[hed]In search of the perfect coach
[sub]How to find the right speaking coach for you
Sure, you're a good presenter. Who would doubt it? After all, you didn't become vice-president by resting on your laurels, did you? But have you ever wondered whether you could be even better - if you could make them laugh more, buy more, listen more intently, respect you more or shower you with even louder applause?
It's questions like these that often lead ambitious professionals to hire a speaking coach. Just as athletes turn to sports psychologists for a mental edge, presenters increasingly employ personal coaches to take their game to the next level. The pressure to deliver winning presentations has risen to new heights in many organizations, and this, coupled with the public-speaking anxiety already baked into our genetic codes, has driven many a fast-track exec to seek the advice of a qualified platform-skills doctor.
"The higher up the organizational chart a presenter is, the more they feel like they have to give the perfect presentation because of their stature," says David Greenberg, president of Simply Speaking Inc., a presentations-skills coaching firm based in Atlanta. "That can lead to a lot of suppressed anxiety and fear."
A good coach can help by tightening one's message, correcting body-language tics, offering helpful advice and analyzing audience reactions. They can also serve as friend, confidant, therapist, cheerleader and fan of the vulnerable souls who seek their guidance.
But when does it really make sense to get some private coaching? And, given the range of services offered and skills-development choices available, how does one find the right coach?
[sub]Finding and choosing a coach
These are not easy questions to answer, because finding a good speaking coach is more akin to finding a good friend than locating a reliable mechanic or dentist. To start with, speaking coaches tend to work best and make the most sense when someone has identified specific things they need to work on, or when they are preparing for a single, isolated presentation or series of related presentations. If, for instance, you've identified a general need to boost your presentations acumen - and many such needs emerge following feedback from bosses in performance reviews - most experts recommend beginning with a basic presentations-skills training class. Such open-enrollment classes allow you to practice presenting in front of live eyeballs, offer exposure to a wide variety of speaking styles and help build a solid foundation of presenting skills. Hiring a personal coach, on the other hand, is a better option if you need further one-on-one instruction, are preparing for specialized or high-stakes presentations, or need an experienced hand to help with content development.
The difference in what you'll pay for the two options is considerable. While costs for a multiple-day training class typically run under $1,000, experienced speaking coaches charge anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per day for their services. In the late '90s, when initial public offering (IPO) "road shows" were all the rage, coaches specializing in that niche received as much as $20,000 for three or four days of presentations training.
Many presenters find coaches the old-fashioned way, through referrals by colleagues, friends or even the speech department of a local university. Others land their mentors through Internet searches or by contacting coaching or speaking associations. For many, a good starting point is the National Speakers' Association (www.nsa.org), which lists many presentation-skills coaches among its members.
[sub]Experience, credentials, chemistry
In some ways it is easier to find a coach now than ever before, because so many people have flocked to the field from other specialties. But because there are so many different people offering such a wide range of services, including "life coaching," "career coaching," and "spiritual counseling," it pays to do due diligence regarding their experience and credentials. Some coaches do presentations training as a sideline to broader business consulting, while others specialize in areas like media training, voice quality, sales presentations or helping presenters translate highly technical speeches for lay audiences. Some are actors or directors sidelining in the professional world. Some are former public relations managers who've been laid off and are trying to reinvent themselves. Some are ex-salespeople who want to become the next Zig Ziglar or Og Mandino. So, consequently, some are good at what they do - and some are not.
"It's like picking a doctor," says Steve Mandel, founder and president of Mandel Communications, a presentations-skills coaching and training firm in Capitola, Calif. "You might seek a general practitioner to help with delivery skills or slide development for live presentation situations, while you'd seek a specialist if you just wanted to improve your skill at doing radio or TV interviews."
Someone preparing to speak to a board of directors or pitch venture capitalists would likely want a coach deeply experienced in those arenas, says Marjorie Brody, president of Brody Communications in Jenkintown, PA, rather than a junior-level coach who might have excellent general skills but not intimate knowledge of the information needs or preferences of those demanding audiences.
