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Tell us a Tale Part 1 – Character

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By Miriam Sarin

“A character is a work of art, a metaphor for human nature” – Robert McKee, Story

You cannot tell a story or an anecdote without a character. It won’t work. It rapidly becomes quite boring. What you would have told is merely a fact or observation, not a tale. It certainly won’t have the power, the reach or the depth that a story would have, because it has no character.

For example: If I were to present you with a map of northern Canada from the early 1900’s, with the coastal land marked in red, perhaps you’d be interested, perhaps not. It probably wouldn’t go much further than that.
If, as I presented the map, I told you that a British man called Parry (B) explored the coast, by ship, in the early 1800’s, we gain our first glimmer of story. Our brains perk up with questions, sniffing the air like bloodhounds: I wonder what that was like? I bet it was cold and harsh? Who else went with him? Did he have any narrow escapes? What is the story?!

It is through a person that a story truly becomes a story. Or as Will Storr, author of The Science of Storytelling, puts it, “all story is ultimately about character.” They are our lens through which we see and understand the world. This person shows us what matters, points us to the dangers, to the hope. We begin to live through them, emoting with them; what started as a fact is becoming an experience.

Experience forms a strong connection with your audience. Our pitch, our presentation, our speech, becomes a shared journey. It’s harder to say no when you’ve leaned into the relationship the narrative has created.

I believe the strongest stories to use when pitching or presenting, are your own, when you are the character, the voice, the heart. You become your greatest asset – you are now the one they relate to and emote with. And your story carries the credibility of authenticity.

So, go and tell your story.

Embrace Vulnerability

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By Mike Evans

Do you remember the National Lottery adverts with the big foam hand?

If you’re reading this and you’re not from the UK, we used to have weekly commercials for the Lotto. They used to show people going about their regular lives and a huge foam finger (like the ones from sports games) would come from the sky, break the clouds and point at them. The idea was that chance; luck; whichever noun you associate with winning, had chosen these people. This image, like a lot of images from advertising during our childhoods, is ingrained in my mind. There are lots of times in my life where the huge foam hand has pointed to things for me, and it’s just happened again!

Over the last year I ended a career that I had built over 15 years and started out in a new direction. I did this for a number of reasons. Some of the more compelling reasons were to have more control over my work, to have a better work/life balance and for life to be more comfortable. But starting something new has involved reaching out to new customers; proving that you are who they should trust and invest in. This doesn’t feel like I have control and it definitely doesn’t feel comfortable!

So, this past week, the big foam hand is back and it’s pointing at vulnerability.

Over the last few years my therapist and I have been discussing how I allow vulnerability to get in my way. It’s like a big barrier that almost shuts me down. Those who know me know that I normally have a lot of energy, but this is all stripped away from me when I feel vulnerable. I want to put my head in the sand and avoid putting myself out there.

Last week I launched new products and I had meetings with a business coach about taking my business to the next level. These new products further cement my decision to spend my life working as a coach. Exploring how I scale my business means that I will be making huge changes to my life going forward. I didn’t realise that I was starting to bury my head in the sand again, to protect myself, to avoid the vulnerability. I can tell you, honestly, at the age of 34, I have avoided vulnerability a lot of times and it never makes me feel better.

This week some of the signs that the big foam hand pointed at were; a friend asking me if I’ve seen Brené Brown’s The Call to Courage on Netflix; One of my closest friends telling me that she is struggling to know if running her business is worth it; Ferne Cotton on instagram talking about her new podcast with boxer Lawrence Okolie who journeyed from fast food worker to Olympic champion boxer in 4 years by just deciding to.

These moments are not epiphanies, they are reminders and I saw them because I had my eyes open.

I’ve been tempted to run away from the vulnerability of reaching out to new customers. Or rather to put my head in the sand and not try. The last few days have been a reminder. Putting yourself out there is exposing. We might fail. At some point though, you will try and succeed. We have to try.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Start to understand what scares you and ask it ‘why’? Today, I am asking myself, ‘What I am scared of and why…?’ It’s time to write those emails!

