leadership, Presentation coaching

Using and choosing a presentation coach

If you wonder about investing in an executive presentation coach, there's a lot to consider.

If you wonder about investing in an executive presentation coach, there's a lot to consider.

From my own experience and that of colleagues and clients, I’ve created a comprehensive guide to making the best choice of coach for you.

Executives need the support of a professional who is on their side, who will understand them and give them the right kind of attention. Importantly, the coach will take them from wherever they are now to where they want to be in the shortest time possible.

A friend and I once both engaged a swim coach.  My friend’s coach spent the first session pointing out that he was breathing wrongly, windmilling his arms, and his kicking was “too splashy”.  My friend did not go back.  My coach, after talking to me and seeing me swim, realised that I had good technique but was rather lazy.  So he mostly walked alongside me and occasionally yelled “COME ON, Hilary!”.  I swam faster than ever before and was immensely satisfied with his coaching. 

So, before we review how to choose a coach, let’s think first about your situation and the type of coach you’ll likely need.

 Do you need training or coaching?

Presentation skills training is one of the most popular kinds of development, because it’s fundamental to so much of what we need to do at work:  communicate clearly with each other.  A training course shows you all the ways in which you can become more proficient and if you are videoed whilst practising, you’ll see exactly where your own strengths and areas for improvement are, so that you can work on them all over time.  Presentation training is an essential piece of development, not once but several times during a career.

Presentation coaching is all about focus, urgency and rapid or dramatic shifts in quality of impact.  Typically, when the situation is time-critical or when the stakes are high, you should involve a presentation coach.  For example, the conference is on Tuesday; it’s a senior audience; it’s the CFO/CTO/HRD speaking; it’s a significant opportunity for our organisation.

Sometimes there is clearly room for improvement in a speaker’s capability or confidence, and sometimes, as with an athlete, coaching will help to hone the performance of even the best speaker.  Executives may just need to learn something new when they don’t have previous experience, e.g. a new kind of audience or a different purpose to the presentation.  But just as some people don’t like asking for directions, some people are reluctant to ask for help.

Yves was the head of a medical technology company that had recently been bought out. He had to present the company to the new investors. His starting point was the talks he’d given to medical technology conferences, and during rehearsal it quickly became apparent that the presentations were very complex and detailed. First he had to shift his own perspective, then he successfully re-worked his presentation, simplified the explanations, used analogies and non-tecnical language. He included more contextualised, strategic business insights. When delivered with his natural passion, Yves’ presentation was compelling and won plaudits from the investors.

Yves might not have thought to ask for help himself, as he was already a successful and experienced presenter.  But he accepted the offer of rehearsal coaching because it was going to be a new situation for him, and he is the kind of person who is driven to always perform at his best.

 Assuming you have decided on presentation coaching, what kind of coach will you need?

There are two ways of looking at a coach’s specialisms:  by type and personal attributes.

The types of coach in the arena include speech coach, voice coach, public speaking coach, pitch coach, media skills coach or conference coach. One person may have relevant experience in more than one area.

  What do they each offer?

                A speech coach helps you write and deliver scripted speeches that will likely have few visual aids, be for a large audience, often a supportive audience, who hope to be entertained or enthused.  If you are in a senior political role, you’ll use a speech writer to ensure you convey exactly what is needed, in the right tone, as it’s possible that not all of your audience will be positive about you or your message.

                A voice coach is to help you get the very best out of this wonderful instrument we possess.  People usually hire a vocal coach to clarify their speaking voice, to add volume and projection, to help when nerves affect the voice unduly, or to work with an accent.  To an extent, any coach should help you improve your use of voice, but a specialist voice coach can provide the kind of support that Mrs Thatcher used when she became an MP and dropped her voice an octave to gain gravitas.

                A public speaking coach is a more generic category catering for anyone wanting to give talks, wedding speeches or business presentations.

                A pitch coach should be employed early on for a high-stakes pitch, so that they can help with formulating the strategy for the pitch presentation and beyond.  They will help you with structure, audience analysis, persuasive messaging, visual support, Q&A preparation and above all, the clear articulation of reasons why the client should choose you.  Anyone venturing into a Dragons’ Den type situation can benefit from the focused advice, challenge and support you’ll get from a professional pitch coach.

                A media skills coach will prepare you for the special situation of a media interview.  There are clear do’s, don’ts and disciplines for appearing on TV, radio or in print.  As the stakes are usually high, organisations want to avoid the risk of creating any negative impact and media coaching will reduce the risk, as well as helping you get your best messages across.

