- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

Superior communication skills make an important difference even in the most ordinary settings, says Timothy J. Koegel, who has worked with some of America’s top public speakers.

“If you’re going next door to ask the neighbor if they can stop their dog from barking in the middle of the night, or a parent-teacher meeting — anybody who’s a parent can understand how difficult it can be to communicate with their kids,” says Mr. Koegel, president of the Koegel Group, a Washington-based consulting firm that helps executives, politicians and business professionals deliver their messages effectively.

The skills that make for effective business presentations are also applicable in many other areas of life, a point that Mr. Koegel emphasizes in his new book, “The Exceptional Presenter.”

“My goal was to have people broaden their definition of what they think of as a presentation … to include any time you open your mouth to speak,” Mr. Koegel said in a recent telephone interview.

Sometimes, Mr. Koegel says, clients resist his advice about the importance of improving their communication skills.

“It’s frustrating, because many people say, ‘Well, I only do one or two presentations a year,’ but the fact is, every day, they are presenting information, they’re presenting ideas, they’re going to staff meetings, luncheons, they’re leaving voice mail messages, conference calls — those are all presentations.”

Mr. Koegel, who was a quarterback at University of Notre Dame and for the Chicago Blitz of the short-lived United States Football League, says that what’s true of football is true of presentations — training and practice are the keys to success.

“You keep running that play over and over again,” he says.

After his football career ended, Mr. Koegel eventually started a speaker’s bureau, where he booked such speakers as columnist Art Buchwald, Rep. Jack Kemp and Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana (for whom Mr. Koegel was backup at Notre Dame).

“Then I had a couple clients who asked me to come out and talk to their managers about why some speakers are able to connect with an audience … what makes some good and some not so good, talk about communication skills,” he says. “When they asked me … I thought, I’d better develop my skills if I’m going to talk about what these speakers do.”

After attending training sessions and “brushing up on my own techniques,” Mr. Koegel says, he found that he was himself increasingly in demand to teach presentation skills for his business clients.

He encapsulates the methods of exceptional presentation in an acronym, “OPEN UP,” each letter of which stands for a particular point:

c Organized —Good presenters “organize their message so it’s clear and compelling, so that the audience remembers the one or two key points of the presentation,” Mr. Koegel says. He emphasizes the importance of a strong start: “Look organized. If you start the presentation looking down, shuffling through notes, it looks like you have not prepared for the presentation. Pause, look at the audience, and then begin. Because that first 10 seconds is the strongest impression we have.”

c Passionate — “A passionate speaker will get away with more mistakes than an a drab or one-dimensional speaker,” Mr. Koegel says. He cites former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as an example of a speaker who conveys passion: “He is always engaging, he’s always animated, he moves freely, he rarely uses filler — the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs.’ ” Being passionate about the subject helps engage the audience’s interest, Mr. Koegel says: “If a presenter doesn’t even look excited about it, why the heck would I be passionate about that topic?”

c Engaging— “Exceptional presenters do everything they can to connect with the audience,” Mr. Koegel says. One way of engaging is to ask questions of the audience and to use the names of audience members, he says. “When I say your name, it will not only get your attention, but everyone refocuses.”

c Natural— “A great presentation sounds more like a conversation than it does a speech,” Mr. Koegel says, rather than sounding “scripted, programmed, as if the presenter is presenting talking points.”

c Understand — More specifically, understand your audience. “Research the audience, talk to people within the organization about who will be there, what are their interests, the issues that they feel are relevant,” Mr. Koegel says.

c Practice— “Those who practice improve. Those who don’t, don’t,” Mr. Koegel says. “That is a major point. Most people practice the night before a major presentation, the morning of the presentation, on their way to the presentation.” But such short-term practice doesn’t pay off, he says. “If your delivery skills are not second nature, they will fail under pressure.”

Mr. Koegel says that improving presentation technique can be a constant exercise.

“You can practice these skills during your normal daily routines. Practice your eye contact in every conversation you engage in during the day. Practice your posture any time you’re standing. Practice not using verbal graffiti — the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘likes’ and ‘you knows’ — any time you leave a voice mail message.”

He points out that the skills involved in presentations are also useful in job interviews, citing a poll of corporate recruiters who ranked “communication and interpersonal skills” as the trait they rated most important. Superiority in such skills, Mr. Koegel says, is a competitive advantage.

“If you’re in business and your competitor is a more effective communicator, you’re probably not going to get that contract.”

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