The superpower value of storytelling

“We humans have been storytellers since pre-history. It’s hardwired into us as deeply as being able to locate water is hardwired into a frog. Storytelling confers on us an evolutionary advantage. It must do otherwise it would have atrophied years ago with the tail and hairy palms. Storytelling is one of the few abilities that cuts us out from all the other animals.”
Jim Crace, Guardian Review, 05.03.05

We all recognise a good story. Stories are a fundamental part of how we exercise our imaginations, organise our own understanding of the world, and connect with other people. Storytelling is a universal, ancient artform, which we enjoy for its own sake.
Storytelling has evolved as an artform from its pre-historic beginnings, to epic oral poetry, to literary novels, to a global cinema industry, to TikTok micro-narratives, and will continue to change to fit whatever new incarnation is round the corner. Early twentieth century British novelist E.M. Forster claimed that a story “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.”

Both invented and fact-based stories have an interesting relationship with the truth; even pure fiction needs to feel truthful for the audience to suspend disbelief, and real experience must always be shaped creatively to be intelligible. As storytellers, we should not get bogged down in literal accuracy but rather refrain from dishonest distortions for manipulative ends whether we’re in a fictional or non-fictional mode. The seductive power of stories puts a moral obligation on us to communicate with integrity.

Useful stories
Storytelling has many pragmatic uses for those of us who have specific goals to achieve.
A story gives us an opportunity to shape our own reality as well as that of others. The storyteller is in charge of the world of the story, what happens to the characters, and why. In particular, when we tell stories about ourselves, we take control of our identity. A personal story can encourage listeners to form a positive view of the storyteller/hero or dispel superficial assumptions or casual labels. In some circumstances, it can help the storyteller evolve or reframe their own perspective of past events.
As a child, I learned a lot about my family background through stories that Mā, my great-grandmother, told me about her youth and childhood in Latvia. My mother’s family had been refugees from the Soviet Occupation in the 1950s when she was a just baby. During my childhood, Mā’s stories were the only way I could form a sense of that side of my history and identity when there was no way to visit the country of my heritage. She described her Riga apartment block and the little cat who pushed the plate covering the dish of herrings resting on the balcony, how she sang in all the church choirs across town – Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox. Mā’s stories made such a powerful impact on me that I when I did finally travel there with my family in 1991, I had the pictures in my imagination to match the sights in real life.
Personal stories have a crucial application for job interviews and other professional situations, such as pitching for venture capital. They are essential for the audience – employers or investors – to develop trust in an individual.

Advocacy for individuals and communities also needs champions that are good storytellers. This will often involve sharing the stories of other people, while perhaps adding your own response or interpretation so you can guide the audience to actions you want them to take. Lord Alf Dubs, a member of the House of Lords in the UK Parliament and Human Rights campaigner, uses a seemingly inexhaustible resource of stories to bring the challenges of child refugees to public attention. These stories are very varied in content. He doesn’t just focus on anecdotes such touching encounters with an 16-year-old Syrian boy in the Calais Jungle, but also comic tales of shares barbed conversations with former British Prime Minister Theresa May about quotas. He speaks minimally of his own experience, preferring to foreground others.

Journalists report stories, rather than fact sheets, for a good reason. The objective for them is to capture and hold the public’s attention. They know that the best way to do this is supply a narrative to what otherwise might be a baffling or complicated bunch of characters and events. While the best of them aim for high standards of impartiality, they know that that have to direct our interpretations.

If you are in a leadership role in an organisation or business, storytelling is a natural way to communicate if you want others to take away meaning from your experiences or to engage in your vision.
Traditionally, we look up to storytellers as bearers of wisdom. As a leader, you will need to earn the respect that goes with your hierarchical role. Taking on the status of the storyteller will help you demonstrate your humanity, and that you are a leader with the imagination to take people along a journey to a deeper understanding – or even to a future reality.

Storytelling is one of the best ways for creating rapport with your stakeholders. In fact, without rapport, you won’t be able to persuade others to shift from their own fixed agendas. A well-told story is a lot more memorable than a rational list of points. You can reach our hearts as well as our minds.

Visual Storytelling in Remote Presentations

In live presentations, slides function as the speaker’s backdrop, and have a secondary role. When presentations move into a virtual realm, your visual storytelling becomes more central to your viewers’ experience. Your PowerPoint slides have an opportunity to shine – as long as you use them cleverly!

There are two aspects to how you can use images to engage your remote audience: taking them on a journey through the evidence, and appealing to their imagination through metaphor.


Mapping data and signposting the journey

PowerPoint is a visual medium, so use it to display images that make your point. The cumulative effect should be to bring your viewers to the conclusions you want without them feeling bludgeoned into agreement.

Careful how you compose the agenda slide, if you decide to use one at all. Your audience will be incentivised to pay attention if they can’t predict exactly what you’ll say next. You should give the audience a sense of direction, but not the whole plot. Signposts work best as hooks to prompt the viewer to want to learn more rather than as summaries of the content you’re about to share.

Charts and graphs are more viewer-friendly than tables. Dr Alex Reppel, expert in data visualisation, recommends keeping it simple. He quotes the example of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” For more inspiration, check out Information Is Beautiful for creative solutions.

Colour, contrast and good design help too. This doesn’t mean overloading a slide with colour, as using the whole rainbow creates its own visual clutter. Greyscale can be an elegant choice.

Your own drawings will be more personal and memorable than Clip Art, even if you’re not a professional illustrator. If you do have access to a team with design skills, make the most of this asset by sketching out what you want on paper and giving your rough version to the designer to translate into something professional.

In this spirit, cut all captions to images and photographs. Along with too much animation, these can be distracting. Avoid fancy transitions. Don’t crowd a single slide with many images. A blizzard of several slides, each with one powerful image, can be more effective.

If you use text, keep to a maximum of 5 words per slide. More than 5, and you will force your audience to read. If they’re reading, they won’t be listening to you. Think slogans, not paragraphs. In this context, words are pictures too. Even your choice of font will have a subtle emotional impact on the viewer.


Metaphor and imagery

A longstanding collaborator of mine, Alison Branagan (author of Making Sense of Business), uses a great exercise for nudging workshop participants to approach their presentations more creatively. Giving each participant a piece of paper and a set of coloured pens, she asks them to draw their presentation. Sometimes this uncovers extraordinary talent that the participant had never thought to access for communicating a business project. And even when the drawing is mainly composed of stick-figures, the activity nearly always prompts participants to come up with a fresh approach. A visual metaphor for their core message can really drive the message home by evoking an emotional response.

So, what if you want to use imagery in a real life presentation but you don’t have faith in your sketching abilities? Capturing your idea with a photograph is a slick and original option. For instance, an egg box with different coloured eggs could represent the idea of contrasts and diversity in a team; or a photograph of a tree could evoke the concept of growth while keeping your roots in tradition. Moreover, if you take your own photographs, you own the copyright!


Presenting slides remotely

When you share your slides, remember that they can’t do all the work on their own. Your voice is crucial for directing the viewers’ attention, and your energy is crucial for directing their feelings about the arguments you’re making. Talking relentlessly all through the event will exhaust your viewers, whose only hope will be to zone you out so that they can read in peace. Prepare to deliver a voiceover that primes the viewers emotionally through tone, but also leaves pauses for insights to sink in.

There’s a widespread expectation that the slides you use as a visual aid during a presentation have to do double duty as a takeaway reference for your audience. This is true whether we’re remote or IRL. The pressure that speakers feel to accommodate this requirement can force them into creating a dull, over-explained deck that makes them redundant as communicators. The best way to manage this challenge is to make twoversions: one for broadcast, and another for the audience to consume in private – whether before or after the actual event. Your handout version can be detailed, and provide all the extra information and explanation that someone might require. This will liberate you to create an appealing, uncluttered deck that will keep your audience focused while you, as the presenter, supply the significance to the visual elements that have hooked them into paying attention.


Whether you’re presenting live or remotely, don’t forget your slides are there to help you engage and persuade.

Your face in a box: how to curate your onscreen image

In a live environment, we exchange a huge amount of non-verbal information. We don’t usually acknowledge this, and most of the time we may not even be conscious of it. Yet our relationships are based much more on rapport than the words we exchange. We interpret physical proximity, gesture, posture, breathing, a whole range of barely perceptible noises, twitches, and, perhaps most importantly, eye contact.

A lot of this essential information is lost in remote communication. In Zoom, Microsoft Teams or any other platform, a 2D image of your face in a box is all that your viewer has to connect with, along with an electronically compressed version of your voice.

And that’s before you factor in all the technical tasks that demand our attention, and distract us from each other and our human needs. To add to the challenge, some elements aren’t within our control. We’ve all endured sporadic screen freezes where our meeting partners are caught in unflattering grimaces, or odd dislocations of sound and image. And if that’s happening to them, what on earth is happening with our image on their screens?

We can’t prevent Wi-Fi signals dropping unexpectedly, or the compatibility struggle between certain platforms and some hardware. We can’t change the fact that looking at another person’s eyes onscreen is not eye contact. Technology can’t help, or at least not yet. All this, we have to live with, for now.

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do to mitigate the alienating effect of remote communication.  Applying some basic principles will help you prepare better and manage better in the moment too.


