Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The 6 people who shouldn't be coaching you for your next speech

A speaker was in the green room with his wife seated alongside. "I want to get some coaching time with you," he said to me. "And I don't think I should be there for it," his wife added.

I quickly agreed, on both counts. That smart woman knew she shouldn't be trying to coach her husband for his next talk, for a couple of reasons: Her relationship to the speaker, and the fact that the speech was, in part, about her.

We don't talk much about the value of having a neutral but professional third party perspective when you're getting yourself ready for a speech, talk, or presentation. But that's just what a professional speaker coach like myself can offer. Support from family and friends is wanted and wonderful, but every speaker should keep her eyes and ears open when considering active coaching from these people: 
  1. Your family: Mom knows this better than you do. So do your kids, your spouse and your extended family. Family members might willingly act as a practice audience, provide unconditional love and encouragement, and even help you make a video for practice. But they won't be offering you an unbiased assessment based on professional norms, unless you come from a family of pro speaker coaches. (And even if you do, you may want to step outside the family circle for help.) Family hopes and dreams, worries, competitive streaks and more can get in the way. If you talk about family members in your talk, you may find they have a natural yen to edit what's said about them. I've also seen family members assure me that the speaker isn't nervous, when in fact she is--but doesn't want them to know. Coaches give speakers a safe place to admit what they can't tell the family.
  2. Your friends: The same goes for your friends. They're close enough to offer support and encouragement, although you may find some getting more competitive rather than coach-like. Ask them, too, to serve as a practice audience or helpers with cameras and recording. But know that many people, family and friends alike, may think that they need to offer advice or criticism to be helpful, when all you wanted was a practice audience that would say, "Keep up the good work!" The reverse is true as well: You may get only good news, not the news you need to improve. Coaches also have the advantage of experience. I've trained thousands of people in groups and 1:1, among them nearly 100 speakers for TED talks at TEDMED and TEDx conferences. That lets me share with you what's most likely to happen in a variety of speaking settings, based on all the people I've coached before.
  3. More than one professional coach at a time: I've had one or two prospective clients approach me about coaching, then let drop that they have been working with another coach and want to continue that effort while we work together. I always decline these opportunities, which feel more like a trap for everyone involved. If you want to pay two coaches and cherry-pick the advice that sounds best to you, that also tells me you're not serious about improving and that you want to hear what you want to hear.
  4. More than one amateur coach at a time: This is a common pitfall of asking friends and family for advice: You wind up with 10 different conflicting sets of advice, none of which comes from a trained pro. I've seen many speakers ready to tear their hair out over an avalanche of well-meaning but awful advice that's often based on what 10 different advisers would do, rather than what's right for you.
  5. Your subordinates: Please don't put your subordinates in the position of coaching you before a big talk, unless that's a specific part of their job descriptions. As a communications director for several large nonprofit organizations, and later as a senior government official in the Clinton Administration running public affairs for a federal agency, it was often my role to do in-house coaching on day-to-day basis over the past 30 years. I did it for people far above my pay grade. But even then, for high-stakes talks or with delicate egos, I'd often bring in an outside coach to do the job. Spring for the coaching and let the staff breathe easier.
  6. Your boss: Bosses will certainly be evaluating how well you present as part of your overall performance--and that's exactly what makes them inappropriate, most of the time, as coaches. You may feel as if that evaluation is happening in real time as you practice, and every speaker needs a safe place to practice, fail, and try again.
Having said all that, I did have one great opportunity to coach an employee. She wasn't a direct report. It was worse: I was her boss's boss. We'd promoted her into a job where she'd be frequently speaking to members of the organization, often in large groups. Unbeknownst to us, she was an unwilling, unpracticed speaker and therefore reluctant to proceed. So we hired a coach to work with her on a creative presentation, and after that effort to set a norm, apprenticed her to me, with the agreement that we'd do the sessions together until she felt ready to fly on her own. At the same time, she enrolled in Toastmasters to get more practice.

The apprenticing meant more travel for the boss's boss, and lots of practicing in our hotel rooms, but in relatively short order we had a confident, lively presenter who knew what to do when approaching any speaking session, from checking out the room and the audio-visuals to using props and handling Q&A. Now she's a senior executive herself, and a seasoned presenter who's passing the knowledge along. In our shop, it was a case of turning a service I was already providing the leadership to the aid of one of my team, a good investment for both of us.

Need a neutral third-party coach who can help take your presentations and speeches from good to great? Email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Laura Taylor)

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