Khalid Aziz, chairman of The Aziz Corporation, argues that spoken communications must be given more attention and suggests how training officers can ensure these valuable skills are targeted at the right people throughout the organization.
In a world of faxes, memos, e-mails, newsletters and junk mail, most business people are forced to focus their attention on the written word and, as a result, neglect the development of their spoken communication and presentation skills. A recent survey carried out by The Aziz Corporation indicates that 78 per cent of company directors find public speaking the most daunting business activity. Yet this is a task many are required to perform on a regular basis – almost a quarter of respondents give a formal presentation to clients once a week or more. Directors confessed to being nervous about undertaking all manner of public speaking activities, from presenting to the board or addressing shareholder meetings, to speaking to a large audience of businessmen or giving a television interview.
In fact, communication skills are becoming the cornerstone of any modern career. The Aziz Corporation's research showed that 63 per cent of company directors believe presentation skills are more important for career success than intelligence or financial aptitude. In addition, over one-third of respondents felt that poor presentation skills had hindered their progress up the career ladder.
Highly polished presentation skills are not only important to individual career development, but are also increasingly valued by companies as a means of delivering real benefits to the bottom line. Face-to-face communication is a powerful business tool that can inspire, motivate, persuade, impress and reassure. Clear communication gives clients confidence, and is important for clinching deals. In addition, clients are becoming more discerning and demanding, resulting in customer service becoming a key element in the training remit. All this increases the need for effective communication skills, not least as a significant step towards developing better relationships with clients in order to secure their long-term custom. Presentation is crucial to building and maintaining that relationship. Organisations that employ effective communicators improve their sales effectiveness, achieve a higher profile with customers and win more business pitches.
As well as being beneficial for the individual and organisations, effective presentation skills can be good for the economy. British companies are operating in a competitive global economy in which the ability to communicate effectively with potential customers has never been so critical to winning business. British businessmen should act as ambassadors of UK plc, representing the best of British business, via the media, to potential customers and investors across the world. However, the presentation skills of Britain's leading businessmen are, currently, not of a sufficiently high standard for this to be the case.
Fortunately, spoken communication is a skill like any other, which can be acquired, improved on and, given time and tutoring, excelled at. However, while it is certainly the case that some companies are beginning to invest in presentation and media skills training, it may be that this is not reaching those business people most in need of assistance. It seems that – currently – those employed in personnel are most likely to receive this type of training, despite the fact that they do not address audiences as regularly as their counterparts in the finance or sales and marketing departments. It seems that this is due to the fact that personnel professionals appreciate that this type of training can be a very effective tool for advancing organizational and personnel objectives, while those who really need training are often resistant to the concept, considering presentation skills as "soft" and unworthy of their attention.
The challenge for personnel executives is to direct training to those who need it most – even if they are unaware of their needs in this area or are unwilling to co-operate – and to those business disciplines where it will benefit the company. While it is certainly the case that the ability to speak clearly and confidently is a skill that individuals at all levels of an organization should seek to perfect, approaches will vary depending on the needs of the individual and their role in the company. Some of these methods might include:
In addition, personnel executives themselves are not filled with confidence when it comes to speaking in public – 73 per cent of personnel directors claimed public speaking was the most daunting business activity facing them. The following simple rules, applicable to all professionals, constitute a practical guideline for the preparation and delivery of a successful presentation. These hints are equally relevant for meetings and day-to-day communication with clients and colleagues:
Research your audience. Tailoring your message and medium to your audience makes it more likely they will respond favourably to your presentation. For example, while an audience of young trainees will feel comfortable with a high-tech multimedia presentation, a group of senior executives may respond better to a more traditional approach. In addition, presenting to an enthusiastic in-house audience would require a very different approach from that demanded by a hostile share-holder meeting, for example.
Know your message. Have a clear idea of what you want to say, and what your aims and objectives are for the presentation.
"The Aziz Corporation's research showed that 63 per cent of company directors believe presentation skills are more important for career success than intelligence or financial aptitude."
Keep your presentation brief and to the point, as most people have a short attention span. As you are writing your speech, a good rule of thumb to follow is that it will take around four times as long to speak as to read to yourself in your head – a television newsreader reads aloud at three words per second, yet an educated person can read print at up to 15 words per second.
