August 24, 2011

Thoughts on Public Speaking

Every encounter in life can be measured easily by the application of one or more quotes from my favorite show, The West Wing.  There’s an episode in Season 2 (Episode 34 in case you were wondering) called ‘The Drop In’ where Sam is working very hard on an upcoming speech the President will give.  While working with his colleagues before the speech, he pontificates the following:

The difference between a good speech and a great speech is the energy with which the audience comes to their feet at the end. Is it  polite? Is it a chore? Are they standing up because their boss is standing up? No, we want it to come from their socks.

I’ve been fortunate to have given literally thousands of speeches.  Starting all the way back to my 8th grade year, I was involved in organizations where I was constantly presenting, doing speaking engagements, interviews, dialogues, etc.  It was an odd childhood I admit, but the skills I learned while young and in the spotlight have served me well into my adulthood as a consultant.  Several colleagues have asked me where I got this talent.  It is a cool talent to be sure – not at all unlike juggling (another West Wing quotable reference) but there are many cooler talents that other folks have and I lack.  But one thing is for certain – one thing that I have learned in all of those presentations and speeches – if you have the audience – and they are captive, you have to be able to present yourself in a way that holds their attention for as long as you’ve been asked to speak.  Whatever it takes, whatever the style, your sole job in life while on stage or in front of a crowd is to capture their attention.  How does one do that?  Let’s start by examining what you don’t do:

  • Speaking in public is NOT reading a letter.  If you have prepared notes, that is one thing, but you will not hold your audience for more than a few seconds if they realize you are reading them a letter – or reciting from a teleprompter (unless you are really, and I mean REALLY good).  I watched recently with astonishment at my local religious service as the speaker stood before a captive crowd of over 500 people and spoke for 25 minutes by reciting something he had written.  There was no cadence, there was no emotion, there was no…gravitas.  It was a tragedy.  The only thing I remember from his remarks were how bored everyone in the audience was and how embarrassed I was for him because he hadn’t the foggiest – he never looked up from his letter.
  • Speaking in public is NOT entertainment.  If you are speaking before a crowd regarding any topic, serious or otherwise, you’re not there to entertain (unless that is your objective, like a comedian).  You are there to inform, to transmit information or a story.  The CONTENT of your story may be entertaining and interesting to hear – for the sake of your audience I hope that it is!  But YOU are not the entertainment – your content is.  Therefore, you have to OWN IT.  Being part of the story is okay – personal accounts are sometimes the best ways to relate an obtuse topic.  But you are not trying to get them to like you – you’re trying to educate, inform, tantalize the imagination – get them to ask themselves, ‘what is he going to say next?’
  • Speaking in public is NOT something that requires you to memorize something.  Even if you are scared out of your mind, speaking isn’t about reciting facts and figures – it is about communicating a story – any story.  A good economist can give an economic presentation that holds the attention of the audience for a few minutes.  A GREAT economist can make you learn the facts and figures of the day without ever realizing you were learning it.  If you are simply reciting facts, without the emotion conveyed by personal interest, you’ve lost before you’ve started.  Notes and cards and other aids are not the hallmark of good public speaking.  If you don’t know your topic by heart, as if it were the very lifeblood of your soul, you may succeed, but only marginally and with a bit of luck.
Those simple examples are a decent start, but what really sets apart those that give speeches and those that can communicate well can be summed up into one word – passion.  I’m not talking about Steve Ballmer screaming, some religious guy on TV dancing and sweating, some goofy motivational speaker trying to get a point across through repetition, or some person telling a story that tears at your heart and makes you weep.  I’m talking about being absolutely in love with the topic.  When I was in public education many moons prior, one of the things my father told me is – never let them see you lose your passion for what you teach – the students can smell disdain or your lack of interest faster than they can smell fear.  A great speaker is one where no matter the topic, he or she OWNS the topic and can articulate the message, relate it to the audience and convey a deep seated passion for whatever the subject is.
In the end, when you come rounding the corner and start summarizing your points, concluding your remarks, channeling all the remaining energy you have left after a long, technical speech that somehow kept the audience’s attention – the energy with which the audience rises to their feet – man…what a feeling.  If it comes from their socks – you nailed it.  There are very few feelings on earth quite like that.