Business owners: Are you getting your message across?

Improving your personal communication skills can help in growing your business – don’t let the way you speak or write let you down
When you’re trying to grow your business, probably the most important skill you can have is the ability to communicate effectively. For existing and potential customers you are your business and they will judge you by how well you get your message across. If you can’t present a businesslike image, why should they do business with you? If you have any employees, this applies to them as well. Are they representing your business as you want them to?

Unfortunately many business people feel they let themselves down as soon as they speak or start to write something. There are various reasons for this – some feel their spelling, grammar and punctuation is not up to scratch, some think their accent or the way they speak does not fit the image they want to present, some lack conversational skills. With others the problem is lack of confidence, or downright nerves, especially if they find they have to make a speech or give presentations. There are also those who have never been properly taught how to write effectively, or how to produce effective reports, essays or letters.

Luckily, help is available from professional tutors and trainers. I have spent most of my career in communications, both written and spoken, and I now run my own business teaching communication skills to individuals and groups. This has taught me that most people can improve their communication skills, often with only a small amount of guidance, as long as they are willing to learn. Personally I cover a whole range of concerns from controlling nerves and speaking confidently in public, to the correct use of English grammar in writing. Then there are more technical skills like voice projection and Powerpoint presentations. No two clients need exactly the same kind of help, so it’s important for a tutor to tailor teaching methods to particular cases.

Very often people are unsure exactly what help they need. They are just aware that they are not expressing themselves effectively – maybe at meetings. We have all had that feeling of walking away from a conversation and realising we have not mentioned the very thing we wanted to say. In a business context that could make the difference between getting work or losing it.

As a private tutor I most often find myself dealing with elocution, accent reduction, confident speaking, conversational skills, interview skills or public speaking, although this list is by no mean exhaustive. When working with groups (for example if employer wants me to work with their staff) I will arrange workshops which tend to cover effective writing, English Language for grownups, presentation skills and how to prepare written and oral briefings. Again this is not an exhaustive list and I am happy to work with employers to supply bespoke training based on their requirements and the skill levels of their staff.

It’s all to do with communication. Ask yourself – are you (and your employees) getting your message across? If not, speak to someone who can help.

(This article first appeared in the Derwentside Business Magazine – www.briarybusiness.co.uk)

What you didn’t learn at school – and why

My business is helping people to improve their personal communication skills – in other words, the way they interact with other people either in writing or speaking.

This covers a wide field, and can also bring in issues such as conversational skills, accents, self-confidence, self-esteem and what sort of image of ourselves we want to show to others. Sometimes I work with individuals as a tutor, sometimes I deliver training courses and workshops to groups, but the object is always the same: to demonstrate how to be a more effective communicator.

Some of my clients are business people who are self-conscious at meetings, some have an important speech or presentation to give and need some help with technique. Some speak English as their second language (or third or fourth) and want to speak it naturally way the British do, rather than in the stilted version they learned at school in their home country.

Yet although personal communication is a wide and varied subject, I have noticed some common threads running through the hundreds of clients I have tutored or trained. One of them is anxiety about the use – or rather misuse – of English grammar, spelling and punctuation. I know that in the UK alone there are thousands of people, many in very responsible jobs, who worry that their poor grasp of the ‘rules’ of English language is letting them down. In a way they are right. Like it or not, other people do judge us by how we speak and write, and not just by what we say. They make assumptions about our origins, our education and even our intelligence and competence based only on how we pronounce words or construct a sentence. As somebody said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

In fact if some of my clients are a bit weak when it comes to grammatical ‘rules’, that is not necessarily their fault. In the first place English is a very flexible, not to mention eccentric, language and its very lack of rules can make it baffling to learn and use. Secondly, there was a period when strict teaching of grammar, spelling and punctuation was rather out of fashion. If you happened to go to school during that period, you may not have been taught what is in this book. On the other hand, you may have been looking out of the window and not paying attention, so let’s not be too quick to blame the education system, shall we.

My experience with individual clients has led me to develop a series of training sessions called ‘English Language for Grownups’.

