Whether it be pitching an idea to your team or giving a speech to a few thousand people, good presentation and public speaking skills are essential. Here we explain the techniques for winning hearts and minds
The human brain is a wonderful thing,” remarked the industrialist Sir George Jessel. “It starts working the moment you are born and goes on working until the day you are asked to stand up and speak.”
Anyone who has ever made a speech at a friend’s wedding, let alone in an aggressive commercial context, can testify to the truth of this. Indeed, recent research conducted by Aziz Corporation demonstrates just how vulnerable many senior executives feel when asked to get up on their hind-legs. Seventy-four per cent of the directors canvassed in the survey claimed that the prospect of presenting to a large business audience was more daunting than any other business activity.
Yet almost all recognised the importance of mastering the necessary attributes. Over half of those who took part rated good presentation/public speaking skills more highly than either intelligence or getting on with their manager.
The survey shows there is a yawning gap between the silver-tongued advocates we would like to be and the present reality. In fact, most of those canvassed claimed that despite the clear need for such skills, there has been no obvious improvement in the standards of verbal communication in recent years.
This is, of course, is music to the ears of the growing number of professional public speaking coaches and presentation experts targeting the business community. And the message they are trumpeting is that effective public speaking is a skill that even the most diffident and withdrawn characters can master. “If we can’t get people stratospherically better at public speaking, then we know we’ve failed,” says Aziz Corporation’s CEO Khalid Aziz, who claims to have made great speakers from the most unlikely raw material.
“There are a few people who are just a joy – they are natural performers,” adds Bob Carson, creative director of Head to Head Communication. “But the behaviour required for public speaking doesn’t come naturally to most of us.”
Perhaps the greatest block preventing most people from making a fluid and effective performance is fear itself. The prospect of suddenly drying up mid-flow, of losing the plot in front of a critical audience can take on a nightmarish quality, extending even beyond the discovery that your flies are undone or that your shirt is tucked into your pants.
But according to the experts, even these most primitive of human anxieties can be overcome – as long you take the time to do the homework. “Very often people are under-rehearsed and under-prepared, and the presentation is therefore not as powerful as it might be,” says Carson. “That’s why people feel terrified.”
• Here we look at three very different presentation scenarios, all of which require a different set of communication skills. Yet, as Carson points out, there are broad guidelines common to all three. Much of the preparation work for any presentation is commonsensical, although often skimped: research your audience, define what you want to say, encapsulate it into a set of easily digested points, and anticipate the likely reaction.
Remember there are only a certain number of messages you can hope to get across in a given timeframe. “If you’re making a 20-minute speech at a conference, and you can get the audience to remember three points, you’re doing well,” he says. Many people also lose track of time and consequently have to curtail the presentation. “You need discipline. Write out what you need to say, then time it. As a rule of thumb it’s something like 140 words to the minute.”
The most critical parts of any presentation are the beginning, when you need to make an impact, and the last 30 seconds which will determine the impression the audience takes away. Carson likens the process to an airline flight. “The take-off is a bit tricky, the cruising phase in the middle is much easier, and then it gets tricky again when you land.” In many ways, he adds, the adages continue to offer the best advice: tell them what you’re going to say, tell them it, and finally tell them what you’ve just told them.
But really memorable and effective presentations extend much further than these rules of thumb – important as they are. The most common pitfall, Carson says, is that people don’t focus on their delivery. “Invariably that’s the bit that lets people down. The preparation for the speech has been done, but people haven’t thought about their actual performance. At the end of the day, you want people to buy into you.”
• In many ways the most daunting speaking experiences are also the most intimate – and presenting to your own board of directors is a classic example of this. On the one hand, you have a clear advantage: you will at least have an inkling of the personalities involved and probably a clear idea of the accepted format of your presentation.
But this familiarity can also work against you. It might, for example, be hard to reconcile the persona you present after-hours in the pub with the consummate professional you wish to portray now. You might also be concerned about the impact of your presentation on your chances of progression in the company.
Moreover, as Mary Spillane, founder of Image Works consultancy points out, boardrooms are effectively clubs – and consequently all the more nerve-wracking to tackle as an outsider. The danger is that in your concern not to put a foot wrong you’ll come across, at best, as wooden and at worst very unconfident.
“The boardroom is an inner circle so try to make sure you’re standing on solid ground before you tackle it,” she advises. “If you’re trying to win support for an idea, the smart thing to do is a little warm-up in advance. Ascertain the politics. Go to one or two board members with whom you feel comfortable and give them a thumbnail sketch.
“People react away from fear. If you behave like a deer caught in the headlights you’ll make them uncomfortable.” If you show a confident exterior, on the other hand, “they’ll welcome you back.”
