Call me maybe. US Olympic Swim Team show presenters the way to go gold

Gaining success is as much about enjoyment as pain as the swimmers prove

by Peter Watts

What is more dedicated than an Olympic athlete? Training, working, sacrificing. Their goal: the Olympics.

And now here they are. And it’s this moment. And it’s going to play out in front of their families, their communities, their countries, and the world.

And they are bopping up and down on the team bus, lip-synching to “Call me maybe”, and making fun of themselves for all the world to see.

The members of the US Olympic Swim Team have given us an aquatic masterclass in:

  • How to be distinctive
  • How to be Social Media visible
  • How to have a life


Presenters can be a dime a dozen, and like the President staring back out of those dimes, they look pretty damned serious. They are taking their presentation and themselves oh so very seriously, and for their audiences, it’s oh so very boring.

I believe it’s important for audiences to enjoy presentations. In the vast majority of cases when we present, we are seeking to persuade, and as the ancient Chinese proverb states:

“A man without a smiling face should never open a shop”

Taking ourselves too seriously kills first our own smile, and then the audience’s. When we take ourselves too seriously we become rigid. Rigid leads to conservative. Conservative is seldom distinctive.

Mixing it: Being social media visible as a presenter:

Take a look at Brad Smith’s article in Social Media Today about the three biggest lessons big business can learn from small business.

Brad’s number one lesson is to “Have a voice”, and he explains how brand-meisters are muzzled by forces of conservatism. Playing it safe means playing it mute.

Which Olympic team is getting the most coverage? The one that’s not taking itself too seriously.

Having a life, as a presenter:

If you move into the type of occupation where presenting becomes the major part of your work, then taking yourself too seriously is a rapid route to a joyless existence. Your mistakes will magnify, and your stress levels sore.

The US Olympic Swim Team are exactly the type of people General Colin Powell described when he said he likes to surround himself “with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves.”

Not taking yourself too seriously, means you’re going to be limber enough to find triumph on the day.

Two golds, three silvers, and three bronzes are already testimony to that!

London 2012. Olympic Opening Ceremony. 7 points for presenters

by Peter Watts

What a show! London 2012 delivered the opening of the 30th Olympic Games, and with it’s magnificent Opening Ceremony, also demonstrated seven olympic sized ideas for building presentations:

1. Appeal to history

At the heart of history, lies the art of telling a story. As soon as you go historical, you go narrative, and you do it in a way that naturally structures into a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  • Here’s where you’ve come from
  • Here’s where you are
  • Here’s where you’re going (with our help ofcourse!)

2. Put your strongest assets front and rear

Hit the audience hardest with your hottest assets. Take a look at last night; Paul McCartney, David Beckham, Rowan Atkinson, and James Bond parachuting in with the Queen (was it just me or did her Majesty look a tiny bit unamused at being flung in effigy out of a helicopter?).

Put heavy hitters first and last to create a powerful opening and a memorable conclusion.

Anything likely to puzzle, put it in the middle. (Mary Poppins v. Lord Voldemort. Really?)

3. Beware the moaning Minnie

Or in this case, it was a moaning Mitt during the #RomneyShambles! Whenever you attempt something new, grand, or adventurous, there will always be at least one whinging voice off-stage warning about what went wrong when they tried to do the same thing years ago.

Whenever you hear Moaning Mitt, do as David Cameron and Boris Johnson did; give them a slap, and ignore them.

4. And by the way, comparisons don’t count

How will the London Olympics compare to Beijing in 2008, or to Sydney in 2000?

Who cares!

Never worry about how you will appear when compared to someone else. They will have had their strengths, you will have your strengths. They are going to be different.

Comparisons are bogus. Never let them worry you.

5. Keep the visuals iconic

Good visuals carry instant meaning. If they need to be explained, they failed.

I was watching the show sitting in a restaurant in Connecticut, where the inevitable ceiling mounted TV peered down at us from behind the bar. The sound was off yet whenever someone glanced upwards to see what was happening, they could understand the visual narratives instantly.

In fact, the only bit that did have them scratching their heads was Mary Poppins v. Voldemort, but as we’ve already said; that was in the middle!

6. Sometimes be ironic

Throughout the pageantry, I did detect the slightest undercurrent of an ironic British raspberry being blown at the fat-cats and sponsors. The people celebrated throughout the pageantry weren’t the well heeled sponsors limo-whisked down express traffic lanes to private entrances and VIP seating.

