Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lead with a Joke^H^H^H^H Story

I am currently reading "How to Win the World Championship of Public Speaking: Secrets of the International Speech Contest" by Jeremey Donovan. He goes in great detail through each of the 9 finals speeches of the 2012 World Championship of Public Speaking, bringing in examples from World Champion speakers since the late 1980's. I am just reading the chapter on storytelling. The author reveals interesting facts. In the 27 years covered by the book,

  • Nineteen of the winning speeches started with a story
  • Fourteen started with a personal story, meaning five started with a story not about them
  • Only two of the five, and none since 1987, never transitioned into a personal story
  • Among the speeches that didn't start with a story, most quickly transitioned into a personal story; Darren Lacroix's "Ouch" (2001) and Lance Miller's "The Ultimate Question" (2005) are examples, quickly moving into personal stories after an opening attention-getting question.
It should be clear that most great speeches eventually turn into personal stories. Think about the best and most memorable speeches you've heard; think about the last keynote speaker who was not a total bore. Think of the last seminar speech that didn't have you stifling a yawn after 30 minutes. They almost always seem to come back to meaningful personal stories, meaningful to the speaker and meaningful to us. Darren Lacroix says "it's not the speech that you give, it's the life that you live." (He loves coming up with Darren-isms like this.) He assures us we have most likely lived that kind of life.

If there is anybody reading this, you are probably thinking "I don't have any stories that would interest anybody." Storyteller and speaker Deanna Moffitt said in her What the Speak podcast that she works with people all the time who finally get down to admitting, yeah, they probably have two or three stories in them. Yet she, too, assures us that they do have many, many stories in them.

I totally get where these people are coming from. In fact, I look back on my life and, sure I could probably come up with a couple of stories that people would not be totally disappointed to hear. But no way could I ever come up with even one story that would inspire people, let alone enough stories to make up two winning speeches (the minimum you'd need to win the World Championship of Public Speaking); and having enough stories to make up major hour-long keynote speeches is totally out of the question.

Yet, here I am, hoping to be a professional speaker some day. Knowing that if I am to ever succeed, I'll have to find those stories. I have started keeping a "story journal" where I write down interesting things that happen. Darren says to pay particular attention to painful experiences, since great and inspiring stories live in those painful experiences. And, as Steve Allen said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Or as Scott Meyer amended it to in his thrice-weekly web comic Basic Instructions, "Comedy is my coworkers plus time." :-)

Until next time, find your stories well.

Friday, January 16, 2015

To thank the audience or not to thank the audience?

Note: This is a purely personal opinion and does not reflect what Toastmasters International or any particular club would say.

I've heard a bit of Toastmasters lore that frankly baffles me. Here's a typical example:
Don’t end by saying “Thank you.” It’s the audience who should thank you for the information you’ve shared. Instead, just close with your prepared ending and wait for the applause (or stand back from the lectern and nod at the Toastmaster of the meeting, saying, “Mr. [or Madam] Toastmaster”).
I am guessing the icebreaker manual itself is responsible for this idea:
Finish with your memorized conclusion. Some speakers say “thank you” at the very end to signal to the audience that they are finished, but this is not necessary. Instead, after you say your concluding words, nod at the Toastmaster of the meeting and say, “Mr. (or Madam) Toastmaster” and enjoy the applause.
My reaction to this is: seriously? Do we seriously think we don't owe the audience anything for their (presumably) rapt attention during our speech? Yes, the audience should be thanking us for our information, but as a speaker, I think we are at least as much in debt to our audience as they are to us. They should thank us, we should thank them.

My feeling is that this may just be one of those things that we do in Toastmasters we'd never do in the "real world" (TM) - like saying "Mr Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and honored guests..." at the beginning of a speech. One way to look at this is that these are artifices or affects that adapt the speech to the intended audience. It does kind of make sense: we should always adapt our speaking to our audiences, and this is an adaptation for Toastmasters. On the other hand, I don't want to be caught just saying "Mr. Director" at the end of one of my keynotes.