These are for anyone who feels they need a grounding – or a refresher – in the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation in English. It’s not like school though – it’s more fun and there are no exams.

The first sessions – called, imaginatively, Part1 – will be held in the Constanze Suite,  Kaffeehaus Amadeus, 1 Percy Crescent, Station Road, Lanchester, County Durham DH7 0EU on Wednesday 16 March  and again on Wednesday 23 March 2016, from 9 am  to 12.30pm.

 

The special launch price of £99 includes delicious Kaffeehaus elevenses, bottomless coffee and tea, croissants, cheese, ham, savoury nibbles etc, and everyone attending will receive a free copy of my book ‘Grammar Gaffes’.

 

Interested? Book online here, or email andy@andycollinspr.co.uk for more details.

English Language for Grownups

I have just found out that 4 March is National Grammar Day – in the USA at least. It reminds me that there are thousands of people in the UK who are unsure about spelling, grammar and punctuation when they are writing. I know this because some of them become my clients and ask for private tuition in just those skills.

It’s not just that they are a bit shakey in their written Eng Lang (as we used to call it at school) but very often they feel a kind of shame or guilt about it, as if their uncertainty about the use of apostrophes and so on makes them a bad person – or at least shows that they are a bit dim. I’m talking here about people with very responsible jobs, who are no doubt very good at those jobs. I have tutored business people, lawyers, accountants, even teachers. What normally happens is that their lack of grounding in spelling, grammar and/or punctuation makes no difference to them for a while after they leave school. Eventually though, they find themselves a fair way up the career ladder, where suddenly they are competing for promotion against colleagues who clearly do know how to use an apostrophe, and suddenly they are at a disadvantage (at least a perceived one). If they run their own business, they lack confidence dealing with potential clients because they are afraid their use of English will let them down. The clever ones then come to me for help!

The thing is, being a bit dodgy with your Eng Lang does not make you a bad person, or an idiot. Spelling, grammar and punctuation are skills, and like other skills they are taught, learned and improved with practice. Not being totally confident with them just shows that you weren’t properly taught them when you were younger. That doesn’t stop you learning them now.

Of course the problem may be that you didn’t pay attention at school, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. For many years the detailed teaching of spelling, grammar and punctuation went out of fashion in English schools because educationalists felt it was unnecessary and a bit restrictive and old-fashioned. If you went to school during this period (it has changed a bit now by the way), the chances are the importance of these things weren’t impressed on you. The trouble is, they often do become important when you are all grown up and the quality of your communication is an issue.

I was lucky. In the first place I am extremely old and can remember when people wrote with fountain pens without spellcheck. More importantly I went to an old-fashioned school where the ‘correct’ use of English was expected of us at all times, so we quickly learned it. Please note that by ‘correct’ I am not talking about being pedantic and writing like Dickens (I’m not that old). I mean communicating in a fluent way so that you are easily and clearly understood, without any unnecessary distractions by way of odd spellings, twisted sentences or overdone punctuation.

 

You don’t have to take my word for it. Through my connections with Durham University I sometimes talk to academics who mark essays and exam papers and they often complain about the poor quality of Eng Lang displayed by some students. Those students really do lose marks for it, too – not because the markers are being picky but because they expect undergraduates to be able to express ideas clearly. Poor use of grammar is a barrier to understanding.

My experience with individual clients has led me to develop a one-day course called ‘English Language for Grownups’ which I am busy organising now. This is for anyone who feels they need a grounding – or a refresher – in the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation in English. It’s not like school though – it’s more fun and there are no exams. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, drop me a line to andy@andycollinspr.co.uk and I’ll let you know how you can take part. I’ll see you there. Or is it their? Or they’re?

Do you really mean what you’re saying?

A good friend of mine has just described me as a pedant. Well in some ways maybe I am. When it comes to the use of words, though, I am not that strict: it just pains me when people who are clearly unaware of the real meaning of a word use it in completely the wrong context.