The people celebrated were villagers, workers, and protestors. There was almost a tone of Occupy Wall Street, with the 99% represented by tableaux. Even socialized medicine was celebrated in a paean to the National Health Service. It was all beautifully below the radar; just a little bit tongue in cheek and leading directly to point number seven:

7. Know who hands out the medals

Who is going to judge you afterwards and hand out the medals? In the case of the Brits, is it the IOC or the sponsors? No it most certainly isn’t. It’s the viewing audience, and in particular for the UK government, it’s all those people who have paid for the event out of their tax money and get to vote again in two years time (or maybe even sooner!)

That’s why the opening appeared to some commentators to be “quirky and odd”. Brits ARE quirky and odd. If you’re trying to appeal to quirky and odd British voters then quirky and odd wins hands down.

Who else might the host country be looking to for a gold? How about the world’s tourists. Quirky and odd, tea and the Queen, are the comfortingly cozy metaphors that sell-out Japanese package-tours to the British Isles.

Quirky and odd demonstrated superb understanding of the UK’s true target market, and of who will be handing out the real prizes later.

A pageant, with a point, that persuaded the audience to stay tuned, and that will deliver long-term advantages.

What more could you want in a successful presentation, or Olympic Ceremony!

Romney tax trap: The power and the pitfalls of tropes

Don’t trip over your tropes when presenting. Use them instead

by Peter Watts

Tropes are powerful magic. Think of them as cultural storylines with entire value sets and back-stories ready-made for easy access. Taking advantage of a trope allows us to cast ourselves heroic, or patriotic, or wise, or kind, or any other persona we choose.

When we work within a trope, our words and actions are re-interpreted through the lens of the trope. When deployed well, they attach glory. When tripped over, a trope can turn the noblest intentions on their heads.

Tropes can be long established. For example, Robin Hood has become a trope. Invoke Robin Hood and your audience interpret your message through the age-old context of the noble renegade, who takes from the rich to give to the poor.

At the same time a smaller portion of your audience might start to think of men in tights! For this we can thank Mel Brookes. A trope hijacked with sufficient force will morph into something new. In the case of the Robin Hood trope it has started to symbolize vaguely cross-dressed humor.

Tropes can be tricky affairs. I’m fascinated by their diversity and potential. As a child growing up in the UK, I used to watch a lunchtime children’s program called Mr Ben. In it, the hero, a respectable British gentleman, in plain dark suit and bowler hat (spot the trope!), would visit a magical costume store. He would change into a costume, and the whole world would change around him to match the costume, complete with ensuing adventure. Tropes provide the Mr Ben costume changes of the presenter’s world.

Take a look at some of the wonderfully diverse cast of trope characters available. Feel like slipping into one of them?

Good speech-writers, speakers, and image makers will all be aware of the terrific power of tropes. They script from within narratives that work for their candidates, while attempting to trip opposing candidates into tropes that are damaging.

Sometimes, the speechwriter doesn’t need to do anything at all, because sometimes the inept opponent can be relied on to do all the hard work for them.

That’s what is happening to Mitt Romney through his self-inflicted tax disclosure wounds, or rather, lack of disclosure. Romney has placed himself firmly into the grip of a trope trap of his own making.

Allow me to explain:

By way of background to the trap, Mitt Romney has spent the last few weeks fighting off requests that he release income tax records, a fairly standard part of an election process, and one in which all potential Presidents participate, most of them willingly and generously. Romney’s refusal to divulge anything except the barest minimum of information is now feeding speculation about what he’s trying to hide.

This is an election season, and it’s a part of the political cycle when political tropes surge to the foreground. Few of them are good. Check out, for example, this trope definition of the sleazy politician.

For any politician with even the tiniest hint of tarnish attached to them, a large section of the viewing audience start to suspiciously view that politician’s every move through that tarnished trope.

In the case of Romney’s self-inflicted tax issues, they can now add “evasiveness” to the trope….

And they can follow it up with “money”……

And finally, for good measure, it’s “tax money”!

Suddenly that tarnished trope takes a turn for the tricky. It wraps itself around it’s victim. It squeezes, and the harder the victim struggles, the tighter that squeeze becomes.

That squeeze showed itself this week during Romney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a key electoral group.

