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Showing posts from 2017

De-escalating Message Conflicts in the Workplace

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Most conflicts and tensions in the workplace start with a misunderstood or poorly conceived written message. At one time they were mostly emails but today they can also be text messages sent through sms or messaging apps.

Written messages have the massive disadvantage that they convey only the words, without the tone of voice, body language, gestures and other signals that usually complete the message with context. Added to that there is also another layer of cultural uncertainty when the message is sent to someone who does not share the same context.

People who receive a message tend to read it in their mind with the most hostile possible tone, seeing conflict, criticism and provocation where none was intended. Perhaps the person writing "What do you mean...?" is not actually annoyed but is simply asking for information. Maybe the person from another country who addresses you in what you believe to be a disrespectful way is not aware of the subtle distinctions in your lang…

Speaking from a Big Stage

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Speaking in large venues isn't the same as speaking in a smaller space and you have to adapt your technique to achieve the best results. Most people are simply concerned about the size of the audience and worry that they will be intimidated. In my experience this is much less of a problem than you might expect because the audience is also further away. There are some other areas where you might find problems that you had not expected but there are some simple best practices to overcome them.

Allow time to get into position.  In a larger venue you might need to walk across the stage to reach the place you will be speaking from. Sometimes nervous speakers start too early, while they are still walking. Before the event starts or during rehearsal practice this entrance, making sure that you wait until you are standing where you plan to start speaking before saying anything. Better still, turn to face the audience and count to three before starting. This helps focus attention and makes…

Why You Should Introduce Your Connections

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You might have noticed that some people introduce you to their other friends while others seem to prefer keeping their friendships separate. Partly this is culturally determined -- in some cultures people are more inclined to try to bring different friends together -- and partly it depends on personality. It's exactly the same in networking. Some people try to connect you to their contacts, while others seem to avoid it, either through inactivity or perhaps deliberate intent.

But should you introduce professional connections who don't know each other? Some people fear that by introducing connections to each other they are taking themselves out of the loop and losing power. If connections are separate, the logic seems to be, then both connections have to go through them. This is actually a very bad idea and in normal real-world scenarios you are always better off introducing connections, at least where it makes sense. There are several reasons for this:

Being a connector makes …

Three Strategies for Unexpected Speaking Topics

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One situation that worries many speakers is being asked to make an impromptu speech without preparation. This is not really such a difficult situation because normally you will be asked to speak about some topic on which you have something interesting to say. If you founded a startup you will be asked to talk about your company and you should be able to talk about that topic without any extra preparation. What you can and should be doing is to anticipate likely topics and prepare the core messages for each of them.
But what if you are asked to speak about a subject where you have no knowledge or expertise? In any normal situation you best bet would be to explain why you can't talk about that topic and either offer to speak on another topic or suggest another speaker. The only real-world case where you might reasonably be asked to speak about any random topic would be in a competition or to win some kind of bet. This sounds very challenging but it is not as hard as it might appear…

Avoiding Networking Overload

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When I speak about networking one common question is how to avoid spending too much time on this activity. Wouldn't you have no time left for your day job if you do all the things that networking lectures and books describe?

In reality this problem is very easy to solve. Humans naturally tend to co-operate in social networks exactly because the benefits outweigh the costs. They have to because that is the whole point. Long before the costs exceed the benefits you have to take corrective action.

One simple practical method is to set some boundaries. Often this takes the form of a time budget. You might decide that you will spend half an hour a week on networking activities and meet someone for an informal networking lunch two times a month. You might also decide to attend one event every second week. An interesting side effect of this is that it tends to help you focus on the activities that are useful. Most of us go to some mingling evenings mostly out of inertia, or an inability…

Why Meeting the Audience Before a Speech is a Good Idea

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One simple, practical tip that will make almost any speech, presentation, talk or pitch more effective is to talk to the audience beforehand. You don't need to talk to everyone and you don't need to talk to them very long, but you do need to establish contact.

Exactly how you do this depends on the situation. In some events there might be a mingle, a breakfast or a lunch before you speak, and this is a great opportunity to meet some of the people in the audience. All you need to do is to introduce yourself and mention that you are one of the speakers, perhaps explaining very briefly what you will talk about. You might be asked one or two questions at this point, which is a very good sign.

Why you should do this is very interesting, because it works on at least three different levels. First of all, by meeting some people in the audience at least those people will be more open to listening to what you say. It is a natural human reaction to be wary of strangers, so when a new sp…

Using Props to Make Speaking Memorable

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One of the challenges of making a speech, pitch or presentation is to make it memorable. To the speaker every talk seems memorable because they had to learn it. To the audience it is maybe just one of dozens of pitches that they will hear that day and soon forgotten.

Most people turn to stories to make their talks memorable, and this is an excellent idea because if people are going to remember anything it will be the stories. But there is another technique that can also make your content more memorable: use props during the presentation.

