Archive for the ‘Delivery’ Category

When I first started researching how leaders speak, I read the works of many leadership gurus.

At one point, I decided to take the qualities of a leader that all the gurus agreed were important and sort out the ones that were relevant to public speaking.

One quality on this short list was authenticity—or, if you prefer, realness.

A speaking leader can never afford to project a fake, plastic, or put-on image.

One way this happens is to treat public speaking too much like a performance.  Someone who has a tendency to do this will bound up to the podium thinking “It’s show time!”  They don’t just “turn it up” enough to project well to a large group; they turn it way up.

If their highly-animated delivery differs too much from their day-to-day personality, they risk being perceived as unreal and inauthentic.

I’ve heard it said that public speaking requires being “a bigger you.”  That’s a good way to think of it.  Dialed up for a room full of people, but still very much “you.”

Whether it’s delivering a short, impromptu talk from the front of the room or participating as an audience member, many people refuse to use the proffered microphone.

Oh, no, no, no …. I don’t need that.  I’m fine.

It doesn’t matter if it’s obviously needed, they hold up their hands as if to fend off a dangerous weapon.

I’ve never quite understood.  Maybe a microphone makes them feel too high-profile or too obligated to deliver a well-articulated message.

Whatever the reason, they are putting their own concerns above the need others have to hear.

When you volunteer to speak and someone offers you the microphone, go ahead and use it.  Making it easy for others to hear you is a simple courtesy that should take priority over a bit of discomfort on your part.

One of earliest pieces of public speaking advice I received was to stay away from podiums (lecterns) whenever possible.  I was warned that podiums have a way of causing even the most mobile speakers to become stationary.  Lost is that dynamic quality that comes with moving about the stage or floor space while speaking.

I have certainly found this to be true in my own career.  As soon as I step behind even something as unobtrusive as a music stand, I tend to stand still.  I might rationalize that I have to stay with my notes, but it’s really the anchoring effect of the stand that is holding me.

Moving away from a podium, when there is room to do so, takes a conscious effort.  Without such an effort, the podium’s gravitational pull is likely to hold you in one place.  Countering this may take some advanced planning and practice, including reminder notations on your notes.

Of course there are times when the meeting you are speaking at is set up in such a way that you are restricted to the podium.  But even in those situations, some movement is possible, particularly if you have a clip-on microphone.  You can pivot to one side or the other.  You can also step back and then move forward.

The important thing is to recognize the immobilizing nature of a podium and don’t unconsciously succumb to it.

There was a time when public speaking orthodoxy was that you let your arms hang loosely at your sides whenever you are not gesturing.  The idea was to keep your hands apart so that you did not unconsciously start wringing them or tightly clutching them together.

It’s rare to see a speaker adhere to this orthodoxy anymore because it feels awkward.  To counteract the awkwardness, I long ago started advising people to “cheat” by lightly touching the fingertips of one hand to a conveniently located piece of furniture, like a table.  This fingertip technique creates a feeling of being grounded and secure—and, it still keeps the hands apart.

Although the fingertip technique works well, I recently observed a few speakers using the traditional arms-hanging-loosely approach.  It looked good.  If they were feeling awkward, it didn’t show.  They appeared confident and poised.

It would not be a bad idea for a speaker to practice the traditional approach enough to have it as an option.  Conveniently-located furniture cannot always be counted on and letting the hands get together can lead to nervous or defensive body language.

The next time you are at a meeting watch what people do when they are speaking while seated at a table.

You will notice that most of them unconsciously play with an object.

They may spin their pen on the table or straighten a paper clip.  If they brought coffee to the meeting and the Styrofoam cup is now empty, they may start breaking it into pieces.

Rubber bands get wrapped around hands.  Ball point pens get clicked over and over.  Caps get taken off markers and put back on, repeatedly.  The possibilities are endless.

It’s not a big deal except that it can become distracting and, possibly, send a message of nervousness.

If you think this describes you, consider eliminating the temptations before it is your turn to speak.  Put the pen in your pocket and push the empty cup away.

Then, when you speak, combine occasional hand gestures with comfortably folded hands.

