The Secret to Being "On"

How to present like a pro, even if it doesn't come naturally

By Candace BelAir

John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr. had it. Many think Barack Obama has it.

It is the ability to connect. The power to inspire. Some call it charisma.

Are such speakers born with the gift of eloquence? Or is it something you can learn? As a communications coach and professional speaker, I’m often asked, “What makes a speaker great?” There are five traits I see in successful speakers:


Think about someone you know whom you admire as a speaker. Picture that person being “on.” That is, giving a presentation. Now, picture that same person “off.” You’re sitting across a conference table, you share a coffee break. Is he or she basically the same person, “on” or “off “? Most likely, yes. That’s authenticity. What you see is what you get. Authenticity is something you already have, so don’t try to copy someone else. Just be yourself.


The best way to feel confident is to know your topic inside out, and you’ll come across as the expert you are. But beware the one thing that can silently sabotage you: poor body language. Fully 55 percent of your message is communicated via your nonverbal cues. Leaning on one leg may feel comfortable, but it looks as if you’re slouching. Instead, stand up straight with your weight evenly distributed. Hands in your pockets or behind your back may feel safe, but it looks as though you’re hiding. Better to have your hands at your sides where they can be seen. Fleeting eye contact doesn’t allow you to connect with your listeners; rather, maintaining eye contact with the same person for one whole thought or one whole sentence does. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. In-depth knowledge of your topic coupled with strong body language is the surest way to project confidence.


A Stanford Business School study showed that 85 percent of success in sales is due to enthusiasm. One of the best speakers I’ve ever heard lives right here in our own backyard. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks with such passion, it’s contagious. But Schultz is a CEO, not a salesperson. Or is he? Before any audience member “buys” Schultz’s ideas, recommendations, explanations or solutions, they first must “buy” him. He’s selling. And so are you. Whether you’re addressing your executive team or employees, board members or shareholders, clients or industry peers, share your passion.


Are you familiar with the acronym WIIFM? It means “What’s in it for me?” That’s what your audience members are asking themselves. Not what’s in it for you, or the company, but rather, “What’s in it for me?” Great presenters are sensitive to their listeners’ needs, and they deliver what their audience came to hear. To put it another way, your audience won’t care to believe unless they believe you care.

Speaking Conversationally

Have you ever listened to a speaker who uses shoptalk, jargon and buzzwords, understood by insiders only? If you’re not an insider, you become frustrated, maybe even resentful, and you quickly tune out. As a speaker, the last thing you want is to alienate your listeners. Avoid the temptation to dazzle with lofty rhetoric. Keep it conversational. Here’s one of my favorite examples: When a government wonk in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration wrote, “It is obligatory that all illumination be extinguished before premises are vacated,” FDR changed it to “Turn off the lights before you leave.” What’s not to understand?

There’s one more trait, which is optional but can help: humor.

If appropriate, use it. I recommend self-deprecating humor, which is safest. Warren Buffet is a master at this: “I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me.”

So was JFK, here in response to a boy’s question about how he became a war hero: “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” And from Ronald Reagan: “I’ve been getting flak about ordering the B-1. How did I know it was an airplane? I thought it was a vitamin for the troops.”

Back to my opening question, “Are great speakers born or made?” The answer is both. Three of the traits — authenticity, passion and speaking conversationally — you already possess. If you don’t feel genuine, give yourself permission to be yourself. If you’re truly excited about your topic, your passion will emerge naturally. And you certainly know how to speak conversationally; you do it all day long. The other two traits — confidence and sensitivity — you can acquire by learning all you can about your subject and your audience.

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