FOCUS: PRESENTATION TRAINING - Making stage fright a memory/Persuasive presentation is an essential PR skill but even the shyest practitioner can be trained to face an audience with confidence Nicola Tyrrell reports.

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?

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.’


’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.’


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.


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.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in