Archive for Helen’s Blog – Page 4

Clear speech without language

Understanding the incomprehensible

Some people express themselves so clearly that their meaning is immediately obvious – even though their language is foreign to the listener.

My taxi driver on a recent business trip to Oman was a point in question. Speaking in Arabic, he demonstrated vividly how clear speech can transcend language barriers.

Now I’m no Arabic speaker, and Ali spoke for a good five minutes in his native tongue, yet I understood his meaning implicitly.

So what creates clear speech?

Ali’s hands, his facial expressions, and his vocal inflections all contributed to his ability to communicate successfully. This was a man with a natural flair for conveying information.

On an afternoon tour of Muscat, he explained where we were, where we were going, how long it would take and that the Grand Mosque was only open to non-Muslims between 8am – 11am. “You can go there tomorrow”, he told me, in clearly enunciated Arabic.

Gesture, intonation and pauses all play a major role in getting a message across. And none of these involve actual language.

To be fair, I did hear a couple of recognisable words (“Sultan” and “marina” were easy to grasp) but 99% of Ali’s vocabulary was completely alien to me. It was his non-verbal communication and the ups and downs of his voice that empowered him to get his message across.

Clear speech and business leaders

Many people think of clear speech as meaning crisp articulation, but it is so much more.

Ali’s innate abilities allowed him to communicate across language barriers, demonstrating the true meaning of clear speech.

But while Ali had a natural gift for communication, many senior executives fail to make themselves understood, even by those who speak their  language. It is such a shame, as the requisite skills are eminently achievable.

The role of passion in clear speech

I’ve noticed that many business leaders seem to lose their passion in executive meetings. The more important the meeting, the less the passion. They seem to metaphorically sit on their hands and prevent their true excitement from shining through. (Does this ring any bells for you?)

Perhaps some people think it is inappropriate to bring emotion into the business world. Perhaps you have been taught not to give anything of yourself. After all, business is business; personal is personal. Whatever the reason, if this is you, you stymie your ability to achieve your objectives.

Most people don’t recognise what they are doing (or not doing) until I point it out to them. And then the light goes on, and I hear an almost audible gasp of “oh my goodness”, followed by an immediate change in behaviour and a significant improvement in communication.

“We are all made to shine”

The spiritual activist Marianne Williamson stresses that “we are all meant to shine, as children do… and as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This is so true. Business leaders who allow their passion to shine encourage those around them to shine. And when everyone shines, great things can happen.

My Omani driver demonstrated clear speech, trustworthiness and credibility through his excitement and his love for his city. He gave me understanding, despite my lack of language, and he passed on such enthusiasm that I found myself excited and eager to see what he wanted to show me.

My plea to you is this: remember your passion and allow it to flow out in business as well as in life. It may well lead you to your goals.

Eid Mubarak.

The edible means to effective meetings

The benefits of biscuits for effective meetings

Biscuits are apparently the king of effective meetings. Survey after survey has underlined that the better the biscuit, the better the meeting.

This doesn’t mean that the world’s most expensive biscuit will net you that multi-million dollar deal. In fact the world’s most expensive biscuit is probably inedible, as it is well over a hundred years old. (It was taken by Sir Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic in 1907 and sold for £1,250 GBP in 2011.)

But if you’re really trying to impress, then a £30 GBP box of 15 gold-leaf chocolate cookies might well do the trick.

Choosing your biscuits with care

The average Brit prefers chocolate digestives  to any other biscuit. But while this might initially seem a good choice for the boardroom table, a survey for this year’s National Biscuit Day reveals that the true biscuit of UK leadership is shortbread.

When 2,000 business people were questioned by biscuit manufacturer Thomas J Fudge’s, a quarter of all respondents said they closed deals more successfully with the right kind of biscuit on the table – and shortbread was the most profitable business biscuit.

The study also found that the type of biscuit you eat says a lot about your personality.

Leaders are more likely to go for custard creams, while risk-takers opt for chocolate bourbons. And do watch out for flapjack lovers – they’re likely to have a short temper.

Biscuits to avoid

While it seems important to have a range of biscuits on offer, some biscuits are an absolute no-no.

Pink wafers are considered too be “far too outrageous for a work environment”, and there is no place for crumbly biscuits in a professional meeting.

There’s nothing worse than spluttering crumbs at a potential client, or wondering whether to wipe them off the table when it starts to look like a two-year old’s eating area. It is difficult to run effective meetings with people’s attention on tidying the table rather than the matter in hand.

My personal dislike is individually-wrapped biscuits, where you get a couple of Viennese swirls in a little cellophane pack. With two biscuits at your fingertips, it’s far too easy to gobble them both in quick succession and then wish you hadn’t. Or perhaps that’s just me.

Biscuit etiquette for effective meetings

Stuffing yourself with an abundance of gorgeously sugar-laden treats is perhaps something best done in private.