Your face

Think about the picture you’re creating for your viewers. Make it easy for them to connect with you by choosing a central position for your face within the frame.

If you don’t know what the picture will look like, take a test before your video call. Check that sitting back or forward doesn’t chop off part of your head or to give people a view of the inside of your nostrils. Remember that you are being viewed from wherever your camera is positioned on your device, not by the screen itself. How far you are from the camera will determine how much of you the viewer will see. To paraphrase Father Ted, if you sit far away, your image will seem small and remote, while if you lean in close to your screen above the camera, your viewer may experience you as looming towards them.

Rather than hunching yourself uncomfortably to fit into the frame, try moving your device onto a stack of books to raise your laptop. If you’re using the camera on your phone or a tablet, you can benefit from a tripod (with a cradle to secure the device) to ensure you’re getting the best height and angle. Now that so much of our communication is remote, using a dedicated device for video conferencing seems less of an indulgence.

Some platforms chop up your frame in a way that you may not be able to preview, such as Microsoft Teams. So, it’s worth checking in with your meeting partners that they can see you properly at their end, particularly if you’re alternating between your face and screen-sharing slides.

If you need to demonstrate an activity, consider adding a secondary webcam. For instance, a piano teacher will want one camera to focus on her face, and another to capture her hands moving across a keyboard. If you need include whole body physical movements, you may need to stand up and position yourself at a distance from the device.

The value of good framing isn’t merely aesthetic. It’s about making rapport easier by removing anything that will distract your audience from connecting with you and your message.

If you have an important point to make, or want to share a moment of deep feeling, you will have to make the decision to tear your eyes away from the faces on your screen to gaze at the tiny pin-prick of the camera on your device. It will feel unnatural, and of course you won’t get any visual feedback from others as you would IRL. However, it creates an impression of eye contact for your meeting partners.

Don’t fix your gaze on the camera, however, unless you are conducting a webinar for a large number of people, whose faces you can’t view anyway. In a smaller meeting, you will still benefit from the limited information you can glean from looking at the faces of others, so do request that everyone keeps their video on.

Another challenge of communicating remotely from our homes is finding the space to create all these set ups. Good composition takes into account background and lighting too.



There’s no strict right or wrong about this, but be aware that your setting will feed the audience opportunities to make assumptions about you.

During the Covid 19 Lockdown, the overwhelming majority of us are working from home. Just finding a quiet room where we won’t be disturbed can be a challenge. Inevitably, bedrooms have become a refuge. However, consider whether the background of headboard and pillows is going to send the signal you want. My view is that it paints a picture of someone convalescing, which in current times, may be true in a literal sense!

Bookcases have become popular backgrounds if you want to present yourself as a learned expert. The BBC politics programme, Newsnight, has noted that men in particular have chosen to bulk up their status with well-packed shelves. Your reading material may become a hostage to fortune, though. For a satirical take, follow Bookcase Credibility on Twitter, for tongue-in-cheek personality analysis based on bookcase content and arrangement.

Another factor to consider is that the standard camera on a tablet or laptop will focus on everything in the frame, not just on you, so double-check for visual distractions within the environment. If you sit in front of anything too intriguing, like family photos or dramatic artworks, or even a controversial book you may find yourself upstaged.

If you don’t want to look like you’re making a scripted statement in a hostage video, avoid an entirely bare white wall. Zoom’s Virtual Backgrounds and background blurring apps have had a novelty moment, but now may signal to some that you have something to hide.

As you can see from the grid in the photo above, there are several ways of making good or bad choices. There’s an immediate impact on the quality of engagement for the viewer.



Light changes throughout the day, so be aware that what worked well in the morning may work badly in the evening. Be prepared to move to another spot so that you’re lit in a way that makes you properly visible at the very least, and flatters you at best.

In daytime, be prepared to draw your curtains or blinds if there’s too much glare. Sitting in front of a window on a bright day will turn you into a silhouette.

In the evening, if you have any table or freestanding lamps, rearrange them to give you “fill” light as well as light on your face. Experiment with what you have to hand before you invest in any new equipment. If you are going to take this more seriously, there’s lots of specific advice on the internet, such as

Three Point Lighting Setup (Best Lighting for YouTube Videos Tutorial

If you wear glasses, you have the extra challenge of handling reflections from your screen. Whatever, if your light is coming from just one source, you may end up with very stark contrasts. This is great for edgy film noir, but perhaps not the look you want to go for when pitching your organisation’s financial services to a new client.

Let’s think about evening shots. In the image on left side of the middle row of the grid, I have a few ordinary table lamps in front and to the left of me, and in front and to the right. No fancy extras, yet this arrangement provides a soft light that doesn’t create a lot of distraction. However, in the middle image of the top row, I’m just lit by the screen and it’s making me squint a bit. The darkness of the background creates a slightly uncomfortable vibe.

The first image of the top row is a decently lit daytime shot.

While all this may seem like a lot of preparation, if you regularly present from the same location, it is worth giving your setting and composition some thought. You’ll be rewarded later as you maintain your onscreen personal brand, and you can get on with the more important business of making a human connection.

The Vulnerable Communicator

I’m always slightly foxed when I encounter some of the words which are bandied about to characterise ideal behaviour for business interaction – words like “consistent”, “authentic” and “assertive”. I often reflect that rather than liberating people to be effective, they seem to be imposing a norm for people to comply with without allowing for the reality of their lives as human beings with emotional complexity, including their vulnerability.

It is actually difficult sometimes to be simultaneously authentic and assertive.

It’s easy to see why assertive influence is lauded; it’s a socially acceptable version of dominance, which is about directing other people what to do. Apparently, this is how good team players should win each other over and, of course, how leaders should lead. This is seen as much better than indirect ways of getting other people to do what you want, such as flirting or weeping. Manipulation is seen as bad. It interests me that, in patriarchal societies, the means generally available to men are direct while those available to women are indirect. In our post-patriarchal (sort of) society, we are all now obliged to exhibit nice dominant behaviour, while we make negative value judgements about other approaches. This seems to me to be limiting for both men and women.

In my work, I’m concerned with helping people when they are presenting, or communicating in less formal settings, especially when the stakes are high and they might feel a degree of stress.

I’d propose a different approach based on awareness, choice, flexibility and changing one’s non-verbal signals. Moreover, I’d suggest that it is more practical to be technical and external rather than internally driven, which for some seems to be the only change legitimised as authentic.

There should be an approach available which allows people to be honest about their own vulnerability, when they chose to be, rather than to feel compelled to supress it at all costs. Ultimately, they should be free to explore a range of behaviours for enhancing their connection with others.


The story your body tells others

An article in this week’s (6th April, 2013) New Scientist magazine, ‘Lost In Translation’, busts a few popular myths about body language, such as crossed arms as a sure-fire indicator of defensiveness. It suggests that perhaps an accurate congruence between body language and internal thought is less important than what messages other people habitually interpret from certain postures and gestures: “What matters is what others think it is telling them.”

It then goes on to ponder: “Can it be faked?”

Well, I can attest that there is a group of professional practitioners who have been successfully faking it for millennia. They are called actors.

What actors do is watch those whom they tend to call ‘real people’ – i.e. non-actors – in everyday situations. They then rehearse and deliberately play behaviours that they have observed have a certain impact. Different actors have different methods to get the outcomes they want, ranging from internally driven Stanislavski methods to the more external, physical Commedia del arte tradition.

The New Scientist points to findings by Dana Carney at the University of California, Berkeley, that changing body language can in fact change physiology, siting the evidence of significant percentage increases or decreases in testosterone or cortisol depending on whether the subjects were holding “high” or “low” power poses. (Psychological Science, vol 21, p1463).

Again, actors over the ages would have been able to supply anecdotal evidence of this as a route into finding their way into a character. There is a kind of feedback from acting angry on the outside to feeling angry on the inside, for instance. The body influences the mind.

Carney, and the New Scientist, implicitly suggest that “high power” is desirable and low is to be avoided. In other words, let’s all be assertive all the time.

This tack belies the truth of how real communication happens between human beings. There are times when nothing resonates more than vulnerability and it can become a powerful conduit for a message.

In a TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy speaks about the transformative impact on her life of “power posing”, presumably similar in nature to that explored by Carney. What’s interesting, and perhaps ironic, is that her presentation is not all characterised by high power. At one point, she appears to be holding back tears while speaking fluently and movingly about her experience. It is not a “power pose” but her harnessed vulnerability which makes this such electric and memorable viewing. She is no less persuasive because of this, in fact, perhaps more so.


Harnessed vulnerability

To be vulnerable is to be human. Without an indication that someone has a degree of vulnerability, it’s difficult to warm to that person. The dropped pencil, the fluffed word, the admission that there’s an area in which you’re not an expert – all these factors paradoxically can enhance your standing. Enhance it, that is, as long as you don’t appear to be horrified at your own apparent loss of face. The moment when you lose an audience is not when you stumble over a percentage point but the moment after, when your whole demeanour collapses in apology. This inability to accept anything less than perfection from yourself is actually a bigger weakness than being relaxed about small flaws.

In my work with clients and students, I can see what a big challenge it is for many first to identify what physical signals they are sending, then to assess how these look to an audience, and finally to resist the impulse to keep doing things which they now understand undermine them. It takes practice.

