Which is more important in public speaking, content or delivery? If the answer seems obvious to you, imagine the other element being truly dire and see what effect that has. For me, this question leads round and round, much like the one about the chicken and the egg.
At the workshop I attended last week, Phil Collins (speechwriter to top politicians, including Tony Blair when the latter was Prime Minister) was sharing his knowledge of how to shape content and craft a good speech. Although he did talk about adopting a speaking persona, striking the right note, using language suited to the audience and situation, Phil clearly comes down on the side of strong content being all that really matters. In fact, he assured us that with well researched, well structured material, our speeches and presentations would always be OK. Perhaps not brilliant but certainly not bad.
On the face of it, this seems right: the content is what it’s all about and the delivery is no more than window-dressing. And, in any case, it ought to be true. If we take politicians as an example, surely we would rather have a bad speaker with sound, carefully thought-out policies than some slick presenter with content like candyfloss?
The trouble is, the strongest and greatest content is wasted if the delivery does not do it justice. Yes, it can be frustrating to be entertained for an hour and come away unable to identify any substance to what one has just heard. But how much worse is it to sit through a talk packed with interesting content but delivered in such a way that it’s actually very difficult to concentrate on what the person is saying? High speed, the wrong intonation, lack of eye contact, verbal and physical mannerisms – all these things and many more can distract an audience and render a powerful speech pointless. It is the speaker’s responsibility to put his or her message across, not the listeners’ to discern it through a fog of interference.
Content and delivery are twin pillars. To some extent, exceptional strength in one can compensate for weaknesses in the other, so that your edifice stays up and does the job. But really they are equally important and successful public speakers value and work on them both.