Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dial it back, speakers: When you *don't* need extra emphasis

When coaching speakers at TEDMED or for TEDx conferences, I often find myself asking them to take off a few layers of emphasis. As my fellow TEDMED coach Peter Botting likes to say, "Your delivery is like writing with all caps, bold, italic, and underscore all at the same time!"

What does that look and sound like? It varies depending on the speech and the speaker, but generally, it's a case of being too intense and too adamant in delivery--almost as if the speaker thinks the story lacks drama or might not catch the audience's attention. So she may add a lot more or less volume, punch key words, gesture more, wrinkle her forehead, nod her head, and move around, all at the same time.

It's true that, in public speaking, you have many options for emphasis, and there's nothing wrong with any one of these options. Members of the audience do look to the speaker to signal what we might appropriately feel at any given moment, so an expressionless delivery is not the goal. But you don't need to use the tools of emphasis all at once, and you should choose each one with care. Here, more is not necessarily better. In fact, researchers say our brains are finely tuned to sense emotion from the sound of your voice, even before the words are understood. In other words, your recipients are much more likely to sense your tone without any extra push from you.

Some speakers, particularly those who haven't spoken in a large hall or theater, or those who've relied on drama coaches for their prep, make the mistake of thinking they need their TED talk to be heard at the back of the hall, and vocalize loudly. But most of the time, you'll have a microphone and the sound engineer will be in charge of making sure you're heard. So you can whisper, if you want long as it's not in combination with all those other forms of emphasis. A talk is not a dramatic soliloquy, so don't approach it as one. Just tell us your story.

I also often work with speakers whose stories are by definition stories that wrench the gut, bring tears to the eyes, provoke out-loud laughing, or convey the gravity of the topic. In those cases, little, if any, emphasis is needed. If your talk is about such a topic, a deft hand with the emphasis will serve you well as the audience experiences the full weight of your words. Most of the time, these topics speak for themselves, conjuring so much emotion in the audience that the speaker need not gild the lily, so to speak, with additional emphasis. If you're not sure, get some independent feedback about your topic and how you've framed it. Your story may have all its emphasis built in, and then you don't need to work so hard to put it across.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by TEDxBeirut)