Here’s an extract from my book ‘It’s All About Clout’ where I describe an interview I did in 2007 with Steve Jobs, who's widely regarded as one of the greatest communicators of his generation:
'He (Jobs) punctuated each thought with an animated, often dramatic arm gesture. If you turned the volume down on the interview he would have appeared eccentric, but from his voice you knew he was in full control.’
Jobs was never one for convention and that applied to his public appearances as much as anything else he did. When he took to the stage for a product launch, for example, he discarded the suit and lectern and paced up and down in sneakers instead - drawing the audience in to his wildly optimistic world.
Compare that to an interview I conducted with the Auschwitz survivor, Eva Kor in 2016. We sat opposite each other on stage in front of a large studio audience:
‘It was amazing to see such an old, frail lady command such a large space without lifting a finger, literally. She hardly moved, which shows the power of authentic voice.'
Two people with completely different styles but each as compelling as the other. That tells you all you need to know about presentation. You need a message you can believe but beyond that, you just need to be yourself.
For years, as a business reporter, the bane of my life was interviewing executives who had been media-trained to within an inch of their lives. Off-camera, they were often impressive and captivating but as soon as the camera was on they would clam up and start spitting out rehearsed answers in no particular order. Sometimes I would be able to break through and have a conversation with them but I would often come away with little more than a soundbite.
As reporters, we interview people to add some opinion and character to our pieces - the rest we can summarise ourselves in the script. If all they do it regurgitate a press release written by someone else they stand very little chance of getting on air. The audience only wants to hear from people they can connect with.
I have sympathy for those execs. One false move and their careers could be on the line. I have been there myself.
When I started out in local radio I was so petrified of making a mistake, I would stick religiously to my scripts and move tentatively from one word to the next desperately trying not to trip-up. As a result, I sounded wooden and boring. My confidence plumped new depths when I famously declared, during the weather forecast, that it would be ‘gusterly in the westerly.’
In broadcasting, we have a phrase for presenters who aren’t engaged in the story they are telling. We say ‘they’re dialling it in.’ You can almost hear the audience walking out in the background.
When I was promoted to the BBC World Service from local radio I was sent to voice-coaching with an actress. She armed me with all manner of techniques and processes to help ease my nerves and aid my delivery but they just set me back even further. She had just given me more to worry about.
It was a senior producer in the newsroom who, in passing, gave me the advice I was waiting for. ‘Don’t worry about stumbling,’ he told me. 'What matters is that you keep a sense of what you are saying.’ That immediately rang true to me so I tried it out and my performances improved immediately. Not only did I sound more engaging but I also stopped stumbling as much because I wasn’t afraid of it anymore.
Ultimately, you’re having a conversation with your audience and that needs to feel natural. If you’re passionate about something then show it and make your case. Repeat yourself if you need to and add some colour. Why should your audience care if you don’t? Showing your human side and some vulnerability will give the people listening someone to identify with and hear.
If exposing yourself like that makes you nervous then that’s a good thing. You need that energy. Whatever you do, don’t try to relax. It will distract you from the message for a start but will also suck the energy out of your performance. You need to channel that passion in to a feeling of excitement about how good you are going to be and away from any sense of doom. It's a simple mind trick but works surprisingly well. You’re just replacing a potentially negative outcome in your mind with a positive one. You need to convince yourself of your abilities before you can convince anyone else.
If you wave your hands about when you are excited then wave them on stage. Don’t be told you can’t. It worked for Steve Jobs. If you’re more of an Eva Kor then sit still by all means and express yourself purely through your language. We communicate in many different ways but nobody does it just like you. It's what makes you interesting. If you suppress your body language at all, you will look uncomfortable and make your audience feel uncomfortable too.
There is no one-size-fits-all presentation technique. The best producers I have worked with will sit me down, ask me what I want to say and then we will work out the best way of allowing me to express that. That's what the people involved in your presentation need to do for you too. Don't let them put words into your mouth or hi-jack your delivery. Their job is to let you express yourself.
Presenters are in the business of telling true stories so our audiences need to trust what we say. That’s not going to happen if you pretend to me someone else. It’s distinct from acting in that way. Any suggestion that you are putting on a mask will make your audience suspicious and they will instinctively pull back from you.
Even during breaking news, I will scour any information I am given for something I can connect with and throw may passion in to. As I say in the book, emotion is only a weakness if you lose control of it. Showing your human side and some frailty is in fact a sign of strength. Suppressing your character will only take from your performance and reduce your clout.