Management Articles


Presentation Training May Be Harming Your Staff

By: Melissa Lewis

Melissa Lewis turns traditional thinking about public speaking upside down to give people more comfort, confidence, and charisma in front of groups. She is a former comic actress, a certified facilitator of SPEAKING CIRCLES®, President-Elect of the National Speakers Association Kansas City Chapter, and author of the soon-to-be-released book, Upside Down Speaking. For more information, call (913) 341-1241 or visit

Mandy, a bright, attractive professional woman, had a fear of speaking in front of groups. Recognizing that her feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness were limiting her potential, she decided (at her manager's suggestion) to take a speaking skills class. She showed up for class filled with trepidation. The students spent the morning listening to the instructor explain the rules of public speaking. That afternoon, they gave their presentations to the group.

After nervously waiting through five other talks, Mandy took her place at the front of the room-her heart pounding and hands shaking. She plowed through her 10-minute presentation with her mind in an out-of-body blur. When she finished, Mandy obeyed the instructor's direction to remain front-and-center to receive her feedback. Comments started with a few "That's a good color on you" and "You had good eye contact" platitudes, but then the real critique began. She used way too many "ums." She shifted her weight too much. Her hair was in her eyes. Her voice was too soft. Most of all, her excessive gestures simply had to be brought under control. Luckily, the instructor had a gesture-reduction plan. He playfully took a piece of rope from a cardboard box, used it to bind Mandy's hands behind her back, and had her give the entire presentation over again.

Did this experience help Mandy overcome her feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness? Of course not. She shuffled home feeling humiliated and victimized. Rather than compassionately working with Mandy as the vulnerable, capable, gifted human being she is, the instructor treated her like a horse whose spirit and wild habits had to be broken with ropes. Literally.

Previous Training As A Source of Fear

In my 15 years of coaching public speaking, I've worked with hundreds of anxiety-ridden speakers. Surprisingly, they often referred to previous speaking training as a source of their fear. They've been badgered, nit-picked, and intimidated-all stemming from a well-intentioned belief that if you fix the mechanics, confidence will follow.

For many people, this approach is, at the very least, ineffective-and it can damage one's sense of dignity. If a your employees see the audience as the enemy, mastering the art of the upward-hand-sweep-with-the-dramatic-flourish will not make those listeners seem any less threatening. Even worse, this mechanical approach can be devastating if the student feels insecure to begin with, then walks away with an even longer list of deficiencies to correct.

Of course, there's value in noticing distracting habits and getting them under control. For people who are already comfortable in the spotlight, great; go ahead and fine-tune the mechanics. But for those participants like Mandy, for whom anxiety is the primary issue, a mechanical approach may do more harm than good.

What's the Answer?

So what needs to change? I believe there are four fundamental rights your staff should expect when developing their speaking skills:
  1. To work on the cause of their discomfort, not merely the symptoms.

    Most people say that one-on-one or in a small group, they're comfortable with speaking; they only feel awkward when speaking to a large group. If that's the case, there's good news: most people don't need to work on their speaking; they need to work on getting comfortable being the CENTER OF ATTENTION. It may not seem like a significant shift but it is. Speakers tend to work only on what they're putting out to the audience (content, appearance, visual aids, voice). But often, the real work is learning to let in what's coming from audience members, namely their attention.

  2. To expect a dignified, healthy process, not just a good outcome.

    In Mandy's case, even without ropes, she would probably gesture less the next time she spoke, but is that really success? Though the end result of her training was fewer gestures, the instructor cut a swath of emotional destruction on the way. Desired ends don't justify humiliating means. Our students should expect to be treated with respect and dignity as they develop their skills.

  3. To be given privacy regarding their videos.

    A common tool in presentation skills training is video, but students should be allowed to watch their video in private. I have seen accomplished, respected professionals shrink in horror as their video was shown to and critiqued by the entire class. All learning value was lost because they were too mortified by the public display to learn anything. Besides, it's a waste of time. The class just saw the actual presentation. Why make them watch each presentation twice? In my workshops, students go to the fun and funky "Learning Lounge" where they have a private video monitor with earphones, snacks, a comfortable chair, cozy quilts, stress-relieving toys and a soothing foot massager. The lighthearted atmosphere takes the sting out of self-awareness so students can concentrate on learning. Nothing good comes from public humiliation, so unless students specifically request a group viewing, we should respect their right to view their videos privately.

  4. To explore their gifts freely.

    "Stay inside the lines." Remember that one? You got a new box of crayons and wanted to go crazy with them, but a teacher or parent squashed your creativity by making you color inside pre-existing lines. The same happens in speaking training. Trainers can have a fixed picture of what a "good speaker" looks like and--consciously or unconsciously--mold their students to fit that picture. This is a big mistake because it can stunt the development of the learners' natural gifts. Max, a former student of mine, had always been told to follow the rules as a speaker, so he concentrated on his voice, his stance, his visual aids, etc. When given permission to forget the rules and speak from his heart, a delightful dry sense of humor emerged that made him much more likeable and, therefore, more persuasive. He incorporated this gift into a presentation that was already effective in the traditional sense, but now had a wonderful new dimension that would have been missed had he not played outside the lines.
Mechanics have their place, but it's time to go beyond nit-picking mechanics. Your employees are unique human beings with gifts, talents, stories, fears, dreams, and heart. They should be offered nothing less than a dignified, compassionate approach.

Even horses deserve that.

© 2002, Upside Down Speaking

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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