How to wow an audience - Sooner or later everyone in business has to make a public address. These presentations can often make the difference between winning and losing, between success and failure. Khalid Aziz, drawing on 20 years' experience helping business people excel with the spoken word, argues that more emphasis should be put on perfect presentation.
It has got to stop. The average presentation made in British business today is woeful and we just cannot go on this way. Not that it is much better in other countries, where business actually takes itself seriously.
But surely in the UK, where we are justly proud of the fact that we have given our language to the rest of the world, we could do better. Why is it that the spoken word is not given the same amount of attention and promotion as the written word?
Well, it's because our media, even the electronic media, continues to be dominated by arts graduates from universities where there is still a prevailing view that their charges should be saved from the world of business and all that goes with it. True, they fill the heads of their students with words, but these are predominantly written words. Where is the art of declamation? Where is the oratory? Where is there real debate in which it is permissible to adopt a view and argue it strongly even though the speaker may not necessarily agree with the standpoint he is promoting?
It is little wonder then that when graduates enter business they struggle to make themselves understood. Not that they have great role models to look up to. Usually, their bosses struggle too.
'I make good presentations and bad presentations. The trouble is I don't know why the good presentations are good or why the bad presentations are bad.' This is a lament that will be all too familiar to many a business presenter.
So why is the standard of presentations generally so low?
The answer lies in the way that we are brought up. From the moment we can talk we are told to shut up and listen. At school if we do anything of value it is usually in writing. If we talk we are branded as chatterboxes. GCSEs and A-levels are conducted almost entirely in writing, and it is the same at university. If you get to do a viva voce at university it is usually a punishment for messing up a written exam!
It used to be in business that you could avoid making presentations, hiding in the undergrowth behind those more keen on making a name for themselves. After all, you were hired for your intelligence, for your technical expertise and, of course, for your management ability. Talking a lot, by definition, does not go hand in hand with strong, silent and decisive management. We have encountered scores of very senior managers who have risen without hindrance, making very few presentations - clearly risk-averse types who keep their noses clean in the hope of hanging their hat on a pension.
Take the gent in his mid-sixties who, after an illustrious career in the upper echelons of industry and the City, was cruising comfortably along with a nice portfolio of blue-chip non-executive directorships.
Then one day the chairman of one of the companies he served had a brainwave.
How would he like to stand up at the forthcoming AGM in his role as chairman of the remuneration committee and explain the new executive share option scheme to the shareholders? The request was given added piquancy by the fact that the company concerned was a newly privatised utility.
Unfortunately, the request did not come with a multiple-choice answer.
The gent had two weeks to get his act together. He had never spoken in public before. He applied himself and did passably well. But how much better would it have been for his company (and for his stress levels) if the ability to speak in public had been just another tool in his executive armoury acquired, along with all his other executive skills, as he progressed up the corporate ladder?
As people wind their way towards the top of the business world, making their first presentation usually comes as a shock to the system. Little wonder then that when my company conducted a survey of business people last year, 76% of respondents said that standing up in public and making a presentation is the most daunting thing you have to do in business life.
The problem is that many people delude themselves about their real abilities.
It is rather like a publican friend of mine who says that the trouble with his business is that everyone knows how to drink, so everyone thinks they know how to run a pub. It is the same with speaking. The ability to open one's mouth and talk does not automatically make one a brilliant public speaker.
Sadly, the evidence of a lack of ability in this area is there to be seen. And it often manifests itself in disaster. How one's heart sinks when an obviously ill-prepared presenter arrives to speak armed with a huge pile of overhead slides. Often they compound the disappointment by apologising for not the being the right person to make the presentation or by confessing that, because of pressure of work, they have had little time to prepare. Worse still, now we have the curse of the computer-generated presentation.
But whether they are using 35mm slides, OHPs or Powerpoint, many speakers hide behind their slides. Usually these are no more than their speaking notes projected onto the screen. Such speakers turn their back on the audience and proceed to read their notes off the screen in a dull drone.
They might as well have posted the slides to the audience and saved themselves the pain and the audience the boredom. Then there are the other breeds of irritating speaker. They hardly ever look at you and talk at you rather than to you as though through a megaphone. They jangle their change, use convoluted sentences and impenetrable jargon, and compound these crimes by running over time.
In everyday life the process of speaking comes more easily to us than writing, but when you make a presentation speaking is more demanding because you have far fewer words to play around with. In any given amount of available time an audience can take in up to five times as many words through reading than it can through listening to someone speak at just three words a second - the average speed of delivery for spoken English. But this simple fact of presentational life is usually ignored by those who insist on reading from a script.
In previous editions of Management Today we have railed against captains of industry who think that an inspirational speech is all about telling two jokes and launching into a script written by someone else (usually a bright but inexperienced graduate), droning on for 10 or 15 minutes and then finishing with a couple more jokes. It has become the norm for so many senior people in business who are either unable or unwilling to get it right. Preparing scripts for someone else is a real minefield for a speech writer. Most people are incapable of writing a good piece of prose, let alone a spoken script, which is a very refined skill indeed.
In broadcasting it takes up to 18 months for a trainee journalist to reach a level where they can produce acceptable scripts for the spoken word.
What chance then is there for the average business person, who probably has less facility with the spoken word?
The trouble is that there is no substitute for proper preparation and realistic rehearsal if you are to get your speech right. There are, of course, a few natural-born speakers, but most people have to learn the art. When it comes to rehearsal, leading actors clearly understand its value. People like Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson do not just leap onto the stage of the RSC or sashay onto a film set without first having picked up the book, learnt the lines and rehearsed. Arguably they have more talent than the average business person, so why do business executives feel they can launch into a presentation without any preparation or rehearsal and hope that it will go alright?
Then you get the business people who say: 'Well, actually, I don't make speeches at all. All I have is informal conversations with small groups of colleagues.' Like the client who arranged to come to us for help after some planned question-and-answer sessions with a cross-section of his workforce (in fact, they had self-selected themselves by volunteering to attend the after-hours workshops).
'How did the Q&A sessions go?' I ventured.
'They completely tore me to shreds. I was totally unprepared,' he ruefully admitted.
We started by getting his thinking straight by improving his presentational skills, only afterwards moving on to the much tougher area of questions and answers. Every spoken interaction has the same objective. In effect, what you are trying to do is to change people's behaviour. And you need the same approach to an informal presentation as you do to an external one.
Another frequently offered excuse is: 'Actually, we just have interactive, informal information exchanges.' In other words, another question-and-answer session. Remember the paradox. When you are making a presentation you control the agenda, but when you lay yourself open to questions the agenda is inevitably set by others. Even more preparation is required to anticipate the range of questions that might be asked on any particular subject and have answers ready.
In the world of modern business, good presentation is not just a desirable, it is an essential. E-mail notwithstanding, people still fly halfway round the world to have face-to-face contact. Companies invest hundreds of thousands of pounds with airlines. They will pay thousands to get the venue and staging right for set-piece corporate presentations. Yet they often neglect proper investment in helping their people become really effective with the spoken word once the airline has delivered them to their destination.
It is a given that every middle and senior executive should have a good command of written skills. Should it not also now be a given that the same people are effective with the spoken word? Perfect presentation is the final frontier when it comes to the executive's toolkit. It's high time Britain's management started taking it seriously.
Khalid Aziz is chairman of the Aziz Corporation, a communications consultancy.
He is currently writing Presentation Skills for Success - a guide for Finance and Business Professionals, to be published by Oak Tree Press this autumn. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
GET READY TO STAND AND DELIVER
Preparation is key so give yourself time to prepare
Rehearse your presentation
Talk to your audience, not at them
Know your audience - what do they want to hear?
Know your message - what do you want to say?
Start off by playing to the overlap between what you want to say and what they want to hear
60% of the effectiveness of a spoken communication is non-verbal - believe what you say
Address your audience as 'you', always in the singular
Speak with passion and conviction
Use examples and tell stories for maximum effect
Visual aids should be visual and aids for the audience, not crutches for you
Eye contact is vital at the beginning, at the end and at any point of passion
Use pauses for maximum effect and drama