Speaking at the House of Commons: 6 tips for high stakes presenting

Late one Friday afternoon at the end of a busy week, just as I was thinking of wrapping up and pouring a glass of wine, the telephone rang. I was sorely tempted to ignore it, but some sixth sense kicked in and I decided to take just one last call.

‘Hello,’ I said, somewhat lacksadaisically.  It was a warm day.  That cold glass of Chablis and the garden beckoned.

‘Hello.  This is the House of Commons.’

My first reaction was ‘Yeah, right,’ but thankfully I kept quiet till I’d found out more.

‘We’d like you to give evidence to parliament.’

‘OK . . . ’

‘On sexual harassment in the workplace.’

Ah, right. An area of speciality of mine. This was definitely bona fide.

‘The Women and Equalities Committee want to understand how mediation can help to reduce sexual harassment at work and you’ve been recommended to us as an experienced mediator who can advise them.

You’ll be questioned by a panel of MPs at the House of Commons and the hearing will be live streamed on the internet.’

Gulp. Parliamentary committees can be tough on their witnesses and with live broadcast on the internet, there’s no margin for error. This was going to be a whole new level of visibility.

Of course my answer was ‘Yes’. This was an opportunity to advance two causes I care deeply about: tackling sexual harassment of women and using mediation to resolve differences constructively. I felt both nervous and excited.

When coaching women leaders I encourage them to put themselves forward for high-profile opportunities and value what they have to say. This was an opportunity to take my own advice.

I knew I needed to prepare myself so that I’d make the most of this opportunity. I had 5-10 minutes to get my points across and have a shot at influencing government policy for decades to come.  I was determined to do my best.

This is how I did it:

1. Get advice from an expert
I’m a seasoned presenter and panellist, comfortable with a live audience, but less experienced with cameras. I sought the advice of former BBC producer Esther Stanhope, The Impact Guru, who gave me excellent tips on what to wear and how to deliver my message so it would work on camera as well as in the room.

2. Prepare thoroughly – and know when to stop
I took time to think about my audience, (the committee of MPs who would be questioning me),  their goals, what they knew about the topic and what I wanted them to DO as a result of my evidence. I read the previous evidence and researched current thinking. I then drew a line and decided I’d done enough, curbing the temptation to read every word on the topic and getting lost in the detail.

3. Prepare yourself as well as your content
Once I’d prepared my content I set it aside and prepared how I wanted to BE. I used one of my favourite techniques from my presentation skills coaching by picking the 3 qualities I most wanted to exude. I wanted to be calm, I wanted to be considered and I wanted to be compelling.  So I silently repeated to myself “I am calm, considered and compelling” as I sat on the tube, as I walked from the tube to the House of Commons and as I sat waiting to speak.

4. Get there early and tune in to the atmosphere.
I turned up at the House of Commons and was whisked through security. The atmosphere of the building reminded me strongly of going to court in my lawyer days – the formality and the sense of entering into a different world with its own strange rules and procedures. I got there early enough to watch another panel of witnesses giving evidence before my session. Sitting in the room I had time to get a feel for the style of questioning, the personalities on the committee and the acoustics in the room. I sing in a choir and I know the value of rehearsing in the place where I will perform.

5. Expect to be nervous
Telling yourself “I shouldn’t be feeling nervous” is no help at all. Of course you should be nervous when doing something high stakes for the first time. Embrace the nerves and remind yourself how great you will feel afterwards when you have accomplished a successful result.

6. Focus on being helpful to others
When under pressure I can feel self conscious and my attention goes to what others think of me rather than the value of my message. The best antidote is to focus on the needs of my audience (the committee of MPs who have to decide on policy) and those that will be helped by it: women who have been harassed; men who want to understand the impact of their behaviour and employers who want a safe and fair workplace. Focusing on others takes the pressure off me and allows me to do my best.

Eventually my turn came, the Chair Maria Miller MP asked me a question, all eyes were upon me and I started to speak.  I was pleased and relieved that I spoke fluently and was able to make my key points, weaving them into the questions that were posed.

I was delighted that I managed to emphasise the huge value of mediation in resolving and healing the harm caused by harassment at work.  Often, harassment at work involves an imbalance of power. Mediation can be very effective at redressing this as it gives the less powerful an equal voice. However, a complainant needs to know that they have strong alternatives if dialogue is not successful. In practice this means organisations must be willing to investigate and challenge the behaviour of senior and powerful employees and hold them to account, regardless of how commercially valuable they are to the business. Moreover, mediation can change the behaviour of  perpetrators.  It gives them a chance to reflect on their behaviour in non-blaming environment.

Given the sensitive nature of these disputes, professional mediators who are specialists in this area and are external to the organisation should be used.

All too quickly the session was over and I made my way out into the sunshine of Parliament Square, feeling a mixture of relief and exhilaration that I had acquitted myself well. I was grateful for all the years’ experience I have in presenting and the powerful model of preparation I have developed.

It was time for another glass of wine.

If you’ve got a high-profile speaking event coming up you’d like help with, get in touch and let’s book a chat about how I can help you to shine.

Watch a highlight from the interview here: