Beware of the Written Word!

So, let me guess what you’ve been doing when you prepare to speak: You crack open your laptop, create a new Word document, and you begin writing a magnum opus. You choose every word carefully, spending quite a bit of time creating pages of brilliant, gorgeous prose that will become your talk. Am I close? Probably. Is there a problem with that? Typically, yes.

All too often, what writes and reads as perfection to your eyes isn’t equally speakable as perfection for your mouth. All too often, well-written talks will sound like what they are … essays. And all too often, you, the speaker, will find yourself so committed to your beautiful words, sentences and paragraphs that you either 1) read from the paper, eyes down, and lose connection with your audience; or 2) you try to balance reading with audience connection and you end up flustered because you lose your place or leave something out when you look up.

What to do then when you prepare to speak? Crack open that laptop, but talk while you type. Test yourself by reading out loud what you wrote to make sure the sentences are deliverable versus just readable. Hint: if they’re deliverable, they’re usually short and crisp, without a lot of clauses and punctuation. Try bullet points, and trust yourself to fill in around those well-chosen points while you’re speaking.

However, if you are someone who absolutely has to have a full-text speech in front of them, then make sure you give yourself a hall pass if you end up deviating from your beautiful script; you are unlikely to deliver exactly what you wrote. Even folks with bullet points deviate. Deviating is okay, because it’s usually a sign that you are staying present with your audience. And the audience is, after all, what it’s all about!

Other People’s Words

shutterstock_202056505How good are you at delivering the party line?
Most organizations create the party line in the form of talking points. Talking points might be about the organization generally or about a specific piece of news. They typically are handed down from the top for “messengers” to deliver. These messengers, whether they are managers communicating to an internal audience or spokespeople facing an external audience, are expected to deliver the party line. It’s an age-old practice – but with varying results.
The intention behind talking points is solid, which is to help an organization present a unified front, deliver a consistent message, and be sure that everyone is singing from the same song book, so to speak. However, talking points are more often than not other people’s words. And other people’s words can be problematic – hence, the varying results.
The problem with other people’s words is that it’s just not realistic to expect people to deliver them the way they were written. Some real-life challenges with talking points are as follows (see if any of these sound familiar!):

  • They are often long, wordy documents – even when they’re broken up into bullet points or paragraphs – that are written more for a reader to read than for a speaker to speak. This makes them difficult for people to digest and actually use.
  • Most spokespeople aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do with talking points – memorize or paraphrase? And there’s typically no guidance provided.
  • Pre-scripted talking points often feel stilted or inauthentic to the person who is supposed to deliver them. They are other people’s words, and so the messengers read them and think, “but this doesn’t sound like me, I would never say this.
  • In the end, a lot of people who are supposed to be messengers or spokespeople simply avoid and then ignore talking points – which, of course, defeats the original purpose of trying to get everyone on the same page.

So, what can be done to help protect and promote the party line?
Well, if you’re responsible for creating and distributing talking points, here are some tips:

  • Give guidance to your troops, let them know how closely to the script they need to stay and what they can and cannot paraphrase.
  • Give them permission to use their own words – with the caveat that, if there are some critical words or phrases within the talking points, those are “must-air” words.
  • Be realistic and keep the talking points document as brief and succinct as possible.

If you have to deliver talking points, here are some tips for you:

  • Go through the document a few times and then put it away and practice making as many of the points as you can. Test yourself to see how well you at least covered the spirit of the talking points, if not the words.
  • Highlight the words and phrases that mean the most to you and that you do not want to leave out, and then rehearse yourself through a version that hits on those.
  • Ask, if it hasn’t been granted already, for permission to paraphrase, making the case that you will do a better – more authentic and credible – job of delivering the party line if you can hit the points you’re most passionate about in a way that works for you.

A little effort – and a little give – from both sides will be worth it, good luck!

Classic Advice on Visuals

Like ESPN Classic, I occasionally like to showcase some of the best advice from early practitioners of speaker coaching. Because visuals have become an expected accompaniment to most talks – and practically synonymous with the word “presentation” – I’d like to share a few poignant tips on using visuals from Dorothy Sarnoff (1914-2008).

