Going Blank Again

25 October, 2007

Last week I attended a company seminar for IT journalists here in Ho Chi Minh City. One of our guest speakers was a British retailer who has been in Vietnam for a couple of years, but who hadn’t actually presented to a Vietnamese audience before. 

After his talk, he said to me “I don’t think they liked it – I got no reaction from them at all.” On the contrary – our feedback forms indicated that his talk was very well-received. His inexperience at presenting to a local audience meant he mistook their natural lack of expressiveness for boredom or disinterest. 

Don’t expect a moshpit

Presenting or teaching (or indeed any other kind of performance) in Asia can be a real challenge, as the people are generally a lot less expressive than Westerners. Look at footage of a music performance in Vietnam or China, and see how the audience sit in their seats and politely applaud – then look at a Western rock crowd and see the difference! I showed my wife (who is Vietnamese) Rage Against the Machine’s thrilling live DVD The Battle of Mexico City, where the real stars are not the band but their fans, a huge seething, moshing, leaping mass of hysteria – and she found it equally hilarious and terrifying; she’d never seen anything like it. 

To the speaker, delivering your presentation or lecture to a room of expressionless, unresponsive faces can be disheartening – teachers and speakers like to see nodding heads, smiles, laughs or other signs that their message is getting through and being appreciated, and when this doesn’t happen, some of them visibly wilt, whilst others over-compensate and begin exaggerating their gestures and vocal inflections in a desperate attempt to provoke a reaction. I know, I’ve done it myself! 

Local knowledge

A little bit of local knowledge is needed when delivering a presentation or talk of any kind. Just because those five or six Vietnamese in the audience are sitting stony-faced doesn’t mean they’re not interested, just as the dozen Italians who nod and smile at everything you say aren’t necessarily going to come up to you and buy your product when you’ve finished. And the couple of Egyptians who walked in half an hour late and chatted to each other through your entire presentation may well have found it fascinating and could turn out to be your best customers. 

So when presenting across cultures, do a little bit of research first and find out how different cultures take in information and react to being presented to. This will ensure you don’t misread the signs and make the wrong assumptions about the success (or lack thereof) of your talk.

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Sounds interesting right? Actually, before you rush off to Expedia or Travelocity to book your flights, it’s the amusing result of someone not proofreading banner content before sending it to the printer.

It happened this week in Hoi An, Vietnam’s best preserved historic town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Banners were hung up all over town advertising the annual Lantern Festival (Le Hoi Long DenLe Hoi meaning festival, Long Den meaning lantern), but someone had missed off the ‘g’ from Long, meaning the banners read Le Hoi Lon Den – which means Black Pussy Festival (and we’re not talking cats here).

An excellent illustration of the value of careful proofreading! Though that missing ‘g’ may well increase the number of tourists attending the festival so maybe it was intentional after all…

A stab at no.85 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics I Hope you Write list

On this blog I regularly post about delivering presentations, but before people get to the point of honing and perfecting their presentation skills, many of them have an even more difficult challenge to face – shyness. Even if you’re 100% au fait with your audience and your topic, shyness, fear or stagefright can paralyse you and turn you into a gibbering wreck.

The trick is to turn that fear into mere nervousness, which in turn generates adrenaline and energy. My father worked backstage at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry (UK) in the 1960s, and recalls the famous comedian and actor Frankie Howerd vomiting copiously before going on stage every night, so nervous was he. Yet when he got out on stage, he was a consummate performer and had the audience in the palm of his hand, because he was able to channel that nervousness. Good presenters should do the same (minus the vomiting!)

As a teenager, I was painfully shy. An only child from a relatively sheltered background, I hated being around others and speaking to someone I didn’t know was absolute torture. Now, as I approach my 40s, I’m still not the most sociable bloke in the world but am comfortable with public speaking, ‘networking’, and generally pressing the flesh.

How did I make the transformation from red-faced, sweating, nervous wreck? Five steps.

1. Leave home

I left home at 18 for a university 200 miles away from my parents. Thrown into a hotbed of drink, sex and general socialising, I had two choices – stay in my room, or just get out there and have a good time. I chose the latter.

2. Move abroad

In 1988 my studies took me to France, and my luck took me to a small mining town called Carvin in the cold, windswept flatlands of the north. A grim, depressed town of 20,000 people with nothing to do, and no other Brits to console me. Another sink or swim moment. So I just got out there, let the locals laugh at my stilted schoolroom French, made some great friends, and had the best year of my life. When I came back, my father said I was a different person (in a good way!)