Here is the line from the speech that came to dominate media attention. It’s a section where Romney demands the White House investigate accusations of classified information being leaked. He is picking up on a theme introduced by Senator John McCain several weeks ago.

“…….it is unacceptable to say, ‘We’ll report our findings after Election Day.’ These are things that Americans are entitled to know – and they are entitled to know right now. The President owes all Americans a full and prompt accounting of the facts.”

Romney wanted to sow seeds of doubt about White House leaks, but instead, with the trope trap in place, the line rebounds back on him like a evil spell cast into a mirror.

“tax records…. Americans are entitled to know….. full and prompt accounting of the facts please…after the election it’s too late……tax records…..Now!”

Tropes are wonderful, playful, and powerful elements of storytelling and whether we are delivering a speech or building an image, storytelling is the all important art form.

Here’s the thing though. Tropes work best when used to build and guild from a well defined foundation. When applied to obfuscation and evasiveness however, they morph, and once in process, that morphing becomes unpredictable.

Romney is still to find his dominant narrative. Further trope traps await.

Metaphor made easy


Magnificent metaphors bring your presentations to life. Start simple

by Peter Watts

Metaphor and simile bring speaking to life by creating comparisons between objects and concepts.

In normal speech we all use them constantly, yet when we attempt to consciously develop them for presentation purposes, those pesky little metaphors just seem to run and hide beneath the rocks.

This morning I was struck by a way to make it easy. You might say I was hit by a lightning bolt of inspiration, just moments after a literal lightning bolt had almost hit me!

It all started when, with a thunder storm rumbling in the distance, I went to look for our cat, who is to be found most mornings snoring beneath the porch swing. As I stepped through the front door the neighbourhood lit up ice-white around me.

A lightning bolt had touched down so close to where I was standing that I heard it land.

It was a most peculiar combination of sound. There was the inevitable zap, but at the same time an unexpected slapping sound. It had an oddly wet quality as the lightning licked into the ground. Most startling of all, a hiss that I can only liken to a warning snake.

Believe me, you never want to be standing right next to a clap of thunder. It hurts, although possibly not as much as it would have hurt if I’d been standing a little further over towards where the lightning had struck!

There are few elements that bind us in quite the same way as the primordial elements of sun, storm, fire and ice. Weather and temperature are the launch pads for countless metaphors, similes, and descriptions.

  • We can summon fast and furious by mentioning storms, tempests, blizzards, and hurricanes
  • We can condemn something as lacking passion when we describe it as damp, wet, or foggy
  • We can uplift by using phrases that are sunny, breezy, or bright
  • We can repel and distance through language that is cold, frozen, icy, or bitter

So much of our language revolves around weather, and yes, much of it collapses into everyday cliche. For everyday use in presentations however, I see no problem with this. For many presenters in the stressful moments of speaking in public, it can be a challenge to shade any degree of verbal color into their speaking at all.

Sure, weather based metaphors are often over-used, but they are only over-used because they are universal, because they are easy, and because they work!

Next time you are about to make a presentation, and would like to find an easy way into using metaphor and simile, try taking inspiration from the weather.

You’ll find that even though genuine lightning might only strike once in the same spot (I hope), lightning bolts of inspiration can strike again and again.

You people… Mrs Romney has a message

by Peter Watts

Ann Romney’s “you people” comments have today offered a privileged insight into the potential First Lady’s thoughts about the world beyond Planet Romney. Far more importantly however, they have given the rest of us (us people?) a reminder that despite our best efforts, our true attitudes towards our audiences will always, eventually, come out!

For those of you people yet to see the headlines, Ann blew a gasket today as she defended husband Mitt’s continued refusal to disclose his tax records.

“We’ve given you people all you need to know about our financial situation.”

The contempt implied by those two phrases “you people” and “all you need to know” made the internet light-up like the London Olympics, an event at which Mrs Romney is about to have one of her race horses competing.

Ann Romney is normally so word-perfectly on cue that it’s almost scary. So what went wrong for impeccably word-perfect Ann? How did the mask manage to drop with quite such a resounding thud?

It’s because even if we don’t necessarily like our audiences, it is a pre-requisite that at the very least we find it in ourselves to genuinely respect them. If we can’t command even this most basic level of common ground with the people we are addressing, then the truth of our contempt will always find its way out.


