You Are Your Message: How to Speak / Present Well in Public

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” and advanced a number of prophetic ideas – all from the vantage of the 1960’s. McLuhan’s thoughts apply to you – including predicting the over extension of technology, and the intensification of the world community to its present expression as a “global village.”

McLuhan’s quip regarding message and medium was the thought of my morning at WordCamp San Francisco – an event for blogging geeks that is akin to baseball fans attending spring training – and experienced how presenters such as Scott Berkun, Vanessa Fox, Matt Mullenweg, et al. at a high tech conference use, or misuse communication medium.

In this particular case, how they used their physical selves to either their advantage, or as mostly the case with the speakers at WordCamp, to their detriment.

There is a formula for credibility and impact in public speaking which hold true whomever you are, and that formula has been kicking around for almost 40 years based on work from 1974 by researchers J.C. McCroskey, W. Holdridge, and J. K. Toomb, who identified five dimensions of credibil­ity in public speaking. Hit all 5 and you’re doing great and stumble on some and your effectiveness will be iffy:

  • Competence: The degree to which an audience perceives the speaker to be an expert in the specific topic.
  • Character: The degree to which an audience perceives the speaker to be a reliable, essentially trustworthy message source.
  • Composure: The degree to which the speakers is perceived as being able to maintain emotional control.
  • Extroversion: The degree to which an audience perceives you as being bold, outgoing, and dynamic.
  • Sociability: The degree to which the audience perceives you as being some one with whom they could be friends.

First, the good news: much of the how-to in terms of being effective is in print, and is readily available, including this piece on YouTube. Writer Berkun, who I’ll mention below, has an excellent book call Confessions of a Public Speaker (here). It’s not hard stuff – it just takes thought and practice, practice and practice.

Now here’s the bad news: how you present yourself takes a little thought as well: the type of thought that should cause you to ask your neighbor (but not your spouse) how clothes look, or a hairstyle fits you. This is the area where you want candor, not love, which is why neighbors work out better than significant others. And while I’m not a big fan of John T. Molloy’s “Dress for Success“, it has its points and one of them is to be credible it helps to look credible.

One of the jobs of being credible is being of your audience but not in your audience. And this is where some people with good content this morning stumbled: OK presentations that could have been great presentations.

Let’s take Scott Berkun first. As I’ve written before, Scott is really an underappreciated speaker: the structure and content of his speeches is quite good, and the delivery is excellent. Where he trips up is that he’s dressing like he’s still at Microsoft in the ’90’s instead of an accomplished writer and speaker in the year 2010. While I don’t think he needs take on the dark suit and starched shirt look like Dan Pink, as the saying goes, if you want have people think you or your ideas are worth a million dollars you might want to look like a million dollars. (Scott: flip me a note or ring me up +1 415 843 1242 – I’d be glad to discuss.)

Vanessa Fox, who I’d not seen before, was a similar and yet different case. As the one of the early Google employees, by resume she’s quite accomplished. Unfortunately, you would never have known that from her presentation, where my hunch is that half the crowd  – even the gay guys- were wondering if they’d get to the see the full tattoo exposed on her bikini line between her hip huggers and too short t-shirt by the end of the presentation. You don’t have to dress like Meg Whitman or Hillary Clinton to be credible – it just helps as a female not to have your physical presence cloud the content you’re presenting. Watching how the character Tess McGill navigates presence and attire in her work environment in Working Girl would be a start. And at age 38, it might help Vanessa to look like you’re dressing someplace in the 25-50 range in terms of slight sophistication, rather than fresh from the undergrad degree.

Last, Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress showed how to put a presentation together in his “state of WordPress” update: good content, good presentation structure, good mechanics, and he looked credible. No distractions. And his physical props – his self – supported his position and message. [Updated: Mullenweg also showed how to handle Q & A: be specific, be humble, be funny, and integrate earlier comments (in this case, something about puppies) into your conversation.]

Nailing the presentation credibility factor does not mean that women dress up in man suits, or men dress in ties. It does mean taking some time and thought about the message you want to convey, and whether all the props – room, collateral material like pass outs or slide decks, AND how you dress – support that message.

I am a big fan of substance over style. But it’s a tough road to hoe if your style obscures or mars much of your substance.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.

One thought on “You Are Your Message: How to Speak / Present Well in Public

  1. Pingback: Coaching Tips: How to Dress for Success | Life Back West

Comments are closed.