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Enter, Stage Fright

Enter, Stage Fright

While many executive aptitudes fall in and out of vogue, the ability to explain an idea and inspire support is perennial. Motivating people with different interests to rally behind a common goal is a rare talent

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We've all been there: trapped in an audience listening to one of those tedious presentations that infest the conference circuit. It is worse when you have paid good money to be there and worse still when you have travelled time zones to be in the room. This is one of the reasons Maher believes there should be an RSPCCA - a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Captive Audiences.

Maher's business, Celebrity Speakers, started as a "wild idea" in 1978. Cynics dubbed it "Rent A Mouth". Today, Maher works with clients and speakers around the world and is eminently qualified to know what works and what does not. She says that in 25 years, little has changed.

"The very best executive speakers are much better, but the vast majority are trapped by the technology that is supposed to help them," she says. "I'm talking about PowerPoint specifically, which is a fabulous aid if properly used. But you should never put words on a screen and that's still what people do."

Maher says when she goes to conferences she amuses herself by calculating the value of the salaries sitting in the room - if she can stay awake. "I don't know about you but when someone puts me in a room, turns out the light and starts to read to me I nod off like it's a bedtime story," she says. "I have never had one person tell me they don't get bored sitting in a darkened room listening to someone read. Everyone complains about it but no one does anything."

Maher says part of the problem is that we assume because everyone can talk we are all able to speak. People forget that none of us are born knowing how to talk; we learn. If we want to move beyond talking to speaking we have to learn that too. This is why coaches like Maher encounter more and more people today who believe they can advance their career by improving their speaking skills.

"Over the years we've had people sent to us who have missed out on [C-level] positions and they've been told by the headhunters it was because their communication skills were not what they should be," Maher says. "Many of those people are in technical areas. They have great ideas but they just don't know how to present them.

"You have to learn to be yourself and let your personality shine. Men find this difficult because they're taught not to show emotion. This is especially so for people from a professional, technical or IT background - people who are taught that logic is everything. They are very left-brain. Yet when you talk to them you find these fabulous human beings.

"One of the biggest mistakes people make when they present is they push every ounce of their personality down and pull up this mask. I call it 'businessman bland'. At the other extreme you find those who think they should start with a joke. People who never tell jokes in private try to be a comedian in front of a crowd - with the obvious results."

Maher says CIOs do not get listened to as much as they should - or worse, appear dull or dim-witted - because they are perceived to have a narrow focus. That comes from them concentrating on what they think of their ideas rather than on what their ideas mean for others. They drown people with detail and smother them in statistics.

"The trick is being able to distil from everything you know what the people you are speaking to need to know," Maher says. "And therein lies the rub. For many IT executives, their need to tell gets in the way of their audience's need to know. CIOs get frustrated because they know their subject, but they can't simplify it."

Jim McNamara, the CEO of communication research and consulting firm MASS Communication Group and author of The Modern Presenter's Handbook, says our ability to generate action often depends on our ability to present our ideas persuasively. "Senior executives mistakenly feel their staff will listen to them simply because they are the boss," he says.

"Most presenters seriously over-estimate the attentiveness of their audience. It usually includes many people who would rather be somewhere else. From the outset, you need to put aside the view that a presentation is what you are going to say. It is what your audience is going to hear. The key to communication to any audience is that you have to show what's in it for them."

Maher says some executives who are already competent speakers have the potential to develop real star quality. These people become storytellers and achieve what she calls "the gift of simplicity". "I'm not talking about bullshit stories," says Maher, "because if there is one bottom line it's that being honest is multiplied by 1000 per cent today because people don't expect you to be honest. The value of not putting a spin on something is enormous."

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