How Not To Sound “Wooden” When You Present

Catching up on our podcasts we came across a fantastic answer to one of the most-common delivery questions we field: how can I not sound wooden or forced when I present?

The answer came from Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s SVP of Retail (and before that the CEO of Burberry), in her interview with the “No Limits” podcast. You can listen to it here:

You launch into your presentation, but your head is so full of advice you’ve been given around eye contact, body language, hand movement, speaking style…that you find yourself fighting your instincts and tendencies. Perhaps you’ve even gone so far as to write specific “stage instructions” into your script.

And in this struggle, between how you want to act and how you want to speak versus how you’re “supposed” to act and speak, you lose your authentic self, and with it your natural speaking voice. The sad result is a wooden, even disembodied, voice.

What’s the solution? How can we sound “authentic”? Enter Angela Ahrendts. In the podcast, Ahrendts was asked the worst career advice she’s ever received. She was working for a large corporation when a senior human resources manager told her she wasn’t “CEO material.”

Let’s pick up the story in her words (which have been condensed and edited lightly for clarity):

“I’m half right brain…that’s creative thinking and vision…so I’m at a big job and a big person in human resources was in my office and…they felt compelled to tell me that I wasn’t CEO material.

“I would have to dress more conservatively and I would have to not talk emotionally with my hands. They highly recommended I go to Minneapolis and meet with this person who was going to help me become more ‘CEO-like’…

“I was supposed to be there for a couple of days and I was there for a couple of hours. And they film you and they critique you and by lunchtime first day I just looked at them and said, ‘I gotta go. I don’t want to be somebody I’m not.’”

And that’s our advice: your best speaking voice is—yours! Your actual voice, as you would use it in a conversation. As for eye contact, body language, hand movement: sure, have some. Do what you’d normally do and don’t get self-conscious about it. It sounds so simple, even trite: be yourself. And it would be trite…if there wasn’t so much bad advice to the contrary out there.

Focus on creating great presentation content first, and stick to that content, but be yourself in how you deliver it.

Does that actually work? Here’s Ahrendts experience:
“So I left, and literally a month later got the call to become the CEO of Burberry.”

Further listening and reading


“The Compelling Communicator,” by Tim Pollard, pp 51-52, 283-88

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