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...
In investment banking it’s easy to blind people with science but Keith Harris never does. He knows that before you give people detail you’ve got to engage them and to do that he uses humour whenever he can.
He’s had plenty of opportunity to practise his philosophy. As the boss of City of London financiers Seymour Pierce he’s regularly presenting to the investment community in the UK.
At the beginning of a presentation Keith typically searches for a line to make his audience laugh, relax and listen. “I can always stand up and say something – it just comes” says Keith.
He recalls a presentation he made in the early days of his stewardship of Seymour Pierce. The venue was Henry VIII’s Great Hall at Hampton Court – huge and resplendent with historic tapestries and a spectacular ceiling. Keith started his presentation with the quip “Ladies and Gentlemen thank you for joining me for dinner at my home!” The audience laughed and things proceeded well. It worked.
He works at engaging his audience in a number of other ways. A good example of this was a very different presentation he made as chief executive of Investment Banking for HSBC. This was a tough presentation because it was delivering a radical message about how the business was going forward. There were going to be major changes and staff would be told they would have to re–apply for their jobs.
To make sure the core message was as clear as possible to the audience he thought about the content for a couple of months. He was constantly writing notes and thinking things over. He even found himself jotting down notes in the middle of the night.
He compares this process of preparation for a presentation to that of good stand up comics before a gig. He says that comics have core material that is 60–70% of their act. They focus on refining the delivery of this material until it’s near perfect.
Similarly, by the time Keith made the presentation to his HSBC colleagues he was absolutely sure of what he wanted to say to his audience and how he was going to say it. He spoke for nearly two hours without any notes to 400 people and he chose to speak sitting down.
Early in the presentation he sensed the mood of the audience. They were relaxed and listening intently. He used a risqué joke at the beginning to help ease tension. (I’m afraid the joke is a bit too saucy to relate here but it certainly made me laugh!).
Keith’s obvious confidence when speaking to audiences is something he’s learned from two sources: working in America and attending a training course in presentation skills.
What did he learn from these sources? To listen, look and get the audience comfortable.
On the subject of listening he was told to note the significance of having two ears and one mouth. He was advised to listen and speak in the same ratio. It’s something he eagerly embraces “When you’re listening you learn. The trick is not to say too much. It’s not only manners for people to listen – it gives good information for presenters to latch onto.”
The importance of eye contact cannot be emphasised enough. He hates presentations generated from flip charts, slides or scripts where presenters don’t look directly at the people they’re addressing.
“Engaging eye contact when speaking and looking away when you’re thinking is best. If you master that you give a better impression,” he says.
But the most important thing he learned was actually a challenge: to make sure you find ways to present information that make people feel comfortable when listening to you. That’s the way to get a serious message across.
Keith needed to put all those lessons into action when he became chairman of the Football League in 2000. He was now addressing completely different audiences to the business crowd. The football audiences had people from all different levels of education and social backgrounds.
Getting such audiences to feel comfortable was not easy and he often had to think on his feet.
He remembers making a keynote speech that had been written for him early in his chairmanship. In rehearsal he had a hunch that he would not present it well and he was proved right.
He started the presentation using autocue but decided to abandon the autocue speech half way through. He knew he wasn’t reaching his audience so he ad libbed. Things improved considerably after that despite continual attempts by his confused autocue operator to get Keith back to the autocue speech!
Keith’s chairmanship of the Football League was during a particularly challenging period. The League was confronting major issues to do with television rights. At the end of his tenure in 2002 Keith produced his most memorable one liner. He said he was “handing the asylum back to the lunatics.”
Keith clearly brings a distinctive style of communication to whatever organisation he leads.