Public Speaking 111: Style vs. Substance

Keith had a silver tongue. He was the master of persuasion. Any plea, petition, or request that he asked for was done immediately in the most efficient manner possible. Hell, he could tell you to go jump off a cliff and you’d simply reply “Which one?”

So when he suddenly remembered that he had a potentially life-changing presentation at his workplace, only thirty minutes before it was about to happen, he wasn’t worried. He would treat it just like he treated every other situation. He would just talk his way through it.

Needless to say, thirty-five minutes later, the silver-tongued devil got himself into a situation which will eventually get him fired.

Unfortunately, style can only get us so far. Sure, you can probably get through a simple speech using just poise, posture and eloquence. But soon, your audience will catch on. Eventually, they will realize that every time they leave the auditorium in which you spoke, they came out with no new knowledge or information. To go the extra mile, to really captivate an audience, you need substance. People need to be enriched both emotionally and mentally for a speech of any kind to be successful. Be it a business presentation or an announcement for Presidency.

Now we all know that a good speech requires both substance and style. The real question on everyone’s mind is this: how do we know how much style and substance our speeches really require?

Allow me to explain. If an expert physician was presenting his findings to a group of his peers at a health conference, his style of presentation would be radically different from that of a motivational speaker, for example. A technical profession would require the concise explanation of extremely complicated ideas, with large amounts of data being communicated at a rather fast pace. This is the nature of the beast: doctors, engineers, and scientists alike rarely have to sell their ideas. Everything they say is backed up with both verifiable data as well as lofty credentials from an institution of higher learning. Thus, there is little need for emotion or style – not that it will hurt.

In nearly every other situation, however, you are pitching an idea to a group of individuals who are not automatically inclined to believe everything you say. In these kinds of situations, you need to prove to the audience that you are worth listening to, and often times, this means incorporating a bit of flamboyance and bombast into your speaking style.

So returning to the question: how do we know how much style and substance our speeches really require? The answer lies in a simple principle: separating the speech from the speaker.

In about seven seconds the audience decides whether or not the speaker deserves their attention or not. If a speaker can captivate his or her audience within this time, and keep that same energy level going for the whole speech, they are guaranteed to win over the audience. However, once the speech is over and the showmanship has ended, an audience member will begin to mentally recap the concepts they just listened to. And if that mental recap falls short, you’ve lost your audience after your speech has ended. Therefore, the relationship between substance and style is this:

Style gets the audience hooked on the speech.

Substance gets them hooked onto the speaker.

If you want to keep them on the edge of their seats, you need a bit of pizzazz. If you want them to come back for more, make sure they leave knowing something they didn’t know when they entered.

Style is a very in-the-moment facet of public speaking. No matter how great a speaker is with their delivery, it is usually not the thing they are remembered for. Then again, some of the world’s greatest speeches would not have succeeded had it not been for the memorable way they were delivered.

In order to truly understand the concept, however, we have to analyze some examples. And the best place to analyze the concept of style versus substance is from a profession where public speaking is often taken for granted: teaching.

As a teacher, you are always on stage, regardless of whether or not you are actually teaching a lesson. Your students are young, impressionable, and silently waiting for you to slip up. The goal of a teacher is to maintain a sense of authority whilst also making sure the students of their classrooms are engaged. The following two clips demonstrate the teaching styles of two very different teachers in cinema history.

In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein plays a teacher who utilizes neither style nor substance, and thus, cannot engage the students of his class or teach them the material. In contrast, Robin Williams manipulates the tone of his voice, catches his students off-guard and uses unconventional teaching techniques, all whilst teaching a pretty stimulating life lesson. Williams shows that style is merely the mechanism by which a speaker can get content across. Needless to say, when it comes time to take the test, far more students will know Carpe Diem than the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act.

A silver tongue will get you somewhere. Probably will raw data. The trick is in finding the balance!

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