’Saying what you mean and meaning what you say is the heart of a
good presentation, yet many PR professionals do not have the skills to
seize the all-important moment,’ says Khalid Aziz, chairman of the Aziz
His company of management consultants, specialising in spoken
communications, is one of many offering courses to presentation-shy
public relations staff, made more so by the confusing welter of hi-tech
The problem, says Aziz, was ingrained long before the computer age. ’PR
professionals are the classic example of how instinctive communication
is trained out of you by education. We are told to shut up and listen at
school. If we talk we are punished or called chatterboxes. Higher
education is mostly all written work and the little oral work is often
in the form of a viva as punishment for poor writing.’
Some PR agents do have presentation skills but an awful lot do not, he
says. ’They are particularly bad in group presentations where their
nerves tend to make them shoot from the lip. It is one of the most
stressful things they will ever do.’
Aziz, who has trained more than 100 PR staff on presentation skills,
says it is often the defining factor in winning or losing business. To
make matters worse, pressures of time and money mean the length of
pitches is getting shorter. Presentations must therefore be concise and
precise, meaning that well-honed skills are of prime importance.
But be warned, says Richard Haynes, director of Haynes Consulting in
Warwick. ’Presentations start not with the first overhead projection in
a boardroom, but with the first handshake six months earlier. Part of
the process is the run-up to the big day and you enhance your chances if
you get to know the client’s business and the issues driving that
’You must be able to sit round a lunch table and talk not just about PR
but the client’s potential industry like a business person,’ he
’This will make them feel you are interested in their work and not just
how much money you can get out of the PR account.’
That said, Haynes maintains that PR companies have realised that nobody
should be allowed to represent their company without proper training,
whether speaking at a Rotary club or at their daughter’s wedding.
Part of his presentation training is what he calls ’relationship
making’, to build and sustain a relationship before you pitch. This
involves researching potential clients.
One of the many new skills required by presenters is familiarity with
computer-based presentation systems, according to Alan John, director of
training at London’s Henshall Centre for communication skills. ’The days
of standing up in front of a flip chart with a couple of handouts are
over. People want more: bullet points, graphics, illustrations, and you
can do that using a computer. The next step is to become fully
computerised and make up your presentation on laptop and large
Nicholas van Zanten, chairman of a London media skills firm called Meet
the Press, treads more carefully.
’The PR presenter must always remain the centrepiece of the presentation
and not the sideshow,’ he warns. ’There is a growing tendency for
technology to take over but the client is choosing people, not a
computer. Technology must enhance the presentation, not run it, and,
above all, you must know what to do when the computer goes wrong.’
Equally important, he says, is for courses not to stifle enthusiasm or
character. ’Think of David Bellamy. He breaks every rule of public
speaking; he hunches, rasps and speaks too fast. The first thing they
tell you when you go on a course is to moderate your voice which can
take every ounce of character from the presentation. The most important
things are enthusiasm and expertise.’
Van Zanten also says that PR people doing in-house presentation skills
courses can become too company-focused and trapped in their own
’It is useful to be with people from different companies,’ he says. ’It
makes individuals think more generally instead of becoming blinkered
within their own company. There can also be the problem of in-house
politics. Depending on who is listening you have to watch what you
But Francis Hallawell, who runs in-house training and is a director at
the Quentin Bell Organisation, says such courses are vital to employees
and it is the responsibility of PR companies to look after their
’Given that we do this service for our clients it would be ludicrous to
get external training,’ he says.
’There is a feeling that in-house training is somehow not as good as
external training, or that it is not as good value as an ’expert’ from
outside. I can see how there could be a risk of people being trammelled
by in-house thinking. But this is skills-based training. A good PR
agency will focus on specific personal skills and company politics never
QBO runs courses for people new to the firm, and refresher courses. Most
of the agency’s 50 staff members have done more than one course.
So, how do trainees cope with presentation training? Rodney Walker, a
managing director of PR agency Spurgeon Walker, has been in the PR
business for 25 years. Though he has done presentations for most of
them, until last month he had never undergone formal training and had no
intention of starting. He paid pounds 400 for a day course with Coulter
Ford Associates, however, two weeks after his account manager, Clare
Collen, had done the same and reported back favourably.
’I resisted it for years, thinking body language and breathing classes
were of dubious value,’ he says. ’You think you pick up the skills as
you go along, but when you see yourself on the video it is an eye
I was not disastrous, but you see so many ways of improving such as
breathing, stance, rhythm and cutting down on visual aids.’
Unlike her boss, Clare Collen has been making presentations for only two
years. Like most of her colleagues however, she suffered nervous
Formal training has taught her breathing, vocal and relaxation exercises
to shore up her confidence if it ebbs before a presentation.
Her only help before training was tips from colleagues. To ensure she
does not have to return that favour Walker is signing up more of his
nine-strong staff to similar courses.
Magnus Carter, a freelance presentation trainer, says the key to a good
course is that it homes in on the part of every person’s character that
enjoys showing off. ’To do this we have to be very careful about the mix
of people attending,’ he says. ’Outgoing types can spur shyer people
into action, but sometimes it can cause problems. We work closely with
the company to ensure the group will gel.’
But not too closely, for he sees part of his job as ’deconstructing’
corporate baggage. Carter, who works mostly for Newbury-based
communication experts Media First, lists only one failure in nine years
’And that failure was mine. The person was so pathologically shy, I
could not uncover his streak for showing off, but I am sure it was
BODY LANGUAGE: THE ART OF RELAXATION
The things that people do to improve their presentation skills often
catch PR staff by surprise when they attend one of Susan Ford’s
Success or failure can hinge on something as slight as the angle of the
head or the way you shake hands, according to Ford, professor of speech
and communication at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
’One PR man could not believe it when he came to one of our sessions and
saw his two senior managers stretched out on the floor sounding like
chanting Buddhists,’ she says.
