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City bosses call in Zoom coaches to help with ‘car crash’ online pitches

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Zoom fatigue is real.

A senior sales and marketing executive at a UK asset manager said that to prepare for a recent  pitch for a pension fund mandate via the conferencing app, his team conducted seven or eight “dry runs”. 

“But I walked away thinking, ‘That was horrible’. You can’t read body language and you can’t sense the room,” said the person, who declined to be identified. “It was too clunky. We were given feedback that we were a bit cold and a bit distant.”

He added: “We’ve done a few virtual pitches now. Some of them have been car crashes.”

To avoid such a disaster in the future, the fund management executive enlisted the help of a presentation coach for the next set of pitches, saying he hoped a professional would give him and his team a “performance” edge.

As new business pitches and client meetings are being conducted from spare bedrooms and home offices, some City executives have struggled to adapt and are turning to expert help after a series of presentation nightmares. And those who provide presentation coaching to City firms say they’re noticing an increase in demand since lockdown began in March.

Sandra Davis, head of presentation coaching at one such firm, called Bladonmore, has worked with City bosses to conduct presentations such as investor days and financial results.

“A few clients have said the leadership team are finding it difficult to engage people,” she told Financial News. “For some, we have had to do it very quickly. It was a big switch going online and presentations had to be adapted.”

Research from Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, revealed a dizzying surge in Zoom usage among UK adults, with 13 million users in April — up from 659,000 in January. For Microsoft Teams, users more than doubled over the same period to 6.5 million, up from 3 million in April.

The proportion of UK online adults making video calls has also doubled during lockdown, with more than seven in 10 doing so at least weekly, up from 35% from before working from home restrictions were put in place.

Overall, UK adults spent an average of four hours and two minutes online a day during April — the highest amount of record. This was up from three hours and 29 minutes in September 2019.

Jane Houghton, a presentation coach who works with private equity executives, has also seen an increase in demand for help with online business pitches. Clients are looking to make an impression during a time when competition for deals is fierce, she said.

“A lot of private equity firms are competing for deals,” said Houghton. “Competition is higher at the moment and they have to stand out. They have to make assumptions on the first Zoom call they make.”

It is not just clients that executives are looking to impress. Presentation coaches say companies also want to be more slick in how they communicate with employees using internal webinars as well as online panel sessions.

“Everyone has webinar fatigue,” said Houghton. “If you were doing a panel discussion at an event, you can feed off people and the audience and can gauge when to pitch in. It’s more difficult online and you have to bring in people in a slightly different way.”

Graham Davies, a presentation coach who has worked with executives at Fidelity International, Invesco, UBS and Barclays, said that for some clients, the “wake up call” to bring in professional help only just started recently, after three months in lockdown.

“You can get rapport with people you know via Zoom, but it’s difficult with people you do not know,” said Davies.

“A lot of people have been dealing with Zoom in a far too casual way – treating it as an informal chat to your laptop screen, and not as a formally prepared, rehearsed and sharpened presentation,” he said. “You need to be short, sharp and quite intense in what you are saying to break through the glass barrier of the laptop screen.”

Davies said he was getting more requests for so-called hybrid presentations, where executives present to a small number of people in the same room, while others tune-in via the web.

“Hybrid will be the only game in town for about a year,” said Davies.

With predictions that the pandemic will lead to long-lasting changes in behaviour, such as a fall in executive air travel, online business pitches are likely to stick.

“It’s a time saver,” said Houghton. “If you had to get on a plane to travel, you may find it easier to listen to an event on a webinar. I don’t think this will disappear.”

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email David Ricketts



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