Dear reader, I originally wrote this post in November 2011 when I was working at Distilled. Unhappily the original post is no longer online, and so, I’m resurrecting it here.

This is a two part post. You can read part one here

Back in September I started telling you how speaking was about way more than coming up with an awesome slide deck – it’s about words, music and dance. Last time I talked about ‘words’. Today I’ll be covering ‘music’ and ‘dance’. I recognise all this sounds a little musical theatre – don’t panic – here’s what I really mean:

Words = Your slide deck and what you actually say.

Music = How you say whatever you’re saying.

Dance = Not just how you move on stage, but also your gestures, body language and facial expressions.

There are Two Routes to Persuasion

Why are music and dance equally as important as words? It’s because there are two routes to persuasion – central and peripheral. The central route is about the words which you use; the peripheral route is about music and dance. As a speaker you may get away with persuading a proportion of your audience if you focus purely on words, but you’ll fail to engage with a large proportion of them without music and dance.

Why? Well your ability to persuade comes down to the ability and motivation of your audience.

Ability = this can be likened to knowledge – do they know or understand enough to make an informed decision about what you’re saying?

Motivation = this encompasses both personal motivation and how relevant what you’re saying is to them.

It breaks down like this:

If your audience has the ability & the motivation to make an informed decision about what you’re saying, then what you say is more important than how you say it.

If your audience has the motivation (but not the ability) to make an informed decision about what you’re saying then what you say is less important than how you say it.

If your audience has the ability (but not the motivation) to make an informed decision about what you’re saying then what you say is less important than how you say it

If your audience has neither the ability nor the motivation to make an informed decision about what you’re saying then what you say is less important than how you say it.


It’s unlikely that you’re whole audience will have both the motivation and the ability to make an informed decision about your presentation topic – as such if you want them to engage with you, you can’t rely on your words alone, because what you say is less important than how you say it – to persuade you’ll need not just words, but music and dance.


This is about your voice. Your voice is made up of:

Pitch – this encompasses both the highs and lows of your vocal range (really deep to high and squeaky) and how you modulate (or move between) these ranges. Interestingly, it’s modulation that’s most important here. Stick steadfastly to one pitch? Your audience just might switch off. You need to try to use your full vocal range.

Volume – again, as with pitch this is about how you move between loud and quiet – an audience will quickly tire of being ‘shouted’ at if your entire presentation is given at one volume level. Mix it up.

Pace – how quickly or slowly you speak? Yet again it’s about keeping a balance here – it’s fine to speed up sometimes, but if you deliver everything at 100 miles an hour; you run the risk of losing your audience.

Fluency – Do you ummmmm and errrr? Do you have verbal ticks or use filler words when you lose your thread? Do you hesitate a lot? Or stumble over your words? Ideally, you want to minimise disfluencies. The ummmmms and errrrs are pretty easy to spot – the verbal ticks you might need a little help with. Get someone to watch you present with the sole purpose of trying to spot these fillers – apparently I don’t ummmmm and errrr too much, but I have tonnes of verbal ticks. Here are just a handful:

Starting almost every sentence with the word ‘So…’

Saying ‘How can I put this…’ whilst I’m trying to formulate a thought

Ending sentences with (pointless) rhetorical questions e.g. ‘Are you with me still?’ / ‘You know what I mean?’

These disfluencies can distract your audience from the message which you’re trying to communicate. Most of the time, taking a couple of seconds to collect your thoughts is much better than filling the silence.


By dance I really mean visual communication or body language. This encompasses: facial expressions, eye contact, posture, how (or if) you move around whilst you present, gestures (how you use your arms and hands), tells – these reveal how you’re really feeling to audience. For example, if you’re feeling nervous, you’re likely to reveal this via a type of self-comforting tell – common examples include adjusting your glasses, touching your neck or hair etc.

Despite the years of ballet lessons (sorry Mum) apparently dance is the thing that I’m worst at. When nervous I have a horrid habit of standing awkwardly (often weirdly balanced on one foot) with my arms pinned to my sides. Of course this doesn’t present the necessary air of confidence that people ideally look for in a speaker.

Getting used to moving around whilst presenting takes practice, but it’s worth it. Likewise trying to incorporate natural gestures will help you appear more comfortable on stage.

Most importantly your dance (i.e. facial expression and body language) need to match whatever it is you’re saying. In one of the training sessions we attended we saw a video of a previous delegate whose body language was completely out of sync with what he was saying. He was addressing a group of employees and congratulating them on their work and performance to date. His choice of words were great. However, something didn’t sit quite right – none of us could explain precisely why, but for some reason we didn’t quite believe him.

Once the sound on the video was turned off it became really clear. Despite his words being very positive, his facial expression and body language looked aggressive. Without sound it looked as though he was giving his members of staff a dressing down over poor performance. That’s the power of body language.

To combat this I’d recommend asking someone to video you – then watch back to make sure your expressions match what you’re saying. Alternatively you could try practising in front of a mirror.

For me at least, getting a handle on all this stuff is much harder than it sounds. Words are a comfortable place for me – this music and dance stuff? Not so much.

Here are a couple of things which I have found helpful:

Plot the music of your talk – when I’m putting a talk together I try to think about the overall shape of it – which bits will I deliver at speed; and where will I go slow? Which bits will I deliver loudly, and which quietly? Pre-planning this stuff really helps me.

Choreograph your dance – in a similar vein, I also pre-plan some movement. When will I move around the stage? When is it important for me to be still? I tend not to practice talks in front of a mirror, (because ugh mirrors) but I do practice them standing up, and moving around, as opposed to practicing them sat at my desk.

I’d welcome your thoughts, both on what I’ve shared here – plus any other factors which you think make for a persuasive presenter, do leave a comment below 🙂

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