So, here's my take on it. Your mileage may vary, of course: this is just my personal approach:
  • In normal speeches in Toastmaster meetings, I never use either of these two shibboleths. I don't think I should be reinforcing habits in Toastmasters that go directly against what I'd do in the "real world."
  • In contests, on the other hand, I would be careful to use both of them. We are being judged for points, and judges (being longtime Toastmasters) will likely apply informal and unspoken rules like these.
I note that Daren Lacroix, in his world championship speech of 2001, used the greeting, though he used it to humorous effect. Unfortunately, I can't find any complete online versions of his original speech (the youtube version above cuts off a few seconds from the end) but in the 2002 NSA adaptation - which is almost identical to the original - he does quietly say "Thank you" at the end.

Above all, whether we finish with a "thank you" or not, please do not have the attitude implied by the statement above "It’s the audience who should thank you for the information you’ve shared." This kind of attitude is poison and, I am convinced, will not lead to success either in or out of Toastmasters. If I don't audibly say "thank you" at the end of a contest speech, I sure hope the audience can see it on my face and in my eyes. And for them to see it on my face, it has to be in my heart first, "for out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks."

Thank you very much for reading and, until next time, speak well.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Is it possible to "over-rehearse"?

How many times have we heard it? "You don't want to over-rehearse. You won't sound natural." The more I learn about public speaking, the more I believe this is nothing more than a meme, something people say when they either don't know what to say or are looking for excuses not to rehearse. As a relatively new speaker, I've had to choose between two opinions. You'll hear these two opinions if you listen, so let's try to decide, which one should I listen to?

  • Somebody who's given a handful of public speeches, maybe even gotten their CC in Toastmasters, saying "You don't want to over-rehearse."
  • Actors, who rehearse the same script for months and yet sound authentic when they perform it, or musicians who spend hundreds of hours woodshedding a tune and yet sound fresh when it's performed, saying there is no such thing as over-rehearsing.

Personally, I think I side with the actors and musicians. So I was a bit surprised when I came upon this article by Nick Morgan. Nick is an expert on public speaking, specializing in how we come across to audiences in ways such as body language. (You can listen to an interview with Nick here on the excellent "What the Speak" podcast.) I was researching the question of whether you can over-rehearse and this article of Nick's came up. I saw the title and thought: how could rehearsing a presentation ever be a bad idea?

The article is interesting because he points out 3 kinds of rehearsal that are really not rehearsal at all:

  • Waiting until the last minute to rehearse. What this really means is the person procrastinated until the last minute and is hoping to cram all their rehearsal into one marathon session the day of the presentation. I can tell you, that doesn't work. You need to build rehearsal into the days or weeks prior to the presentation.
  • Rehearsing the wrong speech. This is pretty much the same as the first one. Michael Port, former professional actor and now speaker and speech coach, says the majority of the editing happens during the rehearsal process. I wholeheartedly agree with this. My speech at the beginning of the rehearsal process gets changed as soon as it starts coming out of my mouth. (More on this in another posting.)
  • Rehearing it only in your mind. This is not rehearsal at all. In fact, it's really a euphemism for "winging it." (I'll be talking about this more in another posting as well.)
In reality, he's saying the same thing: you cannot over-rehearse. As Nick concludes, "How much should you rehearse?  A lot.  Stage actors often get up to 6 weeks, 5 or 6 days per week, 8 – 10 hours per day, to rehearse.  That’s how you end up looking natural, assured, and authoritative.  Not by winging it."

So, let's follow the actors and musicians and, until next time, rehearse well.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Some more thoughts on writing a great introduction

I previously published another entry on writing introductions, but I realized I wanted to say a little more on the subject. So here it is. My goal was to help us write an introduction that's better than the rather lame and Toastmaster-y "Name - Speech Title - Speech Title - Name" introduction we often settle for in Toastmasters meetings.

