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And what do you do?

handshake4  In this age of Networking, there are many versions of how a person should introduce themselves.

Some Networking groups (Breakfast meetings, typically) start with a round robin, with everyone given between 60 and 120 seconds to make what they call their “Elevator Pitch.”

This is fundamentally flawed thinking for two reasons. First, when someone asks the standard question, “What do you do?” they are unlikely to be prepared to listen to such a long answer.

Secondly, the word “pitch” implies asking for business – even before getting to know the other person. And that is unpopular anywhere east of the Atlantic ocean.

The correct term is “Elevator Speech”.  It’s a mini (persuasive) speech.

The name derives from the hypothetical situation in which you meet a potential business contact in a lift, and s/he asks you, “What do you do?”

You have as long as it takes for the lift to go from the ground floor to the first floor (15-20 seconds) to say something that prompts the other person to say, “Tell me more.”

Most people reply with a label: I’m a Surveyor / Marketing Manager / Shipping Clerk / Sales Consultant / whatever.

Wrong! And a wasted opportunity. Your job title is unlikely to encourage anyone to say, “Tell me more.”

The other day I went on a discussion forum where an American was guiding his readers in how to construct and deliver an Elevator Speech. He got it badly wrong.

He recommended saying, “People hire me to …” in order to communicate that you are only interested in those who would pay you.

He advised against saying, “I help people to …” because that does not signal the need to pay for your expertise. In his opinion.

My response was to say, “The Elevator Speech needs to follow the rules of selling”, so the model I follow is:

  1. Establish a need
  2. Explain the consequence
  3. Offer a solution

Here’s one of my Elevator Speeches:

  • You know how some people are scared stiff of public speaking? (Did you nod?)
  • And others make presentations that are really boring? (Did you nod?)
  • Which means that they don’t make the impact they would like to make. (Consequence)
  • Well, what I do is to help them speak in public without fear, and in a way that makes others want to listen. (Solution)

Try constructing your own Elevator Speech, along those lines. It will help you to focus on your own added value, and what you bring to the table.

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How to speak so others want to listen

Blue hills

Don’t look at me in that tone of voice, it smells a funny colour.

It’s a popular saying from way back, and it carries a lot more meaning than at first appears.  “That tone of voice” implies a critical note, and one that causes offence.  Equally, you can convey much more than the words you use, through the way you speak.  In the words of the song, “It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it.”

The way you use your voice can make you persuasive and plausible, or it can lose you business.  It can inspire people to follow you or it can distance them from you.  Unfortunately, too many people cause upsets without realising it, just through their tone of voice.

Does it matter?  Only if you want people to like you.

Can you do anything about your voice?  Almost certainly.  It depends on two things: your mental attitude and certain physical changes.  I’ll come to those in a moment, but first let’s consider some typical situations in which the tone of voice has played a major role.

I was running a training session in which I introduced the idea of the Elevator Speech.  It’s something I do very frequently, and I usually do it the same way.  I start by asking all the delegates present “What do you do?” and inevitably they give me their job titles.  I then jokingly say, “That’s so BORING!” and they all laugh.  Not this last time, though.

There must have been something on my mind as I said it, and it upset the people there.  Later they said I had been rude.  Whatever had been on my mind, it changed my tone of voice.  Everything else was exactly as it has always been – or so I thought.  But that slight, almost imperceptible change in my tone, made it sound as though I was being rude instead of funny.

Now consider the way you sound on the phone.

A customer calls and asks a question.  You are a bit busy, but you want to be helpful, so you give what you consider to be an efficient answer, to the point and without wasting the caller’s time.  You think you’ve done a good job.  The caller, on the other hand, may go away thinking you have been rather offhand, possibly even rude.

If you have a tape recorder, use it to understand the effect of your tone of voice.  Record yourself speaking on the phone to different people – a supplier, a customer, a friend, a family member.  Record yourself asking for help, and record yourself giving information.  Is there a difference?

The principal difference in attitude is this: when you are asking for help, you are the supplicant, the other person is the dominant.  When you are giving information, the roles are reversed.  The sales person is the supplicant, the client is the dominant.  As supplicant we use a more appealing tone of voice.

Not everyone in a dominant role will use a less attractive voice, but the temptation is there.  Check out your own voice and see if you detect a difference.

