Episode 392: How to Present Like a Pro (Virtually or in Person) with Jacqueline Farrington

Episode Summary

Throughout this episode, you’ll hear Jaqueline’s best advice and tips to elevate your public speaking abilities, take your presentations to the next level, and become an engaging, trustworthy, and credible leader. You’ll also hear about Jaqueline’s acting background, what inspired her to write “The Non-Obvious Guide To Better Presentations,” and how to make your voice and body language match your speech.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host. We have a special guest with us today. She has over 20 years of experience as a change-maker, empowering leaders and their teams to spark transformation and innovation throughout their teams. She works with senior and board-level leaders as the founder and president of Farrington Partners. She blends her experience in the performing arts, vocal pedagogy, communications, psychology, and organizational and executive coaching to help her clients find unique communication solutions around challenges such as digital transformations, organizational cultural change, the “Great Resignation,” or engaging in conversations on social justice. Welcome, Jacqueline Farrington! 

Jacqueline Farrington: Thank you very much, Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here.  

Steve Shallenberger: I’ve been looking forward to this. And before we get started today, I would like to tell you a little bit more about Jacqueline. Her clients include multinationals such as Amazon and Microsoft. She even lives in the neighborhood of Microsoft, as well as startups and nonprofits. She proudly served for many years as a TEDx Seattle’s senior speaker coach, where she sourced, vetted, and prepared speakers for yearly, sold-out audiences of 3,000—which is amazing—way to go! And she was thrilled to see several of the speakers from that event move on to the global TED stage. And in addition to teaching at Yale, she has lectured and taught at the London Business School, Rutgers University, Imperial College, and other institutions. She has a new book, “The Non-Obvious Guide to Better Presentations: How to Present Like a Pro, Verbally or In Person.” So, I’m excited to hear about that; it’s going to be an excellent book. It provides actionable, practical concepts, tips, and tools borrowed from communications science, the performing arts, and neuroscience to improve any speech or presentation. She and her husband are working on their next project, a small organic family farm, and farm-to-table events space. Well, how fun! Welcome, Jacqueline. Let’s get cookin’ here. 

Jacqueline Farrington: Let’s get cookin’. Great to be here, Steve. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, Jacqueline, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you. And how did you end up in the field that you are? 

Jacqueline Farrington: It’s funny when you look back at a 20-plus year career, that’s when you see the through lines. And I didn’t realize it when I was younger. But I was always deeply curious about human behavior and communication. So I started as a professional actress in my 20s. And acting is all about studying human behavior and bringing the reality of human behavior onto the stage or onto the screen for audiences. It’s also about communication because acting is about getting what you want or need from the other people that you’re working with on the stage. And when you think about communication, we open our mouths when we want or need something. That’s why we communicate something every single time. So, that led me through my career adventures, and I ended up teaching at the Yale School of Drama. And fast forward to today where I work with senior leaders, and C-suite leaders on leadership communications, executive communications, and in particular, in delivering change. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a good background. And your book uses so much of your background, so many talents, the neural science, performing arts. How did the book come about? 

Jacqueline Farrington: It was actually a bit of a banal reason in that it was during the pandemic, and everyone was frantically making the switch from in-person to virtual meetings and presentations. And I was helping a lot of clients do that. And Idea Press, which is the publisher of the book, approached me and said, “Hey, there’s nothing out there on virtual presentations; would you write something?” So, I started writing it. And then, in the course of writing, I realized, “You know, this is not just about virtual. This is about presentations, communications in general,” and felt like it would be something really useful to give to my clients where I could say, “Hey, read Chapter 7, and then let’s talk about it tomorrow; that will really help you.” So, we ended up broadening it out to presentations. And I think you’ll find, as you read it, that it’s also applicable to one-on-one communications, team meetings, really any kind of communication challenge that you have to deal with. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well you shared that we should really focus, rather than on an executive presence, and instead focus on a strategic presence? Why? 

