PR professionals are, by definition, confident communicators. So
why, when the time comes to ’stand and deliver’ to an audience, even the
most experienced of managers can become quivering wrecks with as much
charisma as a cardboard cut-out?
Ask any presentation trainer for the key to a successful public speech
and you get the same answer - proper preparation. With enough planning
and rehearsal, they say, even the most hesitant individual can pull off
a fine performance. However, when it comes to defining the dos and
don’ts of how to go about it, opinions begin to diverge.
When faced with the prospect of making a presentation, many people start
off on the wrong foot by concentrating more on what they want to say
than on what the audience needs to know, says Cristina Stuart, managing
director of media training company SpeakEasy.
’The most important step is to consider the emotional and practical
needs of the audience, particularly when pitching for new business. Do
they need reassurance? Are they primarily concerned about time, money or
In the case of PR, have they had a bad experience with another agency
which has left them with specific concerns?’ she says.
Stuart advises clients to make contact with key members of the audience
a few days before the speech. This gives the speaker an opportunity not
only to clarify the brief, but to identify individual concerns that can
be referred to during the presentation as a way of striking up a
dialogue with the audience.
However, David Coulter, course director of media presentation skills
company Coulter Ford, says time should be allocated for questions at the
end, and that a speaker should never give the audience permission to
interrupt a presentation as it risks losing control of the flow.
He believes that preparation should begin about a month in advance.
’Start by writing down everything that might be relevant, and give it a
few days to mull itself over until you can establish three main points
you want the audience to go away with,’ he says.
The next step is to decide what needs to be said without writing down
the actual words. ’Reading from a script eliminates any spontaneity,
whereas pausing to think adds a tremendous dynamic.’
Many trainers say it is a bad idea to read from a script, but how can a
speaker gather enough courage to walk onto a podium without one? Coulter
recommends rehearsing the speech out loud until it rolls off the
This gives the speaker confidence in what he or she is saying and,
importantly, ensures accurate timing.
’On our courses we ask people to talk for three minutes on a subject,
but when they stand up their speeches can vary from 45 seconds to 14
minutes - adrenaline makes you lose a sense of time when you are on the
spot,’ he says.
To calm the nerves, Coulter suggests an exercise regime for two or three
weeks before the event, including practicing breathing from the
diaphragm and vocal training. ’You need a huge amount of energy to talk
for 20 minutes.
Humming to exercise the vocal mechanism and loosening up your
articulation by exercising the tongue will give you the energy you need
to deliver the speech,’ he says.
But preparing too far in advance is self-defeating as it compromises
spontaneity, says Sarah Dickinson, managing director of media
consultants Electric Airwaves. One day of preparation is sufficient for
a 20-minute talk and, to keep it fresh, the speaker should certainly not
rehearse on the day itself.
In her book, Effective Presentation, Dickinson advocates a classical
approach to speech-writing, dividing the presentation into a rigid,
six-part format - greeting, menu, housekeeping (including details about
the length of the speech and post-presentation refreshments), main body,
summary and conclusion. The speaker should write and rehearse the speech
in full, then cut it down to bullet points with verbal bridges between
each section, which should be written on index cards.
’With the comfort of a clear structure to refer to if the mind goes
blank, it is easier for speakers to be themselves,’ she says. In
rehearsal, speakers should concentrate on their body language,
practicing making eye contact with the audience, and being wary of
distracting gestures such as waving their arms around, clearing their
throat or thrusting their hands into their pockets.
However, some trainers believe that tried-and-tested techniques like
Dickinson’s are fundamentally flawed. Lee Bowman, managing director of
the Kingstree Group, which specialises in training heads of state, says
it is good to have a clear structure but wrong to assume an objective
model of presentation excellence, claiming the point of a speech is to
get key points across, and the best way to do it is to use one’s own
unique conversational style.
’We show clients what they do specifically in relaxed conversation, and
teach them to use that individual style in the more stressful context of
a presentation,’ says Bowman. ’Anything you try to change about a person
will degrade the quality of the communication.’