So what can you do to make your own voice sound more attractive? Here are a few simple techniques:

  1. Keep a mirror on your desk to check if you are smiling when speaking – until it becomes a natural thing to do.
  2. Practise speaking lower than usual, especially if your voice is high pitched.
  3. Get feedback from trusted friends on the sound of your voice.  Change what they don’t like.
  4. Sit up straight. Posture affects the voice.
  5. Drink lots of water, especially if you do a lot of talking on the phone.
  6. Practise proper breathing from the diaphragm.
  7. Put a note on your desk that reads: “Hello old friend!” to remind you to speak to everyone as you would to an old friend you haven’t seen for ages.

Be friendly, show everyone respect and develop a mellifluous sounding voice.  It’s an unbeatable combination.

For help with your own voice, go to

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Even Brian Tracy can get it wrong!

Shooting foot small

Brian Tracy is a highly regarded ‘guru’ in the field of self development – a self-styled Best-Selling Author and Success Expert. He’s someone I have long respected for the wisdom he writes and says. But today I received a promotional email from him that put a severe dent in that esteem. This is what he wrote:

“According to Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, there are 3 elements in any direct, face-to-face communication. They are the elements of words, tone of voice, and body language.

The Elements of Words

 Words only account for 7 % of any message.”

When I first heard that claim, I thought, “What rubbish!” Then a friend of mine, the late Philip Smee, delivered a speech on the subject, in which he revealed that even Albert Mehrabian would have said the same.

It is now well established that Dr Mehrabian never made such a claim, and spends his time denying it. His test results have been repeatedly quoted out of context. So when Brian Tracy repeats the error, I am concerned about the quality of his research and of his understanding of the communication process.

Earlier in the same email, Mr Tracy wrote, “Nearly 85% of what you accomplish in your career and in your personal life will be determined by how well you can get your message across …”

And also, “Nearly 99% of all of the difficulties between human beings, and within organizations are caused by breakdowns in the communication process.”

As I am in the business of improving the communication skills of my clients, I want to use those stats. I want to quote Brian Tracy as the authority for them and for the notion that effective communication skills are vital for business leaders.

Like him, I believe that good communication skills will help you achieve clarity in what you think, say and do, and help you become known as a respected communicator wherever you go.

I want to quote him. But, as he has joined the legions who mis-quote Albert Mehrabian, should I do that?

I once walked out of a seminar in which that same Mehrabian mis-quote was made, on the grounds that the speaker couldn’t teach me anything if he was prepared to trot out that old chestnut. Because I have held Brian Tracy in such high esteem for so many years, I hesitate to dismiss him out of hand.

But I think he’s shot himself in the foot.


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Is there a sub-text?

Chinese words

Chinese words

Elsewhere, someone has written a blog on the following quote from George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I am in the middle of such an example myself.

I wrote in a Facebook forum asking for help with a problem a friend was having. One person replied asking me to call him on his mobile number. But another person wrote saying it was not the only option. Just that. He did not specify what the alternative might be.

Concerned not to offend the first person, I wrote privately to the second person, asking what other options there might be. He chided me for writing privately about a matter I had already put out in the open. That set me back on my heels, so I paused to reflect on the crossed wires.

Why were we at odds over this? Perhaps it was a cultural difference. Perhaps it was my Oriental background that prompted me to consider the possibility of giving offence by going after some alternative, having just had one offer of help.  I also considered the possibility of person no.2 wanting to dismiss the offer of person no.1.

Let me clarify that I would have had no problem in accepting a specific alternative offer. The problem, in my mind, was in seeking, publicly, an alternative to the first offer — appearing to look over the shoulder of the first person for something better, by asking, openly, for some other option.

It may seem a tiny distinction, and person no.2 went on to write that ”Sometimes it’s worth considering that what is said can be a simple statement of all that is to be said, without subtext.” So my attempt at sparing the feelings of one helper has got me into trouble with a second one.

In the areas of diplomacy and negotiations, isn’t the subtext often the more important communication? Shouldn’t you consider that your “simple statement of all that is to be said” may unwittingly carry some more important subtext?

It happens all the time in cross-cultural communication.

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When West meets East

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the Twain shall meet”

Of course the twain do meet in today’s small world – but research since the 1980s has illuminated huge differences between western thinking on the one hand and the way people think in the Far East and Middle East.

The burgeoning economies of the Arab world have attracted increasing numbers of westerners to holiday and even work in places that were once obscure names on the neglected pages of the world atlas. The area around central London’s Marble Arch has acquired an Arab look, with many a shop sign in the curly right-to-left Arabic script, and late night café customers sit at pavement tables with their hubble bubble hookahs.  Such a change is not universally popular.

In the late ’60s, the poet-writer, Dom Moraes, revisited India, the land of his birth, and found that he was a stranger.  Speaking no word of any Indian language, he was in the hands of his manservant, and had to learn how to manage the master-servant relationship.  For example he could not bypass his man and deal directly with lower caste subcontractors, such as the sweeper: the hierarchy had to be maintained.  He learned, but did not understand, that his man would fiercely protect him from exploitation by vendors, but considered it his right to swindle his master on the daily food shopping.  He noticed that servants would not make eye contact with their masters, nor do any of the things that build a personal relationship.  In short, he became acutely aware that East is East and very different from the West.

Of course, the East has long been part of the British scene, with curry now the most popular dish in restaurants and take-outs.  Yet, amazingly for a nation that only recently relinquished a vast empire, and which has adopted a sizeable number of Indian words into the language, Britain remains largely ignorant of Eastern ways.  In London, the Sikhs in Southall, the Bengalis in Brick Lane and the Hindus in Harrow have clustered together like the Arabs of Marble Arch, in a sort of reverse colonisation, forming communities that are distinct from the host community.

Unfortunately, host communities often feel threatened by visible gatherings of foreigners whose customs, dress and language are different from their own.  They feel anxious about losing their jobs, their homes and even their womenfolk to the invaders.  Attitudes and values can be very different.

In southern Europe and many eastern countries, deadlines are considered to be loose indicators, not commitments.  When a friend of mine first went to live in Spain, she believed (in common with many other English people) that the word manana meant “Tomorrow”.  In time she realised that, for the Spanish, manana simply means “not today”.

An equally frustrating word, regularly used in the Middle East, is “N’sha’llah”  or “Inshallah”.  It translates as ‘God willing’ but actually means, “I take no responsibility for what might happen in the future”.  Both the Spanish and the Arabs (and the nations in between) have a relaxed attitude to time keeping and deadlines, and things get done when they get around to them.  It’s not that way in Britain.

Certain practices give offence simply because they are insensitive, and some nations are more likely to take offence than others.  However, two thoughts should guide us:

  1. We all react when someone does commonplace things differently from us, whether it be a handshake or the way they eat a steak.  We therefore need to be aware of the reflex of prejudice that is within us.
  2. We need to be sensitive towards others, and aware of our own conduct, in case it gives offence to them.

Above all, we should never cause someone to lose Face.  Not only is it discourteous, it can make an enemy for life.  Face is a concept that dominates social and business contact throughout the Far East.  Losing face is to lose dignity, and for the Chinese that is like losing their eyes, nose and mouth.  The embarrassment is actually felt in the face.  Social relations should be conducted in such a way that everybody’s face is maintained.  Paying respect to someone is called “giving face”.  Think of the English expression, “I couldn’t show my face in there” – it refers to the way we experience humiliation, and goes a long way towards helping westerners to understand the concept of face saving.

There’s more, of course, but that’s a good place to start.

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Other cultures are different. Fact.

If you are doing business with people from other cultures, you need to understand (and accept) that they are different, they behave differently, their values and norms are not the same as yours. And that’s a fact.

Some years ago, a central African country obtained a large cash injection from the EU for a project that was never implemented. A couple of years later they applied to the EU again for aid for a different project.

On that occasion, the rotating Presidency of the EU rested with a certain northern European country, who asked the Africans, “Where is the money we gave you for the last project?” No answer.

The Africans repeated their appeal for aid, but made no reference to the previous grant. In frustration, the EU President said, “We are happy to give you the aid for the new project, but if you didn’t use the last grant, show us the money and we will top it up for the new project.” No answer.

The Europeans then closed down their diplomatic mission and pulled out of the African country. They saw things in black and white and could not understand why the Africans were unable to show them the money or explain where it was.

I was reminded of that incident when I sent a sum of money to India in support of a good cause. Even allowing for variable conversion rates, the sum that arrived was 15-20% lower than I expected. I asked for a paper trail, but nothing happened, but I gather that the money had travelled through two or three banks.

Pandit Nehru once said that cash transactions in India (as in government spending) were like passing a block of ice from hand to hand: it would inevitably be smaller on arrival than when it started out.

It is, of course, easy to condemn. However, I as explained in my book, “Communicating Across Cultures”, different nations have different values and different ways of doing things. In the book I defined culture as “the way we do things around here”. And, of course, each nation has its own way of doing things, which will often be very different from your own.

Accepting that is the way to cross-cultural understanding. It’s the starting point.

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Why make a speech?


Recently I attended the local Toastmasters Area and Evaluation contests. It was a revelation.

Almost all the speeches delivered that day were without purpose. Or, to be more precise, they had little relevance to, or value for, the assembled audience.

This is not intended as a criticism of the speakers, all of whom are at various levels of the learning process. They cannot know unless they are told what a speech is for.

Their speeches were either self-centred or simply narratives.  In the evaluation contest, for example, a speech was delivered by an invited speaker who told a charming tale of her time in Japan. She told it well, and it was interesting, but it was not a speech.

In simple terms, the purpose of a speech should be to bring about Change — in the thinking, attitude or behaviour of the audience. What passes for speeches most often could better be described as an entertainment, a confession, or a declaration. If the audience thinks, “Why do I need to hear this?” or “How is this relevant to me?” it fails as a speech.

When I am training people in public speaking, I sometimes don a surgical mask and tell them how people in Tokyo may be seen in public places wearing similar masks — not to protect themselves from that city’s infamous smog, but because they have head colds or other infectious ailments. They wear the masks to protect others from their germs.

So my question is this: is your speech for your own benefit, or for the sake of others? That’s a good starting place for any speech.  Or presentation.

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15 Top Tips for Public Speaking

It seems to me that the main reason why people get anxious about speaking in public is that they are not sure what is expected of them. If you have a speech or presentation to deliver, here are 15 tips to help dispel that anxiety by making sure you are well prepared.

These tips will help you feel confident that you know your stuff, and also that you know why and how it will be relevant to your audience.

Tip 1: Imagine you are speaking just to me and answer this question: What do you want me to know?

Tip 2: Tell me why should I care about what you want me to know.

Tip 3: Why do I need to hear it from YOU? What’s your special connection with the message?

Tip 4: Would you pay to hear YOU speak? If not, why not?

Tip 5: Record your voice and ask yourself and some close friends if your voice is attractive. If not, make changes.

Tip 6: What’s your reason for speaking? Money? Influence? Ego? Passion? When you are clear about it you’ll be more focused.

Tip 7: When you have credible answers to tips 1-6, write your Core Message (the ‘carry away’) in a single sentence. That’s the message you should drive home when you speak.

Tip 8: Develop your message in 3 streams of argument or thought, e.g. Problem / Consequence / Solution.

Tip 9: Decide on your call to action. What do you want people to do when you have finished speaking?

Tip 10: Create an opening ‘Hook’ — something unexpected or dramatic that grabs attention right at the start.

Tip 11: Write out and learn your opening and closing paragraphs. Just use prompts for the rest, to sound more natural.

Tip 12: Decide on the ‘point of arrival’ or climax of your speech or presentation and build up the energy to that point. Your second ‘climax’ should be at the end.

Tip 13: Practise in front of a mirror or camcorder. Watch your gestures and body language.

Tip 14: When you are confident of your text, answer (aloud) the questions in Tips 1-3.

Tip 15: Unless you are in a speech contest, don’t try to give a world class performance. Just be sincere and passionate.

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Condemned by something similar

On Radio 4 this morning, announcing a programme that was to follow, the announcer said, “People are reticent to spend …” I was moved to write this correction, not merely because she and others use the wrong word, but because it was a shibboleth.

First, the correction. She should have said “People are reluctant to spend …” Reticent means being reserved in speech, holding back from saying something, being inclined to silence, not wanting to speak.

In the context of her announcement, she clearly meant that people were unwilling to spend. Reluctance means being unwilling or disinclined. The words are slightly similar, but they mean very different things.

