Archive for Helen’s Blog – Page 5

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 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.

Disastrous interviews: our ghoulish fascination

My last post mentioned the leader of the UK’s Green Party, Natalie Bennett, and her catastrophic pre-election interviews where she clearly didn’t have a clue about the subject under discussion.

But what is it about an appalling interview that piques our interest? Why do we enjoy cringing at someone else’s misfortune? Or perhaps ‘enjoy’ is too strong a word, but there’s certainly fascination involved.

Take poor old Guy Goma, a low level IT worker, who on 8th May 2006 was sitting in BBC reception waiting to be called in for a job interview. That day Apple Computers was involved in a court case with the Beatles’ record label, Apple Corps. BBC News was planning to interview IT expert Guy Kewney on the implications of the case. But Mr Kewney was late. So when a news producer called into reception to collect “Guy”, he brought with him the wrong man.

Mr Goma, to give him credit, made a very brave attempt to answer the presenter’s questions, but do take a look as the shock of unexpected live TV dawns suddenly on his face. It’s both horrifying and engaging in equal measures.

And what about the embarrassment we feel (and let’s face it, the amusement too) when the Chair of South Africa’s Finance Portfolio Committee falls off his chair on live TV

Or the toe-curling cringe when Stephanie Banister, would-be Australian politician, reveals that she thinks Islam is a country, confuses halal (permitted by Shari’ah law) with haram (forbidden), and insults both Islam and Judaism in almost one breath. It’s riveting stuff. Take a look and squirm at this true car-crash of an interview.

There’s a great German word for feeling secretly pleased at other people’s misfortunes: “schadenfreude”. And scientists have found that there’s a very simple reason for schadenfreude – self-interest.

When other people get it wrong, there’s often personal gain to be made. We enjoy seeing the ‘other’ team lose the match and cry because it means we win. We like seeing politicians in the ‘other’ party making fools of themselves because it means our favoured politicians are more likely to succeed.

There are biological as well as psychological reasons for schadenfreude, linked with seeing the unexpected when we’re anticipating the mundane.

Car crash interviews are incongruous interviews. They’re not what we expect when we switch on the TV or listen to the radio. They’re out of the ordinary.

And extra-ordinary events happening to someone else can trigger a set of ‘mirror neurons’ in our brains. These neurons reflect and try to repeat what we see. So when we watch someone slipping on a banana skin and flinging out their arms and legs in an attempt to stay upright, our mirror neurons fire in empathy, copying the neuronal activity in the other person’s brain. It’s almost as if we are trying to keep our own balance.

One hypothesis is that our brain is ‘tickled’ by those nerves firing off. And the unconscious stimulation we receive from the ‘tickle’ reinforces our perception of incongruity – whether we’re watching someone tumble headfirst, or seeing them slip on the metaphorical banana skin of an interview. No-one is immune to a bit of tickling, so we find ourselves smiling internally as we grimace.

In interview terms of course, a spot of executive media coaching can solve the car crash problem before it arises, significantly reducing the likelihood of making a fool of yourself.

Such a simple solution. I wish someone had told Stephanie Banister and Natalie Bennett about it…

Shame on British Prime Minister David Cameron for refusing to take part in a series of pre-election TV debates with rival party leaders, when he pushed so strongly for debate five years ago as Leader of the Opposition.

It was all very well to advocate TV debates and to air his views when he had nothing to lose. But now, at crunch time, with Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck in the polls and the general election just over seven weeks away, David Cameron’s job, home and international reputation are all at stake. Not to mention the future of the British public.

Mr Cameron is obviously terrified of a public battle with Labour Leader Ed Miliband – even though Mr Miliband is reported today by an independent poll as being the most disliked of any British party leader.

Cameron may also have the very realistic fear that a hitherto unmemorable politician will upstage them both.

Enter Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader and current Deputy Prime Minister, who won his way into public affection just before the last general election, when he seemingly sprang from nowhere and revealed himself to be an accomplished TV debater (and easy on the eye as well). Take a look at Clegg, Cameron and the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in action: Clegg fights a fierce fight.

US history is littered with Presidential elections won and lost on the basis of TV debates. The most extreme example was the debate on 26th September 1960 between Senator John F Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. This was the first time a Presidential debate had ever been aired on TV, and the outcome demonstrates vividly how visual appearance can outplay words, content and meaning.

Those listening on radio were swayed by Nixon’s arguments and were convinced he had won the debate. But TV viewers were less than impressed by his pallor, his five o’clock shadow, his sweaty face and his apparent nervousness. The tanned, charismatic Kennedy, speaking straight to the camera – and thus straight to the viewers – won the nation’s heart and their votes. Polls revealed that more than half of all voters were influenced by this debate and the three that followed. Check it out for yourself to see why.

To be fair to David Cameron, he has backed down a little – after wasting much precious House of Commons time rowing about whether to debate. He has finally agreed to appear in a single TV discussion. But only on the condition that six other party leaders are also involved. That, of course, means significantly less airtime for Cameron to make a gaffe or show himself up in any way.

It’s no accident, of course, that he’ll be debating against politicians with much less media experience than himself, and with no chance of becoming Prime Minister.

Take the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, for example. She’s fast becoming renowned for her appalling interview blunders (listen and cringe) and she could certainly benefit from a strong dose of media training for leaders.

But with rivals like Bennett, and the controversial UKIP leader Nigel Farage, with his history of contentious clangers on racism, sexism and breastfeeding, whatever David Cameron says in the forthcoming TV debate, and however he performs, Mr Cameron is likely to come out smelling of roses.