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.

July 4 speaker, out, standing in her field?

New York Times columnist Gail Collins (who was the Times's first female editorial page editor) took a look back on July 5 at how women helped to change the ways we celebrate Independence Day and other political celebrations. Noting that political parades and celebrations were much rowdier before PlayStation and TV, Collins described how bringing women into the voting populace led to fewer election day (and July 4) parades ending in fistfights and drunken brawls. In Wyoming, people liked the change so much that the first speech given when Wyoming became a state was about suffrage. It was given by one Theresa Jenkins, who:
...got particular commendation for her delivery, which was so forceful she could be heard at the far reaches of a crowd that stretched back for four blocks. It turned out she had been practicing by standing out in the open prairie, giving her speech while her husband sat in a buggy, backing farther and farther away and yelling “Louder!”
Now that's what we call practice! Check out Collins's social history, America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, for more great stories about women's role in our society. She notes that "it's less a war against oppressive men than a struggle to straighten out the perpetually mixed message about women's role that was accepted by almost everybody of both genders."

Buy America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

testing the kindle on the lectern

I took the Amazon Kindle out for a test-drive in a real speaking engagement last month, when I moderated the annual media roundtable--a panel of three reporters--for Washington Women in Public Relations. While the moderation requires extemporaneous speaking, the panel introductions did require a text--and gave me a good test opportunity. Here's what I learned about what you should expect when using this new device in a live setting, from preparatory steps to actual use:

    • Readability was excellent. I experimented before the session with the six type sizes, and found none of them quite large enough (and my eyesight's good). So I loaded all the intros into one Word document, and bumped the type size up to 16 point in Word before emailing it to my Kindle-specific email address. (That lets Kindle reformat Word documents to fit the reader.) With text sent in 16 point type and bumped up to size six in the Kindle, it was extremely easy to read and see.
    • But that depends on the lighting. Kindles aren't backlit devices, unlike your computer screen, and that's actually better for your eyes, over time. But when you're reading on a Kindle, you need an external source of light. In this case, our venue had a nice spotlight trained over the reading surface of the lectern, and it was midday. One of our panelists reminded me that using the Kindle at night, in a darkened lecture hall and without a reading light trained on it, wouldn't work. (So that adds one more question for you to ask before you tote the Kindle along with you.)
    • The page "turners" may trip you up. Kindle features long, rectangular tabs on either side, so you can depress them with a thumb or one finger to go to the previous or next page. (Two tabs are available on either side for "next," and one tab on the left is used for "previous.") And yes, like many other reviewers, I found myself inadvertently paging forward, needed to page back to stay on top of my introductions.
I'll keep practicing privately and in live settings with Kindle, because I'm excited by the possibilities for speakers. Let me know your experiences, questions and ideas!

Buy the 6-inch Amazon Kindle