Feature: Trendy training

Are modern training techniques useful for PR practitioners? Robyn Lewis talks to some of the converts.

Standing in a field casting an imaginary net; wearing several differently coloured baseball caps all at once; and singing an inspirational song in front of your colleagues. It's the stuff of nightmares, isn't it? Perhaps, but it is also reality for many people sent on staff training courses.

The above are just some of the weird and wonderful activities on offer from consultants who provide more inter­active training. For some time they have targeted senior corporate man­agers, but now these courses are increasingly being used by PR professionals seeking new ways to improve their so-called ‘softer skills'.

Whether they focus on leadership, ‘personal presence', public speaking or inter-office relationships, a plethora of courses have ditched the traditional ‘chalk and talk' approach - and claim they can deliver miraculous results for those who take part.

The subjects covered in such courses  also include colour training, Neuro Linguistic Programming and business communications. These performance-based tuitions are a world away from dimly lit classrooms, essay writing and soggy sarnies. As such, they are still looked down upon by those sceptical of their long-term benefits.

PRWeek looked at four of the more innovative training experiences being adopted by PR people, and asked participants if their experience was gainful or a waste of time.

PERSONAL PRESENCE

Pitching to clients or talking to journ­alists  is no longer just about being able to deliver information accurately, but about having a personal presence that makes the experience memorable.

‘We've trained several PR agencies,' says the eponymous director of Jo Ouston & Co. ‘This type of training is particularly useful for PROs because it is really about being taken seriously. In PR, as in much consultancy work, quite often you are expected to present and advise clients who are much older than you. This training teaches you how to present yourself with the confidence and gravitas that audiences expect.'

Ouston's course attempts to break communication down to its elements, including analysis of voice and body language. ‘Using performing arts teachers, we then try and look at the impact those things have on others,
and teach people how to use these tools in a work situation,' she explains.

Some of the more unusual demands on trainees are breathing and body language exercises, as well as role play. ‘It's a lot of physical exercise,' says Ouston. ‘We do one exercise called Casting The Net, which people find useful. Here we ask people to stand in a circle and imagine they are throwing out a big net. Once they feel everyone is included they pull it in, feeling that everyone is engaged and sharing the same space. This can really help nervous PROs in networking situations, in rooms full of people they don't know.'

Does it work?
But can this conceptual stuff really help busy PR professionals? JBP PR is one company that puts all of its employees through Ouston's course and consultant Rebecca Hosgood claims she found it invaluable.

‘I have a very quiet, soft voice and it is something I am conscious of in meetings and pitches,' says Hosgood. ‘During the training I learned how to use my voice - how to pause rather than ramble, which adds status - and how to increase the depth of my voice: it extends when I talk to a big group.'

For colleague Sofie Boddy, also a consultant at JBP, the course improved her body language: ‘When I did the course I was working towards a ­promotion, so I focused on how to present myself to management and ­clients. I used the breathing techniques to calm my nerves and shaky voice, and used the posture techniques when I had my appraisal. It worked and I got promoted. I also recently applied the techniques to negotiate a pay rise, and specifically the Casting The Net technique when I presented to more than 100 MDs.'

Ouston also bases her teachings on Neuro Linguistic Programming (see p28) but applies the theory differently: ‘I wouldn't say that mine would commonly be thought of as an NLP course. It's about believing in what you are doing, as well as applying a methodology.'

Jo Ouston & Co; 020 7821 8299. Cost £2,000 for one day's training of eight to ten people
Or try 
Impact Factory;  020 7226 1877
Or try  
BodyTalk Personal Training

COLOUR TRAINING

What colour are you? This is the question that Insights Discovery training aims to answer. Its personality profiling starts with an online questionnaire and classifies participants as red, green, blue or yellow. Reds are competitive,  determined and purposeful; greens are caring, patient, encouraging and relaxed.

If it sounds a bit new-age, it is. But according to trainer Peter Birkholm, a colour is a memorable shorthand for describing people. ‘Throughout the session we do exercises designed to explain the characteristics of each colour. Not knowing what colour you are ensures people are equally committed to learning how colours work. This is vital, as the aim of this training is not only a better understanding of yourself but a better understanding of your colleagues as well.'

Exercises include wearing different coloured baseball caps to denote which of the colours best relate to you. There is also coloured Lego to play with, and role play. Towards the end of a session, participants' personality types are revealed.