“The biggest gamble to should take is on yourself”- Lawrence Okolie

5 Ways to make a Good First Impression

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A second is all it takes. When we meet a new person, face to face or online, in that tiny window of time, the subconscious part of our brain (the limbic brain,) will have done what is referred to as, ‘thin slicing’; it will have made a whole load of judgements and assumptions about that person which will affect how we respond to them and/or respect them for the foreseeable future.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about a study that was conducted in the 90’s by Psychologist, Nalini Ambady, at Stanford University. Ambady showed a group of students three, 10 second videos of teachers teaching with the sound turned off. The students had no trouble deciding how effective each teacher was. The results from 5 second and then 2 second clips were remarkably consistent and matched up entirely with those from students who had been in the teacher’s classes for an entire semester.

From just 2 seconds the students were able to make scarily accurate judgements about the teacher’s honesty, likability, competence and professionalism.

Indeed, US Venture Capitalist and author of ‘The Start-up Community Way’, Brad Feld, remarked that, pretty much every time, he made up his mind about whether he’d invest in a company during their very first meeting.

In another instance, a friend of mine started a new job during the first UK lockdown and didn’t meet her colleagues face to face for a some time. There was one person she’d had a call or two with and had come away with the impression that he was constantly grumpy, uninterested and disengaged. When she eventually met him face to face, she was shocked to find out that he was actually really forthcoming and charming.

Often, the frantic world we live in doesn’t allow for a second chance. If decisions are made so quickly about us in job interviews, in pitches and presentations, in webinars and zoom gatherings… how can we make sure that we’re giving an immediately good impression?

1. Confidence:

Confidence is an abstract concept that is hard to pin down and quantify. The definition is: ‘the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something’, and surely that is an impression we want to give? So how do we achieve this? Well, body language is a huge part of it. Even if we’re not feeling particularly confident, we can make sure we look it. Firstly, open up the chest, make sure your shoulders are relaxed and slightly back and that you’re sitting or standing up straight. An open/tall posture says ‘inclusivity’ and ‘in control’ where as a closed one spells out ‘defensiveness’ and ‘untrustworthiness’. Secondly, smiling! A smile goes SUCH a long way and will, in turn, make the other person feel subconsciously happier. (For more on confidence: 5 ways to increase your confidence)

2. Visuals

Much as I wish this didn’t factor in the equation, the way we look has a profound affect on the way we are perceived. How I like to handle this one is to wear something that shows a bit of character. (Usually a fairly bright, patterned shirt – something that says ‘fun and professional’.) Even online, the way we look speaks volumes, so it’s worth giving it a bit of thought.

This not only applies to our own appearance but the appearance of our virtual background, our office or the coffee shop/restaurant we choose for a meeting place. All of these things have a big impact on our interactions.

3. Be yourself:

If you’ve done any personal branding or self development courses, you may well have a clear idea of what your message is, so bare that in mind. If not, just have a think about your objective for the meeting and don’t pretend to be anything you’re not. People invest in people and can tell when you’re being genuine or not.

4. Be Present:

It is so obvious when someone turns up to a meeting distracted. Even on the computer. You can absolutely tell when their mind is elsewhere and it leaves you feeling undervalued – a feeling that certainly won’t inspire a second meeting. So how to combat this? If time is tight, simply take 3 deep breaths to focus your attention towards the meeting, pitch, interview or whatever it may be. If time allows, spend a good 15 – 20 minutes beforehand going over research, revising your questions/answers/pitch, and physically/mentally preparing for the event.  (For more on this: 2 minute warm up for focus and energy And  How to bring the right kind of energy to a video call)

5. Focus on the other person:

Lastly, but possibly most importantly, turning your attention towards the person/people your speaking to makes a colossal difference to how they feel about you. If someone can tell that you’re genuinely interested in them, they will come away feeling valued and uplifted. It’s so easy to get completely wrapped up in what we want to say, what we want to put across and what we want to achieve, but this self-centred approach is in danger of coming across as just that – self centred. A person who’s attention is focused on others is always more attractive than a person who’s attention is focused on themselves.

