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The Value of a Speakers' Coach

#77 - 11/30/-0001

"When you doubt yourself that only means you have forgotten who you are." – Tara Wernsing Coach, Author

Giving a speech can be the most vulnerable moment in any leader's career. A poor presentation can cost an election, a contract, a top position or a ton of money. It's a task filled with pitfalls, many of which can only be avoided by an experienced speaker's coach. Here are a few samples*:

  • Which foot leads when stepping onto a stage?
  • How can a speaker regain dominance over PowerPoint?
  • What's the best exercise to relax the voice before speaking?
  • When is a hand-held mike a better choice than a lavalier?
  • What mind-set is needed when addressing a television camera?
  Many consider speech coaches merely cheerleaders. This notion probably arises from bringing the coach in too late. With only a week or so to go, all the major decisions have been made and encouragement is about the only tool that's left. And, that is a vital tool - after all, this is a game where confidence counts most. Public speaking is frightening, even for big shots. The first task of a coach is to deal with that fear, to encourage the client that they have what it takes.

The best coaches like to be there early, working with the writers on the plan of attack. Many corporations have no professional speechwriters on staff - the copy emerges from various corporate departments such as marketing, finance and always, legal. Then a coach who can also write becomes a crucial necessity to bring the text back to simple spoken English. A writer/coach can create apt metaphors, incorporate physical action into storytelling, and bring pedestrian communication to vivid life. Writers create speeches, coaches create great performances.

A great performance depends on three things: presence, purpose and practice. Presence means grasping the nettle and being willing to step forward to deliver the speech personally and directly. The components of presence are: good posture, a strong, pleasant voice, confident gestures, and above all, eye contact. Hiding behind a lectern, burying the head in a stack of pages or slides is more like absence. Unfortunately, hiding has become the rule for business speakers these days. Reading from a page or teleprompter without losing the audience is a deceptively difficult skill that often requires coaching to master.

Purpose has to do with the desired outcome, of course. During the last Presidential campaign, George W. Bush was kept "on task" by strong coaching - always focused on the purpose of the speech. I might quibble with some of his 'presence' choices, however, and he's a poor reader. Senator Kerry had excellent presence - but tended to wander from his purpose too much.

Practice is probably where coaching proves most valuable. A good coach can direct a tight, productive practice session to make sure the speaker solves the problems of performance economically, one at a time. Timing, pauses, emphatic gestures and the vital opening and closing lines all take repetition and incisive coaching to correct mistakes without undermining the speaker's confidence.

"The eye sees not itself but by reflection," wrote Shakespeare. The performers' problem is always the same - they are stuck inside the performance and need an outside observer to guide them. Video helps, of course, and I often use video with my clients. Speaking is a performance. As in the theater, success depends on a trustworthy director, exercising the good judgement born of experience, to bring out the best performance in any speaker. That's the speech coach's job.

© 2005 Mike Landrum

*Answers to these questions depend on the specifics of circumstance

Something to Ponder

"Humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research."

-Marie Curie
scientist, Nobel laureate (1867-1934)

© Michael F. Landrum