What Speech Coaches Won’t Tell You About Public Speaking

Christopher Witt —  March 30, 2015

Speech coaches and trainers often perpetuate myths and misconceptions about presentations and public speaking.

I begin with the assumption that giving a speech is both an art and a skill.

Public speaking an art in that it requires a certain amount of creativity.

You have to come up with (i.e. create) a good idea to begin with. You have to put it together in a logical and persuasive structure. You have to use words and phrases and, sometimes, stories in a clear and evocative manner. And you have to deliver your speech with at least a modicum of drama.

Public speaking, like any art, is also a skill.

It has its own somewhat complex, somewhat variable set of requirements, rules, guidelines, and principles to learn, practice, and master. To give a speech — a good one, at least — you have to be able to plan and create one, explain your idea clearly in a limited amount of time, connect with an audience, begin and end a speech, overcome fear and project confidence in front of an audience, answer questions, and think on your feet.

Public speaking isn’t as complex or demanding a skill as, say, performing brain surgery or rocket science. But then again it’s not as simple or easy as riding a bike.

Beginning with that assumption — public speaking is both an art and a skill — I’ve developed my list of…

5 Things Speech Coaches and Trainers Won’t Tell You about Public Speaking

1. There is no “secret” to giving a speech.

Public speaking is, perhaps, the most studied — and written about — field of human communications. Over 2,500 years ago the ancient Greeks set forth principles and practices of oratory that largely hold true to this day. Those principles and practices have been refined, modified, and amplified ever since.

But there are no secrets, just commonly available principles and practices to learn and master.

2. Not everyone can learn how to speak effectively.

Most people can improve their public speaking skills with guidance and practice. But not everybody can.

Public speaking — as an art and a skill — requires certain aptitudes. At the very least, it requires the ability to formulate and express a coherent idea while standing in front of other people. And some people simply lack those aptitudes or the ability to develop them.

If you’re able to hold a conversation, speak up at a meeting, give directions to a stranger on the street, and explain a basic concept, you have what it takes to give a speech. Or at least to learn how to give a speech. But not everyone can do those things. And assuring them that they can do those things isn’t doing them a kindness.

3. A one-day workshop won’t teach you everything you need to know in order to speak well.

You can learn some of the basic and even advanced principles and practices of public speaking in a workshop. But you have to practice those skills over and over again to master them.

A workshop is a good start, but it’s not the be-all and end-all it’s sometimes cracked up to be.

4. The best delivery techniques can’t redeem a badly flawed message.

Delivery — how you look and sound in front of an audience — is important. It can bring your message to life in the hearts and minds of your audience. It can grab their attention. It can win you their trust and support.

But ultimately what matters is your message — the idea you’re communicating. Is it true? Is it meaningful and relevant to this audience? Will it help them in some way?

Delivering a bad idea well is, to use a hackneyed expression, like putting lipstick on a pig.

5. Videotaping your speech may make you worse.

Many people benefit — at least in the short term — from watching a videotape of a speech they’ve given.

But some people find the process discouraging and unnerving. All they can see is their flaws. They fixate on their deficiencies. And they become more self-conscious, less confident, which in turn makes them less competent.

(For more information check out The Pros and Cons of Videotaping a Presentation.)

How about you? Do you agree with my list of things speech coaches and trainers won’t tell you? What would you add to it?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to What Speech Coaches Won’t Tell You About Public Speaking

  1. Christopher – you woke me up with a start this morning. I am a public speaking trainer and I had a very strong reaction to your blog. But I’ve calmed down now but I still want to take issue with a couple of points.
    But first, I think we maybe working from different definitions of public speaking. I help people who are scared of being the centre of attention to get used to standing in front of an audience and speak conversationally and with purpose. So it’s not full-on speech making as in JFK’s inaugural but its definitely public speaking in my book. But I think your definition might be more formal?

    1. Secrets
    Whilst there maybe no secrets in preparing a speech, there are definitely secrets in getting used to being the centre of attention. By secrets I’m meaning ideas that few people seem to know. Three of those secrets spring to mind. Of course I don’t want them to be secrets.

    A. Lots of people don’t see themselves as animals with a Stone Age brain that is superbly geared to look for threat. So public speaking fear is really an evolutionary legacy. The fear that they are feeling is not something that is just wrong with them individually – it’s a shared human experience. Most people think it’s only them at fault. That understanding can make a powerful difference to how people understand themselves.
    B. Blank faces are normal in an audience. Again very few non-public speakers seem to understand that simple fact. So they are surprised at just how important the difference is between a normal conversation and public speaking when you DON’T get approval signs.
    C. Lot of people think that experienced speakers never feel fear – they do on occasions. They will often see it as excitement but even really experienced speakers will sometimes have a rough day.

    2. Not everyone can learn how to speak effectively
    I’m way more optimistic than you about how many people can learn to speak effectively. I think perhaps it depends on what the training course seeks to do. If you are just teaching people about speech structure and how to “perform” then perhaps a lot of people won’t improve. But if you are starting off with learning how to be present (in the moment) in front of people before you learn any other technique then I think over 99% of people can get it. I teach over 500 people a year. I run a course guarantee – you get your money back if you don’t get what you want from the course. In 15 years only two people have asked for their money back. And I work with people who are very scared. Yes, sometimes I’ve worked very hard, given extra help beyond courses, got them back to do more courses and coached them. But I think it’s possible to help everyone who WANTS to do speaking.

    The other three points I agree with you.
    It sounds like you are looking at courses that over-promise and under- deliver.
    I used to videotape and after 5 years I decided to stop it as was more damaging than useful.

    Thank you for your blog. Definitely a great way of starting the day!

    • John,
      I’m sorry to have started your morning off with a jolt not related to caffeine. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      I do make a distinction between speaking and presenting, which may be uniquely my own.

      To me, giving a speech is primarily about shaping how an audience thinks and feels about an issue (influence) and about moving them to take action (motivation). No many people give speeches these days. They appeal to an audience’s emotions and imaginations. Giving a speech is 60% art, 40% skill.

      Making a presentation is about communicating information that people can put to use. It’s 80% skill, 20% art.

      (I’m making up those percentages,so they’re not exact.)

      About secrets: I think we’re disagreeing about words. To me a secret is something that is not shared or is purposely kept unknown, information that people are denied access to — not as you say “ideas that few people seem to know.” As trainers we educate people, helping them learn principles, strategies, techniques, and practices that they may not know. I don’t call them secrets, because people could go to Google and read a gazillion entries about those things. To my thinking, if it’s plastered all over the Internet, it’s not a secret.

      About not everyone can learn: You are more optimistic than I am. I think the great majority of people can improve their presentations (I’d say 90-95%, less than your 995). But I’ve run across many people who — in my opinion — simply can’t learn how to give an effective speech, but they are inept communicators to begin with. Most of them, I suspect, stay away from speech training courses in the first place.

      I’m not talking about people who are terrified at the prospect of standing in front of an audience. I’m talking about people who find it difficult, if not impossible 1) to organize their thoughts in a coherent fashion, 2) to stay on topic for more than 2 minutes, 3) to explain a simple procedure in a way that other people can understand, or 4) to hold any sort of engaging conversation. Again, I suspect that these people do not participate in training programs. When I work with them, I do lots of one-on-one coaching to help them with their basic interpersonal communications. And I help them find other ways of sharing what they know with others.

      You’re probably right. I am reacting to course descriptions which promise improvements/results that I think are unreasonable and unattainable from a workshop.

      Thanks again for your insights.