He dismisses the use of voice training and breathing exercises as a form
of preparation, saying: ’You have done a good job of sucking in air for
the whole of your life, so why would you need any help?’
If speakers are made to feel self-conscious about their gestures, or
about what impression to give the audience, they are bound to get
frustrated and give up. On the other hand, if they are not trying to put
on an act, they should not be nervous. ’It’s OK to be a shy person who
happens to be an expert on tax, as long as you are happy with that
image,’ he says.
Hugo Brooke, managing director of media skills training company Media
Interviews, believes shyness is not an innate characteristic and can
always be overcome. He also believes the point of presentation training
is to help clients get into their natural stride. ’You can’t allow a
person to stand with their arms folded or come across as a shrinking
violet, but if they have prepared well enough and know the speech, the
shyness should disappear. They just have to learn how to get going,’ he
David Henshall, chairman of PR training centre, the Henshall Centre,
says there are specific techniques that can help bring the speaker’s
personality to the fore.
He believes it is necessary to teach clients about eye contact, voice
control and gestures. Not only are audiences listening less than they
used to, he says, but exposure to professional presenters on TV has made
clients more sensitised to their own performance, and increased audience
expectations of how a good presenter ought to behave. He therefore
recommends approximately two weeks of preparation for an important
These time-consuming suggestions may work for people who have plenty of
time on their hands, but more often than not presentations have to be
squeezed into a busy work schedule, says Khalid Aziz, managing director
of the Aziz Corporation - a management company specialising in spoken
communication skills. He says the crucial point about preparation is to
learn how to do it in a short space of time. He teaches clients how to
prepare a ten-minute presentation in half an hour by thinking straight,
boiling down their thoughts to bullet points, rehearsing in front of a
mirror, and then, if time allows, doing a dry run in front of one or two
people. To prepare for unexpected questions, the speaker must be
’questioned to death’, says Aziz. ’It is always more horrendous than
anything they will face, and it gets the brain snapping at a high
Whatever technique they choose, the most important thing speakers can
learn about preparation is that they need to do it. However, all
trainers issue one word of caution: do not be tempted to use visual aids
as a crutch.
’Technology can help a good speaker, but it can show up the poverty of a
bad one,’ says Aziz. ’It is amazing how many companies will pay huge
amounts on technology and don’t invest the time improving the
performance of their speakers.’
ACTING FOR INDUSTRY: TAKING TIPS FROM A THESPIAN
’Imagine this - a leading character in a film walks into a room to give
a group of people some good news. Isn’t his behaviour instantly
recognisable as polished and self-confident?’ asks independent
consultant and ex-actor Antony Marsh.
He believes the key to making a successful presentation lies in the
His company, Acting for Industry, runs SpeechCraft workshops using film
imagery and theatrical techniques to help turn clients into confident
public speakers. The idea is to teach the same techniques that an actor
would use to prepare for a role.
’The first step is to lock your mind onto a time or a specific occasion
when you felt great personal success. Then you need to create a personal
fanfare, a song or tune that will put you into a positive mood as you
walk up to the podium,’ says Marsh. The next step is to practice
standing tall. ’Lots of people have never felt the physical tensions of
standing in a confident way,’ he says.
By practicing standing with a straight, open bearing, and holding the
pose long enough for the muscles to protest, the body will have a memory
of what to do when the time comes to make the presentation.
’By stepping into the character of a successful individual, you adopt a
successful look, and the audience will feed that confidence back to you
- behaviour breeds behaviour,’ says Marsh.
To combat nerves, he tells clients to imagine they have been hit in the
solar plexus. ’Hunch over as if you have been punched, and tense up your
body as much as you can for four seconds. Stand up and take a deep
breath using the diaphragm, and relax,’ he says.
This exercise boosts the body’s intake of oxygen and increases energy
levels. Also, says Marsh, the process of putting the body under extreme
stress releases histamines, adrenalin and endorphins in the brain, all
of which produce a natural high, and the effect will last half an
However, physical and mental preparation is only half the battle. Once
the speaker reaches the podium, he or she has to make an interesting
Here Marsh draws on journalistic techniques, encouraging clients to
bring their scripts alive with references to people wherever possible.
’I teach clients to write their speeches as human stories, imagining the
audience is sitting round a campfire in the African jungle and they are
about to leap into the firelight to tell a tale.’
TECHNOLOGY: USER-FRIENDLY GADGETS BECOME SMALLER
Presentation technology has evolved at a bewildering rate over the past
few years and manufacturers are developing equipment with impressive
technical credentials, combined with genuinely user-friendly
Among the latest range of hi-tech offerings is the Presentation Pro from
Advance Multi-media, which promises to turn the average presentation
into a graphic extravaganza with minimal effort. It consists of a piece
of software on CD-ROM that allows the user to prepare a presentation on
a PC or laptop using tools such as video animation, graphics, and audio
script. It even allows access to a live internet link-up.
’The result is a customised and seamless presentation, which can be put
together in a matter of minutes by even the most computer-illiterate,’
says Advance Multi-media’s sales training manager Maureen Wycherley. The
software also provides access to an on-line facilities bureau, which
allows the user to buy in specific graphics or logos through the
internet on a piecemeal basis. At pounds 585, the software should cut
out the need for technical support, and so put sophisticated multimedia
presentations within the budget of most businesses.
In Focus has come up with the LP425 personal data/video projector which,
it claims, is the industry’s smallest, brightest and lightest multimedia
projector to date. It is the size of a notebook PC and uses an advanced
Digital Light Processing (DLP) optical system which should provide the
same picture quality as larger, more expensive projectors. It comes with
a built-in speaker and a halide lamp giving 1,000 hours of use. At a
cost in excess of pounds 4,000 it is hardly a snip, but it does promise
to make life easier for the businessman on the move who needs to impress
his audiences with image quality.
ViewSonic has gone even one step further in minimising the amount of
equipment needed for a hi-tech presentation. The ViewBook is a portable
projector unit incorporating a PCM CIA card slot which enables the user
to prepare a presentation on a computer and save up to 50 screen grabs
on the flash memory card. The presentation can then be conducted by
linking the computer to the unit or by using the projector and card
alone. At pounds 2,375, it sounds mighty impressive, but it does have
one drawback in that no aspect of the presentation other than the order
of the screen grabs can be changed once stored on the card.
CRISIS TALKS: PRESENTING AN OPPORTUNITY TO IMPRESS
Having a company crisis? Then here’s your chance to get rid of those
hefty policy manuals you have lying under your desk, says independent
consultant Michael Bland. In his new book, Communicating Out Of A Crisis
(MacMillan Business), Bland debunks the traditional notion that crises
are best handled according to a set of rigid procedures. Instead, he
says: ’Imagine everyone else has been wiped out in a blast and you have
to manage the situation alone.’
If manuals are to be used at all, they must be compiled as a working
tool, and used as part of a wider crisis strategy involving practical
planning and training, says Bland.
The first step is to decide what the audience wants to hear, remembering
that a crisis is only a crisis because the public sees it as one. The
key is to approach the situation as a psychological discipline,
addressing the audience’s concerns more than the facts, and impressing
them with the company’s track record.
’We spend our lives trying to get attention, particularly in the PR
industry. With a crisis, you get the attention you have been craving,
and it’s your chance to make the most of it,’ says Bland.
Just as a badly handled crisis can ruin a company, a well-handled
situation is a chance to actually improve the company’s reputation, he
says. When US citizens were poisoned in 1982 after cyanide was injected
into Tylenol pain-killing capsules, the manufacturer Johnson and Johnson
responded by taking the drug off the market, cancelling all its
advertising and setting up a bank of hotlines. The company emerged from
the drama with a caring, responsible reputation, and with healthier
share price and market share than it had previously.
However, it is not enough to empathise with the audience at an
intellectual level, says Bland. When speaking publicly, the speaker has
to live and breathe the words, without worrying about what could go
’You have to want to say what you are going to say, and to explain the
situation as simply and sincerely as if you are talking to someone in a
bar,’ he says.