Tony Blair might rival George W Bush on the world stage, but public speakers in the UK are lagging behind their US counterparts on the corporate stage. According to research from training business Speak First, almost 75 per cent of UK and US senior managers believe that American executives are better speakers than their UK colleagues.
Most US speakers are more inspirational than their UK counterparts says Brendan Barns, founder of corporate speaker bureau Speakers for Business. “Many UK speakers have had a charisma bypass and there is no energy or passion in their presentations,” he says.
Speak First founder and managing director Cristina Stuart believes there is a stronger culture of public speaking in the US, making public speaking more natural for Americans. “The US education system is geared to presentations and public speaking from a young age, whereas often the only experience children in the UK gain is from reading aloud in school.”
The British have a natural reluctance to embrace the limelight, hampering their skills as presenters, adds Stuart. Most people dread speaking in public, whereas Americans are more naturally flamboyant.
Geo Roberts, director at US speaker training firm Wilsher Group, agrees that the differences on the stage stem from national traits. “UK speakers tend to be reserved; we are loud and boisterous.” Because of the fear of getting it wrong, UK presenters are more likely to put up barriers, he says.
All this makes UK conferences far less enjoyable experiences than US events, argues Barns. So what can public speakers in the UK learn from their American counterparts to make corporate events more enjoyable?
The content of British presentations is as good as in the US says Stuart, the style of presenting is the problem. Too many presenters dread getting on stage and communicate this fear to the audience. “A good presenter enjoys the experience and the audience will also enjoy it. UK presenters should smile rather than grimace at the audience,” she says.
US business speakers also tend to be more passionate about their subject, which means their presentations come across better, says Roberts. “UK Speakers must believe in what they’re saying; let their head connect with their heart.” But even if you are enthusiastic about your subject, nerves can get in the way of a fluid delivery – it’s natural to feel nervous. Anxious presenters focus on the worst case scenario and convince themselves that they are going to make fools of themselves.
British speakers should accept nervousness is a part of presenting but forget their concerns, she says. Worrying only uses up energy. Visualising a successful outcome and remembering that the audience wants you to succeed will help.
But confidence only comes with experience says John Nichols, a former RAF pilot who was shot down over Iraq during the Gulf War. He is a motivational speaker with no training in public speaking. “In the military you’re used to addressing large groups of people on a regular basis. But there’s a big difference between doing that and talking to 3,000 people at a conference.” The first few times you have to take a deep breath and go for it, he says.
Being in command of the material is also key. Nichols started by relating his experiences in Iraq to groups of executives and, like presenters such as Sir Chris Bonnington and Rebecca Stephens who talk about their Everest expeditions, he knows everything about the subject.
Preparing everything in a presentation from the opening gambit to the last one-liner is essential, but presenters in the UK think that everything will be “all right on the night”. Professional speakers might appear to be ad-libbing, but all their quips are generally planned in advance. For example, after dinner speaker and corporate presenter Graham Davies, who is plump and bald, often starts his speeches by remarking on his “resemblance” to Grant Mitchell.
Humour should be a key part of any presentation, however serious. “Whatever you’re talking about you’ve got to connect with the audience,” says Barns, who is the first non-American on the board of the International Association of Speakers Bureaux. “You don’t have to be a great joke-teller. Well-prepared anecdotes are a better way of getting a point across to an audience than a barrage of one-liners.”
Davies recommends getting to the point quickly. “Audiences are turned off by: ‘Before I start my presentation, I would like to say what a great privilege it is for me to ‘ Instead you have to grab – and keep – their attention.” Making a topical comment at the outset is a good way of doing this, argues Wilsher Group’s Roberts. Perhaps make an observation about the venue or event, what’s going on in the world, what happened to you on the way to the room. If you can adapt that into your speech, not only will it make you sound more relaxed and natural, but the presentation doesn’t come across as canned, says Roberts.
UK presenters also have a lot to learn from their US counterparts about using technology at conferences says Guy Mapley, director of sales at Creative Technology London, a firm that rents out technological equipment for conferences. The market for such technology is much bigger in the US. American conference venues are so much bigger than those in the UK and techniques such as large scale video projection are useful when addressing audiences three times the size of those in the UK.
US presenters use technology to keep the audience interested in the message. Integrating MPEGs, motion and video projections keeps a presentation alive. Presentations in the UK are dominated by the presentation package PowerPoint and audiences can suffer from “death by PowerPoint” says Stuart. She recommends limiting the number of slides used, to focus on the key message and avoiding producing slides that are script repetition. However, PowerPoint can help nervous presenters, adds Mapley, as it gives them something to focus on in those first awkward moments.
Because of the size of the country, many US presenters deliver their presentation to an audience via the Internet. And this can be a useful tool for the inexperienced presenter, says Mireia Fontbernat-Moline, marketing manager at Web conferencing company, PlaceWare Europe. It allows people to do more presentations as there are no time or travel constraints, which helps them gain experience and confidence quickly.
If UK presenters want to become more successful, they need to mimic Americans, who put communication training at the heart of management development, says Stuart. Many UK presenters go on stage with no formal training. Training is important, but it is never going to turn you into a brilliant speaker, argues Barns.
“Being a natural presenter is like being a professional golfer – whether you are a Tiger Woods or not, you can still improve your game and impress your boss on the company’s golf day.” But he advises choosing a course that is taught by people who are presenters who give you an opportunity to practise your skills rather than “talk the theory”.
Delegates on Speak First’s two-day presentation training course are required to make several presentations, which are videoed. These are then played back and marked by fellow delegates who offer suggestions and hints for improvement. Being forced to watch yourself do a presentation might sound like a lesson in humiliation, but one delegate said that only by seeing himself on camera was he able to recognise – and address – his faults.
Barns argues that some of the techniques used across the Atlantic are a bit over the top and wouldn’t work in the UK. “Some of the US presenters really overdo the ‘God bless America’ theme and often use more informal, excitable language.” And it’s not unknown at conferences for the Star-spangled Banner to be played at the beginning and end of the day. Some of the technology used would also alienate UK audiences – booming music and flashing lights announcing the arrival of speakers wouldn’t go down well at an accountancy conference in Surbiton.
Roberts once lost a potential contract because he used American techniques to address a UK audience. He was presenting to a life insurance business and his approach went down well with the staff, but he was told that he would not get the contract. The management explained that they encouraged their staff to wear black suits, white shirts and cufflinks when making external presentations, but Roberts had turned up with a Irish linen sports coat and loud shirt and tie so he didn’t fit in with the company’s desired image.
Change is afoot
American presenters may be more experienced and confident, as the US conference market is more mature than that of the UK. But things are changing. Speaking and listening skills are becoming a greater part of the National Curriculum, which will encourage a new generation of more confident British public speakers. And as more companies recognise that training is a key staff recruitment and retention tool, more executives will be trained in presentation techniques.
The Internet is producing a new generation of Web presenters and, as business become more global, UK presenters will gain experience and confidence presenting in a variety of environments. But for the less experienced presenter, taking (selective) tips from US presenters can help relax the British stiff upper lip and liven up the Queen’s English, making conferences less dull affairs for both presenter and delegate.