Speaking at Conferences - the Art of Persuasion - Part II

This is a two part post. You can read part one here. Watching the sequel before the prequel sucks... Unless we're talking Star Wars.

Back in September I started telling you how being an awesome speaker 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 know, right? Here you were thinking you were reading an SEO blog and here I am coming across all 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 expression.


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.

Huh? 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:

  • Audience has the ability & the motivation to make an informed decision about what you're saying - central route works (i.e. what you say is more important than how you say it).
  • Audience has the motivation (but not the ability) to make an informed decision about what you're saying - peripheral route works (i.e. what you say is less important than how you say it)
  • Audience has the ability (but not the motivation) to make an informed decision about what you're saying - peripheral route works (i.e. what you say is less important than how you say it)
  • Audience has neither the ability nor the motivation to make an informed decision about what you're saying - peripheral route works (i.e. 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 - you'll also need 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 don't 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? All disfluencies should be minimised. 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 - taking a couple of seconds to collect your thoughts is much better than filling the silence with nonsense.

So who's good at this stuff? The person that springs to mind is Stephen Fry -

He has an almost musical quality to his voice there's lots of pitch and volume modulation, changes of pace and few disfluencies.

Who struggles with this? David Beckham

I know, it's really not fair to compare them side by side like this, I'm sorry. Hopefully it helps to illustrate my point though. As you'll have seen David Beckham struggles with disfluencies - to point where it can actually be difficult to understand him.

That said, clearly I wouldn't recommend you doing some sort of weird Stephen Fry impression next time you're presenting - but I would encourage you to think more about how you can use your voice to your advantage.



By dance I really mean visual communication or body language. This encompasses:

  • Facial expression
  • 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 - feeling nervious? 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.



If you want to see a great example of how music and dance work together then check out our free video of Wil Reynolds from SEER Interactive talking about Link Building Pitfalls, Mistakes and Traps for the Unwary at our LinkLove conference. Just head to this page and use the code MOZWILFREE at checkout to get access to the video absolutely free.


And so concludes my thoughts on music and dance for speakers.

I'd welcome your thoughts, both on what I've shared here - plus any other factors which you think make a persuasive presenter, do leave a comment below :)


Image credits: 2; music; dance

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