A misuse which really sets my teeth on edge involves the use of the word ‘epicentre’. This word has become common in news reports and is almost always used wrongly, most often when the speaker just means to say ‘centre’. Epicentre means the point on the earth’s surface directly above an earthquake (the Greek prefix ‘epi’ signifying ‘above’). It does not mean the ‘dead centre’ of anything. So, if I say ‘Durham is the epicentre of scholarship in the north of England’ it would mean that scholarship in the north of England exists underground, with Durham on the top of it.

Another groanworthy mistake is  using ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’. If you are disinterested it doesn’t mean you are not taking an interest – it means you are objective and free from bias (ie not an interested party).

Something over which I suppose I am a bit of a pedant, mainly because I studied philosophy in my youth, is the use of the expression ‘beg the question’.  Speakers who know no better say ‘it begs the question…’ when they mean ‘it prompts the question, or it raises the question…’. To beg the question actually has a very specific technical meaning, dating back to Aristotle if you must know. It means to assume a proposition that, by a circular argument, involves the conclusion. For example, ‘Freedom of speech is important because people should be able to speak freely’. If that baffles you, then you are almost certainly using the phrase ‘beg the question’ wrongly.

Which prompts the question…when you use the word ‘literally’ do you mean it literally? To say something literally indicates that you mean it exactly as you are saying it, to the letter (literally). Quite often it these days is used just to spice up an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, eg ‘He literally exploded!’, ‘It was literally raining cats and dogs!’, ‘There were literally a million people in my car!’. Do you really mean that? Okay, I do realise that nobody would take these statements literally in conversation. The problem is that by continually exaggerating like that, we rob the words of meaning and make everything overblown and weak.

A similar effect happens with the very common word ‘incredible’, which seems to be used more and more often and is quickly using its real sense of ‘unbelievable’. Documentaries on TV promise us incredible stories of survival or some such. Well thanks, but frankly I would like to hear some credible stories, otherwise what’s the point? TV journalists describe, say, the scene of a natural disaster as ‘incredible’ when the pictures being shown are all too real. Worse still, they say it is ‘undescribable’. Surely the journalist’s job is to describe the scene to make it credible?

I could go on….and on…but I won’t. Maybe my friend was right after all.

Personal PR

I often work with very small businesses, by which I mean businesses that consist of just one person working on their own. An enterprise that small can benefit from good Public Relations just as much as a global conglomerate, albeit using different methods and of course on a smaller scale.

The real difference though, is that when you are running a very small business you are the business, and the business is you. In a very real (and scary) sense, you are marketing yourself. When you are networking, meeting potential clients, or just talking to someone about what you do, you are representing yourself and the business at the same time. That makes it all the more important that you are careful to present yourself in the best possible way – the way that will be most effective from your businesses point of view.

I call this Personal PR, and it’s surprising how many business people neglect it.

Now, I do recognise that the persona we adopt when we are ‘on duty’ is not necessarily the same as when we are not in the public eye. What you do in the privacy of your own home is no business of mine – as long as nobody finds out about it of course. I am talking here about how you present yourself to your potential market, and to existing customers. You may be doing this in person, in letters, by phone, email, social media and so on.

In general you need to think about how people perceive you. It sounds easy but it isn’t – it takes a lot of thought and the ability to step back and see yourself through others’ eyes. It’s much easier the other way round: that is, if you are the other person. Would you invest a lot of money with someone who was personally scruffy and disorganised or seemed reckless? Of course not. Now think about yourself: what sort of person do you seem to others? When they read something you have written, what assumptions do they make about you?

It is a fact that thousands of business people are self-conscious about the way they express themselves. I know this from my own experience helping people with their Personal PR, because many of my clients have been in exactly that situation. They come to me to ask for my help in improving their writing or speaking skills, or both. They feel they are letting themselves down every time they open their mouths or write a sentence, either because of their accent, or the words they use, or because they are worried about a gap in their education.

The fact is that effective spoken and written communications are more important now than ever before, and nobody feels confident if they think they lack them. The good news is these are skills that can be taught, and at any age.

At least one whole generation seems to have gone though the UK education system without being drilled in the essentials of English grammar, spelling and punctuation. If you are one of these people, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it just means that nobody showed you how to do it.