Confusing one with the other is quite common, in both senses of the term. It’s an error that many make, so it’s common in that sense. But it is also an indicator of a down-scale language pattern, suggesting poor education and/or social inferiority – being socially common. That’s why it’s a shibboleth, a social gaffe.

A shibboleth is a test word or principle that marks its user as an outsider. The term derives from the Biblical story of the battle between the Gileadites and Ephraimites, which the latter lost. Anyone trying to cross the Gileadite checkpoints was asked to say “Shibboleth”. The Ephraimites could only say “Sibboleth”, which identified them as the enemy, and they were slain.

Since then the term has been used to mean anything that marks a person as a (usually inferior) non-member. In the context of business, especially in the increasingly competitive job market, shibboleths can disqualify candidates from consideration, no matter how able they may otherwise be.

They could be condemned for saying something similar, but incorrect.

For my part, linguistic shibboleths such as the one on Radio 4 this morning make me set aside my reticence and even my reluctance to criticise.  Silence, after all, would be collusion.

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Wouldn’t you like to have the Voice of Leadership?

What makes you a ‘must have’ in your business sector?

How effectively are you putting that across?

Send for your free e-book: The Voice of Leadership

The American Management Association states that no matter how compelling the vision or how brilliant the strategy, without leadership communication there is no execution.

Your great ideas, your grand plan, will lie dormant and may never see the light of day … without excellent communication skills. In fact, many a new idea or invention has had to await the communication skills of someone other than the originator.

Let me ask you this: Who invented the sewing machine? Although Isaac Singer gets the credit, it was actually Elias Howe who came up with the idea. Singer was just better at the execution; better at making it happen and then at telling the world about it.

You know the Post-It Note? Who invented that? Arthur Fry, who worked for 3M, saw the potential in the weak glue that was developed (by accident?) by Spencer Silver, a 3M research scientist. But Arthur Fry got the credit.

The American, John J. Loud, invented the ballpoint pen as long ago as 1888, but he couldn’t get the ink to flow properly. 50 years later the Hungarian, Laszlo Biro, used printing ink, and in 1943 produced the first ballpoint pens for the RAF. And then Biro became the generic term for ballpoint pens.

Ever heard of the Dynabook? Developed back in 1968, it pre-dated webpads and the iPad. But it did not have the benefit of Steve Jobs’s marketing genius.

So how does this relate to you?

If you are in a leadership role you have things to say: ideas, values and strategies that represent your purpose. You need your people to buy into them.

Sometimes it takes an external eye or ear to give you feedback, guide your thinking, sharpen your message and the way you put it across. It’s what I do.

Throughout history there have been remarkable leaders who have moved their followers to heroic efforts, to defy the odds against them, to make magic where lesser leaders would have merely presided over the same old same old.

The Voice of Leadership is a short e-book that takes a look at the powerful speeches of:

  • Abraham Lincoln,
  • Jack Kennedy,
  • Barack Obama,
  • Martin Luther King
  • Winston Churchill and others.

It provides a checklist of the principles of leadership and it offers some easily-remembered tips on sounding like a leader.

In fact, it’s more than that. It will probably stimulate your own ideas on leadership. But you can read it and decide for yourself.

I wrote it. And who am I? Currently UK Business Speaker of the Year and past winner of a cluster of public speaking titles, including UK champion a record seven times, Anglo-Irish champion three times, and second in the World Championship of Public Speaking.

In addition, I have written eight business books on communication skills. The latest is just out. The FT Guide to Making Business Presentations. Expect to see it in Amazon and leading book stores later this month. Why not write a review?

The Voice of Leadership is my gift to you. You may send for it without paying a penny or committing yourself in any way. Just send an email to with Voice of Leadership in the subject line.

Why am I offering you this e-book as a gift? Because I believe it is always better to demonstrate than to claim. If you like my ideas in The Voice of Leadership you may consider inviting me to discuss how I could make a difference to your own leadership and communication style.

Later this month I’ll be making available a six-module online training programme. It will simplify the process of improving your business presentation skills. Let me know if you wish to be informed when the programme is ready. You’ll be able to take any one module or all six.

You’ll find it here: when it’s ready.

But now, send for your free copy of The Voice of Leadership with an email to:

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