In “Confessions of a Former Public Speaking Trainer,” Kristi Hedges makes the case that “…for most people public speaking training is not worth the time nor the energy.” That is why, she writes, she had stopped calling herself a public speaking trainer.
Her pointed criticisms about public speaking training apply equally well to executive speech coaching. But I’m not ready to hang up my shingle as an executive speech coach.
The Problem: Executive Speech Coaching is Often Confused with Delivery Coaching
Most coaches focus primarily on delivery — on how a speaker looks and sounds in front of an audience.
And focusing exclusively or even primarily on delivery is a problem for two reasons. First, delivery is hard to change. And second, delivery is less important than other issues.
1. It’s hard to change the way you deliver a speech.
If you’ve ever worked with an executive speech coach or a trainer, you know the drill. Most of them videotape you giving a speech in an artificial environment. They review your performance while pointing out — hopefully in a positive and supportive way — which gestures work or don’t work, what your body language communicates, and how you should change your movements, facial expressions, vocal variety, pacing, and/or posture.
They may be right. You may be using gestures that aren’t as powerful as you’d like them to be. You may be limiting your vocal variety. You may be interjecting ums and ahs and ers throughout your speech.
If you work hard enough at it, you may be able to change what you’re doing…for a while.You’ll probably be videotaped a second time so you can see the improvements you’ve made. But all too often those changes are short-lived.
There’s a good chance that in three months or, more likely, in three weeks, your former behavior will have reasserted itself. Why? Not because you’re a failure. Not because you don’t want to change. But because your old behavior — the way you stand and move and gesture and speak — is a largely a matter of habit. And changing habits takes time, attention, and repeated practice.
For some people it may be worth the time and effort to make those changes. But not for everyone.
2. The way you deliver a speech (your delivery) is less important than what you say (your message).
If you’ve ever heard an executive speech coach or public speaking trainer tell you that only 7% of a speech’s meaning is communicated by the words that are spoken, while 38% is communicated by tone of voice, and 55% is communicated by facial expressions, you should run far, far away. They clearly do not know what they’re talking about.
(Read Olivia Mitchell’s article, “Mehrabian and Non-Verbal Communication,” to understand where those percentages come from and how they are misconstrued.)
Your message — your central idea, expressed clearly and persuasively, in words and phrases, images and stories that appeal to the intellect and emotions of a specific audience — is the most important element of your speech.
Your message deserves the most attention and pays off the best dividends. Once you learn how to craft a compelling message, you’ve mastered a skill that you can apply every time you give a speech. You’re not trying to change a habit; you’re learning a skill.
Don’t get me wrong. Delivery is important. It can drive home your message. It’s just that your message is more important. Much more important. If you don’t have anything worthwhile to say or if your message is a confused mess, no amount of “executive presence” or dramatic pyrotechnics is going to matter.
The Promise of Executive Speech Coaching
If you want to break into professional speaking, you should probably work with someone to improve your delivery. Audiences will expect you to have a polished and powerful — a professional — stage presence.
But if you’re a working professional, concerned primarily about winning people’s support and cooperation, you’ll be better off working with an executive speech coach who shows you how to create a message that will get you the results you want.
To answer my question: executive speech coaching is worth the time, effort, and expense if (and only if) it pays off in the long run, if it helps you make a lasting and beneficial change.
What do you think?
Check out my approach to executive speech coaching.