                A conference coach will help you with business presentations to a small or large audience, whether the presentation is intended to inform, persuade or entertain (perhaps all three). You can enlist their help to distill information into distinctive messages, to tailor and structure your presentation logically, to incorporate powerful language and visuals, to tailor and rehearse delivery techniques, deal with tough questions, and polish your delivery so that you are both very professional and still authentically yourself.


A presentation coach needs to be a shape-shifter

A presentation coach needs to be a shape-shifter

What should you look for in a presentation coach?

1.  Experience in working at senior level.  The coach needs the credibility, gravitas and understanding gained from dealing with the C-suite in order to tailor their whole approach and handle demanding executives.

2.  A process for the coaching that is straight-forward and flexible.  A senior executive does not want to follow a rigid pathway but needs to know that the coaching has a logic that will ensure the best outcome.  The coach must be ready to articulate this logic concisely.

3.  A holistic view.  A coach can usefully combine coaching individuals with co-ordinating a team (eg. a pitch team), facilitating a workshop (eg. developing key messages), bringing in other specialist support (eg. media skills), helping think about the communication around an event, both formal and informal, and more.  Finally, I believe a coach has to keep the right people in the limelight, remaining as the guide on the side not the sage on the stage..

4.  The capacity to understand the content of the presentation at an appropriate level.  The coach won’t necessarily speak your technical language but needs firstly, to be able to understand the concepts and key messages, and secondly, to be comfortable with some degree of ignorance.  From this standpoint, the coach can act as a proxy for the audience and provide useful feedback and questions around the clarity and impact of the messaging.  A coach with a business background rather than an acting background will likely score higher on this point.

5.  A diplomatic but direct manner.  A coach must often give tough feedback to the people with very healthy egos in a way that will not generate resistance but open them up to behaviour change.  It can be a long time since a CEO had anyone tell him/her they are not as good as they think they are! Tact and kindness are essential, regardless of the client’s manner.  It is an independent coach’s duty to give the truthful feedback.

6.  Linked to the above point is psychological awareness.  The more aware a coach is, the more she can adapt her coaching to get the best from the client.  You might find a coach moves between the roles in the word-cloud above very rapidly, to offer the right mix of support and challenge at the right moment.  Sometimes the coach might want to explore an aspect of a person’s behaviour with them, but often there is no time for that.  The focus is on using psychological knowledge to devise exercises and ways of rehearsing that help deal with nervous behaviours, mental blocks or stress.

7.  Listening, observation and focusing skills.  As the coach listens to the presentation rehearsal, they simultaneously assess what the client intends to communicate and what the audience is likely to be receiving at conscious and unconscious levels and thinks what can be changed to increase the quality of this communication, and chooses how that could be brought about.  Time is short so the ability to concentrate attention is vital.  Experience will tell the coach which changes will make the most difference, from what they have observed.  When the presentation is imminent, it’s not wise or justifiable to advise a client to improve too many different aspects.

8.  A toolbox of different approaches to use.  Two clients may have a similar issue but need different exercises to resolve it.  For example, to encourage standing still, at different times I have had people clench muscles, stand on a piece of paper, visualise a tree, imagine sitting on a throne, take off their shoes and, counter-intuitively, dance around.  Ten years after once seeing a particular exercise for increasing authority, it sprang to mind at the right moment, for the right person. 

I am biased due to my own experience, and I think that a purely acting, story-telling, NLP or other specific approach, whilst useful, is not complete enough for the complexity and ambiguity inherent in working intensively with senior executives.

What benefits you can expect from working with a presentation coach?

  • Rapid and significant improvement to the look, feel and delivery of a presentation.
  • A boost of confidence when new mastery has been gained.
  • The value of an external coach’s objectivity and independent viewpoint.
  • A tailored, customised approach to dealing with each executive.
  • The know-how of an experienced consultant, to avoid errors and inconsistencies across the board.
  • Leverage of individuals’ strengths plus minimisation of weaknesses, so they perform at their best.
  • You might not want to mention this, but unlike a course, it’s a form of training that is palatable to the C-suite.  It can even be fun.

Overall, the individual benefits in the short and long-term from such development, and the organisation builds its reputation and achieves better business outcomes from stronger presentations.

In conclusion

Working with a presentation coach is a convenient, intensive, practical and valuable experience.  With the above guidance, you now know how to invest in the right coach to make the best of your next presentation opportunity.

If you'd like to discuss your particular situation, please give me a call or drop me an email. 

Tel:  +44 (0)7803 166027  E:  hilary@hilaryfraser.com