve advised you to rehearse three times in this presentation. I’ve tried to stick to Giussani’s advice. Prepare, so I had obviously prepared this presentation today. Some of you may think I hadn’t prepared it enough, but I had prepared it. Always have a notebook because you never know. It can often be the moment before you go onto start presenting, you come up with another idea and every idea’s valuable, so don’t lose the opportunity to jot down ideas. Keep a notebook or do it on your phone, however you want to do it, but keep notes before presentations and self-review after. Make a note of what you liked, what you didn’t like, what worked, what didn’t work, how it fulfilled your expectations. Don’t forget to brush your teeth, especially if you’ve just had spinach for lunch. It’s actually also knowing where your hand is. Again, I don’t want to just keep saying, ‘Rehearse, rehearse,’ but actually, sometimes you… I’ve raised my hand now and now I see myself on the screen and I realise, actually, I haven’t raised my hand, it’s over here. Again, these seem tiny things, but for those of us who do a lot of Zoom stuff, you realise how irritating it can be, both to us as a person raising the hand, but also watching them just not knowing quite what’s going on. Also, where you are in relation to your camera, how much of you is being seen, so because I’m using this little laptop camera today, which I don’t usually, I usually… I’m not going to risk trying it now, but I have another camera. It hangs above me, and I can move it around which also means I’ve got things in the background I want to use, it’s easy to refer to them. I think it’s quite nice not to be as tight to the screen as I am now, but actually to… If you can engage the torso more and have the hands in view, and also have somewhere where they can rest comfortably. In many ways, it’s the most difficult problem that people have, and I think a lot of it is about just having a moment of breath before you start, of knowing where you’re going and who’s going to be out there. Those of us who work in the theatre, if there’s a curtain at the front of the stage, there’s always a little hole in the curtain you can lift up and see what’s out there, so you know where you’re heading, so you’re not surprised. There is a thing, I think, about just grounding yourself. Just giving yourself ten, 20 seconds to just stand, take the weight on the balls of your feet, open up between your arms and your torso and just taking a few deep breaths, going as I said into the absolute bottom of your lungs, places you never go before, so that you’re filled with fresh oxygen and that that will help dissipate the nerves. Then big breath and then one, two, three, boom and you’re on, something like that. There’s a difference between rehearsing and learning it by rote so you can’t deviate. You need to find a way of rehearsing so that you’re secure in what you’re doing, but that it also leaves you some leeway to improvise along the way or deviate along the way or pull in little off the cuff remarks. I think you’re right; I think it is possible to over rehearse. I think the map is an important prop so that you rehearse where you’re going in the way you would on any journey. You’ve got to go from this roundabout to that roundabout to there to there to there, but you don’t necessarily have to rehearse everything in-between. I also think it is important to rehearse into the space, if you can. I suppose that’s what I’m saying, it’s not like I think you should go and do the whole thing for an hour or 90 minutes or however long it’s going to take without interruption because then you’re bored of it, as you say. If you’re bored of it then there’s no way the audience is going to be excited about it! I think there’s something about just giving yourself that security of rehearsal. Again, looking at it from a theatrical point of view, often before a show opens, we do a couple of things. We can do what we call a speed run in which you do your whole presentation in five minutes, as quickly as you possibly can, or you can do what I call a blah de blah run. You go, ‘Okay, my presentation’s going to go from blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and then I go onto two and then blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Then I go onto three and then blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Then I go to ten, blah, blah blah. Then I get to closing remarks, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Finished.’ Do you see what I mean? It’s just a way of getting stuff in your head and getting the rhythms of it all without, as you’d say, over rehearsing. There’s no easy answer and we all fall prey to it. My feeling is that you should use the camera as much as you can and while you’re using the camera, you’re the one on screen. When you’re not on screen then you’re looking at the screen. It takes a lot of getting used to and, very often, on a laptop you’re hardly aware the camera’s there because there’s this tiny little light and the camera is next to the light, so I’m doing this. I’m looking at you into the light. I’m not looking into the camera, which is next to the light. I think there are things you can do just to get used to your own set-up and, if you’ve got Zoom, you can always do a Zoom on your own. Just set-up a Zoom meeting and just play around with it. You can do a Zoom meeting without having anyone else join it. I’m sure, obviously, it never happens to any of your meetings, but it’s worth… You can just play around with the technology. Playing around, and I think the lens is where you’re looking. Next time you’re watching the news and they go to a correspondent or then they go to someone who’s from their home talking down the line, it’s easier to pick up the differences between these things and what is preferable to you. The lens is where you’re looking at, in the same way if you’re in an audience. It’s the people out there you’re looking at and you somehow want to engage with them all. I think a lot of it is about confidence. That’s what Obama has in bucket loads. That is something you can fake, just being ready to come on, losing the nerves and just being… I was going to say, ‘Being big.’ It’s not necessarily about being big, but it’s about being confident and strong and out there. In Zoom, again, the temptation… I’ve been sitting here for a couple of hours, of just slowly collapse in front of a lens. It’s just keeping that up and, as I said earlier, about monitoring your breathing. Every so often just take a few deep breaths, get a bottle of water, have a sip. No one minds. In fact, people are often grateful of just, okay, well the audience too needs a break and then reconvene. A lot of it has to do with confidence, taking the stage and taking the audience with you. If you’re at an Obama event, not that I’ve ever been to one, I imagine you just feel supremely confident in his presence. I think the important thing is it’s your voice. Obama doesn’t speak in anyone else’s voice. He speaks in his own voice. Those of us who are old enough to remember the Thatcher years, one of the many annoyances of Margaret Thatcher, at the risk of showing some political views, is that she had this completely confected voice. It goes back to what we were talking about about rehearsal and about the difference between the way the write and the way you speak, and so therefore, having an authenticity. Actually, that’s quite a good word to use and we haven’t used it yet today. An authenticity in your voice and your presence. It’s you that people… It’s you they’re coming to see, and you want to be the authentic you. That authentic you has a voice, but it’s a voice that isn’t used to public speaking probably, so working out what that authentic voice is and how it relates to the way you write and therefore, the way you present, is something it’s worth doing some work on. A lot of it depends where your camera is and being confident in your relationship to your camera. As I say, if you’ve got a separate camera or if the camera is on the phone, what you don’t want is to be insecure because you’re not in the position where you’re looking good into the camera. When you’re sitting as I am now, probably most of us are behind a laptop, we can at least see what we look like. You do have to be careful about making sure that you don’t go off screen or you don’t go out of vision, that sort of thing. It goes back to the exercise about making an entrance. I think it’s what’s best for you. Some people do feel more comfortable sitting, but then I’m sitting on a chair, and I’ve got three cushions under me to raise me up so that I’m in a good relationship to my lens. That’s a phrase I never thought I’d use, my relationship with my lens. I must take my own advice and jot that down for next time! Do you know what I mean? I’m sort of comfortable. I knew I was going to have to sit here for a while, but whatever works for the situation. You’re right about confidence, what’s going to make you feel most confident.
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If you’ve got an idea you need to be able to communicate it accessibly, interestingly and inspiringly. This resource shows you how to communicate effectively in a variety of commercial contexts.
