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Hello there. My name is Mike and, um, this, um, story is going to be about, um, how to improve your, um, speaking skills.
Ouch. Not off to a real great start, am I? Fortunately, writers have the ability to clean up their words before they release them for consumer consumption. Speakers, on the other hand, have one chance to get it right when they go live. Their cutting and pasting and editing has to happen before they expose themselves to the critical eyes and ears of an audience. For financial advisors who conduct regular seminars, the ability to speak well in front of an audience is critical — well-done presentations are the lifeblood of many financial practices.
The good news is that even people who aren’t comfortable in the speaking arena can practice and become good at it. Better news is that financial pros already good at it can work at it and become great, like with most other skills.
“If you work your muscles, you get stronger,” says Stephanie Scotti, owner of New Providence, N.J.-based Professionally Speaking ( “The same thing applies [to speaking].”
The magic bullet is to bite the bullet and practice. But what are the keys? What are the areas financial advisors should concentrate on in their quest to become proficient (or prolific) speakers? There are many. The first is replication. One-on-many Any successful advisor who thinks he can’t become a better speaker is overlooking one thing: If he’s successful, he’s obviously figured out how to speak and present well in one-on-one sales situations. He’s good when he’s sitting down with a client and the client’s spouse. His routine is solid, well-rehearsed and expertly delivered. He’s comfortable at his desk or table and that puts clients and prospects at ease.
Turn that desk into a dais, that office into a meeting room, and that client into a 50-prospect audience and somehow everything changes. A stammer emerges. A visible discomfort materializes. The veneer of professionalism cracks. All for no better reason than the audience is larger. “Some people are more introverted, so they’re comfortable one-on-one,” Scotti says. “It’s not a comfortable space for them in front of groups. The idea of extrapolating the same skills they use in one-on-one meetings is intimidating.”
But far from impossible. Advisors with the gift for charming clients in a personal setting need to figure out what it is that makes them effective, bottle it and use it to create a new comfort zone in front of audiences. That may require videotaping, feedback from clients and prospects, and input from other advisors or speaking experts. Such analysis, whether self-conducted or with outside help, puts one firmly on the path to improvement.
“Through practice, anyone can become a better speaker,” says executive speaking coach Quentin Steele, whose Roseville, Calif.-based Quentin Steele Communications ( conducts two-day seminars that lean on videotaped performances to improve attendees” speaking skills. “Nobody should decide they can’t be a good speaker.”
Top traits So what are the other top traits of effective speakers, according to speaking professionals? One of the foremost skills effective speakers have is that they are always in command and control. That control is easier to exert in a smaller setting, but it can and must be exercised in front of large groups, too. Fred Knapp, owner of New York-based Frederick Knapp Associates (, says control comes down to three things: “They have to be in control of themselves, of their presentation and of the environment.”
Good speakers and presenters aren’t overcome by anxiety; they have learned to control it. They don’t worry about how they look and sound because they are confident in their abilities. And by transfering the focus from oneself to the audience, Steele says, the anxiety evaporates. “Remember,” Scotti says, “t’s never about you. It’s always about them.”
Once the anxiety is conquered, speakers gain command of their poise, which, Knapp says, “is paramount in standup speaking.” Poise encompasses one’s posture, hand gestures, dress, body language, eye contact and more. If an advisor doesn’t see poise in the mirror or on tape, chances are good the audience isn’t going to see poise either. It comes down to practice. Boring? Perhaps. Necessary? Absolutely.
Something else that can be made better through practice is one’s voice. “My voice?” many advisors may ask. “I’ve been using that my whole life. I don’t need to practice.” But using one’s voice to maximum effect means exercising proper inflection, effective volume, varied rate of delivery and never talking too fast.
“It’s important to change the speed of your delivery,” Knapp says. “Slow down for important words, facts and figures the audience needs to grasp.”
Slowing down is a good piece of advice in general. Knapp says most people speak at 250 to 300 words per minute (faster if they’re nervous about giving a presentation or have too much information crammed into a seminar), but the best listening speed is 175 to 200 words per minute. How many advisors know their speaking speed? One easy way to find out is to study the videotape or the DVD and practice (there’ that dang word again) speaking in the optimum listening range, especially when making the most important points. From good to great Mastery of the basic speaking skills — poise, eye contact, proper use of voice, control of body language and facial expressions, hand gestures, organization — is how to become a good speaker. To move beyond that takes even more practice. Facilitate Scotti says the very best speakers are master facilitators, too, especially in the area of getting the audience involved &mdas; the dreaded Q&A session. Here are her tips for controlling that part of the seminar, and they all relate to staying in control:

  • Tell them upfront when the Q&A will be and how long it will last.
  • If you’re saving it until the end, have them write their questions down so they don’t forget.
  • Always invite questions and comments.
  • When it’s time and all the hands go up, set up a batting order and stick to it.
  • Keep a rhythm going. “Ask for the next question, answer it in 60 seconds or less and ask for the next question. Don?’t ask if you answered the question.”
  • Always have a strong ending to the Q&A session. It’s the last chance to drive home the point and reiterate the call to action.

Time to pause Knapp says one thing great speakers do that good speakers ignore is they take pauses for effect. He calls it the “power of the freeze.” It only takes two or three seconds, but it drives home a point, especially if one looks directly at an audience member or two during the pause.
“Take a pause after important numbers and facts,” Knapp says. “It really helps the audience absorb the information.”It takes some practice, Knapp admits, but the pauses can be scripted like the rest of the presentation. In fact, Knapp has helped people mark the pauses on their scripts. Like the rest of the presentation, however, the pauses can’t feel scripted. It’s not going to work to look down, read [PAUSE] on the script and then look up for the dramatic pause. That won’t hold the same significance as a well-placed, natural pause.?? 1/2 Effective pauses help sell the message, Knapp says. Tell a story A laundry list of facts and figures may be effective if all an advisor wants to do is tout the merits of a product or service, and only marginally effective at that. If what she wants to do is sell herself to the audience — and isn’t that what seminars are really all about? — she needs to incorporate storytelling, Steele says. Any examples and facts and figures need to be interwoven into the fabric of a good story.
“You add color by adding human interest,” Steele says.
Scotti agrees, noting that advisors shouldn’t think of their presentations as individual, discrete pieces of information. There must be segues, the transitions between everything so there is a flow to follow.
Steele adds that the story is even more effective if it is an advisor’s own. Talk about clients who have been helped, legacies that have been saved and estate plans that have come to fruition.
“People love stories more than a list of facts,” Steele says. Nobody should decide he or she can’t become a good speaker. It’s a skill, and like any other skill it can be made better through practice and determination. Apprehensive advisors should start by mastering the basics, and improve by practicing the skills that make the great ones great.