In Public Speaking, Style Trumps Substance

Biz Stone (My photo)

I spoke at a big conference this week of PR professionals and was frankly appalled at the poor presentation skills of some of the presenters. These are, after all, communications pros!

I realized many speakers were picked on the basis of their substantive expertise and credentials. And that is not enough. It just isn’t.

I don’t care how much you know, if your energy is low, if your remarks are poorly structured, if your slides are nothing but black text on a white background (I saw that over and over and over), if you don’t use stories, if you don’t engage audience members, if you don’t reveal some personality and humanity, if you’re clinging to your lectern (or worse, your seat!) … then you’ve lost me.

And I know I’m a tough audience. It reminds me of when I have to sit through a bad play and I’m constantly picking apart the actors’ and director’s choices, the lighting, the sound, the writing, etc. As an actor, you just watch these things differently.

And as a public speaker, and an advocate for how to do it properly, it’s tough to watch a bad presentation. I would actually rather see a speech that’s all style and no substance. Give me your empty platitudes — at least I’m entertained.

On the other hand, if your substance is impossible to grasp because you can’t deliver it and I’m bored out of my gourd, I come away neither informed nor entertained.

Now I did see some solid presentations. Biz Stone did a keynote and, like Steve Jobs, his visuals were big beautiful pictures with very few words. And an expert on game theory made great use of video and stories. And several others were memorable as well.

But I think now the application process for any conference ought to require video of a speaker in action. If you’re going to speak in public, you ought to be a solid, engaging, dynamic public speaker.

3 thoughts on “In Public Speaking, Style Trumps Substance

  1. Hi Rob, I agree and as a speaker myself I am a very tough critic especially on me. I have taped and retaped my lectures smoothing over the ruff edges, always trying to improve as to give my audience a fun, educational and enjoyable presentation. I also put together conferences and have had some presenters with great content and poor delivery, their evaluations speak loudly that they shouldn’t be asked back. There are the naturals and then there are those who need to work on being a great presenter. One of the worst things I can think of is paying to hear people speak and then wishing they would stop. Thanks for the post and have a great weekend.

  2. Thanks, David and Tina. Yes, two days in windowless rooms watching bad speakers is torture. Just learning how to project energy can make a big difference. Reaching the people in the back of a room of 100 is impossible if you’re figuratively “sitting back” as if you were in a casual one-on-one meeting.

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