PUBLIC SPEAKING FAQs: How do I persuade people?

Recently, on Quora, I was asked: Do the three rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos) have any faults?

Don't be put off by the Greek - it's just a fancy way of asking What's the best way to persuade people - with my character, with emotion or with reason?

I tried to meet the questioner's fancy language, so he'd respect my ethos, but spell out the bulk of my answer in language that is plain and accessible. If you have ever asked yourself some version of what's the best way to persuade people?, then take a look at my response. If you've ever felt squeamish about, or repelled by persuasion, because you thought it was just manipulation - well, then there's something here for you as wellIf, by your question, you mean moral faults...,


I've answered  208 questions, and counting, on Quora, a site where people ask and answer questions.

I usually write about public speaking and performance. I'm pretty popular on Quora. My answers get viewed about 1,000 times per week. And they are responses to questions that come up often, with clients and students. Questions about the voice, the role of the emotions in our lives and art, and the roadblocks to effective expression.

Hope you find some answers to your questions here and on Quora! 

NOW: the question about getting a deeper voice is really better posed this way:
How do you increase resonance when speaking?

My response: ...What dampens resonance is tension - excessive tension in creating breath flow and excessive tension in articulation....


To Power Pose or Not to Pose? That is A Question - pt. 1

If you follow trending social science research, or keep tabs on neuro-scientific public speaking advice, then you are probably aware of the power pose tempest now brewing.  The research underlying Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy's,, "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are",  perched in the firmament of internet folklore as one of the most watched TED Talks, is now being called into question, by one of her original co-authors.

I do not have the chops to delve into the matters of sample size, p-hacking and other recondite, but essential mechanics of social science research. And so, I will have to watch with interest the back and forth of the data savants and researchers, when it comes to determining if hormone levels actually change during power posing, as Cuddy claims, thus improving performance in the face of stress, or if it is otherwise. 

I have to confess, I found Amy Cuddy's TED Talk and her book Presence, quite encouraging, because it was lending scientific credence to the kind of coaching that I offer my clients and students. As an actor, I always have the nagging doubt that the studio wisdom of performers, upon which my coaching depends, is regarded as hokum, in the data driven, "hard skills / soft skills" lingo that pervades conversations around public speaking and leadership skills. Amy Cuddy's work seemed to give the imprimatur of measurement to a physical practice. Also, it opened up the discussion about what a worthwhile skill is and how we might link the nouns that we wish to manifest in our characters - authenticity, boldness, credibility - with a set of verbs that we could do right this minute. The simple act of power posing offers, if it can be confirmed, a "hard" bridge to the realm of "soft skill" accomplishment.  

Someone else working in this vein, not as a researcher, but from the vantage of an entrepreneur and marketer, is Seth Godin, a popular figure on the leadership / motivation / self-improvement landscape. Take his eloquent argument about the need to get away from the "hard-skill/soft skill" faulty dichotomy, (with which I vociferously concur).  His list of skills that defy the duality seems exhaustive and imaginative. But the question remains, How do you do them?  Consider one item from the skill-set he suggests, a skill which might often be considered a "soft-skill", or a even a character trait, but not a concretely teachable skill; It's sense of humor.

If it's a skill you should be able to do it, no? So, how do you do sense of humor? Answer: you can't; it's a noun.

A sense of humor may or may not be a teachable skill, but Seth Godin suggests it is. Simply listing it as a skill, however, doesn't transform it from an abstract "soft" idea into something concrete and do-able. Not until you name the actions and tactics that underlie a sense of humor does it become a skill to practice: balancing, "naming the elephant in the room", violating rituals, can ask yourself and others if they observe those actions in your delivery and content. Leaving the actions un-named consigns the skill to the zone of soft and fuzzy concepts which cannot be measured, but which we know exist, and which we hope to manifest on certain occasions, but is ultimately for the Muses, or Fortune to bestow upon us.  

This is not a matter of mere semantics. Naming the actions that underlie a skill is vital to knowing what we're up to. It would be like an actor getting on stage and not knowing why he or she is saying the lines. There would be a vague sense of something going on watching such an actor, but not a vigorous, purposeful, bold, specific sense of the action.

Which brings us back to the question of power posing - is it a worthwhile skill and practice? Because, if it is, it's a very specific, physical, hard-skill entry way to everything that has been relegated to the b-league mystic, celestial realm of soft skills. 

My hunch, based on warming-up for hundreds of performances along with my fellow performers, as well as my own classes, is that it certainly couldn't hurt, IF AND ONLY IF, it helps bring you into a state of readiness and focus on your present situation. I could imagine that it's possible to use a power pose as a two-minute daydream-escape from an event, at the expiration of which, all one's nerves (and cortisol?) come flooding back into prominence.

Whether or not to power pose at all will remain a bone of contention for the foreseeable future, but that hasn't stopped some people from conjecturing about what you should do while you are power posing. That will be the subject of part 2. 


Everything Old News is News Again

Style is to Substance as:

Form is to Content, as:

Soft-headed is to Rigorous, as: 

Acting is to Honesty, as:

Rhetoric is to Truth.

Common associations. Let’s inspect them. Maybe it's time for an update.


A few days ago, at my second annual faculty meeting, I am introduced to a senior faculty member, whom I remember from the year before, but did not meet face-to-face. Upon learning, that I coach public speaking, he remarks cordially, « I bet I could work on that! ». For some reason, I always feel put on the spot by this response, (even though it’s not an uncommon response when people learn that I work on voice and speech). I acknowledge his comment politely (I hope), and then we chat a bit: I confirm my recollection that he is a finance professor (finance people, I’ve learned are anxious about communicating their expertise to people who are not in finance). Then, I recall his cordial remark from a few moments ago, and as I’m taking this in, the dean is starting the meeting, and my new acquaintance, he says: « I was watching this guy give a talk the other day, and he spoke so well that I stopped hearing what he was saying…I guess, that’s the danger… » I didn’t have time to come up with a response then, but what to make of this?


My first take: Is he teasing me? A little, I think. Is he inviting me to conversation? I think so, because of that initial,  « I bet I could work on that! ». And he is, I think, expressing a certain uneasiness about the tension between personal presentation and authenticity.  My colleague was distinguishing himself as someone concerned with substance over style: finance, not frippery. And yet…He’s a teacher, so he has to be concerned with how he communicates. But what kind of person would that make him, to self-conciously work on how he’s communicating, rather than the substance of his communication? What sort of person risks being heard and admired without being understood?


My second take: the exchange is a thin slice from a very long dialogue. In Gorgias, Plato/Socrates likens rhetoricians to cooks who have no concern for the healthiness of their cuisine: they are apt to make bad arguments taste as good, or better, than valid ones. 

Yet the ideas that stick, that nourish us, that have an impact, are delivered in well-considered forms. We’re familiar with the recipes: Proverbs, verse, and story; Elegant equations. They embody character and ideas - revealing and shaping the world as it is at the same time.

We all desire to be heard and understood. Especially those of us who like to teach, or to lead, (which requires learning and teaching simultaneously).  I like Deirdre McCloskey’s response to this perceived gulf between style and substance, from The Rhetoric of Economics, (2nd ed.):

« Rhetoric is not everything, but it is everywhere in the speech of human persuaders ». 

So, why not embrace it, instead of holding it at arm's length? Or pretending that it isn’t even in the room?


My final take, (with apologies to the imminently cliché « the take away is… »): 

How we argue with, persuade, and inspire our audiences, whether it is with data or with metaphors, is bound up with our character. Aristotle called it ethos. Sounds like old news. But, when John Zimmer and I teach Public Speaking and Presence to our next batch of executive MBAs, at UNIL, John will put ethos front and center as he teaches how to prepare a persuasive appeal. And I'll have my own two cents to add about character. It’s the one constant, the ever present part of any appeal. This hasn’t changed. It won’t change as long as we want to share our learning and get people to act on our ideas. 