Dorothy Sarnoff was an opera singer and Broadway star who had a much bigger second career as one of the first, and most influential, image consultants and self-help gurus. She advised presidents, prime ministers, political candidates and actors on how to become better public speakers.

She began her consulting career in the 1960’s. She bemoaned the fact that women’s magazines focused only on beauty and clothes and not on areas like poise and voice quality. Sarnoff was soon offering a course at a New York City department store called Speech Cosmetics. Students (mostly women) paid $25 for six classes designed to help them become better public speakers, to “achieve social poise” and to carry on conversations at parties. By the mid-1970s, her clients were paying her $1,000 for coaching sessions and $2,000 per lecture. She famously coached then-candidate for President Jimmy Carter to tone down his smile.

Regarding the use of visuals, Dorothy Sarnoff had these three practical pieces of advice:

“The next time you use visual aids, in deciding whether to use each one, ask yourself: Do I need it? Nine times out of ten the answer is no.”

“Most people say they use visuals to emphasize a point. You don’t need visuals for that. Emphasize your point with your voice and forget the slides.”  

“Depending on visual aides to get your message across sends a signal right off the bat to the audience: your written material, your personal chemistry, or both, aren’t up to the job.”

Once again, it comes down to this: You are responsible for your presentation, not your laptop or your deck. Spend more time on making sure YOU are ready, rather than on perfecting your slides.

Prepared Presentations: 2 Lessons

Prepared Presentations: 2 Lessons

I went to a storytelling event a week ago Friday night. It was cast as lovingly competitive, meaning the audience gave huge amounts of support and encouragement to each volunteer storyteller – whose names were pulled out of a bowl – but there were teams of judges and (friendly, gentle) scoring.

The event was sold out and not until about halfway through did I realize that a lot of people in that packed room had come prepared with a story and put their names in the bowl hoping to be selected. And there I found myself, purely a spectator, in a room of would-be storytellers, which made me ponder whether I would be willing to do this sometime – after all, I coach people on storytelling (albeit usually for business audiences) – and, if not, why, which is an entirely different topic!

Apart from being wildly impressed and deeply touched by the 10 people who were willing to “put themselves out there,” I was struck by two things about prepared presentations, which I want to share as both are extremely informative lessons.

First, writing out a presentation, memorizing and then delivering it does not sound natural; it sounds like you wrote it out, memorized and then delivered it.

There are certain words or phrases – e.g. “irrespective of” or “after careful consideration” – that work great when you write them and a reader reads them but honestly, they sound stilted when you say them (unless, of course, you’re in a courtroom or some other formal setting).

Writing out your thoughts to prepare a story or presentation is great, but you’ll need to fine-tune your draft by speaking the words out loud to make sure you sound like you’re talking – and, in the case of storytelling, like you’re talking off the cuff, as if you’re sharing with friends.

It’s not that memorization itself is bad or wrong, it’s that you need to memorize the right words, words that fit the occasion and sound natural. In the case of storytelling, those words should sound more chatty than dissertation-like.

Second, you can kill the impression an audience has of your perfectly great presentation by running over your allotted time.

So at this event, I loved that the timekeeper used a harmonica to alert both the storyteller and audience that the allotted 5 minutes was up … and then 5 minutes 30 seconds … and finally, 6 minutes. At 5 minutes and 5 minutes 30 seconds, the harmonica merely chimed in to give a friendly nudge; at 6 minutes, the harmonica played until the storyteller wrapped it up.

One young woman was telling a pretty interesting and suspenseful story when the harmonica hummed the first signal. I wondered how close she was to the end, and I was eager to hear what the moral was going to be. When the harmonica hummed the second time, I actually started to feel anxious for her, I still wondered if she was close to her conclusion, and I still was pulling for her. At 6 minutes, with the harmonica playing background music to her increasingly speedy delivery, I forgot all about the interesting, suspenseful story, I forgot about my empathy for her and the telepathic encouragement I was sending her, and instead, I found myself (perhaps a bit too harshly) thinking she just bombed. Ouch!

Going over time is buzzkill. Audiences just don’t tolerate it very well. In your preparation, you’d be wise to leave a cushion for yourself and plan to take less time than you’re allotted. No one has ever complained about a speaker who finishes early!

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