Monday, July 7, 2008

making shifts as a speaker

Fond as I am of trying new devices for speakers, I know that most speakers come to phases in their learning that require a major shift: from speaking as one of many in a meeting to a solo talk, from small groups to large audiences, from scripted to extemporaneous, or from low-tech to high, as in audioconferencing, incorporating online resources or using a teleprompter.

This weekend, the New York Times looked at presidential candidate John McCain's struggles with more than one such speaker transition, as he moves to more scripted talks from his usual off-the-cuff style, and with it, a transition from extemporaneous remarks to those requiring the ultimate technology, the teleprompter. He's also battling his own limits as a speaker, as the article notes:

By his own admission, Mr. McCain is not a great orator. He is ill-suited to lecterns, which often dwarf his small stature, and he tends to sound as if he is reading his lines, not speaking them. His shortcomings have been accentuated in a two-man race, particularly because the other man — Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee — can often dazzle on stage.

The article yields some insights from which any speaker can benefit:

  • Practice restraint and avoid embellishment. If your goal is to convey a precise point, avoid tangents and extemporaneous extras. In McCain's case, this means avoiding his common wisecracks and sarcastic criticisms of his opponent--sarcasm rarely plays well with general audiences and can seem gratuitous and mean-spirited.
  • Play to your strengths, but practice your weaknesses. The article quotes a former adviser saying that, aside from the convention, "the only time I would even put him behind a podium at all between now and the end of the campaign is when he’s announcing a policy position.” That's a great plan, but may not be practical--so McCain's rehearsing with teleprompters. a script and a podium in the meantime. It's nice to think you can avoid speaker situations that don't play to your strong points, but unless you have an extensive campaign operation that can control your settings, start practicing for those less-than-ideal venues and situations.
  • Find out your verbal tripping points. For McCain, it happens to be the name of an energy proposal he's pushing. For other speakers, it may be a name or word that highlights a verbal trouble spot--if you pop your P's or lisp when you say too many S's, you'll do better by practicing your speeches out loud to discover any tripping points--and doing that in advance. At least you can consider word changes at your leisure and not on the fly.
  • Note your verbal and visual "ums," which aren't always "ums." McCain uses "my friends" repeatedly, the article notes--and I know that any phrase, over-repeated, can cause the audience to start counting those incidences and stop listening to you. For the speaker, any over-used phrase acts like an "um" to give you time to think. I recommend a different course: verbal stepping-stones, planned in advance for those moments when you don't know what to say immediately. Your "ums" also may be visual or physical tics, invisible to you but well in view of your audience; check out our advice on getting rid of "visual ums" from the don't get caught news & info blog here.

No comments: