Thursday, January 31, 2008

Never Mind the Videocamera: Advice for Presenters

I’m not going to name any names (see ”Name the sin...” at but from time to time I see books and articles about presentation skills that recommend you practice with a video camera. Sounds like a sensible idea but in my experience it frequently causes more problems than it solves.

The problem is that there are roughly two categories of people who need help with their presentation or speaking skills. The first group includes the competent, confident speakers who are good but want to get better. Typically these people have no issues with self confidence but they need technical advice and maybe some objective critiques. These are the people who can safely video their own practice sessions.

But many people I meet who are looking for help with their presentation skills are far from reaching that level. They are the people who have very little experience of speaking and even less self confidence. In this case the typical approach of looking for flaws in a practice presentation can undermine their already fragile confidence. In this situation I usually switch to an alternative mode where you look for the things that are good in their presentation, not the flaws. The goal of this approach is to give them more self confidence, so they can go out and make more presentations confidently, learning from their experience. For absolute beginners or serious cases of presentation fright this is the best approach to get over the confidence barrier and get to the point where you can begin to work on the technical flaws in the presentation style.

For the people who already have little confidence any critique can be discouraging, but watching a video can be even worse. Unless you have a professional camera and adequate lighting most people will not look good on video -- something like a cross between the Blair Witch Project and the stuff on YouTube. Add to that the problem that most people are not used to seeing or hearing themselves and you are almost guaranteed that they will not like what they see. Maybe their presentation was actually ok, but it will look awful.

There is, of course, a place for video recording of test presentations and that is when you are being trained or coached by a professional who will be sensitive to confidence issues. And learning to talk to a camera is also a must if you plan any career where you might have to talk to the media, but that is a separate and more advanced topic. If this is your problem then I’d recommend you get professional media training.

But if you are not being coached by a pro take my advice and leave your little video camera alone. Believe me it’s the best way.

(There is also an article on a related topic "Three Techniques to Become a Confident Speaker" at

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Adventure of Scotland Yard in Pakistan, and Why it is not Hopeless

A team of investigators from Britain’s “Scotland Yard” was invited by the Pakistan government last week to help investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Media reports suggest that their role will be to provide technical expertise not available locally. Mazhra Zaidi of the BBC Urdu language service also added “... a major question to be answered is how much co-operation the British detectives will get from the various police and intelligence organizations in Pakistan, some of whose members may be far from inclined to want to work with foreign police”, according to the transcript “Scotland Yard's Pakistan casebook “ at

Of course they will be “far from inclined”, and rightly so. You don’t need to be an expert in communications or team dynamics to know that any team will resent the intrusion of a group of foreign “experts” sent in to tell the poor natives how to do things properly. Added to that are the complications caused by cultural differences and the very limited time for preparation – I don’t think they has more than a day for packing and I suspect they read the files on the plane – and it looks like a hopeless case.

Yet this is not a rare situation. It is usually in an emergency that the management decides to put aside the feelings of their own people and fly in some outside experts and this means that the situation is already more tense and there is too little time to prepare to think about relationship or culture training.
But it is still possible to minimize the inevitable tensions and conflicts by giving the expert team at least some concise cultural guidelines, possibly a single page of bullet points or a short podcast that can address the top priority issues. Add to this a fast, on-demand coaching service by phone, mail or chat and you can make a difference to the results

Take, for example, the situation of the British experts in Pakistan. What could they do to work better with their local counterparts?

To begin with Pakistan is a much more hierarchical society than the UK. This means that you need to be careful to respect the hierarchy of the local team, speaking to people at the right level and avoiding any contact that might seem to be an attempt to bypass the boss. Remember also that lower level people will not feel comfortable answering your questions in front of their boss. They might also be uncomfortable about talking to you at all if they think you are a very high status person.

At the same time you need to be clear about the hierarchy in your own team and be aware of how people’s status will be perceived by the Pakistanis. They judge status depending on your position in the organization, you age (old is better) and also your academic qualifications. While the British tend to minimize their education and rarely mention their qualifications, this does not work in Asia generally.

In addition they tend to be indirect communicators, who are reluctant to say what they really think, preferring a more diplomatic response. British people are also quite indirect but not quite to the same degree. You need to be aware of this when asking questions, because people find it hard to say no or be openly critical.

And finally don’t forget that the majority of people in Pakistan are Muslims and this means that they are “outer directed” or believe that destiny rules their fate, rather then they themselves being in control of everything – the exact opposite of the average American. In practice this mindset can define the approach to problem solving. To an American all problems are to be solved – death included – but to many people in the world you just have to live with them – a Que Sera Sera attitude.

Apart from the cultural differences it is also important to address the intrinsic tension of the situation. Nobody loves an “expert” sent in from the outside to tell them how to do their job, with the implication that they are incompetent. To deal with this you have to understand that the problem exists, try to empathize with the local team and ask yourself how you would feel in that situation. Translated into practical advice, this means being careful to clarify that your role is limited to assisting them in their investigation and to show respect for your hosts.