Thursday, April 7, 2016

Talk About the Talk: Ann Davison's remembrance of Rod Durham

(Editor's note: Ann Davison, who chairs Burson-Marsteller's U.S. public affairs and crisis practice, is a longtime colleague of mine--we served together as senior officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton Administration. More recently, Davison participated in one of my small-group workshops on Creating a TED-quality talk in January of this year. It's a workshop where I stress that, while you may never give a TED talk, you can apply that style to other speaking tasks. For these remarks rememberingr her longtime friend, Davison applied some of our workshop lessons, saying "you encouraged us to script it out and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. I also tried to think of the whole thing as a building story as opposed to 'three things I remember about Rod'." As a result, this is a moving, funny, and memorable remembrance that connects again and again with its audience. Since remembrances and eulogies are a type of public speaking many people will face, I asked Davison to write about this talk for you.)

What was your motivation for doing this talk?

It was an honor, though difficult, to deliver remarks about a best friend of 35+years who died unexpectedly. As a popular high school drama and English teacher, he had touched literally thousands of students over the years. There would be 800+ in attendance at the memorial service held in our high school auditorium and another 1000+ watching via livestream, along with local news crews.

An actor and reality TV star, Rod’s life itself was in many ways was a constant performance, and I wanted to give him my best. I could imagine him whispering, “You go girl!”

There were also two dozen or more of our high school classmates there, many I had not seen in years but Rod had stayed close to them all. I wanted to appropriately represent how they must be feeling at our shared loss.

How did you prepare? Who helped you and how?

I have always been comfortable with public speaking as it has long been a part of both my personal and professional life.  One of my earliest speeches I delivered in 11th grade with my friend at a meeting of the local school board and I’ve frankly enjoyed it ever since.  But I knew these remarks were going to be some of the most important I ever delivered, particularly for Rod’s family who needed to be comforted. I also knew other friends and family members would be speaking, so it was important to be brief while incorporating personal memories and insights.

Although I’ve usually not written out my speeches, this time I typed my complete remarks, edited them once or twice, and then got to work memorizing them. Not every word, but the flow of the stories and the key messages. I practiced out loud at least six times on my morning walk and in the car on my drive to and from work.

What challenges did you face in preparing and how did you handle them?

To be honest, the most difficult part was trying not to cry.  Once I realized that these words were not for me or about me, but a way to convey perhaps some not previously known information about Rod to those gathered and a symbol of respect for his family, I found it easier to get through. Framing it in that manner helped me manage the emotional sting.

And the more I practiced, the easier it was to get through without choking up. The day before the service I practiced in front of my mother and husband twice. We timed the remarks and I could see areas where I needed to adjust the tempo.

What was it like to actually give the talk? Tell us about your experience that day.

As the memorial service began, with pictures of our smiling friend all over the auditorium, I couldn’t wait to get on the stage. I wanted to tell my stories. I knew I might forget one in the process, but that would be okay.  I also knew it would be okay if I cried just a bit and decided not to worry about that.

The laughter of the audience from the very beginning gave me great confidence and energy to push through. I actually started having fun with it about two minutes in.

What else should we know?

I carried some large-typed notes and a tissue to the stage, just in case.  But because I had practiced so many times, I had no need to use either.  I surprised myself a bit with a few sound bites that had not been part of my planned remarks.  I think because I felt so comfortable with the core material, these effective one-liners emerged naturally.

The biggest lesson I learned was the value of writing out my speech, revising it, and practice-practice-practice.   In the future, I won’t let my confidence being on the stage get in the way of this kind of preparation.  It not only made delivering the remarks a better experience for me, but I believe it helped ensure the audience got what it deserved and enjoyed.

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