Does it work?
Caroline Kinsey, director of Buckinghamshire-based CirKle PR, has put all 12 staff on an Insights Discovery course. ‘We were thinking of doing some training and one of our clients recommended this. It's been a fantastic tool,' she enthuses. There was some scepticism from CirKle staff to begin with. ‘I found it hard to believe that people could be pigeonholed so much,' says Sarah Winthrop, an account manager at CirKle. ‘But when I was handed my profile at the end of the day it was spot on.'

Kinsey now uses the training to match staff with account briefs, as well as clients themselves. She says that this makes for more harmonious agency-client relationships, and improves business retention.

‘It has given us a real understanding of each other's working styles,' says Kinsey. ‘We also share profiles with clients so it's helped us to better understand each other. There's a shared language, so instead of getting frustrated with someone and saying "Oh, you're being indecisive", you can say "You're blue and having a bad day". It's much less emotive.'

Kinsey says the company recruits using the system (she is looking for ‘yellows'), and structures teams to have a balance of all four personality types: ‘It's not just technical expertise and experience we look for now but how well people fit into the team.'

Email Peter Birkholm. Cost £125 (one person) to £2,150 for up to 20 people
Or try
Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats

NEURO LINGUISTIC  PROGRAMMING

NLP is a set of techniques, initially developed in the 1970s, based on body-language patterns and cues. A controversial model, it has been labelled by some as ‘pseudo-scientific'.

Trainer Indigo Spirit recently ran an Inspirational Leadership Workshop for Cohn & Wolfe. All 11 board directors attended. ‘Without good management, you aren't going to retain or develop your staff, and you certainly aren't going to make money long-term,' argues corporate affairs director Lee Murgatroyd.

Elizabeth Louvis and Sarah Smith designed a two-day course, aimed at improving the board's collaborative skills, leadership and vision: ‘We asked them to bring in poems and songs they found inspiring; we asked them probing questions about their attitudes and what makes them tick.

‘There was a lot of writing things on bits of paper. We identified some of the participants' strengths and weaknesses and sent them on walks, or brought in a massage therapist.'

Louvis says this focus on the individual ‘feeds back into the whole team' - and that, she claims, ‘improves the group dynamic'.

Does it work?
For Murgatroyd, the benefits of the course outweighed his initial scepticism. ‘All that massage and stuff! But it has definitely helped us all get a better sense of our own management styles and how that feeds into the board - we now work much better with one another,' he says.‘Since returning from the course we've set next year's budgets, a fraught process. This time around, however, there was a lot more understanding of people's needs and the whole thing was a much easier process.'

Louvis admits the results are difficult to quantify: ‘How can you measure how much easier it is to work with people you like and have learned to understand?'

Indigo Spirit, 020 8265 3125
Or try
Neuro Linguistic Planning Mastery
Or try NLP specialist trainer Sue Knight

AWARENESS TRAINING

How do you get PROs to consider what they personally add to the business? The Business Communication Forum runs courses for comms professionals. Their core aim, says MD Gerry Griffin, ‘is to align the business and the communications roles within it.'

He adds: ‘Too often an in-house comms team is seen as a woolly outfit with no impact on the organisation. We get comms departments to think about what they add to a business, and then give them the tools to take away their inferiority complex.'

Courses are tailormade and specifically non-motivational - ‘none of this "I've got the power" stuff,' says Griffin. ‘Neither is it psychology. The core principle is the relationship between business and comms. We do one part theory to two- parts examples and three parts applications - that ratio is the same whether we do an hour, a day or a week. It stops people getting bored and emphasises the benefits of what we teach.'

The company also offers online training in the form of a ‘comms gym'. This can be used in conjunction with training sessions with Griffin.

Does it work?
The International Council for Mining and Metals recently sent all staff on a BCF course. Comms manager Ben Peachey says: ‘Having everyone there was invaluable for me as people better understand the comms role now. Everyone in an organisation has to communicate its messages, so it makes perfect sense to help people with that. We worked out a strategy together and staff are now all on the same page.'

Relationships within the office have also improved, according to Peachey. ‘Of course there was some scepticism beforehand, but the fact that people are looking forward to future sessions and don't have to be dragged kicking their feet speaks volumes,' he says.

One of the most useful exercises, Peachey claims, was a video session in which company spokesmen went head-to-head against Griffin in a mock interview. ‘He was deliberately obtuse with participants and made it extrem­ely difficult for us to get our messages across,' recalls Peachey.

‘When we watched the footage back and deconstructed it as a group, we could see what needed to be done. Then we talked as a group about how we could achieve that objective. It has given us all a lot more confidence.'

Go to The Business Communication forum or call 0870 240 6656

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