Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Roger Ebert rethinks public speaking without a voice of his own

Most of us take for granted how we sound when we speak, and don't like hearing our own voices recorded. But what if you lost your voice permanently?  You'd miss it, says film critic Roger Ebert, a self-described "motor mouth" who lost the ability to speak naturally due to cancer surgery. That hasn't stopped his public speaking, however. Ebert's TED talk, "Remaking My Voice," looks at how the presence or absence of a voice affects the speaker, and how he had to completely reconsider speaking.

You can't just listen to the audio on this one, because Ebert makes full use of the other communications tools at his disposal: Gestures and facial expressions. He also uses other readers, including his wife Chaz, since he's found that the electronic voice he can use through his computer is monotonous to listeners (and continues to gesture while they are speaking). You'll note that most of them read from a text, an important nod to the fact that these are not their words, but his. Near the end, Chaz cries as she reads his words about how people treat him when they assume things about his disability, and she notes, "You should never let your wife read something like this." It's an amazing moment--the silent speaker and his substitute doing the crying as she speaks for him. But you'll laugh more than cry watching this, and he concludes, "I have a voice, and I do not need to scream."

The talk also ponders what it's like to feel disconnected from the audience, and his efforts to find an electronic voice that was based on recordings of his own voice, from thousands of hours of audio and video recordings--and you'll hear some samples of that famous voice.In the process, he teaches us important lessons about why intonation, phrasing and cadence are so vital to speaking. You'll want to make full use of these tools after watching someone do without them, just one insight I took away from this unusual and moving TED talk, which coincidentally occurred during Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month.

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