If we could genuinely lose the mind-set of over-protecting ourselves against audiences and striving for an un-crackable shell of high status, it would be a huge bonus.


High and low status

As dramatists ancient and modern know well, there is nothing so compelling as watching a high-status player tumble from a great height. Whether this is the fictional Oedipus of Sophocles’s eponymous tragedy or the mesmerising TV viewing of Rupert Murdoch claiming to a public enquiry that: “This is the most humble day of my life”. Many observers reacted with glee and derision to the latter’s humbling; it was so long in coming that the sentiments could be barely be interpreted as sincere.

So, even leaders who commit successfully to projecting invulnerability over a long period of time eventually find this strategy has its short-comings.

Politicians are a tribe who suffer particularly from the desire to appear without flaws and gaff-free. It’s therefore interesting to note how one of the most popular current political figures in the UK is not someone who projects high status authority in all circumstances, but a character who happily exploits his slips into clown-like self-abasement to charm people, even those who may not necessarily share his values or agree with his policies. I’m a speaking, of course, of Boris Johnson. This well-received thank-you speech at the end of the 2012 Olympics is a great example. Another memorable moment was the zip-wire stall which Boris managed to present as endearing rather than humiliating.

Johnson’s daring lies in robbing detractors the chance to cut him down to size by owning his own vulnerability and selling it back to the crowd. What happens when you mismanage that is beautifully illustrated by Nick Clegg’s unwitting You Tube hit , when he gave others all the ammunition they needed.


Choosing your power

The single ingredient which enables public speakers and presenters to own their vulnerability is an ease with themselves. Quite simply, you need the courage and the technique to relax.

This is major element of the training and coaching work that I undertake with my clients. They’re often surprised at the impact of regulating their breathing on their own physiology and on the audience’s perception of them.

When you’re relaxed, you can connect deeply with your own message and with your audience. Then the unexpected can happen without damaging your essence. Athletes call it being in the zone. Then, you’ll have the right kind of invulnerability.

Power poses might be a valid starting point, but I’d argue it is a crude technique which only values one end of the spectrum. It might be more effective to consider what kind of rapport or impact would be more likely to win people over in a particular situation. A high, assertive stance is not always best.

Keith Johnson’s classic manual for actors, Impro, published in 1981, explored how all our lives are governed by the rules of status (or power), which have nothing to do with social standing, class or organisational hierarchy but everything to do with non-verbal signals. In an autobiographical section, he describes the impact made on him by a teacher at his school who earned the respect of his pupils through his expertise in adapting his status for the situation, rather than by relying exclusively on a high status pose to exert authority. Johnson suggested an actor’s ability to shift up and down along a spectrum could give him or her the possibility of being both compelling and credible in an endless variety of situations. Playing with status, or power, might be an effective tool for presenters and all kinds of ‘real people’ – as well as actors.

The best communicators exercise their choices judiciously and are not stuck in default mode. Whether they are deferring to others or leading from the front, whether they are baring their souls or sharing a joke against themselves, they are connecting with the message and the audience.

They are masters not just of assertiveness, but also of vulnerability and flexibility.

The risks and rewards of pausing

One of the most frequent self-criticisms people make of themselves as public speakers is that they rush through their prepared message to the detriment of both clarity and comfort. While I believe people can be excessively harsh on themselves when assessing their performance, this is a fair insight.

In most cases, my advice to speakers is to slow the delivery down by inserting some pauses between points rather than to focus on consciously altering the pace of speech. That gives the speaker, who has many things to do at once, the relatively simple extra task of remembering to stop every now and then rather than to have concentrate continually on monitoring tempo when she be should focused on engaging the audience.

Actually, pauses are the speaker’s best friend even when rushing isn’t the speaker’s main fault.

Speakers need pauses to breathe. Breath keeps us alive, obviously, but under stressful conditions, when the flight or fight mechanism kicks in, the body leaps into defensive emergency behaviour. That can result in fast, shallow breathing. Terrible things happen to the voice and to mental focus without full, regular breaths. In other words, a speaker will feel better and speak better if she is prepared to pause to allow the breath to settle.

Audiences love pauses. They create the space for meaning to land. They can also add drama and suspense. The effectiveness of the pause is further enhanced if the speaker holds eye contact over the duration. Even when the speaker is pausing merely because she has been instructed to do so as an exercise – and is not driven by an authentic internal impulse – the audience frequently report that the pause/eye contact combination made the message seem more significant and more emotional. Depending on the context, the audience will go on to endow the speaker with gravitas, sensitivity or other flatteringly appropriate qualities, whether or not the speaker is aiming to demonstrate these or not. The audience is often galvanised or moved within the silence after the message rather than during the delivery of the message itself.

The very neutrality of a pause appears to provide an invaluable blank canvas on to which the audience projects a positive interpretation – as long as the speaker isn’t undermining herself in other non-verbal ways.

It seems, then, it would be a no brainer for speakers to embrace pauses when making presentations. Yet, in fact, this is something many people struggle to do. Sometimes they do indeed deliberately sabotage the pause with eye-rolling or grimaces, if only to prove the ghastly unreasonableness of my suggestion. There seems to be something about standing in silence in front of a group of staring people, even for a moment, which makes speakers deeply uncomfortable.

In exercises with my clients and students, I notice that however positively the audience responds to pauses, the speaker can find it difficult to incorporate the feedback.

So why do speakers find pausing such a challenge?

People are more used to having conversations than making presentations. These are very different modes of communication with different rules. Because we are so expert in conversations, we frequently import the rules of conversation into presentations with not such felicitous results.

In a conversation we take turns in who speaks, while in a presentation one person has an unusually long turn while the others listen. When conversing, we instinctively fill gaps between our words with “ums” and “errs” to signal to the other person that we haven’t finished and it isn’t the other person’s turn yet. This trick backfires in presentations. If we supress any natural pauses which arise over the course of a speech with conversational “ums” we begin to muddy the clarity of our argument. In the same way, a written page would be difficult to read if the layout were cluttered and without any white space relieving the blocks of text. Anyway, since audiences already know not to interrupt, the “um” merely has the negative impact of making the speaker look unconfident of the right to speak.

Even more interesting is the speaker’s perception of how long she has paused. Even when encouraged to leave a long gap, the speaker will foreshorten the pause so that for the audience it barely registers at all. When challenged, most speakers will insist that they have paused for a really long time.

I used to explain this phenomenon in the vaguest terms, opining that the experience of time in the spotlight was different to time spent in the audience. My recent reading of Claudia Hammond’s book Time Warped has finally provided me with some evidential support on the distorting effect of fear on the perception of time. In experiments where people believe themselves to be danger, time slows down for them to the extent that they will overestimate that a minute has passed when actually only 40 seconds of clock time have elapsed.

Although people making presentations are not literally in danger, their fears lead them to behave as if they are, with the same consequences for their sense of timing.

These are not easy habits to break but, with practice, speakers do get much better. Partly their sense of timing becomes better through repetition, but they can also become adept at using techniques for focusing and relaxing which correct the distortion caused by their fears.

There are many aspects to making good presentations and speeches. However, mastering this one simple but thorny trick – the pause – will create the opportunity for you to make a deeper, more positive impact on your audience.


The Revolution Will Not Be Delivered On PowerPoint: some reflections on feminism, presence and communication

Is there a correct way to use feminism to improve women’s lives? There seems to be no shortage of theories, role models, mentoring schemes or coaching programmes, all jostling for prominence. Some even claim to offer the definitive analysis of what’s wrong and to promise a total cure.

I have twenty years’ experience as a training consultant in communication, influencing and public speaking for clients of many hues and flavours. I pass on insights, skills and practices to enable them to persuade others, and to have choices about the impact they make. Much of what I teach has its origins in the other side of my double life – theatre-making. The approaches are to do with performance and creativity. Although the techniques themselves are genderless, the people deploying them are gendered, of course, as are their audiences. Their relationships are conducted within particular cultures with particular ways of doing things that often appear – to their natives, at least – immutable.

As a feminist myself, my values inform my own practice as a coach and tutor. There are many occasions, whether with single sex or mixed groups, that I have to admit that I have sneaked in a little bit of feminism under the radar when the stated purpose of the workshop was simply to equip people to be better public speakers. At other times, it’s been easy to be explicit about my agenda.

Coaching to develop voice and presence may be a pragmatic, individualistic response to the challenges thrown up by gender and culture. It has recently come in for some stick from a few Ivy League academics; Hermina Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah M. Kolb take a dim view of me and my ilk in Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers in the Harvard Business Review, 1 September 2013.

Their piece investigates why women are still held back in their careers despite the good intentions of companies. They recount how many women are caught in a double-bind, damned if they do conform to stereotypes and damned if they don’t. The authors try to maintain a distinction between how women are perceived and their actual identities as people, speaking carefully about “conventionally feminine style”. Despite all this tightrope-walking, they don’t altogether manage to avoid generalisations themselves.

They critique the work of communication coaches by claiming that attempts to give women support in career advancement is based on “the premise is that women have not been socialized to compete successfully in the world of men, so they must be taught the skills and styles their male counterparts acquire as a matter of course.”

I don’t teach women to behave as men. Moreover, I disagree that the non-verbal expression of informal power (or ‘status’) – if this is what they mean by the vague phrase “skills and styles” – is an intrinsically male attribute. I also take a nuanced view on how status should be deployed when influencing others; dominance is not always best policy – for anyone.

My contention is that everyone benefits when there’s equality of contribution from the most diverse range of voices. My role is to empower my clients, whoever they are. When individuals are relaxed, they have choices about how to communicate. Rather than finding themselves driven by flight or flight mechanisms into behaving according to what they might consider culturally acceptable modes, they can pick what works in the moment. If anything, as communication coaches we are de-socialising people.

Ibarra, Ely and Kolb follow up this misconception with another claim for which they provide no evidence:

“Overinvestment in one’s image diminishes the emotional and motivational resources available for larger purposes. People who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure, and less capable of self-regulation.”

How does one quantify “overinvestment”? It seems that, for the authors, any focus on perception is suspect. Yet, perceptions do count. My clients and I manage to work together on clarifying purpose and crafting the message itself as well as influencing the audience’s perceptions of the speaker, not just through language but also non-verbal signals.

I’d like to relate some case studies from my professional life as a coach and trainer when I’ve worked explicitly with women in their aims to empower themselves. I’ll demonstrate that the coaching/training approach can accommodate discussion, practice, personal reflection and the test of the real world.


The corporate HR vice-president

“I remember when I started out in the late 1970s what things used to be like in the workplace for women. There was a senior guy who used to regularly toss a 50p coin across my desk and leer at me. ‘Go and get my fags, Blondie!’ he’d say. This was in spite of my having a post-graduate qualification in employment law.”

“Blondie” is now the HR Vice President of the EMEA division of a major multinational corporate. She is an energetic woman, with a warm sense of humour and a stylish taste for sharply-tailored, jewel-coloured dresses. Attitudes have shifted since the seventies, and cigarettes are a lot more expensive. Blondie is not the VP’s real name, of course.

The VP had identified that her mainly female team of HR managers were struggling with influencing upwards, and she wanted them to be equipped with non-verbal communication techniques to manage better. I’ve collaborated with her on several occasions, creating and delivering workshops for her team and coaching her directly in how to train others.

According to the VP, these workshops have had a positive impact, not least because they now have a common language to discuss body language and power. She reinforces the broad portfolio of soft skills training programmes by mentoring women in her team herself. One, she describes as “competent, but on the dull side!” She seems determined to light her mentee’s spark, and fan the flames of her ambitions.

Her approach is constructive rather than merely critical. For instance, she believes men have vulnerabilities as well as women, but that it needs to be acknowledged that the different genders handle their vulnerabilities differently.

“But it’s not all sorted,” she says. “And it’s still more difficult for a woman to make her voice heard than it is for her male colleagues. I’m the only woman in a senior team of alpha males. Most of them don’t have any sense of caution or self-restraint, and they’re not great at listening. I have had to say – on several occasions – will you just let me finish this sentence?” she sighs.

She believes that women in power can benefit everyone, not just the female workforce. She reminds me what happened when she influenced the (male) Sales Director to join in our workshops on body language and power. The games, she reckons, unlocked everyone’s imagination and playfulness – which led to us roping in bemused but willing hotel staff in the role-play. This did much to open people’s minds to possibilities and develop their confidence. The Sales Director too became a passionate advocate. He rolled the training out across the division, leading to improved performance across the board. This action contributed directly to his promotion in the organisation. Listening to and valuing women’s contribution, the VP believes, is self-evidently good for business.

The VP emphasises that although overt sexism is no longer normal, there is still much work to be done to make the office a place where women and men work together on genuinely equal terms.

This seems to be a commonplace in the non-profit sector as much as in the corporate, according to many senior women with whom I’ve collaborated. I’m struck by the number of female CEOs of charities who profess to struggle with managing their relationships with male trustees. Several have disclosed to me how much energy they have to expend in containing male egos, when they would have preferred to focus unhindered on leading their organisations.

“But yes, things have definitely improved,” the VP adds, with a smile. “Taking the chance, getting noticed, was harder work back then. Now it’s more normal that everyone is considered for promotion, male or female.”


A member of a Women’s Empowerment group at SOAS

Naturally, younger women are doing it for themselves as well. Millennials have reinvigorated feminism by using social media campaigns to call out wrongs, such Everyday Sexism. More broadly, they are looking at conditions for women and approaches to change with a fresh eye. Inclusivity is a watchword. I’m intrigued as to how far this extends to supporting each other offline in what is still, for me, the ‘real’ world.

In Spring 2017, a few female MA students from the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London, took the initiative to set up a women’s empowerment group in response to what they felt was a male-dominated programme. They secured the support of the SOAS establishment along with a small budget to fund their project, which encompassed talks and panel discussions with high-level women (including the Director of SOAS, Baroness Valerie Amos); practical training workshops; and a Facebook group for sharing experiences and opinions.

I was involved in creating and delivering a workshop on women’s impact and presence. Along with the practical exercises and games, we discussed why “assertiveness” is so often touted as an ideal. Why should one always have to make sure one is coming across as nice while exercising power? And by the same token, why assume that it is always effective to project high status? From the feedback, it was evident that the women especially valued the physical nature of the workshop, and the chance to play.

Afterwards, I met with Carla Moll Pinto to talk further. Carla had been a lively participant in my workshop. She remarked that the role-play helped her discover that changing her body-language depending on the scenario was within her scope, and that it inspired her to see that she could “be anyone, with practice”. However, I was also interested in her wider experience of the Women’s Empowerment Group and its impact on her.

Carla is a part-time Masters student who is studying while continuing to work in a full-time job in advertising and marketing. Her professional goals are to work in corporate social responsibility and “to change things from the inside”. She didn’t initiate the group and doesn’t completely share the perception of some of her peers that the MA programme or the sector is male-dominated. She acknowledges that some women felt uninspired by the lack of diversity. Although there were brilliant female lecturers teaching on the MA programme, negotiation workshops were conducted exclusively by retired British diplomats, AKA “old white men”. She rejects the idea that this is problematic and puts it down to mere historical circumstance. “We can change the future,” she says, “And maybe in 15 years, we millennials will be the role models to future leaders.”

So what does feminism mean for Carla?

“I’m still in the process of understanding what I think,” she concedes.

One particular panel discussion, however, helped her move closer to crystallising her own views. The first two speakers extolled the benefits of working hard and being better than the boys. As chance would have it, both these speakers subsequently left the room after their contributions due to pressing engagements. Upon their departure, the third speaker tossed aside her notes aside in a dramatic gesture.

“Well,” said the lecturer, of her co-panellists, “What the hell was that? That was bullshit!”

A frisson of shock rippled through the room. The speaker was Noga Glucksam, an International Security lecturer at SOAS, and evidently a charismatic communicator. (“She was like an actress, actually,” Carla adds.) Immediately, Carla felt a sense of identification with this rebellious stance. What really resonated with Carla was the speaker’s opinion that we are all shaped by own individual past experiences, gender is merely one element in the mix, and that there is no specific way that women should behave.

Carla is a proactive, extrovert young woman with a dynamic attitude, yet she doesn’t consistently feel confident in every situation.

“I know things, but I don’t always know how to convey them, and I get nervous. I’m a good talker, but when it comes to technical things, sometimes I struggle. And it happens at home too, with my dad and my brothers. They always talk about politics and economics, and I feel I always lag behind. I’d rather be quiet than say something I’m not sure about.”

She attributes her challenges as much to other factors – having a disability, or speaking in English rather her native Spanish language – rather than exclusively to being a woman.

Since taking part in the Women’s Empowerment group, Carla has seen changes in close friends but also within the wider group. She recounts how in the Facebook group, that people “are more motivated to share things. Sometimes you see things and you don’t share them… because people label you. Always on Facebook, you need to be very careful about what you upload on your wall, because then it’s there, and then people can create an idea of you, or they label you – ah, this is a left-wing feminist, or a right-wing conservative. It’s really, really easy to judge somebody on Facebook and decide which side you are on. On the Empowerment Group page, people will share more there. Sometimes you will like what is uploaded, sometimes you won’t. But there is a space to share and I think that’s the main change that I’ve seen. In terms of life and relationships, I haven’t seen anything yet, but then it’s difficult, because we had exams and then everyone disappeared! It will be interesting to see what will happen this coming academic year.“

I’m struck by Carla’s caution about generalisations, and her sometimes conflicted feelings about taking a definitive position on the issues. She explains that she likes to base her opinions on evidence. The Group has given Carla an opportunity to research and become more informed. She says she has now moderated her individualistic, pragmatic stance, and now believes that there are some common issues that do need a collaborative approach for change.

I asked Carla what she thought should change for women specifically in the workplace. Her response this time was unequivocal: “Equal Pay, and in our sector, International Relations, there needs to be the involvement of more women.”


Young Girls in Newham

In 2014, I contributed to a project called the Emerging Scholars Intervention Programme (ESIP). Based in Newham, East London, this project identified girls who were promising, although not yet fulfilling their potential. The programme was provided for students in Years 8 through to 10 from three schools in the borough. It was delivered over ten sessions per year, and involved many different professionals from different fields of expertise. The programme’s aims were to:

  1. Develop resilience through challenge and support;
  2. Inspire new interest in subjects and topics through original perspectives and depth, increasing ability and achievement;
  3. Stimulate skills development for life, work and learning;
  4. Support development and expression of aspiration and a lifelong passion;
  5. Create a movement of change to inspire schools, parents and communities.

