Monday, January 25, 2010

TED's curator tells what works (or not) for speakers

TED--the conference known for its amazing speakers, sold-out seats and extensive web presence--this week shares the thoughts of its curator, Chris Anderson, who answers reader and viewer questions here. Among the topics he covers: speakers he's regretted inviting and why, why some talks never make it to the website, what unknowns have in competition with superstar speakers and more. An insightful read and resources for all speakers.

Ask The Eloquent Woman: A stutter interrupts

I ask for reader questions here and on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, sometimes by asking new readers to share their challenges in public speaking.  And this week, Valerie Bempong said, "Alright. Here's a challenge: Stuttering and losing your train of thought."

It's a two-part challenge, and a bit of a riddle. Is it the stutter that's interrupting you? Or is the loss of your train of thought what prompts the stutter?  What do you do when you're supposed to be "ready," but your body is saying, in effect, "stand by?"

We don't give enough credit to speaking as a complex cognitive activity, but downloading information from your mind to your mouth is far more difficult than we like to make it seem.  Stuttering is a visible, audible example of that, and some research suggests that it's not anxiety that causes stuttering, but that stuttering can cause anxiety in speakers.  And anytime a speaker is interrupted--whether by an audience member, a noise outside the room, an alarm or her own verbal disfluency--it's easy to get off-track and off-message.

This New York Times article on stuttering and a search for treatments notes that stuttering is rarer in women, with male stutterers outnumbering their female counterparts 4 to 1.  And a study described in another Times article suggests that "Just thinking about language can be enough to set off a chain of events in the brain of a stutterer that differs from that of someone who does not stutter." From the article:
Stuttering affects 5 percent of the population at some point in their lives, the researchers said. They said their study suggested that part of the problem might occur when a stutterer's brain becomes overloaded. Preliminary research, they said, shows that the brains of people who stutter also react differently when they are listening to words, not reading them.
One technique that works for speakers, whether they stutter or not, is using a three-part message to help you find your way back on track when you lose your train of thought.  You might look at such a message as your safety net.  You know you might get off track; in fact, you're planning for it, which may make it less scary.  Using a short three-part outline, particularly if you embellish it with memorable tools such as alliteration or analogy, means you're circumscribing the amount you need to quickly remember.  Let's say I want to talk about a proposal before the city council that's expensive, flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and is something I'm enthusiastic about supporting.  I might say it's a "big, bold, beautiful" proposal, using "big" as my cue to discuss the dollar amount, "bold" to counter the naysayers and "beautiful" to share my satisfaction.  If I'm mid-talk and forget that "bold" comes after "big," I just need to move on to "beautiful" and can be thinking about other "b" words, knowing that's where my outline is going--I don't need to waste time searching my mind for dozens of other options.

Of course, you'll need to plan and practice that message ahead of time--and it's not a guarantee that you won't stumble while speaking.  But it can be a useful lifeline, and, with enough practice, may help you feel more confident when you approach a speaking role.

You also may find that anxiety about messing up your speech is a factor, as one reader did in When the speaker needs to catch her breath.  That post includes breathing and relaxation exercises to help you get control over your voice and breath, two important tools for any speaker.

Readers:  Share your questions for "Ask The Eloquent Woman" here or on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, and you'll get your answers on the blog!

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