All the business biscuit surveys show that most business professionals think it is only acceptable to take two biscuits during the course of a meeting. Any more and you’ll look greedy.

In the Thomas J Fudge’s survey, one in five professionals confessed they had been involved in a biscuit-related argument when a colleague had ignored business etiquette and acted “out of line” by eating more than three biscuits, or scoffing the last one. Be warned!

To dunk or not to dunk?

Dipping your biscuit into your tea or coffee is a business turn-off.

Some people will find this a shame, as dunking biscuits to eat the soggy result is a popular British pastime, which is reflected in many countries around the world.

The trend in South Africa and India is rusk-dunking, while Australians enjoy sucking tea through chocolate-coated, chocolate-filled Tim Tams (a process known as the Tim Tam slam). And in the Netherlands you’ll find stroopwaffels sitting above people’s steaming drinks to melt the caramel inside before they’re dunked.

But the advice for effective meetings is to keep your dunking out of the office.

Do better biscuits really mean more effective meetings?

Biscuit surveys tend to be carried out by those with a vested interest in getting people to eat biscuits. Thomas J Fudge’s makes and sells biscuits. Holiday Inn (which surveyed 1,000 business professionals) provides more than 3 million biscuits a year for the business meetings it hosts.

It’s a great feel-good factor story that biscuits can close deals, but is it true?

We can all get a sugar high and an immediate energy boost from a biscuit during a long working day, but this can be detrimental rather than positive, depending on the rest of your diet.

Psychologists have found that raising your blood sugar levels while performing a mentally challenging task also raises your stress levels and reduces your ability to think clearly. It produces high levels of cortisol – a stress hormone which impairs memory.

So if you’re trying to close a business deal when you’ve had a sugar-rich lunch or breakfast, and you’re chomping on biscuits due to greed or habit rather than hunger, think twice.

That said, sharing food is extremely important and has significant effects. Eating with others makes us feel good, and “makes us feel more positive towards those with whom we do it” according to anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, quoted in The Telegraph. “The quality of the biscuits we share says something about how much we value each other.”

So if offering better biscuits sends out a subtle but very convincing message to those you are trying to persuade, the return on investment is potentially huge.

Just avoid eating too many yourself!

Powerful connections make all the difference

This week I’ve been considering the issue of creating strong interpersonal connections while speaking. It’s the most important way to engage, influence and inspire those around you.

Connecting effectively with others helps people take your message on board, and this increases the likelihood that you will influence and inspire them while achieving your own aims.

To make a great connection you have to truly believe in your message, and focus purely on communicating it. No other thoughts or feelings should cross your mind while you are speaking.

But the words shouldn’t just appear in your mouth and float out into the air.

If you can link the inspiration of your breath with the inspiration of your thoughts, your words will become a part of your whole physical self.

This will allow you to experience a true connection with what you are saying. It will also enable those around you to experience a true connection with you as an individual, and with the message you are trying to convey.

Being true to yourself

The bottom line in creating any sort of connection is to be genuine while you speak. Using your personal experience to communicate your unique, deeply-felt understanding of your subject will help you connect with your words and gain trust from others.

Your emotions will enhance your delivery. They will boost your connection with your audience and make your words more impactful, whether you are talking in a one-to-one meeting or speaking at a large conference.

Take a listen to the father of the digital age, Apple’s Steve Jobs, for example. Or to media queen and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey. Their belief in their message is obvious. And that’s what drives their success. It empowers them to influence and inspire.

We can also learn valuable lessons from those outside the corporate and media world. The teenage winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, female education activist Malala Yousafzai is a great example of someone who speaks from the heart. And so is Neil Baldwin – the subject of the award-winning UK drama “Marvellous” – a man who refuses to let his learning disability get in the way of his absolute joy for life.

The intangibility of connection

Explaining how it feels to be connected with your words and your audience is rather like trying to describe an emotion to someone who has never experienced it. It is abstract and intangible until its force hits you directly.

You know you are connected in the moment but you cannot grab hold of that connection. If you start thinking about it, it will fade away, as your focus will no longer be on your words.

The constituent parts of connection are unquantifiable. But acting together as a whole, they are incredibly powerful.

Creating energy to influence and inspire

When you really focus on others, with the sole aim of conveying your message, you will lose self-consciousness and gain a sense of energy instead.

Sharing your words will help those around you to feel and understand your meaning. You’ll be totally involved in your listeners, taking them on a journey from an unfamiliar place to a new comfort zone where they really “get” what you’re saying and want to run with it.

There’s no need to force anything. Your message doesn’t need exaggerating, over-emphasising or pushing. If it comes from the heart and if you really believe it, you won’t need to put any effort into speaking it. You’ll be able to communicate with a firm, easy commitment and all your attention.

Ensuring you get it right

Executive Communication Coaching can be very a powerful tool as you work towards achieving your goals. Professional feedback, support and guidance will take you much, much further than you can ever go by yourself. 