My first participation was as a delegate at the ESIP conference ‘Business Meets Emerging Scholars’, which was an opportunity for the students to meet professionals and business people. There were presentations from some of the girls and plenty of conversation. Taking part in our particular round table discussion, and particularly impressive, were an employment judge, Julia Jones; and Andréa Watts, a former art therapist and the founder of a company called UnglueYou, which helps people visualise their goals by using collage. Both women are black. Overall, the invited male and female professionals were a diverse group in terms of heritage, values and work life. So, the students had both the benefit of hearing different perspectives, and the opportunity to find points of identification with several different adults.

I contributed further to ESIP later in the year by providing a workshop for year 10 students called ‘Me and My Voice’. We explored how we send signals about who we are to others by playing improvisation and storytelling games, taking on different ‘status’ roles, voices and physicalities. Although this work involves exercises I normally use with adults, it was interesting for me to refashion them for a new age group and context. The girls grasped the objectives quickly, and responded to each other in a lively, creative way. This is not to say that they all necessarily found it easy, yet everyone took on the challenges with courage.

I had some of the most rewarding feedback of my career, and was impressed by the degree to which the students went away and thought deeply about how they could apply their discoveries to their lives. A comment from one girl was: “Fundamentally, I have learnt that I can make a choice and not let people dictate what my path is in life. Furthermore, that status is something we choose to present and we should make use of the choice.” Another student said: “I would love more sessions like this. The more uncomfortable the sessions make us feel, the more fears we conquer and the more confident we become.”

I met the girls again at the end of their programme when I was part of a panel evaluating their final presentations in which they each shared their own Big Audacious Goal. These were varied including: becoming a Member of Parliament; qualifying and embarking on a career as a pharmacist; and setting up an educational charity for young people in the developing world.

There were many more events, outings and mentoring sessions than I was involved in myself. All together, this was a resource-rich support for girls who would not have necessarily have allowed themselves the ambitions they grew into over the course of the programme.

This extraordinary project was the brain-child – surprisingly – of a man, Dr Simon Davey. If not exactly one of us, he is certainly a fellow traveller.


How to do feminism

While Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers provoked me with its misconceptions about own field of expertise, there were also other wider points the authors raise with which I want to engage. Reflecting on a few contrasting examples from my own collaborations with clients raises one big question for me: how can I pull together these diverse experiences and opinions to provide me – and perhaps others – with some guidelines on how to contribute towards redressing gender equality in the workplace in a way that feels both manageable and ambitious?


Purpose versus Perception

Identifying one’s purpose is vital for leading others in any endeavour and living meaningfully oneself. There is indeed a distinction to be made between purpose and perception. However, I’d like to explain in more detail why I think Ibarra et al set up a false conflict between “image” and “larger purpose”.

In my other life as an artist, I’m able to accomplish both the writing of a theatre piece and its subsequent performance in front of an audience. For me, these are complementary, not contradictory, activities. Once an idea is fully developed, it’s natural to want to put it out into the world and persuade others of its value. Establishing the credibility of the speaker is part of this task. In fact, if our early attempts at persuasion are not as successful as we would like, we need to go back to the drawing board to consider our larger purpose before we try again. This iterative process clarifies the message as well as its transmission. Sometimes we need to change the words, sometimes the delivery, and occasionally we need to rethink altogether. We call this rehearsal in the theatre. It is all about learning from failure and developing the necessary discipline to handle the stress of the difficult circumstances in which we must sometimes operate.

Telling women not to bother with how they are perceived is unhelpful. Anyone who wants to be persuasive should bother about how they are perceived. This means the opposite to enslaving oneself to others’ assumptions. Rather, it is about using one’s judgement about how as well as what to communicate.

None of the women I’ve trained report feeling constrained by rules or ‘masculinised’. Instead, they describe how they feel liberated to play a range of status behaviours, or how great it feels to use their voices with energy and freedom, or how empowered it is to be able to choose the impact they make on others.

Naturally, to begin with, all these techniques can do is give individual women leverage in an uneven playing field. However, the more women make conscious choices about their communication, the more others will respond to these women on their own terms rather than according to previous norms.


Respecting others’ experiences and viewpoints

We still have to contend with the long-held cultural assumption that masculinity and leadership are linked. It’s just as dangerous to generalise about femininity and female leadership styles, and to conclude that these are necessarily more benign. The women I’ve worked with have been extremely diverse – street-wise and naïve; self-effacing and show-offy; collaborative and individualistic; thick-skinned and sensitive to criticism; good listeners and bad. They have not all been held back by limiting assumptions about women and leadership, although undoubtedly some have been.

In the 1970s, “Blondie” had to be very determined to overcome the demeaning way she was treated early in her career. Knowing her story, I’m impressed that she has nevertheless become a top leader, challenging expectations of what it takes – that is to say, having the balls.

I don’t always share the same beliefs as my women clients. Sometimes I find their interpretations of their experiences at odds with how I would see things in their place. Women are not all the same with regard to what they attribute their challenges, or where they look for solutions. Different generations have different views about feminism.

For instance, in the same breath, MA student Carla Moll Pinto describes feeling less comfortable expressing her opinion than her brothers and denies that gender inequality is necessarily the main barrier to her confidence.

Ibarra, Ely and Kolb would ascribe Carla’s feelings to second-generation gender bias. They claim: “Most women are unaware of having personally been victims of gender discrimination and deny it even when it is objectively true and they see that women in general experience it”. I find this a troubling filter through which to look at women’s lives. How is it useful for women’s self-empowerment to insist on casting them as victims?

I do challenge clients on their views, but I would rather respect their version of their experiences than impose my own. It makes more sense to me to nudge women to experiment with different approaches to communication. They can evaluate for themselves afterwards if their perspective has changed along with the outcome of the interaction. Ultimately, we must accept Carla is the expert on her own complex reality.


Space to explore freely

A logistical/philosophical dilemma forced me to examine my own prejudices when I became involved with the Women’s Empowerment Group at SOAS. I was amazed to learn that the women planned to invite men to the workshops on Women’s Impact and Presence. I decided to engage with the Group on this matter with an open mind. There is much to be said for their commitment to inclusivity, even when this may look to older feminists like giving up hard won territory where we can be ourselves, without adjustments. I got as far as plotting how I could deploy the men in certain games to explore gender and power to challenge traditional roles. After discussing it, in the end, we agreed that it would be better to make this workshop women-only.

And yet, I have to admit to inconsistency on this point.

Those of us contributing to the ESIP programme at the Newham schools often remarked amongst ourselves that we should have been educating the boys alongside the girls, and teaching them to be feminists too. I wonder if, in a limited way, we could have helped forestall gender inequality before we needed a cure. Dr Simon Davey, however, counters: “I strongly believe girls take more risks when boys aren’t around. And boys are inherently less mature at the same age of adolescence.”

Age and timing may be factors in whether it’s productive to invite men into the process. And while men’s buy-in will ultimately be vital for real social change, involving them at every stage could compromise our journey.


Inner conflict, collective responsibility, individual action

How much should we work at changing the environment for all, and how much should we focus individually on surviving within the present one? Perhaps we don’t have to choose.

In my research for this piece, my client collaborators have been keen to recount anecdotes. In the telling, they have used our conversations to explore what meanings they could draw as they re-visited and re-appraised their lives.

It has struck me how much sharing stories has mattered to Carla and her cohort at SOAS, and how validating it has been for them individually and as group. “I can tell my experiences,” she says, “but I cannot tell you how to handle yours. You need to find your own way.”

What I’ve learned is that prescriptive approaches are not the way. Storytelling, experimenting with different styles, allowing space for inconsistency and uncertainty are the most honest and inclusive attempts we can make as feminists to make the world better for ourselves and others.

We shouldn’t only focus on purpose and perception, but also on possibility. If we’re searching beyond our present circumstances to alternate visions of reality, we should look to the arts. Read Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Naomi Alderman’s The Power to imagine yourself as a woman in another world – either horribly oppressed, or terrifyingly physically empowered. Watch Mad Men if you want to remember what office life was like before feminism. Listen to Beyoncé’s Lemonade to hear a feminism that can be wildly popular. Look at the photographic art of Nan Goldin for images of different ways of being a woman, or of Annie Leibovitz for the glitziest icons of female success. Then write your own story, sing your own song, or paint your own picture of the future.

This is why I import many exercises from the theatre and improvisation into my work as a coach. When I encourage playfulness in my workshops, the participants delight me with their originality. Given the tools and the permission to experiment, people are reinvigorated in their purpose. They discover a deeper emotional connection to their vision, and are inspired to be more inventive in how they structure their ideas, and therefore how they go on to communicate them. I see men and women collaborating on much more equal terms, as the novelty of the exercises disrupts established dynamics. Creativity is a greater leveller and a necessary ingredient if you are looking to change the status quo. The revolution will not be delivered on PowerPoint.

But enough gazing into the future. To borrow a trope from ESIP, my own Big Audacious Goal in this essay has been to boil down my insights to something simple I can act on right now, at least until a better idea comes along.