Rhetoric, in common parlance, in newspapers and in the mouths of commentators tastes bad, it smells of manipulation. « Acting », « Performance », these words, too, when not referring to a staged event or sports, often carry the same taint. 

However, rhetoric and performance, once at the center of education, now often neglected, has been getting a lot of attention lately.  In business schools and executive training, rhetoric has re-emerged under the yet-to-be sullied headings, executive presence, leadership presence. It is also grudgingly accepted under the condescending rubric, « soft skills », that harkens back to the old analogies and Platonic suspicions. Those who really consider such matters "soft" are mistaking rhetoric for a fascination with smoke and mirrors, rather than seeing the harder truth: Rhetoric is holding up the mirror to our own characters and our own persuasions, so everyone can see.

Figure of Thinking: Oxymoronica, by Dr. Mardy Grothe

As a voice coach, my primary concern with clients and students is the moment of delivery. Not because it's the most important thing necessarily, but because when you're with an audience, preparation and delivery are almost indivisible. 

There are five traditional canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery [see The Forest of Rhetoric site]. Broadly speaking, the first three have been parsed out to writing teachers, the last two neglected in academic disciplines and professional training. Hence, the movement in business programs to reunite the components of rhetoric in the name of cultivating: leadership, executive presence, presentation skills, authenticity, charisma, adaptive leadership...

The written component of preparation, however, can give the voice something to do when it comes time to deliver. Arrangement of material into a story, and into sentences and paragraphs that emphasize contrasts and parallels, invites pitch variation: structures of thought give the voice something to express. 

Dr. Mardy Grothe, a therapist by trade, has assembled a collection of the most compressed contrasts: oxymorons. In his book, Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest WordsmithsGrothe has provided an entertaining trove of potentially useful quotations to enliven a presentation for an audience, both audibly and intellectually. It's content is divided into themed chapters, so you can raid it when pressed for time, as well as read it at leisure. 

So: Is it the Andy Rooney Effect, or is "So" So Big of a Deal?

You may, or may not have noticed the uptick in "so" as a sentence starter, [There actually hasn't been an uptick, but there has been an uptick in noticing it]. Or, so says Geoffery Nunberg, resident linguist on radio show, "Fresh Air", on National Public Radio [USA]. 

I have noticed that I use "so" as a sentence starter to indicate that I'm about to talk out loud on something that I have actually been talking about to myself, as though I'm bringing a new interlocutor into an ongoing conversation. There's probably a more elegant way to do that. So, I'll have to think about it. Or maybe, I'm using it the way Nunberg suggests, as a preface to a lengthy verbal outpouring.  So, "So..." may be a way of turning off my ears...thus, therefore, so - I should pay attention. To "so". 

Figure of Thinking - Actions: The Actor's Thesaurus

Want to present better? Pursue fun actions. Who are the experts on fun actions? Actors. Here's a resource you might want to have handy next time you're brainstorming for a presentation: Actions: The Actor's Thesaurus.  It comes in nifty app forms too.

On behalf of your next audience: Please do more than inform or report or analyze in your presentations. Formulate goals and then pursue them. Or chase, hunt, scheme, advance, run the gamut, or cross the Rubicon to get them....but DO as you talk!

I "Coach" TED Talks #2 - Excellent Energy and Spooky Stillness

If you subscribe to updates on TED talks, then this talk on Quantum Biology, by physicist Jim Al-Khalili, recently appeared in your inbox. If you're curious about the ultimate nature of reality, but didn't get the hang of advanced mathematics, like yours truly, then it's good to listen to someone like Mr. Al-Khalili. And if you do understand advanced science, then Mr. Al-Khalili is a good example of how to talk to a general audience.  

From a coaching perspective, sometimes, it's good just to carefully observe a really enjoyable speaker. It gives you a picture of how you want to feel before an audience. But there's also something, well, spooky here....and it's not just in the quantum biology.

This talk is also a good lab for watching how speakers are impacted by the physical aspects of the room they're in and how people change their behavior for the camera.

The Room

At 25 sec - we see the challenges and the assets of the theatre in which Khalili is presenting.

In his favor, there are screens in front of him and to the side, mounted in aisles, so he doesn't have to break contact with the audience to know what the audience is seeing. [Personally, I don't think it's bad if a speaker turns to look at their slide, as long as the speaker remembers not to speak to the slide] .

The challenge - he is on a thrust stage, meaning the audience is on 3 sides - this promotes intimacy with the audience, but it also means that close to 1/2 the audience is off to either side. This means to make and maintain contact the speaker has to move. Whatever the configuration of a room, speakers need to make choices about proximity to the audience. Willingness to approach the audience signals confidence and a desire to connect. In this room, the speaker must be close to the audience, and must move in order to remain present with everyone. 

The Delivery

Around forty seconds we get a nice shot of how strong it is to stand still with the feet shoulder-width apart. It's a great posture to start with and to return to. He is, to borrow a phrase from one of my movement teachers, "free, forward, and up". Movement is possible from this posture because it is easy to feel one's weight on the floor - and it takes energy to move from this posture, so tiny nervous movements are felt as tiny and nervous; this posture promotes self-awareness. To take a step from here takes a deliberate move. 

As he gets into his talk, you can observe: the comfortable pace, released energy - a little bound in the arms, but they're not dead -  he's gesturing rather than erecting an inert barrier at right angles, which many nervous speakers do. Great pitch variation, which follows in the moment from gesturing, but is rooted in knowing where he's going, and composing the talk in an unornamented, oral style. Finally, he also uses stories. At 6:30 he talks about how Schrodinger 'begged to differ' from conventional wisdom in his field. He doesn't just inform us of Schrodinger's views, he speaks of Schrodinger as being in conversation with the ideas. An active style is clear and gives the voice something to do in accenting language. To top it off, the slides are few in number, simple and clean.  

Despite all of this excellent energy, something began to dawn on me about 5 minutes in. It's the Spooky Stillness of his feet. 

After about 5 minutes, I realized: he still hasn't taken a step. Did the organizers put magnets in his tap shoes? Who got to him? The videographer who begged him not to move to help the editing? His own nervous voice telling him to stay planted? Or maybe even-shudder- a voice coach? Or maybe it was a choice - maybe he gets scattered and frenetic if he moves too much.

On the one hand, It doesn't really matter, the presentation is excellent, but it's worth some reflection. I can't imagine the audience in the room didn't notice this and maybe find it odd. In fact, around 9:45 in the speech you can see him twisting to bring in the side audience. I would have said to him, "listen to your feet". Sometimes your body knows the right thing to do. Also, he's really responding to the configuration of the stage - which shows how present and connected to the audience he is. 

Finally, another grace note Al-Khalili hits earlier, around 9:05 is how he responds to the laughter -  he hears it and rolls with it. This doesn't take any great craft. It's just listening and breathing. Nervous speakers 'step on' the laughter - which is like telling the audience 'SHH' I have something important to say!", as they rush to the next idea, trying to exert control over an uncontrollable situation.


The spookiest part of presentations, or performance of any kind, is the audience.  After all of the hard work of drafting, re-drafting and rehearsing, it is the audience that decides what is important.

If you are fortunate enough to elicit laughter from an audience, it means they're listening; it means their breathing pattern is changing, which means ideas are reaching them. Most important, laughter means your audience is no longer just a group of individuals, it is becoming a chorus, inspired to some degree by your presence. That's can be lot of energy to take in and remain present with. 

"Just tell me what to do" or, Fixing, Submission, Healing, Coaching, Learning, Progress.

Recently, my wife was on-call and had a hard case: a patient with a terminal illness and mental health problems was calling for advice about how to handle a downturn. In short, and with more bedside manner, the advice she offered was: take your medicine and go to the hospital. The paitient didn't want to go. The patient wanted to stay home and smoke, and the medicine had unpleasant side-effects. There were no good choices for that patient - just a variety of unpleasant ones. And it was beyond my wife's powers to fix the situation, even though the patient was asking her for a fix, while, at the same time, rejecting the only responsible advice she could offer. My wife's advice promised a sort of progress from a clinical standpoint, but it did not constitute progress in the patient's view. And all paths toward healing were closed. 

Fortunately, my "cases" as a voice coach aren't as heavy, although bad presentations have been described as deadly in some quarters.

I once had a client under time pressure to make improvements in his delivery style. The client told me: I don't see any problems with my presentations, it's other people who have problems with my presentations. Essentially, the feedback he received was that his presentations were smart, but soporific, on account of his lack of presence. I offered some advice and exercises. I used imagery, I told stories, I was slow and careful. He was afraid of getting stagey. I was worried that he would disappear in plain sight. 

At the end of the session, after receiving some specific guidance on posture, the client's response to my approach was, basically: I don't need imagery - just tell me what to do. Strangely, after a brief work session, the person who started by saying: "I don't have any problems", wanted to be told what to do, yet was suspect of the value of the guidance I offered. 

In both, my wife's situation and mine there's a "patient" looking for a fix, with a readiness to submit to the expert - but only if the fix fits the idea of progress in the scope of the patient. 

Coaches like me want to help, but have to remember that the power to progress is in the hands of the student. We can only be useful as guides when we meet the learner in their situation.

For the learner in distress, getting a fix from an expert seems to be a short-cut to progress.

Experts know that a learner looking to be fixed is apt to move along a continuum of submission, in a state of "unconscious incompetence", without gaining the tools to progress to "conscious incompetence", stumble toward "conscious competence"...experience "unconscious competence" and "flow"...mastery. There isn't always time for that progression; sometimes a person only has time to become a jack of the trade. 

In my situation, given the time constraints, I could have been more directive:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart;
  • Don't lock your knees;
  • Don't lean back - it makes you look detached;
  • Don't stand with your weight off-center, it makes you look indifferent;
  • Relax your belly;
  • Relax you arms;
  • Stand tall;
  • Drop your shoulders;
  • Lift your chest;
  • Open your mouth more...

All valid prescriptions - but when offered as bullet-pointed pills, not very useful, let alone, healthy.  The chances of any one of these clipped directives being experienced as progress, rather than experienced as submission is very low. I can substitute the fix of "knowing what do" for the real learning that comes with coaching the tools of feeling what to do. And feeling what to do is the only real progress that can come with voice work. Action is sensation, not knowledge. Presentation is an action. 

On the other hand, I also could have met the client goes my own slow progress.

I wish I had asked my client versions of the question Saul Kotzubei asks when he has clients who have trouble being audible: Do you really want people to hear you?

  • Do you really want to expose your ideas to the scrutiny of an intelligent audience?
  • Do you really want to motivate others to join you? 
  • Do you really want to express yourself and experience the impact that has on others?

Any one of those questions could start a long conversation, but they could also bring goals and obstacles into focus with dispatch. 

Ultimately, these are the questions underlying every session spent with a voice/presentation coach.  The answers to those questions could be choices or they could be prescriptions from an expert. The tools offered as choices are on a continuum with progress and healthy self-expression. Prescriptions offered up as directives, without giving a client the chance to experience and test the prescription, are on a continuum to submission.

