Making presence felt

2008

In my role as a volunteer guide at London's magical Kew Gardens, I often take people to stand under a gigantic oak tree: Quercus Castaneifolia - so named because its foliage masquerades as sweet chestnut leaves.

The huge girth of the trunk of this superb specimen, which was planted out in 1846, is centred directly beneath its arching canopy. The bole rises to a height of 6.9 metres (22 feet). The branches arc over a vast area. The roots spread as wide. At ease with itself, the tree compels the attention of anyone who stands in its presence.

And this is how members of an audience should feel when faced with a good presenter. Someone confidently grounded in the knowledge of a subject and with a root and branch awareness of the impact their information is going to have, cannot fail to impress.

To become a champion tree the oak had to grow bit by bit in its own way, accepting arboricultural attention and intervention from time to time to improve its habit and its standing.

In the same way, presenters who want to become seasoned performers must be prepared to expose gaps in their knowledge, allow intervention by others and openly accept new ways to grow their initial ideas.

Once this new thinking is absorbed and digested, those parts that will further the presenter's argument can be grafted onto previous material and the final draft get pruned and shaped into a coherent message.

So far so good. But all too often in the flurry of effort put into structuring material, presenters forget how much of its success is dependent solely on their presentation of self.

Too late they discover that slumped posture curtails the rise and fall of the diaphragm and make them breathless even before they begin to speak. Too late they find that locked ankle and knee joints cause their legs to tremble as they stand in front of an audience. Too late they realise - even if sitting - that their trunk and neck muscles are so unused to supporting the head and the voice box at one and the same time, that it is difficult even to initiate words let alone deliver a vibrant message.

Faced with such ineptitude listeners will wish that they were anywhere but in the presence of that particular presenter.

Imagine how startled onlookers would be - and how keen they would be to remove themselves from its presence - if as they looked admiringly at Kew's great oak tree it began to shake, drop detritus onto them and tilt its trunk and bole ominously towards them!

This doesn't happen of course, and it won't happen because the tree is kept strong and healthy. The inner workings of stomata, phloem, sap wood and of the growth rings which are so crucial to its existence are constantly being monitored to make sure that it is always able to compel admiring attention.

We presenters would do well to take a leaf out of the champion oak tree's book and learn that a clear and coherent message can only stem from one who is rooted in knowledge, keeps in good shape and makes their presence felt.

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About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.