Seven secrets from a professional speaking coach

Everyone can get value from a coach… So, I decided to get a speaking coach to help me communicate more effectively. As a teacher and frequent lecturer, I have lots of opportunities to practice public speaking, but I rarely get constructive feedback and guidance on my speaking style, except from some not-so-polite “trolls” on the internet.

As an entrepreneurship educator, I teach my students guidelines for effective public speaking, since being able to express your ideas is critical to effective leadership. After a few minutes of preparation, I video tape each student giving a short presentation. Like most people, they cringe when they watch themselves. As a class, we evaluate each speaker on a variety of metrics, including their physical presence and the content of their talk. We look at their posture, voice, eye contact, pacing, hand movements, and verbal tics such as “like” and “um.” They then get to do the talk again, after receiving a few minutes of coaching.

Although I do this for others, it’s nearly impossible for me to identify all the things that could be improved in my own talks by watching videos of my lectures. Therefore, I’m using my 60 Weeks to 60 project as an opportunity to get professional help.

After asking my most trusted colleagues for suggestions, I got a terrific recommendation for a speaking coach who is a professional actor and singer. My first of three lessons was this past week, and I’ll get a chance to try out what I learn this coming week when I give this talk at Stanford.

My coach watched one of my recorded lectures in advance of our meeting and provided some useful advice. If you’re interested, this is the 20 minute lecture she watched:

Here are seven of the suggestions I received:

  1. Monitor the speed — give more space to emphasize important points
  2. Move on transitions and make important points while standing still
  3. Periodically lower the volume to build intimacy with the audience
  4. Stress important words to give them greater meaning
  5. Hold off on some of the “payoff lines” to add some mystery
  6. Make the questions genuine, as opposed to rhetorical
  7. When citing 3 steps, leave space between them to set them apart

In my first coaching session it was also helpful to practice warmup exercises, breathing techniques, new phrasing, and to experiment using different tones of voice. It reminded me of acting workshops when I was in high school where we read one passage in dozens of different ways. This was a helpful reminder of all of the tools we have at our disposal for amplifying the impact of what we are saying. It felt as though I was adding many more colors to my speaking palette!

I decided to use this opportunity to start developing on a new lecture, called “Innovation is Not Brain Surgery,” which I will test drive later this week. While developing the visual presentation, I’m thinking about all of the new shades at my disposal. I’m also considering how I can use these tools and insights in my everyday communication… Stay tuned for updates on how this is working out, and what I learn in my next two coaching sessions. I’ll be posting my reflections below.

I welcome your experiences with public speaking, tips on effective communication, and general thoughts on what works well from an audience member’s perspective.


  • I’ve now had two meetings with my coach, Kay Kostopoulos and have found it quite helpful. She has provided very specific guidance on the pacing of my talks and given me tips on how best to engage the audience. She urged me to pick a few individuals in the room, from the front to the back, to talk with directly. I have done this before, but always felt that I needed to look at every single person in the room. I look forward to trying this out in a lecture tonight.
  • The most helpful input has been advice to add more silence to my talks, giving time for ideas to sink in and to create some mystery before a punch line. Just one or two beats of silence make a huge difference.
  • I also practiced “punching” specific words to give them more emphasis. It is important to plan this up front, knowing WHICH words to EMPHASIZE.
  • I will report back on how all this worked after my talk tonight…
  • I’ve had a chance to give two talks since my last coaching session. I found that I was much more focused on how I delivered my messages than I was before, and I had very concrete tools for making the talks more effective.
  • In general, I realized that I need to spend as much time thinking about the timing of my talks, and the specific words and concepts I will emphasize, as I do the overall content.
  • One thing that I forgot… I now understand how important it is to evaluate the room in which I am speaking. Some rooms are really well designed, with clocks for the speaker to monitor his/her timing, and a “confidence monitor” which allows the speaker to see his/her presentation without turning around. With and without these aids, it is important to figure out where to stand… It is easy to make the mistake of standing in front of the screen, which not only blocks the presentation but also requires the speaker to turn around to see which slide is showing.
  • In general, this was a very worthwhile learning experience, and one I highly recommend!