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What Joni Mitchell taught us about communication

As my colleague Alan and I flew from Edinburgh to Madrid this week, I was reminded of two lines from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now.

She considers the look of the clouds from above:

“Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air, and feathered canyons everywhere”

By the time we reach the next line, her perspective shifts:

“Now they only block the sun, and rain and snow on everyone”.

The contrast beautifully illustrates the need to look at things from different perspectives – from up and down.

It’s a lesson we see echoed in Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams reminds us to occasionally stand on the desk, rather than sit beneath it.

communication skills training courses scotland robin williams.

“To remind myself that we need to look at things from another point of view”,

he explains.

An extraordinary amount of insight can come from looking from a different point of view.

The next time you’re speaking to the media, or giving a presentation, stand on a desk.

Look at your audience’s point of view.

If you change your perspective, and take that seriously, you’ll change your entire approach.

As our trip from Edinburgh to Spain’s capital was focused on both media training and presentation skills, I’ll take each of these in turn.

Be a journalist

communication skills training courses scotland microphone.

You’re approached by a print media journalist who wants to interview you.

Naturally you’re nervous, as the stakes are high.

What questions will be asked?

What will they dig up and use against me?

Most often, this mistrust is unfounded.

Print journalism is fighting for its life.

Rare are the days when reporters speak to your adversaries and spend hours trailing through your records to find some dirt.

Broadcasters, while having teams of researchers, also have a lot more going on.

Social media and online deadlines.

communication skills training courses scotland thumb on smartphone.

Combine this with the fact that people’s appetite for information is shorter than ever.

The result is a quick-fire, corner-cutting, often stereotypical line of questioning.

The great news in a world of information overload is that, if you put yourself in the journalist’s shoes, you can do the journalism all by yourself.

Consider the story as you’d like to see it written.

Who is the target audience, and what’s going to interest them?

What difficult questions could I be asked?

We often call this ‘pre-journalism’.

It grabs the bull by the horns, and tells your reporter: “here’s what the story is all about”.

communication skills training courses scotland bronze bull with horns.

So gather your main points, stats, analogies and case studies, and use them relentlessly to tell your story.

A present(ation) just for you

So many times we see people stand up and say:

“My name’s John and I’m a researcher at…for the last five years I’ve been looking into…”

“What an honour it is to be here tonight”

“I’m really nervous so please forgive me”

All of which sums up what’s in it for the speaker, rather than the audience.

communication skills training courses scotland man on rock with arms wide.

Take a trip above the clouds.

Change your perspective.

Who is my audience?

What’s the most important thing to them?

Lead with that.

“I’m sure you’ve all wondered at some point, ‘how can I spend more time with my children’?”

“I’d like to help you take control of the decisions you make”

“I want to help you make better presentations, through an extremely simple technique”

Your audience will thank you for putting them first, and now be far more likely to listen.

Your emails

Start with your written communication – texts, emails, reports.

Sum it up in the first line.

I’m getting in touch because…

Now filter it into your phone calls.

See if you can get to their point in your first line.

Now go for the presentation.

And when the media calls, take five minutes and consider the audience.

See it from their side.

From the side of the reporter.

From the side of the distressed relative.

From both sides, now.

Andrew McFarlan is Managing Director of Glasgow-based media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications.

You can view his profile here.

Photo credit: agahran / CC BY;  miss_rogue / CC BY-SA; Arch_Sam / CC BY;, all via

10th March 2017 Featured in: Blog, Communication skills training blogs By:

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