Feature: Don’t sell yourself short

PROs, one might assume, are top communicators. Not necessarily, says Hannah Marriott – many lack some basic skills

Anyone who watched BBC2's Dragons' Den would have no doubt pitied the squirming, sweating, stuttering attempts of business hopefuls as they tried to convince entrepreneurs to invest in their product or service. Most went home no richer than they arrived, and most stumbled when trying to communicate their ideas.

Of course, these were not professional marketers: such flustering would surely never happen with PR practitioners. Or would it?
Khalid Aziz, chief executive of comms consultancy The Aziz Corporation, claims PROs are often left woefully exposed by their employers in a pitch situation because it is assumed they know what to do. Many of his clients who have entertained PR pitch teams do not tell a happy story: 'They are often placed in the position of
having to hire the company that did the least worst pitch,' he reveals.

CIPR trainer Di Burton, founder of Cicada Public Relations, has been training PROs for 15 years. She says PR people are not naturally blessed with good interpersonal skills, and more bosses should realise this: 'People say they want to be in PR because they want to deal with people, but they don't necessarily have good presenting and relationship-building skills. We are storytellers, but there is a need for more training on our delivery.'

Aziz and Burton agree that agency and in-house management often fail to see that presentation skills are something that should be uniquely taught. Indeed, some believe it is a rite of passage for PROs to learn these skills the hard way. One senior PRO remembers being so nervous as a junior presenting to a group of managers that during his mumbling speech he tumbled backwards and fell off the stage.

'PROs usually, although not always, have a facility with words,' says Aziz. 'This is what drives them into PR in the first place. However, most do not understand the fundamental differences between the spoken and the written word.' In an industry where practitioners sink or swim by pitching to clients and building relationships with journalists, this is a worrying assessment.

Meanwhile, there is a growing consensus that confidence is something that can and should be taught. Feverfew director Deborah Goodall runs CIPR courses on topics such as 'persuasive presenting'. 'The message is that if you can hold a coherent conversation, you can present,' she says.

John Gotting, who runs personal development firm PeopleFocus.co.
uk, advises: 'Be natural, be yourself. If you don't think you are funny, don't try to be. But usually the situation will bring incidental things to give you the opportunity to laugh or smile, to relax and be yourself.'

Think on your feet
Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster Manchester and Edinburgh MD Brian Beech turned one potentially awkward situation to his advantage when a prospective client fell asleep during a pitch for a major lager brand. 'I didn't know whether to ignore it or carry on, but decided to be self-deprecating, and include him in the show. I started a running joke, almost using him as a stooge to make everyone laugh, asking the audience "is it me?". We won the business and he later explained that he fell asleep because he had been on a tasting session rather than because I was boring him.'

Adaptability is crucial, as Jackie Cooper PR founding partner Robert Phillips remembers: 'I once drove to a pitch with the boot of my car open, and the presentation boards were strewn down the M4. But we improvised and won the business – the key is to not rely on any one technique.'

Indeed, learning a script is, according to PeopleFocus's Gotting, 'the worst thing to do. Learning lines is a technique for acting, not presenting'.

And there are other, more pioneering ways of adjusting a presentation to suit the needs of specific clients or situations. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), for instance – the practice of listening to the way clients talk to ascertain their personality type – is used frequently by management consultancies. Although unheard of at some agencies, others are embracing NLP.

Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster account director Pippa Lawrence says: 'NLP is so helpful in business. On a basic level you can open up communications with people by mirroring their body language or employing coping strategies to help diffuse tense situations.'

Simple shortcuts to creating rapport include cutting out distracting body language. Gotting says: 'Men putting their hands in their pockets, for example, can be off-putting to women, and lack of eye
contact also makes people feel uncomfortable.'

What's it worth?
On-the-ball agencies realise that there are returns to be made from interpersonal skills training. Although statistics for this specific element of training are unavailable, the PRCA's FrontLine survey in December showed a year-on-year increase in general training. Eighty-three per cent of account executives and managers received external training in 2005, up from 81 per cent in 2004 and 74 per cent in 2003.

