by Steve Roche

Presenter as performer

The only talent is enthusiasm.

Ken Dodd

What are the essential skills for engaging people and keeping them with you? The great live entertainers know a thing or two about how to work with an audience:

According to Dale Carnegie, who trained thousands of successful presenters, there are just two rules for public speaking:

  1. Know what you are talking about
  2. Be enthusiastic.

And if you are not following these rules, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing the job.

But what if your subject is not close to your heart? What if it’s just part of your job, or something you’ve been told to do? You might be thinking, for example, ‘How can I get enthusiastic telling people about revised Health and Safety regulations?’ There are some tricks of the trade that can help with this problem.

  • When gathering your material, make a point of finding something that you can get excited about.
  • Make your subject is relevant to something about which you do feel strongly.
  • Use a story or personal experience that impacts or moves you in some way.
  • Think about the audience – what do they value? How can you present this subject in a way that will speak to their feelings, desires, experience?

If none of these work, then just get enthusiastic about giving a good presentation.

Non-verbal communication

Have you ever watched a presenter with a distracting style – who paced up and down, played with things, used strange gestures, or had a nervous tic or unusual way of talking? If so, you were probably not attending to the content of their talk.

If your tone or body language does not support your content, your message is unlikely to be heard.

A particular problem when first presenting is this: what to do with your hands? They seem to have a life of their own, and distract both you and the audience.

Some solutions lie in the patterns discovered by Virginia Satir. These are five specific postures and gestures that involve the entire body, each with its accompanying tone of voice. Adopting a particular physiology from the Satir categories will not only trigger a certain state within you, it will also create a certain state within your audience.

The Satir patterns


Symmetrical physiology: upright, moving hands, palms down, in a downward movement and spreading sideways to each side with a pause at the end – ‘This is the way it is’, ‘This is true’.


Symmetrical open physiology: palms up, moving in an upward direction – ‘Help me out’, ‘I’m open’, ‘I want to please you’.


Asymmetrical, leaning forward and pointing the finger – ‘It’s your fault’, ‘It’s down to you’.


Asymmetrical, one hand on your chin with other hand on opposite elbow, thinker or academic lecturer pose – ‘I’m the authority’, ‘I’m reasonable, logical and sensible’, ‘Here are the facts’.


Asymmetrical physiology, angular, disjointed and incongruent – ‘I don’t know’, ‘It’s not my fault.’

Using the patterns


This person generally asserts their authority and brings things down to earth. When people see that movement and hear that tonality it is as if they were getting the message – ‘Let me give you the facts. Believe me. This is how things are around here.’

When using Leveller, pause at the end of the statement: ‘So let me tell you the point of this... [pause]’. This opens up the space. Listeners know there is something important about to come. Speaking slowly and deeply, you might say:

‘This is the point... [pause] Using this physiology will transform your stage presence... [pause] Totally.’

It makes a big difference when you use a falling tonality and pauses. It is at its most powerful when your body is still during the pauses.


This suggests openness and vulnerability: ‘Now help me out here. Do your best in the exercises because I really want you to succeed at it. I really do...’ or ‘Please give this a try, I’m sure you’ll like it.’ In business settings, women should steer clear of using the Placater posture, especially with a mainly male audience.


The Blamer brings life to a presentation by raising the energy. Use it to push the point home, to literally punch the key points of your message: ‘There are three points I want you to get. The first is...; the second is... ’ You are adding emphasis, indicating what matters, while telling your audience that it concerns them.

An unusual but effective use of the Blamer is to empower an individual by pointing at them with: ‘You can do it!’


Use the Computer when you want to communicate the idea, ‘I’m thinking about what you said.’ It is also helpful if you need to buy time to answer a question: ‘Mm, let me think about that for a moment.’ You honour their question by thinking about it, in order to give them a great answer.


This can be useful for dealing with a disruptive questioner or heckler – who will be in Blamer mode.


Blamer: ‘I don’t agree with you at all on this’.

Distracter: ‘Well, I mean, what do you want me to do about it? You know...’

Shrug and shake your head and you will totally diffuse the Blamer’s energy.

You can also diffuse all the energy from the heckler’s Blamer posture by opening your eyes wide, and saying ‘Well, I don’t know...’ or ‘Oh, really?’ Quite often, the rest of the group (who are probably well used to the Blamer’s little ways) will laugh, which keeps them on your side.

Practise using all the patterns, relating them to what you are doing in a particular presentation. You will probably find you have a preference for one of these physiologies and therefore tend to use it most of the time. Incorporating the others into your repertoire will powerfully extend your range and flexibility.

You can adapt all the categories so they work when you are sitting down. But remember that when you are seated the energy drops.


You can use Blamer in quotes, actually saying the blaming words but attributing them to somebody else. For example: ‘This person said to me (Blamer), “You had better take responsibility for using these things, because if you don’t use them, you won’t get the results”. Now I wouldn’t actually say anything like that. But they may have a point.’

Getting control

One very effective way of covertly getting control of a group is to stand on stage and do nothing. Gradually the conversations in the room stop and it goes quiet. Now you have control.

Silence creates a vacuum and most people in the audience want to fill it. They think you are going to say something important, so they fill the silence with their attention.


If you want to make a major point and ensure the whole audience gets it, then pause... When everyone is waiting on you, then you deliver it.


Keep modelling those people who are really good at something. For instance, you may now recognise ‘They use a lot of Leveller’. Once you understand the distinctions, you will easily notice what others are doing.

If there’s a particular presenter you admire, get videos or audio tapes of their presentations and model what they are doing. Remember that the test for these ideas is not whether something is true or not. What matters is:

  • Does it work?
  • Does it give me the results I want?

Maintain an attitude of curiosity and experiment.

Using your voice

Effective use of the voice is critical to good speaking. When we distinguish a good speaker from a poor one, it often comes down to voice production. There is nothing worse than a boring, mumbling monotone.

We can all improve on our normal voices by learning the techniques of voice production: how to vary pitch, tone, pace and volume.

Speaking to an audience demands more from the voice than is needed in normal conversation. The challenge is to reach all parts of the audience with the clarity, audibility and emphasis that come naturally when we talk one-to-one.

Your voice and the way you speak are exclusive to you, part of your identity. People recognise you by your voice without seeing you. Don’t try to change it, but highlight the best points and eradicate bad habits.

Key points

  • Project your voice and talk more slowly than normal.
  • Use your voice congruently with your material.
  • Use pauses and silence.
  • Get your breathing right.
  • Articulate and enunciate accurately.
  • Warm up your voice before you go on.
  • Consider working with a voice coach.

There is much more on this subject in the Voice Skills topic, which covers the basics of breathing and projection and explains how to use your voice to influence and to sound more confident. And there is also a helpful page on troubleshooting.

Other relevant topics are Rapport and Charisma.