Monday, February 24, 2014

The Olympian in all of us

My last blog generated much good discussion on- and off-line. So I thought I would pick up where I left off. In that post I focused on the people blaming their lack of "natural gifts" for not trying to cultivate a skill, or improve on what they already possess. As I continued to watch world-class athletes finishing up their competition at the XXII Winter Olympic Games, I kept asking myself: who is really a "natural" at skeleton racing? snowboard cross? And ice dancing? I started skating as a kid, and I remember the first lessons I learned had to do with just staying upright. It was a while before I learned to skate backwards, and I never learned to twizzle! I am sure Meryl Davis and Charlie White fell a lot as kids. But they got back up. Only to fall again. They have probably fallen hundreds of times over the years. But eventually, their technique became so strong that ice-dancing seems the most natural way for them to move. They immersed themselves in their discipline, and they mastered it.

So what about those who reach a level of mastery sufficient to their needs, and then stop? Unlike Team USA members who assured us they just keep trying to improve each time they compete, these folks are happy where they are and that's that. I am not thinking of the U.S. Speedskating team (I am sure they were working hard to stay on top), but of people who perform in a very different arena: public speaking.

You know the ones I mean--those who have reached their own goal of feeling comfortable standing and speaking in front of people, but have stopped there. Now that they are no longer anxious, they try to maintain control by not changing anything. They become set in their ways. Predictable. And not open to hearing suggestions that might lead to improvement. Something worked for them once, and without anaylzing why, they repeat whatever it was each time they speak. Often it involves retelling some lame joke, or striking an "I'm-the-important-expert" pose. Or something else they use as a gimmick so they can face the crowd and still stay in their comfort zone. None of these tactics are designed with the listener in mind. It's all about what the speaker needs. And that's just wrong.

Your job as a speakers is never to just deliver content. If it were, you could send a memo. You need to speak to the audience, not talk at it. Invest in making a connection. Audiences can tell if you are unable/unwilling/unprepared to do this. Sometimes they give you the benefit of the doubt, but don't count on it. That "relaxation" you feel when you think your "formula" has served you well? It may just be boredom from the audience creeping toward you.

Like the Olympic athletes, anyone who wants to truly master a discipline needs to keep moving forward. Keep learning. Keep growing. And be thankful the "stumbles" you have on the way won't send you careening down a half-pipe or slamming into an ice rink wall.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Save the comedy for the club

I know... it has only been two months since I last blogged about the misguided notion that you should start your speech with a joke (see Giving Thanks for Sarah Silverman, and, before that, Safety Training Required) but when I tell people I am a public speaking coach, they often feel compelled to share with me their ideas of best practices. And inevitably, the joke thing comes up. So once again, with feeling, I say: please disregard past instructions from amateur speakers and their clubs, books you have read by random speechwriters, or lessons learned in Public Speaking 101. DO NOT START YOUR SPEECH WITH A JOKE. I am not joking!

Why do you want to waste the first incredibly valuable seconds of a speech engaging in an activity for which you have not had previous training, sending your listeners off on a mental tangent--inviting comparisons with professional comedians who really can tell a joke, or worse  jeopardizing your credibility? You should be "hooking" the audience with your content, not using them as comedy club guinea pigs. It is not that I lack an appreciation of humor. But I know that humor is hard and its use has to be earned. Or as we say in acting world, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" (deathbed quote variously attributed to actors Edmund Kean and Edmund Gwynne.)

And it's not just jokes. This weekend someone told me the best advice he got in a college course on public speaking was to open with a humorous icebreaker. When I shared this with a colleague, he suggested that there must be a book of such quips floating around, because he has heard a few of them on multiple occasions--from different people. I have had this experience: shifting uncomfortably in the audience upon hearing the same mildly humorous line spoken for the fourth time in as many speeches by a respected, notable speaker. Why does she diminish her brand with this attempt at "funny"? A comedian can have a comic "catch phrase," but is it really appropriate for anyone with a more serious job?

The reason always given (and I just heard it again this weekend) is that starting with a humorous line "relaxes the speaker and relaxes the audience." But watching an audience suppress the eyeroll and groan that accompany the thought "here we go again--another content expert who wants to unleash his inner comedian on us" does not a relaxed speaker make. So you reflexively turn a blind eye to the audience reaction in the opening moments, when you should be making a strong initial connection! And trust me, there are ways to achieve relaxation at the podium that are more effective than trying to regain momentum after you "bomb" with your first quip. Because unless you know your audience extremely well, know their cultural background, know their sense of humor, and have practiced your jokes and your humorous stories for timing and rhythm, you will bomb with someone there. Why take the risk?

It all boils down to ego. Because in a business setting, unlike a comedy club, no one will boo you if your joke falls flat. And if your core message is in demand, you will be asked to speak in spite of your propensity to be NOT funny. But do you really want to be that guy -- the one about whom people say, "It's funny: for such a smart guy, you would think he would know he can't tell a joke"?