Used appropriately a simple prop can make a difference between a compelling presentation and a slide show. More than once when talking about notes I have used a small notebook as a prop. On other occasions I have used sections of rubber seal, an old X ray film, a Walkman, a piece of volcanic rock and many other simple props. Shown at the right time and in the right way these props add an extra dimension to the talk and at the same time they provide a…

Networking: Why It's Best to Avoid "Similar Interests"

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In networking you can't always get introduced to another person so contacting them directly is unavoidable. But there are good ways and bad ways to do this. Looking through some poorly-crafted cold messages recently I realize that there are some common expressions that ring alarm bells.

One of my favorites is when people suggest connecting because "we have similar interests". What's wrong with that? The problem is that, rightly or wrongly, it looks very spammy. A spammy message is one that could be sent to thousands of people without being changed and that sends the wrong message. It also suggests that you have no idea what I do. If we really do have similar interests why are you unable to name even one of them. What makes this worse is that the person sending this message often hasn't even read my profile. I suspect that they are just sending the same message to thousands of people and literally have no idea who they are talking to.

There is a good litmus test …

How to Avoid Keeping Speakers in the Dark

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Every day on social media I see pictures taken at events where the face of the speaker is hidden in the darkness. Every. Day. This is both frustrating for the speakers, who might otherwise have been proud of the photos. It's also a wasted opportunity for the organizers, who fail to capitalize on the natural inclination of the audience to promote the event through their own social accounts.

But why is the speaker's face so often in darkness? To the immensely adaptable human eye the face is perfectly visible in the room, but to the average smartphone camera the dominant source of light in the room is the projection screen. Adjusting the exposure to adapt to the screen brightness inevitably means plunging the rest of the room into darkness.

Speakers can't really do very much about this problem beyond complaining to the organizers and sending them a copy of this post. They could adopt slides that are less bright -- light text on a dark background is the best -- and by blankin…

How to Practice for Big Speaking Events

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When I am coaching people who are going to speak at a major event I always recommend that they practice their talks in a setting as close as possible to the real thing. This doesn't mean that you need to find a spare opera house or stadium to practice in, but that you arrange your own office or practice room so that critical things are in the right place.

Just what exactly are these "critical things"?

When you speak at any reasonably-sized event there will usually be two video monitors on the floor of the stage in front of you. The screen on the left usually shows what is on the big screen behind you so that you never need to turn round. The screen on the right is the countdown clock showing how much time is left. If you are not used to using monitors the problem is that you will not include them in your usual 'scan' of the room and you might miss that the slide didn't change or don't notice the numbers turning read on the timer.

To simulate this setup a…

Design Matters: Lessons from the Oscars Mishap

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Sometimes serious problems are caused or at least aggravated by small errors that could have easily been avoided. Recently presenters at the Oscars ceremony briefly misidentified La La Land as the Best Picture because of a mixup with the envelopes.

As so often happens, the mistake was the result of a chain of errors. The representative of PriceWaterhouseCoopers should have handed the right envelope to Warren Beatty, who in turn could have noticed that the card did not say "Best Picture". But any system should be designed so that one error is not enough to cause a serious problem. There should have been additional checks in place to ensure that if the wrong envelope was given to the presenter they would simply ask for the right one.

Looking at photos of the ceremony it is very clear that poor design contributed to this mishap. On both the envelope and on the card inside the critical line "Best Picture" is printed in a very small font that is barely legible unless y…

Secrets of Effective Impromptu Speeches

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In a 2013 post How to Deliver Impromptu Speeches Without Anxiety I advocated preparing in advance for predictable requests to speak. If you are a startup founder, an explorer or a novelist you can easily imagine what people want you to talk about and prepare in advance.

Preparing in advance is immensely useful, but to improve your speaking skills to another level you need to master the ability to improvise on a broader range of topics. Clearly they have to be topics you know something about, so reading and listening to a variety of content will be useful. But that preparation alone is not enough; you will also need to improve your technique and there are three fairly simple rules that will help you do just that.

Start With an Idea. A speech will be much stronger when it is constructed around a well-formed idea -- you might recognize this as being at the heart of the success of the TED/TEDx format. Just talking about a subject in general might be simpler but if you start with a clear …

Guarding Against the Risk of "Fake Audio"

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When Adobe demonstrated their Project VoCo at the MAX event in November the media focused mostly on the downside risks, though the tool potentially has many legitimate uses.

All you have to do is feed this experimental audio workstation tool a sample recording of someone speaking then you can rewrite the text and the audio will be automatically corrected, even creating new words with the correct voice.

For media production companies this kind of tool will be immensely useful, making it possible to correct voiceovers and dialog without having to bring the talent back into the studio. Actors might be less enthusiastic and will have to consider this possibility in their contracts.

But much of the media coverage focused on dark applications of this technology. With this tool you can literally put words in someone's mouth, editing a speech so that someone appears to say something they didn't. Sooner of later someone will actually do this in the wild, but I suspect that the biggest…

Why White-on-Black Slides are so Popular

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At TED and TEDx talks, major product launches and other big-budget events you will notice that the presentation designers often opt for white writing on a black background. There are actually good reasons for this.

To many people it simply looks cool and professional, but there are also practical choices that make this style appealing. One of the most compelling is that a white background adds a significant amount of light to the room. In a major conference where there are plenty of spotlights on the speaker and the room is professionally lit this does not make much impact, but in small and medium size events or in company meeting rooms you might notice that the brightness of modern projectors can be an issue.

One way to deal with this problem is to have a fairly constant intensity presentation where there are no slides that are significantly darker, but this can be monotonous. If you blank to black the screen when the images are not needed the impact is even worse. Back in the days …

Crowdsourcing User Needs for a Book

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When the first edition of my book about professional networking, Payforward Networking, was first published in 2015  it was based on the workshops I did for business school students and focused mainly on the core concepts that could be taught in one day. So it explained why networking is so important, how it works and ways of doing it in real life and online, but it didn't focus so much on details like practical mingling tips or the needs of specific groups.

But at the end of the book there was an extra chapter where I invited readers to ask about any other aspects of networking they were interested in. If the reader's question wasn't answered by the book I would, I promised, answer it either directly or through the writing of a new chapter. Many people took up this offer and asked questions that inspired new chapters. I sent a draft of each new chapter to the person who first suggested it.

Now all of these additional chapters have been gathered together in the revised an…

How to Grow Your Network Without Going to Events

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There are many people who dislike conventional face-to-face networking events, partly because they take up so much time but mainly because they are rarely enjoyable. Luckily there are also many ways to build a healthy professional network without ever attending any event that the organizers might describe as being primarily for networking. You may find that you get more and better connections elsewhere. Here are just a few ideas: Conferences: Attend selected professional conferences related to your field, a field you would like to work in one day and, occasionally, some business that you have no connection with today. Plan ahead and make good use of the opportunities and you will come away with some healthy new connections. For the conferences not in your field choose a short, free event close to your home base. It will feel strange at first to be with people in a different business but you will be surprised what useful things you can discover. Courses: Sign up for an MBA or some other…

Hard Work is the Secret of Convincing Presentations

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How do I make a presentation convincing? This is a question that keeps coming up in coaching sessions and speaking workshops. I suspect that some people are hoping that there is some magical secret known only to the experts. But there is no magical secret. There are many techniques that you can use to make your presentations more convincing but all of them involve hard work. There are no short cuts. What exactly are these techniques? To begin with you have to test all your ideas before you even start to create the presentation. You might have an idea in your head that you are sure is very convincing but it might not work with your audience. Perhaps they view it in a different context or there might be a step in the logic that is not clear. Test your ideas in conversations with colleagues and watch their reaction. Did they look unconvinced? Did they raise any objections? Did they disagree? Use this feedback to polish your ideas and keep testing. When your ideas pass this first, basic …

How Encouraging Networking at Events Actually Works

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At the Nordic Business Forum in Stockholm this week the organizers made serious efforts to encourage networking -- one of the key value adds for conferences like this. Among other things they had a designated area for Brella meetups arranged through the event meetup app Brella, with prizes for the most active networkers and they took care to promote networking from the stage.

Before the very first break the event moderator André Noel Chaker stressed the importance of being open to networking, displaying a diagram on the big screens showing how people should stand in open mingle groups to encourage other people to approach. This didn't work as well as it might. But he also told the audience to be open to meeting new people and invited everyone to commit to this. Borrowing from the "Commitment and Consistency" chapter of Robert Cialdini's classic textbook "Influence" he invited everyone to commit to this openness before leaving the room.

Did it work? Anecdot…

How to Speak Without "Um"s and "Ah"s

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Most people use some sort of filler sound when they are speaking. Often it is "um", "ah" or "er" though sometimes it is "and", "right" or something else. When it happens too often it is very distracting; even occasional fillers can sound unprofessional. One of the most common questions I am asked when I coach speakers is how to avoid using these fillers. One way is to be better prepared. Fillers tend to come out when you are still thinking what to say and the thought isn't ready yet. If you have prepared and practised well enough your brain should not need this thinking time. But there are also some simpler, more "mechanical" cures. Close your mouth. This solution is very simple but surprisingly effective for many people. When you have said something just close your mouth and open it again when you have something else to say. That way the fillers just can't get out. Leaving your mouth open in the gaps between ideas ju…

Speaking is Hard, But Anyone Can Do It.

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One of the most common myths about public speaking is that you need to be born with some sort of natural talent for speaking. The good news is that this is not true. Anyone can learn to speak in front of an audience, competently and calmly enough to feel at home on stage. But there is a catch: to speak competently requires some effort. What appears at first sight to be natural talent is just the result of hard work; hard work learning the craft and hard work learning each talk or presentation.

Watching an experienced speaker at work this effort is concealed. Most are happy to let you believe that they can just stand up and talk without any preparation, but in reality there is always some preparation needed. Anyone who just walks up and starts talking is simply drawing on long experience and has a repertoire of content that they can deliver apparently without any preparation, simply because the preparation was done a long time ago.

Anyone can learn to speak if they make the effort. Gi…