Points 1 – 3 all take a bit of prep and require ‘self-focused thinking’. But after your preparation and personal work is done, have a go at turning your attention outwards and see where it gets you. Next time you make a first impression, it’s sure to be a good one.

Interview Preparation

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Have you ever been in a situation where someone says the following, dreaded sentence: ‘let’s all go around and say an interesting fact about ourselves?’ If you’re anything like me the idea of a compulsory group overshare with people you’ve just met is your idea of a nightmare. In the time it takes before my turn to speak I have two thoughts. 

  1. I have no interesting facts, I am the most boring person on the planet. 
  2. I must have a fact I’m sure, um, got it, no can’t say that they’ll think I’m a total moron, um, there must be something, um … I’ve got a brother? What a fail.

For me interviews can often feel like one long, ‘getting to know you’ exercise, and there’s no real time to think.

Wrong, there is time to think. You should definitely think when you’re being interviewed. But what there isn’t time to do is remember. An interview is not the time to sift through your memories trying to pick out a shiny example of a time when you have worked well in a team, or demonstrated leadership, or solved a problem.

So when is a good time to do this professional history scrutinising? You should definitely do it before an interview that’s for certain, but I would argue you should do it even earlier, while still in your current job. You should do it now, and you should do it regularly.

Rather than scrabbling about a week before your interview why not open a word document and begin an Interview Preparation Log. Keep it concise, but keep it regular. That way when you actually have an interview booked you will have a heap of examples so you can select the ones that will really show you off.

We all know that in any interview we will be asked certain questions, so do yourself a favour by writing down examples of you being amazing as and when they happen. These should include examples of when you have:

  • Worked well in a team
  • Taken on leadership
  • Demonstrated problem solving
  • Handled a difficult situation
  • Adapted to a new and difficult environment (e.g Covid-19!)
  • Worked under pressure. How did you react?
  • Failed at something. What did you learn?
  • Made a mistake. How did you deal with this?
  • Achieved a specific goal.

You should also keep a list of times when you have performed well and had your strengths confirmed, as well as times when your weaknesses were exposed and how you dealt with this. This will save time for the all-important ‘strengths and weaknesses’ question and will also keep prep time to a minimum before your next appraisal.

With all of this in place, next time you are asked to say something interesting about yourself, the answer will be right there on the tip of your tongue.

By Anna Nicholson

Virtual Impact

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Why is it that online communication can be so utterly exhausting, when all we’re doing is sitting down in our own homes, looking at a screen? And how can we keep our audience engaged when we’re not with them physically?

Something my mind has returned to many times over the past few weeks and has helped me answer these questions, is a presentation I had to give at drama school, entitled, ‘The difference between Live Theatre and Film/TV’. Essentially, ‘Live Vs Virtual’. The main points I highlighted that apply directly to the state we’re living in right now, are these:

