The Presentation Skills Myth

Is it groundless confidence that allows Kees Moeliker to march onto stage with a dead duck in hand?

In a world of YouTube and TED talks, there is virtually no excuse for delivering a bad presentation.

Both websites provide an insurmountable number of well-directed, high-definition clips of smart people giving uniquely styled presentations on topics ranging from the Big Bang to baby food, covering anything that you can think of in between.

So why is it that we begin to stutter, sweat and laugh uncomfortably when we face the audience? It could be that you have absorbed a toxic amount of coffee prior to taking the podium – which is often my case – but more often than not it is a simple case of stage fright.

If I had to wager, I would say that there are as many publications, documentaries and books on the subject of stage fright as there are videos on TED, but what if that is not the main reason why presentations sometimes go wrong?

On the technical side of things, PowerPoint has become the norm a while ago, and recently there have even been newcomers contesting Microsoft’s domination on the stage.

Above all, communication professionals have to be prepared for any eventuality and maintain a convincing face no matter the circumstances. And that is what I think is the single most important factor in presentation-giving.

Knowledge.

Knowledge of the subject at hand, knowledge of the context, knowledge of the factors challenging your statements, knowledge of today’s headlines, knowledge of the supporting technology.

Of course things like a rich vocabulary, a sense of humor and an engaging presentation style to go with it, tend to contribute a great deal, but none of these can cover for poor preparation.

Recently, I have found myself going to presentations with a bare bones PPT file featuring nothing but pictures and a few words here and there. And before getting drawn into a debate about words vs. no words on PowerPoint slides, I will only say that the feeling of being unconstrained by what is on the screen, is matched only by the nodding heads of your audience as they focus on what you say and how you say it, rather than the text on the video wall.

It is my belief that this kind of environment is only achievable if your preparation is 100% spot-on.

Knowledge suppresses all the little annoying feelings that a presenter is prone to experiencing on the stage. Confidence gets a much needed boost, time suddenly becomes available for jokes and anecdotes, technology seizes to be central and presentation style begins to feel natural, rather than rehearsed.

And if there is one thing that could potentially overshadow even knowledge, it must be practice. Together, these two preconditions form the backbone of a good presentation.

So put a smile on, learn everything that is to be learnt and head to the auditorium with as little burden as possible. With time, anyone can be as good as a talk show host, even without the autocue.

Read more about the guy with the dead duck here. It’s quite the story.

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The PR App Part II – When PR meets Mobile

As I mentioned in my previous post, I used Conduit Mobile to create an app that employs PR techniques to tackle the issue of teen smoking. What follows is part of my pitch  for an assignment to design a viral video or a mobile app to serve as a central tactic for a social media campaign, all part of the New Media module at Westminster.

Research shows that smoking in the UK is on the decline. However, in the wake of a very graphic anti-smoking campaign run by the NHS, I thought that there is a need for a more targeted campaign to address the problem of teen smoking. The specifics of a teenage audience require a different approach than the one utilised by NHS. And so I thought “Why not replace vividness with the concept of togetherness and social inclusion in order to develop a campaign centered on the use of a crowdsourced mobile app.”

Due to the rebellious character of teens and their denouncement of authority, as well as their technology usage habits, we could give teens the tools to make sure that they organise themselves around the idea of not smoking, much like they would around the idea of smoking.

The hook is to first get them interested in the app by visualising famous sportsmen, actors, singers, showmen and even politicians in their struggle with smoking, what their opinion on smoking is, how they cope and how they eventually quit.

And here is where PR comes in, in the form of good old celebrity endorsement:

Idol

I thought it’s important to make this page very content rich, since the whole app relied on its appeal, so I added various categories that are likely to be of interest to teenagers, like football or celebrities, but also Team GB to draw on some national pride and insert some key messages:

Team GB

Finally, I also added a moment of discovery with a category marked by a big red question mark. Inside, a user could learn about people’s struggle with smoking they’d least expect to read about – like President Obama.

Of course this is all designed to get teens interested in the app, but after it’s served its initial purpose, it would actually serve as added motivation, because if you’re a 16 year old girl madly in love with Andy Murray, there’s no better motivation than him telling you to quit from the screen of your iPhone 5. Right?

Wrong.

There is better. What if your mate Sarah told you that? You know, Sarah that lives just 2 blocks away. Again, we reach for PR’s Holy Grail – third party endorsement – but this time, handed to us by the teens’ own peers:

Katie

This is where we introduce crowdsourcing and take advantage of teens tech usage habits. We encourage them to share their thoughts on smoking and coping with quitting, and organise their testimonies into regions. This is done through a form in the next tab:

As time goes by, content increases exponentially, users fuel each other’s motivation and your only concern is creating content for the previous tab. In essence, you’ve created a contained social network, aimed at a very specific target audience, supported by tailored content and simple functionality, all based on classic third party endorsement, and wrapped in mobile easy of access.