’But the level of job competitiveness is so great and they want to
succeed. If they feel they are not making an impact they will go to
these lengths to improve posture and voice resonance to give them the
edge. It does, and they enjoy the exercises.’ When not training arts
students, she puts PR and other professionals through their paces on one
and two-day courses at Coulter Ford Associates.
She co-founded the Surrey firm for teaching presentation skills 12 years
ago. Courses for up to six people cost around pounds 1,900 and emphasise
body language and voice development.
Fine-tuning these skills has become critical with today’s hi-tech
recording gadgets, but the same technology has put the professional on
the defensive and short of confidence, she says.
Physical exercises, such as rolling shoulders, shaking hands and lying
on the floor, relieve tension and relax the spine. Respiratory exercises
train people to breath from the diaphragm. Voice practices sharpen
clarity, inflexion and especially tone, because ’tone registers with the
audience long before they register speech content’, she says.
A few of those sent to her classes are cynical about the importance of
such training, but others come with real hang-ups. ’We address things
that are very personal and have to be honest but extremely tactful.’ But
she points out that body language is a two-way process and the speaker
can feed off bad vibes from the audience.
’People respond to how the speaker feels and pick up all sorts of
signals. If the presenter hasn’t got his or her act together physically,
mentally and emotionally this will be unwittingly conveyed to the
audience. The speaker then picks up on their negative body language
which intensifies the presenter’s discomfort.’
Ford estimates that 70 per cent of those who do the courses tell her the
physical aspects are the most beneficial. ’They say they feel better,
stronger and calmer in front of an audience.’
HARNESSING TECHNOLOGY: THE TUTOR ON THE DESKTOP
Technology is used not only to aid presentation but to teach it through
multi-media packages for use in the home or office. JFK’s celebrated Ich
bin ein Berliner speech - well received, badly researched - may bring a
smile to PR people who pay pounds 795 plus VAT for one such package
recalling the 1963 event.
The US president’s rousing claim that he was a small doughnut did not
detract from the moment’s passion and sentiment, according to The
Perfect Presenter, a CD-ROM that includes a floppy disk to record your
The half-day study is geared for people to use on their own computer, or
in a resource centre at work and then pass on to colleagues.
The package, from the Aziz Corporation, was launched in January and is
meant for starters in business up to the age of 30 and as a refresher
for more experienced staff. Company chairman Khalid Aziz concedes that
the one drawback is the lack of a tutor.
’There is no doubt that a tutor helps enormously in presentation
training,’ he says. ’But one of the strengths of CD-ROM is cost-benefit
and the ability to pace the work to suit you.
’If 30 people from a company use the training pack, which includes
prompt cards and voucher for a Savile Row tailor, it works out at less
than pounds 40 per person to get the basics of presentation,’ says
The CD-ROM also draws on footage of Martin Luther King and Margaret
Thatcher as examples of masterful presentation. It also points out
Romanian communist president, Nicolae Ceaucescu who received the
’ultimate feedback for a bad presentation - execution’. Cartoon pictures
and an example of good and bad presentation from preparation to delivery
help users to ’benchmark their skills’.
Aziz, a former BBC and ITV journalist, narrates the eight chapters, and
users are allowed to fast forward or rewind. A format like CD-ROM
training, where users learn from the workstation, has other benefits,
too. Aziz says: ’It gives you the space and privacy to work on theory,
which you need to know before you develop good skills.’
CASE STUDY: A CRASH COURSE IN CONFIDENCE
Is it any wonder many PR staff have so little confidence when it comes
Training consultant Emma Sanderson recounts a recent occasion when a PR
person turned up to one of her presentation courses at Hodge Duthie
’The first thing she said was ’I am here because my manager does not
trust me to do presentations’,’ recalls Sanderson. ’What good is that
ever going to do her confidence?’ As it happens, the boss need not have
worried. After careful coaxing on the bespoke two-day course, the
trainee sailed through and acquired good skills and new-found
Sanderson says that it is this initial lack of confidence and PR’s
reliance on personal qualities in a highly pressured workplace that has
led to more courses for individual and company needs. She does not
believe her trainees need to be taught from scratch, far from it.
’Everyone has communication skills, but because they rely so heavily on
technology these talents get buried. Our job is to uncover them.’
Bespoke courses focus on the professionals’ own fields of work and there
are four people to each course. They must prepare and compile facts of a
product or service they have worked closely with, in preparation for a
presentation for colleagues - and a video camera.
However, this is not allowed to override the more theatrical areas of
Hodge Duthie Associates’ courses such as voice projection and breathing
exercises. The course also includes an exercise Sanderson calls the
’whole brain presentation’, which analyses the creative and logical
sides of the brain to ensure presentations do not overload on facts or
flashy creative touches.
But the two-day course leaves little opportunity for too much analysis,
as the work is mostly hands-on.
Because there is so little time, trainees are pointed to the camera
almost as soon as they walk through the door. One exercise is to recite
a poem and when they come to review their performance on the final day
they don’t need Sanderson to tell them where they went wrong: it is on
the video tape for them all to see and learn from.
At around pounds 2,000 for four people, this crash course does not come
cheap, but when it comes to losing potential business the costs seem
suddenly to come into perspective.