Public Speaking

Knowing who you are is important, but in many situations it is also important to be able to express yourself in a way that communicates publicly.  Delivery, in speaking before an audience, is the process of being who you are while everybody is watching.  In fact, we often find out who we are in situations that require public committment.  Too often, there is some malice aforethought in our crimes.  Whether we’re plotting to assassinate a manager or just lighten up the atmosphere around the office, there is the plan and then the execution.

I’ve started on this unfortunate analogy as a way to talk about motives in the development of a public persona.  Lady Macbeth wants to be queen, an end she accomplishes in the fashion women have used before and since Shakespeare’s time.  She doesn’t have the power to get rid of King Duncan herself, so she conspires with her husband to accomplish the murder.  Macbeth, the foot-dragging old Scot, is top general and successor to Duncan.  Lady Macbeth wants to be queen, and she gets to be queen for a day.  But, she is tormented by conscience, walks in her sleep, tries to wash the blood from her hands, and kills herself.  Macduff, the executor of a witch’s prophecy, kills Macbeth.

So?  Well, it seems important, if you want to use public speaking in a win-win fashion to make things easier for everybody, that’s one thing.  If you are trying to be top dog, or queen bee, it’s better if you don’t assassinate anybody to get there.  You might accomplish your end, only to find out you have gone a little batty in the execution of the plan.  A lot of people have gone over the edge talking about winning.  God knows what witches’ prophecy torments Jack Welch.

Humor, of course, should be delivered with a certain flair or elan.  If you’ve got it, flaunt it.  If you haven’t, it sometimes can be developed.  If you’re learning to play golf, you’ll watch good golfers to pick up the niceties of the sport.  If you don’t pick up any women in the bar and you practice, eventually, you won’t have to think about your swing, and people will be watching you.  There are caddies and ball watchers to track that slice when it goes into the rough, so you won’t spend half an hour in the bushes.  Similarly, there are ways to get safely out of a presentation seems to be falling flat.

I have a friend who makes a living as a speaker and commedian. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter to to him if anybody laughs.  Bob Hope used to stand on stage and read his cue cards as if he could wander off at any minute.  When these guys are playing it safe, the beginner should take note.  See that expression.  It says, “The pay is the same, laugh or don’t laugh, see if I care.”  Behind that is another motive.  What are they doing here, if nobody cares?  It should be fun or at least engaging when you speak publicly.  If it isn’t, maybe we should cancel these meetings.

It doesn’t have to be hilarious.  Dry wit is dry.  The speaker’s mouth may be dry, too.  Sooner or later, the show must get on the proverbial road.  But don’t rush me.  I may be very dense, and it will take a while before I get the idea of where you’re going.  Remember this is just as much for your benfit as mine.  You’re going to live longer if you enjoy this.  A grouch like me may not be around long enough to write a bad review of your act.

Another thing you can do to make a presentation more likely to succeed is to control or carefully choose an environment in which your personality can bloom.  A salesman I know named Gary proposed marriage only after he had reserved a private dining room, informed the waiter he didn’t want any interruptions, and tipped the guy enough so he wouldn’t forget.  Even then he waited until his beloved had finished desert.  He didn’t want to be upstaged by the chocolate mousse.  This principle applies in many situations.  If you speak at lunch, make sure you aren’t competing with it when you begin the presentation.  Make sure you are standing in good light and in a place people can see you without turning their chairs around.  Even if you don’t want to be a stand-up comic, you still want people to listen when you talk.  When you are planning a meeting, pay attention to the physical dimensions of your presentation.  Even a one-on-one session can be ruined by a jangling telephone.  Any salesman knows these things.  What if Gary’s pager had started beeping about the time he popped the question?

Once you have people’s attention your presence is enhanced and dramatized.  You are conspicuous.  Now what?  You have lots of material.  The stuff you want to talk about has been bugging you for months.  You’re going to stun them with your insights.  Liberate them.  You’re going to be candid.  The truth is so outrageous we’re all going to have a good laugh and start feeling better.  The first thing to be candid about–whether this is a trial run at toastmasters or a meeting of prospective stockholders–is that you are a little nervous about being on the spot.  Anything you say can be held against you.  At this juncture nothing kills enthusiasm like enthusiasm.  Don’t fake it.  What was it you were going to say?  Oh, yes.  Now, how did that go over?  Are they still listening?  Be here now!  If one slant on the material isn’t working, try another.  Don’t just rattle the stuff off as if it were memorized.  Maybe it is, but they don’t want to know that.

A performance, whether it’s a marriage proposal or an aria by an opera diva, is going to be different from any rehearsal.  The real thing changes many of the sensations involved in getting your stuff going.  If you want it to get past the footlights, you’re going to have to work at it now.  After the first few minutes of your presentation you will be too busy to be nervous–until you have time to think again.  Maybe you have won them over, and when you notice it, your concentration is interrupted momentarily.  Whether you are winning or losing, go back to work.  Just do it.

Feedback during a performance is approximate.  You can pick up some cues, but not everything is what it seems.  A woman sitting sidesaddle in her chair and looking at the ceiling may be more involved than you think.  An audience that doesn’t laugh at the jokes might give you a standing ovation when you have finished.  Generally speaking, you will have a feeling for how it’s going.  Trust your instincts for the duration.  Evaluation comes later.

You will be able to analyze the kind of feedback that can be obtained later, in a more leisurely fashion.  You can get useful criticism from people who are in your corner by asking specific questions.  Some things are clear to any objective observer.  Could you hear me all right?  How did the bit about Macbeth and the witches go over?  Did I rub them the wrong way with the philosophical digressions?  A tape recorder can tell you things you never wanted to know about yourself.  Some of it is not as bad or as good as it seems.  Don’t jump!  Feedback is for the purpose of improvement.  It was fun, wasn’t it?

That reminds me of a story that is sure to bomb.  My wife thinks I’m the only living exponent of this fish story, but it keeps things in perspective.  My grandfather told it over and over again, and he laughed until he was red in the face.  A few Norwegians who have slaved for years in the North Dakota sun might still get it.  There’s this guy with his fishing pole and bait.  He’s been fishing in a pot hole of a lake, for the better part of a day.  A guy who’s been watching, walks up with a smirk and says, “There ain’t no fish in this lake.” Grandpa rumbles.  Finally he growls, “Who the hell wants to catch fish, anyway!”

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