Content or Technique? The Best Way To Step-Up Your Speaking Game

Content or Technique? The Best Way To Step-Up Your Speaking Game

Content or Technique? The Best Way To Step-Up Your Speaking Game

What’s the first thing to work on if you want to improve your public speaking?

Short answer

It depends on what your current strengths and weaknesses are.

Long answer

If starting from scratch most people focus on things that relate to their delivery such as managing nerves, voice, gestures and other body language. Indeed, much of the public speaking and presentation training out there is focused on performance technique.

The problems with a technique-only approach are:

  • Most people don’t have the skills to properly apply the techniques
  • It ignores the substance of the message

When people ask me to evaluate their speech, they are often surprised if I start with how they can improve their content instead of their delivery.

Here’s why sometimes that’s where you need to start…

If there is a problem with WHAT you are saying, you have huge problems before you even get started. 

The most common problems with content are:

  • Trying to cram too much information into the time allowed
  • Too much ‘cold’ information such as facts and figures, not balanced out with ‘warm’ content such as stories and examples to illustrate points
  • Lack of structure
  • No organised material – trying to ‘wing it’ and either rambling aimlessly or getting completely lost for words
  • The presenter actually has little knowledge of what they are speaking about
  • There are large gaping holes in the presenter’s argument

When the wheels fall off a presentation, it’s more often than not because the speaker has not connected with the content themselves, they haven’t considered their content from an audience point of view, or they straight up have no authority on the topic.

If you know what you are talking about and you have solid well-planned content, that in itself will give you more confidence when it comes to your delivery.

So, what about delivery?

Content and delivery are both important. However, so is the way you prioritise them…

If you are a paid professional speaker there is an expectation that you will deliver a polished performance. For everyone else, audiences will forgive a lot of flaws as long as you are giving them good information they can understand and relate to (content first got it?).

However if the flaws in delivery become a distraction from the message, then you have a problem.

The most common issues with delivery are:

  • Lacking enthusiasm – if you’re not interested in what you’re saying why would anyone else be?
  • Overly animated – trying too hard
  • Trying to imitate other speakers they have seen rather than being themselves
  • Speaking too fast
  • Speaking too loudly or too quietly
  • Excessive use of fillers – ums and ahs
  • The presenter talks to their PowerPoint slides instead of to the audience

Once we’ve dealt with those issues, we can then start looking at a range of basic tips that are within the abilities of the average person to help enhance your delivery and add impact to your well-structured message. These might include:

  • Using pauses for effect
  • Purposeful gestures
  • Varying the rate of speech and volume of your voice
  • Eye contact
  • Using visual aids, such as slides, for a purpose

These are simple things that can be very effective and that most people can master with a little practise – without being concerned with taking on a lot of performance techniques and trying to be someone they’re not.

So when it comes to effective public speaking, content and delivery are both important. However, so is the way you prioritise them…

Figure out what to say first, then concentrate on how best to say it as the best possible version of yourself – not like a bad actor trying to be someone else.

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications


Oh To Be Blissfully Unaware Of Our Own Incompetence

Oh To Be Blissfully Unaware Of Our Own Incompetence

Oh To Be Blissfully Unaware Of Our Own Incompetence

I question my own ability several times a day, every day.

I look at others in my field of professional expertise who seem to have supreme confidence and I worry that I may actually be grossly under-qualified to be putting myself out there in the same company.

I worry because it’s scientifically proven that most incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent.

It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect after two psychology researchers from Cornell University who conducted a series of experiments after noting many references in other studies to people’s ignorance of their own performance. David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that for a given skill, the majority of incompetent people will:

  1. Fail to recognise their own lack of skill
  2. Fail to recognise genuine skill in others
  3. Fail to recognise the extent of their own ineptitude

The researchers noted the irony of the situation is that in order to recognise those things, the person would need to possess the very skill they lack!

The other significant finding they made was the reverse applied to people who did have the skill in question…

Actual competence tends to weaken self-confidence and people with true skill generally under-estimate their own ability.

This is not a new concept though. Noted philosophers and scientists have been talking about it for centuries.

Confucius said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”.

Charles Darwin said “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.

Bertrand Russell eloquently put it like this: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”.

They Probably Won’t Try To Improve Either

Dunning and Kruger found that incompetent people can recognise their own previous lack of skill if they are exposed to training for that skill. The problem is that they are unlikely to seek out such training.

Why would they if they don’t know?

Public speaking is a classic example. People who seek help with public speaking typically do so because they lack confidence. But the bigger problem (in the business world at least) is confident speakers who really could use some help because they are confusing, offending, and boring their audiences.

What Do We Do Then?

A couple of important points to keep in mind:

  1. Not all confident people are incompetent
  2. Not all people who feel self-doubt are highly skilled

I think our best bet is simply to have enough self-awareness to look objectively at our own performance on a regular basis and couple that with the desire to really master whatever is we are trying to do. Even better, get a mentor or coach, or find someone we trust completely to provide us with informed objective feedback and guidance.

Doing those things will always put us a step ahead of those who never ask any questions of themselves and sure enough, the genuine ‘earned’ confidence that only comes from actually being good at what you do, will follow.

(Originally published Nov 2013. Updated April 2016).

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications


Five Reasons Introverts Can Be Great Communicators & Leaders

Five Reasons Introverts Can Be Great Communicators & Leaders

Five Reasons Introverts Can Be Great Communicators & Leaders

Introverts aren’t always the shy quiet type or the shrinking violet. In fact introversion and shyness are different things that many people mistakenly think are the same.

Introverts are often quite confident but just need time and space to be at their best. Here are some traits that can put them well ahead of their extroverted counterparts.

1. A wise man speaks because he has something to say; a fool because he has to say something. – Plato

Introverts are more likely to think before they speak. In a world full of meaningless chatter, well thought out and reasoned words can have a huge impact.

2. Hold the small talk thanks

Sometimes mistaken for aloofness or arrogance, many introverts just don’t go in for superficial chit-chat much preferring meaningful conversations. They will often ask great questions and be more likely to genuinely listen to the answers.

3. Playing It Cool

In a heated situation or a crisis, an introvert will often provide a much needed level head and calm confidence.

4. Preparation is the key

Introverts are less likely to wing their way through a meeting or presentation, preparing much more thoroughly beforehand.

5. Down time

When introverts honour their natural need for time alone, this time is often when they produce their best work. A little time-out provides clarity of thought and enhances creativity.


David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications


It’s Not Our Listening. It’s Your Tapping That’s Causing Confusion.

It’s Not Our Listening. It’s Your Tapping That’s Causing Confusion.

It’s Not Our Listening. It’s Your Tapping That’s Causing Confusion.

Have you ever had someone try to explain something to you but instead of feeling informed you just felt either more confused or none the wiser? Meanwhile, the other person thought they did a perfectly good job?

A study conducted by a lady called Elizabeth Newton at Stanford University in 1990 not only earned her a Ph.D, but also explains why listeners often feel this way.

Ms. Newton created a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” The tappers were given a list of  well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs. That’s 3 out of 120.

Here’s what makes that figure significant…

Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict how many songs the listeners would guess correctly. The prediction was 50 percent.

So the tappers thought they would get their message across 1 time in 2. In reality the message got through just 1 time in 40.

Why the huge difference?

Pick a well-known song and try tapping it out yourself. You’ll find you can clearly hear the tune in your own mind. Meanwhile, all anyone else listening can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps. Likewise, in the experiment, the tappers were amazed at how hard it was for the listeners to pick up the tune. They thought the song was obvious and became frustrated with the listeners if they couldn’t work it out.

Once we know something (in this case the song) it becomes almost impossible for us to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. In the experiment, the tappers can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. 

What this means for us as communicators in the real world is that we can’t replicate our listeners’ state of mind in our own mind but we do need to be aware of it and allow for it. If we don’t, then we will be met with blank faces when we try to explain whatever it is we want to get across.

There are ‘tappers and listeners’ everywhere. The tappers and listeners are marketers and customers, experts and novices, parents and children, bosses and employees, trainers and students, and many more relationships where one side holds most of the knowledge.

In order to communicate our knowledge or ‘have our song heard’ we need to think carefully about how we can recreate the tune in our listeners’ minds rather than assuming they are hearing it just as well as we are.