Beyond checking references and experience levels, it's also essential to ensure that a coach is a good match for your personality and speaking style. "Coaching is highly personal," says Greenberg. "You might hire a coach that's won a handful of speaking awards or has transformed the presentation style of a colleague, but he or she might not be the best fit for you."
Some coaches hew to a by-the-book approach that emphasizes the "golden rules" of presenting, while others see coaching as more art than science, and strive to keep their advice congruent with the presentation style of the client, as long as that style doesn't stray too far from sound communication practices.
Greenberg places himself in the latter category. "If I ask a client to do something too far out of his comfort zone, it likely won't work because he'll have anxiety and the audience will pick up on it." If all presenters were shaped to fit the same mold, he says, they'd have nothing unique to give their audiences.
[sub]Beware of the hard sell
At the same time, some coaches believe a bit of unease can help spur presenters to new heights. "Some of the executives I work with need to be made more self-conscious about their speaking styles," says Carmine Gallo, president and founder of the Gallo Communications Group, a presentations and media skills training firm in Pleasanton, CA. "Someone may think they sound confident or authoritative in front of audiences, but in reality their body language or voice quality is saying something quite different, and the videotape doesn't lie."
To get a feel for their styles before committing to a contract, some coaches offer clients a trial coaching session, often an hour long. If clients aren't pleased with the fit, they're under no obligation to pay for the session. It's those coaches who push for long-term commitments without some feeling-out period that presenters should be wary of.
"The goal of coaching should be to end the coaching," says Mandel. "Clients might need to come back to me for check-ups before big events, but my objective is to get them out there functioning and feeling great on their own, not dependent on me for continual help."
[sub]Bang for the coaching buck
Considering the cost of hiring a good speaking coach, presenters might be tempted to simply ask Joe from Public Relations to set up a video recorder, shoot them in action then offer feedback on any distracting habits or practices. But the reason to opt instead for the services of an experienced pro, say those who swear by it, is for the kind of candor, trade secrets and audience insight that colleagues or moonlighting coaches usually can't provide.
For one thing, independent coaches can provide the kind of objective or "stall" feedback that presenters typically don't hear from others for fear of hurt feelings or even retribution in the workplace. Stall feedback, says Greenberg, equates to what presenters might hear "if they ran into a bathroom stall right after speaking and listened to the audience kibbutz about their presentation. It can be blunt and harsh, but there's often a lot of truth to it." A good coach offers frank appraisals in constructive and non-threatening ways, he says.
And being non-threatening can be important as many speaking issues have deeply-rooted emotional ties and require a coach to wear many hats from therapist to fashion guru. Consider the presenter who is entering middle-age and is seeking reassurance or guidance from coaches regarding their changing physical appearance as well as connecting better to the up and coming generation. Often self-conscious about weight gain, hair loss or wrinkles, and occasionally panic-stricken by the idea that their images will be blown up on large screens, these professionals seek advice on how to dress to mitigate flaws, leading more coaching firms to add fashion consultants to their staffs.
[subhed]Good coaching in action
When business etiquette expert Phyllis Davis was facing an upcoming book tour, she called in media and voice coach Nancy Greystone of Santa Monica, Calif., to help prepare her for the experience. Once a month for a year, Davis, who is president of Executive Mentoring and Coaching International in Las Vegas, worked with her coach to role-play answers to potential media questions, enhance her voice quality and chart ways to get her book's key messages across without coming across as a shameless self-promoter.
On the voice side, Davis learned how create more white space in her comments to give the audience time to digest what she was saying. She also learned how to raise the roof of her mouth to "round out" tones and how to stretch out syllables or words for greater effect. "Voice training can be particularly helpful for women, because we tend to sound nasal," Davis says.