Hello, I’m Dr Andrew Holmes, one of the research staff developers on Prosper, based at the University of Liverpool. I’d like to welcome you to this workshop on commercial communication. This workshop is split into two sections. In the first half of the session we’ll look at how to communicate commercially, what you need to know, and the types of language and structures you should use. In the second half of the session, we’ll look at four areas of commercial communication. How long is the average attention span? If you look online you’ll see plenty of blogs and articles suggesting that it’s ten seconds or less, and that it’s decreasing over time. But much like goldfish memories, this isn’t an accurate representation of the data. Attention span is very much context dependant and there’s little evidence to actually suggest it’s getting shorter. When focused on a task, adult attention spans can last up to an hour or more. For browsing the web, people report around 15 seconds. For browsing social media people have reported as low as two seconds. The evidence behind these claims is rarely straightforward, so it’s easiest not to put a number on it. For the purposes of commercial communication the context of your audience attention span matters. Pitches and adverts assume a tiny attention span. A technical report for a client assumes a much longer attention span. What matters is how and what you say, knowing how your audience is likely to be receiving your communication. The photo on the slide is of a lecture theatre in the 1960s America. The professor at the front is teaching maths or physics to an audience that presumably understand what he’s talking about. To an audience of school children however, he might as well be speaking gibberish. Knowing your audience and communicating well to your audience is critical. What do your audience know? How do they want to receive information? Are your audience on social media, reading magazines, exclusively readers of broadsheet newspapers? What do they want? Once you know the answers to these questions, you can ensure that you organise your communication so that you reveal the information that’s most important to your audience first, in ways that they understand and in a format that they use. You may have seen this represented in the inverted pyramid of communication, where an article leads with the most newsworthy, essential information at the top, continues on to important details, and finishes with the information that would be nice for your audience to know, but that isn’t essential. This top part is framed by questions of who, what, when, why, and how. Three of these are particularly important for communication. What is the product, why is it essential, and who would be an ideal user. The inverted pyramid is the opposite of the traditional academic publication pyramid, which leads with background and context, moves on to methodology, and finishes with the implications of the research. Although it should be noted that most academic publications feature a summary or abstract at the start, where the findings and implications are mentioned, meaning that the academic communication pyramid also has a small, inverted pyramid above it. Making sure your intended audience can understand you is integral to communication. You have an in-depth knowledge of your subject and will have your own technical terms and jargon. These will get in the way of your audience unless they are as knowledgeable about your subject or product area as you are. Make the language you use as plain and simple as you can. It’s easier for your audience to understand, and it makes it quicker for you to get your point across. As an example the paragraph on the screen won the bad academic writing contest and is fairly indecipherable to the majority of the English reading world. As a rule of thumb try to cap sentences to a maximum of 25 words, and check to see if you’re using lots and lots of words, with more than two syllables. Words with three or more syllables aren’t a problem, but they build upon each other, creating harder to understand language when used in high density. As an example here is an extract from a council document. ‘High-quality learning environments, and pedagogy, are a necessary precondition for the facilitation of enhancement of the journey to adulthood educational process.’ But what does it mean? It simply means that children need good schools and teaching to learn properly. Sometimes language like this is used because the writer is so deeply invested in their subject that they can’t see the issue they’re creating. Sometimes language like this occurs because the writer wants to appear clever or serious. Another example is this. ‘Utilising Brownian motion models, non-regime switching data universes, multiple quantitative data source complex clustering, and characterisation algorithms, we forecast equity shifts.’ What this really means is that the company uses advanced maths to call the markets. Technical language like this absolutely has a place in commercial communication, but it tends to feature more in in-depth documents, or once the potential client or customer has been drawn in to find out more. It shouldn’t be the first thing the audience sees. Another example of how to write well can be found in classic literature. The extract on the left is by Thomas Hardy and is essentially saying that someone might not believe in God, but they will go to church if the person they fancy goes to church. Hardy’s writing is full of long sentences, long words, and looping arguments. In contrast the quote on the right is by Ernest Hemingway. It’s no less powerful, it doesn’t skimp on the feel, or the impact, but its sentences are short and sharp. The longest sentence there is ten words long, and there are only two words that are more than one syllable long. When writing commercially aim to be more like Hemingway than Hardy. Linked to this is the less-is-more principle. The two pictures on the slide are vastly different in terms of the amount of visual information they present. On the left is a very busy and colourful children’s picture, and on the right is an understated and muted painting by Rothko. The children’s painting is worthless to the wider world while the Rothko sold at auction for $186 million. Whether you agree with that incredible amount of money or not, it’s a case of saying less, but getting more across. Although it should be noted that in this case knowing your audience is important and to the child’s family the relative worth of each picture will be reversed. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches of all time, widely remembered and quotable. Because it’s so well-known people tend to assume it went on for a long while, but it probably only lasted about two minutes. It’s only 272 words long, half a page of A4. Why did it go down in history as being such an incredible piece of storytelling and speech-making? Not because of the word count, but because of how much the words counted. In his memoir on writing, the novelist Stephen King talks about how any first draft can be cut by ten per cent, and as a result improved by the simple process of removing content that doesn’t contribute to the story. Try it next time you write something. The less-is-more principle applies to using data in your commercial communications as well. These two slides from presentations have far too much information on them, obscuring the important messages they’re trying to convey. When considering presenting data in commercial communications you need to think of the single point you want to make, the take-home message you’re trying to tell the audience, and then work out what the minimum amount of data you need to make that point is. This isn’t a case of removing data to create a false message, or hiding contradictory information, just removing extraneous information that adds nothing to the message. You could also put the message in a heading to drive home the point the data is making. Data is also no good by itself, and it’s important to relate the findings to your business or goals, and to your audiences’ interests, whether they are potential customers, investors, or other stakeholders. For example, this graph has six different lines and a heading that just describes what the graph is about, not the message it’s trying to convey. What is actually being said with this graph? Here the graph has been simplified to show only the relevant data, and the heading now clearly shows the intended message. A strategy of focusing on fewer, bigger customers, has led to higher profits. This is another example of too much information obscuring the intended message. What is actually the point being illustrated here. By removing extraneous information, and focusing on the core message, we can now quickly see that the intended message behind this data is that the South West is the region of the UK with the fewest communication companies, and therefore might have the least competition for a company looking to expand to a new region. We’re now going to hear from Simon Hall about how storytelling techniques can be used in commercial communication. Simon teaches communication skills at the University of Cambridge. He founded, and is director of, Creative Warehouse, which does communications for companies and for the public sector. He’s also written several novels, some non-fiction books on business communication, and was a BBC news correspondent for 20 years.
Storytelling is so important. Storytelling is absolutely critical. It really comes down to this. You can rattle off a whole load of facts, but facts, they fade. Stories, they stick. Stories stay in our minds, and stories are very powerful in commercial communication. They’re very powerful in life. They simply reflect life. Anybody know what percentage of our conversations with our friends, our colleagues, our bosses, anyone, anyone know what the guess is about the percentage of our conversations are telling stories? Any thoughts anyone? Stick it in the chat box. Give me an idea of what percentage of our conversations with others are stories.
Forty per cent, 50 per cent, 70 per cent, 70 per cent again.
Yes, about right. It’s about two thirds, so 67 per cent, 70 per cent. That’s what the research tells us. If you think about it, yes, you go home tonight, you talk to your partner, your friends, your family, ‘Oh you wouldn’t believe what happened today.’ You’re at work with your colleagues, ‘You wouldn’t guess what so and so did,’ and then you tell the story. We are absolute storytelling machines. Maybe it goes back to the days of childhood when parents tell us stories, and it was wonderful, and life looked all happy, and we didn’t have car problems, or relationship problems, or bills to pay, and all that sort of stuff. They light up the mind. Stories absolutely do light up the mind, and they are remembered in a way that mere facts aren’t. Stories even stimulate the production of oxytocin, the happy hormone, the love drug, as well. So stories, how can stories help you? If you can tell stories about what it is you do, or what your vision is, or how it can help people, or why you are doing it, that will stick in the mind far more than merely just saying this is what we do. Let me give you three examples, brief little stories. Would you mind animating for me Fiona. So this chap here is Joe Glover. Joe Glover is a friend of mine, and also runs a business in Cambridge. His business is called the Marketing Meetup. It’s for people who do marketing to get together, and network, and help each other. That’s really the simple way of telling you what his business does. He believes in everybody helping each other. He’s a really nice guy. Here’s the actual story of how Joe’s business started, and how he tells it, and why it’s made such an impact I think. When Joe started to go into marketing events, he hated them because everybody was, he described it as being on broadcast and not receive. Everybody wanted to talk about themselves, their products, their ideas, and it was sell, sell, sell, sell, sell, sell, sell. He found it depressing, and draining, and exhausting. So he founded something different. Marketing Meetup he insists people come on listen mode. You listen to each other, you really find out about each other, you make proper contacts, proper connections, and you try and help each other, and blimey, it’s taken off like a shot. It’s all over the UK, it’s now in America, it’s going to Australia, it’s going all over the place, because of that simple change of ethos. People listen to each other and help each other, rather than just try and sell, sell, sell, sell, sell. So he could just say, this is a place where you don’t sell, you try and help each other, or he could tell this story about the first events he went to, and how awful he thought they were, and how he didn’t want to go to anymore. So the Marketing Meetups started from there. What do you think people remember? What really makes the emotional impact? Let me tell you another one. Would you mind animating for me again Fiona please? This is Sheila Kissane-Marshall, a friend of mine from Cambridge, who also runs a business called Boutros Bear. Boutros Bear, they help people who have suffered with cancer, and survived. They help with their rehabilitation. That’s what Boutros Bear does. However, here’s the story. Several years ago Sheila was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer, and it was very touch and go whether she would survive. She suffered quite extensive surgery. Her rehabilitation was very difficult, but Sheila, as you can possibly see from that look in her eyes, is an absolute fighter in life. She got through it, but what she was struck by, and indeed horrified by, was that there were very few, certainly joined up and effective rehabilitation services for people who are trying to come back after cancer. So Sheila set up her own, all about nutrition, and exercise, and well-being. It worked for her. It’s now working for hundreds, indeed thousands of other people. That is the genesis of Sheila’s business. What do you think makes the impact? That she tells people that this is a business which helps people rehabilitate from cancer, or she tells her story about how she nearly died from the thing. She was damn well horrified there wasn’t enough support for cancer sufferers, so she started putting it together herself, and now it works a treat. Final animation if you would Fiona, and a confession from me, Creative Warehouse, my business, came about from feeling a failure, an absolute failure. Why? Because when I first came to Cambridge four-and-a-half years ago, I was doing quite nicely, working with businesses and entrepreneurs, helping them with their writing their websites, and their core value proposition, and getting the media coverage and their presentations for customers and investors. I really admire business people and entrepreneurs. They work incredibly hard. They’re not often rated and given enough credit for what they do, and I became good friends with some of these people I was working with, and they started to rely on me for their communication support. Then came the problem. They would need some design work doing. They’d ask me if I could help, and of course I couldn’t, I didn’t have the skill set. Or they would ask for a website to be built. Could I do that? No, of course I can’t, I don’t have the ability. Or they’d ask for a top-quality video to be made and edited. Can I do that? No, I haven’t got the skills for that either. So I started to feel I was failing them, and I didn’t like that feeling. So when I took over Creative Warehouse, I went out and found a brilliant designer, and a superb cameraman, and editor, and an outstanding web developer, and now together as the value proposition goes, we can solve all your communication problems with style. What do you remember? Me telling you that or me telling you the story? So the storytelling. There will be a story about why you are doing what you’re doing. There will be a story about the impact of what you’re doing. There will be many different stories you can tell about change, the difference you can make. Find yourself a story, pick a story, could be one of several stories, and when you’re talking about what you’re doing, whether it’s in presentations or reports, tell the story, and you watch how the audience reacts to that compared to the list of mere facts. So the storytelling. Never overlook the power of stories. They are the most beautiful things. They are one of the symphonies of our lives, and they can hugely help you in your commercial communication.
Having examined the general principles of commercial communication we’re now going to move on to considering different forms of commercial communication. What is a value proposition? A value proposition is a persuasive statement that sums up the core of your idea succinctly. It should really be ten words of less, and it is important for both an audience outside of your company, potential customers, clients, investors, etc., and as an internal message of intent within your own organisation. The value proposition provides the customer with a number one reason why a product or service is best suited for them. It’s designed to turn a prospect into a paying customer. It’s more than just a product or service description. It’s the specific solution that your business provides and the promise of value that a customer can expect you to deliver. Whilst they can stand on their own, value propositions are often accompanied by a sentence or two providing extra information about the product or service. A good way of writing value propositions is to use the heroes and villains’ approach. Your potential customers have a problem. The villain of the story. Your company has a product that can solve this problem. The hero of the story. The value proposition is then structured in a way that highlights both of these issues, telling the customers quickly how your product can defeat their problem. Let’s look at some examples. Here’s the first example. Save money without thinking about it. The company is Digit, whose service analyses your daily income and outgoings, and automatically helps you to save the optimal amount. The villain here is the idea that you have to work hard to save money, and if you don’t, then you’re in some way losing money. The hero is Digit, whose service can prevent this from happening, all without you needing to do a thing. Here’s another one. Make your website better instantly. In just five words this value proposition tells you exactly what service and benefit the company is offering. The company is Crazy Egg who say that they can improve and fix websites. The villain here is your old website, and the amount of time it takes you to update it. The hero is Crazy Egg who can not only update and fix your site but can do it very quickly. Here’s the final example. ‘Tap the app, get a ride.’ The company is Uber, and why this is such a strong value proposition is that it manages to demonstrate the ease and simplicity of its service in just six words. It also indirectly highlights the issues of having to phone for a taxi the traditional way, and points out that the Uber way is quick, easy, and convenient. No waiting, no trying to give directions to tired cabbies, no fumbling around with money, it’s all in the app. The villain are the problems and issues associated with getting a traditional taxi, and it’s almost implied that traditional taxi services are in some way the villains too. The hero is Uber, who can make the process of getting a cab quick, and hassle free. It’s time now for you to have a try at writing a value proposition yourself. If you already have a business idea, then base it around that. Otherwise use your current or past research and try to craft a value proposition about why someone should want to find out more about your research. Try to convert your audience from disinterested to engaged and interested. Pause the video whilst you complete this exercise. A value proposition is just one of a suite of brand assets that a company might have. Whilst they can appear quite similar, they fulfil different roles for the company. A mission statement provides a brief overview of the values and objectives for your organisation. It doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific product or service. More it provides the audience with the reasonings behind the company and its goals. Mission statements are often grand, lofty statements of good intent. A slogan is used in marketing campaigns to sell a specific product or line. They’re short, catchy statements, and because they’re tied to a campaign, they’ll often change with each new campaign. A tag line on the other hand is tied to the brand as a whole, with the aim of increasing brand recognition. As such, successful tag lines are rarely changed, and the best become so synonymous with the company that just saying the tag line alone, is enough to identify the company. The sportswear company Nike provides examples of these different brand assets. Its value proposition is customisable, performance, or lifestyle sneakers, with unique colourways, and materials. It’s telling the world what it does best or uniquely, why you should look at Nike rather than at any other company. Nike’s mission statement on the other hand is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. A far more emotive statement with motivating words such as inspiration and innovation, and a global scope. An example of one of Nike’s slogans is, twice the guts, double the glory. A short and punchy statement that plays on the no guts, no glory saying, and implies that Nike customers are braver and stronger than other shoppers and get rewarded to the same extent. Nike’s tag line is one of the most famous tag lines in the world, ‘Just do it.’ Three words that don’t mean an awful lot outside of the context of Nike but are so inherently part of the brand that to hear them is to immediately think of Nike. The Nike swoosh logo is a visual tag line, again symbolising some of the ethos of the company and its goals. The elevator pitch is a well-known tool of commercial communication, and networking more broadly. The basic premise is that it’s a short statement that can be used to introduce yourself and your product or service, in the space of 20-to-30 seconds. It should capture the interest of the listener, be memorable, succinct, and highlight your unique selling point, your USP. Whilst we traditionally think of it as a tool for engaging with potential clients, it’s actually a very flexible tool that can be applied to a range of situations beyond meeting new people at a conference. For example within an organisation, elevator pitches can be used to propose new ideas or projects to senior managers, who are often short on time, and need to know the essential information as quickly as possible. A good elevator pitch can even be used to explain your research topic to friends and family. The key starting point for your elevator pitch is to identify the objective. What do you want your audience to remember? Once you’ve written your elevator pitch, it’s crucial that you practice it. There is a simple formula that you can follow to create an elevator pitch. Firstly grab the attention of your audience by solving a problem that they have. Then back this up to establish your own credibility. Once they’re curious, introduce yourself, and then finally provide an opportunity for future interaction through a call to action, or by asking a question. For example, our product could be to people with multiple sclerosis what insulin is to diabetics. Lab tests on mice have shown it not only stops the disease in its tracks, but actually reverses its symptoms. ‘I am Su from Lif Nano and if you’re at the conference for the whole weekend, how about a coffee so I can show you more.’ Breaking this elevator pitch into its separate elements, clearly shows that it grabs the attention, establishes credibility, introduces the speaker, and then provides a way for the listener to respond, rather than just expecting them to react spontaneously. Here’s another one. You think your legal bills are way too high right. What if I told you I could get you the same quality service for half the price and double the convenience, and I can prove it because I’ve already done that for dozens of clients. ‘I’m Sioned, from Legal Sphere, and if you give me your card, I’ll give you a call to show you more.’ Again breaking this pitch into its separate statements you can see the four elements clearly. Grab the attention, establish credibility, introduce yourself, and then offer a call to action. It’s time to try writing an elevator pitch yourself. Use the four-step formula to write four brief dynamic statements. This could be about a business idea you have, or your current research. Pause the video whilst you complete this exercise. Before moving on from the elevator pitch, here are some final tips. A card or brochure is a good example of a takeaway item, something your audience can take with them, and remind them of your conversation later. Make sure you tailor your pitch to your audience. You may find you end up with a small selection of elevator pitches, that you can use depending on your audience and the purpose behind your interaction. Be enthusiastic. Show the passion, and energy that you have, but remember not to speak too quickly. Also remember that the perfect opportunity to meet your dream audience, the perfect investor, client, customer, etc., will likely happen when you least expect it. Practice your elevator pitch so that when the moment arrives you can make a great first impression. Websites are an essential form of commercial communication in today’s environment, and they’ve moved on a great deal from the busy walls of tech seen in this example. Check out Simon Hall’s company Creative Warehouse and their website. The front page is very clean, there isn’t a lot of text. The company’s name and its value proposition is all that’s there. There’s an envelope symbol as a button for getting in contact. Yet despite the simplicity of the design, the front page immediately provides all the essential information clients need. Make your website clear from the outset what you offer. Your value proposition could be good for this. Your home page acts as an elevator pitch of sorts. People don’t tend to spend a lot of time browsing sites that they think aren’t relevant to them, so make sure that what you offer is crystal clear from a brief glance. Provide information on the products or services you offer. A page about the company, your team, or your story, can show a visitor the human element of your company, and also the company’s goals and values, helping to create a sense of trust between you and them. Testimonials are a great way of evidencing the worth of your company and reassuring site visitors of your worth. Always make sure that there is a way for site visitors to get in contact with you. The less-is-more principle holds true with websites. Google has never had an overwhelmingly busy home page, but it highlights the shift toward site simplicity that’s occurred online over the 20-plus years of its existence. If you’re creating your own website it’s worth bearing these eight principles in mind. Make your site simple and easy to understand. Arrange your site so that visitors gravitate to the most important elements. Make it easy for visitors to navigate. Make the feel and look of the site consistent throughout, as it’s very jarring to navigate an inconsistent website. Make sure your site is usable by anyone, and compatible on all devices, since it’s likely it’ll be viewed by many visitors on their smart phones or tablets. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Use elements and designs that people are familiar with. Ensure you gather user responses about the site, and react to them, and establish credibility with your customers through testimonials, and by not hiding your intent and pricing. We’re going to look at in-person communication now. How much in-person communication do you think is non-verbal? There’s a popular myth online that 93 per cent of communication is non-verbal, but this catchy statistic is based on a misinterpretation of data. The truth is that there’s no actual number, and the importance of verbal and non-verbal communication can be entirely context dependant. For example, if I told you that there was a stapler in the drawer over there, any non-verbal cues wouldn’t be that important to the information I was conveying. Whilst the 93 per cent statistic is false, non-verbal communication is clearly an important element of in-person communication, and it supplements the words you are actually saying. It’s worth paying attention to how you act when communicating with your facial expressions and body language. Smiling and maintaining eye contact helps establish trust, whilst being aware of spatial boundaries can prevent people from feeling uncomfortable. Remember that different cultures have different norms when it comes to non-verbal communication, and if you’re looking to do business in a new country, it might be worth doing a little research to find out any differences in advance. The corporate culture of the ’80s and ’90s were not kind to good manners. However recently the importance of good manners in commercial communication is being remembered. As Tim Askew points out, manners give us a structure within which to operate, a road map for dealing in everyday business. As with non-verbal communication, it’s important to remember that there may be cultural differences in manners, and you should do some research before branching into new, international markets. In this workshop we’ve covered key elements of commercial communication, from general principles to specific forms. The important take-home lessons from this are, understand your audience and help them to understand you, get your message across quickly, establish trust and credibility through data testimonials and evidence to convince your audience, and use storytelling techniques to engage with your audience. Most importantly, be prepared, research your audience, prepare your offer, and practice. Thank you for listening.
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The secrets of storytelling
Dr Andrew Holmes explores why storytelling is relevant to career development and all you need to know about effective storytelling, from scintillating starts to effective endings, and everything in between.
Hello, I’m Dr Andrew Holmes, one of the research staff developers on Prosper, based at the University of Liverpool and I’d like to welcome you to this workshop on The Secrets of Storytelling. This session will help you gain some understanding of why storytelling is relevant to career development, and will explore the essential elements of storytelling. So, what is a story? There are a number of definitions out there, but generally, stories revolve around the idea of a narrative, a connected series of events or experiences. Stories can be true or fictitious, and may be presented in a number of different mediums or formats. The purpose of a story is to interest, amuse, or instruct. Every story has a purpose, a reason for existing, an effect it wants to have on the person receiving it. Creative writing teacher Margaret Geraghty also makes the point that good stories always contain at least one major character transition; generally, in a character’s mental state. Nick Carraway in F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ gets swept up in the Long Island lifestyle, but by the end of the novel, he comes to hate New York and leaves. Luke Skywalker struggles with his father’s legacy and the dark side, but eventually overcomes them and stands on his own. Lyra and Will in Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ move from being children to young adults, gaining awareness, responsibility, and maturity in the process. These examples are fictitious, but an awareness of what makes a good story translates across the fiction, non-fiction divide. Never forget that you are the protagonist of your own story, and you have your own arc. By using storytelling techniques, you can demonstrate to employers your journey so far, where you want to go, what do you want to do, and why? Storytelling and narrative are important in most aspects of your lives. The communication scholar, Walter Fisher, and psychologist Jerome Bruner have argued that narrative is a key means through which people organise and make sense of reality and engage in reasoned argument. Fisher coined the idea that humans are ‘homo narrans’ – storytelling animals who are persuaded to make decisions based on their coherence and fidelity of stories. Bruner describes this narrative mode of thought as being concerned with human wants, needs, and goals. The consequence of humans organising our thoughts through narrative is that narrative sticks in the brain. Numerous studies have shown that narratives increase interest and recall of information, and may be more likely to prompt action. These quotes are from studies looking at people’s engagement with science, and they demonstrate that framing scientific information as narratives increases the impact and power of the communication. The study by Morris et al. looking at the effectiveness of climate change communications found that embedding information in story structures influenced pro-environmental behaviours. Hopefully, that brief overview has shown you the power of stories and how influential storytelling can be, but where can you use storytelling in your career? Well, honestly, everywhere. Being aware of the power of storytelling and how to use it is beneficial in a whole host of situations, from pitching ideas to writing press releases, from job interviews to giving presentations. If you’ve looked at Prosper’s resources on CVs, you’ll know that storytelling techniques are useful for academic and non-academic CVs, and are particularly important for narrative CVs. We’re now going to look at some of the essential elements of storytelling. Simon Hall teaches communication skills at the University of Cambridge. He founded and is director of Creative Warehouse, which does communications for companies and for the public sector. He’s also written several novels, some non-fiction books on business communication, and was a BBC news correspondent for 20 years. Simon has kindly presented Prosper with his nine key steps to effective storytelling. Let’s start at the start. Starts are hugely important. You want to get your audience interested and invested. You want to hook them from your first words so that they want to know more. The popular claim that the modern attention span is ten seconds or less is widely regarded as a misinterpretation of the actual research, and attention spans are highly variable, depending on the specific context of the situation. That being said, you do have limited time to get somebody’s attention, and if you’ve got something important to tell them, you’ve got to grab them. We’re going to look at the beginnings of some pop songs and great literature to see what we can learn from them. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. That’s Jane Austen’s masterpiece, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. An iconic opening line. But why? Three points come out of this opening line. First of all, when you read an opening line like that, what do you know about the book? Is it going to be a crime book, a thriller, science fiction, horror? No. You know, immediately, it’s going to be a romance. In only 20 words, Jane Austen has shown from the very start what her story is, plunging in from the very beginning. Point number two, that opening line gives you a good sense of the author and their character. Are they worth spending time with? With this opening line, Jane Austen displays her writer’s eye for observation and detail. As a result, you want to spend time with her, to hear more from her. Point number three. When you read an opening line like that, does it make you think this book is going to be rubbish, or does it make you want to find out more? Again, it makes you want to find out more. Those three points just from that one opening line, and let’s see how they’re replicated in other famous opening lines. Here’s the opening line to a famous song. Load up on guns, bring your friends. Those seven words open Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and, again, the three points we saw earlier are there. It goes straight to the heart of the story. Rebellion. You get a sense of the writer, their anger, rebellion, and rage at the world, and you want to find out more just from another few words. Okay. Another song. Hello darkness, my old friend. That’s Paul Simon’s ‘Sound of Silence’. Just five words, but a beautiful opening. It’s thought to be about the assassination of President Kennedy, the extinguishing of a beautiful voice of hope and energy. The opening line goes straight to the heart of that story. Gives you a sense of Paul Simon, and makes you want to find out more. Okay, let’s switch to another book. All children, except one, grow up. That’s the opening to JM Barrie’s classic, ‘Peter Pan’. It’s just six words with one clause. Again, it goes straight to the heart of the story, expressing the book’s ideas so simply, but so effectively, making you want to find out more. Okay, here’s the last one. It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That’s the opening line to George Orwell’s ‘1984’. Again, it follows the three principles. It goes straight to the heart of the story. It tells you about Orwell, and with its delayed drop, where everything seems normal and then is suddenly weird, makes you want to find out more. So those were the three principles for starting your story. Remember, you’ve got a very limited time to grab the audience’s attention, whoever you’re talking to. So, set out your story from the start. Give us a sense of your passion, your belief, your knowledge and authority, and make us want to find out more. Next, we’re going to hear from Simon Hall himself as he tells a story from an interview he did to get his current role. As you listen, take a moment to recognise how his opening line obeys those three principles.
Let me tell you a little story now, which is why you’ve got the young Hall with attitude there doing his ‘My Generation’ pose. When I first came to Cambridge four years ago, and was asked whether I might want to teach at the university, it was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life when I had to do a little test lecture briefly in front of some eminent professors. Oh, my God, it’s the University of Cambridge, 800 years, and I’m really scared. Anyway. I did it, and I debated whether to put this story in, but I’m glad I did, because it made a real impact, and from then on, they have all said to me that was the one part of my presentation they remembered, which, of course, is why we’re talking about storytelling and the power of storytelling. So, here’s my little story. I’m 14 in that picture. Note, ‘In the beginning of this story.’ Five minutes of a terrifying teenage intervention absolutely transformed my life. I was a dreadful child at school. I was quite troubled and I was often being suspended and excluded, being really unpleasant to teachers, being lippy, getting involved in fights. I was just in danger of going out of control, and then one day, aged about 14, as in that picture, I was strutting along one of the corridors in my school, which was a state school in Sussex. Not a terribly good school, classic coastal town, often overlooked, quite deprived. I was doing my strut along, nasty, horrible me, and out of a classroom jumped two teachers, Nigel Waugh and Gerry Lewis, and you’ll see why I remember the names so well in a minute. They grabbed the horrible young me, pulled me into the classroom, locked the door behind us, and drew the curtains, and I was terrified, because this was the mid 1980s. I thought I was going to be beaten up. It was a savage time. It was perfectly possible. But actually, what Nigel and Gerry did was they sat me down on a chair and they gave me a grilling. They said I was an idiot because I had good brains, and I was eloquent and thoughtful, and people listened to me, and I could be a leader, and I could do so much with my life, or I could screw it all up like I was about to do. I was so touched that those two men had believed in me enough to plan that intervention, and then make it, the first time anyone had shown so much interest in me, that I did turn life around from there. I went on to university, and I joined the BBC, and I travelled all over the place, covering amazing stories, and I became a writer and got published and travelled all over the place talking about that, and then ended up here in Cambridge, teaching at the university and running my own business. And do you know what? I don’t think any of that would ever have happened if it hadn’t been for that five-minute intervention by Nigel and Gerry. You probably hear the catch in the voice as I talk about it, because it does every time. It still gets me. So, every time I teach, every time I teach, whether it’s a session like this, or with undergrads or in private business, I always remember Nigel and Gerry, and I hope I’m fulfilling the wonderful legacy they left me. So that’s my little story. Two points from that. The power of storytelling. I could have just told you, I really believe in teaching, I know what it can do in terms of turning people around, helping them, transforming their lives. Just a moment’s intervention. Or I could tell you that story. Which will you remember? Which is the most powerful? Point number two, when I did tell that story here in Cambridge, it’s the one people did remember and it has helped me, because they understand my commitment to doing this and hopefully doing it reasonably well. So I hope that’s an illustration of the power of storytelling. It lights up our minds in the way that facts don’t. It’s a remarkable thing. We remember it much more than mere information, and it’s shown scientifically to release oxytocin, which is the happy hormone. We love stories. We love, love stories. That’s why we’re all here talking about stories.