Carefully select your words to ensure your message is clear, concise and easily understood first time. Take care to avoid the use of jargon, particularly when speaking on technical matters. Remember that your audience may be considerably less informed than you, so use everyday language to ensure your message is universally accessible. Empathise with your audience, stressing the "we" and "us". Concentrate on talking to your audience not at them.
Have a positive beginning. Even if the information you have to deliver seems both dry and self-explanatory, try to capture your audience's attention at once.
If you are using slides, make sure that each one is necessary to the presentation and enhances it in some way. Keep slides relevant and succinct – if they are too cluttered with information, your audience will struggle to keep pace and will lose interest in both the spoken and written elements of the presentation.
While the content of your presentation is, of course, important, it is also vital to concentrate on your delivery. Before you start to speak, stand for a few moments, establish eye-contact with your audience, smile at them and only begin when you have their full attention.
Do not be tempted to read from a script. This deadens spontaneity, making it difficult to maintain eye contact and your audience's attention. If you have spent enough time rehearsing, a script should be unnecessary; instead use summary notes on cards, clearly printed in block capitals, at which you need only glance occasionally. Also, resist the urge to read from your slides – these are not notes on the screen for your use, but should be purely for the audience's benefit.
Use silences to your advantage – a well-timed pause can be used to highlight important points and is an effective way of regaining the attention of your audience.
Do not speak too quickly. Rushing not only conveys a lack of confidence but also makes it more difficult for your audience to follow what you are saying. You should aim to develop an expressive tone of voice. In general, delivering a message with passion and enthusiasm is a good way to make your audience feel up-lifted and enthusiastic also. But bad news should be broken in a sensitive way, without undue anxiety or emotion.
How you look is almost as important as what you say. Your audience will judge you on what you wear. Your clothes should reflect your status and be clean and smart.
While it is true that smart clothes are a necessity – casual dress is still frowned on by British business, with the wearer being considered unprofessional and unreliable – smart is not synonymous with boring. Black and grey make great base colours, but brighten them up with a colourful tie or scarf to avoid appearing too serious. Try to retain your individual style – for example, if you are a woman who hates wearing a skirt, a smart trouser suit is an acceptable alternative. Wearing something in which you feel uncomfortable will only sap your confidence.
Research shows that 60 per cent of all communication is non-verbal. Meaning can be conveyed through pace, pitch, timing and body language.
Gestures can achieve great impact when employed correctly. It is important to get the timing right and to choose gestures that feel natural. Aim to exaggerate your movements so that they seem assertive and bold, and remember that your gestures need to get bigger according to the size of your audience and the venue. However, be sure to practise in front of colleagues – they will be able to spot habitual mannerisms that you may be unaware of, but an audience may find distracting or irritating.
Eye contact is vital as it sends a message to the audience that you want to communicate with them, rather than just relate a list of facts or opinions. Failure to make strong eye contact implies either that you are lacking in confidence or, worse, that you are uninterested.
There are several gestures that ought to be avoided, such as hands in pockets - which signifies a casual attitude – or hands on hips – indicative of aggression. In general, the recommended stance is feet shoulder distance apart, pointing slightly outwards, keeping arms and hands loose and open.
While audiences do tend to be sympathetic to nervous speakers, a faltering voice and trembling hands will detract from your performance. For a senior executive, seeming overly nervous may reduce your audience's confidence in you as a speaker and, unfortunately, by association, with your material. Although there is no substitute for thorough rehearsal and preparation, there are a number of techniques you can practise to conquer nerves, such as breathing exercises, and it is worth experimenting to find one that suits you.
The Aziz Corporation's research indicates that formal training greatly reduces the stress associated with speaking in public. Asked to rate their own presentation and media handling skills, directors who had received formal training were up to three times more likely to describe their level of competence as excellent or fair.
Any organization seeking to improve its image and effectiveness should ensure its executives receive thorough training in the art of making powerful and persuasive presentations.
This article was originally published in Industrial and Commercial Training Volume 30 Number 6.
The author was Khalid Aziz, Chairman of the Aziz Corporation, Winchester, Hampshire, UK.