Davis also learned it was possible to speak and smile at the same time while on camera. "That was revolutionary to me, because I always thought it would look insincere or goofy to show your teeth while you're talking. But it looks just the opposite if done correctly," Davis says.
Other presenters say their personal coaches have helped them embrace a "less is more" approach to content development, become more aware of when audiences are tuning out so they can switch gears, improve their pacing or inflection or simply learn how to connect with audiences in a more human way.
"The best coaches ask good questions," says Brody. "They help speakers define the outcomes they want from a presentation, or what they want the audience to know, do or feel as a result of the communication. It's easy to get so caught up in the details of a presentation that you lose sight of the big picture."
[sub]The power of personal attention
While many presenters use coaches only episodically for tune-ups prior to big presentations, others employ their services on a more regular basis for foundational skill-building. "A novice can't expect to take one or two golf lessons and see lasting improvement," says Greenberg. "In the same way, new presentation skills or routines don't seep into your DNA until you've practiced and received feedback over a period of time."
To facilitate such continual feedback, most coaches offer phone or e-mail consulting as a follow-up to face-to-face coaching sessions. Greenberg, for example, speaks with many clients after they deliver presentations and often offers one to three new goals for them to work on before their next engagement. Other speakers have their presentations videotaped and sent to coaches for a detailed critique, or e-mail drafts of PowerPoint slides to coaches for review or editing. Some will pay princely sums simply to have their coach on hand for important presentations. Brody was recently asked by a CEO to fly to Las Vegas to observe and assess his performance during a press conference.
With so much riding on presentations, it's no wonder stressed-out presenters are turning in larger numbers to personal coaches to not only polish their messages and platform skills, but for the sympathetic ear or motivational booster shots they provide as well.
"Going into big presentations without asking for some experienced outside input is like a writer who operates without an editor," Davis says. "There are simply things you just can't see yourself that someone with fresh eyes and an outside perspective can pick up on. And if you're lucky, that editor or coach will also offer good support and counsel along the way."
[hed] Getting started
[sub] Where to go for presentation training next door
Locating a qualified speaking coach in your geographic area, with the skills you are looking for, will require some legwork on your part. However, a number of companies provide basic public-speaking courses to get you started. In most cases, they can also provide information on local talent you can tap if you decide to take the coaching experience a step farther.
Featuring a variety of public and private seminars in all areas of professional communication, Communispond also offers a number of presentation courses specifically designed for salespeople and executives. In-person seminars occur throughout the year in major metropolitan areas. Online courses are also available.
[sub] Dale Carnegie Training
Founded by legendary motivator Dale Carnegie, Dale Carnegie Training is a full-service provider of professional development resources in the areas of sales, leadership, communication and presentation skills. Seminars occur in most major metropolitan areas on a regular basis. Cost for the basic 12-week Dale Carnegie Course, which meets once per week for three-and-a-half hours, is $1,550. Costs for specialized 1-day, 2-day, and 3-day seminars ranges from $199 to $1,595.
[sub]Fred Pryor Seminars
Fred Pryor offers courses on a wide variety of subjects in the field of professional development and communication. Most are one- or two-day courses that take place in hotels and meeting places in metropolitan areas across the country. Typical cost for a communications/speaking course is $99 to $199 for a one-day course; $295 to $395 for a two-day course. Group discounts are also available.
[sub] Toastmasters International
Almost every city in the country has a Toastmasters group, and most have more than one. Members meet for an hour each week to share tips and stories, practice with each other and listen to invited speakers. Initial membership fee is $16, then $18 every six months.
To find out about individual speaking coaches and consultants in your area:
— Look in theYellow Pages under "Speakers & Seminar Bureaus"
— Contact local business and professional organizations and ask for recommendations
— Call the business school or speech-communication department at a local college or university.
— Ask friends and colleagues
— Call a local Toastmasters representative
— On the Web, search "speaking skills" + your city. Also try "presentation skills" and "professional development."
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