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Everything You’ve Been Taught About Public Speaking is a Myth

November 30, 2014 6 comments

Let me clarify the title a bit: everything you’ve been taught about public speaking can only get you to a certain level of proficiency. Then, like in every other area of mastery, you have to re-think everything you’ve learned because it’s time to make finer distinctions. As Marshall Goldsmith says, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Nine out of every ten sources of advice for public speaking are designed for one purpose: to get beginners over their fears. They say things like “know your audience,” “know your venue,” and “know your material.” The thing is, there are many professionals out there for whom this advice is an insult to their intelligence. They speak regularly, and want to become masterful. But what examples and advice do they have to work from?

This is a list of 10 truisms about public speaking that, once you gain some proficiency, will not serve you anymore. Don’t be the speaker or performer who is still using the same bag of tricks that got them through high school and college. Break out of old thoughts!

Myth #1: The Main Focus of Learning to Be a Speaker is to Get Over Nervousness

Most books and advice sites on public speaking imply that once you get over your fears, you’re pretty much good to go. To this end, they advise basic strategies like knowing your material, knowing your audience, practicing, and gaining experience.

Two issues here. First, there is no getting-over-the-nervousness. There is only executing-well-while-being-nervous. You think nervousness ever goes away for skydivers? Why would they want it to? The nervousness is the whole point. Without nervousness, skydiving is just five minutes of a rather nice view. Likewise, people become speaking and performance masters because of the rush. They embrace it and look forward to it.

Second issue: once you can speak to an audience despite being nervous, you’re not at the end of your journey. You’re at the beginning. The main focus of learning to be a speaker is to help your audience change their lives for the better. This is true no matter the topic. You want them to see something differently and behave differently after you’re done. It’s not about your nervousness, it’s about mastering the art of helping and serving others en masse.

Myth #2: I’m Ready to Go Once I’ve Run it a Few Times and Feel Comfortable

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I’ve met in my life who could deliver a masterful speech after only having run it a couple of times. And they were all well-trained performers from an early age.

What’s more, most people don’t rehearse their speeches or presentations out loud. They sit in a chair and flip through their PowerPoint deck a couple of times, and then bore their audience to death by reading off the slides. Again, “feeling comfortable” is not the standard. It’s only a slight reassurance that you won’t publicly soil yourself. I know speaking trainers who advocate an hour of rehearsal for every minute of speaking time. Whatever you’re doing no only isn’t enough…it probably isn’t in the ballpark.

Myth #3: Top Speakers Are All High Energy Performers

I want you to, right now, Google “Public Speaking Champion” and then look at some of the YouTube videos. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Most of them are cringe-worthy. Some are full of high-energy schtick. Others are more subdued, but full of very contrived pacing and performance-art moments. They seem like they should be powerful and captivating, but something feels inauthentic, like a Rolex from a sidewalk vendor.

That which is touted as “great speaking” today is stuff that is hacked together from a tool kit taught at the high-school and college levels. It is choreographed and paced within an inch of its life. All authenticity is squeezed out.

Really great speaking is that which the speakers manage to find renewed emotional connection to thoughts they’ve already had, as if they were experiencing them for the first time. The rest is decoration.

Myth #4: Nervousness Goes Away With Helpful Mental Tricks and Visualizations

See Myth #1. Nervousness does not go away. You know what compounds the problem? Taking your mind off your message and your audience in order to do something stupid like visualize them in their underwear. I have no idea why this old chestnut is still around.

Now, can meditation, guided visualization and/or a consistent warm-up routine help you before you speak? Absolutely. Most stage actors in fact tend to be rigorous bordering on superstitious about how they prepare for a performance. But do not expect this to make everything magically easy.

Myth #5: It’s Important to Preplan and Choreograph Your Gestures

I’ve coached high-school and college level performers to choreograph gestures before, but it was because the stylized nature of that competitive environment demands it. When speaking coaches focus on gestures, it’s usually because they’re dealing with a beginner who’s hands are frozen by nervousness.

Once you get to the intermediate level, your hands will start talking for you. Sometimes out of nervousness or learned bad habits, a speaker will use their hands too much or to little, and a good speaking coach will catch that and tell you that you can tone it up or tone it down. But choreographed gesturing always comes off inauthentically. You know why? It’s not authentic.

Myth #6: Whatever You Do, Be Sure to Memorize / Not Memorize Your Speech

I’ve heard people say both of these. Most people say “don’t memorize,” because they’re working with beginners who can’t pull off a memorized speech. On the other hand, it takes a performer with pretty significant chops to memorize a speech completely and then deliver it with that first-time authenticity. Most pros I’ve seen can’t even do that.

When I deliver a speech, I’ve run it so many times that I know my word choice pretty well, like maybe 90%. The remaining 10% is just sentence formation flexibility. I don’t want to throw myself because I meant to say, “one and two” but I end up saying “one and also two”. The really short speeches (2-3 minutes) I’ll memorize unless I’m introducing someone. I’ll read introductions right off the card because the biggest sin is forgetting to mention something. Most people do the opposite: they have no idea what words they’re going to use and end up jabbering on five times as long as they should.

There is no one rule about memorization that covers every circumstance, but don’t use that as an excuse for lack of preparation. Know what you’re going to say, whatever that means to you.

Myth #7: Whatever You Do, Be Sure To / Please Don’t Try to Add Humor

I’ve heard this one both ways as well. Most advice blogs say to add some humor, especially at the beginning. Most coaches of beginners say not to try to be funny because you’ll never pull it off.

There is no right answer to this. Yes, speeches work better with some humor to connect to, especially in the beginning. Most speakers, when they hear this, go about it by writing a speech or presentation with no humor and then try to shoehorn jokes into the writing after the fact. Masterful speakers aren’t necessarily joke-writers, but they are so comfortable in their own voice that they can let their natural sense of humor come through in their writing.

If you take the risk and it bombs, it’s not the end of the world if you keep your energy going and move right on. I’ve done this. I usually bomb when I misjudge my audience. If the crowd is really all-business or you’re getting them at a time when they’re tense and not warmed up, it’s an uphill battle to make the humor work. If it’s a close call, I would advise you to work humor into the speech even at the risk of bombing, because you want to gain the experience.

Myth #8: Don’t Acknowledge Your Mistakes

I can see why this myth exists. When you’re a beginner and you’re all caught up in your nerves, mistakes can really throw you off your game. You haven’t yet gained experience on how to handle them.

First of all, what is a mistake? Some students that I’ve coached would get bent out of shape about accidentally leaving out two sentences somewhere, when their delivery and room chemistry was truly energizing. Other students would pat themselves on the back for making it through with no technical mistakes, when their delivery was flat and unconnected.

I know it’s hard to see mistakes as gifts, because up in front of people they can feel mortifying. That’s fine. We all make them. Pros make them. The panache is in the handling, which comes with the experience of having screwed up. If you trip over the mic cord and try to not acknowledge it, that will read as goofy. It happened. The pro keeps her composure and says, “Well, that happened.”

Don’t worry about mistakes. Don’t even worry about acknowledging them, if they’re obvious. Just keep your composure.

Myth #9: The Speech’s Length Should Be Under 20 min / 30 min / 40 min / However Long It Needs to Be.

There are a lot of differing opinions on how long you should go. Some coaches say to keep it under 30 minutes because of the average listener’s attention span. Peggy Noonan says to keep it under 20 minutes because Ronald Reagan never went over 20 minutes. I kid you not.

My point in this section is that the actual minute count is not the big deal (within reason). The big deal is that your speech, however long it is, is about twice as long as it needs to be.

We’ve become accustomed to writing for the filling of time, and it’s gotten us used to bloated speaking. It’s no wonder that people start pulling out their smartphones while we’re talking. Did you write a pitch presentation for a piece of creative business that goes for 30 minutes? It probably should be 15. Did you write a 20 minute graduation speech? It would probably be a better speech at 10 minutes. And your six minute Best Man speech will be much more effective at three minutes.

Don’t write to fill time. However much material you believe is appropriate, do enough refining to take out at least half. This is hard, time consuming work and absolutely necessary to mastery.

Myth #10: Start With Small Audiences and Work Up to Big Ones

I’m a big believer in gaining progressive experience. But remember that speaking for a small group of people whom you know and whose faces you can see might be more freaky that speaking in front of an auditorium full of strangers.

Progressive experience doesn’t necessarily mean increasing the audience size. It means increasing the stakes. You start in an environment where you feel safe. Maybe one-on-one with a coach. And then you bring in more relatively safe people. You should progress in a way where you feel scared, but not prohibitively so.

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Do you find this subject interesting? If so, then please leave a comment. I’m trying to determine if there’s enough interest in public speaking mastery to expand further on it. I’ll make that determination based on the comments that you leave here, and the questions you have. Happy Speaking!