Do you realize that your performance in a speech or presentation is as important as the content? Here's why you are the message every time you speak!
Here's a public speaking question that's crying out for an answer:
Which is more important when you deliver a speech or presentation: the content or you?
I would argue that it's the latter, almost without question.
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There will be instances when the things you're saying will be of paramount importance, and who is saying them won't matter so much. The example I often give to clients (when I'm discussing the importance of nonverbal communication) is to imagine the safety officer aboard the Titanic, if there was such a position, giving out information to the passengers. I picture him with a bullhorn, saying something like:
Ladies and gentlemen, we appear to have brushed against an iceberg. The captain has decided we need to evacuate the ship immediately. Please pay attention to the following instructions for safely loading and lowering the lifeboats . . .
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We can pretty much imagine that everyone will be giving 100% of their attention to those instructions. If, on the other hand, the safety officer is exhibiting clear signs of panic—his voice shaking, sweat pouring down his temples, his knees shaking—it's his performance that now takes precedence.
Whatever he is saying, he now becomes the message. The instructions become secondary to what the passengers will be thinking: The ship is sinking! I may die! We can clearly see that the person speaking, whose job it is anyway to embody a message, has become an essential element—in this case the essential element—of the information being conveyed.
The late media executive Roger Ailes summed this phenomenon up perfectly in his 1988 book, You Are the Message. Let's look a little more closely at how this plays out in terms of public speaking performance.
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Is It Your Job to Excite the Audience? Well, Yes!
'Performance' is the key word, of course, in understanding how you personify a presentation you're giving. If you only work from notes or a manuscript without exploring your text through your voice and body, you’ll be depriving your audience of the actual physical, in-real-time life of your performance. It would be like offering them a photograph of a crème brûlée instead of a taste of that sumptuous dessert.
It is only through you that the emotional authenticity of your ideas emerges. Do you think this happens if you just read notes or PowerPoint slides? The text is liberated by you. Just as in the theater, a story is made flesh by you on stage.1 You unleash its life and its power, making it accessible to the audience.2 As Ailes puts it in terms of the transaction involved:
You can’t just assume the audience is interested only in the words you’ve written down. If that were the case, you could save yourself a lot of trouble by staying home and just mailing them your speech. Then they could read it on Saturday, when they have more time to concentrate on it. First and foremost, the audience is interested in you, and that means you’ve got to put something of yourself on the table.3
The Audience Is Interested In You
To the audience (the beneficiary of the transaction), you should be as interesting as anything you’re saying. And since you’re a natural performer, as I discuss in my book Speak for Leadership, you don’t have to try to do anything to be authentically interesting.
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Taking a Page from the Acting Script. Exactly like an actor, you should believe in what you’re saying at all times and completely. If you don’t believe, why are you up there? If you tailor your performances so there are no visible “seems,” it will be as real for listeners as it is for you.
That’s because when you believe wholeheartedly in what you’re saying, you express yourself naturally and openly. Vocal choices, gestures, facial expressions, and enthusiasm all announce themselves in terms of your topic. When you enjoy what you’re doing, you control the rhythm and relate easily to listeners. If this is beginning to sound like stage presence, you're right!
Perhaps the best outcome is that we will accept the truth of your performance. Just as acting is not about the actor,4 a speech is not about you. It’s about the truth of what you’re saying filtered through and expressed by you.
The more you accept the paradox that to give a good performance you can’t try to do so, the more you’ll be serving the truth of what you’re saying. Commit yourself to sharing that in terms of your audience’s needs, and you can become an extraordinary speaker.
1 Rob Weinert-Kendt, "Stage Presence: A Spirituality of Theater," America, May 2, 2011, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A255971013/PPFA?u=mlin_m_minuteman&sid=PPFA&xid=7b5cedd0
2 Jana Childers, Performing the Word: Preaching as Theatre (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 20.
3 Roger Ailes, You Are the Message (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 104-105.
4 Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern, Leadership Presence (New York: Gotham, 2003), 1.
This article is adapted from Chapter 2, "Why You're a Natural Performer," in my book Speak for Leadership.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking and overcoming speaking fear. His company, The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in video conferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. His latest book is Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership Presence. Contact Gary here.