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The Business Journal - Presentation Skills Workshop Features Michelle Drake

By Carole Andrews, Contributing Editor

What's scarier...rapelling on a rope down the outside of a 15-story building, or presenting an oral report in front of a group of peers?  Surveys show that the prospect of speaking in front of an audience terrifies more people than taking physical risks, or even the thought of death.  And since communication and presentation skills are vital to success in nearly every endeavor, The Business Journal is offering two unique day-long workshops with Michelle Drake, well-known consultant and executive coach; sessions will be held in Plymouth and Taunton June 11 and 12.

Currently President of Saxton Consulting based in East Freetown, Ms. Drake will present proven and effective tools to transform commonly-experienced terrors into powerful and persuasive interactions in a wide variety of circumstances.  Invited to take part are salespeople, marketers, managers, customer service reps, CEOs...in short, anyone who represents a business in a public forum.

A native New Yorker and former teacher, Michelle Drake learned to conquer fear as a college freshman, poised at the top of the aforementioned 15-story building.  Short needed credits, she had signed up for a Reserve Officers Training Corps course benignly-entitled "Leadership Training."  Showing up for the final exam, she learned for the first time that a passing grade hinged on the ability to get herself down to the ground using only a rope and raw courage.

"I was the only woman in the class and the last of fifteen to do it," she recalls.  "I was terrified, and the instructor kept asking what I was afraid of.  At first, I said I would throw up, or pass out, or crash into the building.  He countered every fear with a fact, saying vomiting wouldn't hurt me, the harness would hold me and someone stationed on the ground would adjust the rope if needed to protect me."

"Ultimately," she explains, "there was no choice but to acknowledge that fear itself held me back.  In a sense, he willed me to do it, and over the edge I went.  years later, facing things that seem scary, I remind myself...I descended on a rope down the outside of a 15-story building...so how bad can this new situation be?"

Fears encountered in business situations, she notes, are most-often related to change, which is upsetting for most people.  "People get promoted, new technologies are instituted, personnel are transferred or required to learn new tasks.  Suddenly, they need to know how to project authority or motivate subordinates who may be older, or participate in team-building," subjects not usually taught in school, she points out.  Indeed, in our technological and mass-media-driven culture, she adds, many people move routinely through working ranks without ever having an opportunity to learn basic communication skills.

About "the only thing working people can count on these days," Ms. Drake points out, is that things will continue to change," and probably at a breakneck pace.  Further, "people who are comfortable with change get noticed and promoted."

The basis behind her teaching is a relatively simple concept: "everything you confront gives you strength for the next challenge," and that "most of us have much more strength than we give ourselves credit for."  In her workshops she teaches specific presentation skills, which are as adaptable to individual face-to-face communications as they are to large groups.  Included are how to evaluate an audience and adjust style appropriately, openings and closings, how to streamline messages for maximum effect and how visual aids and body language affect a given message.

In general practice, Ms. Drake individually tailors training based on client needs and usually videotapes participants so they can observe and comment upon their own presentation style.  "It's meant to be a highly-participative process, and a positive one," she maintains.  "First, we look for the strengths; then we identify what could be improved.  Self-awareness is key," she emphasizes.  "This is not about how to fit a particular mold, it's how to project the best YOU."

Born and educated in New York (B.S. in marketing/management, Siena College; Master's in business education, Dowling College), Ms. Drake initially taught business subjects on the high school level.  Later, while teaching college students, she was called upon to do a workshop on how to present a professional image, both in person and on the telephone.

"A nearby public library system wanted its employees to improve their customer relations skills, and the dean thought I'd be a good person to represent the college," she recalls.  Anticipating an audience of about 30, she found 120 people hanging on every word, and the beginning of a whole new career direction.  "It really took on a life of its own," she says.  Demand for her services burgeoned, especially at other libraries and at hospitals, where interaction with the public requires great sensitivity, she explains.

As word spread, other businesses began to see the need for this kind of training.  "When you talk about presentation skills, people think you mean giving a speech in front of huge crowd, but in fact, making presentations is something people do every day, ranging from answering the telephone, conversing with a co-worker or supervisor, following-through on orders and dealing directly with suppliers and customers."  In particular, she says, more and more people are beginning to appreciate that the telephone is their link to greater income.  "Competition is fierce, and lots of companies can provide a given product.  The quality of customer service is often the most critical factor in the success of a given enterprise."

visual appearances also count, she adds, noting that knowing how to present oneself for a business appointment or interview is crucial.  "Often a potential customer or employer will form an impression of you in the first ten seconds, even before you speak," she points out.  "You have to be aware of clothes, voice and posture, and whether they work together to convey the message you intend."

Fortunately for most people, they will never be called on to exit from a multi-story building via rope.  The majority, however, will at some time take or receive a business phone call, pitch an idea to a boss, instruct others how to accomplish a task, need to defuse an angry response, or convince a customer to buy.  "Fear is nearly always behind ineffective communications," Ms. Drake emphasizes.

"The goal of my workshops is to help people building their skill and confidence levels to project the appropriate level of authority.  With this heightened awareness," she adds, "participants generally see dramatic improvements in a very short time.  And when they overcome fear, they experience a real boost of exuberance: an 'I can do anything' feeling that leads to even greater levels of accomplishment."



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“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt