• Scott Stiefvater

Great speaking is as physical as it is mental.

Updated: Apr 30


As listeners, we generally prefer the speaker that gets out from behind the podium and moves around the stage. We prefer the speaker with expressive energy in their voice, face and hands; the one that scribbles out their ideas for us on a flip-chart; the one that acts things out. We call these speakers dynamic.


It's easy to recognize the physical side of this dynamic kind of delivery. And it's easy to see how this physicality contributes to the engagement we feel as listeners. It's harder, though, to recognize the importance of physicality in the kind of speaking you might see, for example, at a memorial service. It's harder to recognize that a moving eulogy is not just a matter of powerful content, but also a matter of the energy and movement in the speaker's body and voice.


We tend to emphasize the mental parts of speaking.

When I first work with a client, we typically watch video of them giving a talk. When I ask them to critique themselves, the critique will often turn toward their content: I said ..., but I probably should have said .... Or the issue of confidence comes up: I want to feel more confident when I speak.


We tend to focus on content because of our writing-minds – habits and attitudes we've formed as writers in a literate society. In school we were seldom if ever graded on the physical side of speaking, but we were graded on the content of our essays and oral reports. So when we evaluate a presentation, we turn our attention toward what we know, and we know writing and content much better than we know the physical skill of speaking.


We also tend to mistake physical control in speaking for confidence. Great speakers speak in a controlled way that exudes confidence, and they can do so even if they feel nervous. In other words, they can feel nervous on the inside, but you would never know it by seeing their physical behavior on the outside.


Balancing the physical and the mental.

Content and mindset are important parts of great speaking, of course, but speaking is essentially a physical activity. To speak we have to move. We have to move our diaphragm, vocal cords, lips, jaw and tongue. To be good at all, we also have to move our body, face and hands. To be great, we have to move all of those things in very refined ways.


To excel in speaking, then, it's better to think of it not as a wholly academic challenge but as an athletic one too. That's not to say forget the mind and focus only on the body. It is to say that the two are connected and that you need to focus on both to be impactful.


To put more emphasis on the physical side or your speaking:

  • Video yourself as you practice. Watch the video back with the sound off. Watch it like a golfer would watch a video of their swing, evaluating the mechanics and quality of movement. Then listen to the video without looking at the screen. Pay attention to vocal expression, not just content.

  • Play with your expressive energy level as you practice. On a 10-point scale where a 10 is wildly over-expressive, say a few sentences at a 3. Then repeat at a 4, then a 5 and all the way up to a 7. At a 7, your body and voice should be very dynamic. Most presenters stay in the 3-4 range, but for most talks, a 5-7 range is best.

  • Practice hand gesturing. Whisper through some of your content very quietly while focusing on expressing the content to an imaginary listener using descriptive hand gestures.

  • Create a pre-talk routine that starts with centering yourself. Shake and wiggle out your body, especially around the shoulder, neck and jaw areas. Take three or more deep belly breaths. Release muscle tension and clear your mind as you exhale.

  • Warm-up your voice. This video from Vanessa Van Edwards, a people skills researcher and mentor, will give you a few ideas for doing so.

As is true in so many skills, striking a balance is essential. Learn to balance the physical and the mental of speaking and make a leap toward mastery.

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