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Rules of Engagement

Don’t apologize, don’t be dull and, please, don’t picture the audience naked. A public-speaking expert reveals his secrets

The place: an important business conference. The event: a morning keynote. All eyes on the speaker as he shuffles to the podium and then, with a nervous smile, begins: “Sorry, everyone. I know it’s early and you wish you’d been able to sleep later, especially since we went late last night. And I know I’m not the most scintillating speaker, but I have an agenda that should take about 45 minutes, so just bear with me.”


Self-deprecating, uninviting, overlong. This speaker just fell back a whole lot of rungs on the career ladder, according to Bill McGowan, CEO of Clarity Media Group, who coaches clients to prepare them for speeches, TV interviews and other critical public appearances. McGowan worked as a TV correspondent for 25 years before going behind the scenes; his clients range from Eli Manning to executives from Facebook, Proctor & Gamble, Toyota and Delta Airlines. In his book, Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time, McGowan delivers advice for anyone wanting to up their persuasion game: “It can mean the difference between winning the client or not, closing the deal or not, getting the promotion or being left behind.” Below, he speaks to DuJour about how, exactly, to do it.

How many famous people have a natural talent for public speaking, so they don’t need to work at it?

I suspect you could count them on one hand. Like any professional who makes their enormous skill look easy—an athlete or musician—there are hours and hours of hard work that have gone into developing that talent. Steve Jobs made his product-launch presentations look casual and simple, but he rehearsed those dozens of times.

So because so many people are bad at it, do you think being a great speechmaker can catapult you further than ever before?

Yes, it’s an opportunity because there are so many who aren’t achieving their full potential. The rules have changed. You have just 18 minutes—there have been studies showing that that is the time limit after which there’s a precipitous drop in engagement. It’s the 18-minute itch. People start to wonder, “How long is this going to go on?”

In your book you blame shorter attention spans and distracting devices like smartphones. 

It’s harder than ever to hook people so they will want to hear the full extent of what you say. It’s harder to be motivational. It’s harder to be influential. As a result, more and more speakers fall short of the bar. So if you can clear it, it puts you into an elite group: You will stand out, be noticed, be relevant.

In Pitch Perfect you call out bad speechmaking tips, like “Imagine the audience in their underwear” and “Channel your inner dumb blonde.” Is there a lot of unfortunate advice out there?

I ask at the beginning of every session if someone has been coached before. If so, what did the client learn? The client will tell me advice he or she received from another session, perhaps years ago, and half the time it’s something completely ludicrous.

What is the most problematic piece of “wrong” advice?

A really unfortunate one is “I’ve learned I don’t have to answer the question.” So in a Q&A, a speaker won’t answer the question, even if it’s the most benign question possible, and instead relay a memorized bit. It makes him or her sound stilted, canned, inauthentic. Why not make it a real conversation?

What is an example of something people do that isn’t necessarily what they were taught by a coach but is wrong and getting in their way?

Don’t apologize for giving a speech. It totally undermines you. Immediately, before they’ve heard a single thing out of your mouth, the audience will make a presumption that they don’t want to be sitting there. A speaker has to do the opposite. Learn to psych themselves up to genuinely think, “I find this content really interesting and I think you are going to, too.” It’s infectious enthusiasm—you have to make people catch it. The majority of people I work with are much more focused on getting through the thing technically clean without any fumbles, and when you put your attention on that, you flatten out and lose the enthusiasm over the value of what you’re sharing with the audience.

So self-deprecating is the wrong way to go.

Well, it can tread into the territory of undermining yourself. You really need to think what information is relevant to the audience. Ultimately, I don’t think people give the proper amount of thought into what they’re going to say that works for this audience. That is the key.