And that is how PR meets Mobile.

The PR App Part I – Conduit Mobile Review

How does one go about creating a “PR app”?

Well first of all, creating an app actually takes a software engineer who knows what they’re doing. A former classmate of mine from high school spent 5 years and many thousands of Euros in prestigious French universities before he got to making apps for a living. But for the purposes of demonstrating a concept that, given the proper shell and content, can actually be put to practice, there is Conduit Mobile.

I used Conduit Mobile to create an app, or rather a semi-functioning app that has all the right imagery and text to demonstrate my concept – with all the normal functionalities that you can expect from a mobile app – like swiping away through menus, scrolling up and down by sliding your thumb vertically along the screen, hyperlinks that take you to your default Internet browser, etc. Now, I say semi because I did have to improvise… a lot. This “app maker” has many limitations in its own functionality. It gives the user the option to choose from preset pages such as News, Events and Albums, but it often forces you into linking them to existing content on Facebook, Gmail or Flickr, not to mention that the choices are not plenty in the first place. There are 21 different page presets which often do the same or serve a similar purpose. For instance, of those 21 pages, 5 are Contact Us, About Us, Email Us, Call Us and Map. I understand that connectivity is important, but given that another 3 are virtually social media plug-ins for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and the core 8 or so force you to link content from all kinds of predetermined sites, there is in fact very little that you can “design” yourself. I ended up relying on a page called “Collection” for most of my app’s content and I’m pretty sure that it was not intended to be used the way I did. Alas, it was one of the few that allowed me to put some actual pictorial and textual content of my own.

In the end, however, it is what it is – and like I said in the beginning of my post – Conduit Mobile is more about giving an idea of what you want to do with your app, rather than paying a $199 fee to upload your glorified linkage platform to Google Play (with an annual upkeep cost of $25) or the App Store (annual upkeep of $99).

And before you accuse me of being too harsh, I will say that you must definitely try it for yourself – if you’re feeling techy and creative enough, maybe you can even find application for your business – Conduit Mobile provides excellent tools for e-Commerce and showing off your goods.

For anything more ambitious than that, hire a software engineer!

In my next post, I will tell you how I used Conduit Mobile to create an app that addresses the issue of teen smoking with a PR twist.

Theory Junkie: Political Public Relations

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I’m a sucker for theories and I love talking about them.

In today’s episode of the Theory Junkie, we explore McNair’s definitions of Political PR.

As I mentioned in the last edition of the programme, McNair defines Political Communication as practicing political advertising and PR.

But what is political PR all about?

According to McNair, it is comprised of four pillars: Media Management or Issues Management; Image Management or Political Marketing; Internal Communication, and Information Management.

In the context of Political PR, Media Management “comprises activities designed to maintain a positive politician-media relationship”. Its purpose is to “tap into the needs and demands of the modern media and thus maximise politicians’ access to, and exposure in, free media”. Since media management’s objective is to preserve visibility and showcase political definitions and solutions, it can also be seen as issues management.

Image Management strives to stimulate the public likability of a politician. It has to do with the personal image of a politician, “but also how it can be moulded and shaped to suit organisational goals”. This is why it is also referred to as Political Marketing: “In the area of personal image, modern politicians are judged not only by what they say and do, but how they say and do it”. McNair argues that, much like classic marketing, political communicators “must first establish the ‘core values’ of the party’s target audience, which then become the basis for selling the organisation as the one best able to defend and reflect those values”.

In the context of Political PR, Internal Communication deals with, above all else, uniformity. It is concerned with making sure that all relevant parties “are aware of the message to be delivered at any given time”. Internal Communication ensures that activities are coordinated and the internal political apparatus, be it party- or politician- specific, is effective in managing and transmitting relevant information to functionaries.

Information Management involves “activities designed to control or manipulate the flow of information from institutions of government to the public sphere beyond”. In essence, it is a form of selective information manipulation and an important element in public opinion management. Governments and Oppositions alike make use of this technique with the difference being that a ruling party often restricts and distorts, while an opposition party may look to expose and popularise.

McNair once again provides us with simple definitions that make our heads nod in agreement. These four activities are certainly what politicians are trying to do in their effort to win an election or run a memorable mandate. However, If I have to identify one overwhelmingly important pillar, I would have to choose between Political Marketing and Information Management.

Yes, Political Marketing wins campaigns in our world of celebrity politics, but social media seems to be the one that brings down rulers while at the same time marginalising classic Media Management. As it stands now there seems to be no better vehicle for mass information dissemination than the Internet and while the image of politicians can be boosted immensely through Facebook, the exposure of their failures on Twitter can lead to their resignations the next day.

Theory Junkie: Review of Power, Persuasion and Propaganda in PR

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I’m a sucker for theories and I love talking about them.

In today’s episode of the Theory Junkie, we explore the subject of control, power, persuasion and propaganda.

Far on the opposing end of Grunig’s optimistic theories of mutual understanding and benefit, reside authors such as Jowett and O’Donnell, L’Etang and Pieczka, Bernays and Miller. They write about power, persuasion and propaganda. Here, in the dark dominion of PR, control is everything.

Edward Bernays’ book “Propaganda” written almost a century ago in 1928 is perhaps the most famous example of a theoretical manifesto on this subject. Bernays talked of the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses, an unseen mechanism aimed at governing opinion, molding minds and forming tastes, largely by men we have never heard of”. A haunting legacy bequeathed to the Public Relations industry by the “father of PR”, these words continue to echo negatively in every debate on the ethics, the good will and the positive premise of PR as a whole.

Many theorists have built their arguments on Bernays’ ideas. Among them, Jowett and O’Donnell are two of the most recent. They developed the so called purpose model of propaganda. In essence, the model states that propaganda has the purpose of promoting the interest of one party to the detriment (or at the very least, not necessarily to the benefit) of another. It is characterised by control of the information flow, management of public opinion, and manipulation of behavioural patterns.

L’Etang and Pieczka’s take on the subject is from the viewpoint of rhetoric and persuasion. They present a counterpoint to Grunig’s ideas of symmetry (and asymmetry) by quoting Miller as saying that public relations is a “process which attempts to manage symbolic control over the environment”, arguing that “effective persuasion and effective public relations are ‘virtually synonymous because both are primarily concerned with exerting symbolic control over relevant aspects of the environment’”. L’Etang and Pieczka conclude that  through the very engagement in the creation of the persuasive message, the “persuadee” becomes convinced in the argument, and in their fair contribution to its formation.

The ideas presented in this short review are very different from the basic ideas of control as a function of simply exercising and managing the job. The concepts here refer to the very notion of control – through power, with the purpose of retaining, exerting and benefiting from it, and often against the conscious or unconscious will of the opposing party. In fact only Miller – with his idea of participation, albeit artificial and manipulated – speak of some sort of consent.

Control, in this sinister view on PR, is everything: it resides over behaviour and opinion, over messages and flow of information, over the rationale and over the mind.

So the question is, should the PR industry be ashamed, hide or deny the existence of such paradigms? Should we continue to discard stereotypes such as the one in Thank You for Smoking? The trends are certainly taking us in this direction and away from Bernays’ teachings.

But I can’t help but wonder, aren’t all these “bad things” that we can do what makes as unique as service-providers? I can’t imagine how persuasion and propaganda will ever seize to exist, so who will partake in those if we suddenly stopped offering them to a client, or our boss?

I think what is happening now and will continue to be the norm in the foreseeable future, is that talking, rather than doing it, will always be a taboo.

Avoid it or not, maintaining control, preserving power, exercising persuasion and carrying out propaganda are part of a PR practitioner’s skill set, and in some cases even your job description.

Theory Junkie: Political Communication

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I’m a sucker for theories and I love talking about them.

In today’s episode of the Theory Junkie, we explore McNair’s definitions of Political Communication.

McNair is the author of the series “An Introduction to Political Communication“.

I was introduced to this author by my course leader Pam Williams during a dissertation seminar. Herself a Political Communication Master, she guided me into essentially juxtaposing my entire dissertation hypothesis with McNair’s work.

In the book’s 2nd edition, we are first given a brief history of political communication in the US. I found that quite interesting. Turns out, it is a spin-off of corporate communication, and much like PR’s own history, it traces its roots back to Ivy Lee and Bernays in the dawn of the 20th century as a means to manage public opinion on war. Interestingly enough, since 1932, PR consultants have held “one or more seats on the central board of virtually every presidential candidate” and with the creation of Campaigns Inc. in 1933, the political communication industry has legitimised itself into being instrumental to every politician’s successful mandate or campaign.

