Substance Over Style

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” How many times have you heard this?  It’s mostly true, backed by research that says audiences will judge you first on your tone and body language, and what you say second.

But it can be dangerous for speakers who possess a little too much confidence (yes, these people actually exist).  These speakers know they’re good performers, so they get lazy about about preparing a presentation that has much substance to it.  If you’re talking to an audience who knows your topic even just a little, they’ll quickly figure out that you may have plenty of style, but not much substance.

This quickly became apparent during Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The man hired to be the sign language interpreter looked good enough – to those who don’t know sign language.  But to viewers who are fluent in that language, they knew in seconds that this guy wasn’t the real deal.  Jimmy Kimmel hired a real interpreter to translate, with hilarious results.

I recently watched a speaker who had all the right body language, gestures, pacing and tone; he made a great first impression.  For about a minute.  Being comfortable with his style, I settled in to listen.  It quickly became apparent that his material was ancient, with no connection to his young audience.  After I realized this, his style became downright annoying:  how could he be so confident with this awful material?

When preparing your talk, put the substance over the style.