Confessions of a Former Public Speaking Trainer
My career has been focused on helping executives communicate more effectively. For a good part of it, I ran a nationally ranked PR firm where I personally trained leaders to be better presenters and speakers. I’ve worked with hundreds of CEOs and professionals down the chain, individually and in groups. I’ve videotaped, massaged talking points, managed body language, and provided all the best practices.
Then, several years ago I stopped. I took down that part of my shingle entirely. Because I realized that for most people, public speaking training is not worth the time nor the money.
Now, some of you might argue that it’s been useful for you. You get feedback on your style and mannerisms. You may find out if you’re doing anything that’s overly distracting. And you practice speaking, albeit in a forced setting that doesn’t resemble real life.
Presentation training can even do more harm than good.
For those who’ve been through speaker training, you know the drill. You leave feeling less authentic than ever, with piles of “correct” postures, gestures, and speech effects to practice.
Don’t tilt your head! Stand up straight! Don’t pace too much! Walk more! Make eye contact with more people! Make eye contact with a few people! Gesture bigger! Gesture smaller!
I say this not just from my own experience training, but from talking to scores of executives who have been through training conducted by others — often some of the best brand names in the business. (Usually former TV journalists, actors or other professionals who haven’t worked inside a business.)
Speaker training is helpful — if you want to be a professional speaker.
But for nearly all executives, you’re not training to be perfect orators who can mesmerize a room. You’re trying to develop presence to connect with and inspire others. You want to build trust and credibility, and be clear and energetic. You want your seat at the table to count.
This type of presence does not come from perfect, robotic gestures and words with lyrical cadence. As I discuss in Power of Presence, the type of presentation ability that propels careers and builds followership comes from the inside out. You can learn it — but not in a training class on superficial attributes.
Presence comes from developing intentionality and making individual connections. These days, as a coach, I’m often in the position of having clients “undo” many best practices they learned in public speaking training. Only then can we work on what engenders trust and respect.
So if you’re considering taking the requisite speaker training class, or have participated in one in the past, please keep these thoughts in mind:
There’s not one right way to present.
Even among presentation trainers, there’s widespread opinion about what techniques are actually most effective. The studies behind these claims even contradict themselves. That’s why some trainers will tell you to make large gestures and others will say they’re distracting, for example.
This simply echoes the interpersonal reality that what appeals to one person doesn’t appeal to another. Two colleagues could watch you present in a meeting and have completely different opinions about your effectiveness. In the end, much of your style has to be what works for you.
Great presenters don’t follow the rules.
While there are general truisms like speaking while glued to notes is boring, beyond a very few behaviors, you can view a wide range of approaches from great presenters. Steve Jobs didn’t gesture with proper technique or follow the most recommended speech framework. Watch a few TED talks. You’ll find plenty of reticent, wonky presenters who are fascinating. What makes a person a strong presenter is that their presence shines through, showing their passion and expertise for their topic.
Authenticity overrides form.
We are used to observing a diverse set of human behaviors, and have adapted well to reading authenticity. We readily sniff out a person who cares, and we hone in on that. Authenticity creates a trust bond and establishes credibility. The rest becomes superfluous.
Further, when you focus on presence and authenticity, you calibrate your style to the occasion. It’s alienating to have a speaker present in perfect speechifying form to an intimate group more suited to a seated back-and-forth dialogue.
You already know how to do this.
People know how to communicate authentically, and present ideas in their own naturally effective way. You do it all the time with friends and family members. It’s when we’re under stress and in anxiety-filled situations that we forget what we already know.
The next time you’re discussing an issue in a relaxed situation, notice your own body language. That’s what you should be repeating when presenting — not trying to adopt someone else’s — no matter how much they charge. Then put yourself in real-life opportunities, starting small, where you can practice and build confidence.
What’s your experience with presentation training? Comment here or @kristihedges.
Next time: What does work to become a more influential communicator.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. She blogs at kristihedges.com.