For great speaking, you need to work on yourself as much as your presentations. It's not enough to simply deliver information—for as one of my clients in the investment industry said recently: "Investors bet on the person." (To speak with maximum influence and impact in your industry, download my free cheat sheet, "4 Characteristics of an Influential Speaker.")
What he meant, of course, is that even the best numbers need to be conveyed by someone who's believable. Speaking credibility may exist in the minds of listeners, but the traits that characterize it must be possessed by the speaker.
Why You Need to Find Your True Voice
There's a simple but profoundly important reason why, when you speak, you need to create a "performance persona" that reaches and moves audiences. The preparation stages of speeches and presentations all involve aspects of reading and writing: researching, taking notes, preparing an outline, constructing a rough draft, polishing your material, and creating a final version of your talk. Even PowerPoint, Prezi, or Keynote all involve verbal content married (or not) to visual images. (To use PowerPoint effectively, download my cheat sheet, "5 Rules for Succeeding with PowerPoint.")
But a speech is an oral performance. And that means influencing listeners not in terms of written material but speaking skills that succeed with business audiences. That's why, for instance, you need to know the 5 key tools of vocal dynamics. This distinction between a written document and an oral performance may seem obvious, but it often isn't to those of us who spend long hours gathering and massaging the content of our presentations.
Like an actor, you need to know how to reach across space and take your audience exactly where you want them to go. That includes knowing some theater-based skills for influencing business audiences. W.H. Auden once said, "A great actor can break your heart at fifty feet." And though you shouldn't set out to break your listeners' hearts, you should spend time, effort, and if necessary, money developing the skills of moving people emotionally as well as intellectually.
Or as I put it to my public speaking clients: You should spend less time preparing your content, and more time learning how to be comfortable, confident, and compelling while talking to groups of strangers. The good news is that you already own the best asset for making it so: your willingness to honestly discuss a topic you're passionate about and want to get across to your listeners.
Wharton Wants Candor
I thought of these matters today when reading an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Frankly, Wharton Wants Candor." The piece discusses how business schools such as the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Harvard Business School are in search of ways to get applicants to answer questions honestly, instead of with answers they think are expected of them.
In a kind of arms race, however, applicants learn about newly devised essay topics or interview prompts, then "rush to admissions consultants seeking tips to ace the new challenge." Even team-based discussions that Wharton instituted this year in its admissions process have resulted in admission consulting firms offering mock discussion groups so that M.B.A. hopefuls can learn helpful new tactics. In other words, Wharton and HBS may want candor, but they may not be too successful in getting it.
The Cat-and-Mouse Game
You can see how this acceptance dance played by applicants and the business schools they apply to is a cat-and-mouse game: We come up with new interview techniques, you find a way to scurry around them, and we're no better off than we were the year before.
Your audiences in your speeches and presentations have an equal need to experience the real you, not the one you think they expect to hear. Audiences often understand their own needs; but sometimes they don't. In those cases, it's your job to deliver a package that has something valuable inside, rather than an empty box wrapped in shiny paper. Knowing how to conduct an effective audience analysis can help you succeed.
The online dictionary available in Google defines "cheesy" this way: 1. Like cheese in taste, smell, or consistency. 2. Cheap, unpleasant, or blatantly inauthentic.
Stay on this side of the trap of inauthenticity. Aim to be honest with audiences, and you'll gain the reputation for excellence you're seeking. If you attempt to manipulate audiences instead, they'll know you're playing the cat-and-mouse game. Or worse, they'll smell a rat.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- For great speaking, work on yourself as much as your presentations.
- Spend less time on content, and more time being comfortable with people.
- Create a performance persona that reaches and influences listeners.
- Be honest with audiences, and you'll gain a reputation for excellence.
- You already own the tools you need: passion and empathy.
 Melissa Korn, “Frankly, Wharton Wants Candor.” Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2013.