Set the pace

More than half UK managers receive no training in business presentation skills, according to a report by City University Business School – commissioned by Marshall Publishing and Video Arts.

Mike Detsiny, director general of the Marketing Society, suggests this lack of training is due to complacency.

“Most of our members are senior marketing people and the presumption is that they have all done their training. But there is still room for them to brush up on presentation skills – there is a vast difference between being very good and OK.”

Classroom-based training may be regarded by some companies as too expensive, and by some staff as too intimidating. So what alternatives are available?

As with everything else, new technology is providing new answers. For years now, computers and videos have played an important part in the training process.

Brian Tucker says in his Handbook of Technology Based Training that training has improved with technology.

He points out that the main changes have been in the merging of video and computers and, more recently, the merging of these technologies with the latest communications media. This has enabled trainers to harness the power of computer-based training to interactive video, allowing moving pictures and sound.

Now you can train yourself in just about anything through computers – from project management and software packages to financial analysis and business presentation skills. These benefits should not be ignored.

According to the 1998 Institute of Personnel Development guide on training technology, companies can: cut training costs; reduce learning time; improve learning (because computer-based technology systems can check understanding of the material); provide privacy (no embarrassing classroom gaffes); and deliver a consistent quality of training quickly to large numbers of people. Large organisations, in particular, may have set up intranets which will also include training materials as part of the service.

Xebec McGraw-Hill has been active in the computer-based technology market and in presentation training specifically. It has three editions of Effective Presentations, all available on CD-Rom, which use fast-paced interactive exercises, video sequences, graphics and audio.

The courses tailor material to the individual’s level of experience and give practical tips and a checklist to improve presentation.

Andrew Field, account manager for Xebec McGraw-Hill and a former teacher, says: “It is not a replacement for the classroom, but another tool for professional trainers which is flexible and cost effective.” Each Effective Presentations course provides about two hours of learning and comes with full support material, available as individual resources or as a package.

“This resource is most effective after the classroom-based training as a refresher for someone who has not put what they have learnt straight into use. Or to brush up on skills quickly,” explains Field. Then there is the pre-classroom application. “Many organisations use our courses before sending staff on a classroom-based course, to whet their appetites.”

Field says the appeal of Effective Presentations is that they present a fictitious simulation – starting with the basics and moving up to a more advanced level.

Each course has a password protection facility which enables trainers to oversee each student’s progress and ensure they have been working in front of the screen rather than lounging in the coffee shop.

“With these resources you can learn at your own pace, which is what people want,” explains Field. “They need to try out different options in a safe learning environment.”

Video Arts sister company Melrose, part of Mediakey, offers a slightly different format to enable you to learn from body language and other people’s mistakes. Its first package, The Complete Presenter, is described by Melrose product manager Douglas Miller as a no-frills approach to business presenting.

The package includes a video, resource binder and trainer’s guide. The five training units cover delivery, preparation, managing the presentation, use of visual aids, audience and questions. The video programmes relate to each training unit and focus on specific skills and techniques by contrasting good and bad practice.

For those wanting to observe a higher level of skill, Melrose offers the video Impact at Meetings, which comes with a support guide.

“Presentation skills are as popular as ever,” says Miller. “We have experienced a resurgence in the past 18 months. We are being threatened with a recession and my gut feeling is that people tend to go for subjects such as presentation where they can see and measure the difference.”

Both Melrose videos were first produced seven years ago and are used in a traditional classroom situation where the trainer will run the whole package and be on hand to discuss the contents.

“These are an aid for the trainer and we would not expect people to use these resources without someone on hand to help,” explains Miller, who is somewhat dismissive of the benefits of purely computer-based training.

“Presentation skills are based on interpersonal skills and it is virtually impossible to learn them on-screen. It can give you the theory but ultimately you must be able to practice in front of an audience.”

Maritz Performance Systems provides bespoke systems to deliver and measure training performances, including screen-based and distance-learning programmes. According to Maritz’s director of training and development, Stewart Pyke, these learning resources have their place – as back-up or as refreshers. But they also have their limitations.

“Inevitably, presentation skills have to be about standing up and doing it – and that is in the classroom,” says Pyke. “You have to get people involved together. One of the key elements is the feedback from your colleagues. You can do all the textbook stuff but that is not real presentation training, which is about how you perform in front of a client. Selling is about passion – and people’s individual personalities have to come over. If you get into too much of a formula, you lose that spark.”

Raymond Rudd, managing director of Raymond Rudd Consultants, part of Clerkenwell Communications, has been teaching presentation skills for the past 20 years. Like Pyke, he believes digital innovation will assist rather than replace the human dynamic of the classroom.

“Training through a screen lacks the personal touch. Computer packages can be nothing more than an aid. They may provide a learning experience, but the classroom is where the presenter is motivated and gets real experience and feedback.”

As business becomes more competitive, and presentations more crucial, it seems senior executives will still have to submit style and personality to the rest of the class – even if they also spend hours brushing up their techniques in front of the all-seeing computer.

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