A Trainer Asks: How Can I Expand My Client’s Range?

A fellow presentation trainer and professional acquaintance wrote in with the following question:

“Question for you … I am training a 24-year-old student to be a better speaker. But he’s so passive and shy, I just don’t know how I can sustain these sessions. We’ve had 3 hours together already, and I’m running out of ammo. I’ve already videotaped him and reviewed the results, done some breathing/diction work — but I’m at a loss! Any ideas?”

The first thing I always do to draw out a reluctant speaker is to leave the video camera behind, at least at the beginning. Focus on having a conversation with the trainee. Try to get him out of his head. Make him forget that he’s in a training session. Ask a series of questions about the trainee’s life, such as where he grew up, which school he attended, what hobbies he enjoys, and which restaurants are his favorites.

That gets the trainee talking. And if you hit on the right topic, you’ll often observe your trainee becoming more animated. When you see his passion lighting up, say, Stop! Did you see how much more excited you just got when speaking about that? Now, stand up and give me the first two minutes of your talk using that same tone!

Businessman holding wooden alphabet blocks reading - Shy - balanced in the palm of his hand.
That works sometimes, but not always. When it doesn’t, I move on to a different tactic — one that makes trainees feel self-conscious but that often yields interesting results.

I’ll give the trainees an adjective (or a role to play), and ask them to deliver their speech introduction while emphasizing that specific trait. I might begin by saying, okay, let’s say you’re an in-control military commander instructing your troops. Deliver your introduction to them. Next, I might ask them to play the part of a child full of wonder. Next, they might try being overly excited. The exercise is uncomfortable for them, but I don’t let them break character. Come on, keep with it, I might prod.

Here’s the interesting part: If we try ten different roles, we might find that eight of them fit the trainee badly. But the two we discovered that work add something valuable to the speaker’s range. When we watch back the video of those two takes, the trainee is often surprised to see that what felt so uncomfortable in the moment looks so good on the screen.

These are not the first tools I typically deploy in our training sessions. I use them infrequently, particularly the second exercise. But they’re both nice options for situations like this one, when you feel that you’ve exhausted everything else you can think of.

Thanks for writing, and good luck!

My new book, 101 Ways to Open a Speech, is now available at Amazon. You can read more about the book here