First of all, to admit you need a speech coach is a kind of confession--a confession that you need help with your skills.

Some of us don't like to ask for directions when we're lost, and some of us will struggle on our own for years before surrendering to some speech coach who's going to tell us things we don't want to hear.

But confessing is a smart choice. Professionals, like athletes, need someone who's on their side, who understands which issues need attention, and recognizes the shortest distance from here to there.

A presentation coach is especially invaluable when you suddenly find yourself in the cross hairs of the classic issues of public speaking--when you are facing a high-stakes presentation that will make or break a critical decision that affects your company, your team, or YOU. Those issues, from the audience's perspective are:

  1. Do I trust and/or respect the speaker?
  2. Does the speaker connect with me in a way that makes the information clear and logical?
  3. Has the speaker built a strong case for what she wants me to do?
  4. Has the speaker "phoned it in"? Or did he present his case in a thoughtful, concise, and energetic way?

Once you've decided you want to up your game, start looking for a speech coach that's right for you. Consult friends and colleagues, and interview at least three, preferably in person: speech consulting can be a very intimate experience. You should feel comfortable with the person you hire. Here are 17 questions you should ask,

  1. Public speaking and presenting challenges everyone on multiple dimensions. Some coaches are intellectual, some psychological, others focus on the physical, and some are highly imaginative. Ask questions to figure out who they are, how they work, and what will work for you.
  2. Do they have expertise in your specific area of need? For instance, you may need to improve the expressive power of your speaking voice. Do they have professional experience as a voice instructor?
  3. Ask them if they'd be willing to sell by doing, instead of by telling? In other words, would they be willing to set up the sales call as a coaching session, so you could take their coaching skills for a test drive?
  4. Is industry knowledge one of the criteria you will use to assess them? Or will you be satisfied with a coach who simply addresses style issues?
  5. Query the presentation coaches for the ability to write well, to think strategically, to help you develop messaging, or to find the words to articulate subtle but important points.
  6. Find out if any of them have a developmental process that they use in a flexible manner to assist you. You don't want a coach to walk you from "A to B" when you're already up and running from "L to M to O."
  7. Do they know how to listen? Coaching is more about listening and observing than talking.
  8. Ask them about their methods. Do they have a conceptual framework in which they operate, such as the Transtheoretical Model, Motivational Interviewing, or Brain-Based Learning? Believe it or not, these are real approaches to coaching, and you should know what you are getting into.
  9. Is your executive coach capable of giving negative feedback in a positive way? Using harsh words to characterize less than optimal performance can derail your trust in them and their effectiveness with you.
  10. Can the speech coach be flexible in terms of the format of the engagement? Or are they dogmatic in their insistence that the job can only be done one way?
  11. Ask about the types of exercises they offer. Most outstanding coaches are constantly innovating techniques to unlock the full potential of their clients.
  12. Executive presentation coaches work to improve the verbal, vocal, and visual you. Few of them are skilled in all three areas. Be sure you know what you need from your coach and pick accordingly.
  13. Find out if they have a background or education in rhetoric, which is the DNA of public speaking and presenting. Rhetoric is essentially the art and science of influencing others through the effective use of language. Delivery is important, but only as a support to highly effective messaging.
  14. If they promote storytelling as their flagship service, be careful. Important business communications are developed quantitatively using analytics and statistics. Credible stories are based on the numbers.
  15. Some speech coaches work for larger firms. They are given a fixed program to deliver, and have limited ability to improvise or meet your distinct needs. Find out if your speech coach is reading from the script, or ready for prime time.
  16. Are they strong enough to push you through your resistance to change? Or will they back off, fearing they will be out of a job if they push too hard?
  17. And of course, ask them for references. Get the phone numbers and email addresses of the contacts they give you, and when you speak to them, ask the questions listed above.

There are millions of speech coaches because there is very little barrier to entry in the field. Few of us can start manufacturing automobiles when we get laid off from a job, but many of us can hang a shingle out on the Internet and launch a speech coach business.

As usual, your network is the place to look. Word of mouth trumps the unknown company that manages to get the top spot in a Google search. After all, that number one ranking indicates they have great SEO, but it does not necessarily indicate they provide great speech coaching services.

Bottom line? Ask a ton of questions. Find the person that feels right, and then put your trust in the process. You'll come out of it a better speaker and presenter--which translates into people thinking of you as more capable and promotable.