Here's a way to think about your introduction. Everybody says your speech should start with something attention-grabbing. If you don't grab them in the first 30 seconds (says speech coach extraordinaire Patricia Fripp), you probably never will. So how attention-grabbing is it to start out by giving your name and giving a brief and probably tedious summary of what you're about to talk about? It's not! But, you say, how can I get that information in? After all, aren't I supposed to "tell 'em what I'm gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what I told 'em?"

Yes, but this doesn't mean you have to be the one tellin' 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. The answer is that you can have this information given in the speech introduction, before the speech even begins. Let the person introducing you - the Toastmaster of the Day at your meetings - give all that boring up-front information. That lets you hit your audience with something that will really grab their attention and keep them interested beyond the first 30 seconds of your speech. You can start them off with a memorable story or image, confident that the person introducing you has already given your audience the general idea of what you are going to speak about and who you are.

You might let your introducer - the poor Toastmaster of the Day in our meetings - try to write something for you, but let's help him or her do a great job. I think this is a better idea, as most introducers don't know how to write good introductions, either. The formula I like to use for writing introductions is the rule of the three C’s: Context, Content, Credibility. That is:

  • Context: something about the general subject area of the speech. This is where you set up the problem you're trying to solve with your speech. In other words: Why should the audience be interested in a speech about this subject?
  • Content: something about the speech itself. This is where you "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em." This gives them, in a sentence or two, what the main idea of your speech is. All speeches, whether two minutes or two hours, should be able to be summarized at a high level in a couple of sentences. In other words: After this speech, what good things will the audience walk out with?
  • Credibility: something about the speaker. Here's your chance to give some indication of who you are and why you are qualified to give a speech like this. It also gives you a chance to get out of the way the most boring part of most people's speeches, and lets your praises come from somebody's mouth besides your own. In other words: Who are you and why should we listen to you?

The overall introduction should 4-5 sentences long. The last two words are always the same: the speaker’s name. To see how this works, here's a fictitious (if slightly meta) example that would make a good intro for a speech about how to write speech introductions:
(Context) Many Toastmasters don’t know a good formula for writing introductions. It seems like an impossible task. (Content) Our speaker tonight has a three-step system for writing a speech introduction that has been battle-tested. (Credibility) He has written speech introductions for many international heads of state and is eager to share his secrets with us. Please welcome: Chauncey McTavish.
Here's a real example from a speech I recently gave. In this case, I sort of mixed the Content and Credibility a bit because I thought it flowed better that way, but you can see the overall pattern:
They say wisdom is found bound up in stories. Perhaps this is why storytelling has been called one of the most important business skills to learn for the next five years. Our next speaker has just completed his CC award and is starting the advanced storytelling manual. Today he has a story for us, collected from India by storyteller David Novak, called "The Three Dolls." Please welcome Gary Bisaga.
Just to get you started right, here's the introduction to another speech I recently gave:
It is said that “Leadership is Communication”, but really it goes both ways. Our next speaker is going to tell us about “the forgotten manual” that every Toastmaster has, and why we shouldn't forget it. He is VP of Education here at Loudoun Toastmasters. Please welcome: Gary Bisaga.
Here's to writing better introductions! Until next time, speak well.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

How's your body language?

Like introductions, body language is something that can get short shrift. But, if you think about it, it really should not be that way. We spend a ton of time writing and rehearsing our speech. So why are we happy doing things with our body that distracts from our message?

Business Insider a quick set of "worst practices" to avoid in body language when speaking. Most of them are fairly basic. Honestly, I'm surprised that people would do some of them (crossing your arms and/or legs? Seriously?). But they probably would not be listed here unless at least some people did. Others, sadly, I do see all the time, such as turning your back on the audience. The latter usually comes from an over-dependency on your PowerPoint slides. Happily, there's a "double cure" - rehearse your speech better, put less text on your slides (or drop them altogether), and you'll probably cure the problem of turning your back on the audience.

Anyway, here's the link. The presentation has some nice infographics to boot. Til next time, speak well.