It might not come with the full power flourish demonstrated by Mrs Romney, but at the very least it will manifest through non-verbal behaviors and attitude, and audiences are super-sensitive to the tiniest hints of condescension, disrespect, or arrogance. High handed haughtiness is never a way to win friends and influence people.

Whenever you are speaking, or engaging in any activity that involves an audience, check-in with your own emotional state first.

What are you feeling towards the audience?

Is it positive?

If it can’t be positive, then at the very least, make it respectful.

Boy Scouts of America: An American value?


by Peter Watts

America has made itself the home of public speaking. A nation of free speech.

While other countries debate if public speaking skills even belong in the classroom, American children “Show and Tell” from the age of six. Once past the Show and Tell stage, Speech and Debate classes continue their development.

The Greeks and Romans started the art of oratory, and during the 20th and 21st centuries it was with their MLKs and JFKs, with their Reagans’ and Obamas’, that America championed oratory. That tradition is honored as American children continue to be equipped with self-belief and confidence.

To speak in public you need to own what you are saying, to own what you believe, and to believe in yourself.

Teaching someone to doubt themselves is to drain passion at its source. It is a form of abuse. To consciously teach someone to repress their identity, is not a value of America.

The Boy Scouts have this week voted to continue their own form of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, excluding gay youngsters from membership. For the Scouts, DADT is endorsed in its most extremist form: Don’t exist.

Making young people lie about their identity and to doubt themselves, is not a value of America.

They are teaching children and young adults to fib about themselves, to lie about themselves, and ultimately to deny themselves.

Denial of self-identity, is not a value of America.

It has been pointed out that according to a Supreme Court ruling back in 2000, that the Scouts are entitled to deny membership to whomsoever they like. Well, the same logic is used to keep people of color out of private colleges.

It doesn’t make it right. It merely makes it legal. Jim Crow laws were legal. While the Boy Scouts might be content to sit with such values, times have changed, and today, Jim Crow is not a value of America.

The decision of the Boy Scouts does have one positive aspect though. There is one wonderful way in which it can power speaking; it can power anger about injustice.

Anger about injustice has powered many of those great American speakers. Those MLKs, those JFKs, and all of those other great speakers who came before them were all powered by a burning rage against injustice.

To speak out against injustice, that is a value of America.

The passion of De Rochefoucauld

by Peter Watts

Within this superb little piece from John Zimmer, and containing a quote from the Francois de la Rochefoucald, lies the entire secret to public speaking.

Manner of Speaking

“Les passions sont les seuls orateurs qui persuadent toujours. Elles sont comme un art de la nature dont les règles sont infaillible; et l’homme le plus simple qui a de la passion persuade mieux que le plus éloquent qui n’en a point.”


“The passions are the only advocates which always persuade. They like are a natural art, the rules of which are infallible; and the simplest man with passion will be more persuasive than the most eloquent without.”

—  François de la Rochefoucauld

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7 steps to beating presentation procrastination

Seven simple ideas to beat procrastination. Don’t read later. Read now!

by Peter Watts

Procrastination is putting off a task we don’t want to do today, so that it can become a task we want to do even less tomorrow. Creating the opportunity to speak in public for example.

Ask any accomplished presenter and they will say that the sure-fire way to becoming accomplished is to get out there and practice, as often as possible. Presentations seldom seek us out.  To win those opportunities we have to create them, and that’s often a task we feel we can safely shelve for another day.

The first step to beating procrastination is to recognize that WE are the only people standing in the way of making the future happen.

Once that step is taken, here is the plan for beating the procrastination cycle:

  • Break the challenge down into logical tasks; Task one, task two, task three, and so forth. Task one for example, might be creating a list of your possible opportunities to speak. Task two might be building a list of the people you need to contact. Create a road map of those steps, and set out on them one by one. Assign deadlines for when tasks will be accomplished.
  • Starting out on the task can feel like the hardest part. As the Chinese saying goes: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”  Take that first foot-step and you’ll find that the second becomes easier. Movement builds momentum.
  • Seek out a mentor, someone who understands your goals and would be willing to nudge and nag you towards success.
  • Schedule tasks for appropriate times of the day. For example, gathering materials or contact names might be something you can do in low-energy moments after lunch, while creative work is better done while you are fresh in the morning.
  • Set out the tools. I personally procrastinate about building PowerPoint presentations, but if a client wants me to supply one, then my first step is to simply open PowerPoint on my laptop. If I don’t do this, it’s amazing how many other things I’ll be able to find to do instead, such as checking email. Once PowerPoint is open though, I’ve started the task, and design time is more likely to follow.
  • Celebrate your successes along each step. Rewards are a great way to get yourself doing something you don’t want to do. What can you treat yourself to as a reward for getting each task done?

Procrastination is the force that holds us back. Beat procrastination, and wonderful things are free to happen.

Microstyle: The art of writing little

A style guide that’s not a Style Guide. Ideal for writers and presenters

by Peter Watts

“Human attention is now the scare resource we all compete for”

Christopher Johnson’s “Microstyle” delivers a blueprint for how we can win our share of the scare resource. It is a travel guide for writing within the information economy.

Having read Microstyle around a year ago, I’ve had the chance to play with it’s ideas, and found them to work. The key-verb in that last sentence was “to play”. This is exactly what Christopher Johnson wants us to do.

He wants us to play with language in all it’s textures. Trained as a linguist, Johnson objects to what he calls “Big Style”; the grammarians who foam about split infinitives every time Captain Kirk utters the words “To boldly go….”

Language breathes. It lives and changes. 2,000 years ago the Roman orator Quintilian found fault with Roman grammarians attempting to set Latin style in concrete. Quintilian’s comment at the time was that if they didn’t let linguistic structures evolve, then Latin as a living language was doomed. Christopher Johnson would urge us to heed that lesson from history.

For someone who appears intent on demolishing “big style”, Johnson’s weapons of choice are a surprise. 90% originate in antiquity. He re-examines the rhetorical techniques of the Greeks and Romans, and integrates them into the modern world.

The guide shows how we can redeploy metaphor, tropes, and repetition techniques. Any Roman orator would have recognised the ideas, even if they wouldn’t have recognised the application to Twitter messages!

Along the way, Johnson exposes us as to why certain movie titles work, while others fail. He draws examples from wits such as Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde. He dives into poetry for an exploration of rhythm patterns that can make a micromessage leap off the screen. He demonstrates how to create blog and subject headings that intrigue and pull readers in.

The author states his goal as being to help social media writers achieve an “interaction of message, mind, and context, that will make meaning happen.”

He succeeds.

Social media presenting sales

by Peter Watts

The fields of social media, sales, and public speaking, can all benefit when they work together.

If public speaking can be thought of as blending a fine champagne, then the art of crafting social media is more akin to producing a cognac, distilling your message into something intense and immediate.

  • It teaches us to think in compelling sound bites
  • It teaches us to think in headlines that capture attention
  • It teaches us to give a story legs, with reasons for the audience to send the story viral.
  • It makes us think about the story-boards behind that story. Where does the message fit with our communication goals? Are we being consistent in our voice?

Disciplines for effective social media are disciplines that equally apply to public speaking. They are also disciplines that are sometimes forgotten by presenters.

A course in social media skills would be valuable learning for many!

Public speaking meanwhile, has ideas to contribute to the world of social media. At the heart of powerful speaking are techniques of word-play passed down since the times of the Greeks and Romans. These techniques of rhythm and repetition, contrast and combination are as wonderful when written as when spoken.

The Romans referred to them as being “the hidden darts”. Their role in a message is to make language stand-out, locking into the mind of the recipient.

In his book “Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little“, Christopher Johnson details how we can bring these techniques to social media messages. He states:

“We need a rhetoric for the web age – a rhetoric of the micromessage.”

This rhetoric of the web age will eventually evolve by itself, but it can come about more quickly if public speaking practitioners and social media professionals increasingly join forces and share their skills.

The disciplines of public speaking and social media are intensely complimentary. At their heart, each have the same goal: to produce audience action through the vehicle of a message.

As Johnson continues:

“A message…is like a key that opens doors.”

Public speaking has been opening doors for millennia. By understanding and combining the skills of social media, we can now open doors further and wider than ever before.

Sales meanwhile, are never afraid to ask for the business. Professional sales people maintain sight of how the product fits to the customer’s needs, and through that understanding develop the unique customer insights that lead to value. They also understand that for every customer journey, there must be an end-point; the sale. It is through awareness of the sales discipline, that public speaking and commercial social media efforts can continually focus on their goal.


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