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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!

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The Anti-motivational Speech – A Top 10 List

December 10, 2012 5 comments

When I was 11 years old, I saw a speech by 80’s-era motivational speaker Joe Charbonneau. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and from that day forward wanted to be a public speaker of some kind.

That star faded a little bit as I got older, and I could peek behind the curtain of the tropes and platitudes that seemed so brilliant at the time (no disrespect to the late Mr. Charbonneau). This kind of speaking is now (rightly) considered more self-parody than serious boost to personal development. I wish I could say that the genre is no longer taken seriously, but speakers like Tony Robbins are now giving mega-concerts to thousands of their faithful. There is, when you think about it, no substantive difference between Tony Robbins and Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. They deal in the trade of temporary ecstasy.

I was looking through YouTube for examples of good modern motivational speakers, just to see if there was anyone out there with some substance. The exercise was depressing. The field has not changed much from the 80’s; the most successful speakers are still blow-dried white guys talking about getting you to change your state of mind. Many are hired by their fellow blow-dried, white corporate managers who believe that their workforce is unmotivated because of some attitudinal flaw that only affects the middle class.

What’s worse, the content is mostly schlock. Many famous systems are based on Neuro-linguistic Programming, a controversial, unproven form of hypnosis. Recently, on an international flight, I saw a BBC documentary called  “Money” about the proliferation of wealth creation seminars in England. It was about how poor and middle-income people would pay thousands of pounds for materials about attitude transformation. They would be instructed to meditate in strange ways several times a day, visualizing themselves with tons of cash. It was sickening, like an Amway seminar had slept with a Baptist revival.

I still want to be a speaker, and after having listened to a lot of modern motivational speeches, I think I have a useful trial theme. I call it, “The Anti-motivational Speech: How To Motivate Yourself and Those Around You By No Longer Being a Fucking Idiot.” I think it’s really going to save the world. It turns out, even smart people get themselves into really stupid habits, and transform into idiots slowly over time. You might be behaving like a total idiot and not even know it! I have ten points so far that I’m thinking about including, and I invite you to submit suggestions if I’ve missed anything important. Read more…

How Pressure and Stress Are Affecting Your Performance

April 19, 2011 130 comments
The Candle Problem

The Candle Problem

Some years ago, a Princeton psychologist named Sam Glucksberg brought a group of test subjects into a room. In the room was a table positioned against a wall. On the table was a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle. “Your job,” Glucksberg told his subjects, “is to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that when it’s lit, the wax will not drip onto the table. I will be timing you, and I will use your results to establish averages and benchmarks.”

Some time later, he brought another group of subjects into the room. He showed them an identical set-up: table, matches, box of thumbtacks, and candle. He gave them the identical instructions, but added a twist: “I will be timing you, and you will be rewarded with money based on your times. If you finish in the top 25% of all times, you will receive X dollars. If you’re the fastest of all times, we will give you double that amount.”

All of Glucksberg’s groups were timed against one another. And what do you think happened as a result?

The groups who received the money as a reward were, on average, three-and-a-half minutes slower at coming up with the right answer. How could this happen? Read more…

What It Actually Means to be “In Your Head”

December 29, 2010 9 comments

What follows is one of the most important and fascinating lessons I’ve ever learned about performance. Any kind of performance.

Cover of

Cover of What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

In his compilation book What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell re-publishes his New Yorker article, “The Art of Failure,” in which he discusses the psychology behind why people buckle under pressure. Here’s what he says about the process that we call “choking”:

“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box.

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this “explicit learning.”

But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you’re not aware that there is a pattern. You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that “implicit learning”–learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain.

Willingham says that when you are first taught something–say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand–you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. “This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.”

Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person–playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner–because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.

The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.

Way back when, I took scene study classes in college. Beginning actors come in to programs rife with bad habits and shitck that had served them in the past. Early scene study classes have two general purposes: 1) break actors of bad technical habits, and 2) get them thinking more thoroughly about what’s going on in a scene. During such classes, the acting quality starts to improve, but the actors become less free and expressive. You can see actors start to struggle and second-guess themselves, trying to do the scene “right.” Teachers would say about such students are “in their heads,” and needed to “get out of their heads,” but without further explanation or direction the students seldom knew what that meant.

Implicit Learning

Implicit Learning – Letting the subconscious get a “feel” through repetition

Lo and behold, being “in your head” and “out of your head” has a distinct physiological meaning, as we see from Gladwell’s work. When you learn an element of performance, whether it’s a sport, an instrument, a test, taking the stage, or anything else that creates an “event,” you use one part of your brain to train another part. The conscious, explicit-learning part of the brain can think through what it’s supposed to do step-by-step, but it cannot produce a quality performance. So we condition ourselves by practicing technique explicitly and technically, over and over, until our unconscious, implicit-learning brain “gets it.” For more information on instructing using implicit versus explicit activity, read this article.