So, I have come up with this short checklist for my way of doing feminism:

  • Collaborate, don’t impose.
  • Explore, don’t prescribe.
  • Imagine big, but be pragmatic along the way.



Leadership – a collaborative approach to communication

Popular images of leadership don’t do much to promote the benefits of collaboration. We often think of a solitary figure: an individual striding resolutely down a wide road, arms swinging, perhaps with an obedient crowd trailing behind; or someone atop a hill, one hand positioned as an eyeshade against the blinding light of the promised tomorrow. Whatever, up a hill or down a road, the leader is always essentially alone and aloof.

I wonder if these are misleading and even unhelpful representations of leadership? A leader who is cut off from the team is disconnected from broader perspectives and opportunities. A leader who speaks at people, not with them, is in trouble. This leader is ill-equipped to convince others to buy into any vision for the future and liable to topple into an abyss after tripping up over unintended consequences. Ouch.

Post-match analysis of crashed political campaigns and brands tarnished by tone-deaf pronouncements from CEOs usually points to the absence of proper communication with stakeholders, where people can talk back to power.

My preferred image is of a leader facing the crowd – engaging and responding – and also creating the conditions for a continuing conversation. There might be the murmur of good-humoured laughter, perhaps a gasp of surprise, some interjections or even heckles, and ultimately, of course, the sound of applause. Above all, there’s a feeling of togetherness and warmth even when the message may be serious. So how does one go about achieving this cosy ideal?

There may be various paths. Certainly a good hard look at current practices might be a good idea. There is so much we accept by default that is in fact counterproductive – boardroom seating arrangements, PowerPoint slides loaded up with text, scrupulous avoidance of emotion along with a firm commitment to such tight controls over messaging that speakers are robbed of a sense of ownership. Disengagement and boredom are institutionalised.

Some experimentation might be in order.

I have a regular commitment delivering a one-day workshop called Voice Vision and Vitalityon the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme at Saïd Business School. Under the aegis of Voicecraft, I and four other colleagues work with small groups exploring how they can communicate as leaders with more depth and creativity.

The programme participants form an extraordinarily diverse group. They are a global mix of Senior Executives, each embodying different organisational cultures and different national values. They celebrate their differences at a Cultural Diversity Dinner, which is always held on the eve of our workshop. Each participant brings a personal cultural icon to talk about as an entry point into their national identity. At the most recent dinner, a chopstick-wielding Chinese participant rubbed shoulders with a gun-toting American. (He didn’t bring a real gun). There are always some are interesting hybrids too – such as the Englishman who had spent nearly all his adult working life in South and Central America. There are never enough women in the group, although they always offer powerfully different perspectives from their male colleagues. All these characters are thrown together to learn from each other as well as from the esteemed Faculty and other sundry professionals, such as us Voicecraft tutors.

Collaboration isn’t the explicit objective of our workshop. It does, however, underlie all our beliefs and values about what true communication is and how to do it well. Crafting the experience for the audience is a collective effort in the theatre, where the director is not the sole voice of inspiration.

Voicecraft is an umbrella organisation of independent communication training consultants. We all have theatre credentials, and some of us still work as innovators within the arts, as I do. However, just as we are more than actors, the Voicecraft team is more than the sum of its parts. Inspired and nurtured by Arts and Business pioneer, Yvonne Gilan, the team has grown exponentially in experience and expertise since it was initiated in 1997. Creative collaboration is at the heart of our own practice. We continue to mentor each other so that we can continue to coach all our clients to the best of our collective talents. So, you could say that we practice what we preach.

Even though we have delivered this particular workshop format many times, it’s always a unique experience because the range of personalities and talents that we work with always changes. We have a set schedule of exercises and games that incrementally build risk and confidence of the individuals. Along the way, we feed them tools, techniques and approaches from the theatre. We provide simple parameters for testing out how they will meet some fundamental challenges that leaders experience facing an audience. Through playing and telling stories, they discover how to harness their own vulnerability. In the process, they may discover what charisma looks like on different people. Sometimes extraordinary things happen.

Inevitably, this process stirs the participants into reflection and imagining how they will bring their new insights and skills back to work. In the latest workshop, the following issues came up for deliberation amongst us:



Why do people resist rehearsing?

During the preparation stage, I noticed that participants were happy to discuss ideas in small groups or pairs. They would have been happy just talking for their entire allotted time if I didn’t prod them into getting up and testing out how they were going communicate their vision. This is something that I have seen before with other groups. Over the years I’ve heard a range of opinions against rehearsal: it makes your ultimate performance stale; there isn’t time; it’s just not very important or necessary; there are other just as effective ways of preparing for presentations, such as thinking it through in your mind.

As a theatre practitioner, I’m deeply immersed in the rehearsal process for developing ideas and polishing them until they’re good enough to put in front of an audience without embarrassment. This time, rather than simply calling out the behaviour, I was interested in delving a little deeper into the psychology behind this.

Everybody in the group acknowledged the importance of rehearsal before a major presentation or speech, but nobody really wanted to do it.

One participant explained to me that it’s not that preparation isn’t taken seriously. It just that instead of a culture of practising, the attention is all on the slide deck. He described to me how the slides were assembled by committee and then, over a period of weeks, batted up and down the hierarchy, with slight edits inserted here and there, and then deleted again, until the final deck closely resembled the original version. There was no energy left for rehearsal although still plenty of anxiety. It seemed to me that nerves had been displaced onto Powerpoint, instead of usefully channelled. And because no time or energy is ever allocated for rehearsal, it remains outside everyone’s comfort zone.


Is there a particular value to creative collaboration?

However, when I did manage to coax this group into practising, they took to it with gusto. My success at converting people seemed to be at least partly due to their discovery – once they’d started – that dynamic, collaborative preparation can be a hugely pleasurable activity.

The other persuasive factor was the evidence that it works. The ultimate result was that their performances were of a high standard. That was my judgment as a professional theatremaker, and the group members enthusiastically concurred.

I had divided the group into pairs for this exercise and laid down simple parameters: take turns to present your pieces to each other and ask for feedback and direction. Beyond this, the process of each small unit was unique. People spoke from both the perspectives of director and performer. As performers, they credited their achievement in most part to how their rehearsal partners worked with them. As directors, their pride in and respect for their performers was evident. There were many different experiences, but everyone felt enriched and believed the outcome was better than it would have been without working together.

Developing your own creative, iterative process with others, who have a stake in the vision and in you as a leader, allows you to hone both the vision and its communication. Collaboration makes the message and its impact better.

These were the key findings when we de-briefed afterwards. However, the real test will be how they use the learning when leading their organisations. Will they have the courage to apply the tools and insights?

Taking the lessons back

Some of this work may seem dauntingly radical, particularly for some organisational cultures. It may go against deep-seated attitudes and long-established practices. It will also require judgement about how you can harness your vulnerability as you embark on this adventure, rather than becoming a hostage to it. So I will suggest a few practical tips:

  • Don’t locate the presentation in the Powerpoint. Keep away from slides until a late stage in the process. Plan it out on paper instead. Powerpoint, Keynote and Prezi are just visual aids, so treat them that way. You are the true focus of the presentation not the screen.
  • Ideally, get a small team together in a room, and work it out between you. Be creative about it. Don’t forget that if you don’t engage your audience’s emotions you certainly have no chance of changing their minds.
  • If you are planning to communicate a transformative message, test it out with others beyond the charmed circle before making a final commitment. Send out scouts to get feedback on tone as well as content.
  • Don’t be frightened of practising it aloud, to others. You need to be open to changing both the substance and the style.
  • It is very possible that as you practice out loud, you will come up against flaws in the substance of your message. Deal with these immediately as they will not go away. Be glad that you have uncovered them as otherwise they will come back to bite you.
  • Time-manage the process. You shouldn’t be editing your way up to the podium. After a certain point, fix the structure and words and concentrate on practicing the performance so you can allow yourself to be natural and in the moment when you’re in front of the audience.

The False Promise of Authenticity

For several years now, there has been a prevailing maxim in leadership theory. Not only have academics been keen champions, it’s also caught on amongst lay people working in all kinds of organisations and institutions, corporate or start-up, public, non-profit or private sector. Anyone who wants to sum up what they want from a leader, or how they want to be perceived themselves will reach for this one word – authentic.

A major reason for its persistence, I believe, is because the term is laden with moral force. This has had a particular appeal recently, when the reputations of big figures in business and public life in general have taken a severe battering. Authenticity is virtuous. It’s transparent. It’s accessible. It’s reliable. It’s real. No one could condemn it any more than they could condemn motherhood or apple pie. The antonyms – fake, phoney, false, misleading, untrue, dishonest, deceitful – are obviously undesirable. If authenticity can be demonstrated to be effective as well as virtuous, then it must be the obvious prerequisite for any leader.

Whenever I wonder out loud how to achieve authenticity, people always have a ready answer: “Be yourself.”

I’ve never been particularly comfortable with this directive. It’s sounds easy but when you try to apply it, it’s rather complicated. How do you identify what is ‘being yourself’?

Personally, I’ve had difficulty nailing it down. When I interact with my mother, my best friend or the dry cleaner, my behaviour, physicality, language and tone shift according to the person and the circumstances. Often all these are reflexive rather than reflective choices. So which one is the real me? If they all are, as I believe, what use is it to tell me to be the real me when the reality of me is so varied?