3. Get a job that involves public speaking

Teaching, tour guiding, training, presenting, I’ve done it all, because it was part of the job. Had I not done it, I would never in a million years have volunteered to speak in public. Now I’ve done it, I actively seek out public speaking opportunities.

4. Sing karaoke

Speaking in public is one thing, but singing? With my voice? No WAY. Yet two years ago, after an epic all-day drinking session, I found myself with about 15 others in a Saigon karaoke room, and instead of pushing the microphone away with a look of horror, they had to prise it out of my hands. I loved it. Karaoke is all about ignoring your limitations, trusting your audience, and simply relaxing. As I always tell my shy staff, all of whom are regular karaoke-goers: if you can get up and sing in front of an audience, you can stand up and deliver a presentation!

5. Become a father

You can’t have a baby and still be self-conscious. That little fella/fella-ette wants to be entertained, preferably with lots of gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, and singing. Last Sunday my wife came downstairs to find me singing loudly along to Rick James’ Superfreak and waving my arms around, to the delight of my hysterical 5 month-old daughter. 5.5 months ago, I’d have gone red with embarrassment; now I’m no longer ashamed, in fact I’m damned proud.

I don’t expect my shy readers to try all of the above, and certainly not in the same order, but trying any one of these things should help reduce that wall of shyness around you and make you a bit more confident around others!

None of us likes taking criticism, but when it comes to delivering presentations, the only way we can improve is by inviting feedback from others. 

To give you an example, last week I took part in a seminar with three other speakers, and after the event we gave each other feedback on our respective talks. To summarise: 

Speaker 1 spent most of his time looking at the laptop in front of him rather than at the audience

Speaker 2 (me!) was “on red-hot coals”, moving about a lot

Speaker 3 stood with his back to the audience reading off the big screen

Speaker 4 stood side-on to the audience and rambled a lot 

The interesting thing was that not one of us was aware of what we were doing! I know I tend to move about a bit during presentations but wasn’t aware of quite how much I do it. 

So whilst all of us had our pride wounded a little by criticism (albeit constructive), we know what we have to improve next time we present. So next time you’re delivering a presentation, either ask colleagues for feedback, or if you’re really too sensitive to handle it, set up a video camera and identify your faults yourself!

Radiohead are by no means the first band to give away material free of charge (well, virtually) via the web, but they’re by far the most high-profile act to do so. It matters little to the music industry when a band like The Brian Jonestown Massacre make their entire back catalogue available for free online, but when one of the world’s biggest bands does it, everyone sits up and takes notice.

Much has already been written about the ‘paradigm shift’ (horrible corporate buzzword but sadly it fits here) in music distribution Radiohead’s move represents, so I won’t go on about that side of it, other than to applaud the concept of costing an album (or indeed any other creative work) based on its artistic merit/value to the customer. Applying this concept across my music collection, I probably owe Tom Waits thousands of dollars for all the pleasure he’s given me over the years, and should be sending invoices to numerous others.

What interests me most about the marketing of In Rainbows (because it has been marketed very, very well) is the way it’s allowed the listener to focus purely on the music. With no press ads/interviews, no pre-release radio play, and no sleeve art/packaging, the songs are left to speak for themselves – the music is all there is. Remember how, during all the hype about Oasis’ 1997 album Be Here Now, it took a while for people to realise that most of it wasn’t very good? No such problems with In Rainbows – Radiohead are communicating directly with the listener, with no background noise or visual disturbances, allowing us to focus on the music alone (and, for the most part, what fine music it is).

This, after all, is surely what all musicians should want to do – get their music heard by as wide an audience as possible by any feasible means. That’s why it was disappointing when Metallica sued Napster – sad that these hard-rocking monsters, who had restored metal’s reputation and put their minds and livers on the line for their art, should care so much about the bottom line.

Radiohead, label-less and free to do their own thing, are now showing how simple it is for a band to get straight to their audience, even when that band is one of the world’s most popular. The message for marketers? If you’ve got a brand people trust, you don’t need hype. If you’ve got a quality product no-one else is offering, people will be willing to pay for it, even if they can get it for free.

