Faced with a presentation to deliver, most businesspeople focus almost exclusively on the content of what they want to say. As I’ve said previously, they’re missing a trick.
Making your words work well means making sure they are complemented by your voice and your body. The way you use your feet, your hands, your eyes and so on will usually tell an eloquently truthful story about your actual engagement with the words. If that’s not happening, body and voice will demonstrate in various ways that you’ve forgotten all about the being present part of being a present-er.
But assuming that you’re already paying proper attention to the vital non-verbal components I’ve talked about before, how do you become present in the words too? How can you give the words themselves the impact you’re after?
The problem is that most business presenters have little idea about what makes powerful language. Business organisations often seem to make it their business to suck the lifeblood out of words, relying on the same old clichés as if no alternatives exist.
But the best presenters have a way of using language that is (a) surprising and (b) simple. Formal language of course has its place. However, in an attempt to impress the audience, business speakers have a terrible habit of hiding the human being behind:
long sentences with far too many sub-clauses…
and of course, jargon.
It doesn’t take long to recognise that language like that rings hollow. For a start, it’s all too easy to assume that your meaning is unequivocal. But in my experience, workplaces are hotbeds of terminology and acronyms that people say they understand, and often don’t! So my advice is:
(Pepper Your Presentation With Jargon) – unless you
(Know For A Fact) – that your audience will absolutely, positively,
(Understand Everything You Say).
Jargon isn’t the only problem. It’s often obvious to me when I listen to businesspeople talk on a work-related subject that the words and expressions they’re using are not their own. They’re not truly inhabiting them.
Does it really come naturally to you to say ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’?
Do you talk to your family about ‘reaping cost benefits’ rather than ‘saving money’?
Or tell your friends that ‘it’s imperative to ensure a timeline reduction will be achieved’ rather than simply saying ‘we’ve got to work faster!’?
One of the most overlooked techniques for bringing an idea to life is to use metaphor. Business jargon is already full of it, in fact; what I’m really talking about is creating your own.
If you work in business, you’re probably no stranger to the idea of ‘hitting targets,’ ‘thinking out of the box’ or ‘rolling out a project’. Expressions like that are so common that we don’t even think of them as metaphors any more. Use them, and even though we’ll understand what you mean, we won’t be moved or excited by the ideas they describe because we hear that language all the time.
So come up with metaphors that your audience has never heard before. Or get them to see an old one in a new way. Discussing the European Union with David Cameron in the days when Brexit was a mere twinkle in our PM's eye, the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius challenged: “Imagine Europe is a football club and you join, but once you’re in it you can’t say, ‘Let’s play rugby.’” Sporting metaphors in business – and politics – abound (‘we’re achieving goals’… ‘it’s a marathon not a sprint’… ‘that’s a knock-out blow to the competition’…). But Fabius was using metaphor to frame an abstract idea afresh. It’s the kind of language that makes us all think harder than if he’d merely said “you can’t have everything your own way, you know.” Or even “you can’t go moving the goalposts”.
So next time you find yourself planning a presentation about ‘hitting targets’, delve into that well-worn idea a little further. Be inventive. Imagine you’d never heard the expression before. Then imagine the scene it suggests… an archery competition? a rifle range? a dartboard on the wall of a pub? And maybe you’ll decide to begin your presentation with an actual game of darts. (You could even get volunteers from your audience involved.) Then you can talk about accuracy of aim, standard of materials, expertise, training, good or bad results – all in the context of what you’ve just demonstrated as a metaphor for the way your company approaches its targets.
But that’s my idea. You can come up with plenty, probably much better ones, for yourself – if you really listen to the metaphors you or your colleagues habitually use. Surprise yourself – and your audiences – by seeing how far you can break new ground, reinvent the wheel, and sail into uncharted territory…
If (in a good way) your language surprises us, we’ll take notice – and remember.