There are those speakers who appear to ooze confidence and even charm yet leave us thinking ‘that was pretty impressive, but what was it really all about? It was all a bit showy but lacked depth. I’m not sure how much I believe it.’
Then there are those speakers who seem a little hesitant, even fragile yet leave us thinking ‘that felt important…they just didn’t quite make it stick’. Perhaps most are somewhere in between. This is the eternal battle between style and substance being played out in court rooms, boardrooms and political chambers around the world.
Here I will argue that speakers who want their messages to stick, to convince, to inspire – they need to strike that balance between style and substance. Bill Gates told us twenty years ago that ‘content is king’. That’s fine in computerland but if a speaker lacks authentic conviction, energy and intent then that content just doesn’t stay long in the memory – however good it may be. It doesn’t serve as a call to action. It certainly doesn’t set anyone apart as a great speaker.
So style, good content and then the marriage of the two are the springboards for this short essay.
When we think of speaking style we often imagine the dynamic, suave and sharp-suited orator who breezes up to the podium and commands the room. Your style need be nothing of the sort yet still be just as or even more compelling. That’s because as an audience we are drawn to communicators who can stand in their own truth. We also warm to vulnerability. Communicators whom we feel an instant connection with because they are palpably authentic, true to themselves and their beliefs.
This holds equally true whether the speaker is naturally introverted or extroverted. It comes down to making this call – are you trying to present a version of yourself that you think people will like, or do you have the courage to present yourself as you really are? Put another way, are you striving for elusive perfection or to be genuine? Get clarity on this and a lot of your presentation style will take care of itself. (My tip - opt for the latter – perfection is possible with banoffee pie but in the complex world of human interaction? In a word – no.)
As there is no ‘perfect presentation’ I urge speakers to build on their natural strengths. Are you intense, funny, quirky, articulate……bring these qualities to your talk! This is you being you – that is your speaking style, in all its uniqueness. I do include this caveat, however; while I don’t encourage faking false enthusiasm, it is crucial that we get a sense of intent and that this matters. If it doesn’t matter to you, it certainly won’t to us. So your natural rhythm might be slow and deliberate or higher tempo and more vociferous. Whatever it is, we must sense purpose and conviction from start to finish.
When they’re missing, the results can be bewildering. I once sat through a talk delivered by a star cricketer, the ‘main attraction’, who’d just published a best-selling autobiography. So his content would have been excellent I’m sure. Except I don’t remember a single word of it. With no eye contact, warmth in the voice or meaningful engagement of any kind, his 45 minutes of a read speech on the tail-end of four very good speakers felt like an eternity. I’ll never get those 45 minutes back. There are times when simply talking is fine. This was the time to deliver – and he fell painfully short.
If we’re looking for how attention to all of this can be truly transformative, we need look no further than the meteoric learning curve of Jeremy Corbyn. I can say without any political bias that the Labour leade is the living embodiment of what fine tuning our style and content does to our standing in the world. Our perception of him is altered forever. He has tapped into something deeply rooted, something in his core. He is now able to be authentically himself but in a way that makes his talks matter so much more. He’s had a very necessary wake-up call. Now his delivery style is a far fuller reflection of what he’s about, of what he holds dear, of who he is. Corbyn’s intent and conviction is now mirrored in his vocal energy. So we hear the passion. The impact of his non-verbal communication skills is off the scales compared to a year ago. He’s what I call ‘alive in the body’ – more gestures, more open and connected to his audience. So we see the passion. Style and substance are in harmony.
As for content, it’s also at it’s best when in sync with our truest instincts. The most powerful example of this is surely Martin Luther’s King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ at The Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Incredibly, that rousing conclusion to his already stunning oration was not scripted. It’s essence had been in his consciousness for goodness knows how long. But it was at that moment that it surfaced. He stood in his own truth. The results were one of the defining moments of the 20th Century.
So yes, think about structure. That beginning, middle and end. Far from tying you down, this actually provides you with a wonderful thing I call ‘freedom within a framework’. It gives you a journey, it gives you crystal clarity and, crucially, it gives your audience far greater ‘processing fluency’ – their ability to digest your messages and stay with you each step of the way. Within that framework you are free to speak form the heart, to tell your story, your firm’s story, to reveal deeply held values and shine a light on all that is good about you and about your organisation.