Okay. Let’s move on from the start and discuss the second most important part of a story, the end. The end is the voice and thought that you leave your audience with. It’s why famous last words are always noted and fated. The key really is summing up your story and doing so memorably. Okay, let’s see how endings work. First of all, let’s have a look at the opening of a very famous speech. Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. The speech is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Notice how he follows the three principles for starts. He sets out his story from the start, gives you a sense of him as a person, his passion and principles, and he makes you want to find out more. Let’s now see how he ends it. This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. It’s such an emphatic, enduring, memorable ending, summing up his story. You want endings to be memorable, to be powerful, and often in a way that reflects the start. Meatloaf’s song ‘Bat Out of Hell’ starts like this. The sirens are screaming, and the fires are howling way down in the valley tonight. And it ends like this. The last thing I see is my heart, still beating, still beating, breaking out of my body and flying away like a bat out of hell. Again, it’s an emphatic ending. It’s memorable. It reflects the beginning, ends the story enduring me. Let’s have a look again at Simon Hall’s own story. He starts with five minutes of a terrifying teenage intervention transformed my life, and he ends with, I think of Nigel and Gerry and I hope I’m fulfilling their wonderful legacy. Again, it’s enduring, it’s emphatic, it’s memorable, it’s emotional even. It’s stirring. Endings aren’t always easy to do. They’re often more difficult than beginnings. We’ve looked at starts and endings. Now, let’s look at the middle. Why are you looking at a load of pylons? Well, imagine the narrative being those electricity wires, and imagine the opening of a story as the first pylon and the end of the story as another pylon further down the line. In between them, you need more pylons to hold up the narrative with. If there’s nothing in between, then the narrative, like the wires, would go all saggy and boring. Really, the key to electrifying your story is to chuck out any stuff which is extraneous, any detail which is not needed, and just tell your story short, sharp, and simple, and have lots of developments to keep us interested. It can help to think visually. You know the story you want to tell. What are the key moments that happen along the way, and how can you make them pop and maintain momentum? What are the story beats, and how can you make sure you hit them to drive the story forwards and keep your audience’s attention? We’re going to hear from Simon Hall again, this time with a story he tells potential clients to explain to them about his company.
So, next, I’m going to tell you a little story just to illustrate how that works, the narrative, and it’s about my company, Creative Warehouse. It’s only a very short one. But, to again, see the power of storytelling. When I pitch for business with Creative Warehouse, I could just tell people, we’re a complete communications agency, we’re committed to doing all your business communications, or I can tell it this way, and this is the way I often do tell it. Creative Warehouse came about from a feeling of failure. It goes back to me when I first started working here in Cambridge with businesses. I was doing very well for myself. I was helping them with their presentations, pitches for investment and customers. I could write their website for them, I could write news releases for them. I could even help them with social media. But I started to get close to some of these wonderful entrepreneurs that I was working with, really admire them. I think they’re absolutely extraordinary people, great energy, determination, vision to change the world, and then there came a problem, because we got close, and we became friends as well as colleagues, they would often ask me, ‘Great, okay, you’ve written the website. Do you know anyone who can do some design work for us to make it look lovely?’ And I couldn’t. I couldn’t help with that. I didn’t do that. ‘Well, can somebody build a website for me?’ No, I couldn’t build a website; that’s outside of my abilities. ‘Can you make a video for me? We need a top spec, high end video.’ No, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that either. And so, I started to feel a failure, failing these brilliant people. So that’s how Creative Warehouse was born. I went out and found myself a designer who’s a brilliant guy, who was a former lead at the university here in design. He’s terrific, and he’s so annoyingly talented, I could throttle him sometimes. He comes up with genius in seconds, and that’s just wonderful, but also mildly annoying. I’ve got a brilliant cameraman and editor who’s ex-BBC and ITV who is just fantastic to work with, and I’ve got a website builder and developer who was Thomson Reuters and many other things, and he’s just great, too. Really, I just stick all the glue together and let them get on with their stuff, and that’s Creative Warehouse. So, now, we can solve all your business communication problems and do so with style. Again, see the storytelling. Start with fear of failure, end hopefully, memorably, tell you a little bit of the story. There are my pylons, and when I pitch that, it’s always much more impactful and much better appreciated and remembered much more than if I just say, ‘We’ll sort out all your business comms problems.’ So, storytelling, again, back to the importance of storytelling. We are suckers for stories as humans. Goes back to the campfire days, when we didn’t even have books, knowledge, information. Wisdom was passed around by the elders telling us stories. Always tell stories, whatever you’re doing, they’ll always serve you well.
