Good Talks Are a Matter of Substance and Style

Today is Thursday, so this post is on communication skills.

Last Thursday, USA Today ran a column by Wynton C. Hall, author of The Right Words: Great Republican Speeches That Shaped History, entitled "Do Effective Speakers Make Effective Presidents?"

In part, Mr. Hall said, “In our YouTube-driven digital age, candidates who can motivate voters to tap the touchscreen in their favor possess a clear advantage…however, would be presidents must also explain their policy prescriptions in concrete terms, not mere abstractions.”  The column ended with these words.  “Come November, voters will desire a president whose communication embodies style and substance.  The candidate who can fuse the two is hard-wired to win the White House.”

Mr. Hall was addressing presidential politics, but his common sense advice pertains to anyone who wishes to become a great communicator.  As I write this, I’m reminded of the old Wendy’s commercials that asked “Where’s the beef?”  In other words, to be a great communicator, you must have a combination of style and substance.

A lot of communication training, especially presentation skills training, focuses on the style.  However, I want to remind you that a presentation that lacks real substance will not fall short of the mark.
When I work with my executive coaching clients, I help them overcome their nerves and learn how to work the room in their presentations.  However, more importantly, I help them build substance into their talks.

Substance begins with an understanding of the audience.  When you begin to prepare material for your presentation, answer these questions to make sure that you have a good understanding of your audience.

  • Who is the audience for this presentation?
  • Why are they attending?
  • What do they hope to get out of your presentation?
  • What is their general attitude toward you and the topic?
  • What is their knowledge level on this topic?

Once you are armed with this knowledge, you can begin to choose the information you need to include in your talk. 

Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a wonderful combination of style and substance.  His repetition of the words, “I have a dream” was a great rhetorical device that still resonates with people today.  It gave style to the talk.  However, that talk was also filled with substance.  Dr. King made the point that a segregated society was not only morally wrong, it was detrimental to the best interests of the US.  In this talk, Dr. King combined both style and substance to deliver one of the most powerful talks that I have ever heard.

The common sense point here is simple.  Successful presenters have the ability to combine style with substance.  It’s true for presidential candidates and it’s true for business presenters.  Substance comes first.  Make sure that you have something worthwhile to say, then find the best way to say it.  A combination of style and substance makes for a memorable presentation.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading.  Log on to my website for more common sense.  I am not posting regularly on my blog right now, as I want to concentrate on this one.  It is still up though.  Please don’t cancel your RSS feed as there is a lot of good content there, and I will be posting there occasionally. 

I’ll see you around the web and at Alex’s Lemonade Stand.


PS: Speaking of Alex’s Lemonade Stand, my fundraising page is still open.  Please go to to read Alex’s inspiring story and to donate if you can.

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