Why I Don’t Believe in Prescriptive Coaching

My company coaches and leads workshops for people and teams who typically have been in the workforce for a while. Very often, they’ve had other coaching in public speaking skills.

I know this in two ways. One, they tell me. “Well, you know we did two days with X company ten years ago, so…” [read: “So, I’m probably already too good at this to be here today.”] 

Two, they show me. When they are giving their presentations, their gestures, movements, and even their voices bear the traces of someone who told them, in minute detail, what to do.

As an audience member, I’m extremely biased toward listening to someone who is prepared, takes the occasion seriously, and still shows up as themselves. Their gestures and movements are integral parts of how they’re communicating, not grafted-on elements that distract.

Prescriptive coaching says “do this” and “don’t do that.” Prescriptive coaching says, “all filler words are bad” and “when you use this gesture, it means X.” Prescriptive coaching takes the whole magical experience that is interpersonal communication and tries to break it down into a checklist. 

For some people, these checklists are reassuring. “If I do this, and not that, I’m a good communicator!” But we can’t take any behavior out of context and decide what it means, whether it’s effective, and whether we should keep doing it. For one person, turning upstage to look at the slide on the screen might help them hide from the audience, and we may want to counsel them not to do that. For another, the gesture to the slide deck on the screen is inclusive and expansive. “Never look at your slides” on a checklist only addresses one type of speaker. 

Instead, we need to look at the totality of what’s going on. Who are you talking to? Why? What matters about this? Who cares? What do you hope they remember later from what you said? Who else is in the room? What variables are different today from the last time you gave this talk? 

This kind of coaching takes all the various circumstances into account, and helps you craft a style and a talk that suits your audience and you. No checklist, and it’s harder work. But it’s effective, and lasting.

The Cost of Being “Right”

Showing Your Work

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