Let’s just quickly look at Simon’s story. He starts with his first pylon; Creative Warehouse came about from a feeling of failure. Next come a series of pylons that maintain the tension and dynamic of the story. You’ve got the challenge of the problem, and Simon feeling like a failure, and then a series of tasks he overcomes by recruiting the talented people who work for him. He finds a designer, a cameraman, an editor, and a website builder and developer. He’s gaining the tools to defeat the problem, and by the end, he’s strong enough to conquer that problem and that feeling of failure. Demonstrated by the final pylon, a powerful business pitch in itself. Now, we can solve all your business communication problems and do so in style. Simplicity is really important in storytelling, and it’s so often forgotten, yet can be absolutely key. Simple is not stupid. Simple is smart. Remember your audience. This picture on the slide is a nightmare in physics or maths. I’d personally find sitting through that horrendous, but the audience is made up of very clever students, so it’s perfectly fine for them, but imagine a group of primary school children had come in and sat through that. It would be absolutely meaningless to them. It’s an extreme example, but always remember your audience. You are very, very clever and you know so much more about your subject than the vast majority of people. So sometimes you have to just make sure that you translate and interpret so that your brilliance can be understood. Academic research has a lot of jargon, but jargon isn’t restricted to just academia. This quote is from a local government council document. High-quality learning environments and pedagogy are a necessary precondition for the facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing preparation for adulthood educational processes. What does it mean, though? What are they trying to say? They’re essentially saying that children need good schools and teaching to learn properly. I mean, how hard was that, really? But jargon and lingo gets in the way, and sometimes people try to appear to be too clever, and that gets in the way of good communication. For clear communication, keep it simple. This sentence is from the BBC. Something you would hear at any morning meeting in the newsroom. PM’s Presser at 12 ex Downing Street, location POLCORR 2-way for ONE. This is actually what it means. Prime Minister press conference at noon at Downing Street, political correspondent live report from Downing Street for the one o’clock news. That’s the English version. But, of course, the original version is fine if you’re working in the BBC and you use these terms every day. Remember, every career, every industry, has its own jargon, its own lingo, but translate it and keep it simple and that’s the best way for good communication. Here’s a final one from a company in Cambridge. Utilising Brownian motion models, non regime switching data universes, multiple quantitative data source complex clustering, and characterisation algorithms, we forecast equities’ shifts. It boils down to we use advanced maths to call the markets. It really is that simple. You have your own way of talking and writing in your own industry, but remember who the audience is and make sure they understand it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in simple. Sticking with the theme of keeping things simple, good communication should also be accessible. In the modern world, beyond academia, there is a way to write, and there is a way not to write. We’re going to reference this with two famous writers. Here’s the first. It’s commonly said that no man was ever converted by argument, but there is a single one which will make any Laodicean in England, let him be once lovesick, wear prayer books and become a zealous Episcopalian – the argument that his sweetheart can be seen from his pew. That’s Thomas Hardy. Nice, big, long sentences. Translation wise, he’s essentially saying that someone might not like the church, but they’ll go to church if the person they fancy is there, and that’s the way Thomas Hardy writes. Let’s contrast that with another very famous writer, but with a completely different style. I’m clear enough in the head, he thought. Too clear. I am as clear as the stars that are my brothers. Look at the short, sharp writing. The really brief sentences. That’s a quote from Ernest Hemingway. Which of these two styles do you think works best for a modern writing, particularly for the web? It’s a no brainer. It’s Ernest Hemingway’s style. So, watch your sentences. These days, you will find more and more people are looking at websites and reading documents on a mobile phone or a tablet. With small screens, short, sharp sentences are the way ahead. If you find your sentences are becoming more Hardy than Hemingway, stop and break up the sentences. Keep them simple. Okay. A final example of accessibility. What does this mean? Allow me to venture a thought, notwithstanding that others may disagree, and taking into account, of course, the range of competing viewpoints, but nonetheless, I contend it can be argued that, given the evidence, even in the context of other great institutions around the world, the University of Cambridge could be claimed to occupy the very pinnacle of all the body of higher education establishments globally. Again, it’s a long and not at all engaging way of saying that the University of Cambridge is the best university in the world and if the University of Cambridge taught the author to write like that, then the author has just disproved their own statement. Watch your sentences. Watch how long they are. Watch the way you write them, how accessible are they to the modern reader. Keep them short, sharp, and simple. Let’s move on to something else that can really give you an edge in your storytelling and in your communications. Titles, they’re sometimes forgotten about, but titles are really important. The highest paid people in a newspaper office will often be the ones who write the headlines. The reason titles are so important is because they are the very first thing that gets your attention. Your story will often be one of several if you’re presenting somewhere, or if you’re writing for the online environment, and as we said earlier, you need to grab the interest from the very start. The title also sets out your stall. You can build anticipation and an interest from the beginning. So, let’s look at some titles and work out why they work. Here’s the first one. Dancing with Your Cat. It genuinely is a book about dancing with your cat. So if you have a cat and you want to dance with it, you know where to go to find out more. But why does it work as a title, though? Three points. First, most importantly, interest. It grabs your interest. It makes you go, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ And that’s whether you’d be in a bookshop, looking on the shelf, or whether you see it online, or whether you hear it on the radio, it grabs your attention and interest. Secondly, information. It informs you. You can’t just make up a random title. There has to be something to it that tells you about the subject you’re talking or writing about, and that, genuinely, is a book about dancing with your cat. Thirdly, the third letter I. It intrigues you into wanting to find out more. So if you’re in a bookshop, you reach out and you open up and find, yes, it really is about dancing with your cat. Those are the three things you’re looking for with titles; interest, information, and intrigue. Here’s the next one. 12 Weird Tips to Hit the Top. So, this is from a blog, and the 12 Weird Tips gives it away. You’ll see it a lot in online environments. 10 top tips, 12 weird tips, or whatever it happens to be. It’s because the online environment is such a busy environment that bite-size information is quite appealing to people, and they tend to go for that. But see also how it interests. Oh, yes, I’d like to know about that, and it informs. It genuinely is a blog about hitting the top, and it’s intriguing. The Three I’s again. Here’s another one. Safety Meeting Ends in Accident. This is a news headline, because journalists like their ironies, and, again, it’s interesting, it’s informative, and it’s intriguing. Here’s another one. Is This the Rail Price? Is This Just Fantasy? Caught up in Land Buys. No Escape from Bureaucracy! Journalists love puns and plays on words, and that’s a headline about a rail scheme in Northern Ireland which was hopeless. Here’s another. Do Woodpeckers Get Headaches? This is from a research paper. It’s trying to be a little bit playful, but without going quite as far as a news headline would go, because you’ve got to keep your authority. You want to be authoritative, but not too boring. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales. This is from a book, and it’s a great book at that, and the title is just so intriguing. It really piques the interest. Here’s the final one. The Propulsion Parameters of Penguin Poop. This is a research paper, like the Woodpecker one, it’s playful, but not too playful. Titles are only a handful of words, but they take a lot of effort and thought because they are so important. You want to interest, inform, and intrigue before you’ve even started. So much of storytelling is hooking us and keeping us interested. Inform us. You’ve got to give us some information as well, and intrigue us. Make us want to find out more. These are good principles for storytelling, and in all forms of communication. One thing which is absolutely critical in storytelling, and indeed, all communications, is something that you may find hard to actually do when you’ve been in academia. It’s character. People relate to characters. Why do people go to certain pubs? Why do they want to get into certain restaurants? Why do we want to live in certain houses? Why are they so desirable? Because they have character. Why do we refer fondly to certain people as characters? As an example, Tommy Cooper was one of the UK’s most beloved comedians. But actually, if you analyse Tommy Cooper’s jokes, they’re not funny. What makes them funny is Tommy Cooper’s character. Don’t be afraid to put your character into your storytelling, your wit, your warmth, your wisdom, whatever it happens to be. People respond to characters. Character and communication in storytelling can make your words live for centuries. Here are some examples of words that live long in our imaginations and in our minds, simply because of the character that goes into them. Here’s the first one. If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you. Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in our hearts. How do you spell love? You don’t spell it. You feel it. That’s A. A. Milne with his ‘Winnie the Pooh’ books, and these books, although they were written 100 years ago, are still in print. There’s still films being made of them. They’re still massively popular. Why? Because of the character. Look at that writing. If Milne had written that flat and academic and boring and uninteresting, no one would have taken any notice. But the character of what he writes, the voice to it, is right into the heart of childhood. It’s so happy, so warm, so contented. It’s just a voice of pure love, and he sums it up so beautifully in the character, and that’s why it lives long in the memory. That’s the importance and the power of character. Now, let’s switch to another completely different character and see how different this is, and yet how famous this writing has become. That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me, and that I be not buried in consecrated ground, and that no sexton be asked to toll the bell, and that nobody has wished to see my dead body, and that no mourners walk behind me at my funeral, and that no flowers be planted on my grave, and that no man remembered me. To this, I put my name. That’s Thomas Hardy’s, ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ spoken by the character of Michael Henchard, and it’s just rank with bitterness, how viciously unhappy that is, and it drips through the paper. That’s Hardy at his most bitter and it’s become so well-known because of the character of the writing. Here’s another example, a complete opposite. After hearing the disgusting noises from downstairs last night, I have also vowed never to drink alcohol. Perhaps when I’m famous and my diary is discovered, people will understand the torment of being a 13 and three-quarter year old undiscovered intellectual. That’s from Sue Townsend’s ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾’ and it’s so memorable because of the character of the writing. She somehow goes into that 13 and three-quarter year old teenage angst ridden mindset and portrays it so beautifully. That is the power of character. It’s really, really important to your writing. You have to cage character a little bit when you’re doing academic writing, but in terms of other forms of communication, it’s incredibly important. People respond to the character, so don’t be afraid to let yours come through. In the resources accompanying this video, you’ll find links to two articles. One is by Dame Athene Donald who’s the master of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, and the other is from Innocent Drinks from just over a decade ago. Have a quick read of them. Get a sense of how different the characters are, but how effective each of them is. The one from Innocent Drinks, they’re coming along in a very friendly, chatty, very approachable way. Athene Donald’s one is far more authoritative, far more measured. But passion comes through in both of them. Completely different styles, completely different subject matters, and completely different characters, but very effective for both. You have your own character, and your character can work if you get it in there. Don’t be afraid of character in your writing and your communication, because it’s very powerful and it engages people far better than just doing things neutrally and objectively. Another critical point about communication and storytelling is to make sure you don’t go on and on, say what you need to say and shut up. Cut, cut, and cut again, to reduce your content back to the bare bones. Less is more is a golden principle of storytelling and communications, and with graphics and images as well. The painting on the right is a Rothko. It sold at auction for $186 million. Why? Because of the classic simplicity. The power of less is more. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the most iconic examples of speechmaking in history, because it’s so fated and well-known, people assume it went on for rather a long time, but in reality, it lasted about two minutes. It’s only 272 words long, half a page of A4. Why did it go down in history as being such an incredible piece of storytelling and speechmaking? Not because of the word count, but because of how much the words counted. You’ve seen the start, you’ve seen the end, and the content in between was pretty good, too. The power, the passion, and the principles of the man and how he expressed it are what makes it iconic. A modern parallel is Twitter. You don’t get many words on Twitter. Dr. Paul Coxon tweeted this, a very short story. ‘Hello, my name is Paul. I’ve got a PhD in physics and thanks to a random brain freeze, forgot the word for photon, so had to call it a shiny crumb in front of my colleagues.’ His tweet, a tiny little story less than 40 words long, bounced around the world. As a result, Paul was interviewed by radio, TV, newspapers all around the planet. It was a bit of fun, a bit of self-deprecating humour, but it’s a little story, and it was very good for him, because it upped his profile. One of the most famous micro stories is only six words long, and is by Ernest Hemingway. For sale, baby shoes, never worn. It’s a story in six words, and it works so well, because it lets your imagination rip, it lets your imagination go running away to understand what has happened. The less is more principle leaves space for the imagination, and the imagination is absolutely critical to storytelling. If you can stimulate people’s imaginations, you’ve hooked them. Cut your content back to the bare bones and leave the rest for people to imagine. If you’re interested in writing, you may have heard about the 10 per cent rule. It was a piece of advice passed on to Stephen King when he was a teenager, and something he still adheres to now. In his memoir on writing, he talks about how any first draft can be cut by 10 per cent, and, as a result, improved by the simple process of removing content that doesn’t contribute to the story. The final step to successful storytelling is something Simon Hall terms starry storytelling and it lies at the crux of what makes a story work, at the core of storytelling. It comes down to two things. Has it got emotion, and has it got information? Does it make me think, and does it make me feel? If I learn something and I feel something, then the story is generally good. We’re going to hear from Simon for one last time this session as he talks about an occasion when he visited a state school and talked with the students about what they can do with their lives.
This was an event at a school which was just pretty much like my school room, just a very, very ordinary, normal state school when I was doing a talk. But the story goes like this. Would you like to know how to deal with imposter syndrome? There’s my hook. Anybody interested in knowing how to deal with imposter syndrome? Yes. Okay. I can see some people saying yes, I’d love to know how to deal with imposter syndrome, wouldn’t we all? This is how to deal with imposter syndrome. That talk, one of the things I mentioned is dealing with imposter syndrome and how you do it, how you handle imposter syndrome, and what I could have said to the group, and it was a big group, there was about 150 youngsters in this hall. That’s the head teacher there with the head boy and girl, and me. He was there. He introduced me. There were lots of teachers. It was a big group. They were about 16, 17, 18 years old. I came on to talk about imposter syndrome, and I could have just said to them something about imposter syndrome, that I suffer it, and lots of people I know suffer it. But actually, what I did was this. It came to me, and I don’t know why, I was about to talk to them about it and then I said, ‘Who here suffers from imposter syndrome?’ And there’s about 150 youngsters and, of course, they’re young, so they’re self-conscious. They’re not going to give too much away. They want to be cool. I said, ‘Who suffers from imposter syndrome?’ And there was quiet, a bit of an awkward quiet, and then one guy put up his hand, one of the students, then a girl put up her hand, and then something really, really interesting happened. Next to me on the stage at the front, the head teacher put up his hand, and then more students put up their hands, and then teachers put up their hands, and I put up my hand. Within seconds, everybody in that hall, all 150 or so of us, had their hands up in the air, and the reaction was extraordinary. Everybody was looking around like, you? You suffer? You, as well. Oh, look at that guy at the front, the Cambridge guy, and the head suffers, all the teachers suffer, and the understanding just rippled through us. Everybody suffers with imposter syndrome. Absolutely everybody, and it’s true. I’ve worked with some brilliant people, some really well-known people, and they all suffer with it. It’s part of being human, it drives us on, helps us keep going, helps us try and improve. That’s how you deal with imposter syndrome. It’s part of all of us, part of the human condition thing. Point being, starry storytelling. Give us some information, give us some emotion, and your storytelling will be starry, and you’ll see a bit of the start and the end in there, and some of the narrative. But that’s okay. Keep it short and simple and all that stuff. But those are the principles.
So, in summary, the nine secrets of storytelling are striking starts, hook your audience from the start by giving a sense of what your story is about, a sense of who you are, and the desire to find out more. Enduring endings, sum up your story memorably. Engaging structure. Remember the electricity pylons? Electrify your narrative by being aware of your story beats and making sure they stand out. Dejargonification. Keep it simple, and keep your writing accessible with shorter sentences. Make sure people can understand it, and remember that people come to your story on different devices and under different circumstances. Make sure your titles interest, inform, and intrigue. Let your character be seen. Less is more. You don’t need to go on and on. Remember Lincoln. Remember Rothko. Remember King. Give the audience both information and emotion. Thank you so much for your time and participation in this session on The Secrets of Storytelling.