Einstein once wrote that if you’re unable to explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
I believe he was right.
The art of turning something complicated into something very simple is a difficult one.
That’s why journalists for The Sun and The Daily Mail will earn more than their counterparts at the The Guardian and The Observer.
They have fewer words at their disposal – and must do the simplification for us.
It’s easy to overcomplicate. It’s difficult to simplify.
But think back to the last few presentations you’ve heard. Did you think at any point:
“Gosh, I wish they’d made that more complicated!”
I doubt it.
But we’ve certainly all been in that position before where we’ve thought:
“I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about”.
It’s a feeling that’s soon followed by phrases such as:
“I can’t wait for the Scotland game tonight”.
“I wonder if there’s anything good on TV after work”.
By failing to relate to the audience, we risk losing them altogether.
Sold? Let’s move on…
Here are our Golden Rules for making things so simple that everybody understands – and everybody is bought in.
One of my favourite clips that we show on our media training courses and presentation skills courses is an interview with internationally acclaimed artist Sir Anish Kapoor, who has been invited on to discuss a material known as Vantablack, reportedly the darkest substance ever discovered.
In a radio interview with BBC Radio Four, he is asked the very simple question:
“So what is it?”
His answer baffles everyone.
“It’s described as vertically aligned nanotube arrays. And what that means is: if you can imagine a hair, and then a thousand of the the width of a hair, and imagine that these hairs are trees planted in a vertical direction, where the girth of a tree is one metre, the height of the tree is 300 metres tall”.
“Now as light enters this forest, it finds no way out. 99.6% of the light entering the forest is absorbed. So black is this that it’s comparable – at least I can compare it – with a black hole”.
Now, without re-reading the above text, put a pen to paper and see if you can repeat the above analogy.
If you’re unable to, rest assured. I’ve yet to meet anybody that can.
What’s wrong with it?
In short, he has failed to work out his analogy in advance of the interview.
And what happens?
The audience switches off – or switches over to something they can understand.
If you really really want to, you can listen to his full radio interview here.
In contrast, watch this from Brian Cox, explaining the importance of the Higgs Boson particle:
In contrast to Vantablack, he banishes all jargon and instead focuses on what everybody at home will understand – our own existence.
For Brian Cox and physics, read David Attenborough and natural history, or Professor Robert Winston and molecular biology.
They make it so simple that even a child could understand.
So how do you apply this to your Boardroom?
We worked with luxury cruise giant Cunard several years ago when they were about to launch the world’s largest passenger ship, The Queen Mary II, out of Southampton.
We asked the French engineers for an idea of the scale of the ship.
“It’s 150,000 tonnes deadweight!” shouted one.
Any idea? Me neither.
“If you put it on its end it would be between the height of the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building” claimed another.
What an image that is – but perhaps the wrong one for passengers wishing to avoid a Titanic-style plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.
Finally, one engineer offered:
“When you’re standing on the top deck of the Queen Mary II sailing into Manhattan Harbour, you are looking the Statue of Liberty square in the eye”.
Unsurprisingly, it’s this image that made the front of all of the marketing brochures.
It’s relevant, it’s bold and it’s interesting.
Find the analogy that works for you – and keep the jargon out of it.
I had the pleasure of working this week a client whose role was to explain complex European funding to her colleagues in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
She began her presentation with the following words:
“Thanks for that introduction Chris. I’m just here to give you a brief overview of the legislative landscape regarding European funding. It’s a complex issue, some of you will be familiar with it and some won’t. But as I say it’s just a brief overview and hopefully you’ll pick up some tips”.
I urged her to think about the big picture.
How much was the funding pot worth? How did it come into being? What’s the story?
Her next presentation began:
“959 billion Euros. That’s what we’re talking about. 959 billion Euros, roughly 1% of which makes it Scotland. You may recall seeing David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande tearing lumps out of each other two years ago when negotiating over this money is carved up. In total, it took seven years to decide. It’s called Competitive Funding and here’s why it’s relevant to you”.
We often forget the big picture when discussing our own individual project or role. We confine ourselves to a box.
Ask yourself – how does all of this fit in to the reason we come to work in the morning?
What’s the story behind the message?
If you can find identify the big picture, your audience will love feeling a part of it.
Closely related to all of this is “what’s in it for the audience?”
I sometimes ask people at the start of a training session:
“Why are you here?”
“To become better at media interviews” comes the reply.
“To improve my presentation skills” comes another.
“No”, I reply.
“You’re here so I can buy lots of nice Christmas presents for my family”.
It illustrates the point nicely.
If I were to start every conversation like that, we’d soon be out of business.
So why do we stand up to an audience and say:
“I’m going to talk to you about my experiences since I’ve taken over this business and why I feel this business is heading in the right direction”.
“I want to tell you about how I got involved in this charity – this is my story”.
Instead, find out what’s in it for the audience:
“I want to talk to you about why I believe this business is heading the right direction – and why I feel that’s a benefit to every single one of us”
“I’m here to tell my story – and why I believe this is just the beginning of yours”.
Sometimes our media interviews and business presentations can sound like an election-winning acceptance speech.
Take this example:
I took part in a programme several years ago called the Saltire Foundation.
It sends third year undergraduate students to the USA, among other countries, to learn from Scottish businesspeople who have enjoyed huge success internationally.
Upon arriving back in Scotland, a few of us were asked to speak about our experiences in front of potential investors in the programme.
We were given five minutes each.
A colleague of mine took the stage nervously and started with the words:
“To say I’m nervous speaking in front of you all is understatement. It’s a huge privilege to be here in front of so many distinguished guests and to talk a little bit about my experiences. I’ll give you a brief overview and won’t take up too much of your time as I know there’s a lot of people to hear from after me and even more people to network with after we’ve all given our 5-minute presentations. So here goes – my time with the Saltire Foundation”.
It was the last time he was asked to speak publicly.
He could have given the best four minutes of his life after that – but it would all have been undermined by his apologetic opening.
I visited a similar event two years later, at which the first speaker (also a Saltire undergraduate) arose and said:
“170,000 per cent. That’s how much I increased the social media reach of my host company in just 8 weeks – all thanks of course to this wonderful programme and my excellent mentor. Here’s how I did it and why I believe you would benefit from investing in the same way my mentor did”.
That’s how to start a speech.
By all means, thank someone for a kind introduction.
Say hello and your name.
But get straight into it after that.
If you linger on the introduction, guess what we’re thinking?
“Gosh, I’m looking forward to the football tonight. Please, please get me out of here”.
There are few substitutes for genuine, raw enthusiasm.
When Cilla Black passed away last month, many tributes were paid to her warmth and energy.
As one former colleague put it:
“Cilla was always on”.
If you listen to any of the presenters of Radio 2, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Whether it’s Steve Wright, Jeremy Vine, Chris Evans or Ken Bruce, they are always “on”.
I remember doing a media training course some months ago for an organisation based in Glasgow with a very intelligent, engaging manager.
She was a delight round the table and over lunch but when it came to the media interview, something very strange happened.
Unable to work out what went wrong, we played it back for analysis.
She looked in horror at the screen.
“I look as if I’m about to punch you in the face!” she yelped.
I was inclined to agree.
As soon as the interview started, her warmth disappeared and she assumed a Bond villain-esque disposition.
Even more bizarrely, the same thing happened the next time.
We addressed the reason for it, which was simple: before she was speaking freely to me around a table, but now she was speaking to the media.
Our philosophy on this is simple: find the tone appropriate for the style of interview.
Once you’ve done that, you must be the most enthusiastic version of yourself.
If you’re cheery around the table, be cheery during the interview when it’s appropriate.
If you’re naturally more downbeat and measured, carry that into the interview – and come alive when it’s appropriate to do so.
We all love seeing a personality, whether that’s on our TV screens or in the audience of a presentation.
So find yours – and bring it out to play.
And if you can’t be yourself, be Cilla.
The final words of your presentation or media interview must tell your audience what you want them to do next.
Would you like them to visit your website? Tell them where to find it.
Do you want them speak to you after the presentation? Suggest they seek you out over coffee.
Do you want them to ask you questions? Ask for questions from the audience.
A crystal clear Call to Action should be the last thing you say – because it’s the first thing you want the audience to have in their mind when you’re finished.
So there you have it – six simple ways to take something complicated and make it very simple indeed.
Make sure you take that simplicity into your media interviews and business presentations.
Any questions? Contact us here.
Andrew McFarlan is director of media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.
You can view his full profile here.
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