Heidi Buchanan is an expert when it comes to facing fear – she helps her clients do it every day. No, she doesn’t work in snake wrangling, bungee jumping, or phobia therapy. Her specialty? It’s even more terrifying: public speaking. “Apparently if you had to rank people’s greatest fears in life”, she tells us, “number three is death, walking into a room full of strangers is second, and public speaking and presenting ranks as number one.” No pressure, then...
As a mother of three girls, there isn’t much that phases Heidi. After a career as a PR exec that saw her appointed as one of the youngest Heads of Public Relations in Australia, and awarded the Weber Shandwick Worldwide ‘Young Achiever of the Year Award’, it was motherhood that prompted her to start her own business, Media Mentor. “I remember someone giving me some advice and they said, if you do want to set up your own business, do it when you are young as the longer you leave it, the harder it gets as your children grow up.” Twelve years on, she’s still running training sessions for her very first client.
So how exactly does Heidi coax a great speech from a less-than-enthused speaker? There’s plenty in her bag of tricks. “When you see a good presenter”, she explains, “you feel like someone has had a chat with you and just you, even if you are in a crowded auditorium. A little bit like a verbal ‘Mona Lisa’.”
We asked Heidi to tell us the secret to presenting, how her training can help, and how she manages to make it all work, from motherhood to media.
For more information, go to www.mediamentor.com.au | Photography: Grace Alyssa Kyo
The Grace Tales team getting media training with Heidi
What did your career entail prior to launching Media Mentor?
I have been working in the communications industry for over 20 years. Early in my career, I worked in a number of different public relations agencies for around 10 years. I started out as a junior consultant in a large agency in their technology division at the time of the dot com boom. I spent many years launching unknown companies into the Australian market and it was an incredibly exciting time to be working in tech public relations. After working at a few different agencies, I then became the head of public relations at an agency called “Love”.
I set up Media Mentor 12 years ago, a communications company specialising in presentation skills programs and media training as I noticed a gap in the market. There were lots of very credible, experienced and focused leaders who were strong in their day to day roles, but who needed help, guidance and especially confidence when dealing with the media and conducting presentations.
Have you always had an interest in public speaking and presenting?
Yes, I have. I am in a small minority of people who really loves presenting to an audience and I don’t break a sweat if I need to present to 10 people or 100 people. All of the work I have done with clients over my years in communications made it an easy transition for me to leave agency life and focus specifically on programs to help people learn all of the skills for compelling presentations.
During my life, I have given many speeches: at industry conferences, our wedding, milestone birthdays, friends special events, sporting and school events and I do enjoy the adrenalin rush that a good presentation can bring.
Do you have any of your own fears around public speaking?
I don’t really have any fears with regard to public speaking, although preparation and lots of practice is key before any large or small presentation. I am a planner and very thorough in the way I approach any presentation so a tight timeframe would not be ideal.
At what point did you realise there would be a market for training executives in presentation and media skills?
After working in public relations agencies for many years, I realised when I had my first child, Willow that I couldn’t be available to clients 24×7 in an agency capacity. I looked at the areas within the communications industry that I loved the most and training and development kept emerging. I always loved media training in my role as a PR agent and I combined this love with presentation skills to set up Media Mentor.
How did you go about setting up your own business? Was it a risk for you at the time?
I remember someone giving me some advice and they said, if you do want to set up your own business, do it when you are young as the longer you leave it, the harder it gets as your children grow up. Happily, Willow loved to sleep and I could set up the business while she slept, designing the brand and working on my first client, a large tech company. 12 years on and I am still running media training and presentation skills programs for that company’s executives ranging from the CEO to MD’s and senior executives. I didn’t think too much about the risks when I set up Media Mentor and focused more on doing a good job for my clients where I could apply the skills I had developed over time.
What has been the most challenging aspect of running your own business thus far?
There are obvious challenges that come with working and having three beautiful chatty girls to grow, develop and nurture. Ensuring there is enough time to dedicate to all moving parts is important, but life is often a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. In addition, owning my business means everything is up to me. I’m quite lucky that I am a motivated person and I do enjoy the new business process including pitching for business. I think it would be hard to have your own business if you didn’t relish the thrill of pitching to and winning clients.
And what about the greatest highlight?
From a business perspective and with a background in technology public relations, conducting training programs for Google Executives has been a career highlight. Google is a brand I had always wanted to work with and in 2019 this became a reality.
