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Insight – Be your self

Coming across well during a presentation is vital not only to an FD’s career but to protect the corporate image. Even the most financially astute FD will worry the analysts if his appearance is too wooden.

The days when finance directors could hunker down in their offices and focus on the figures alone are long gone, if they ever existed at all. Today, being numerate without being emotionally literate is a huge handicap for any finance director, and it becomes even more so in the public company arena.

Chris Bramwell, a former actor and now coach and director at Personal Presentation Limited, explains that for FDs who find that presenting to analysts and investors is now a staple part of their job description, not being aware of how one is coming across can be disastrous. “This is not just a nice-to-have skill any more, Bramwell emphasises. For quoted companies, it goes direct to the bottom line.”

If you come across as one kind of person during a one-to-one discussion or over lunch, and a completely different kind of person when you get up to make a presentation, the first thing that happens is your audience gets suspicious. They think, ‘Hey, wait a moment, this chap’s putting on an act. What’s he hiding?’ Then they go away and look at the figures and the grain of doubt that you have planted in their mind probably nags away at them. So they find things to qualify and fret over in their report on the company, none of which does the company any good.

Bramwell’s starting point is the experience anyone who attends a number of conferences and events has, namely that the communication skills of most delegates could use a substantial brushing up.

The point is there are any number of technical elements about presenting – from voice control to posture – which, allied to well-thought out content, combine together to make for a good, focused presentation. Few of these elements are things we should all naturally be aware of without external guidance.

“Most people simply do not have any real conception of how they come across. We can address this directly, in an unthreatening environment, by letting the client see how they come across on camera in a coaching session,” Bramwell says. He points out that even seasoned actors tend to find the experience of watching their own performances on screen an uncomfortable one.

“From that experience, where the client in all likelihood reacts with an, ‘Oh my God, do I really do that, look like that, speak like that?’ the coaching session can go forward. We make this as pleasant and as comfortable as we can. It is not our place to wade in and say, ‘God, you were terrible.’ We’d say, ‘How about if you spoke more slowly? Maybe raised your chin? Got more connected with your material?'”

This last point is massive, he says. Someone who stands up and drones their way through a script, showing no emotional connection whatsoever with what they are taking about, will find the entire conference hall ‘out to lunch’ when they finally stop talking. FDs have to become aware of what switches an audience off, and what is likely to galvanise them and energise the session.

“It is not unusual for clients to say they find a coaching session therapeutic. We are often dealing with various blocks that stop the individual from connecting with the people they should be talking to. So helping them to dismantle those blocks and to reconnect with their audience feels great,” he says.

Bramwell points out that what is involved in a session is far more than simply imparting presentation skills. Someone who has chosen to focus on figures rather than people, and who has neglected to master some of the finer social skills, might turn into an FD with a very acute eye for detail, but they will probably come across as Mr Spock to City analysts.

“At the heart of all good business and, indeed, of any successful personal life, one finds good strong, trusting relationships,” he says. People make judgements based on their gut feel for the underlying truth of the relationship the speaker is establishing with them. Personal authenticity is crucial and this is exactly what is lost or impeded by a candidate who demonstrates zero performance skills.

Bramwell and his colleagues have a concept they call the ‘you-brand’, which means basically presenting the same face whether you are in a one-on-one conversation or presenting to an audience of a thousand. This is a skill that can be taught, he emphasises. Some people are more socially acute than others and pick up the core tricks naturally, so their presentations come across well from the start. Others don’t and there is nothing surprising about this. Nor is there anything surprising in the fact that people get better at presenting themselves when they are coached.

“Take skiing as an example: people who don’t ski do not expect to clip on a pair of skis and flash down the mountain like an alpine instructor. But after they have had a sufficient number of lessons, they make a pretty good fist of it. It’s the same with presenting,” he says.

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