The same goes for good spoken English. It’s a skill and it can be taught, but first you have to acknowledge that you’re not as good at it as you could be.

Note that I am not necessarily thinking here about talking posh (which can itself be offputting to some potential clients). What I am referring to is the ability to present yourself – and your business – in an effective and appropriate way. Does the image you present to people match their expectations of your business? Would you feel confident in an airliner if you saw the pilot was wearing a tracksuit and a backwards baseball cap, and spoke like someone from TOWIE? Those are the kind of assumptions we – and your potential customers – make.

One final thought.  I bet that if you’ve been in business for any length of time, you will have come across (a) someone else in business who you can’t believe is in business because they just don’t seem businesslike, (b) a website that is so awful that you wouldn’t think of making further enquiries, or (c) misspelt and generally badly produced publicity material. All these things will have put you off dealing with those businesses. Now think – what are people saying about you?

Essay Writing

Sometimes I work with university students to help them improve their essay writing skills. Just to make one thing clear – I help them improve their skills, I don’t write essays for them. Good communication is my thing, not providing bogus scripts for lazy students. In any case, I wrote quite enough essays when I was a student myself, thanks

The thing is, an academic essay is a specialised kind of written communication. Students who are otherwise very bright and knowledgeable can lose marks needlessly if they fail to follow the rules of format, structure, tone of voice expected by their university tutor. Busy tutors marking papers are not going to wade through a badly-structured essay to figure out exactly what you are trying to say. Also they expect a good standard of grammar, spelling and punctuation – falling short of that standard makes an essay difficult to read and that means poor marks.

The following is a collection of notes that I have found useful with clients. None is particularly original, but that doesn’t matter. Quality, not originality, is the key thing here.

What makes a good essay?

  • The ideas and information are presented in a well structured, coherent way.
  • It flows logically from the introduction to the conclusion.
  • There is evidence to support the ideas or arguments presented.
  • It is properly referenced.
  • It is presented in an appropriate style, in well written English.

Preparation

  • Look carefully at the question. What does it mean? What exactly does the setter of the essay want from you? Are you required to prove something? What will you need to back up what you say?
  • Start to plan, roughly, the structure of your essay.
  • When you do start to write it, think of that as a first draft. First drafts are never good enough
  • Do your reading. Make notes. Identify themes.
  • Allow yourself enough time to do all of the above, remembering that actually writing the essay is the last thing you do at the end of the process. Remember to give yourself enough time to finalise the Reference list and edit the essay.

Order

  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to write the essay in the order in which it will be read
  • You don’t have to write the Introduction first – would it be more sensible to write it last, once you know what you’re introducing?
  • Although the Reference list goes at the end, you can be compiling it as you go along.
  • From the very beginning, before you even begin writing, have in mind what your Conclusions will be (although these may change as you do more research). When written, your essay should then work logically towards your conclusions. Before you set out, you should have a clear idea where you’re going!

Check your guidelines

  • University departments, and sometimes individual tutors, will have their own rules and guidelines about the word count, format, structure etc of essays.
  • Make sure you are clear about these and stick to them. Markers take a dim view of essays that flout the rules. It makes the essays harder work for them to read and is disrespectful.
  • Sometimes the guidelines can give you a clue about what is important about the essay question (and therefore attracts more marks) and what can be left out.

Presentation

  • Remember – it is important that the final version of your essay is in well written English, with correct spelling and grammar, and properly punctuated. It should also be laid out in a businesslike, straightforward way (obeying any guidelines on format). If you know you have problem with spelling, grammar or style, try and get some help.
  • Insisting on good English is not just being picky – the point is that badly written or punctuated work is much more difficult to read. A marker will not have time to wade through it trying to work out what you’re trying to say.

After you have written your essay

  • Your essay will contain a number of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and unnecessary repetitions – all first drafts do.
  • Put it aside for a little while – if possible for at least 24 hours – and then check it thoroughly.
  • If you can, get someone else to read it to see if they understand it as well as you do.
  • Print it out and check it again – mistakes you miss on a monitor screen sometimes become obvious on paper.
  • Make sure that the Conclusions follow logically from the main body of the essay and don’t just seem tacked on at the end.

