Speaking at Work, Connect, Confident Public Speaking, Fear of Public Speaking

Three ways to help your audience feel your leadership potential & understand your message.

It doesn’t matter about me as long as the idea is compelling…right? As long as I have a sound idea, that is neatly packaged in a whizzy PowerPoint or a slick Prezzi, the strength of the information will carry the idea the through.

I hear this is kind of sentiment regularly in speaker training sessions. There is a common (and comforting idea) that content is king, if, that is the case, then form is the Queen; interestingly the most powerful piece on the chessboard because of her mobility. If the listeners have to work too hard to get to the content, then the message will get diluted and land with fewer people. What do I mean by the audience having to work too hard? Well, we want our audiences to be intellectually engaged, we want to stimulate thought and debate, but, if the audience has to decode incongruent body language and gesture before they even get to the idea, they will have wasted time and energy on decoding that detracts from their ability to think about your concept.

This week I have spent some time analysing a few presentations and interviews given by the presidential candidate Beto O’Rouke. And without wishing to start debating politics, it seems to me he has some sound ideas; something that has perhaps been missing in the White House and for a wee while? However, whilst I watched I realised just how hard I was having to work to get to his message because of his body language and gesture. It struck me that a few small adjustments would help create a great deal more gravitas, would help define the message, and would increase the likelihood of the message landing with us as an audience.


All engaging speakers need energy, as an audience, we are not interested in watching speakers with little or no energy. Speaker energy works along a spectrum, from the contained but authentic energy like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to the extravagant and energetic like Anthony Robbins, and as listeners, we can find all levels of energy appealing at different times.

Watching Beto 0’Rouke during his speech on losing the Texas seat vote to Ted Cruz, his energy and passion for his topic are clear; you can see it in his body right through to his fingertips. But, he is leaning forward and his weight is on the balls of his feet and he is bouncing from one foot to the other (see clip 1).

When energy is closer to the extravagant end of the spectrum, as it is in this political speech, in order for it not only to reach but connect with us as listeners it must be contained and channelled in some way, otherwise, it runs the danger being overwhelming. One way to achieve this is to be grounded or connected to the floor with your feet. When speakers have a physical and mental connection to the floor, their energy it still apparent but it becomes less erratic, more grounded. When we look at the physicality of leadership figures the last quality we want to see is erratic. We want solid and dependable, even if they are proposing radical change; in fact, especially then. Erratic lacks gravitas


Whenever anyone gets up to speak they do so because they have an idea they wish to convey to their audience; whether that is to educate, inspire or transform. In order for that to happen the idea has to land with the audience. Rena Cook, the author of Empower your Voice, says that gesture either “underlines or undermines” your message. Gesture is the body’s version of bold type – it says to the audience listen up this is important and this is the meaning behind my words.

Now we need to acknowledge that Beto is holding a microphone, which can make gesture more difficult. However, the repetitive bending from the elbow and straightening the arm that he uses, beating out the rhythm of his speech, does not help to underline his words. Erratic or repeated gestures will distract your audience from the message and even confuse them if the words and gesture are incongruent. We stop listening to the words to try to work out what the gesture means. Adding a flat hand, a fist or a point to that linear style of movement gives the feeling that it is a direct instruction, or a telling off, rather than the collaborative rallying cry the words actually are.

How can Beto overcome this? If he used circular rather than linear and more deliberate gesture it would be much more congruent with the content of his speech and make it easier for his audience to decode. The right kind of gesture can help your audience understand your words and the relationship that you would like them to have towards your ideas. By softening the gestures to a more rounded shape adds a collaborative feel; it becomes you and me against the problem.

(see clip 1)

Mouth Position

Just for a moment think about what you do if you say something out loud and then realise that you shouldn’t have. What is the first thing you do? You are thinking that you start talking really fast to try to cover up your mistake or apologise profusely – depending on what you have said!

Actually, there is something you do immediately before that. You tightly close your lips in a flat line; it’s known as pursed lips. It is as if you are trying to retract the words by shutting your mouth. It takes humans around 200 milliseconds to read facial expression. No matter how quickly it appears and disappears we will see that closed mouth and we know instinctively that it means a retraction of what has been said.

Once Beto announces that he will run for President, the second those words leave his mouth he tightly closes his lips. It is an important moment and by closing his lips he doesn’t let it live. It loses impact immediately. He then goes on to outline, some the current perils he feels America is facing and he keeps his mouth open after each one – they land with us as listeners. They have more impact. Unfortunately, as he reaches the first climax of that paragraph, he does the lip thing and it undoes all his good work of the previous few sentences!

When you have something important to say, something you need your audience to hear, understand and believe; make sure you leave your mouth open after you have said the words and continue to breathe. It makes an enormous difference; we will more easily understand what you have said and we will believe that you stand by your words.

(See clip 2)

So, when presenting we want to make it as easy as possible for our audience to access our message. This means the energy level needs to be appropriate and grounded, the gestures need to underline not undermine your content and what you do with your mouth when you are not speaking is as important as what you do with it when you are. For Beto, this would increase our sense of his physical gravitas, enable us to access and understand the message more easily and instil us with confidence in his leadership abilities. If you are a leader of people implementing these three small changes can improve the quality of each interaction you have with your team.

Clip 1: Beto O’Rouke speech on losing to Ted Cruz.

Clip 2: Beto O’Rouke announcing his presidential candidacy.

Calm and contained energy: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – We should all be feminists

Rena Cook Empower your Voice; For Women in Business, Politics and Life

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