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

Easier Said

Do you know the 11 vocal "turn-offs" and how they affect your audience? Could you be using one every time you speak? If someone showed you how easy it is to learn how to use your natural voice for clarity, impact and credibility, would you be interested?

The Voice Business is one of many companies that help executives improve their speaking skills. They even conduct elocution, vocabulary and accent reduction courses. The formats and costs vary, but a typical program comprises four one-hour sessions for $1250. Clients of The Voice Business include senior executives from Accenture, American Express, AMP, Commonwealth Bank, GIO, IBM, Macquarie Bank, Qantas, Telstra, Visa and Westpac, as well as television presenters from Foxtel, Channel 7 and Channel Ten. Vivian's model agency and the Sydney Theatre Company are also clients.

The Voice Business claims people can learn how to present themselves and their ideas, build successful relationships and win more business simply by learning how to use their voice. It says a person who sounds confident, believable, clear and interesting stands out from the crowd and earns more money and favourable attention than those who do not.

Juliet Jordan, CEO of The Voice Business, says many of the senior executives they coach have an irrational fear of public speaking. As companies restructure, downsize and change their framework from bureaucracies to self-empowered teams, there is a hungry demand for public speaking skills. Some senior people watch nervously as younger managers with little or no respect emerge to threaten their positions. Others need to upskill. Some have been headhunted or want to make themselves more appealing to headhunters. Women are regular clients because they want to be able to adjust their tone to suit certain pressure situations. There are also those who are unemployed and need their confidence boosted.

"The other thing driving demand is that our patience for absorbing information has been reduced, so executives need to know how to organise their material and get their message through as fast as possible without sounding garbled," Jordan says.

"We've been sent seasoned newsreaders who need to sharpen how they change their tone so they can go from a terrorist story to talking about puppies frolicking on a beach. And we have a lot of young presenters from Foxtel who haven't the faintest idea of what to do in front of a camera. They just look good. You have to learn to work with your own voice and body to have an emotional effect on others."

Discretion is paramount with senior executives. Most coaching is one-on-one since the vast majority do not want others to know that they're learning. The coaches say the most common things they hear from clients is how nervous they feel about speaking. They want more confidence. They speak too fast. They dry up in front of an audience. They think they are boring. They say people cannot understand them. Or they cannot avoid public speaking any longer.

"It's a personal development experience and like any fear 'bust' it's a thrill to get through to the other side," says Jordan. "Fear is just excitement without the breathing. One of the foundation skills in public speaking is to make sure you're alive and kicking. It seems ridiculous but breathing is the first thing that goes down the plughole. Once you regain control over that physiological process, you gain control of your voice. This gives you enormous credibility in the workplace."

Public speaking coaches say most senior executives are gracious and easy to work with. The biggest problems are those executives who are still on the make. "We have always found that the people with the largest achievements have the smallest egos," says Maher. "Instead, they have a determination to do as well as they possibly can. It's like Nelson Mandela: They are champions for something rather than champions of something."

However, IT people - even some of the champions - still tend to complicate information. So simplification is vital, as is the use of analogies from areas such as cooking or sport to explain complexities and processes. These are called "universals" in the trade - those experiences that all humans share. Maher says many CIOs stumble because they aim only for a head to head connection. Reciting only facts and figures, she says, makes them "as interesting as a dictionary". Failing to connect with people on an emotional as well as an intellectual level means they won't connect with them at all.

"Speakers also need credibility in terms of documented and recognised achievements," she says. "A person does not have to be a household name but you need to be able to say you were responsible for XYZ. Then you need to have the style that makes people want to listen."

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