Jacqui Harper MBE is one of Britain's most experienced and respected broadcasters and corporate trainers. She has anchored news and current affairs programmes for BBC TV, Sky News and GMTV...
You may not think it but making a really good presentation is a lot like doing a penalty shoot out at a top soccer match.
That’s the view of ex England soccer captain, Gary Lineker. And he ought to know because he’s done both. For eight years he played football at the highest level, scoring 48 goals for England. On television, he’s the supercool presenter of Match of the Day, the BBC’s flagship football programme.
Today we’re used to seeing Gary as the ultimate unflappable presenter – able to cope with all the challenges that live television brings. But it wasn’t always so. When Gary ended his football career in Japan in 1994 he was determined to be equally successful at presenting sports programmes. But television was an entirely new game and he had a lot to learn.
Looking back on the early days of his television career Gary admits that it was not easy. He says he wasn’t born to present – he’s had to learn his craft carefully.
To make things even more difficult he was learning the ropes in front of millions of people when presenting Match of the Day. He recalls that his early presentations were quite wooden, he felt a bit nervous and would occasionally fluff his lines. But crucially says Gary it was not worse than he expected.
The attitude you bring to a presentation, as Gary discovered, is the key to success. Even while developing his skills Gary had a really positive attitude. He admits that his early presenting experiences were tough but he always secretly enjoyed them. The tension and the pressure reminded him of the beautiful game. Gary always felt that a positive attitude would help him succeed.
The hardest thing he had to deal with was the presenter’s earpiece. Gary found it tough having a producer talking to him in his earpiece while he was speaking to the audience at the same time. But like many things it got better with practice.
One of the keys to excelling at presenting is speed of delivery, says Gary. Inexperienced presenters frequently make the classic mistake of rushing when they’re first sitting in front of an audience. They gallop through interviews and their scripts and the whole thing gets very difficult to manage. “It’s really important” says Gary “to take your time and to think about what you’re saying.”
To be on top of your game as a presenter you also need to be a sharp listener. It’s one of the things that separates the skilled presenter from the novice.
He described the hypothetical scenario of somebody interviewing star footballer David Beckham. The last words that Beckham says are “well, I’m going to be retiring next week” and the interviewer follows up with the question “so, who are you going to be playing with next season?”. Poor listening skills are one of Gary’s pet dislikes.
One of the strategies Gary’s developed to avoid this mistake is not writing down interview questions. This encourages him to listen closely to what the interviewee is saying. His preparation for an interview focuses on the subjects to be discussed not the actual questions.
Doesn’t he ever dry up using this approach? Gary says occasionally he does forget a question that he had wanted to ask but not very often. He believes it’s much more important to turn the interview into an interesting conversation. It needs to feel like a genuine conversation where people are listening and thinking.
He adds, if you worry about drying up it’s more likely to happen. If you face the fear and the worst doesn’t happen you start to build confidence. Most people surprise themselves and find they can learn to do it well.
Another tip for improving your skills is learning from others. Gary says he had no formal training but he did pick the brains of other great sports presenters like Des Lynam. He also spent time closely watching Des Lynam in the studio.
The key thing he learned from Des Lynam was how to connect to the audience. Part of this is being who you are – being relaxed and natural. It’s also essential to include the audience. You can do this subtly with gestures, facial expressions and with a simple smile. There’s also inclusive language. You can bring the audience into the programme by saying “joining us in the studio today” rather than “I’m joined in the studio today.”
For every presenter dealing with the unexpected can cause the biggest headaches. In Gary’s experience “something unexpected often and always happens in television.” His advice is to share what’s happening with the audience. For example if the autocue breaks down tell the audience what’s going on and take a breather to regain composure. “There’s nothing worse than a panic–stricken presenter staring into the camera for all their life’s worth. It makes the audience feel very uncomfortable,” says Gary.
Gary’s final tip to presenters is to try to enjoy the experience. Try to look forward to the presentation, to see it as exciting. Remember that you’re doing something that some people will never experience in their lives, so it’s quite a privilege.
“It’s just a great test of yourself. And especially if you do well, it’s a great feeling.”