So if you want to be absolutely sure that you communicate in the most effective way to influence and inspire your colleagues, clients and stakeholders, do drop me a line or give me a call.

And remember, the business of business is relationships. The business of life is human connection. 

The active listening habits of leaders

"Most of the successful people I've known”, said Bernard Baruch, financier and political adviser, “are the ones who do more listening than talking".

His observations were astute. Academic research indicates that leaders really are better listeners. They listen with an open mind, without becoming emotional or defensive.

Studies show that confident people are better at listening to communication content, while those who lack confidence listen more to the emotional meaning behind the spoken message.

But strangely, although business people recognise that listening is one of the most important skills for an effective professional, only 1.5% of articles in business journals are about listening effectiveness. And in a survey of 1400 executives and business leaders, more than 81% said they had come across leaders who failed to listen. 

Do you really listen?

While hearing is easy, listening is hard. As journalist and author Ernest Hemingway stated “most people never listen”. Are you one of that majority?

Listening really is the Achilles’ heel of leadership. You may not know there’s a weak spot until something goes wrong. But then, of course, it’s too late.

Remember BP's CEO Tony Hayward after the 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico? 11 workers were killed and nearly 800 cubic metres of oil flowed into the sea with catastrophic results both to the environment and to marine-based industries. Many lost their livelihoods and local communities suffered immeasurably. But Mr Hayward failed to listen to their pain.

He may have been overworked and overstressed at dealing with the catastrophe. But instead of responding to what people were saying, he focused on himself, infamously telling the media "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I'd like my life back." He then proceeded to go sailing with his son. 

Unsurprisingly, Tony Hayward lost his job. 

Of course that's an extreme example, but the book ‘Listen Up’ by Larry Barker and Kittie Watson, asks whether you ever find yourself guilty of any of the following:

  1. Interrupting the speaker
  2. Not looking at the speaker
  3. Rushing the speaker and making him feel he’s wasting your time
  4. Showing interest in something other than the conversation
  5. Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing her thoughts
  6. Not responding to the speaker’s requests
  7. Saying “Yes, but…” as if you've made up your mind
  8. Topping the speaker’s story with “That’s nothing, let me tell you about…”
  9. Forgetting what was talked about previously
  10. Asking too many questions about details

If any of these points ring true, then perhaps you need to take a long, hard look at your listening skills. Better active listening will make you a better leader.  

Leaders who listen

So why should you listen? It’s a fairly obvious question, unless you happen to be Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who failed to hear the very strong advice to abdicate, and was savagely murdered instead. (I attended his official funeral, 80 years later, but that’s another story…)

Perhaps the IBM story is closer to home. In the 1990s IBM almost went bust. It was losing billions. The personal computer industry was taking off, and IBM’s core mainframe business was in crisis. The company wanted to look inward and reconfigure itself into separate entities, but the new CEO, Lou Gerstner, started listening to clients. They explained the market and the issues, and Mr Gerstner heard what they said, steered the business in a new direction and turned it into a highly profitable company once more.

Today, IBM’s shares are in decline again, but if history repeats itself and IBM listens once more, it might manage to resolve the situation.

The importance of active listening

A good reason for active listening is that your staff, colleagues, clients and stakeholders are more likely to listen to you if you listen to them. Leaders who do not listen tend not to be heard themselves.

If you listen and take other people’s ideas seriously, they will feel valued, and you will inspire loyalty. Without this, you will have little or no respect as a leader.

As a leader it’s also important to listen to those lower down the business hierarchy so you know what’s going on. If your life revolves around other leaders and managers you’re in danger of missing the wider picture and your decision-making can lose focus.

Listening statistics and active listening

The web is peppered with statistics about listening. Some may be accurate, others are probably wildly inaccurate. As a former science journalist, I only ever rely on stats from peer-reviewed journals, and even then with the premise of ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. But it’s interesting to see the figures quoted, urban myths or not.

So, according to that highly unreliable source, the internet, we listen at between 125 – 250 words per minute but think at 1000-3000 words per minute. (More conservative estimates say that we think four times as fast as we listen.) Apparently we’re distracted, preoccupied or forgetful about 75% of the time we should be listening, and most of us only remember about 25% of what we hear.

The process of active listening – one of the skills I teach – has its own set of figures, according to professional mediator James Cull, from Decisive Mediation. He believes that active listening is based on a 70:30 rule: “you focus your efforts on the speaker and aim to talk no more than 30% of the time whilst encouraging them to make up 70% of the conversation”.

That sounds a pretty good rule to me, and one which I’d be very happy for my clients to follow.

Healthy listening

A highly respected Professor of Integrative Medicine, Rachel Naomi Remen, tells us that “the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.”

I think she makes a great point. While active listening is fundamental to business success, it’s also fundamental to social and relationship success. If we all listened to one another more effectively and productively, the world would be a happier place, a healthier place and a better place to work. 

My thought for the day is this: give it a go – try to give someone your full, focused attention today, and see what comes back to you. You have nothing to lose, and potentially loads to gain. And of course the better your active listening skills, the more you'll achieve. 

The significance of a strong voice

 I lost my voice this week. It totally disappeared and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it apart from remain quiet. Even communication professionals can fall victim to vocal cord viruses, although this was a first for me.

But never one to let an opportunity slip by, I used this ironic situation and my enforced silence to contemplate the importance of a strong voice, and how its significance is often lost or ignored.

The misconceived importance of a strong voice

There’s a much misquoted research paper by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, who studied how university students recognised the emotions expressed by other students. He found that:

  • Body language accounted for 55% of their understanding
  • Voice accounted for 38%
  • Words accounted for just 7% of how students’ emotions were understood by their peers.

Since 1971, when Professor Mehrabian conducted his research, this 55%-38%-7% pattern has been wrongly extrapolated worldwide, by organisations trying to make a fast buck ‘scientifically proving’ their approach to communication training.

The pattern is regularly misinterpreted to demonstrate that when you want to make an impression on someone, 55% of your meaning comes across in body language, 38% comes across in voice, and only 7% comes across in words.

Unfortunately that’s total rubbish. Professor Mehrabian himself has complained that using figures out of context is completely inaccurate. For example it is impossible to extrapolate from an understanding of student emotions to an explanation of financial data. It’s like comparing oranges with curry. They may both be foodstuffs but they have very little in common.

And yet the urban myth persists. It’s difficult to dispel a myth. But it’s also important that the truth comes out. So that’s what I’m reflecting on today.

The fundamentals for a strong voice

Apart from whispering, I’ve been silent for several days now, in an attempt to let my vocal cords heal from the bug that attacked them.

I normally have a rich, strong voice, which is such an integral part of my everyday life that I very rarely think about it as a tool – it’s as much a part of me as my arms and legs.

Of course a strong voice is something that anyone can achieve – it’s just a matter of understanding what to do with your body to make your voice ring out properly. But you do need a healthy set of vocal cords at the outset.

The independent value of body language

As a quasi-experiment, I’ve been trying to communicate without speaking. And I can categorically confirm that people do not understand me by body language alone. They certainly do not get 55% of my meaning that way.

It might be useful if I spoke sign language, but I don’t. And neither do those around me. So I’ve reverted to the Christmas-afternoon type of charades, which is usually played with mince pies aplenty and overflowing sherry glasses.

Sadly, my wordless attempts to make myself understood have met with confusion and bewilderment. Body language alone just doesn’t cut the mustard. Perhaps I should have tempted people with alcohol and sugary carbs for better results.

Adding a strong voice to effective body language

Many years ago I lived and worked in Russia for the BBC. English was a rarity on the borders of Siberia, and as I spoke no Russian when I arrived, the potential for misunderstanding was high.

It might have been easier had I stayed in a hotel, but the BBC allocated me a Stalinist apartment in a grey concrete block, a bus ride from work. So I had to communicate with bus conductors, shop assistants and market traders, none of whom understood my language, and in whose own mother tongue I was completely lacking.

As you might imagine, body language played a large part in these encounters. But my voice helped too. People tended to recognise my tonality when I spoke in a clear, strong voice, and they could often glean my meaning from the ups and downs, the stresses and inflections of my voice. A question in most languages ends on an upwards tone. A negative response is usually short and authoritative.

My words were incomprehensible and therefore irrelevant to those around me, but my body language mixed with the sound of my voice provided people with equal measures of understanding.

Of course my communications were very basic: “I’d like that cheese please” (pointing and verbalizing). “No, not that one, the one next to it”… and “Water?” (tilting an imaginary bottle).

Words play a fundamentally important role in communication, so it would have been impossible to have held a coherent, interesting conversation at first. But at least I didn’t starve.

After a year or so in Russia, I’d picked up a considerable amount of the language, and could happily converse about miners blocking the railway lines or teachers going on hunger strike. As a journalism trainer these were my topics-de-jour, but small-talk would still have been all but impossible.

Strong voice, effective body language plus impactful words

When I compare my silent body language experiment of this week (no words, no voice) with my ‘Russian’ body language and speech, the Russian version wins hands-down.

Trying to communicate with people who speak my language, but without voice or words is much, much harder than communicating in a foreign country with a strong voice to add to the body language.

When words are taken out of the equation, it seems the importance of voice and body language are roughly equal in helping people understand meaning. And when words come into the picture, they play a similarly important role.

It seems that words, voice and body language are all just as valuable as one another when it comes to getting a message across. And that blows the Mehrabian myth right out of the water.

Party leaders resign: the final leadership communication

Well who would have thought it? The pollsters are navel gazing and self-flagellating for getting the election results so overwhelmingly wrong. For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Conservatives are in charge of the UK, sweeping aside memories of the past 5 years of coalition government.