As a coach I aim to suggest actions that, if not necessarily easy, are at least specific and achievable. The ‘be yourself’ mantra is neither. Authenticity seems not only to be predicated on a full and exact knowledge of who one is as a person, but also to require one to hold a view of oneself which is consistent across situations.

Whenever my students and clients express an urge to be authentic, I navigate them towards more down-to-earth goals that can be attained through practical methods – such as releasing the breath, so they can be audible and engage others with their voices.

Now, leadership gurus are beginning to question the value of fetishizing authenticity, or even ricocheting to an opposite viewpoint. In their paper, The impossibility of the ‘true self’ of authentic leadership, Professor Jackie Ford and Nancy Harding have expressed their doubts. They suggest: “…firstly, that authentic leadership as an indication of a leader’s true self is impossible and, secondly, that attempts at its implementation could lead to destructive dynamics within organizations.” And in the New York Times, Adam Grant has opined: “Unless you’re Oprah, ‘be yourself’ is terrible advice”.

One story that is frequently trotted out by the backlash-against-authenticity lobby is that of Cynthia Danaher. When she was promoted to general manager of a group at Hewlett-Packard, she declared to her 5,300 employees that the job was “scary” and that “I need your help.” It’s been widely reported that this over-sharing led to her team’s initial loss of confidence in her as a leader. I’d be cautious about ascribing this lack of buy-in entirely to the authenticity of her communication. Let’s be frank: sexism may have played a part too in how she was received as a leader. When we’re supposed to be living in a post-feminist world of having it all and leaning in, it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge such a possibility. This is speculation, but perhaps if we were all a little more skeptical about authenticity some wider considerations might have tempered Danaher’s approach.

Coming from the world of the arts, I’ve long since harboured an alternative perspective. When I’m coaching people in communication, I borrow a great deal from my own drama school training and my practice as a theatre professional. I bring in exercises that involve invention and play-acting in order to explore how anyone can adapt their approach to different people across a range of contexts. Not only do regular people – with no previous drama experience or training – enjoy doing this, they also prove themselves quickly adept at many of the games. To observers, they appear to have mastered how to present themselves in a variety of styles to others, and to select whatever approach will get them the impact they want. This can be a surprise and a pleasure for my students and clients. Of course the next step is how to integrate this new flexibility into real-life situations where these shifts in voice and body-language can affect the outcome of an interaction that matters.

For leaders in particular, this facility is a distinct advantage because it allows them to be responsive to the needs of their stakeholders, and to model behaviour they want from their teams. In fact, it might even be a way for leaders to train themselves to be the kind of leaders they would like to be. Perhaps this is a better strategy for handling ‘imposter’s syndrome’ than an open confession of self-doubt to all and sundry.

In a recent public-speaking workshop, a student confessed to me his worry that making external adjustments to his posture and voice would make him an inauthentic person. It was intriguing because while he clearly felt deeply, he found it difficult to put his finger on what exactly was disturbing about this approach. When pressed, he reiterated that his integrity was important to him. Other workshop participants pointed out that if being authentic for him meant never making deliberate changes, he would be doomed to never improve his presentations.

However, his concern got me thinking about how differently actors view the process of communication in the theatre. To focus on authenticity in this context, most of my colleagues would agree, would be a category error. Granted, there is some cultural suspicion of how actors manage to transform themselves so convincingly. When people wish to decry charming but unscrupulous public figures, ‘actor’ is sometimes deployed as synonym for ‘liar’.

I believe this is based on a misunderstanding of what the job of acting is. Greater awareness of what actors do would not only dispel some minor stigma against the profession but, more importantly, also empower ‘real people’ to use some of their approaches to persuade people of their own excellent, morally worthy ideas.

When an actor takes on a role such as Hedda Gabler in Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, this is what doesn’t happen:

  • She doesn’t actually become Hedda Gabler;
  • She doesn’t think she has become Hedda Gabler;
  • She doesn’t believe the story – in which she is acting – is literally, factually true.

So contrary to the tenets of conventional leadership beliefs, in the theatre there is room neither for authenticity nor delusion. She is playing a part, and she knows it.

However, actors and directors are extremely preoccupied with truth. Indeed, the highest compliment an actor can pay another is to describe his or her performance as truthful. This may seem paradoxical. After all, everyone (the actors, director, whole creative team and audience) acknowledges that they’re inhabiting a fictional world. So how can these beliefs be compatible?

Perhaps, what ‘truthfulness’ means in this context needs a little unpacking. In the world of the theatre, I would describe it as a commitment to the world of the imagination, rather than to bullet-pointed data and the literal here-and-now. But, a world that is nevertheless coherent and plausible – a reality that could exist. Above, all it is full of possibility.

In the theatre, everyone is mobilized towards this possibility. And the whole creative team, led by the director, is focused outwards on the audience’s experience of this possibility. By the time a production is up and running, the actors’ focus cannot be inwards. They must create an experience that’s rich enough for the audience to connect with their own lives, feelings and beliefs. Universal truth, not personal authenticity, is the point.

I think there are interesting lessons here for someone looking to share a vision for a business, a public institution or even a social campaign. These projects too are surely concerned with future possibilities and resonances rather than the present limitations of the individuals concerned – leaders or followers.

Theatre shows, whether they originate from a written script or through a collaborative devising process, are crafted through preparation. And this gives rise to another paradox; despite exhaustive rehearsals, during a performance actors are committed to being present – physically, mentally and emotionally. In fact, athletes experience something similar. In their lingo, they are ‘in flow’. Anyone who has ever become immersed in an activity – sporting or creative – will recognize the sensations of being at one with the time and place, rather than separate and distinct from it.

So in the theatre, personal effectiveness doesn’t necessarily have much to do with personal identity, let alone authenticity.

So, this is what actually happens when an actor plays Hedda Gabler:

  • She prepares – practices her lines and moves exhaustively – so that when she is in action onstage she is able to be in the moment;
  • She commits to the relationship she has with the other actors onstage;
  • She commits to sharing the story with the audience from the perspective of her role;
  • She means what she does onstage;
  • She adjusts how she uses her voice and body in order to make her demeanour congruent with her with intentions;

Rather than chasing after the false promise of authenticity, there are fruitful alternatives. Try ‘being truthful’ and ‘being in the moment’ if you’re looking for more useful mantras for communication and leadership.




Trial by ordeal – The Job Interview

There’s something about job interviews that can provoke an existential crisis, even in completely well-adjusted people. It’s a disruption of the ‘business-as-usual’ world, where we get on with our routines in the belief that we’re competent enough to get our tasks done and more or less handle the people involved. The interview turns all these assumptions upside down. We can find ourselves questioning everything.

This experience seems to apply across situations – whether you’re aiming to get back into work after a long gap, or whether you want to move from one job to another. One relatively recent phenomenon is the request to reapply for the role that you already hold, usually as a result of restructuring. That situation can be the most destabilising of all.

As the interview looms, this sort of thinking may surge up: “I don’t really have what they’re looking for.” Or, “I’ve never done anything like this, why would anyone would take a risk on me?” Or, under different circumstances: “I do this all the time, it’s like breathing, so how can I possibly put it into words?”

This self-questioning leads some potential interviewees to conclude: “The interview process is artificial rubbish anyway.” I suspect we are mentally defending ourselves against the fact that we are about to be judged by people in positions of power.

The interview is a performance in some respects. There may not be a clearly defined script to follow, but it is universally acknowledged that it does help to anticipate questions and compose some self-promoting answers. There is also the matter of being able to make an impact, not just through what you say but also through how you say it. Confidence is key.

The sense of turmoil and insecurity may be unavoidable, but it’s not always fatal. However, it can lead to some people postponing or avoiding essential preparation. And that, actually, is fatal.

So if the interview is a performance, rehearsal may be an effective strategy for making sure that you come across with both substance and style. Role-playing allows you to test out those self-promoting answers with a trusted friend or colleague in the part of the interviewer, and to evaluate how these answers sound out loud. Are you getting your message across? Usually you can trim out some waffle, and make your point more succinctly and effectively.

Storytelling is a key way of engaging your interviewers with what you can do. Scroll through your experience for stories that demonstrate how you’ve met past challenges. Position yourself as the hero or heroine with a difficult problem. Explain what you did to resolve the problem. Take your audience through it, step by step. It’s your actions that matter. You don’t need to be flowery. Just providing a single vivid detail will be effective. You never need to describe yourself as clever, fast-thinking, empathetic, or any other checklist quality that the interviewer is looking for. Let your account of your actions do the work for you. These stories don’t necessarily have to be from your current role, but they should demonstrate skills and qualities that would be transferrable to the job in question.


And now, to a key issue: just because it’s a crafted performance doesn’t mean that it can be inauthentic. In rehearsal, check your own feelings as well as the effect on others. Does what you are saying feel real and genuine? And this is the point where you may need to come to terms with some inner conflict. It’s ok to have uncertainties, but it’s not helpful to let them supress or muddle how you present yourself. Take the opportunity to clarify your values and goals for yourself before stepping in front of the panel. Under scrutiny, your lack of conviction will leak out through non-verbal signals that psychologists call “tells”. People often describe their response to others’ non-verbal signals as having a “gut feeling” about someone, in layman’s terms. Often they can’t articulate what it is exactly that they like or dislike, although the sensation is often immediate and powerful.