Seven Deadly Sins of Essay Writing

  1. Not making sure you understand what is required by the question
  2. Not allowing enough time
  3. No flow of argument through paragraphs
  4. High ‘So What’ Factor (ie stating the bleedin’ obvious)
  5. Conclusion is not a conclusion (ie it doesn’t flow from your argument)
  6. Bad English
  7. Inconsistent referencing

 

What is ‘Received Pronunciation’?

When people come to Britain, having learned English in another country, they are often amazed by the number of different ways there are of speaking the language. Britain is not, after all, a very big place, yet the accents of and dialects of Yorkshire, say, or Cornwall, County Durham or Birmingham, let alone Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland are surprisingly diverse. Even native speakers can sometimes find it hard to understand someone from another part of Britain. For people whose first language is not English it can be a nightmare.

There is no such thing as ‘standard English’. The nearest we have to that is known as ‘Received Pronunciation’ or RP. The word ‘received’ in ‘Received Pronunciation’ is used in its old sense of ‘accepted’ or ‘approved’ (as in ‘received wisdom’).

RP is what you sometimes hear referred to as ‘Oxford English’, or ‘BBC English’ or even ‘the Queen’s English’, although none of these terms is particularly useful in defining it. These days we hear all sorts of accents at Oxford University or on the BBC, and the only person who speaks like the Queen is the Queen. In fact, the British Library* reckons that only about 2% of the population of the UK speaks in Received Pronunciation.

RP is more or less based on the English of the South East and East of England. It was first identified as a particular way of speaking in 1869. Its influence really became significant, though, when the BBC was founded as a national radio broadcaster. Lord Reith, the first head of the BBC, wanted a standardised way of talking for his presenters which would be equally clear and acceptable throughout Britain. RP was chosen, even though for most listeners it represented a relatively upper-class manner of speech. The point was that RP, unlike other accents, does not give any indication of where in the country the speakers comes from. I sometimes call it ‘Vanilla English’ because it has all those interesting (but confusing) local features left out of it.

As mentioned above, presenters on the BBC are no longer all RP speakers. The emphasis today is on clarity of speech and on understandability, neither of which are necessarily affected by accent alone. Yet when my clients tell me that they want to speak ‘properly’, or even ‘posh’, I know it is normally Received Pronunciation they have in mind, even if they have never heard that phrase. Like Lord Reith in 1922, they are looking for a manner of speaking which is equally clear and acceptable wherever they go in Britain, with no distracting regional features.

As a tutor I am lucky in that respect. I come from the south east of England and I had the kind of education where I was encouraged to speak in Received Pronunciation (my real natural accent is more Essex). I know exactly what it is supposed to sound like and I can pass that skill onto my clients. Lord Reith, I am sure, would be very proud.

 

*If you are interested in RP and the accents of Britain, the British Library website is an excellent place to visit – http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/received-pronunciation/

How you do get things into the newspapers?

I am always saying that Public Relations is all about how you relate to your public, and there are many ways to do that. One way most people know about is the press release sent to a local paper.

I was discussing PR with an old friend of mine the other day. She’s a government press officer – a job I used to do by the way, although she works for a different department. The point she was making was that her office hardly ever issues press releases to local newspapers these days. Instead they post news articles onto their website, then use social media like Twitter or blogging to direct journalists to read them.

The reason this works is because newspapers, who have far fewer actual reporters than they used to, actively trawl the internet for material to turn into news stories. Does this mean that we no longer need press releases? Well…no. Probably.

Certainly social media have become vital channels for PR activities and their importance has rocketed over the last five years. The PR team at Amazon surely know what they’re doing and when they launched the latest new Kindle Fire tablet they did it with 14 tweets, not with a press release. Each tweet focused on a different specification of the product. Alex Aiken, the Executive Director for UK Government Communications, declared at a conference last year that the press release was dead. He said that press officers should be content producers and realise that tweets, infographics or videos may be a more relevant method of disseminating a message. In the PR industry his words were met with a mixture of horror and a fair amount of ‘well-so-what-we’ve-known-that-for-years’.