Another highlight is that I get to see lots of clients who start off very nervous and anxious and have low confidence in the way they present. At the end of the training, I see such a progression and development. This is very rewarding when you can see people grow and improve in a short space of time.
Talk us through some of the clients you work with and the types of people you train...
A lot of the work I do is behind the scenes with clients, typically before the client fronts a big press conference or delivers a presentation on a contentious issue. My clients are varied and can range from technical engineers, bankers, lawyers and different kinds of small businesses launching cool health products or photographers launching beautiful new image ranges. The balance and variety of spokespeople keeps things really interesting!
Media Mentor founder Heidi Buchanan
Who would benefit from media training or presentation skills training?
Media training is equally beneficial for anyone in a senior role at an organisation, someone who has taken on a new position or someone who needs to front the media in the short to medium term. Media training is also useful for companies launching new products or offerings who are looking to get some extra exposure for their brands.
Presentation skills training is really for everyone. Senior, Junior and in between. Presentation skills can help with skills at work as well as when you leave the office and speak to clients, customers and the greater community. I have a client where the CEO is one of the best speakers I have ever heard. He runs a technology company and interestingly still finds in time in his crazy schedule to practice presentation skills.
What are some of the most common fears around presenting?
Most people are scared or anxious when they need to present. In fact, apparently, if you had to rank people’s greatest fears in life number three is death, walking into a room full of strangers is second and public speaking and presenting ranks as number one. Common fears are going blank, forgetting your speech, nervous speaking in front of peers and the absence of body language when presenting.
What about misconceptions?
People are fearful of presenting because they forget to spend enough time working on their presentations. I find it amazing that people spend so much time and energy going to different training workshops to develop skills in their chosen fields but put such little time and energy into their presentation skills.
In your opinion, what makes for a great speaker?
A great speaker is someone who is passionate about their subject matter, knows their presentation content well and most of all has the ability to engage with the audience. When you see a good presenter, you feel like someone has had a chat with you and just you, even if you are in a crowded auditorium. A little bit like a verbal “Mona Lisa”.
Tell us about the importance of key messages...
I spend a lot of time developing, honing and discussing key messages during my workshops for both presentation skills and media training. They are really intrinsic to any form of communication and so often forgotten by spokespeople.
If we have a speaking engagement or a presentation to deliver, what are your top three tips when we’re preparing?
1) Know your content well
2) Demonstrate passion during your delivery
3) Practise with an expert to hone your presentation skills
Do you have any great tips for eliminating nerves on the day of your presentation?
I do have lots of great tips for eliminating nerves on the day of your presentation, such as focusing almost entirely on your audience.
You’re running your business while having three young girls. How do you make the juggle work in your family?
There is definitely a juggle running my business with three little ladies although they are getting older now. Willow is 12, Inky 10 and Alessandra 7. My husband also has a demanding job. I find I need to be ultra-organised with my work, kids’ activities, etc and I need to ensure that I work efficiently when they are not with me to ensure I get everything done. This might also mean some early mornings and late nights.
My work is however very satisfying, and I prefer to be busy, so it is worth the juggle. The balls do, of course, fall from the air….
What do you teach your daughters about public speaking?
Interestingly, all three of my daughters enjoy public speaking from the news at school to leadership position speeches. Happily, schools are introducing far more speaking exercises from an early age. I believe this will contribute to making them feel comfortable presenting later on in their chosen careers. I have been told to “buzz off “when they practice on me as I probably give too much feedback…..
Do you have any tips for what we can share with our own children if they’re preparing for a presentation?
Tell them to speak clearly and at a good volume, smile when they speak, look at the audience not at their notes and practice a few times on a parent or “generous” sibling.
Who do you look to as inspiration - whether as a speaker or otherwise?
I have had a few wonderful mentors during my career to date. They have all contributed to developing me and challenging me. Regarding speakers, there are many speakers who I am inspired by, in particular John Chambers, a former CEO of Cisco who is a courageous and dynamic speaker, as is Michelle Obama. I tell my clients to keep watching carefully when people present and note down the things they see that they admire in the speaker. We can all keep learning.
What’s next for you and for Media Mentor?
I know it sounds a bit trite, but I do love what I do. I am hoping I am helping people to stop giving dry, dull presentations that lack personality and passion. I have new projects in the pipeline which I’m really excited about.