Public speaking

“Keep recording…I’ll do it again…”

What 30 years of television journalism has taught me about personal presentation.

Even as a cub reporter I knew that a presentable appearance and a smooth delivery were the keys to televisual success – but no-one appreciates that lesson completely till it goes horribly wrong. On camera. With thousands of people watching. And it can go wrong very easily on television because there’s so much that’s out of the reporter’s control.

Take the “piece-to-camera” or “stand-up” for example, that short segment in most TV news items where the reporter addresses the audience directly in front of the camera. In my quite junior days I was covering a story on a sudden bus strike and, with the deadline looming, I wanted to record a hasty stand-up by the side of the road just as a bus was pulling out behind me. We were shooting on film, not video, in those days and on my first take I fluffed the line, but as the bus was still in shot I told the camera operator to keep rolling and on the second take I delivered the line exactly right.

We rushed back to the studio to process the film and cut the story under intense pressure. The film editor did a great job under the circumstances – except for one small factor: he had left both versions of me standing by the roadside in the story. So tens of thousands of people saw me deliver an actual blooper “live” on the evening news. Of course, the impact of the story was completely lost as the viewers doubled up in their lounge rooms laughing at the hapless buffoon on screen.

The lesson I took from that experience was that it doesn’t matter how good or how important the message is that you are trying to get across, it can be ruined if you don’t nail the presentation.

And so it is in business. Your product might be great, your service excellent and your story quite gripping, but if you don’t sell it to your “audience” in a compelling way all the rest will mean nothing.

In the case of personal presentations, whether it be a pitch to a potential customer, a report to the board or an address to an industry forum, we must never let the messenger distract the audience from the message. Everything about our presentation must work to enhance the message: to make it interesting, to make it relevant, to make it memorable.

The problem is there are so many ways we can shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to delivering a personal presentation. It can be something as simple as a too quiet voice or a too loud shirt that will draw the listeners’ attention away from the content of our presentation to focus instead on the way it’s being delivered.  There are some obvious steps we can take to present a professional and competent image: we need to get our personal appearance right (our clothes, our hair and makeup, our facial expressions); we need to get our delivery right (our voice quality, our projection, our body language) and we need to get the content right (our materials, our words, our images).

At one time or another everyone has had the experience of finding their attention straying from the presenter’s message to something far more compelling: like the speaker’s squeaky voice, the humorous spelling mistake on the power point slide, or the host’s open flies. Simple things that can make your entire message fall on deaf ears.

We train our staff to make the stuff, we train them to manage the stuff and we train them market the stuff; so it’s worthwhile training them in personal presentation to ensure that when they stand up to sell the stuff the audience will walk away feeling informed, enthusiastic and convinced.

In a three-decade broadcasting career I’ve seen many ways that poor choices in presentation can ruin a good story. Like the time I shot a long stand-up with an airport in the background and a succession of planes landing behind me. It wasn’t till it went to air that we really appreciated the poor framing of the shot as the planes landed directly behind my eye line – or, as it appeared to the viewer, entering one ear and leaving the other.

Personal presentation – it’s so easy to get it wrong.



By John Mulhall

John Mulhall spent over 25 years at the ABC, working in Sydney and Canberra as a news producer, chief of staff, news editor and national network editor. During that time he was a member, and one-time chairman, of the ABC’s Standing Committee on Spoken English.