And the party leaders who were buoyed up and egged on by the media frenzy around the profusion of ‘too close to call’ polls? In acts of broken-hearted acceptance, the three main players have delivered their last acts of leadership communication – each resigining from the party they hold so dear.

Leadership communication to end all leadership communication

The likelihood is you’ll never have to resign in front of a large crowd and a panopoly of international TV cameras. But you can learn a lot about leadership communication (or the lack of it) by watching the different techniques employed by the three outgoing party leaders. Their methods of delivering uncomfortable news – recognising publicly that people didn’t like them all that much – varied significantly.

Ed Miliband: from phony to authentic

Before the election I slated Labour’s Ed Miliband for playing up to the camera, overperforming and coming across as fake and disingenuous during a TV debate between party leaders. I couldn’t bear his technique of  purporting to address the Prime Minister while taking every possible opportunity to stare robotically at the camera in an attempt to communicate directly to people at home.

Contrast that with his performance as he tells the party faithful that he’s stepping down. After an exhausting campaign with no sleep the night before, he is unpolished but somehow real. We can see genuine emotion. He is truly connected with what he’s saying, and it shows. That’s what leadership communication is about. Pity for him that he didn’t learn it before the election.

Nick Clegg: from compelling to unconvincing

Unlike Ed Miliband, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, gave a very disappointing resignation speech. I’d praised him in the leaders’ debate for being credible, real and connecting with his audience. I was impressed with how well he performed.

But directly after the election, he deflated like an elderly balloon and social graces seemed to fail him. He found it difficult to make eye contact, and he read rather than spoke his words. Leadership communication it was not. And it certainly didn’t make the audience warm to him.

Perhaps the whole situation was just so difficult that the underlying cracks in his performance appeared. So perhaps it was best for that he withdrew from the leadership of the party.

Nigel Farage: consistent in defeat

Today’s third resignation came from the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whom I’d cited previously as the leader who appeared the most genuine in April’s TV debate. (I must stress that this assessment was based on his performance alone, rather than the content of his communication.)

His resignation as party leader, announced al fresco on the Kent coastline, also appeared genuine and completely off the cuff . This is a man who does not need notes to speak his mind. His leadership communication style works for many people. And his passion (misguided though some think it is) may be why 1/8th of voters across the UK placed their cross in the UKIP box.

But just a word of advice… If, like Mr Farage, you ever find yourself in the position of being interviewed by the national and international media, try not to position yourself in front of a bad tribute act to Reservoir Dogs. Farage might be able to carry it off, but it doesn’t exactly add to his credence and as far as I can work out, it doesn’t support his message.

The new generation of leadership communication

As the Cameron wolf blows down the houses of the three little pigs, it’ll be interesting to see who replaces them at the top of the political elite, and whether the newcomers will learn the lessons of leadership communication that their predecessors might have been wise to take on board. As the new government steps in, I’ll definitely be watching this space…

My favourite aspect of leadership communication coaching is hearing my clients experience the beautiful ‘Aha!’ moment when they realise they can take their speech volume and their vocal richness to a totally different level. Rose buds spontaneously burst open, church bells peal out and fireworks explode every time a client suddenly ‘gets it’.

And ‘getting it’ is oh so pleasurable. It’s an amazing experience to realise that your voice has the power to affect others in the way you want. To recognise that it’s an incredible instrument. And to appreciate that it will always be with you, every single day, and that you’ll never again have to wonder whether you’re coming across in the right way.

Once you experience your true vocal potential, you’ll never look back.

Although – oddly – looking back is actually a great way of ‘getting it’. Many business leaders mumble and drone their way through meetings, pitches and presentations, purely because they don’t remember that they have this brilliant communication tool at their disposal. They’ve forgotten that as babies their voice was fantastic.

Babies are excellent at making themselves heard, and at getting those around them to do their bidding. They can crank their speech volume up to the max at will, they never lose their voice and they never run out of steam (as any weary parent will verify).

Babies just use their vocal instrument naturally and optimally. It’s not always the most pleasant of sounds, but it’s certainly powerful and compelling, and not something you can easily ignore.

Now I’m not suggesting in any way that getting up and screaming your head off in a meeting is a good plan. Don’t even think of going down that road! But as adults we can learn a lot from the natural techniques that we all used to have.

The only difference between a baby’s voice and an adult’s voice (beside its high/low pitch) is that adults tend to superimpose unhelpful habits on their vocal apparatus and associated muscles. And in doing so they stymie their natural abilities to use their voice to best effect.

As part of my leadership communication coaching programs I help clients to undo these habits, allowing your pure voice to shine. Everyone has an authentic, powerful voice within them. It’s not just in some of us – it’s in all of us. And when you let your true voice ring out – usually for the first time in years – you’ll leap into an inevitable ‘Eureka!’ moment.

And that’s what makes me smile. That’s what I look forward to when I get up in the morning, and that’s what I never tire of seeing and hearing, however many clients I’ve worked with over the years. The rebirth of a voice always feels like a truly miraculous event – not just for my clients, but for me as well.

Once you’re reunited with your true voice, and you’re able to boost your speech volume and richness whenever you want, your voice will always be there to support you. Learning how to reconnect with your own natural abilities is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to lead with power and pizzazz.

Confidence coaching crushes presentation fears

Fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is one of the world’s leading anxieties – outranked only by the fear of snakes. But while snakes are a potentially life-threatening hazard, of which it is entirely reasonable to be scared, getting up to give a presentation holds no such dangerous threats.

Luckily, fear of public speaking can be resolved through a process of specialist confidence coaching.

Unluckily, the right type of confidence coaching is extremely hard to find. And that’s why thousands of prominent business people and others in the media spotlight still quake in their boots at the mere thought of public speaking. Glossophobia is indiscriminate in whom it attacks.

Take Apple’s Steve Jobs, who is well known for his effortless presentation style, as seen at the launch of his iPhone in 2007.

Mr Jobs was originally terrified of speaking in public. In the mid 1980s the only way he could perform was to grab his lectern tightly for support and read verbatim from his notes. Sick with nerves before his first TV interview, the camera captures him telling his off-screen assistant “I’m ready to throw up at any moment”.

Virgin boss Richard Branson openly admits that he has always loathed making speeches. He recalls his first talks with horror. “I still break out in a cold sweat just thinking back to the excruciating experience,” he confesses in his book The Virgin Way.

Mr Branson bravely reveals that his aversion to public speaking is “almost as true today as it was when I first spoke in public as a student some 50-odd years ago”.

Even Royalty is not immune to the fear of public speaking. Prince Harry, currently fourth in line to the British throne, also confesses to extreme anxiety when he has to speak in public. “No matter how big the crowd or the audience and despite the fact that I laugh and joke all the time I get incredibly nervous, if not anxious actually, before going into rooms full of people when I’m wearing a suit.”

There is masses of advice out there on dealing with and getting over your nerves. It ranges from the realistic (prepare and practice well) and the reasonable (try behavioural therapies and neurolinguistic programming) to the downright ridiculous (imagine your audience naked and you won’t feel the fear).

The thing is, you need more than one approach to quash presentation nerves. They attack you on all fronts, therefore you need to combat them multi-directionally to have any chance of defeating them.

Yes, preparation and practice are important. Yes, psychological methods can certainly have an impact. But you need to combine both lines of defence with some additional physical tactics to have a credible chance of quelling your fears and achieving your aims.

My threefold approach to confidence coaching is unique because it covers the practical, the psychological and the physical, combining my professional background in all three areas. The basic principle involves:

1. Acquiring competence in the requisite skills (the practical);

2. Developing a positive mindset (the psychological);

3. Creating and maintaining physiological calmness (the physical).

It’s all very simple, and more to the point, it absolutely works for nervous speakers.

Another household name in the nervous speakers category is the UK’s leading tennis player Andy Murray. And as the media publicised his wedding this weekend I wondered whether he’d be trembling more when saying his vows and giving his wedding speech or when stepping out onto Centre Court at Wimbledon for the men’s finals.

Despite his regular TV appearances, Andy Murray seems to suffer from terrible public speaking nerves. Media reports say these even influenced his brother’s wedding celebrations in 2010.

Jamie Murray apparently told Andy there was no need for a best man’s speech because “I didn’t want him to be stressed right through the day and not be able to enjoy it.”

I always feel really sad when I hear that people are too scared to speak out at important events, when I know that confidence coaching can make all the difference between quaking in your boots and enjoying yourself while getting your message across.

My approach has been verified by the UK’s best-selling health and wellbeing magazine, Healthy Magazine, in the article “Stop Living in Fear”.

I wish I could have met up with Andy Murray before his big day. But now, with only international tennis championships at stake, he can breathe a sigh of relief and rest easy.

I wish him and his new wife Kim many happy and fear-free years together.

Who’s next at Number 10?

If performance style at tonight’s debate between seven prospective British Prime Ministers is anything to go by, we could soon be seeing UKIP leader Nigel Farage picking up the key to 10 Downing Street.

Now before we go any further, I want to point out that this is not a reflection of my political affiliations. As a completely unaffiliated voter I’m planning to read all the party manifestos before deciding where to place my cross.

But if I ignore the content of what was said today, and put my trust purely in style rather than substance, the person who came across as most credible, engaging and genuine was Mr Farage. But only just. Really only just.

I struggled to choose between Nigel Farage and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who also gave an extremely credible performance, but perhaps with slightly less presence. Prime Minister David Cameron came third, but again only just. And trailing very far behind, Labour’s Ed Miliband brought up the rear.

So here’s the analysis of their performance in reverse order.

7. Ed Miliband, Labour

Ed Miliband made a significant error in judgement this evening. He ignored the studio audience and the other party leaders in favour of the camera lens. He used the techniques that good TV presenters are supposed to use – he’s obviously been taught what to do – but it felt unreal, over-rehearsed, non-credible. I wanted to see a real person, but his overly practised performance showed me a caricature of a politician instead.

Some natural pauses would have been useful and could have significantly increased Mr Miliband’s presence and authority. But he failed to give people time to take in his words, and his verbal attacks on the Prime Minister felt somewhat petulant.

Mr Miliband’s voice also sounded strangulated and congested. There are physiological reasons for this: he habitually tilts his voice box, squeezing his internal neck muscles which choke his sound. I suspect that muscular bad habits also create his blocked nose effect, despite an operation a few years ago to correct a deviated septum (the internal bit that separates the left and right nostril). Vocal coaching with a qualified voice professional should sort out these issues.

And Mr Miliband absolutely has to become more genuine if he wants voters to believe in him.

There are close links between the communication techniques used by leading business people who influence staff, clients and stakeholders, and successful politicians who sway the public. The former Labour leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair maintains that all politicians should work in business (or at least outside the political sphere) before moving to Westminster, making them “better able to see the world“.

As a career politician, Ed Miliband has no business background, and it shows in the way he speaks to an audience. He is a prime candidate for specialist impact coaching to help him develop the reputation required for winning an election.

6. Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru

Leanne Wood left me nonplussed. I was hoping for pizzazz, but I didn’t see any.

In her opening and closing statements Ms Wood frequently lost connection with the audience by looking down before finishing her sentence. For some reason all three women in tonight’s debate shared this unhelpful habit. Dropping eye contact is a widespread, detrimental performance trait, yet easily rectifiable. It’s an issue that crops up regularly in my executive presentation coaching sessions.

Ms Wood was also a victim of the common female misconception that high heels increase authority. In fact they have the opposite effect. Leanne Wood’s stilettos made her wobble on her feet, and forced her to use the higher tones of her voice, reducing her perceived authority.

Vocal richness and depth tend to disappear when you’re in effect standing on tiptoes. This stance prevents you from breathing properly, which prevents you from using your voice properly. Women should always wear low heels or flat shoes when they’re standing to speak. It can make an enormous difference to how they are perceived.

5. Nicola Sturgeon, SNP

Nicola Sturgeon was also in very high heels, and some of her brain power was obviously directed towards keeping her balance and preventing her from falling over. She alternated between tottering around, crossing one leg in front of the other in a little-girl-needs-the-bathroom manner, and leaning sideways on the podium for balance.

Her rapid  blinking was somewhat mesmerising and made it difficult to focus on what she was saying. And like Leanne Wood, Ms Sturgeon tended to look down before she finished speaking. She also over-used the upper tones of her voice.

In general she came across as a middle manager rather than a prime ministerial hopeful. It’s unfortunate, particularly as professional impact coaching could help resolve all these issues. Ms Sturgeon obviously believed strongly in what she was saying, but on performance and physical presence alone, she wouldn’t win my vote.

4. Natalie Bennett, Green

Natalie Bennett debated remarkably well. Her performance was head-and-shoulders above the other female party leaders. And she was wearing lower, chunkier heels.

Ms Bennett was authoritative, professional and grounded, and she demonstrated a solid executive presence. She answered questions directly, and created a strong connection with those around her.

As an Australian, Ms Bennett’s intonation would normally rise at the end of a sentence, but she’d carefully adopted the British technique of lowering her voice instead, giving her authority with a UK audience.

But poor Ms Bennett. While she generally spoke well, her presentation style was weak. In her opening and closing statements, her habit of looking at her notes while speaking made it feel like she was reading, not talking from the heart. This undermined her otherwise positive performance and diminished her credibility.

Practising more beforehand with a specialist communication coach could have made all the difference.

3. David Cameron, Conservative

David Cameron gave a polished performance and came across as more statesmanlike than anyone else, with a gently understated power.

His non-verbal language was calm and quiet and his voice had a reassuring tone. He stayed composed and unruffled, even when heckled. In all, he presented a warm, authoritative figure.

He listened carefully to others, even when they attacked him. And he used the camera lens as an extra audience member, rather than as a tool for overt self-promotion.

Mr Cameron’s downfall involved his eyes. As soon as he finished speaking (and sometimes before) they flickered wildly, scanning like a rabbit in the headlights. This made him look nervous and shifty, significantly detracting from his authority.

It’s fine to look away while you’re thinking – this helps your brain retrieve information and enables you to formulate your thoughts. But Mr Cameron made the mistake of forgetting that he was in the spotlight once he’d put his point across, and this let him down.

I could also see him standing on the back foot, quite literally, for much of the time. This probably reflected how he felt in having to defend his actions of the past five years.

2. Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat

Nick Clegg came across as a man of the people, with high impact energy. He was credible, chatty and real. He connected strongly with everything he said, enabling his audience to connect strongly with him.

In answering questions, he responded mainly to the questioner and the audience, rather than the camera. And when on occasion he did turn to the camera, it felt natural, not forced.

Nick Clegg’s Achille’s heel was a concentration lapse in which his focus disappeared and he looked down at his podium embarrassedly while repeating his previous point. This vocal stumble and its accompanying body language blunder made him look unsure of himself and less than authoritative.

I was also unsure about his posture. At times he looked more like a man in a pub than someone competing for the biggest job in UK politics. He stood with one hand in his pocket, the other hand balancing him against the podium – I felt this was over-casual for a formal setting.

Although Mr Clegg is fast heading towards the age of 50, he still gives a very youthful impression. But while this evening’s excited puppy-dog style was convivial and engaging, he would make a better impression on the international political stage with gravitas coaching from a qualified professional. This would help him to enhance his vocal richness, drop his pitch slightly, and develop a stronger presence, enabling him to come across with more authority and statesmanship.

1. Nigel Farage, UKIP 

Nigel Farage’s style was somewhat similar to Nick Clegg’s – chatty rather than formal. He too came across as a man of the people.

He obviously believed strongly in his views and he used his physicality to connect with his message and with the audience. His attention was never on himself – he was completely focused on helping others to understand. In this he appeared very real.

He was also extremely comfortable in his own skin. Unlike the other party leaders he didn’t grab the podium for support. His hands were generally in a neutral, unobtrusive position, from which he gestured freely before returning to neutral. All in all he gave a very convincing performance.

If I’m being picky, I’d like to hear his speech flow more smoothly –  it was slightly staccato (disjointed). And I’d like to see him tone down his body language a little, reducing repetitive hand gestures and nodding less vigorously to give him greater executive presence in front of the cameras. But overall his delivery style was sincere, credible and engaging. And for this he wins first place.

So who to vote for?

In analysing each person’s performance abilities, I’ve purposely overlooked what they actually said. But of course content counts massively.

So however brilliantly Nigel Farage came across in a debate set up purely for TV, I certainly won’t be swayed by his style alone. As soon as the party manifestos are published I’ll be leafing through them all to compare the actual policies behind the people. And only then will I decide who gets my vote.

(With thanks to Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC/ MOD for the No 10 photo.)

Reputation is in the eye of the beholder

Journalists looking for comments or analysis tend to wheel out their favourite spokesperson every time a relevant story hits the headlines.

To the media audience that spokesperson becomes just like a chart hit – a song repeated so many times that it seeps into your subconscious. Its familiarity means you start to like it, and as soon as you hear the first notes, your reaction is immediately positive.

When a spokesperson is regularly asked to provide observations or give context to a story, that person becomes recognised as the expert in their field. As their familiarity grows, their reputation soars, and with it their own personal success.

In the UK, every time a story about mortgages hits the headlines, the go-to person is Ray Boulger from the mortgage advice company John Charcol. Mr Boulger appears frequently on the BBC, Sky and ITV. His blog boasts that “last year, Ray was voted guru of the year at the Headlinemoney awards by all of the nation’s money and property journalists.” Here he is on BBC Radio 4, offering mortgage advice to the Money Box Live audience..

Meanwhile the nation’s favoured expert in consumer affairs is Martin Lewis. In 2003 the former BBC business and personal finance journalist founded the consumer website He sold it 9 years later for around £87 million GBP. Now, still the site’s Editor-in-Chief, he is a regular media pundit, marketing himself as a “consumer campaigner” and “consumer champion”, and discussing everything from personal finance to energy bills. Here he is analysing the recent UK budget on behalf of The Telegraph newspaper.

Ray Boulger and Martin Lewis are just two experts among many in their fields. Yet they are nationally renowned as the faces of mortgage advice and consumer issues respectively. So how did they get to that position? Are they better than any other mortgage adviser or consumer specialist? Are they more qualified or more skilled? Are their credentials superior? Or do they just know how to work the media to their advantage?

While both are undoubtedly consummate professionals, they also both have the benefit of being great at self-publicity. They know how to take advantage of society’s 24/7 requirements for news, and they use the media exceptionally well to get their own messages across.

Becoming a media spokesperson doesn’t involve rocket science. Ray Boulger and Martin Lewis just happen to know what they’re doing. And there’s no reason why you can’t follow in their footsteps and put yourself forward as the expert of choice in your own field.

You’ll need an understanding of the media and some techniques for answering questions successfully. A touch of professional BBC media training and you can be well on the way to becoming “guru of the year” yourself.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so are expertise and reputation. Make yourself familiar to the beholder (the media audience) and you’ll boost your reputation. Boost your reputation, and the sky’s the limit. Well done Ray and Martin, and well done you.