Radiohead’s music can survive being stripped of its packaging, its advertising and any sort of context – how about your products?

Yesterday I took part in a seminar on the topic of hotel website design and online bookings, for an audience mostly consisting of hoteliers from Ho Chi Minh City and around.

 During his presentation, one of my fellow speakers said the following:

 “Using an XML interface, it’s easy to connect your PMS to your GDS network.”

 Personally I didn’t bat an eyelid as I know what each of those acronyms means, but I noticed some of the attendees looking a bit confused and then one attendee put her hand up and said “Can you stop using abbreviations please, we are hoteliers not computer experts!”

It got me thinking that, whilst many companies have done a good job in removing industry-specific jargon from their communication, many of them have replaced it with acronyms. I’m currently putting together a glossary for our corporate website to explain the following to the uninitiated:

ERP
CRM
POS
CRS
GDS
EAM
CMMS
BPO
FMS
SEO
MRP
PPC 

…all of which appear on our homepage or on our product pages! 

Acronyms should be used with caution – they are after all just a form of shorthand to make communication between peers and colleagues quicker and simpler. When you’re communicating outside your peer group or your own industry, most of your acronyms no longer make sense. 

I can talk to my colleagues about how we’ve improved our ROMI by using PPC and SEO, but when I’m doing e-marketing consulting/training for our customers, I have to tell them how they can improve their return on marketing investment by using pay-per-click and search engine optimisation. It takes a bit longer, but at least they understand me. 

So next time you’re tempted to use an acronym, think about what it means, and think about who you’re talking to or writing for – if in doubt, write it out!

It seems that hardly a day goes by without seeing a news item about another company banning its staff from using Facebook on their office PCs. As a regular Facebooker who uses the site both for business and pleasure, I find this attitude rather bizarre and very narrowminded, because Facebook is actually a fantastic business tool.

Sure, at first sight, the various pics, graffiti walls, music/film apps and other ephemera that make up the average Facebook profile (my own included) might make the site look somewhat frivolous, but dive deeper and you see there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Groups
Facebook makes it easy for anyone to start their own group on whatever topic they like, meaning business can use the function to create customer committees, company events boards, staff intranets, recruitment forums, customer service/feedback areas, and much more.

Surveys
For a small fee, users can post surveys on any topic and make them available to the Facebook network of their choice – a great market research tool for companies targeting the Facebook demographic of 25-40 year olds.

Events
Users can post events free of charge, invite all their friends, and publicise them within their network and groups. I recently posted one of my company’s events on the site (a seminar on hotel web design & online booking). Not only did we get a couple of registrations as a result, but the event was also spotted by a local journalist from one of Vietnam’s biggest newspapers, who will attend the seminar and hopefully write a nice article about us!

This tool is particularly useful in a city like HCMC where events are usually badly publicised (if they are publicised at all), and where there are no decent listings/what’s on magazines.

Recruitment
As well as creating a company group with recruitment functionality, companies can also use Facebook to headhunt. Looking for a Java programmer in Vietnam? Go into the Vietnam network and dos search with ‘java’ in the ‘job’ field, and see what you can find!

Communicating/Networking/Socialising
One of the biggest drawbacks of business social networking site Linkedin is that it’s, well, boring. Facebook isn’t. Facebook makes it easy to find people in your area who you can do business with, helps you get to know existing contacts a lot better (I can look up people I know and find out their favourite films/music, what sports they like to play, how many children they have etc., which makes conversation a lot easier next time I meet them!), and facilitates the creation of social/business networks. Using Facebook as an internal tool also helps your staff get to know each other better, and as mentioned above, Facebook could even be used as a corporate intranet.

Development
Facebook’s open development platform allows anyone to create an application and make it available to the site’s users. Some apps, such as Top Friends and Funwall, have over a million active users. Whilst there isn’t any direct money to be made out of most Facebook apps as they are free to use, they’re a great way to get your brand name known and to attract people to use your paid services.

With Myspace only really appealing to teenagers, and Linkedin being as dull as ditchwater, more and more people are moving to Facebook and the site will shortly overtake Myspace as the web’s biggest social network – as of July 2007, it had 34,000,000 users with over 100,000 joining every day. With figures like that, and with functionality which provides communication, networking, marketing/market research and other business tools mostly free of charge, businesses can no longer ignore Facebook and should be looking at encouraging their staff to embrace it, rather than banning it!