I just finished working with a group of individuals who present to a wide range of audience sizes from 4 to 700.  However, most of their work is with small groups.

What I observed with their eye contact was predictable.  When speaking, they gave most of their attention to the people seated close to them.  Only occasionally, if at all, did they glance at the audience members seated farther away. 

This is a common phenomenon.  A speaker habituated to small groups will concentrate on the first row or two of a big audience and, relatively speaking, ignore everyone else.  Without realizing it, they are sizing the audience to fit their normal experience.

I say “without realizing it” because it is an unconscious thing.  Everyone in the group I just worked with was unaware they were only looking at a few people until I gave them that feedback and they observed the video recording of their presentation.

If your typical audience is small you will have to make a conscious effort to extend your eye contact to the back rows when you speak to a large group.  It won’t happen automatically.

I haven’t listened to a State of the Union speech in many years.  I actually prefer to read the script the following day.

That sounds like a terrible admission for a speech coach, but something about the tradition that has grown up around this presidential speaking exercise makes it painful to listen to.

That something is the constant applause.  Every single, seemingly significant point that the President makes has to be followed by applause.  Interruption is the order of the evening.

The result is that any President, no matter how talented he may be, cannot establish a speaking rhythm.  A speech needs rhythm. 

William Safire put it this way: “A good speech has a beat, a changing rhythm, a sense of movement that gets the audience tapping its mind’s foot.”

My last post talked about one of the most common questions speakers ask: Can you put your hands in your pockets? 

In workshops I often get asked a second question as soon as I finish answering the hands-in-pockets question.  That second question is about holding notes: Is it okay to do so?

As with the “pockets” question, the answer is usually “No.”  Notes in the hands of a speaker can become a distraction.

Speakers will unconsciously play with their notes, waving them about or rolling them into a tube and tapping their leg.  They will nervously fold and unfold them or, worse yet, drop them.  Some speakers hold them tightly with both hands and never gesture.  And, of course, there is the problem of nervous, shaky hands being made more obvious by the paper shaking.

However, there will be times when you have no choice.  You have to hold them because there is no place convenient to put them.

In preparation for such situations, practice speaking while holding notes.  Get so you can calmly hold them at your side and reference them only as needed.  Use your other hand for gesturing so that your nervous energy has an outlet and you’re less inclined to wave the notes about.  Watch television hosts and note how they do it.  Study the hosts that are the most polished and use them as a model.

So…hold them if you have to, but remember, empty hands are the best for public speaking.

This question comes up regularly in public speaking workshops.

Traditionally, the answer is “No.”  Some speakers will distract the audience by playing with change in their pockets.  Others will stop gesturing and become less dynamic.  Still others will risk coming across too laid back and casual for the occasion.

For these reasons and others, a no-hands-in-pockets rule is generally a good idea.

I say “generally” because this rule, like many speaking rules, can be broken for good reasons.

If, for example, you want to deliberately affect a casual demeanor, putting one hand in your pocket for short periods of time is effective.  I’ll do this sometimes when I am facilitating a discussion as part of a presentation.  I want everyone to feel comfortable and participate, so I make a point of acting relaxed and comfortable myself.

Just remember when you break this “rule” that it’s best to limit yourself to one hand in a pocket and then only for short periods.  Gesture with the other hand and then get back to two-handed gesturing in short order.

There is this myth that good speakers don’t use notes; that somehow notes are an unprofessional crutch.

If you know your stuff, you shouldn’t need them.  Or, so goes the rationale.

It’s nonsense.  You can “know your stuff” and still require notes for the specific message you crafted for a particular audience and occasion. 

Unfortunately, many speakers have bought into the using-notes-is-bad myth, so they try to use them without looking as if they are using them.  They steal quick glances like a student using secret notes during a test.  They act like they’re cheating.

Don’t sneak glances.  If you need to look at your notes, look at them—openly and without embarrassment.  Good form is to pause for a second and then look back up at the audience as you deliver your next point.

Oddly enough, the more confidently obvious you are about using notes, the less people give it any notice.


Steele Presentation Coaching