One way of doing this is to get your body language right. A useful exercise some trainers use is to video people while in meeting scenarios. You can learn a lot about habits you never knew you had by watching yourself perform on-screen. “People undermine themselves by shifting in their seat, and avoiding eye-contact,” Spillane says. “And watch what you’re doing with your hands.”
The most common mistake is to try to disguise personal shortcomings by hiding behind props, most notably of the technological variety. “Most people play it safe. Everyone does a Power- Point presentation, and everyone else is lulled into not listening,” she adds.
“The challenge in board meetings is that there is a set format that people get used to. You have to use yourself as the main presentation aid, so you become the message. The priority is to be memorable.” Indeed Spillane’s main message is that presenters should seek to establish a particular “brand” for themselves.
“Humour goes a long way in the boardroom. Junior managers are often so rigid with fear that there is no humour. It shows huge confidence to use wit to lighten the situation – so stick your neck out. It’s important to have some composure, but there’s a lot to be said for passion.”
But however passionate you might wish to appear, it’s important not to lose sight of some of the fundamental disciplines needed to address the board. Top of the list, says Aziz, is brevity. “The attention span of the average board director is pretty short so you’ve got to be able to grip them.” He relates how one satisfied customer, a hard-bitten US chief executive, remarked: “It’s great what you do. It gets the bastards to tell me in two minutes what it used to take them 20.”
The worst thing to be, adds Aziz, is a “micromaniac” – someone unable to get beyond the minutiae of their topic to deal with the broad issues. It might be natural to want to back up your argument with data, particularly if you’re nervous about presenting. “But it’s important to remember that people in positions of responsibility don’t want too much data. Senior managers want information; more important, they want insight because that is what decisions are based on.
A frequent mistake, he adds, is that presenters forget the issue most critical to the board. “There are only two great motivators in life – sex and money. The first is unlikely to figure but you’ve got to show them the money – say how much something will cost and then spell out the benefit. Do that when presenting and the board will be eating out of your hand.”
A good piece of advice says Aziz is to avoid giving out advanced details of your presentation wherever possible. “What typically happens is that the chief executive skips to page 10 where the financial implications are outlined while you’re still introducing the subject.”
If you do fall victim to an over-impatient boardroom, make sure you have a contingency plan in place. “There’s nothing worse than not getting to the end of what you want to say,” concludes Carson. “But if you’re terribly clever, you’ll have a summary to fall back on.”
• Research shows that most meetings conducted in this country are unnecessary – and when they aren’t, they are poorly structured and lack a proper agenda. This, of course, leads to a significant waste of corporate money – a recent study from PricewaterhouseCoopers indicated that an organisation of 100 people could save £250,000 a year by cutting down the time spent in meetings to one hour per person per week.
Clearly, therefore, the main presentational skill to get right in this context is the content itself. As a first step it’s important to assure yourself that what you need to convey is best imparted in a meeting environment. Some things might be better disseminated by e-mail, for example.
But once you’ve decided on a meeting, prioritise what needs to be covered during that time – and set an end time for the session. If meetings are to be properly effective, you should also include precise action minutes: this was discussed, this is the action required, and this is the person who will take the action.
When researching your presentation, ask the usual questions about what you want to achieve from the session, who will be attending, and so on. This is particularly pertinent to meetings because they are held for so many different reasons. You might want to motivate people, you might want to impart knowledge; you might be dealing with a prospective or disgruntled customer.
“If you know in advance that someone has a particular problem with something you’re covering, don’t ignore it but work to improve it,” says Carson at Head to Head Communication.
Aziz agrees that a critical skill when addressing any meeting – although potentially divisive – is to ascertain the common ground between you and the other participants. “Always start the presentation on this point. That way you’ll get everyone on side and attentive from the outset.”
In many ways, adds Spillane, the most effective meeting presenters are also those with the best manners. “When you come to sell an idea, remember what’s in it for other people as well. Too often you’ll find someone who has a passion about some side of the business that no one else shares. Whatever the meeting’s about, always remember you’re selling – whether it’s ideas, yourself or a strategy.”
In the context of an informal meeting environment, the experts agree it’s critical to pause for feedback – you don’t want to leave people frustrated before you go onto your next point. Similarly, if you disagree with something someone else is saying, voice your doubts there and then – and say why you disagree. “It’s very important for you to be seen as someone flexible, although you can stand your own ground too,” says Spillane.
Nonetheless, it’s important to understand which individuals in the meeting are likely to have the most influence over outcomes and aim the main thrust of what you have to say directly at them. Similarly, although joint or team presentations can be an excellent, and often less monotonous, means of getting a complicated set of points across, always ensure that a team leader has been nominated.
