Presentation skills should be seen as a key business asset. Sue Bryant reports

Presentation skills should be seen as a key business asset. Sue Bryant


Whether it’s a new business pitch or a speech to 300, making a

presentation is not something that most people enjoy.

Public speaking is, however, a necessary evil. Flatter structures, more

emphasis on teamwork and more international projects mean communications

skills are essential to any sector. ‘There’s less written communication

now and business is much more competitive,’ says Cristina Stuart,

managing director of SpeakEasy Training, which works with Duracell,

British Gas and Midland Bank. ‘Presenting well is a key business skill.’

Stuart believes that British business suffers from poor communication.

‘A lack of emphasis on the spoken word in education and reliance on

information technology has created managers who mumble, lack confidence

and speak too quickly,’ she says.

Training can create a competent speaker from a bag of nerves. Different

trainers promise different results but what Stuart aims to do is change

people’s perception of themselves. ‘We teach them to look at themselves

in a different way, using video and techniques to overcome nerves. If

they feel better, they look better.’

John Walters, senior consultant for The Kingstree Group, which has run

courses for KPMG, Commercial Union, Morgan Stanley and Safeway, claims

it’s easier than people think. ‘Most people are effective communicators

and they’re best at it when they’re relaxed,’ he says. ‘But when they’re

making a presentation, they’re not being themselves and listeners will

make judgements about them that are incorrect.’

Where most speakers fall down is an obsession with the presentation

rather than content. This fear, according to corporate communications

consultant Roy Sheppard, prevents the speaker from achieving anything.

‘I see it over and over again,’ he says. ‘People focus on the process,

not on the result they want to achieve. When you really understand what

you want people to do, the rest is far easier.’

Public relations specialist and experienced speaker John Craske suffered

a traumatic experience recently when his nerves hit him at the last

minute. ‘The audience was young, high-powered executives and I suddenly

realised I was intimidated by them,’ he says. ‘I did prepare. I wrote my

speech and sorted it into cards, although that was not a good thing in

retrospect, as I couldn’t see my script. I haven’t got bifocals and if I

took my glasses off, the podium was too far away.’

This was the trigger for nerves. ‘My hands were shaking so much I

couldn’t turn over my cards,’ Craske continues.

Another example was a speaker who was too cocky. ‘He was so relaxed

beforehand it wasn’t true,’ says Ken Clayton, who runs speaker training

courses and is a director of Michael Rines Communications. ‘The audience

was going to have no respect for him, so I wound him up. He was so

furious with me when he got out there that he gave the presentation the

attack it needed.’

There are a number of golden rules in making a presentation and plenty

of speakers break them all. No eye contact. No pauses. Patronising the

audience by putting text on screen and reading it out loud. Writing a

speech, failing to rehearse and reading it woodenly. Fumbling with

equipment and muttering: ‘Now, how do I work this thing...’

‘You’ve got to look the audience right in the eye and pause,’ says

Sheppard. ‘If you pause, you’re in control from the beginning.’ Michael

Stevens, author of How to be Better at Giving Presentations (Kogan Page,

pounds 8.99), suggests pausing and making eye contact before you make

each point and after to gauge audience reaction. If they’re not looking

blank, quizzical or fidgety, you know you’re getting the message across.

The structure of a presentation is as important as delivery. A much-

quoted maxim is: ‘Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell

them, and then tell them what you’ve told them.’

‘Stick to four or five key points and start with the most important,’

Walters says. ‘Then back up your argument. But don’t cover all the

ground. That begs questions.’

Belief in what you’re saying is important, too. ‘One chap I trained was

making his first speech to an audience that was important to him,’ says

Clayton. ‘He was a disaster and spoke in a high-pitched monotone with no

variation of pace. It turned out that he just didn’t believe in the

script he was delivering. The second time I heard him speak, he got a

round of applause.’

Then comes the question of how to deliver a speech. Speakers who can ad

lib or speak from notes are usually more fluid than someone reading a

script, although a script is usually necessary at a big event where

sound, light and visual cues have to be taken during the presentation.

The Kingstree Group will help clients write scripts that sound natural

when spoken. But anyone hoping for the prop of autocue will meet

resistance. ‘I dislike autocue,’ says Walters. ‘It simulates total eye

contact with the audience - but at a focal depth of three and a half

feet, so you can’t see them. A lot of speakers have a real intellectual

problem with that.’

Too many speakers rely on impressive presentation technology to make up

for poor presentation skills, simply because it’s available and they

think it looks flashy. ‘Too many presentations are slide-driven, which

puts you in second place,’ says Walters. ‘You become a glorified


Only when you’ve devised your presentation should you ask: ‘Do I need


Visuals with words distract an audience. ‘Remember that people can read

quicker than you can speak and will read your slides instead of

listening to you,’ warns Sheppard. Michael Stevens suggests the

following process: ‘Make your point and then introduce the aid. Put it

on screen and look at it with the audience. Keep it on screen long

enough for the audience to absorb the information and then remove it.

Re-establish eye contact and continue your talk.’

Get training from the software supplier and run through the speech with

the visuals beforehand. Aids should be tailored to the audience.

Handwritten acetates will look old fashioned to an IT audience but a

fancy presentation will infuriate people who are about to be made

redundant, or shareholders at the end of a bad year.

Speaker training should be as serious an investment for a company as

software training. There are several practical things to look out for

such as client references and track record. Make sure trainees are in

small groups - six people to one trainer is the maximum - and find out

how many times they will be videoed during the course. Cristina Stuart

recommends at least seven times over a two-day course.

Anyone can call themselves a presentation skills trainer and their only

credential may be the fact that they themselves are a good speaker.

Firms such as SpeakEasy and The Kingstree Group do nothing but speaker

training, although full-service communications consultancies can do an

effective job, too. Most important is the fact that the trainer is

sympathetic, because to the delegate, having been on a course is a far

better feeling than being about to go on one.

* Free workshops will take place at Marketing- sponsored Business

Presentations ’96, November 19-21 at Wembley Conference & Exhibition

Centre. Topics include presentation skills, video-conferencing and IT.

To book a place, telephone Farrah Hussein on 0181 995 3632.

Do’s and Don’ts


* Rehearse

* Remember that nerves are ok

* Channel your fear into an animated performance

* Pause frequently

* Make regular eye contact with your audience

* Smile

* Make sure that you can work your equipment

* Remember that the audience wants you to do well


* Peer at equipment at say ‘Now, how does this work?’

* Jangle change in your pocket

* Start with ‘Unaccustomed as I am...’

* Hand out notes before the presentation

* Overwhelm your audience - and your presentation - with visuals

* Put up visuals and then read them

* Gabble

* Leave the most important point until last


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