Of course, you can find yourself undermined by your non-verbal signals simply because you’re feeling very nervous. This is because you can only have control over your physicality (and the ability to minimise negative tells) if you’re physically relaxed. The most effective method of managing this tension is pausing to breathe out fully. In the Flight or Fight reaction of your body, you may find yourself breathing too fast or shallowly, or even holding your breath. However, if you take back control of your breathing, the body, mind and emotions will follow. Practice this technique regularly beforehand, so it seems natural to use in the interview.

So, how might interviewers respond to different candidates’ behaviour in the heat of the interview? And how might the candidates’ preparation affect the outcomes for them?

An acquaintance of mine, the CEO of a medium-sized not-for-profit organisation, was recruiting for a role. It came down to a choice between two different but outstanding candidates: a black woman and a white man. In the interviews, the female candidate scored well, though the male candidate consistently scored better. However, the CEO had a nagging feeling that he wasn’t the right one for the job. After being consulted, each member of the panel agreed that they felt less than confident that he would deliver well in the role. His range of correct but stock answers didn’t give the panel the insight into his character that they needed. She decided to invite the two candidates back for a further interview each. This time, the panel devised a series of questions they believed would uncover the concerns that they all shared but had found difficult to pin down. The questions called for a deep level of honesty and self-awareness from the candidates, and also tested their commitment to the values of the organisation they wanted to join. One such question was: “Tell us about your main allowable weakness. What would your biggest fan say, and what would your biggest critic say?” What the CEO and panel didn’t want to hear was the standard answer: “I’m a perfectionist.”

The female candidate was hesitant at first. Then she was open that there was a field in which she felt she would need extra training, as her current level of knowledge was probably not yet up to scratch. The male candidate side-stepped the question altogether. He refused to admit to any weakness.

Indeed, the answers to all the questions were eye-opening. Time and time again, the female candidate showed that she had insight into herself. She even identified that she tended to be reserved when under pressure, which matched the panel’s assessment of her. These were the very qualities of self-knowledge and openness that secured her the post.

In fact, the male candidate’s unwillingness to reveal any vulnerability was his most telling flaw. When the CEO rang him to tell him the news he had been unsuccessful, she described his response like this: “His mask dropped.” Unfortunately for him, his willingness to share came too late.

I’m speculating now, but perhaps the different outcomes for the two candidates lay in their different approaches to their preparation.

One approach interpreted self-presentation as striding forth in a suit of armour of ‘right’ answers. Yet for the panel, the candidate’s non-verbal signals were not congruent with his words. What was missing, perhaps, was the candidate’s willingness to relax, possibly because he deemed it too risky to be vulnerable.

The other approach prioritised making a connection over maintaining an iron-clad ‘ideal’ appearance, even though the candidate’s natural reserve made this an effort.

So this makes me wonder: what if having a pre-interview mental struggle could bring us closer to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and of what it is that we want from our working lives? What if this struggle is a necessary preliminary step for harnessing our vulnerability, and finding a way of connecting honestly with an interview panel composed of individuals, each of whom are genuinely committed to choosing the right person?

Of course you need to demonstrate to the panel that you are professionally suited to the role. You need to tick as many boxes for them as you can. No responsible interviewer will choose a likeable but incompetent candidate without discernable potential. However, the dynamic between you is a significant factor. After all, they will have to work with you, and probably spend a huge amount of time in your company. A little soul-searching can go a long way to help you connect with the interviewers, even within the formal parameters of the job interview.

And that, perhaps, might allow us to see some sort of purpose to the unwelcome and discomforting existential crisis, and to trust that we’ll get through to the other side.


Use this checklist to help you work through your preparation in a structured way:

Why do you want this job? Think hard about all the reasons that you’re going for this challenge. You will want to share some of your reflections with your interviewers, but not necessarily all of them.

Who are your interviewers? What do you know about their particular agendas and expectations?

… And who do they expect to see when you walk into the room? Which assumptions about you do you want to encourage, and which do you want to pre-empt and discourage?

What key messages about your qualities and skills do you want to get across? Rather than list your attributes and skills, prepare some stories that demonstrate how you’ve met past challenges.

Where is the interview taking place? The environment of the interview will affect the dynamic between you and your interviewers. Remember that you have choices in how you respond to it.

When is the interview? The timing will also affect the dynamic. Be aware how both your interviewers’ and your own energy may be affected, and be prepared to adjust accordingly.

How do you want to present yourself? Make sure that you keep yourself as relaxed and focused as possible during the interview. Pausing to breathe and think will help.

Knowing why you’re speaking

When a client comes to me with a presentation to work on, I’ll often ask him or her: “So why are you speaking?”

This doesn’t seem to be a question to which everybody finds easy to give an immediate and clear answer. Some people slip into telling me what they’re going to say, as if the Why is either too obvious or too difficult to articulate.

For any kind of communication, however short or casual, you need to consider your purpose. You are not speaking for the sake of it, but in order to achieve a purpose. For the simplest and shortest of communications, this may be the only essential factor for you to consider before opening your mouth. Most people would agree with that sentiment.

However, this purpose can get really complicated: “I want the audience to understand that if we take Approach A it’s a really risky choice unless we figure out first what the outcomes will be of Project X, and then we should go ahead but only if we’re sure about what the market will bear. And I’d like them to feel really motivated.”

On the other hand it can become mind-numbingly banal: “I want to give the senior team an update.” Or even worse: “My line manager told me I had to.”

I would argue that every speaker aims to have some kind of emotional effect on the audience, as well as to have them understand what the message means on a literal level. Certainly you’ll want to keep them engaged over the duration of your message. Probably you want to persuade them to either do something different, or to commit to carrying on doing what they’re already doing without wavering. Sometimes you’ll need to take a few steps back to identify what it is exactly that you do want. Thus, you may discover that your objective of “I want to give the senior team an update” is really “I want to enlighten the senior team with the range of possibilities.” It may seem a subtle difference but personally, as an audience, I’d prefer to be enlightened rather than merely updated.

Getting to the nub of identifying a Why that’s simple and compelling, yet fits perfectly with your message and your audience may now present even more of a challenge than it initially appeared.

How actors identify and act on the Why

It might useful to borrow some techniques from the world of the theatre to flesh out some sort of practical solution to planning the impact you want to have on those listening.

A Practical Handbook For The Actor is a manual written by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previto, Scott Zigler. They are a group of actors who’ve all worked with playwright, director and acting theorist David Mamet. The book’s purpose is to help its readers develop a methodical approach to the actor’s perennial question: “What am I supposed to be doing out there onstage?”

Existential though this sounds, this is a technical question with a technical answer, with some insights that are pertinent for public speakers and presenters.

The writers of A Practical Handbook divide the areas of concern into ‘the action’ and ‘the moment’. They suggest that the actor analyses the text to decide what the overall action is for a scene – for public speakers, think “speech” – that they call a ‘through-line’ or ‘through-action’. Then each section can have a separate ‘action’, which cumulatively build up to achieving the ‘through-action’. The ‘through-action’ is the practical implementation of your Why.

Then with all this prepared, the actor responds to the ‘moment’, whatever is created by the other actor onstage and by the environment. The actor’s job is to do that in accordance with his or her ‘through-line’. The actor may need to improvise in the face of the unexpected.

The action

For our purposes, we’re going to concentrate on ‘the action’, and how defining and acting on this might be helpful for a public speaker, especially in terms of nailing the Why.

The “action is what you go onstage to do, the physical process of trying to obtain a specific goal, often referred to as the objective.”

This is my edited version of their checklist to help you select your own action for your presentation or speech:

“An action must:

  • Be physically capable of being done;
  • Be fun (or compelling) to do;
  • Be specific;
  • Have its test in the other person (the Handbook writers mean the other actor onstage, but in our case, it’s the audience at whom and for whom the action needs to be directed);
  • Have a ‘cap’.”

This means that you need to pick a verb to act on, which will allow you to change something in your audience, probably how they feel about your topic or idea.

For example, you can choose to challenge your audience about their preconceptions or to reassure them that your solution will be effective and straightforward. Your cap is simple; either at the end of your speech your audience is reassured, or it isn’t. Either your audience has been challenged, or it has not been.

There are many more possibilities, as many as there are transitive verbs. Avoid being too general or too neutral, such as ‘to inform’ the audience, which gives you no clues about how to present either your message or yourself. It’s also not much fun.

Emotion is important. If you can change how your audience feels, you have a fighting chance of changing what they think and, ultimately, what they do.

We’d all like to think that we are rational creatures who change our minds when the facts indicate that we should. However, there is a lot of evidence that is exactly what we don’t do, even when presented with good arguments against our current position. So, bullet points on a PowerPoint slide alone may not cut it. This is the reason always knowing why you are speaking, and acting on that knowledge, is so important.

When you have chosen your ‘action’, the Why of your speech is actionable. You will be ready to select all the relevant facts, vocabulary, arguments, tones, pauses, facial expressions and body language that will help you fulfil your objective.

What’s more, if you commit to your action, you may find that your instinct takes over and you will graduate from needing to make conscious choices to being ‘in flow’. You will have become connected to your Why, and to your audience.