Tim Spratt, Senior Consultant, The Kingstree Group, London
April this year marked the birthday, 255 years ago, of an extraordinary woman, Mary Wollstonecraft. Although we remember her today primarily for her early feminist manifesto, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, she saw herself as, and was in many respects, the first woman to stand 'on her own two feet' and to make her way in the world as a novelist and philosopher - without the support of any man.
As the 28-year-old writer wrote to her publisher in 1787, "I am going to be the first of a new genus. I tremble at the attempt." More than two centuries later, that new genus is in full swing. Women like Mary Wollstonecraft are no longer the exception. Her voice, once solitary, has been amplified by a chorus of millions.
In today’s world, a voice can be amplified many times through social media – but sometimes very poorly and sometimes with unintended consequences. So, I wonder what Mary Wollstonecraft would have made of it? Indeed I wonder if she might have asked the question ‘Have we lost the art of effective communication in today’s social media world?’
I ask the question because it seems to me that many people in business might now be questioning the value of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and the like. People are discovering, belatedly, the legal responsibilities of what they say on Twitter and Facebook. Is social media today really all it’s trumped up to be? And, what about the art of conversation – have we lost the knack?
In today’s new world of social media and 24/7 interactions, the art of spoken communication still has a crucial role. Particularly when it comes to presenting results, pitching for new business, building critical relationships, conducting internal group meetings and persuading fellow executives.
The question is, and always has been, how much time do we allow ourselves to spend in preparing a good presentation?
In today’s time-pressed work environments, there is an approach which allows presenters to achieve greater impact from their presentations and, importantly, spend less time preparing . The theory is based on the fact that in spoken communication, the vast majority of what we hear – and are influenced by – is drawn from everyday conversation with family, friends, and business colleagues. The delivery of this conversation comes naturally to most of us and is what the ear is used to hearing. So, if ‘everyday conversation’ defines how we usually speak and hear, then why not apply conversational technique to more formal meetings and presentations? Easier said than done in work environments that might appear to align with a more formal tone of communication. In that world, most people take the approach of: ‘I’ve got to fill 20 PowerPoint slides, I must convey 10 points, I’ve only got 25 minutes to do it, and once on stage I just want to get it done and over with!’. Not the most positive approach.
As a presentation coach, I have two pieces of advice I’d like anyone - regardless of their level – who has a presentation coming up to consider.
First, remember that your presentation must convey a set of memorable key messages that the audience will remember not just for a few minutes or hours afterwards, but maybe even for days and weeks.
Second, your presentation must convey the strength of your professional competence, and personality. It needs to say: ‘I’m a person you can do business with’. This second point, despite it being the subjective one, is often the most important to the listener. I suspect Mary Wollstonecraft understood this. None of us can help but assess the speaker in front of us, and it certainly fits in with Opportunity Now’s work around tackling unconscious bias in the workplace. An audience that is capable of leaving its bias at the door is one that will consider the content of the presentation and capability of the presenter first and foremost, rather than focus on their assumptions over the presenter.
So, when you prepare for your next presentation or speaking engagement – formal or informal - don’t think of a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ or of how you have to ‘behave and act’. Think instead of ‘how do I apply conversational technique to my more structured meetings, presentations or interviews?’
As the author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman", I think Mary Wollstonecraft must have recognised the value of spoken communication and its delivery. I think she would have also been very much in favour of the work of Opportunity Now in ensuring our workplaces are working for women - without bias and without barriers.
Senior Consultant, The Kingstree Group, London