Eliminating noise

Presenting on the art of presentation can be a daunting prospect – and some own goals are nigh impossible to prevent. David Bernstein shares his experiences

A good communicator must demonstrate mastery of the subject of the communication. If that subject is communication the challenge is tougher. Evangelise about design in a design magazine and the design (in the most inclusive sense) of your piece is there to prove or disprove your credentials.

Everything communicates – matter, manner, example, omission, tone of voice. My most embarrassing experience occurred at the Royal College of Art when I was invited to present – on presentation. That’s not so much a challenge as a poisoned chalice. Preach involvement but fail to involve and you lose not only your audience, but your reputation.

I ran a set of three seminars. In the third I warned of the dangers of noise, the interference which, in the language of radio engineers, ‘diminishes the integrity of the signal’. A speaker has to guard against all three forms of noise/ code noise, when speaker and listener don’t share the same language and meaning is altered or lost; psychological noise, when the manner of the speaker contradicts or overwhelms the message; and channel noise, such as inadequate volume or feedback on the sound system, too much detail on the visuals, a slide left on too long or noise from an adjacent room.

At the end my client mentioned that I had jingled the coins in my pocket, the mike had picked it up and the amplifier had, well, amplified the noise. Mea culpa – and no return engagement.

That was an own goal. At one conference own goals outnumbered shots on target by the organisers. A trade association of public relations practitioners was promoting, at London’s Waldorf Hotel, its discipline to an audience composed largely of advertising people. They devoted a large part of the day to presentation. For much of the audience much of the screen was obstructed. One slide comprised one word, printed in light red against a background of a slightly darker red. The presenter realised late that he needed to read it out. The word? ‘Visibility.’

But the highlight, the own goal par excellence of this ill-prepared day, happened soon after the tea break. Loud and unstoppable came the sound of the string orchestra from the foyer downstairs serenading the patrons of the tea dance. An own goal is worse than a poisoned chalice. Preparation can usually prevent it. The presenter’s performance is a sample of the message. Ideally, the language in which the message is conveyed should itself be a sample. There was no better exponent than Abram Games, who described the challenge facing the poster artist as ‘maximum meaning, minimum means’. That is not simply a description of the designer’s task, but, in an allied medium, a demonstration.

A number of really good ads are samples of the brands they promote. The classic Guinness and Volkswagen campaigns are instances. The taste of the drink and the feel of the car are experienced vicariously in consuming the ads. The two experiences are coherent. The ads create expectations that the brands deliver.

Coherence has to be worked at, now more than ever with our plethora of channels. The brand must be distinctive – in each of its chosen media. The task is not simply to communicate the same message; that is merely consistency (which Oscar Wilde called ‘the last refuge of the unimaginative’). Coherence entails conveying the spirit of the brand appropriately for both the brand and the medium.

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