FOCUS: PRESENTATION TRAINING - Time to stand up and be counted/In the PR industry, extrovert professionals are often expected to be natural. Jez Abbott looks at whether the PR industry takes presentation training seriously enough

’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 Corporation.

’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

computer aids.

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

of training.

’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



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.’


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.’


Is it any wonder many PR staff have so little confidence when it comes

to presentation?

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.

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