Just over a month ago I heard the very sad news that Professor Aidan Halligan had died suddenly. Aidan was Director of Well North - a Public Health England initiative to improve the health of the underprivileged across the North of England. He was Principal of the NHS Staff College for leadership development and was Chair of Pathway, a charity developing NHS services for the homeless. He had also been Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England.
It was an immense shock not only because Aidan was in his fifties, but also because he was such a vital and inspiring human being. He also happened to be a wonderful speaker who effortlessly inspired an audience. I once asked him if he would contribute to a book I was writing on presentation as I felt he had so much to say. Sadly that was not to be.
I'd like to put down some of those particular attributes that I believe made him a great speaker and natural leader. I think they are qualities that will help anyone to improve their own presentation style.
Tell your own specific stories
Aidan would often say he couldn't tell a joke, but that he could tell a good story - as long as it was his. This was one of his great strengths. His stories were part of the tapestry of his own life experience, they were his stories and he clearly knew why he was telling them and to what effect. His desire to improve medical care was driven by a passion to help others and he inspired his audience into action by weaving in vivid pictures of when people had made a difference.
His stories were also specific. I will always remember one in particular about an HCA (Health Care Assistant) called Dolly, and how the story of her making tea beautifully illustrated the nature of leadership. The video below was recorded at a talk he made to junior doctors reflecting on leadership in the NHS.
I would urge you to take the time to sit down and rediscover your own life stories and their meaning, refine them and make sure you add personal disclosure. Aidan would often talk about his daughters, or his own failings which added a personal dimension to his talks. Sir Ken Robinson is another great speaker who uses these techniques. An audience likes to feel they share connections with the speaker and disclosure is an effective route to connect.
Be relevant to the moment
Aiden was a past master at sharing something that happened that day or a few days previously that was relevant to his talk. It was a powerful way to engage with his audience whilst demonstrating he was fully present in the moment and passionate about the subject. On the different occasions that I saw him speak he always found something new to throw in that was probably on the minds and conversations of those attending.
What I love about this technique is that it is effective in different ways. Having the confidence to share a relevant story that's just happened to you, tells your audience you are current, up on your sector, and knowledgeable. It also shows you are present, relaxed and happy to improvise.
Aidan would always ask and invite questions from his audience, often very early in his talk - sometimes rhetorical, sometimes not. I always felt he did it because he was passionately interested in what people had to say. He would always fully listen to every question or answer - taking his time to reflect before responding, giving weight and respect to the audience.
Think of questions as opportunities to engage further. Aiden would often connect people through their questions and would seek opinions if he felt it would help to create greater understanding.
Learn specific data
I was always amazed by how much data Aidan retained in his head. He recalled dates, percentages, obscure historical names. It showed a man who loved learning and, like Sinatra, it seemed effortless.
Learning specific data without referring to a slide or notes is a very effective device which gives gravitas to any speaker.
Love what you do
The most fundamental reason Aidan was such a passionate and driven communicator was that he loved what he did. You only had to spend a few moments in his company to feel it radiate from him.
Not everyone reading this will love what they do, that I understand, but finding what it is you love about the message behind your presentation will make a powerful difference. Passion is addictive and influential.
I feel very lucky that I spent time with Aidan, he will be greatly missed by all those he touched.
Thanks to Roger Kline for Aidan's job description taken from his his moving tribute on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/aidan-halligan-goodbye-good-wise-man-roger-kline