Some agencies contacted by PRWeek were happy to reveal their training budgets. Healthcare consultancy Chandler Chicco Agency reveals that it spends £1,500 a year on training for each of its 43 UK-based staff, including a one-day presentation skills course. Firefly Communications, meanwhile, spends an annual £1,000 a head on external training and £1,500 per employee on internal training. It also gives staff the chance to sign up to London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art courses, which cover areas such as how to project your voice.

ID:ology, whose trainers include former actors, carries out regular tailor-made sessions for Cohn & Wolfe. Agency HR director Paula Grant says: 'This is probably the course people talk about the most. It is fun and boosts people's confidence.' Before some pitches, C&W even drafts ID:ology in to watch the rehearsals. 'The reassurance of an expert with an external perspective gives you permission to be enthusiastic, as well as confidence in what you're saying,' explains account director Eleanor Conroy.

One particularly quirky method of teaching presentation skills is through magic. Magic Management founder Nick Fitzherbert is a member of the Magic Circle and – after making PROs sign a secrecy agreement – teaches them tricks and the principles of magic. 'Our attention tracks from left to right, because that's the way we read,' he says. 'Magicians use this to direct attention. PROs can use it to plan the way they arrange presentations – they should stand on the left, with their prop or slides on the right.'

Even on university courses, often berated for being too academic, there is an increasing emphasis on practical skills such as presentation, with students' efforts assessed by outside parties. Cardiff University public and media relations diploma student Roberta Snape delivers around two presentations a week. 'Lots of people dread it, but it doesn't worry me,' she says.

And agency graduate intake programmes put great stock in presentation skills, testing them early on in the selection procedure. The graduate assessment days at The Red Consultancy and Hill & Knowlton, for example, include presentations. At Fishburn Hedges, meanwhile, candidates present a news review to demonstrate their 'ability to talk in an articulate way'.

Telephone training
But there is still a long way to go, particularly in the area of telephone skills training. In the PRCA FrontLine survey, nine per cent of practitioners named cold calling journalists as the most problematic aspect of their job; this was second only to writing long-form copy (12 per cent).

On university courses too, telephone skills receive far less attention than presentation skills. Most students get their experience of selling in stories to journalists through work placements. There are only a few examples of telephone-based role plays in course modules – such as Leeds Metropolitan University's Writing for PR course, in which half of the group pose as journalists and half as PROs.

Even among agencies that otherwise offer thorough schemes, telephone training tends to be limited to  role plays or on-the-job advice. It is even more unusual for external telephone skills training to be offered. But as Fitzherbert says, a lack of telephone skills can reflect badly on an agency: 'Journalists get the wrong impression from tongue-tied executives who call up.'

Media Training Masterclasses' Warwick Partington agrees that phone skills are paramount: 'The telephone is vital in establishing credibility, and the voice is a communication tool that can support or destroy.' He stresses that a journalist is likely to remember the last thing said, and advises speaking concisely and phrasing appropriately.

A financial gamble?
So why do some agencies – particularly smaller ones – offer only limited training, particularly to new recruits? 'The problem is that younger people can be fly-by-night, so there is a reluctance to spend too much on training only to see individuals move on,' explains Aziz.

For smaller agencies, the CIPR's Burton recommends regular, quick informal sessions at 8.30am with bacon butties. To maximise external spending on courses, she advises meeting staff newly returned from training so they can share their knowledge.

Internal training can provide other benefits. Jackie Cooper PR runs internal courses called 'presentation skills the Jackie Cooper PR way', for instance, which simultaneously teach recruits about the company's culture – thus killing two birds with one stone.

Firefly founder and CEO Claire Walker also runs presentation training with the dual aim of getting to know new recruits. They all tend to have fun together, she says, and learn to avoid her bête noir – 'the tea-pot position: waving an arm with a hand on your hip while you talk'.

And the best training, according to Feverfew's Goodall, is that which
relates directly to your job. While practising interpersonal skills, 'discuss specific clients, outline what you can do tomorrow', she says, adding that external experts are vital: 'An outside
perspective is the lifeblood of PR.'

For more information go to:
www.azizcorp.com; www.id-ology.org
www.lotus-exchange.com
www.media-training-masterclasses.com
www.peoplefocus.co.uk
www.workingvoices.com

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