This is not headline-grabbing science. But within this explanation lies a new idea: even superbly conditioned performers and athletes can fall victim to a take-over by their explicit-brains, and become beginners again. This is paradoxical: we typically tell those who have trouble performing to buckle down and try harder. But in this case, the performance trouble is actually caused by too much buckling down. Read more…

Demanding High Status at the Top of a Presentation

October 24, 2010 1 comment

Corporate PresentationsI hear a common complaint about internal company presentations. Internal presentations are apt to be less formal, and therefore audience members commonly to interrupt with questions, tangents, challenges and typing out emails on their Blackberries. Most times its the higher-ranked employees who do this, even though you’d think more senior people would want to set a respectful example.

The reason why is obvious if you understand the Status Transaction: more senior employees carry more status, and therefore feel entitled to distract from your show.

It’s the same reason that people heckle comedians. You’ve gone to all the trouble of creating a “spotlight” of attention in the room, and someone in your audience wants to grab it and put it on them for a while. It’s more than an annoyance; in terms of what’s going on in the room it actually diminishes you and makes you seem smaller than you are.

In fairness, the reason most employees – and high level employees in particular – feel so disposed is that ninety-nine out of every hundred presenters they see waste their time in some way. They plod through slide after tedious slide, dragging their audience through their minutiae without succinct points, message flow, or word efficiency. Therefore most corporate audiences feel no duty to presentation etiquette, and instead prefer to assert themselves over you or tune out.

Next time you have to give an internal presentation to an audience you fear might not stay with you, do this:

Read more…

How To Use Body Rhythms to Captivate People

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

This comes from a book that my friend clued me into, called Winning Body Language, by Mark Bowden.

One of his chapters talks about using body language to take advantage of the way our minds deal with predictability and interruption.

 

Results from an fMRI experiment in which peopl...

Image via Wikipedia

 

Pattern interruption is a fascinating topic, and this isn’t the first context where I’ve bumped into it. Here’s a brief bit of background on the concept:

Our world contains much more observable data than the brain can handle, so we take in and process far less information than is available to us. Most of our reactions to the world are based familiar patterns that our subconscious mind has been conditioned to deal with while our conscious mind tunes out.

For example, when you greet someone and shake their hand, it is entirely possible you will never remember shaking their hand at all. Handshakes are so automatic and predictable that we do it without really ever consciously acknowledging what’s going on. We have an internal model for repeated behavior based on how handshakes work, and we assume that handshakes will work identically. Our body just does it, and the rest of our mind can tune it out. We are certain about our situation, and comfortable in that certainty.

We go through the same tune-out process when commercials come on, or when we see banner ads on web sites. That’s why advertisers love the concept of pattern interruption.

Obviously, advertisers don’t want you to be doing any “tuning-out” when their ads are presented. But more than that, there are special psychological implications if you can snap someone back into conscious focus at the moment that their brain is accessing a pattern. If you create uncertainty right at that moment, your subconscious mind gets cut off in the middle of what it was doing, and that creates a couple seconds of hyper-awareness and disorientation. Read more…

The Biggest Pitfall in Work Presentations, and How To Avoid It

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been a little while since I last posted an entry. I’m coming to the end of a double-loaded term in MBA school, and that’s where most of my time has been going recently. Also, I think I’ve been putting too much effort into writing seminal entries: 1,200- to 1,500-word articles that are establishing broad principles. So I’m going to shorten up the posts for a little while, and kick out some more practical, useful content.

Here’s one very practical piece of information, based on a discussion from one of my classes on making presentations in the workplace:

 

Presentations: Why Should They Care?

 

The discussion started with the obligatory question. “Why do we make presentations?” It then posed a few potential answers:

  • To persuade
  • To generate buy-in
  • To inform
  • To announce
  • To motivate
  • Etc.

Most of those words would make for pretty good presentations. They imply action and intent. I want to focus on the one that doesn’t: “to inform.”

In freshman scene study class at Wesleyan, most of the beginning acting work came out wretchedly. That was because we neophyte actors had very little understanding of what was actually going on between the people in the scene. Dr. Ficca would ask an actor, “What are you doing up there?”, and the actor would respond, “Well, I’m telling this person so-and-so. I’m informing them. I’m giving exposition.” Then, Dr. Ficca would (lovingly) tell the actor that no one on stage ever, ever simply informs, and that the actor was doing a depressingly bad job with the scene because he wasn’t actually doing anything. Read more…