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June 12, 2007

Speaking as a Performing Art


My buddy Doug Lawrence has been a professional singer, music director, and speech coach. He is a highly respected concert artist having sung for almost forty years in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, and throughout Europe with conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson-Thomas.

In the last forty years, in addition to singing, he’s done tons of speaking in front of groups of all sizes. Here’s the big surprise: Singing and speaking have everything in common—except for maybe really good tunes. The main goal is to engage your audience and make them listen to you, so everything a singer does, a speaker ought to do too. Here are the absolute necessities of an engaging performance or presentation that Doug compiled for me:

  1. Circulate with your audience. Before every concert, speech, and seminar, I try to mingle with the crowd, ask questions, and let them know I’m glad they came. This isn’t always possible in the real world, but when it is, I have an opportunity to feel a bond with the people I’m about to perform for and undo some of the jitters that are a natural part of being “on.”

  2. Command attention. The breastbone (sternum) has to be high if you want to project authority. You might want to pretend you’re a rooster showing off. Relaxed sternum = loser, high sternum = winner!

  3. Snarl. If people can’t hear you, they won’t listen to you. Add some nasal resonance to your voice, but keep smiling. Snarl is that nasal sound you get when you speak partially from your nose instead of your mouth. It generates overtones above 2,800 cycles per second that make any room “sing.” Pretend you’re trying to yell/warn a child that’s about to run out in front of a bus—like yelling, “STOP!” This works whether you’re using a microphone or speaking without one

  4. Bite your tongue. If your mouth gets dry in the middle of your presentation, try gently biting your tongue. Opera singers use this all the time to release saliva which moistens your mouth.

  5. Always perform a sound check before you speak. A good sound person will adjust the EQ to your voice and its idiosyncrasies. If you’re comfortable using a hand mike, do so—work close to the mike and you’ll have a better chance of being heard. If you turn your head, make sure you turn the mike with your head. Lapel mikes usually work fine, but for softer speakers they’re very frustrating. Wrap-around mikes (such as the AKG C520L—$159) that fit over your ear are the best for intelligibility. If you speak often and you know your venues will support this technology, buy a really good one and take it with you.

  6. Use your eyes all the time. Hand gestures, pacing around the platform can all be useful tools in presentation, but the eyes…ah, the eyes have it! If you can’t engage people with your eyes you will eventually lose your audience’s attention. Your eyes always tell people whether or not you believe in what you’re saying! Scan the room, select a person to make a point to, and look right at them. It’s a little intimidating for them, but it keeps you focused on the individuals who make up your audience. Keep moving to new people—right, left, middle—it works! If all else fails, look at each person as though you’ve loved him or her all your life—like mom, or your child.

  7. Move away from center to make your point. When you come to a place in your presentation where you really want people’s attention, move to the left or right of your primary speaking position. This will always make people look up at you. If you are a constant mover or shaker, stand still for a few moments—it will have the same effect.

  8. Get quiet. If you really want to get people’s attention, get quiet suddenly. It will scare the sound guy to death, but I guarantee the audience will pay attention. Singers use this trick all the time. That’s the “you could hear a pin drop” effect. Believe me, that’s what sells your talk!

  9. “Underline” certain words with a pause or repetition. If you really want to make a point, slow down, pause, and say the word or phrase that you most want people to hear with a calculated emphasis on each word. The sudden switch in style gets attention. Also try repeating a word or phrase before you make your big point. For example: “You know (pause) you know (pause) you know, the thing I want you to remember is…” Songs are full of repeated text, a device that locks down meaning!

  10. Take a risk and be vulnerable. Say or do something that’s totally out of character for you. Use a “pretend” voice like Mickey Mouse or Barry White for effect while you’re telling a joke or saying something shocking or humorous. Whether your persona is reserved or funny, it’s endearing to have a little fun. This trick humanizes the most serious topics.

  11. Tee it higher. Raising the overall pitch of your voice for a few seconds will create urgency. It shows your passion for the subject matter and also relaxes your exhausted larynx. Low pitched voices relax the room—high pitched voices increase the adrenaline flow of the audience.

  12. Know when it’s time to go. You don’t have to be a genius to know you’ve overstayed your welcome. Check your “presentation barometer” often to see if everyone is still with you. Change something—anything—if you’re starting to lose the crowd. If all else fails, stop talking, start thanking, and get off the platform. People will love you more for knowing when to stop than for all the wonderful content you brought to your topic!

  13. Use Q and A as an “encore.” Singers usually prepare an encore because this practice makes the audience feel special and makes them think you like them more than other audiences you’ve encountered. Q and A functions something like an encore. You may think you told them stuff they needed to know, but questions often reveal the important things you left out of your content. Where this opportunity exists, use it as a tool for picking up the pieces you left dangling in your talk and warm the crowd to your candor and self-effacing graciousness.

  14. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. That’s how I got to Carnegie Hall! Where possible, memorize your material like singers memorize their songs. Remember, the more you rehearse, the freer you will be to make your talk fresh and engaging.

  15. Perform for a hero. Several years ago I was asked to sing a command performance for the Queen of Spain. I worked harder on that concert than any I have ever sung. It was very successful and I was proud of my preparation. From that time on I imagined I was about to sing for the queen, it made me twice the performer I had been previously. Pick a hero, and give them your best shot!

Doug is a presentation coach; you can reach him via email.


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I think that some of the information in this article is helpful, as long as you have it in the right context. It is extraordinarily important to know your audience. Being too animated in some situations can be seen as silly, even childish, whereas, at other times it is perfectly appropriate. The subject matter is helpful, but it is best to get to know some of the key figures you will be dealing with ahead of time. If you can become aware of their likes, dislikes, and preferences, you will be much more likely to discern the best tools for communication.


Interesting. I have to say the only one that sounds off is #2 -- it's harder to breathe and be relaxed if your sternum isn't.

I agree with all of that besides the rehearse point...

Too much rehearsing of a speech makes it more robotic, or like a recital. The speaker should still be excited about the content and mentally engaged with it. If they can reel it off back to front, it won't feel fresh to them and the audience will msis out on the extra energy. My POV.

It turns out I was simply wrong about my prior comment.

I thought I recognized a lot of the language in this post. But now that I've gone back to the book, I don't see many more similarities than one could see in any two documents about the same topic, by two different people who are both at the top of the same field.

My sincere apologies to Doug, and to Guy. And my gratitude for everyone's patience. I've learned a lesson about spouting off without checking the facts first.


I don't want to use the word plagiarized, but this list is well-enough informed by a single chapter from Peggy Noonan's book on making speeches that she DEFinately deserves at least a reference.

I don't have the book in front of me, but I read it about two months ago. There's a chapter towards the end with tips, which is closely paralleled by much of this post.


Hello Guy,
Excellent and very practical tips you enlisted for mastering the art of public speaking.Personally speaking, I feel if you are the person who enjoyed most making a speech then chances are you have succeeded in making an impact on your audience too.
Best Wishes!!

Mike Ramm -- aaaaarrrrrrgh. Please tell me you were joking. Succeed, yes, by all means. And trust that you might well have been much better than you thought (most presenters are their own hardest audience). BUT, never be deterred so easily. Fail early, fail often. Fail with joy whenever you can. Churchill said that success is largely the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm!

Very interesting and useful, great to have this particular perspective.

I've made comments on most of these pointers on my blog:


Great advice here! One other recommendation I heard which helped me and can give you a boost of confidence before a presentation: remember that the audience is on your side and they want you to succeed. They want to experience a great presentation! Thinking of an audience that way, instead of thinking of them as a group of critics waiting to pounce on your first mistake, frees you up to embrace some of these tips above.

A nice list - thanks Guy and Doug. I especially liked the points about good public speaking being like singing - projecting your voice and controlling the pitch of your voice. In fact now I really have to make a small plug for my singing software training product if you don't mind...

We've been working on a software tool for singing training ("Sing & See") that gives visual feedback to show singers their exact pitch and also the overtones in their voices - i.e. so that they can see when they are getting those increased higher harmonics you mention in point #3. It strikes me that this could be useful for public speakers also to give some feedback while practising. I don't know of anyone who is using it for that purpose but would be interested to hear from anyone who is able to try it out.


This is a great list...printing it right now! #10 is sticking out right now--and the part about humanizing the most serious topics. I think it is so important to connect. You could be the best speaker in the world, but people will remember if you connect. Thanks for putting this together!

The most difficult speaking engagement that I ever experiences was about 10 years ago speaking at the Microsoft TechEd conference. The room started with about 800 people, and by the time I was half way done, there were only about 20 people left.

How did this happen? Well, I was working for a company at the time where the marketing people set me up for this conference as a speaker, and they gave me the topic that I was to talk about. The marketing people who lined this up didn’t know the difference between IBM products and Microsoft products. They told me that I was to talk about “Connecting Enterprise Systems to the IBM AS/400 System”.

Since the conference was sponsored by Microsoft, they were expecting to hear about Microsoft systems.

The morale of the story is that when you have a speaking engagement, be sure to check what the session is being promoted as.

One of the most insightful posts I've read in awhile. I recently purchased a public speaking book by Dale Carnegie and it sounds like a lot of his advice remains true today. The "Bite Your Tongue" advice was definitely a first though! Carnegie would be proud. ;)

The biggest problem I faced when invited to speak at my first conference was to speak in public. I had never done it before but suddenly I was having an audience of senior marketing people from global MNCs, and fellow speakers like Yahoo's Head of Marketing and Nokia's Marketing Director.

Thankfully, I had spent a lot of time in the hotel room toilet (no kidding - for 2 hours and infront of the mirror) doing point number 14, i.e. rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

The biggest lesson I learnt from my first gig was it didn't really matter if you had flawless grammar or artsy slides - it was how much the audience benefited from you.

You can read more over at my blog:
Singapore Online Marketing Blog

This is a terrific overview of captivating an audience.

Response rates and follow up requests from my presentations doubled after I attended Speaking Circles with Lee Glickstein. He's in the Bay Area and teaches workshops around the world on connecting with your audience. Check it out: www.speakingcircles.com.

Keep up the great blog! Highly valuable...

I recently closed a fairly big financing deal from a state agency (with a competitive selection process and a bureaucratic selection committe, no less). Was mighty proud that I was able to do it so "easily" and ascribed the selection to my superior content and the obvious clarity of my presentation.

This post reminded me of another twist to the story. Turns out I reached my destination about 30 minutes early and entered the room just as the "committee" was taking a break (before my presentation). Recovering quickly, I mingled with the committee members, and even found out some of their soft-spots and pet-peeves.

During the presentation, I kept eye contact with some of the friendlier faces.

We won the deal.

Now I know that the key to all this was my mingling!

Thx Guy!

These are great tidbits to share with my team - thanks for posting. I often joke that taking Into to Acting (which included improv) while in college was the smartest thing I ever did. Those skills (commanding stage presence, projecting your voice, sucking the audience in and thinking on your feet) and come into play everyday in the working world. Much more so than so many of the classes touted by the business school.

Trackback from http://dotmad.blogspot.com/2007/06/tips-for-speaking-in-front-of-audience.html

Good words.

Once I read the part about biting your tongue, I was biting my tongue through the rest of the post...you're right, it really does work. I just need to stop!

I'm so glad I read this before I walked out of the door! I am on my way to present some concepts to a very large client of mine... and this was such a great read! Good stuff!

Thanks for the useful tips. Although if I ever have to use them, you can be sure they'll slip my mind.

Mr. Jones

I love the last point. People respond best when they feel respected and served. If you go in overly-confident and arrogant, they won't have anything to learn from you. I've been to a few seminars where it seemed like the "authority" on the subject didn't even prepare, perhaps because he was speaking for college students. If you prepare as if you're speaking to royalty, they will feel your respect for their presence and their intelligence. You'll have more audience participation and they will get a lot more out of what you're saying. Confidence is important- but don't think you're the smartest one in the room. You're probably not. Don't take yourself too seriously and amazingly enough, others will take you more seriously. Don't know why that works...but it does!

Wonderful ideas. Some of these I knew (I do public speaking and have done so for years). But there were other ideas that will be quite helpful (the biting the tongue one is great - I always try to have water handy, but sometimes the lecture outlasts the water). My favorite trick is to just be quiet. A little silence grabs attention and punctuates an idea like nothing else.


And don't drink water with gas! Otherwise you'll sound like Geonosians...


Before you mingled with us prior to the talk, I thought it was going to be another dry talk on how to make VC's happy and ourselves rich in the process. (Typical at OSU) However, after meeting with you prior to the talk, you completely changed my perception.

1. I noticed that you were much different from other VC's that I've met before. (In a good way!) I enjoyed chatting with you about the Frozen 4 and misc other things. :)

2. Once you get to know a public speaker, you tend to listen a lot closer because you can recognize their personality traits and relate to them.

You did well at this talk, I recall a standing ovation. Either way, #1 of that bullet list served you well and made a positive impact on me. Keep up the great speaking!

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