McNair describes two main methods for practicing Political Communication – Political Advertising and Political Public Relations. The core difference between the two, is what McNair refers to as the utilisation of ‘free media’ as means for publicity. Ultimately, McNair’s meticulous explanation of the difference between Political Advertising and PR, narrows down to one underlying aspect – payment for services.

McNair defines Political Advertising as “the purchase and use of advertising space, paid for at commercial rates, in order to transmit political messages to a mass audience”, another important element being that “politicians have complete artistic and editorial control (over the advertisements –Ed)”

Political Public Relations, on the other hand, is centred around the use of ‘free media’, or in other words, media outlets that do not charge for their services, but merely cover the politician or party’s activities. Free media, McNair argues, provides politicians with a platform for “exposure and coverage, without having to pay media organisations for the privilege”. The flip side is that while there is a higher level of authenticity and ‘believability’ in this type of communication because “editorial responsibility is seen to belong with the journalist”, “a politician’s appearance on a news or discussion programme is genuinely outside his or her editorial control”.

Now, these definitions make a lot of sense and are entirely applicable a whole decade since their publication. But of course, we can’t help but ponder what the implications of the Internet revolution are? Today as in 1999, political advertising and PR are equally important to the success of political communication, but whereas millions are spent on TV and radio spots, McNair’s definition of PR as “free of charge” holds true now more than ever with the rise of Social Media.

So the question is, will the Internet, or some part thereof, ever be considered equally fundamental to Political Communication as advertising and PR, or will it forever be considered just a part of the two, or a means to an end?

In practical terms, Obama’s election campaigns have already revolutionised the industry, but I doubt whether the Internet can ever be constrained in academic paradigms that make sense on paper just as they do in practice.

 

Cameron’s Speech on Europe: Analysis

David Cameron

In this post, I offer my analysis of Cameron’s speech on Europe by looking at the two underlying dimensions: communication and politics.

Read about the background to the speech here.

Let us try to draw a comparison with the US. There is a very clear distinction between the tone and use of language compared to President Obama’s speeches: metaphors are rarely used, the pathos and the eye-watering moments are virtually nonexistent. The speech doesn’t necessarily talk to or level with the “folk”, but rather takes the pedestal of authority and somehow conveys a feeling of caring for the nation from higher ground. Gone are the lengthy allegories which go on for 5 minutes before stating a point of policy in one sentence at the very end. The language is fluid, simple and straight to the point, and the text is filled to the brim with policy suggestions. It is almost like a press release. Of course, a speech is a speech, and words such as “positive”, “committed” and “active” are omnipresent and Cameron does very well in raising his voice where it matters while trying his best to walk the fine line between appeasing a domestic public (and party) and avoiding any further alienation of his strategic partners on the continent. In fact, the speech was so ‘British’, it reminded me of an old quote they used to teach us in history class about the mindset of British foreign relations: “We have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies – our interests are eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow.” – Palmerston.

This simple, age-old approach to international relations literally flows from the very concept of renegotiating Britain’s position in the EU and promising and in/out referendum. It seems to have guided the hand of the Prime Minister the way it has guided his anti-immigration rhetoric in the months following his Europe speech. But what if there is more to that than simply following a good tradition?

In the grand scheme of politics, what truly matters is being in power – that is every party or politician’s ultimate agenda. So let us take a step backwards and try to view this whole ordeal with political strategy in mind: It is mid-term, tensions in the governing coalition are ramping up, there is enormous internal pressure from Tories to change course on Europe, the Eurozone crisis seems to be only deepening with no end in sight, Conservative poll results are down 5% in 2 years, and Labour is up by 7%. Now let’s think what a crisis manager would tell us in a situation like this? “Contain it before it develops into a crisis.” That is why we should not discard the possibility that the speech aims to electrify the Conservative and rightist electorates and attempt to draw from a growing euro-skeptic pool of voters currently cajoled by the UK Independence Party. What is more, in his speech, Cameron promises to organise an in/out referendum only if the Conservative party is voted into power during the next election, and that effectively makes it a part of the Conservative party’s election platform. And yes, there is no shame in thinking or admitting that. Any chance to energise voters pre-election is fair game. Politics is a multifaceted game and every move, especially if it challenges the status quo, is carefully calculated.

Cameron’s speech is certainly not all about poll results, dealing with internal pressure, or trying to increase his party’s chances for success at the next election – it is an excellent, distinctly British speech with some very strong points of policy backed by solid reasoning and great oratory skills. But let us not forget that not everything is what it seems at first glance and while communication professionals can shape words into beautiful form and party officials are the ones that set the ultimate agenda, it is their collaboration that wins elections.

Cameron’s full speech on YouTube.