Most PR professionals, though, are of the opinion that there is still a use for the press release in the overall marketing mix for businesses. A well-written release (and yes, they do have to be well-written) can still get the attention of the media as long as it is part of a thought-out strategy and not just something thrown together, hoping for the best. Social media have added to, but not replaced, the so-called ‘traditional’ channels of communication with the media. In fact the most traditional – ongoing relationships with journalists – is still the most important.

When it comes to small businesses this is really all good news. The explosion in social media has provided us with a whole new range of methods to get our message across. Exactly what kind of social media is the best fit for your business depends, among other things, on what kind of business it is. For example, if it’s B2B you may find LinkedIn most useful; if you want to communicate with the public at large you may well favour Facebook and/or Twitter. You may well have considered the composing and distribution of a press release as one of those ‘dark arts’ best left to the professionals. Now – hooray! – you have a whole raft of online communications channels which are free, easy to use, and terrifically exciting and modern. Just sign up and you can fire your business message all over the globe and watch your media profile rise.

Beware, though. Just having lots of extra ways to communicate does not reduce the importance of (a) having a proper PR strategy, (b) choosing your key messages with care, or (c) knowing how to write effective copy, even if it is only 140 characters. If you start filling cyberspace with random, ill thought-out, badly worded and misspelt tweets, blogs and posts, it will not reflect well on your business. In fact, used badly social media is just as effective at showing how useless people are as it is at advertising their products (have a look through Facebook sometime if you don’t believe me).

Before you dive in, think carefully and honestly about what your limitations are, and then think about getting professional help. The fact is, for example, that most people don’t know how to write good copy – after all, that’s why we have colleges to teach it. Okay, it means paying a bit, but if you do it yourself and do it badly, you have an awful lot to lose. And anyway is using social media really free? Maintaining a quality presence online is very time-consuming and in business time equals money, so there is a cost even if you decide to do it all yourself.

So – let us postpone the death knell of the press release while we embrace those new-fangled social media. They each have their place in a well-organised PR strategy. At the same time let’s remember that they are all just channels to communicate. Before you choose your channels you have to be sure of what you want to communicate, and why you need to communicate, and how to communicate it in the most effective way.

What exactly is PR?

My background is in Public Relations. I was trained to do it and I have been doing it in the public and private sectors for years. Yet when I’m in situations where I might meet potential clients – business networking meetings for instance – and somebody asks me what I do, I don’t say I’m in PR.

It’s not because I’m ashamed of what I do. It’s because I know from experience that most people don’t really know what PR involves, or how it can help their business. Usually they have preconceptions about PR and as soon as I mention it the mental shutters come down. They think PR is just for TV reality stars, footballers and global corporations, not for small businesses. They think PR is always incredibly expensive. They think PR involves the dark arts and that people who work in PR have sold their souls.

None of this is true – well the last bit might be true in some cases, but not as a rule. So when I’m asked I usually say that I work with businesses and individuals with something worthwhile to offer to get them the attention they deserve. Most people can relate to that, and if they are interested enough to ask how I do it I tell them about PR.

Public relations is all about how you relate to your public. It’s as simple, and as complicated as that. It is about reputation – building reputation, managing reputation and maintaining reputation. PR tells an organisation’s story to its public. If you are in business, what do you want people – your potential customers – to say about you? What do they say about you now? Do you even know? How can you find out?

In practice, PR activities form part of a marketing mix for a business and that mix may well also include paid advertising among other things. The big difference between the two is that in advertising there are some certainties. You pay a certain amount and an ad promoting your business, designed to your specifications, will appear in print, on radio or TV, or online. With PR there are fewer certainties because it is far more of an art than a science and we are dealing with the subtleties of influencing a potential market’s opinion and behaviour. Hence the accusation of practising dark arts. Advertising says, ‘I’m good’; PR says, ‘I hear you’re good’.

There are many ways – or channels to use a PR term – of getting a business’s message across, including traditional print and broadcast media, the new-fangled social media, sponsorship, celebrity endorsement and so on. All are designed to enhance reputation and make potential customers think about you in a particular way. What works for one business might not be appropriate for another, and those who practice PR must draw on their experience and expertise when advising clients on the best techniques for them. Done properly and over a long enough timescale, PR can be more cost effective for a small business than paid advertising.

