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What ZARA, M&S and Theresa May teach us about small talk and great content

According to TED speaker coach, Briar Goldberg, most TED talks these days are 9 – 12 minutes rather than, as previously, 18. That’s because audiences have an ever decreasing concentration span. I find this rather depressing but I’m taking it on board and therefore this month’s musings are going to be short.

Two things have happened recently. One – Theresa May resigned. Two – I went shopping. Both events reveal something important about communication.

  • Among the acres of analysis of TM’s downfall, one theme rings out – her inability to resonate with people and make small talk. Funnily enough, I’ve been working with several senior individuals this week who have similar problems. They fear silence; they worry about sustaining a conversation; they’re anxious that they haven’t got anything interesting to contribute. Very common issues with very simple solutions.
  1. Don’t worry about being interestING. Instead, be interestED. You can’t go wrong asking questions.
  2. For openers, try starting conversations about something you and the other person/people are sharing or seeing or experiencing together. Eg, the seminar/conference, the speaker, the topic of the meeting, the amazing view, the art on the walls, the biscuits (or lack of them), the historic building you’re in. And you don’t have to start with a question. You might simply make a comment – “wow, that’s quite a view”. This could then lead on to a chat about your/their office location and on from there to business travel, food, cooking, TV cooking shows, box sets, GOT, and so on and so on until the end of time.

The key thing about small talk anxiety, though, is to take it in hand. There are many practical tools to help you be more skilful and more confident. If only TM had ………

  • Second big news of the month, shopping – ZARA followed immediately by M&S. Surprisingly, this reminded me of the importance of ‘packaging’ in communication. It’s not enough to have good ideas or strong recommendations. We must package them in a way that is engaging and memorable and tailored to our audience.

Hard to believe, I know, but I was struck by the number of very similar items in ZARA and M&S (I was looking mainly at trousers and tops). But the way they are presented/communicated couldn’t be more different. Via lighting, display, layout, music, décor, one shop creates energy and excitement around its products, the other a lack of it.

When we’re selling our wares, same rules apply.

Our ‘packaging’ will involve data, visuals, case studies, as well as performance related issues such as pace, vocal projection and body language. I watched a TED talk this morning with amazing content about the world’s endangered cultures but I missed two thirds of the ideas because (a) the language and terminology were too complex for a general audience and (b) the pace was too fast. In particular there were no pauses between ‘chapters’ for the content to sink in. As a result, my brain got neural fatigue and I switched off.

So, as we prepare to offer up our ideas for consideration, let’s make sure we’re giving them the very best chance of catching the customer’s eye and ending up at the cash till.