Tick. Tick. Tick. Numbers that count and what you can do about them

120 minutes. All the time you have (or less) to respond to a sudden crisis.

The clock starts ticking the moment you’re confronted with a sudden crisis and you’ve got about 120 minutes or less to figure out how to respond and what to do next. Who speaks for your company or organization? What do they say – or not say? How do you answer questions when you don’t have all the facts? Who is on your need-to-know list? There’s no time to waste but you need to get it right. And fast.

When your heart is pounding and your reputation is at stake it’s a bad time to try to wing it. You’ll breathe a lot easier if you have a Crisis Communication Plan in place. A “Crisis Comm Plan” answers those questions about who speaks and when and with what message. It details what to do and how to do it not only in the crucial first 120 minutes but also for the life of the crisis. When it ends – and it will end – the plan will also include instructions for a post-crisis debrief to determine what went right and what needs to be improved in the event of another crisis situation.

Peace of mind comes from having identified the members of your Crisis Command Team. This small but important group will have been selected for their role in the organization, their ability to work together under pressure, and the special skills or abilities they bring to the table. Your ability to cope includes knowing you have a spokesperson person in place and that he or she will be able to speak confidently in “hot seat” interviews because they have been media trained for that specific situation. And if the crisis event is major enough to warrant a media conference, you also know who should participate and how to work seamlessly with the authorities because you will have rehearsed that situation in a mock-scenario.

Ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen to this organization?” Then put a Crisis Communication Plan in place as your insurance policy – one that not only helps you to breathe easier but that also demonstrates to your staff and key stakeholders that you are a responsible organization and that you intend to follow the guiding principles of being transparent in your actions, forthright and truthful with the media, accountable, empathetic, and prepared to do the right thing.

The 80 percent eyes over the ears effect

You’ve undoubtedly heard that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. Now think about this: you are “communicating” and being judged before you even open your mouth. Here’s why: A startling 80 percent of your communication is your body language. Some experts say the percentage is higher, others say it may be a little less, but the fact is your body is speaking loud and clear. I always keep the importance of this non-verbal communication in mind when I’m conducting a media interview training session or doing presentation or speech coaching and you should too because in every case, the eyes will win over the ears.

At its most basic, if your body language makes you appear smaller it also makes you appear closed. For example, if you cross your arms, cross your legs and hunch your shoulders forward, you risk appearing to be blocking communication; that you’re non-receptive. And while we may be unaware of our own body language, most of us are experts at “reading” the body language of others. I consider non-verbal communication so important that I video every media training session with a view to encouraging body language that projects an image of openness, confidence and engagement.

Here’s an interesting twist. It turns out that striking a confident pose even when you’re nervous, in other words “faking it”, will actually cause you to feel more confident. That finding is the result of research conducted by Amy Cuddy, whose TED talk on body language is informative and entertaining. It’s worth checking out. Body language is already contributing to 80 percent of your communication why not take full advantage of it by making it work for you.

15 minutes. Not 15 minutes of fame but the moment your audience turns off

The date for your speaking engagement has arrived and you are prepared. You’re clear about what you want to say and you’ve rehearsed. You start speaking, maybe feeling a little nervous but a few minutes into your speech – right about the time you start to relax – you get the uneasy feeling the audience’s attention is drifting. A quick glance at your watch tells you you’ve been speaking for about 15 minutes. That’s the time, give or take a few minutes, when members of the audience typically start thinking about things other than your well-crafted words.

Is it possible to re-capture their attention? And if so, how? The answer is yes you can bring your audience back and the way you do that is by planning for it in advance. When I’m writing or coaching a speech, I build in a “wake-up” element at the 12 to 15 minute mark.

Here are some of my go-to wake-up techniques:

  • Change the pace of your delivery. Slow it down or speed it up. Sometimes enthusiasm and nervousness results in a rapid-fire delivery that is hard for an audience to absorb. Or there’s the opposite effect, when an over-rehearsed speech has such a “drone effect people tune out. Pace changes keep the presentation lively and helps you stay engaged with your audience.
  • Introduce a visual designed to amplify your delivery. It can help re-direct an audience’s attention. The key word here is “amplify”. Never turn and read the text of a power point slide to your audience. Never. Ever. It’s a guaranteed attention killer and a common mistake that has given power point presentations a bad rap.
  • Pause. Skilled speakers know that when they stop speaking for a moment it catches people’s attention. A variation of this technique is to lower your voice instead of raising it – a great tip from a teacher friend who said she drops her voice as an effective way to get the attention of her students.
  • Repeat. One of my favorites. Say a phrase, pause, and say it again. This is a technique frequently used to great effect in the speeches of U.S. Vice-President, Joe Biden.

These are only a few of the many wake-up-your-audience tricks you can incorporate into your presentation but of course they need to be woven into the bigger picture. What is the purpose of your presentation? Why should your audience care? What is the story you want to tell? What do you want your audience to take away? Then write your speech using the three-times rule: tell them what you’re going to tell them…tell them…and tell them what you told them.

Are there other “ticking numbers” we be should be paying attention to when communicating?