Two weeks of beautiful sunshine, amazingly warm sea, extraordinary sights and exquisite cuisine is so nurturing to the mind, body and spirit. In fact so much so that it offers a priceless opportunity to ponder and reflect on where you are, why you are there and where you are heading.
Visiting the stunning island of Cyprus which is steeped in incredible beauty, romance and legend gave me a chance to think even more deeply about the business I created several years ago, Mindful Presenter.
As we share on our website, ‘Mindful Presenter was born out of a blend of frustration, curiosity and passion.’ Whilst I’ve always known and been able to explain exactly why, a welcome break always seems to bring even greater insights.
When I left the corporate world my intention was to fill what I had long experienced as an incredibly huge void in the way we speak to each other in business. I worked in a world full of extremely intelligent, creative, talented and responsible people for over 25 years but was always troubled by the bureaucracy most people were so immersed in that it stifled their voice.
A corporate world imbued with processes, systems, policies and protocols all designed to keep the corporate cogs slowly turning, day after day, year after year. Whilst they were all of course necessary in many respects and critical to the success and sustainability of each business I worked in, there was always something missing.
Whether it was a system fuelled by hierarchies, egos or simply maintaining the status quo, the one thing that seemed ubiquitous in business was that so many professionals sounded the same, especially when presenting their ideas.
It took many years to realise the damage we were doing in business and to each other before I had the courage to step out to find and share another way.
It began in the most unexpected way.
My son’s first day at school
19 years ago my wife and I sat with our son on hard plastic chairs in the front row of the assembly hall on his very first day at school. We were invited to join our son and the new cohort of anxious parents and 4 year olds to listen to the Head teacher’s welcome address.
10 minutes into his 30 minute speech my son looked up at me and with an expression of anguish said, “Daddy, this story is giving me a headache, what time does it finish?” More concerned with being reprimanded by the Head teacher for my son’s sudden outburst I hastened him to be quiet as I put my arm around him to reassure him that all was well.
A further 5 minutes into the Head teacher’s sermon I felt my son’s torment as I too was bored. I was uncomfortable, frustrated and even beginning to feel a little angry that the Head teacher seemed far more interested in getting through his script than how he was making us feel.
The more he spoke the more wounded I felt as it slowly dawned on me that this wasn’t to be the end of my suffering. My mind and attention wandered completely away from the Head teacher’s rambling as I experienced what I can only describe as ‘PTSD flashbacks’. These weren’t flashbacks associated with the horror of some major traumatic events; they were images of every day meetings at work. The lifeless lecture that the Head teacher was giving to an assembly hall of parents and 4 year old children clearly flicked a switch of consciousness in my mind.
I suddenly realised that whilst this was a new experience for my son it was one I experienced in the workplace several times each week and had been doing so for many years. 30 minutes of mindless, mundane, monotony designed purely to ‘dump’ information into the minds of unsuspecting souls was the norm and I simply hadn’t realised it. It took my 4 year old son to make me realise that what the Head teacher was doing to us that day was unkind, ineffective and unforgivable. Worse still I realised that all that Head teacher was doing was what professionals in organisations all over the world were doing to innocent audiences every day.
The flashbacks got worse
For the rest of the Head teacher’s speech my mind drifted off to relive every management meeting, senior management review, board meeting and conference I had ever sat through. None of them were hard to recall because each experience was remarkably similar to the one I was enduring that day with my wife and son in the assembly hall.
In each flashback I could see the same people sitting in exactly the same seats every month saying the same things in exactly the same way. The same volume, tone, solemn expressions and torrent of corporate speak. The same topics and key performance indicators presented with such lacklustre sameness that I finally understood the choice of the term ‘death’ by PowerPoint.
The journey begins
I could see exactly what was wrong, how much irreparable damage was being done in the way we spoke with and presented to each other in business. I could even see the solutions but they seemed so obvious and simple to me that I couldn’t understand why so many gifted and talented people were speaking to each other this way and why they simply wouldn’t just make the effort to change.
I couldn’t quite grasp why so many incredibly intelligent and creative mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters would suddenly lose their ability to connect with fellow human beings when they presented at work. Most of them wouldn’t dream of speaking to their families at home the way that Head teacher did to hundreds of people that day.
It occurred to me that the idea of being professional in the work place for many people meant that they had to display their expertise but not their personality, charm, thoughtfulness and energy.
I made a decision to learn everything I possibly could about the art of public speaking, presenting and communicating.
What the world was teaching
In the absolute belief and with the unwavering conviction that there must be another way to retain our professionalism, credibility and integrity but to be our authentic selves and to connect emotionally as well as intellectually I set out to find how.
I worked and studied with some of the most established and highly respected training organisations I could find in London. I listened very, very closely, I watched intently and like a giant sponge soaked up everything that I possibly could learn.