  1. In live theatre you have a captive audience. They may switch off mentally, but you have a good opportunity to re-gain their attention. If someone loses interest when they are watching something on a screen at home, they can physically walk away, do something else or switch off their device. Now, when pitches, presentations and meetings are all happening online, we have little to no gauge of how much, or for how long, anyone on the receiving end is actually watching or listening. A client told me the other day that she’d been watching pitches online, and had switched off after about 1.30 minutes of each. She was therefore trying to cut her pitch down to be as short as possible. I told her that, no matter how long it is, people will keep listening if you make it interesting. There are a number of ways you can do this – connecting with what you’re saying for a start! It is well within our capability to keep people listening and engaged, but it takes effort and energy, even more so online than in real life.
  2. The element of risk is much greater in a live performance – anything could happen! Some of the best, most hilarious or thrilling moments during a performance come from mistakes. We might feel the emotion of suspense during an action thriller on TV, but we know that, ultimately, the actors have already recorded the scene and have (hopefully) come safe and sound out the other side. This is the same with a recorded pitch or presentation, and it can work for and against us. Making a video means that we have something durable and something we’ve been able to perfect, that can then reach a much wider virtual audience than if we were performing live. This is hugely important now and when we return to the old normal. The major ingredient that we may be lacking in a recording, however, is the adrenaline that comes with the risk of presenting in real life. When used well, adrenaline can be converted into energy. Again, this means that we have to put all the energy we can muster into the recording in order for it to reach the audience virtually.
  3. Emotion can be conveyed over a screen incredibly well – often a film or TV show makes me cry, as I’m sure it does many of us from time to time. Remarkably, this all happens through the senses of sight and sound. In live theatre, however, there is an extra ingredient. Something happens that makes it electric, and this is something that can’t be replaced…  I have heard time and again over the past month that people are finding online communication exhausting – psychotherapists, vicars, business owners. Who has found themselves almost shouting at their computer in order to make a point clearly? Who has come away feeling drained after back-to-back media calls? I think this is due to the lack of that extra, magic ingredient: the tangible energy exchange that happens between humans in real life. When we are with someone physically, we give out energy to them, and in turn, receive energy back which replaces some of what we’ve given. Whether between friend and friend, parent and child, or performer and audience, it is something irreplaceable. Author and Health Advisor, Dr. Lawrence Wilson calls this, Empathic Blending. He says, ‘it is very similar to… the phenomena in electricity and magnetism called induction’, and also refers to it as ‘resonance – when two frequencies of energy blend in such a way that they affect each other.’ The energy we receive from others – whether negative or positive – is undeniably stimulating. It effects us in a way that it can’t through a screen, and I, for one, have found that lack of stimulation from different people somewhat mundane. This, however, just emphasises the fact that, whilst we don’t have physical access to other humans, we need to work harder with our words and our bodies in order to communicate a message, and this requires energy.

As we continue to communicate online daily, it’s worth asking yourself, where is my energy coming from and how can I channel it wisely? If we have to generate it ourselves rather than receiving it from others, what can we do to ensure that we are in a good physical and mental state to have the greatest effect on a virtual audience? In his book, ‘When’, New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink says, “We are smarter, faster, dimmer, slower, more creative, and less creative in some parts of the day than others”. If you have the freedom to choose, why not try and schedule your calls or record your presentations in the part of the day you know you’re most energised? I personally find it really helpful to spend 15 – 30 minutes gently warming up, physically and vocally, before a call. Or perhaps for you it’s exercise, food, deep breathing and meditation, or routine that helps you feel energised.

Next time you have to conduct an important media call or record a presentation, why not make sure that you have done whatever it is that helps you to inject that extra bit of energy needed to really make a virtual impact?

Proactive/Reactive?

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“Going from 0 – 1 is the hardest part”, says Richard. H. Thaler, the American, Nobel Prize Winning Economist. I wholeheartedly agree with him, as I’m sure many of you will too. All the rest, the bits in-between 1 and 10 are easy! Easier at least. It’s finding that momentum to type the first word, open the book, take the first step outside for the run… or whatever it is you happen to be doing. Ideas and good intentions are great, but being proactive in making them happen is a different matter. We’re probably all familiar with the notion that cleaning the house or replying to all your WhatApp messages is much more important (or appealing!) than knuckling down to the one, probably more challenging task you actually need to do.

The new year is often a time for reflecting on what has happened the previous year, and making resolutions and plans, or forming dreams for the year ahead. This year I have decided to (try) and work on being more patient and calm in the face of conflict, and to do some serious triathlons. But how will this work in the moment when emotions are heightened, or when plunging into icy water for a training swim seems like the least appealing prospect in the world?

Steven Covey says in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People;

“Look at the word, responsibility – “response-ability” – the ability to choose your response. Highly Proactive people recognise that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behaviour. Their behaviour is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling…

Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and their performance. Proactive people can carry their own weather with them”.

