Home Features Stage fright: Avoiding embarrassment in live presentations
Stage fright: Avoiding embarrassment in live presentations
Wednesday, 23 March 2011 16:36
Live communication has lost none of its capacity to go wrong: Neil Gibbons reports
 
01_cover_mch_1.jpgThe death of live, face-to-face communication has been greatly exaggerated. The media would have you believe that human interaction is a thing of the past, replaced by remote digital engagement, an arm’s-length exchange of zeroes and ones. 
 
But while the growth of online corporate communication has allowed brands to present carefully honed and considered versions of themselves, some stakeholder engagement does happen in the flesh – and the consequent pressure and spontaneity of these meetings mean that reputations are truly on the line. 
 
From IR roadshows to media tours, from employees meetings to summits with NGOs, putting senior management in front of an audience represents a pressure-cooker situation for corporate communicators. However meticulous the planning, these are situations alive with the possibility of disaster. 
 
“Things will go wrong,” says Patrick Reid, managing director of investor communications at Imagination. “How a problem is handled can have both a negative and a positive effect on a brand’s perception – how you react is the key. Getting issues resolved, remaining focused and pulling out all the stops to ensure what’s really needed gets done is how you build a reputation. We’re aware that our clients’ reputations are also at stake when they meet important investors or partners, so being on time and being prepared means a lot.” 
 
First of all, it’s worth asking what you’re doing it for, argues Mark Collinson, a partner at CCG Investor Relations in New York. 
 
“It is vital that the objective of the roadshow is considered up front,” he says. “It may seem obvious but it is worth asking: why arrange a roadshow and why now? Has the company just made a large acquisition? Has it launched a new strategy? Are we introducing a new CEO? Is the company attempting to widen its investor base? Depending on the answers, messaging will need to be crafted to showcase the new ideas that the company wants to get across.” 
 
When it comes to planning these events, you will need the tact and diplomacy to work round the quirks and limitations of the organisation. It’s worth remembering that despite their rank, some senior managers can’t be trusted to give a good account of themselves. Shyness, nerves, or over-exuberance can cause meltdown. 
 
Communicators still wince at the memory of Silicon Valley legend Bob Widlar, the genius behind National Semiconductors. Although a highly respected figure, he was an erratic character and an alcoholic. His chairman Charles Sporck told of an incident in the late 1960s during a European roadshow. Widlar got drunk and publicly refused to speak to the audience unless he got more gin. “We had no choice,” said Sporck. “We had to get his glass filled up. And then he went on with the lecture. And he, you know, he got plastered, but the interesting part of it is he was just so damn smart, you know. Even drunk he couldjust wow these people.”
 
And it’s not a thing of the past. Communicate knows of one CEO in the UK who had to be spirited away from a recent results briefing once the PR agency realised that they were drunk.
 
Others just let the occasion get the better of them. While a CEO who shows enthusiasm for public presentations isn’t to be discouraged, few comms teams would welcome the kind of crazed over-enthusiasm displayed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer – watch it below, ideally through your fingers.
Providing direction to senior management can be a diplomatic nightmare. Some expect the communications team or agency merely to provide the logistics and not meddle with content or tone: but with a little tact and toughness, a communicator ought to be able to reassert their expertise.
 
Collinson believes the IR agency or comms team have every right to be involved in shaping the presentations. “Content is the highest priority, but cosmetic details in style, delivery and energy can leave a lasting impression.
 
“For management teams who are new to investor presentations in general, often filming a presentation and giving feedback can help make messaging crisp and clear,” he says. He also advises that there should be a contingency in place if the CEO is incapable. “Is there an additional member of the management team capable of giving the presentation in case of sickness? Using both the CEO and CFO for different parts of the presentation is also worth considering to provide the impression of strength in both strategy and finance.”
 
Insufficient practice, says Collinson, leads to conflicting answers, unfocused enthusiasm and overselling, or reacting inappropriately to aggressive or angry investor attacks – “We have seen management accused of many things, including fraud, so be prepared. Equally, we have seen a tired management react angrily because they believe an analyst is asking ‘too many’ questions.”
 
It’s also important to consider the audience. Have the right people been invited and has the presentation been tailored to their expectations? Forgetting to build the presentation around the composition of the audience invariably causes problems.
 
“For each meeting it should be very clear why you are meeting the particular individual or individuals,” adds Collinson. “The presentation team should be well-briefed prior to each meeting so they know exactly what to expect. Certainly, you should know your company’s history of contact with an organisation, the individuals you have met before and whether they are new to the story or know about the company already. Also, you should know relevant details about the organisation you are meeting. If they are investors, do they own your shares already? Do they own relatively larger or smaller stakes in your peers? Are they rotating in or out of your peers? Can you say anything about what they are looking to invest in currently?” 
 
This is vital because poor formulation of messages leaves audiences confused or underwhelmed. Just as importantly, the make-up of the audience will go a long way to setting the mood of the event. As Jim Preen, media consultant at Crisis Solutions, points out, journalists respond very differently to investors. When the Frankfurt stock exchange was in negotiations to buy its London equivalent, a press conference was called. “Unfortunately the PR team did not make it sufficiently clear to the television reporters that individual interviews would be conducted after the press conference,” he says. “The result was that when it ended a TV crew jumped up on stage trying to grab an interview with one of the speakers – seeing this all the other crews did the same. With scenes on the stage reminiscent of a Saturday afternoon at Twickenham, press officers tried to wrest back control and said that following the unruly behaviour of some journalists there would be no further interviews and the event was effectively over.
 
