No situation puts the confidence of even the most successful banker to a greater test than making a presentation. A roomful of attentive eyes and open ears can make anyone garble sentences and knock knees.
But making effective presentations isn't just for gifted orators. Even the stiffest presenters can liven up their delivery.
Being prepared, well organized, and comfortable in one's own skin can polish anyone's speaking performance. Skill in making a presentations is an greater advantage now as the competition for jobs, promotions, and new business intensifies.
"Presentation skills and the ability to speak well in a group are extremely important for career advancement," said Stacey Facter, a second vice president at Chase Manhattan's North American trade division.
A Boost Up the Ladder
Ms. Facter's experience is proof that learning these skills speed the climb up the corporate ladder.
"I moved up very quickly after taking my first course" in improving presentation skills, Ms. Facter said. "It helped my ability to go out and sell."
Barbara Davis, assistant vice president in the loan syndications group at the National Bank of Canada's New York office, said her speaking skills have become more important in her job of presenting loan packages to purchasing banks for approval.
"In today's climate, banks are more cautious than in the past," Ms. Davis said. "When selling loans, the quantity and quality of information the bank's credit committee requires has increased, but the material still has to be presented logically and clearly and in a short period of time."
Emotions Enliven a Speech
"Bankers feel they have to be conservative, dull, and monotonous," said Terry Van Tell, a communications consultant based in New York. "Money is a very sober subject, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't show your emotions. People just won't listen if they're bored."
Since studies show that the average listener retains only seven percent of what he hears, Ms. Van Tell recommends that presenters use plenty of eye contact to make the audience feel involved.
Overdoing the Data
"It's important to go slowly when speaking about numbers," said Margo T. Krasne, a communications-skills coach based in New York, "even f your audience understands what you're talking about. If you go too fast, their minds will go elsewhere."
Presenters often feel they have to stuff every bit of information into their talk to make their point. But that's often the wrong approach.
"Don't be obsessed with thoroughness," said Sana Reynolds, a New York-based consultant in business communications who recently conducted a presentation-skills seminar at the American Institute of Banking.
Keeping Sentences Short
"Stick to no more than three key ideas in the first five minutes, and no more than seven regardless of how long you speak," she said. "Use handouts as a backup, and tell your audience to refer to them for more information."
Big words and complicated sentences are another problem for many speakers. Ms. Reynolds suggested keeping sentences down to seven or 10 words, and avoiding big words altogether.
"Big words make notions slip away," she said.
The pressure of speaking before colleagues, bosses, and important clients sometimes sends presenters into a dull, lifeless monotone that usually goes away when the more interactive question-and-answer period starts.
To battle the monotone syndrome, Ms. Krasne recommends tape-recording a telephone conversation with a friend, then practice copying that same comfortable tone for a presentation.
The Dance of Distraction
A good speaker also keeps in mind that the audience is watching as well as listening. Body movements greatly affect the way people receive the message.
If the speaker is rocking back and forth on his heels, the audience may think he's unstable or unreliable. Folded arms across the chest gives an impression that the speaker feels threatened, guarded, and closed. Slouching may mean he's sloppy.
Distracting movements are usually because of nervousness. To settle the nerves, Ms. Van Tell recommends deep breathing, listening to relaxation tapes before speaking, and reminding oneself of past successes.
Many presenters feel nervous because they perceive the audience as hostile and adversarial, but more often the opposite is true. Most people dread public speaking, and they immediately admire and empathize with those who have the nerve to do it.
It's then up to the speaker to capitalize on that support by making listeners feel involved. This means keeping them stimulated with interesting anecdotes, using positive body language like leaning forward, and, most importantly, establishing eye contact with as many listeners as possible.
Many speakers fail to maintain eye contact because they're busy reading their hand-written notes. Ms. Reynolds suggested using index cards with key words and phrases in large, bold print that can be quickly recognizd by the speaker while at the podium.
All these tips may not completely eliminate the butterflies, but they go a long way to calming shattered nerves.
And how do the experts perform when it's their turn to stand up and speak? Chase Manhattan's Ms. Facter said, "I like it three minutes after I've started. After that I'm proud to be up there and to have my message heard."
Ms. Monahan is a freelance writer based in New York.