This interview with Ovation President Kerri Garbis originally appeared in the Expert Insights series for Activia Training - a major UK provider of professional skills development. Take a look to learn a bit more about Kerri, her book Presentation Skills for Managers, and why her first acting experience involved a piano and a dog. Many thanks to Jordan James and Activia!
McGraw-Hill has recently released Kerri’s first book, Presentation Skills for Managers - which we will be discussing in more detail today. So it is my pleasure to introduce today's guest, Kerri Garbis.
Hi Kerri, thanks so much for stopping by Activia's Expert Insights – could you tell us a little more about yourself?
You’re welcome! A few things about me – I’m the President and Co-founder of Ovation Communication, a company that helps people master the art of human interaction through Presentation Skills, Storytelling, and Emotional Intelligence. We’ve had the opportunity to help thousands of clients at major corporations around the globe. I've drawn on the world of communication skills through my background as a professional actor. I’ve performed on stage in New York and across the globe, as well as on film and television. And incidentally, I’ve got a big thing for humor, coffee, and Cross-fit.
I read that you have been a professional actress since childhood, how did you find yourself where you are today?
Yes, I started acting professionally as a child in Baltimore, my first paying job involved playing the piano, pushing someone around in a wheelchair and walking a real live dog on-stage. Not all at the same time. I went on to study at some great places. It was in the midst of my acting career as an adult, it dawned on me how influential the skills I’d learned from years of working in the theatre could be on professionals struggling with their communication skills. It didn’t happen overnight, but I continued to develop this idea over the next few years, and what came to fruition was Ovation.
When did you realize that you wanted to help and inspire others?
I’ve also been a teacher/leader at heart. I minored in music education in college along with receiving my BFA in Musical Theatre. About twelve years ago I was working a “day job” in between acting gigs, selling payroll services for the one of the big firms here in the US. I really did not like this job but it paid my bills and provided me with terrific benefits. As a rookie sales person I started out-selling some seasoned team mates who often inquired “what are you doing?” to which I did not have an answer. One day, one of the long-time sales people asked if she could spend the day with me, to observe my style. I said “sure”.
After a typical day of cold-calling and appointments in New York City, we returned to the office. She immediately asked me “can you teach me how to do that?” To which I replied “do what?”. Once she was able to articulate what she observed (strong communication skills, open body language, mirroring vernacular, self-awareness) it occurred to me that not everyone studied this for years at their University. And, acting skills enhance communication skills. It was that moment that I could help business professionals.
Your new book Presentation Skills for Managers (2nd edition) was published at the end of August – could you tell us a little more about it?
While the title says “for Managers”, this book really is for everyone. I had a friend call to say she just used some of the techniques while delivering a toast at a wedding. It has tons of tips and techniques, from the actor’s perspective, on how to connect with your audience (no matter what the size), delivery techniques, rehearsal tips, audience analysis, and general presentation skill improvement. You’ll also get a lot of stories from my life as an actor / trainer and one picture of me in a purple wig.
How does your background in acting make this presentation skills book different from the rest?
Professional actors spend their entire careers working to create authentic, fully-embodied, impactful performances. Our communication skills need to be top-notch to be able to connect with our fellow actors onstage, as well as with the audience. I’m not just offering a few tips that sound good or promise to make you feel a certain way about your skills. I’m giving you techniques – actual techniques – that I know translate between the very similar mediums of acting and presenting.
That said, the core difference for me is that actors are masters of preparation. When it comes to presentation skills, lots of people say you should practice, yet give you no process to do so! You may feel you’re practicing effectively, but in actuality you’re spinning your wheels. In my book, I completely lay out the Rehearsal Process actors use to ensure they are completely prepared, and tell you exactly how to take advantage of it from content creation through delivery.
What I DON’T do, I promise, is try to make anyone perform, or be an actor. I’m not asking you to “act” during a presentation! What I say this this: you don’t have to BE an actor, you just have to think like one.
Public speaking is a fear for a lot of people. What is one tip to feel more relaxed when speaking in front of an audience?
It sounds simple, but breathe. BREATHE! You’re doing so right now (at least I hope so!). But what you’re probably not doing is taking deep, core breaths. When we get nervous, our breathing becomes shallow. This robs us of the full exchange of oxygen and C02, which isn’t a good thing. Focus on breathing deeply – it should feel like you’re breathing into your stomach area. Inhale for a count of 5 to 10, and exhale for the same. Before presentation delivery, core breaths help calm and center us. But remember to keep breathing fully while you present as well!
Do you think it is possible to be an effective manager even without presentation skills?
I firmly believe that in order for a professional to reach their full potential as a manager, strong presentation skills are a must. You may be able to tick some boxes in terms of achieving or completing tasks, however, a manager needs to be able to communicate, lead by example, question, inspire, accommodate, adjust, and excel with their teams. That’s a lot more than just “completing” things! Presentation skills make all these possible.
What is the secret to engaging an audience that doesn’t want to listen?
Before you step in front of an audience, you should do a thorough audience analysis. (I lead you through one in the book.) This will help you really get into the mindset of the people you’re listening to, and prepare yourself if your content, the time you’re presenting, or the state of the world might turn them off. If you do this before, you can address their concerns in your presentation. And when people feel you’re speaking to their needs, they’re more inclined to listen.
But what if they just won’t tune in mid-presentation? In a quick way, be sure you can be heard and seen. If you’re hiding behind a lectern or table, step out from behind it. Close the distance and “tune in” with them more. Ask them a question – turn your information around a bit. But all that is a bit of in-the-moment triage. The work you do before – knowing what you want your audience to do, and having a plan to get them to do it – goes a long way towards audience engagement. I give you a process for that in the book as well. Remember that your audience is made up of living, breathing humans. If you’re simply talking AT people, rather than TO them, even the best presenter will lose their audience’s attention.
How important is non-verbal communication when it comes to presenting?
How important is gas to a car? It’s essential! You might have the best information in the entire world. If your physicality is connected to your message, and your body and voice are all working together to deliver that information in the best way possible, you’re going to see the impact it has. You’re doing your information a real service.
However, just like a car without gas, content alone won’t take you far. You might be saying all the right things, but if your body is telling us you’re angry, or closed off, or anxious, or trying to hide, that non-verbal communication is going to win. Imagine a presenter delivering on your favorite topic, but tapping their foot the entire time. That’s what your eye will be drawn to. That’s what you’ll remember! Our non-verbal communication skills have the ability to make or break a presentation. And with a little self-awareness, we can use them to our advantage.