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications


How To Avoid Crashing & Burning When Using Humour

How To Avoid Crashing & Burning When Using Humour

How To Avoid Crashing & Burning When Using Humour

So three public speakers walk into a bar right…

In my opinion the bravest speakers of all are stand-up comedians. They go out on stage usually armed with nothing but a microphone and their wit. No music. No props. No second chances. They are expected to be funny and if they aren’t, the audience is quick to let them know.

For the rest of us, while some humour can help make our speeches and presentations more entertaining and engaging, it’s not expected.

Hang on a minute! But we’ve all heard that humour is the best way to win over an audience, right?

A few months ago I was at a conference and the organisers had flown one of the speakers in from Canada for the occasion. During the first part of his presentation he made a joke about jet lag and coffee which under most circumstances would be a throw away line that would elicit a smile and a nod from most people.

However he made two mistakes with it.

Firstly he built the joke up to be a lot funnier than it actually was. Secondly, he broadcast his punchline as a bullet point on a PowerPoint slide for about five minutes before he actually delivered it (HINT: the unexpected element is kind of important when it comes to humour).

When he finally got to the punchline, it was clear from his own actions that he was expecting a significant reaction from the audience. What he got was silence and it was obvious for the next ten minutes or so that he was completely rattled and you could feel the audience was uncomfortable as a result of watching him climb from the wreckage.

Yes, humour can help, but there’s always the risk that your audience won’t appreciate the joke. If you are already nervous, that’s not exactly going to make things easier.

Play To Your Strengths Rather Than Trying Too Hard

We all have certain strengths and weaknesses when it comes to humour. The first step is knowing what they are rather than trying too hard to be funny.

For example, I rarely ever tell pre-prepared jokes because I’m simply not a joke teller – I’ve figured that out the hard way having crashed and burned a couple of times myself. On the other hand I am fortunate that I can often see a situation and make a wry observation, deliver a mildly amusing one-liner, or recount a short anecdote that I’m reminded of.

So rather than try to stage something, I stay alert and look for those opportunities to do something ‘off-the-cuff’ because that suits my style.

What if I can’t do ‘off-the-cuff’ humour? Shouldn’t I still have some jokes up my sleeve?

I’m sure at some point most of us would have been to a wedding where ‘Uncle Bob’ has been appointed as MC and he has taken the opportunity to unleash his full repertoire of tired mother-in-law jokes that have left guests squirming in their seats.

In reality, simply being positive and enthusiastic is often all you need to do. A good mood is infectious and will soon spread throughout the room.

Apart from that, you can always tell an interesting story or express something heartfelt. These things are appreciated by people just as much as humour and are usually far less risky.

If doing a business presentation, making sure your content is actually interesting and relevant should be your first concern before you even start thinking about what jokes you’ll use.

The best advice I can offer is to know yourself and know your audience. If anything you are thinking of doing feels like it might be uncomfortable for either, leave it out.      

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications


The Five Types Of Story & How to Choose One

The Five Types Of Story & How to Choose One

The Five Types Of Story & How to Choose One

According to Dr Nick Morgan of Public Words there are five basic types of stories in western culture.

1. The Quest

The hero must achieve some difficult goal or reach a certain place within a certain time. Along the way they must overcome a series of obstacles.

2. Stranger In A Strange Land

In this story the hero is placed in an unfamiliar situation and has to learn to play by a new set of rules.

3. Rags To Riches

The hero starts from a position of disadvantage and through luck, hard work, and determination is ultimately rewarded with riches, fame, glory etc.

4. Revenge

The hero has been wronged by their enemy and sets out to avenge the wrong that has been done to them.

5. Love Story

The classic boy meets girl. Boy does something stupid. Boy has to win girl back again.

Which story applies to you?

Some examples in business might include: Venturing into a new market – stranger in a strange land.

Meeting a product launch deadline – the quest.

The classic entrepreneurial start-up from someone’s bedroom to multi-million dollar company – rags to riches.

Doing something that doesn’t sit well with customers then making it right – the love story.

Succeeding despite having to deal with tough competitors who do everything they can to stop you – revenge.

Whether you are preparing a campaign, coming up with an entire branding strategy, or making a presentation, figure out which of these basic themes applies to you, your business, or product, and craft a compelling story around it.

David Wise

David Wise

Owner, Wise Words Communications