What Compelling Speakers Share

The two qualities all compelling speakers share

During a recent presentation skills training, the participants received a lesson I couldn’t have scripted. A young business development executive presented with a highly energized style. He spoke at a high rate of words per minute, used broad, animated gestures and leaned towards us while speaking.

After we watched his video and I gave him feedback, the next presenter, a senior technology guru, got up. He spoke in a professional manner while leisurely strolling back and forth, punctuating his words with small rhythmic gestures.

The two presenters, both very effective, couldn’t have been more different. The contrast led the participants to ask whether there are “best practices” for all presenters.

“Presenters who command our attention share two best practices,” I said. “First, they’re truly present in the room. Second, they create lots of variety.”

Throughout the rest of the day we explored those two ideas. Here are some thoughts about each.

First, be truly present in the room.

Speakers who are truly present in the room are comfortable being looked at by their listeners. This means they’re free of the insidious fears that swell inside our heads. “Did I rehearse enough?” “I hate this slide.” “My voice is shaking.” “What if they ask something I can’t answer?”

Those fear-inducing thoughts don’t improve performance. Rather, they erect a psychic barrier between the presenter and her audience. They focus her attention on herself rather than on the ideas she wants to communicate to her listeners. She is anything but present in the room.

In addition to feeling comfortable about letting your listeners look at you, being present in the room also means you need to be comfortable looking at them.

People who see me present often tell me I seem to know who has questions or comments before a hand is raised or word is uttered. They marvel at what, to them, seems to be a supernatural gift. But the truth is actually very simple: I look at my audience and I notice things about them—for example, their expressions. Participants who have questions or comments wrinkle their brow or tilt their head or turn their eyes towards the ceiling. Once you learn to really see your listeners, these cues are as plain as a bonfire on a dark beach. And then it’s natural to stop and invite the question right then.

The benefit of being present in the room is an increased feeling of being connected to your listeners. The resulting interactive style keeps both you and your listeners more engaged. It naturally leads to the creation of more variety, which is the second attribute compelling speakers share.

Second, variety—the spice of speaking

Growing up, I remember driver education movies warning against the danger of white-line blindness: the often-fatal numbness that infects the brain when lines on a road at night flash by in repetitive rhythm. I remember taking overnight train trips and falling peacefully asleep to the repetitive clackety-clack of the tracks beneath the wheels. And I remember, just last week, struggling to stay tuned into a CFO at an all-hands meeting who spoke with no variety.

There are two broad ways to think of variety: variety for our ears and variety for our eyes. Compelling speakers give us both.

Variety for our ears can happen three ways: rhythm, volume and pitch. Here are some thoughts on each of those.

Variety of rhythm is simply speeding up and slowing down. You can vary rhythm on a grand scale (begin a presentation at a relaxed pace, then increase the rhythm as you reach the end) or on a small scale (speak one sentence quickly while drawing out the next, word…by…word…for…emphasis). You can hear variety of rhythm demonstrated on the podcast.

An even more sophisticated use of rhythm is silence.

Talk Too Fast? Not possible!

People are often concerned that they speak too quickly. In truth, our ears can process more than twice as many words per minute as our mouths can form. There’s no way we can outpace our brains. But we can eliminate the markers our brains need to process spoken ideas. Rushing through your pauses is the auditory equivalent of erasing all punctuation from this article. Without indicators for phrasing and full stops, the words may be recognizable but they have no sense. In the same way, when you take away silence, our ears are unable to process your concepts.

Volume is the second way to create variety for our ears. It’s very unexpected. Do you remember a teacher in grade school who suddenly lowered her voice? Every head snapped up and every ear strained to hear her. You can do the same thing by simply getting quieter sometimes. Because changing volume often feels arbitrary, you need to use it with care, but don’t leave it out. It works.

Pitch is the final frontier of vocal variety. I’ve never encountered a truly monotone speaker; everyone has natural rises and falls of inflection—but some people work in a range that’s narrower than a knife’s edge. If you are concerned that you need to expand your variety of pitch, there are two things to do: first, use recorded feedback (Playback as Feedback) and second, be prepared for discomfort (Becoming More Expressive). The ideas in these two links will help expand your range of pitch—perhaps the most challenging facet of vocal variety.

Create variety for the eyes

Visual variety means movement—and I don’t mean the animation on your PowerPoint slides!

There are three easy ways to create visual variety: body movement, gestures and facial expressiveness. Compelling speakers do all three with authenticity.

Just as arbitrarily dropping your voice to a whisper would create variety but would also be distracting and disingenuous, so movement for movement’s sake is not what I’m proposing. Your movement, gestures and expressions need to be connected to what you’re trying to convey.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Nick Morgan rightly observes that non-verbal behavior actually precedes the spoken message. This is why presenters who carefully rehearse a particular gesture or movement so often look artificial: their gesture becomes synchronized to the words. But the gestures of a truly passionate speaker begin when the thought is generated, which is a split second or two before the words are spoken.

Variety will happen quite naturally if you are willing to express how you feel about your message. And, to come full circle, your natural level of variety will show itself if you are able to be truly present in the room. Those two qualities—being truly present in the room and creating variety—are vital parts of The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

Morgan, Nick, How To Become An Authentic Speaker. Harvard Business Review. November, 2008. Reprint: R0811H, www.hbrreprints.org


  1. Frank Baker on June 15, 2015 at 6:14 am

    Being a high school classroom teacher the most critical part of a presentation are the first 30 seconds . Got to make an impact and be authoritative.

    • Tom Henschel on July 3, 2015 at 6:27 am

      I’d love to hear your ways of making an impact.

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