The value of presentation skill sets in public diplomacy is more important than ever.
By Loren Hurst
Today’s communications environment has vastly increased the importance of presentation skill sets at all levels. Public diplomacy practitioners compete with infinite content choices, where anyone can get online and produce a blog, podcast, or even a feature film. In far too many cases, the entertainment value of presentation skills is simply an afterthought if it’s given any attention at all.
Ultimately, the engagement success of live virtual programs comes down to the talent in front of the camera. Even the best-planned live program will fall flat if the on-camera talent does not deliver the goods. Time and again, I’ve witnessed well-planned programs that seriously underachieve and put audiences to sleep due to a lack of presentation skills. Perhaps twenty years ago, reading from powerpoint slides was acceptable for live programs. Today, this is emphatically no longer the case. As virtual programs become a mainstay of digital diplomacy, media skill sets – presentation, articulation, and managing programs in real time – will become a crucial part of public diplomacy practice for each and every individual.
To put this in context, consider the role of the moderator in live programs. From delivering opening remarks and setting the tone of the discussion, to managing other speakers and fielding questions, program moderators have a pivotal role. Regardless if you are performing that role yourself or advising another, being an effective moderator hinges on three things: preparation, presentation, and leadership.
Preparation, through advance planning meetings where you set the agenda and discuss logistical matters, is where the moderator establishes expectations for the program flow. This must be done in advance. Once the program starts, you cannot stop and redefine the interaction. Beyond confirming that speakers understand technical aspects, the moderator must assert, with sensitivity and tact, their leadership role in the program. Establishing expectations is especially important with subject matter experts, some of whom have a tendency to monopolize the dialogue. It is also the moderator’s job to ensure that all speakers remain within defined timeframes so the program keeps its pace.
Presentation refers to how you conduct yourself on camera. This is your style as a speaker and interlocutor, both with program speakers and the audience. Presentation style is highly subjective, and only through practice can you find your comfort zone. Style elements include using your voice strategically, making eye contact with the camera, and most of all, your interactions with others. The best way to identify your style is to notice how you interact with trusted friends, when you’re calm and just being yourself. Many newcomers try to imitate someone else or act how they think they “should” sound like. Not only is this exhausting, but comes off as stiff and unconvincing. Great program moderation is all about projecting confidence in your own voice. In fact, the final piece of guidance I always give to moderators before we begin a program is to relax, smile, and enjoy. If you’re having fun, it’s infectious. The audience will notice that and they’ll have fun, too – and be entertained and engaged as a result.
Leadership in a live program is the culmination of preparation and presentation. The first two elements reduce risk that a program may go in unexpected directions. In reality, all programs take on a life of their own once they begin. It’s incumbent on the moderator to keep things on track by thinking on their feet, interrupting speakers who go on for too long, and pivoting on subject matter when necessary. If the program has been prepared properly and the speakers understand the moderator’s leadership role, this is done smoothly and without fuss.
Make it Look Good
In an interview, George Clooney said of Cate Blanchett that she makes her job look effortless. Not that she doesn’t put any effort into it, but that it doesn’t show — and that’s when you’re a real pro. Likewise, a successful and engaging virtual program should appear effortless and convey a sense of spontaneous interaction between the moderator and speakers. Moreover, they improve communication outcomes in all contexts – from the smallest office meetings to the largest conferences. Planning and preparation are key elements of achieving that spontaneity and making it look good. Most importantly, these are skill sets that can be taught and mastered. Entertainment value in public diplomacy messaging is no longer a nice-to-have, but a must-have element. Engaging delivery for emotive impact should be built-in from the start, on purpose. In the end, effectiveness is all about personal communication and the skill sets reflecting the emphasis of relationship-building.
This is the third of a series about virtual public diplomacy programming. You can see the introduction and original White Paper at https://www.publicdiplomacycouncil.org/2021/09/11/using-online-interaction-to-build-deeper-audience-relationships/
Any views or opinions represented in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent those of people, institutions, or organizations the author may be associated with in a professional or personal capacity.
Loren Hurst is a strategic communications professional with over 25 years experience in public diplomacy, government relations, and digital communications. He specializes in the strategic use of virtual technologies to engage stakeholders, target audiences, and build reputation management solutions. As a practitioner, teacher, and voice performer, he works around the globe and addresses the communication risks associated with misinformation, especially on climate change and other science-related issues. His professional interests focus on the integrated application of strategic virtual communications, media skills, and sustainability.