It was a fascinating journey in its own right because I soon realised that the challenge was far greater than I had ever imagined. Many of the organisations I worked with had what I regarded as some brilliant trainers and coaches teaching some very valuable ideas but there was a major problem. Many of the ideas they shared were based on academic models, theory or simply what sounded like a great way to approach communication skills. Unfortunately, it quickly became very clear to me that many of these brilliant trainers sharing what on the surface sounded like great ideas had never actually had to give a ‘real’ presentation in their life.
Many were actors, others were simply people who had been trained to train and a fair number seemed to have previously worked in the field of psychology. The only thing that most of them had in common when it came connecting with others in business was that they had never actually given a presentation to senior management, the board or speak at a conference. They had never had to present extremely difficult, complex or challenging ideas to professionals where the stakes were high.
They knew the theory of how to do it and could teach it very clearly to others but didn’t know what it was like to do so for themselves.
In other words, what I saw was much of what many of these teachers were teaching they hadn’t physically applied themselves in the ‘real’ world of business.
Not only did that not feel right but I could see so many serious flaws and potential problems in what they were teaching when applied to the ‘real world’ that I had operated in for so many years. Much of what they said sounded great in theory but simply wasn’t practical.
It was even worse than that as I witnessed trainers who were being paid large sums of money to teach people to :
Stop moving their hands
Speak like someone they simply weren’t
Speak with less passion
Speak exactly like the trainer spoke
Follow the crowd and present just as everyone else was rather than finding their own style.
I even remember one of the most experienced, valued and respected trainers one Company adored end a full day workshop after lunch because in his words ‘the delegates were stupid and didn’t get it anyway’. Please keep in mind that these were professionals who had paid large sums of money for a full day workshop.
Bizarrely, some of the very best trainers I worked with who complained bitterly about the way they were being forced to train went off to set up their own businesses to do exactly the same thing they had complained about so exhaustively.
We can’t all be like the late Steve Jobs
On my journey through learning what it takes to train and coach professionals to speak and present with authenticity and impact I stumbled across what I saw as another huge problem.
Many of the trainers I observed and worked with believed very strongly that all you had to follow were the ‘rules’ and you would be a great speaker. That on its own presented a significant dilemma as I could see very quickly that there were no rules as such when it came to presenting. There are of course many things that work far better than others but as soon as you regard them as ‘rules’ you are in danger of trying to ‘clone’ people by following their rules.
The end result of teaching people to follow the ‘rules’ of public speaking was to create a room full of the late , Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King or Winston Churchill’s.
The leadership challenge
Arguably, everything you need to know about high impact presenting and public speaking has already been learned and taught. In other words, there are countless books you can buy or articles you can download on the internet.
If you can read and follow the ‘rules’, with practice you can dramatically improve your communication skills. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that as you may imagine as once you have your newly acquired skills there are other obstacles to overcome.
I call it the leadership challenge and it’s a significant global and cultural issue. At Mindful Presenter we come across it every week with some of the biggest brands in the world that we work with. Here’s how it works.
You can learn all of the greatest tools and techniques that there are to become a more effective speaker or presenter but even when you have them intellectually it takes a great deal of courage and mindfulness to use them. We live in a world where a vast number of leaders have created cultures where people still cannot be themselves. Whichever industry, organisation or sector you choose to visit the one problem most of them have which many aren’t even aware of is the way they communicate.
It’s an issue which revolves around a lack of awareness around how a great number of people haven’t been taught how to find to value and express their true voice. The apathy and inertia in creating a culture where everyone has a voice which is valued and needs to be heard authentically and powerfully creates a culture of complacency and no one ever having the courage to challenge the status – quo.
Reading or simply learning the tools to high impact presenting and speaking simply isn’t enough. We need to be challenged, inspired and empowered to do so. Nothing changes until we change and a business or organisations communication culture never changes until someone has the courage to lead that change.
Panning for gold
People have been panning for gold since Ancient Rome and many have spent an entire lifetime searching for their fortune. Over the centuries vast numbers of people all of the world would sift patiently and painstakingly through tons of dirt, dust and rubble to find a single nugget of gold.
Since my son’s very first day at school in that assembly hall I have been panning for my own gold. For me that gold has represented:
– A way in which we can each speak with confidence, clarity and impact.
– A way in which we can be professional but still be true to ourselves as we speak with purpose, power and humility.
– A way in which we lead each time we speak to add value and to make a difference.
– A way in which we can connect with each other emotionally as well as intellectually even when we are at work.
– A way in which when we find and value our voice we can use it effectively with the courage to challenge the status- quo and lead real and positive change.
I’d like to extend my gratitude to the numerous organisations that have helped us over the years through the ‘panning’ process. Amongst all of the debris there were always nuggets of gold no matter how small. Mindful Presenter is the accumulation of all of those nuggets we found along the way with many, many more that we created.
We have filtered the dirt, dust and rubble to bring the gold to you, all though the panning process continues and always will.
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If this article has inspired you to learn a little more about how effective your presentation skills are you may want to take a look at our presentation training and presentation coaching pages to see how we may be able to help you. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.
Image courtesy of: flickr.com