Jacqueline Farrington: Well, about 10 years ago, it really started bothering me, this idea of “executive presence,” because I was having a lot of clients come in to work with me; they’d been told they needed to develop executive presence. And because of that, they felt like they had to leave a huge part of themselves at the door when they came to work. In my experience, I found that executive presence was very limiting and exclusionary; it tends to be set by the dominant culture. And in the United States, the dominant culture – the leadership at the top – tends to be middle-aged white men. So, it’s one model, one idea of what leadership looks like, where a strategic presence is: adapting how you show up in the room, based on the audience, your message, and the situation. So, asking yourself, “In order for this audience to hear this message, how do I need to show up?” And then, drawing on your lived experiences, your core values — as well as an understanding of emotional intelligence and leadership styles — to authentically bring different parts of yourself into the room; to meet the challenge of the moment. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a great way to describe it. Way to go, Jacqueline! I love that. So much more dynamic, isn’t it? 

Jacqueline Farrington: Yes, which we live in a world today where that’s required. And when you think about a leader’s typical day, they’re dealing with all kinds of different stakeholders, all kinds of different situations and messages. And if they show up in one rigid way because we often have this idea that, “Great, I’ve got my leadership style; that’s set.” And it’s as if there’s this one person in our brain controlling us. But the brain doesn’t work that way; the brain has multiple functions, and multiple parts of ourselves, multiple skills that are required to meet those functions. So, that in fact is more authentic than saying, “Hey, I need to show up in one consistent way, all the time.” 

Steve Shallenberger: So, why are voice and body so important in leadership communication, and in creating that presence? What have you found from your experience and research? 

Jacqueline Farrington: Well, how you say what you say matters. And a story around this: Several years ago, I worked with a CEO who had worked his way up through the company. The board had promoted him to CEO; they were a little reluctant and weren’t sure 100% about it, but they decided to entrust him with it. And early on in his tenure, he did an earnings call. And the earnings call for the company was pretty optimistic. The company had had a few bumps, but he’d been doing pretty well. But the way that he delivered that earnings call – vocally, this was audio-only – the way he delivered that, vocally, was so de-energized and monotone and the press picked up on that. And the press said, “Well, hang on a minute. There’s something going on. We don’t trust this.” And, in fact, it was quite a hullabaloo in the press. And so, they brought me in to work with him to be able to congruently deliver that message; in terms of what the take-home message was, so that his voice and his body language matched to that. It’s pretty crucial, in terms of how you say what you say, and allowing the audience to buy into your credibility and your trustworthiness. If you’re incongruent, if your voice and body language don’t match the message, audiences will pay attention to the voice and body language every single time. And if that is saying to them, “I don’t believe in what I’m saying,” they will then question your credibility. “Are you trustworthy? Are you a friend or a foe?” 

Steve Shallenberger: Let’s just think about this. What have you found are the best ways to have good, genuine, right affective – both voice and body – that really works? Like, what are the ideals? And how can people do it? What are the important parts of it? 

Jacqueline Farrington: We know, from emotional intelligence, that foundational to healthy emotional intelligence is awareness. And it’s the same with communication: you first have to have awareness of how you’re using your voice and body language. So, some ways you can do that. Number one, ask: ask colleagues; ask your greatest detractor how they would describe the way you use your voice and body language. So, do your own 360-feedback process around how you use your voice and body language. And then, number two, record yourself. Hit the record button on a Zoom meeting; turn on your voice memo when you’re leaving a voicemail message. And listen, and watch. When you listen, turn your back on so you can’t see yourself, and listen to your voice. And then, when you watch yourself, turn off the volume so you can see the way you use your body language, and do what I call a ‘voice and body language audit.’ There’s a worksheet for this in my book that can talk you through that. So then, if you notice some things that you don’t like, then you can set about to change it. And, by the way, when you listen and watch yourself, say to yourself, “I don’t know this person; if I didn’t know this person, I’d never met this person before. What would I see that they’re doing?” And that creates a little bit of emotional detachment, a little objectivity in watching yourself, and then force yourself to write down at least three things you’re doing that are working that you want to build on. You can add more than three things, but at least three things. And then, only three things—no more than three things—because we tend to be our own worst critics and we’ll come up with a long list of things we don’t like, and a very brief list—or a non-existent list—of things that we like. So, no more than three things that you don’t like, and that you want to work on. And then, start small. Change happens one tiny step at a time. So, if you feel like you talk too fast, just set a goal for yourself of, “Okay, in the next week, in my meetings, I’m going to check in with myself three times in each meeting and ask myself, how fast am I talking?” Or maybe, “I have a colleague who’s going to just give me a subtle wave of their hands when I’m talking too fast.” So, you just work on that one thing. And when you feel like you’ve developed that one thing, then move on to the next thing. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, Jacqueline, as a leader and someone that’s creating a presence of positive, encouraging, uplifting—one that builds trust, genuineness, good communication—what’s the number one most important thing, from your point of view, that they should do for confident voice? What should it look like? And then, how about for body? 

Jacqueline Farrington: With voice, it’s important to use what we call vocal contrasting. And what that means is that we choose the words that we want to emphasize. And then, popping up those words by what we do with our voice. So often, when people are speaking, they make every word in a sentence kind of sound the same, and they’ll kind of talk like this or they’ll talk like that. It’s what I call ‘boardroom pitch patterning,’ and everything just kind of runs into the next thing. So, you have to practice this, and you can practice this by reading aloud — get a newspaper, get a research article, read aloud, and choose the words that are most important that convey the idea in the paragraph or the sentence where they convey emotion. These are usually what I call ‘NAAV words,’ nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and active verbs. Those are the words you want to punch up. So, highlight those words, and then ask yourself, “How do I vocally punch this up? Do I get louder? Do I get softer? Do I lengthen the vowels out?” So, using rhythm, using volume, then using articulation is another way to do it. If I say something like, “shut up,” versus “Shut. Up!” I completely change the meaning and the emotional intention of the sentence. So, that’s a way to vocally work on that, and think about vocal contrasting to highlight those NAAV words there. I call them NAAV words because they help the audience navigate through our meaning. They’re like signposts as we communicate. And they say to the audience, “Look here, this is important. Pay attention here; this other stuff, don’t — You don’t have to pay attention to.” So, they convey emotion, ideas, and action. And then you’d asked about body language. 

Jacqueline Farrington: One thing people always ask me about with body language is gestures. “Do I gesture too much? What do I do with my hands?” And it’s funny, because when we communicate, if we’re just sitting around one-on-one, having a glass of wine in a bar with our friends, we don’t even think about our hands; we use our hands naturally. So, number one, that’s a great way to start to feel comfortable with your hands if you’re presenting to a large group, is to actually go through your talk, your speech, in a bar, with your friends, or with your partner and just talk it out with them, and notice how you’re using your hands, probably in a very natural way. Then, when you next stand up and rehearse your talk, force yourself to not use your hands; glue your hands by your sides, and you can’t have what I call ‘flapping ducks,’ which is when your hands are glued to your side, but your palms are still flapping up; glue your hands to your side, and go through that talk. And you will start to feel like you really need your hands; you want your hands back. So then, go through it again, and allow yourself to bring your hands back in a very — you’ll find it’s much more natural — way. The other thing to work on gestures is to go through your talk once and imagine that you’re speaking to a deaf person. And on those NAAV words, those words that are most important, think about what’s the image, what’s the idea, or the emotion I’m trying to convey with this word and what’s the then the picture that I create with my hands to convey that. You can even cheat a little bit and you can look at the American Sign Language dictionary online to get some ideas for subtle gestures that you can use to support the meaning of what you’re saying. Because, as we speak, our audience is imaging what we’re saying in their brains. They may not know it, but they’ve got a screen in their mind’s eye where they’re seeing, they’re imaging, what we’re speaking. And so those subtle gestures help support that. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, as leaders, sometimes we prepare comments, or really anybody in any discussion, whether it’s a family or a coach, or a teacher, or a principal, a professor, or a business leader, team leader, or even an employee, that’s going to work with a customer, or a client service, whatever. We’re always talking, always communicating. Sometimes we kind of prepare some of the thoughts we have but spontaneous situations come up. How can people, Jacqueline, best think on their feet? How do you help them look like intelligent? Like they get it, and they’re confident, and it’s natural, and they feel it? 

Jacqueline Farrington: It’s funny. People often think that the ability to think on one speed is this natural skill that some of us are endowed with when we’re born, and some of us aren’t, but that’s just not true. It’s a muscle; it’s a muscle that you exercise. And the more you exercise it, the better you get at it. So, some ways to exercise it: Number one, practice improvisation. Now, you can take a class, you can take an online class, you can take an in-person class; if you don’t want to go that far – that that sounds pretty scary to you – you can practice it on your own, just doing things like free association, seeing an object in your room, and then, out loud—not in your head but out loud—saying what your brain free associates with that object, or picking up an object in your office, and coming up with five different ways to use that object that have nothing to do with what the object is actually used for. So, those are small ways where you can work on improvisation. But it’s also important when you think about rehearsal, whether it’s for a meeting, maybe it’s giving feedback to a direct report, or a large presentation, to build stress and failure into rehearsal moments. So by that, I mean, you want to simulate stress; it doesn’t have to be exactly the same stress that you’ll be experiencing in those communications. But you can build stress by turning on your camera and recording yourself; that tends to make people a little edgy and a little nervous, rehearsing to live people – especially people who are close to you – we tend to get a little more nervous with our moms, with our partners, so rehearsing to live people; but also things like going through that communication as fast as you can, without missing any important moments but getting every moment that you want to hit in that communication, but as fast as you can, that’ll increase stress, or telling yourself, “I’m not allowed to use any fillers as I speak,” which will increase stress. 

Jacqueline Farrington: And then, the other thing I mentioned: failure. So this is what peak-performing athletes know; their coaches build failure into their practices so that they’re teaching their brains how to fail and recover. So, those stress simulations that I mentioned, most of the time will make people trip up, will make people fail. And you’ll see people, let’s say, I say to them, “You cannot use the script, not allowed to use the script, and you also can’t use any fillers.” And so, of course, people will forget what they’re saying, and they’ll have a bunch of fillers, and you’ll see them just tighten up. But then, the goal is: when you make a mistake, blow out some breath, so you keep your body loose; blow out some breath, because when the body gets tight, the brain gets tight, it stops – and then recover. Think about how you want to recover in that moment. And that starts to teach the brain, “Hey, I can screw up, and I can survive it. It’s okay.” And all of those things will eventually exercise that ‘thinking on your feet’ muscle.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, that’s really good. Sometimes it’s nice to also anticipate wildcards, or things surprises, like what could come up, even though it may not be part of what you’re planning on. Just think of what could be asked or what you can anticipate ahead, and that just helps you feel a little more relaxed, and you can do your thing. So, I have two questions I’m anxious to get to. We’re getting towards the end of our interview already. I love your background and your experience. So, from that background, Jacqueline, what’s the difference between presenting in person and then, say, virtually like we’re doing today? 

Jacqueline Farrington: When we communicate in person, the audience has the gift and the luxury of experiencing us as a multi-dimensional person. They usually can see most of our body, or if not, our whole body, and their brains rely on thousands of cues to determine: Is this person credible? Are they trustworthy? Do they have my back? Are they a friend or a foe? And our brains are hard-wired to communicate that way; it goes way back to when we were out in the savanna, and having to quickly be able to determine: Is this person an enemy or a friend? They rely on not just facial expressions, gestures – absolutely, those are important – but also spatial relationships, and also being able to tell breathing rate, temperature, and sweating, almost all of those are gone in the virtual world. Seventy-five percent of those are just out the window because we are shrunk and flattened down into this little tiny thumbnail picture on someone’s screen. And our brains are not hardwired to communicate through this wall of technology. So, as a speaker, it’s important to bring as many of those cues – intentionally bring them into the communication environment. If you notice, you and I are both sitting here where you can see us from the chest up. And if this were a formal presentation, I would recommend coming back a little further, and presenting from the waist up, so that you’re giving your audience more cues. When you gesture, you’re gesturing in frame, so you’re gesturing close to the face and close to the chest. So we can see your hands, not out of frame or little stick fingers on the bottom. And then I recommend people don’t use green screens; have a real background. You and I both are speaking from a real background because that gives the brain this sense of spatial relationship, it’s called proprioception. My brain doesn’t have to work really hard to see how far away you are from what’s in your background; green screen completely eliminates that. So it just makes it more fatiguing on the audience. And then, trying when you can to, especially if you’re speaking one-to-many in the virtual world, tell yourself that “My audience is in the camera,” so that you are looking in the camera to create eye contact. Or if that feels really uncomfortable to you, move your audience’s videos way up high on your desktop. So that when you’re looking at your audience, your eyes are up. So often people place audience videos down. And then they’re looking down, which is the equivalent of looking at the table or the floor in in-person communications.  

