Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Canned vs. prepared?

During the Q & A following a presentation I gave last week, I was asked a question that I always have trouble answering with a straight face. "How can I avoid sounding "canned?" And when I ask what that means, I am told "I don't want to be over-rehearsed, then I will seem stale." This, of course, is after I have spent an hour or more sharing my tips and techniques for dynamic speaking. An hour in which my audience has heard me say, repeatedly, that two things they must do to be better speakers and presenters are Prepare and Practice.

It only makes sense that you need to figure out what you are going to say, and also practice how you are going to say it, right? As an actor, I am used to doing a lot of practicing (we call it rehearsal). And most actors will tell you they never have sufficient time for rehearsal. Our process is a lot more in-depth than what speakers go through, of course. Speakers are delivering speeches that they have likely written, in their own voices. Actors use the playwright's words and speak in the character's voice. But in the beginning, the actor's relationship to his script is very similar to the speaker's relationship to her text. Know what you are saying, what your intention is, be aware of subtext is (i.e message beneath your words/between the lines), be sure you can pronounce all the words/names, etc. Then practice enough so you don't have to read or stay glued to your text. And when you have internalized the message, you are ready to increase the dynamism of delivery with more energy, more vocal variety, better pacing. The more you know your text, the more expressively you can convey your meaning. And the more expressively you do that, the more vibrant you will be. Fresh, never "stale." So you can see why it is hard for me not to laugh when someone who needs to do a speech tells me he is afraid of being over-prepared and sounding "canned."

The fact is there is no such thing as being too prepared. 

Every time you speak in public, in a formal speech setting or around the boardroom table, you have an opportunity to prove your expertise, underscore your credibility, convey your dynamic leadership. Why would anyone leave that up to chance? "winging it," "speaking off the cuff" and other techniques that rely on the inspiration of the moment may work for you some of the time (I have observed, unscientifically, that this figure hovers around 25%).  Why chance it the rest of the time? 

Think about it: the last time someone really knew her stuff, did you think she was "canned?" Or prepared to perfection?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

You can't play the game if you don't know the rules

Some things never change. No matter how often parents, coaches, teachers, and consultants (those tasked with helping you learn or master a skill)  swear to the contrary, some people will always insist that they don't need to play by the rules. Recently I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing yet another example of this. There was a speaker. And she may have thought it was fine to speak "from the heart," or "off the cuff." But I watched as her audience coughed, squirmed, and pulled out their cellphones. She was oblivious. And she completely lost them. This caused a communications snafu that was entirely avoidable. Fortunately, in this instance, the damage inflicted will not be lasting, nor is it very serious. But damage was done, nonetheless, to the speaker's credibility, which may affect her leadership standing going forward.

Understanding how to communicate to an audience is not rocket science. Yet I am constantly baffled by otherwise intelligent people who seem to have absolutely zero clue about how to be good speakers. Which is surprising, because it is not a complicated process. The rules for effective speaking are easier to master than the rules of baseball. You need to know your subject matter, know your audience, and know how best to get your message across to them.

All of this varies depending on the specifics of your situation, of course, but a couple of standard rules always apply, whether you are giving "a few remarks" at an event or making a formal speech:
  • Always structure your comments, to include a beginning (intro), middle (main points--no more than four, but three is preferred!), and end (wrap-up). You may be a non-linear thinker, but unless your audience is made up wholly of mind-readers, you'd do well to stick to the formula that passes for the lingua franca of organized speech.
  • Always plan ahead, so you have organized your thoughts (see above).
  • Always stick to your preparation. The biggest consequence of people going "off script" is that they dig themselves into verbal holes they then need to spend valuable time getting out of. And they lose the attention of their audience--resulting in a hit to their credibility. As I saw so clearly in this most recent instance.
Don't be the speaker who squanders the goodwill of your listeners by performing a "brain dump" that is confusing and hard to follow. Plan ahead. Stick to your game plan. Get to the point--then get off the field.

As Tommy Lasorda said, “There are three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happens.” Be the one who makes it happen.