Look who’s talking…

Dull business talks are all too common. However, with proper training, boring speeches could become a thing of the past, but only if those giving the talks accept the advice on offer to them. By David Benady

In offices all over the UK at most times of the day, people are rubbing their eyes and drinking coffee to stay awake. They are probably sitting in on one of the many business presentations that are taking place with fearful regularity these days.

In recent years, the presentation has become one of the main commercial tools for disseminating information, pitching for contracts, telling employees about changes in strategies and introducing new products and processes.

But specialists in the field of public speaking believe that the standard of most UK business presentations is exceptionally poor. The audience often loses concentration and the thread of the argument, as untrained executives make basic mistakes in the way they present information. People become bemused by complex PowerPoint slides that seem to have more in common with the hieroglyphics of quantum physics than helping them to understand a proposition.

“The problem is that most business people come over like a flat pudding when they give presentations,” says Brendan Barns, director of agency Speakers for Business. “They don’t have passion for what they are doing. If you have put your life’s work into what you do, you should be excited about it and if you are not, the audience won’t be either.”

Barns laments the poor quality of most business presentations and says it is the responsibility of top managers to ensure staff are properly trained to give compelling talks. “People are arrogant, particularly at the top levels of organisations. Because they are the bosses, they think that they don’t need to take training. There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking for business people to realise that they should get trained. If you want to be good, you have to learn,” he says. Barns looks to great speakers in politics such as William Hague, Aneurin and Ernest Bevin and Tony Benn as exponents of the dying art of oratory.

Barns’ agency hires speakers to make presentations at conferences and in businesses. There are also a host of training agencies that make it their business to criticise what they see as the poor quality of presentations – and claim that the best way to improve them is by hiring their training services.

One of the speakers Barns regularly engages is Steve McDermott, recently voted European speaker of the year, and a former creative director at Leeds ad agencies Poulter and Brahm. McDermott has applied the techniques of “neuro-linguistic programming” (NLP) to the art of public speaking.

Unlocking the secrets

NLP was developed in California in the early Seventies by therapists trying to find out what makes people strong communicators. It has always struggled for scientific credibility, and faces criticism that its research and findings are unreliable and tainted by the quasi- mystical zeal of practitioners to unlock the “secrets” of successful communication. It is accused of referring to questionable research that shows, for instance, that jurors decide on an accused person’s guilt or innocence in the first four minutes of a trial. But the implications for business presentations of this research is clear – you should always start a talk by getting people on your side because they rely heavily on first impressions.

The eyes have it

Although some critics dismiss NLP as some New-Age quackery, McDermott insists it provides useful hints on how to make presentations go with a swing. One of NLP’s main propositions is that people communicate in three different ways: 40 per cent of us are visual, 40 per cent are sensory – “touchy/feely” – while the remaining 20 per cent are “auditory”.

McDermott believes that the most successful speakers use this knowledge to tailor their presentations to the different groups, often using specific language to communicate with them. It is important to use a combination of visual aids, body language and audio recordings in presentations, he believes, to satisfy the different communication modes. Even if NLP is wrong about this, it is clear that variety and using multimedia is helpful in keeping the audience’s attention.

McDermott has looked at great speakers of the 20th century from Adolf Hitler to John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King to see how they hold people’s attention. He encourages anyone involved in public speaking to watch and analyse how others do it successfully – when he comes to London he visits comedy clubs to see how stand-up comedians keep the attention of their audiences.

Most great speakers intuitively realise the importance of body language. According to McDermott, only seven per cent of the impact of a presentation is down to the words used, and 38 per cent depends on the tonality – how you say things and present the information – while 55 per cent relies on the use of body language. This is typical NLP research-speak, using exact numbers, implying that thorough research must have been done to reach them. But it makes the point that communication is about more than just words.

Other insights from McDermott include the idea that if you can get your audience to take part in a common activity, it will make them feel more in tune with the group dynamic. For example, getting people to raise their hands in answer to a question at the start of a business presentation builds group solidarity and softens them up to accept messages – Hitler did this by getting people to raise their hands and chant “sieg heil”.

Getting the right answers

McDermott also echoes Dale Carnegie’s classic Thirties business self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie believed that if you can get someone to answer “yes” to two straightforward questions, they are more likely to answer yes to more difficult third and fourth questions. This technique strips away people’s resistance to your message and is commonly used by sales people. So starting off a presentation with a question likely to elicit a positive answer, such as “put your hands up if you remember drinking Coca-Cola as a child”, both helps build a group ethic by encouraging a common activity (raising hands) and prepares people to affirm the rest of the message.

One important element to ensure a presentation goes well is preparing top-quality content, though this can be easier than it sounds. To measure the effectiveness of the content there has to be good understanding of the audience. Making the message relevant to them can only come from being aware of their level of knowledge of the given subject and how useful it is for them. Having credibility helps matters, because it is hard to tell a room full of chief executives how to run a business if you have never done so yourself.

David Stone, managing director of training agency Spearhead Training Group, says: “Most people totally underestimate the difficulty of the task. It doesn’t seem so difficult at first, but it is.” His main tip for good presentations is to prepare a talk by starting off with the conclusion and working backwards – decide on the main three messages you want the audience to walk away with and make sure they are forcefully put at the end. Then find different ways of saying the same thing at the beginning and in the middle of the talk.

Pam Gregory of training company Clayton Gregory is another exponent of NLP in presentations. She believes that the way presenters use their eyes can be crucial, particularly when pitching for business. “The way you use your eyes is vital. You have to use them strategically to reflect the power structure in the room and keep it 100 per cent of the time.”

Gregory says one of the worst problems she has identified in talks is the over-reliance on PowerPoint presentation slides. Some companies have a bank of charts that can be accessed by their executives, who tend to raid these stocks and fill presentations with them, irrespective of how useful they are in explaining what they are trying to say. “What presentations are supposed to do is save the audience time in sifting through data themselves. But often presentations are overloaded with data; there may be an argument but it is buried,” she says.

Pointing out the problems

Neil Laver, marketing manager for the Office Group at Microsoft and the executive responsible for marketing PowerPoint technology, agrees that there can be too much reliance on it: “Fifteen years ago, it was challenging to put a presentation together, but PowerPoint technology has made if very easy to create quality content and it is also very easy to foul it up. People don’t spend as much time as they should on thinking about the needs of their audience.”

With a little bit of thought and some professional training, business presentations do not need to be the sleep-inducing sessions that they often turn out to be.

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