Steve Shallenberger: Good tips. Good job. Now, how about you talk about the fillers? Those are killers, aren’t they?  

Jacqueline Farrington: Well, there’s actually a recent research on this. They do serve a purpose. They’re not as bad as we think. But when they become distracting – I don’t want to use the word ‘bad’ – but when they become distracting is when they’re overused. And then we can’t parse what the person is saying because it’s just filled with ‘um,’ ‘you know,’ ‘like,’ ‘I think,’ ‘I just,’ ‘I guess,’ and it’s hard to parse with the messages. But we also know that people use words like ‘um’ and ‘uh’ when they’re about to communicate a complex idea. And so that’s a signal often to the audience, ‘Hey, pay attention here. What is about to follow is complex.’ So they do serve a purpose. It’s just that you don’t want them to overtake your speech. So, do you want some quick tips on that?  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, so how do people take the part that could be distracting and eliminate it? And I think the other part may be natural; they’re being thoughtful about something they’re gonna say. So it’s probably balancing it out so you don’t distract people. I think that’s what you’re saying. And then you have to work on it. 

Jacqueline Farrington: And again, it’s awareness. So, do what I call, get an Um Buddy. And your Um Buddy is just a colleague or a friend who, when you’re speaking and you use too much of them, they’re going to wave their hands, or clap, or put a nickel in a jar. It’s funny that most of the time, when you tell someone, “Okay, I’m just gonna wave every time you use a filler,” that eliminates 80% of them. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good job. Well, we’re at the end of our interview today, Jacqueline; you’ve done great. So, before we’re done, any final tips for our listeners today?  

Jacqueline Farrington: Keep working on communications, being a strong communicator is a lifetime pursuit. It’s not something that you go, “Boom, that’s it. I’m done.” Because you’re always meeting new situations and new communication challenges. So, set small goals for yourself and work on it every day, just being a little bit of a better communicator. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, we are at the end, but I have one more question, and that is: How do you teach your children or grandchildren to be good communicators? How do you help them develop these skills at a young age? Because it directly impacts your confidence and your ability to connect with others. 

Jacqueline Farrington: Yes. Number one, by role modeling it yourself. We didn’t talk much about listening, but listening is an important skill to role model; and asking your kids and your grandkids to listen, giving them opportunities to speak up and offer their opinions, and then helping them — just gently coaching them to be succinct in giving their opinions. So, saying something like, “What’s your headline there?” 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good. Well, how can people find out what you’re doing, Jacqueline? 

Jacqueline Farrington: The best way to do that is on LinkedIn: Jacqueline Farrington on LinkedIn, and our website is  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, it has been a delight to have you with us. I’m excited to see your book and read your book. That’ll be fun! Hopefully, as people think about becoming their best, this is another element that really helps them. Because, as you become your best, it’s a standard that you say, “Listen, it’s good, better, best; I want to be my best.” And this is an area where you can take it from good, better, to best. And I love the things that you’ve shared today. So, we wish you all the best.  

Jacqueline Farrington: Thank you so much, Steve; it’s been a pleasure to be here. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you! And to all of our listeners, we’re so grateful that you would take the time to be with us today. We wish you the best in all that you’re doing. I know that you know that you are making a difference and blessing people for good, as you’re working on that kind of being your very best. So, wishing you a great day. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Jaqueline Farrington

President & CEO Coach at Farrington Partners

President and CEO Coach at Farrington Partners, Author, Public Speaker

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