“At this point CNN Business turned up and demanded an interview – unwisely their request was granted only for other TV crews to find out and for the rugby match to start all over again. Journalists are innately competitive. If they see a rival getting an interview or a photo denied them, they will do whatever it takes to secure the story.”
 
Tariq Khwaja from communications consultancy TK Associates recounts an even more frightening story, from a largely tense public meeting organised by a local authority.“I was strangled by one of the delegates,” he says. “I was chairing a community workshop as part of a broader consultation exercise my agency was leading on behalf of a local authority on a highly sensitive issue – the potential creation of a Gypsy/Traveller site near an urban area.
 
“Emotions were running high and, before the workshop had even started a delegate took one look at my name badge, grabbed me by the throat and pinned me up against the wall. He then drew his fist, apparently to punch me in the face then thought better of it, let go of my throat, turned around and walked into the meeting. It wasn’t a good start.”
 
So preparation and intensive rehearsal don’t merely help to brace management for mishaps, they help the communications team to nail the format. Jim Preen points to the less-than-professional handling of the press conference after the 2005 London bombings. Brian Paddick, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was the Met’s chief spokesperson. 
 
“All was going well until a reporter from the Sunday Telegraph asked why the government’s threat level had been reduced to its lowest level since 2001 just a month before the attacks took place. It was like a hand grenade tossed at the podium.
 
“Paddick was utterly unprepared for the question. He tried to justify the decision, which was clearly a decision he had nothing to do with and it was left to a press officer to help him out and close down this line of questioning by asking journalists to confine their questions to operational matters. Paddick should not have even attempted to answer such a question, which fell well outside his remit. He could have said ‘I’m not here today to talk about risks or threats – my job is to tell you about the operational response to today’s incidents,’ and left it at that.”
 
While the event itself requires most preparation, the importance of planning the nitty-gritty shouldn’t be over-looked. Often tedious, logistical considerations contain the potential to undermine the message. The devil is in the detail.
 
Ferrying management from one location to another is often an enormous headache. Imagination’s Patrick Reid says that last year’s volcanic ash cloud was “the most significant issue that happened in our business in 2010.”
 
With flights cancelled throughout Europe, information about future flight availability impossible to predict, and thousands of other professional travellers and tourists all using every option for travel, roadshow schedules were thrown into disarray. 
 
As legitimate an excuse as this was, investment audiences tend to be unforgiving. “Imagination is appointed to oversee the smooth running of management meetings with investors during an IPO,” says Reid. “If companies can’t meet investors there is a real danger that the stock market flotation could be postponed or pricing could be affected.
 
“We resolved these issues by acting quickly, using every contact we had, and pushing the boundaries of resourcefulness.” 
 
And then there’s the small matter of technology. Purportedly designed to make our lives easier, mechanics can cause huge embarrassment.
 
“On the basis that if any device can go wrong, it will, make sure you have not just your laptop with the presentation but also a memory stick with it on it as backup, plus printed copies,” says Collinson sagely. 
 
Stories abound of technological embarrassment. From the event planner who had asked for a laptop with PowerPoint, and arrived to find a laptop and a power point, to the man who walked across the room to get a glass of water, picked up static from the carpet and blew the laptop up when he touched it again.
 
One PR professional recalls: “I once had to run out of a meeting room, across the corridor and into the men’s loo to shut off my a presenter’s radio microphone as he was availing himself of the facilities. Those radio mics have a surprisingly long range.”
 
Sometimes less is more. Andy Turner of Paris-based Six Sigma PR recalls a time in the 1990s when he was a fairly low-ranking member of an agency PR team working with a large multinational on a customer roadshow covering every major city in the UK. “The show featured products displayed on the backdrop of the stage which would be revealed using motorised velvet curtains, disco-style coloured lights and rousing classical music. During the opening show, the curtains stalled half open and had to be manually assisted. Later on, during a heat wave, the adhesive used to attach the products failed and they started dropping off one by one with a deafening crash during the presentations, much to the audience’s amusement.”
 
The most important lesson, it seems, is to always prepare for the inevitable onset of Sod’s Law. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.
 

 Ten tips for live communications
Olivia Chute, of Chazbrooks Communications, offers her thoughts on surviving live comms.
• Keep your presentation short and to the point. There is nothing worse than seeing eyelids drooping in your audience.
• Make sure you know who your audience is so you can gauge the level of the content to them.
• Always do a practise run though your presentation. This will help you cut out any unnecessary detail.
• Confidence is key. This will come from being genuinely passionate about what you are saying and being well prepared.
• If you can’t handle questions as you go along, invite your audience to ask questions at the end.
• Ask people at the back of the room if they can hear you.
• Smile and speak slowly – less is more.
• Don’t fiddle, fidget or move your hands – all of these can be distracting. And don’t balance hot and cold drinks anywhere near you.
• Pray that the room is free of noise (drills, banging doors, alarms, too hot or too cold). Sometimes this is out of your control, and make light of it if that is the case.
• Bring an electronic copy, charged laptop and hard copy of your presentation with you in case there is a power cut – or equipment is not there that should be.