So, before you think about how PR can help your business, think about some of the really strong brands you know. Take Apple (the computer one, not the Beatley one). What do you know about Apple – and how do you know it? When people buy an Ipad, what are they buying? There are plenty of other tablets available after all. Do they really choose an Ipad above all the competitors because Apple’s advertising has convinced them it is the best? Actually no – most people who choose to buy an Ipad are really buying into Apple’s image and reputation, which the company has worked tirelessly to manage through various kinds of PR as well as advertising. The Apple message is so strong and positive that consumers want to be associated with it.

Now think of your own business. OK maybe you’re not Apple, but reputation is just as important to you as it is to them. Have you defined your Target Market? Those are the people you need to be appealing to. What are your Key Messages – what do you want to tell people about your business? What do you want people to be saying about you? If, for example, you have a website, what does it tell people about you – efficient and classy, or cheap and nasty? When you meet people and they ask what you do, what do you tell them? Do you, like me, have an answer prepared which immediately promotes your Key Messages?

Some kinds of Public Relations you can do yourself, but there are plenty of professionals who can help you and it needn’t cost the earth to consult them. Just ask yourself – how do you relate to your public?

Prince Harry’s Dark Secret

On World Aids Day in December 2014 Prince Harry admitted something he had kept secret for years. It was this: he dislikes speaking in public. He evidently feels he is not good at it and gets ‘incredibly nervous’ . Now this caused some amazement in the media at the time. How could a Prince of the Realm, someone whose whole life is conducted in public, whose very position requires him to meet strangers and give speeches – how could he be nervous of public speaking? He seems so confident, doesn’t he?

I have never had the pleasure of tutoring a prince, but frankly I wasn’t all that surprised by Harry’s admission. I have had many clients in senior professional jobs who were literally terrified by the very thought of speaking in public. They all felt this was a personal failing and they all knew someone in their office who could speak wittily at length on any subject at the drop of a hat. Usually such clients are astonished when I tell them that this other person is probably just as nervous as they are, the difference being that they have learned to control their nerves. The good speaker’s apparent confidence comes not from inner strength but from practice.

Of course, if you are in a senior position in a company – or royalty – the nervous feelings of inadequacy can be all the worse. People expect you to speak confidently, so the bar is set that much higher. Yet just because you are a senior manager, or a CEO, or even a prince, that doesn’t make you a confident speaker!

Take another example: Winston Churchill. One of the things he is remembered for, apart from the cigar, the world war and the V sign, is his great skills of oratory. Some say his speeches helped the Allies win the war, by bringing Britain together at just the right moment. Yet by his own admission he was a poor speaker. When speaking in public he was halting, breathless and sometimes struggled to get certain words out. On one occasion in the House of Commons he rose to make a speech but found that nothing would come out of his mouth. After a few false starts he had to sit down again, having said nothing at all. The reason we now think of Churchill as a fine speaker is that he recognised his faults, and worked around them. Most importantly he practised, practised and practised again, often in front of a mirror, until he felt ready to deliver a speech. He had the advantage of being a superb writer of English, and he wrote his scripts to suit his halting style, with short but memorable phrases: ‘Never…in the field of human conflict…has so much…’, well you know the rest. Even though he virtually memorised his speeches he habitually held on to a paper copy when delivering them. He had learned that he was most comfortable doing that, and it gave him a useful prop to wave around if he did lose his place.

Now, you may never be invited to be Prime Minister, or join the royal family. The point I’m making here is that effective public speaking is not something that necessarily comes naturally. Nor do you suddenly acquire it along with a certain job title. It is in fact a skill and like any skill it can be taught, learned and improved with practice.

How do I know that almost anyone’s speaking skills can be improved? Because that’s exactly what I have been doing with my own clients for years. Come to think of it, I think I could help Prince Harry become the confident speaker he obviously wants to be. So if you are reading this, your Royal Highness, my contact details are on this website…