Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Is my goal as a speaker to be perfect?" The myth of the polished speaker

Perfection dogs the speaker. It's the sense that you need to be perfect, and won't be, that creates all the barriers between would-be speakers and actual public speaking: the fear, the hesitation, the over-preparation. Fear of not being perfect makes speakers turn down invitations or refer them away to others. If you do get up to speak, it's the goal of "perfect" that's behind the catch in your throat and the fumbling with technology. You can accurately predict that you won't be perfect, even before you start. And after you're done, the nagging sense that you weren't perfect is what makes you say, "Oh, not really" when you're congratulated for your performance.

So perhaps it will surprise you that this not-being-perfect quality is what's sought after in speakers. Top conferences, in which I include TED and its offshoots, are skeptical of the too-polished speaker, the one with no sharp edges, flubs or all-too-human qualities. No one trusts a speaker who's too glib, too ready with the prepared answer, too smooth by half--the one who starts with "unaccustomed as I am to public speaking," while pulling out a prepared text. At the same time, the unprepared and unfocused speaker, the one who doesn't hear directions, isn't at all wanted.

So where's your mark to aim for, speakers? Here are a few thoughts, and I welcome more in the comments:
  • Be prepared: Listening to and absorbing all the directions--your time limits, the big idea the organizers are counting on you to deliver, the tenor of the audience--are non-negotiable musts. Ditto showing up on time, being rehearsed and being available to interact with the audience.
  • But also be human: If you flub something, can you laugh at yourself and with us? Can you be human enough to cry about something or pause to let us absorb a horror you just shared? If you're just moving on cue from line to line and not letting us emote and reflect, you're not thinking about the audience. If you're not acting like a person we can relate to, you'll lose us.
  • Know your topic well enough to stray from your key points: Many smooth speakers crumble during Q&A because audience questions rarely line up with your key points. Remember that your points are just an organizing principle, and make sure you've anticipated questions that go beyond your topic. 
  • Have some nerve(s): Nervousness just tells you you're like the rest of us, and that's a good sign. Lack of nerves? Maybe you need to get in touch with us more than with yourself.
  • Handle backlash and questions: If you haven't anticipated or clearly can't tolerate negative reactions, we'll think less of you--and wonder if you can't get off-script. Bend a little.
  • Attend to your audience: A good speaker hears and reacts in real time to the little noises and reactions of an audience. Can you work us into your talk? If so, we'll admire you more.
  • Don't run away from training: Contrary to what some believe, training need not make you too polished--but that depends on you and the trainer. Don't forget the irony of public speaking: The most relaxed, effortless-looking speaker is the one who has practiced. Tell your trainer you want to avoid the robot look, and address the things that will make you feel most prepared.
What do you dislike about a too-polished speaker? What stands out to you as awkward or difficult to relate to in a polished speaker? Share your feedback in the comments.