We have the freedom to choose how we respond, and the brain power to be self-aware enough to reflect on how we have responded. This is a gift which brings with it a huge challenge. I think it would be naive to think that circumstances, conditions and conditioning don’t inform how we react in certain situations, (my mood is definitely affected by the weather!) but I definitely think we have the power to reflect and the power to change things that have become habitual. It takes 21 days to break a habit – only 3 weeks – but it requires work and dedication. This is what I tell clients who habitually shuffle when they speak – they can absolutely learn to stand still, but it will take work.

Similarly, if we have learnt to react negatively in certain situations – for example, snapping our nearest and dearest when they annoy us by accident, or telling ourselves there’s no way we can go running if it’s raining – we actually have the power to overcome these mental and physical responses. We can become proactive rather than reactive.

It’s much like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). In simpler terms I think it’s about dedicating time to developing ourselves, which requires self assessment and reflection. The first few weeks of January can feel like we’re shifting up through the gears on a rusty car that has been sitting in the drive for a long time over the festive season. But just because it’s a new year doesn’t mean we are new people… we are still very much ourselves, carrying all the same burdens and joys that we’ve built up over the course of our lives. The question is, during this time, how can we make small adjustments to elevate pro-activity and diminish reactivity? And how do we do this when things get busy, when the year properly gets going and work gets on top of us? The answers will be different for everyone but David Kolb (who invented the Experiential Learning Cycle Theory) argued,

An experience on its own is insufficient to facilitate learning. It needs to be followed by reflection on what happened, thoughts about what might happen if you do it differently and active experimentation on doing something differently and testing the results.

How to Combat Monotone

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When was the last time you sent a text to someone that was misinterpreted? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ended up in a difficult situation due to written words being read in a way they weren’t intended. I think that’s why emoji’s have become so widely used – they help express our emotion and the intention behind the words. Voice notes are even better, but a video says it all…

As many of you will know, the actual words we say only count for 7% of our face to face communication – according to Albert Merrabian’s Communication model – especially when it comes to expressing emotion. 38% is attributed to tone of voice, and the other 55%, body language. Despite this being the case, we often spend 93% of our time preparing what we are going to say in a presentation, and only about 7% (if that) working on how we’re going to say it!

The part I’m focusing on today is the 38% – tonality.

Speaking in monotone is an incredibly common occurrence in presentations. Suddenly, when put in front of an audience, a lot of people seem to default to speaking on one level, seemingly forgetting how to be expressive with their tone of voice. Perhaps this seems safe? Being expressive can feel vulnerable, so a classic defence method is to appear void of emotion. Or perhaps it’s because, once rehearsed and practised a few times, the meaning and connection is lost and the words become lifeless. But what is the result? The audience switches off, often within seconds! All the words sound the same and we start hearing a drone akin to white noise… perfect sleeping conditions!

So how can we combat this, and instead make more of an impact with the words we use? How can we inject meaning and increase tonality so that the words come alive – and thus, the audience. The technique outlined below will mean that monotone – i.e, boring – will cease to be an issue.

It’s something I used to with every line of a script: I’d circle the most important word in each sentence. This may sound tedious – and often it was – but when I didn’t do it, I would notice the difference; the text was in danger of becoming flat, and the meaning could be lost in a sea of words.

It’s a bit like when we read a book – important words are often written in italics for emphasis. This is, more often than not, found in dialogue, because when people are talking in real life, they emphasise the important words to make a point. We can do the same thing with a presentation, even if we’ve rehearsed it 100 times.

If you’ve ever had a workshop or a 1:1 with me, I may have asked you to do this with your text  -circle the most important words that you want to stand out. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to your expression. Sentences immediately become a lot more interesting. You’re metaphorically hitting your audience in the face with the word to keep them listening.

For people to whom this comes naturally and seems instinctive, it’s worth playing with placing the emphasis on different words to see how the meaning of a sentence is changed or enhanced. With the emphasis in the right places, your audience is far more likely to a) keep listening, and b) understand what you’re saying.

So here’s the challenge – with the next presentation you write, try circling the most important word in each sentence, and make sure you mirror this with your voice. (If you want to take it to the next level, you could even add in gesture!) This really simple technique is going to help with communication no end, and your presentations will come out of the danger zone of being boring!