I "Coach" TED Talks - #1

As a voice coach, I sometimes find it hard to explain what it is that I do without having an actual "case" before me. I can talk about posture, breath and text, but ultimately a voice coach has to talk about these things with a specific someone, a specific somebody. And that's where the real work is.

So how would I work with you ? Perhaps, you can get a sense by "listening" to me "coach" someone else.

I will begin here a series of "coaching sessions" with TED talks that I find interesting, but where the voice / breath /speech, or movement is impeded and diminishes the speaker's presence.

The first talk that I will coach is one that I came across while developing material to perform around the image of mirrors and the theme of ambivalence. As I searched those terms, the great seer, Google, offered up a TEDx talk which combines both. It's by a visual artist who has delved into the science of her painting down to the level of nanoparticles, Kate Nichols, and the talk is titled, "Light and Art Through the Lens of Ambivalence". If you have ten minutes, watch the whole thing, it's intriguing. However, the two issues I'd like to "coach" are evident in the first 2:35 of the clip. One is a general issue that I see with presenters and the second is specific to this speech. If you want to practice your own coaching skills, watch and listen a bit, see what you notice that might distract from Ms. Nichols's content and then consider why the distraction is occurring, before scrolling down.


Issue One

Look at the tense stance in the long shot beginning at 2:04.

There's nothing inherently distracting,here, but it's a posture for the camera, not for standing in front of a live audience of any size. While not distracting, it is limiting, and therefore, may invite distraction on the part of the audience. And an audience member with something else to think about (that's all audience members, btw), might not be drawn in. Although she is apparently restricted to the red carpet for the purposes of the recording, she could still move some - but the tense arms and narrow stance make movement unlikely. Movement, fluency and vocal presence go together. If you ever have to split the difference between pleasing a camera and pleasing an audience, then favor the audience: cameras don't blink and the camera operator will tell it where to look. Ms. Nichols knows her stuff, but it's not coming across as strongly as it might were she to move, even within the resticted zone allowed. 


Issue Two

The "tsk" that initiates new sentences.

Some might think: well, that's just the way she talks. But it isn't. I don't know Ms. Nichols, but there is another, shorter talk by her on a similar topic, before a smaller audience in which this mannerism does not appear. My guess is that nerves may be one source of this vocal fidgeting in this larger venue. It's something which might be avoided by warming up and relaxing facial muscles, the jaw, lips and tongue beforehand. But muscular tension doesn't seem to be the whole story.

Why are so many sentences initiated this way? There's something going on here between thinking in the moment and behavior, which is more subtle.

At 2:29-31 there's an interesting combination of behaviors that would provide substance for an actual coaching session. The shift of the eyes downward - did she lose her train of thought? Was she looking at a monitor to get the next thought? Did some thing else distract her? Possibly - but, it doesn't seem like this "tsk" and the freeze with the raised arms are panic. There isn't a word out of place here: no "ums", no "deer in the headlights" sensation, which actors recognize when a scene partner has lost their lines. To me, this text seems memorized and these behaviors come across as feigned spontaneity. Indeed, we do inhale sharply with a new idea or surprise, and we might even freeze to take in a surprising piece of information. However, the repetitive "tsk" and intake of breath at the start of this presentation read as a kind of nervous indication to the audience: new idea! new idea!  

But if every idea is equally important, then no idea will land clearly - something to keep in mind, whether speaking extempore from a prepared text, or from a memorized text. Here, the content is intriguing, the visuals are arresting but the speaker acts as though she has to underline the novelty of the ideas. And this indicating is distracting, and the extra effort actually diminishes her authority. It takes the place of real, moment-to-moment interaction.

If the preparation is good, and here it quite evidently is,  then the speaker's task becomes completely present tense: not relying on a monitor, or memorization of a particular word, to produce an effect. That is to say, the task becomes the more challenging, and more rewarding one of actually getting the next idea from the instant of relating directly to the audience. And allowing oneself to be affected by that. That's when real inspirations can happen for speakers and audiences alike.