“The client needs to know who’s in charge so they can focus their remarks on the right person,” says Aziz. And it goes without saying that any group efforts, however informal, need to be rehearsed before the presentation. “There’s always a danger when you are drawing on staff from all over the place that they won’t sing from the same hymn sheet.”
Finally, prepare yourself for the worst eventuality and practice recovery techniques. “There’s often a bully in meeting rooms,” contends Spillane. “If you give into it, you’re vulnerable. Even if you’re shot down in a meeting, try to find a way to show you’ve come back. Even if you’re dying inside, it’s important to show you can recover – that you’re not brooding. That shows tremendous confidence and guts. And people warm to that.”
• Of all the forms of business presentation, public speaking is the one most likely to strike dread into the heart of the average executive – primarily because so many of us are unused to declaiming in front of a large audience. On this level, at least, there’s something to be said for the idea of reinstating poetry reciting and elocution back into the school curriculum.
Carson contends that the first mistake people make when contemplating a public speech is to make the wrong assumption about how their efforts are likely to be received. There’s a danger of going in on the defensive. “They go out there thinking the audience is waiting for them to get it wrong. Actually, the reverse is true, they’re with you all the way.”
Experts differ on the correct approach to take to public speaking. On the one hand there are those like Aziz and Spillane who insist that a good speech is nothing more than a smaller presentation writ large. “When people go into performance-mode, you can see the audience’s eyes begin to glaze over,” says Spillane. “A good public presentation is conversational, even if that means using rhetorical questions. The more human you are, the more effective you’ll be.”
“Wherever possible we prefer people not to read scripts – work from prompt cards instead,” adds Aziz. “Once you try to write a speech, your natural ‘speak-speak’ is subsumed by ‘print-speak’ – and that makes the speech wooden.”
Carson agrees that many of the techniques that work on a smaller scale can be upgraded for a larger audience. “If your presentation is to six people, a raised eyebrow or smile can be an emphatic gesture. But for 2,000 people that gesture needs to be exaggerated.”
But he insists that all presentations are to some extent performances and will thus benefit from certain stage techniques such as learning how to breathe, how to get the most out of pauses, and practising inflections and emphasis. There are, however, caveats. “I’m sometimes worried about people who claim to have done a lot of drama. They can get too big and too measured, and can come across as false and contrived.”
As a first step, he encourages clients to prepare the speech as they would any other presentation, fitting the content to the audience, anticipating the likely reaction, and so on. “I won’t allow anyone to start any speaking coaching until we agree absolutely that the script is right. Then you can concentrate on your performance.”
Although a growing number of senior executives are following the example of politicians and hiring graduate speech writers to frame their remarks for them, all agree that this is a practice best avoided, because the results are often lacklustre and lacking in conviction.
Moreover, if you’ve written a speech yourself, you’re much better able to defend your opinions if you’re subsequently challenged on them. As general rules of thumb, avoid jargon and resist the temptation to think out loud.
Once the content has been decided upon, Carson gets his clients to sit down and put in breaks, commas, pauses and conjunctions so that paragraphs naturally flow into each other. To avoid sounding monotonous – or reverting to “read-speak” – he advises reading the speech out loud. “If you read it out and something’s wrong, you’ll hear it.”
A useful tip when preparing speeches, he adds, is to forget the visual aspects of your performance until you’ve got the words sorted out – imagine you’re preparing a radio broadcast. If you are confident about what you’re saying, the physical techniques of how you present the speech will come much easier.
“People need to look up, they need to smile, and they need to get their stance right.” Once you believe you’ve got your speech just right, leave it alone. “You can over-rehearse,” Carson warns. “You can get it so off-pat that you lose the impact.”
Although there’s a certain snob value in declaiming a speech without the obvious benefit of notes, this is clearly a high risk strategy which the experts warn against. “Don’t leave yourself without some means of support, even if it’s just a series of cards with the main points on them in your pocket.”
As with other forms of presentation, the experts warn against over-relying on visuals. “The more impressive your visuals, the more they take away from you,” claims Spillane. “You shouldn’t start with any and you shouldn’t finish with any – and if you use anything in the middle, it has to give the audience an element of surprise.”
But by putting yourself centre stage, you clearly raise the ante in terms of your own physical presentation. “Regrettably personal image is very important. If you’re trying to convey authority and influence you don’t want to turn up in a pink suit or cardi,” Spillane says. “And when speaking in public, you also need to consider the setting. You don’t want to disappear into the backdrop.”
Similarly, work on your voice if necessary. Image Works estimates that the quality of your voice accounts for 38 per cent of your impact on others – so ensure it’s an asset. “The dreaded voicemail message that you insist ‘sounds nothing like me’ is a good indicator of what might need work when it comes to improving the quality of your speech.”