The 5 Canons of Coaching

Let’s face it: a 50-minute coaching session is not going to make someone a master orator. But it might shrink their anxiety a bit, or give them a jolt of confidence. It might send them off with a new speechwriting tool, or delivery technique. It might give them a taste of what it’s like to listen to an audience, and feel supported by one. 


In other words, even a single coaching session has the potential to change someone’s relationship to public speaking. That is our mission, and here are the principles that guide

that work.

First, do no harm.

If we had a sacred Oratory Coach’s Oath, it would start with “First, do no harm.” Public speaking is public intimacy, which means the potential for hurt feelings, or even lasting injury, is always present. When in doubt, remember: you can always just say, “Let’s try that again.”

Start with the body.

To make our coaching stick, we get people on their feet right away. We want participants to develop the feel of speaking courageously -- and that can’t happen sitting, taking notes. Later, when we’re coaching individual speakers, a physical challenge can be a short-cut to the most effective change.

Offer direction, not correction.

You might think our job is to help people recognize their speaking problems so they can fix them. But focusing on what’s wrong can easily backfire, and rarely leads to a breakout performance. So we try to work like theatre directors, helping performers focus on what they are trying to do. That’s where the magic is.

One thing at a time.

If you’re performing well at something, you’re probably doing many things at once without bothering to think about them. But coaches have to bother. The very best coaches learn to break performance into fundamental skills they can teach one step at a time. It’s the same for giving directions: If you have the choice, let participants finish Step 1, before you complicate their lives with Step 2.

Say less.

Why are we so picky about words? Because working memory, which is already limited, shrinks even more under performance pressure. And think about the poor speakers -- trying to comprehend our directions, fearing that in a moment they’ll be standing in front of friends getting it wrong. So to reduce stress, we say less. We give their brains a break, and let ‘em process.