Sack your coach, be not a clone

You go through the motions. Your coach unpacks how you look and move. You discover how you breathe and sound. You present on-screen to a  rather unrealistic, near-empty room. Yet how long will you stay aware. How long will it be for the impact to wear off?  Will it fix your public speaking?

It’s super easy to deconstruct (and fairly easy to reconstruct ) physical and vocal behaviours. But great speakers are not automated hero clones.  They're not machines. They are as often fiery and eccentric wonks, with a je-ne-sais-quoi ...

Trainers and coaches of presentation skills roughly fall into two camps. Those that deconstruct consciously. And those that tap the subconscious.

Of course, there are many great trainers and coaches who span both. But too many fall solely into the first camp. They pick apart the speaker’s voice, its projection, velocity and pausing. They film their hand gestures, smiles or grimaces, their evasive eyes. And many people love this, despite the unrealistic studio conditions. I’ve had many clients declare their eureka moment. The tiny thing that made a mega difference for them. Sometimes it’s actually as simple as that.

For many, deconstructing voice, gestures and eyes in this way is something brought into their conscious mind that will then automate through practice and become habit. For others, all the gains will be lost within days or weeks. They think about it after the training once or twice. And then they forget. The shorter the program timescale or the fewer the sessions, the more likely the attrition. If in doubt, get online and search for Ebbinghaus to find out why. It’s not rocket science.

But those wonderful speakers that we remember, the speakers that drive us to change our worldviews: they are not the types to have adopted the robotic qualities of a bombastic macho talent contest or the lyrical patterns of a Californian salesperson on speed. The wonks and geeks – on social media, TED talks and FANG company conferences, the ones who truly move us – they ignore the prototype behaviour models.

They are the ones who break the rules of body language. They sometimes technically present badly. Sometimes they’re rigid and nerdy but shrill. Sometimes they’re flapping about like flamingos. Admittedly studies have shown TED audiences to have better recall for speakers who gesticulate more. But not necessarily with the gravitas that your conventional coach would instil. What they do have is an amazing and energetic je-ne-sais-quoi.

Besides we live in a diverse world. The energy and strategy I’ve put into animating highly intelligent and effective New Zealand and Japanese businessmen to un-tighten their lips and turn up the gesture and passion than is usual for their countrymen’s typical style… was not all wasted. Though sometimes it produces overkill and I’ve gotten a muppet. When working with southern Italian executives, I have had to emphasise that the above strategies are not for them, albeit useful to be aware of. Toning up or toning down gestures is culturally dependent.

And culture is not just national or ethnic. Culture is organisational. The expectations, role and experience I had when I was interviewed by the Goldman Sachs Pine Street leadership development people was a million miles from when interviewing under the university protocols of tweedy academia to head a teacher training program.

The same can be said of context. Speaking to your beardy band of start-up entrepreneurs at a caffeine-fuelled breakfast meet is necessarily more interactive and deplete of formal structure than say delivering a key-note at an annual industry conference of insurance actuaries or financial analysts. Yes indeed, there is no single way to present.

What is the common denominator among all these wildly different cases? The key feature that makes a good speaker in all of these is legitimacy. From a more superficial view, let's call it executive presence. Some people just wield gravitas and some do not. Legitimacy is something that inspires others. It makes you credible. It gives you energy (I always surprise myself at my sudden aerobic approach towards larger audiences, despite sometimes feeling quite languid or lazy beforehand and afterwards).

How do we as speakers achieve this magic ingredient, this legitimacy, gravitas or presence? This is where the second camp is important. Tapping the subconscious.

Many coaches are also equipped with cognitive-behavioural therapy principles and techniques. They work with the subconscious mind. This is especially relevant for clients delivering or presenting with performance anxiety. Of all my presentation skills coachees, over 70 percent have admitted to suffering from something between moderate tension and debilitating fear. Many don’t tell me initially. There is still stigma around it. Especially for senior or c-suite types who believe they really should have conquered this issue in order to have gotten where they are.

In my own youth, I suffered from this kind of performance anxiety and received brief CBT. This made me deeply empathetic and aware of what my clients are experiencing, unlike the overbearing and eternally-confident speaker-coaches, to whom extrovert projecting – broadcasting even – comes naturally. To many people it just doesn’t. And in many coach-coachee relationships there is a fundamental ‘perspective divide’ – either side just don’t get the other.

Having felt anxiety also made me dedicate effort to deeper learning about the psychology of performance. These days, speaking to audiences small or large about 200 times a year, it is a buzz that I really couldn’t live without. I know that these difficult youth experiences have made me a more authentic speaker on stage.

In tapping the subconscious, we learn about our belief systems. Limiting beliefs, as the CBT people call them. We challenge them. Which isn’t easy as a lot of thinking is simply habit. We come to understand how we frame and can re-frame events and circumstances. We learn to understand perceived triggers and vicious cycles in our thinking past and present. We need tried-and-tested strategies that help all through all this. Along with hardcore persistence.

But most usefully of all, we learn that communication is something we’ve been doing for a million years – that we are hard-wired. As animals that speak, we instinctively share, warn, predict, report, narrate, advise, deduce, entertain or challenge. When we do any of these at home or with friends over cups of tea or pints of beer, we tend to do them easily and efficiently. This is because we are connecting naturally and intimately with other individuals.

All good communication is about such inter-connectivity. As humans, we are never public speaking. We are speaking with people: aggregates of individuals, each with their own motives, sensitivities, greed and desires, empathy and kindness, professional agendas, vulnerabilities … in fact everything that every human being has. When speakers discover this, feel it and live it, they then become great speakers.

Finally, what is deep down, far more fundamental than just the deconstructing of gestures and voice, is what drives a speaker. It’s easy to sniff out a bullshitter. Equally we can sniff out someone genuinely thrilled or fiercely angry or truly impassioned about their message. And so we listen.

So when working on your public speaking, don’t expect to find easy answers in physical behaviours or vocal and breathing tricks. And don’t trust a coach or trainer who tells you these are all you need. Rather, look deep into what you are talking about and what your audience needs to hear and ask yourself why.

Tony Corballis, 2019

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