Those who have to give presentations and speeches to large audiences know that one does not need to have a stammer like King George VI in the film The King’s Speech to find these occasions intimidating, even terrifying at times.
“This is what my training is all about,” says Alexander von Reumont, who in the first week of March presented two seminars as part of the Chamber of Commerce’s international speakers series.
Von Reumont, a rhetoric and communications coach, who regularly advises multinational companies on public speaking and presentation techniques, quotes a statistic that 80 per cent of people in leadership positions admit that they feel stage fright in these situations.
Even an accomplished speaker like Winston Churchill, when he became a member of Parliament in his twenties, was so nervous that he had a nervous breakdown, he says.
“A lot of people are insecure because they think that what they do is not correct.” He compares it to a musician who practices and rehearses alone and then has to give a concert to an audience, saying it is normal to be insecure if you do not know the craft and you do not have a director or someone who rehearses with you.
Insecurity in this sense is down to a lack of feedback, a lack of preparation and the uncertainty as to what the audience’s reaction is going to be.
In addition what we say can be extremely important and even have detrimental effects on one’s career. “The spoken word often means much more than we anticipate, but subconsciously we know.”
However, despite all the anxiety that can build up when facing a public presentation, von Reumont has words of encouragement and dispels certain myths.
First, rhetoric or public speaking is a craft that can be learned and secondly even the very best public speakers have to rehearse what they say, he says.
“If you look at the great masters of public speaking, they don’t enter a place without having rehearsed their speeches. Bill Clinton is famous for that; he never gave a public speech without having rehearsed it. Never, not once,” says von Reumont.
In these rehearsals the focus is on everything from body language, the tone of the voice and content to verifying what comes across to the listener.
The techniques used in the deliberate construction of a speech were largely the topic of his seminars in the Cayman Islands. The real difficulty is to achieve the desired effect within a given time frame and that is what great speakers are all about, says von Reumont.
“How do I start the speech, how do I structure the content, how do I get out of the speech? That is craft and you can learn it.”
In a first step the speaker has to decide how many parts the speech has. This can depend on the cultural context. While the approach in English speaking countries is to be very concise, German speakers like speeches to be very long, explains von Reumont, who spends most of his time teaching German business people on how to give presentation when they go abroad.
Time is another factor, as routine speakers who know a lot about a topic have to make a decision on how to bring their message across in the time allocated to them.
Although most speeches only have two or three key messages that will be retained by the audience, it takes some time to develop a thought. “There is a certain dramatic spine in every presentation,” he says. “In public speaking you have to take people from where they are, then you have to say what you want and then you have to tell audience what this is good for.“
Von Reumont also addresses issues, such as charisma, that seem to be removed from the craft, but he says: “Charisma just means, what can I do to deliberately present a certain image?”
This can range from the creation of myths, for example the story that Bill Gates started Microsoft in a garage, to the deliberate use of key words as part of corporate image design.
As the brain develops certain associations with specific words and humans think in associations the correct use of these words can help control the image that is presented.
“This is very valuable,” he says. “It is in essence very simple to achieve but you have to know how.”
The TV debates during the US presidential election campaign are a good example for these techniques on display.
Asked whether this means that to be a good leader one must also be a good actor, von Reumont, who himself has an acting background, says we are all acting in our lives, trying to behave in a certain ways, trying to adapt or to impress people. The same applies to leaders: “As a leader you are an actor. Even if you are authentically yourself, you assume a role.”
Learning to be a good speaker is something anyone can achieve, von Reumont says. “What I learned is that people who want to be good public speakers, they start to care for it. They don’t go out anymore without having rehearsed it, if possible with other people. It takes a while but it is like learning to ride a bicycle or driving a car,” he says.
“Once you have decided to do it deliberately and professionally, you will get there sooner or later. It is not that difficult.”
Alexander von Reumont will be back at the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce on 27 and 28 June to present a course on ‘Mastering Negotiations’.