Monday, April 27, 2009

Listen to the POP to Know When to STOP

Who knew great speaking lessons could be found in the instructions for making Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn?


1. Microwave ovens vary. Cooking time may need to be adjusted.
How true. A speech that works brilliantly in one setting may "scorch and burn" in another. Temperature, lighting, room set up, time of day, etc. These are all variables that impact your audience.

2. Stay by microwave and listen.
In normal cooking, we set a oven timer and walk away. We know it will be done in 30 minutes. Perhaps we check once to make sure, but we don't stand there listening the whole time.

When you speak, follow the popcorn method of cooking. Listen. Pay attention to the audience's reactions and read their cues. And if you sense they are "done," try to end swiftly.

3. Open bag carefully.
Once the popcorn stops popping and the speech is done, don't end too abruptly. Take a moment to wind down and look at your audience before walking off stage. While you don't want to drag this out and let the popcorn get cold, the audience does need a moment digest what you've just told them and process your exit.

From the Green Room: Don't forget the most important instruction on the package. Enjoy! (Your popcorn and your audience.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Matching the Internals and Externals

I recently published a short piece in the Wexner Foundation community newsletter.

I tried to pick the Torah portion of the week that would seem to have the least obvious connection to public speaking!

The Wexner Foundation Electronic Beit Midrash Tazria-Metzora
Tazria-Metsora and the Lessons of Public Speaking
By Sarah Gershman

What can leprocy teach us about how to be a better speaker?

In this week's reading, we learn about the mysterious skin condition called tsaarat. Often mistranslated as "leprosy," tsaarat is traditionally understood as a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady, such as haughtiness or excessive pride.

The Torah seems to be describing a condition where the body is deeply in tune with the soul. When the soul is infected, you can see it on the skin.

The physical manifestation of tsaarat reveals a much deeper internal problem. Perhaps the physical manifestation served to raise greater awareness of the spiritual problem. Indeed, many of us are visual learners - when we see something, particularly something on our own skin, it registers much more immediately. And once the condition is diagnosed, the physical symptoms can be healed only by working on the internal spiritual malady.

So what does this have to do with public speaking?

Like tsaarat, speaking effectively depends on your ability to match internals—the content—with externals—the delivery.

Here are three ways to make that happen:

1. Diagnose your own public speaking "tsaarat." We all have external speaking mannerisms that reflect something internal. Some of us "um" and "uh." Others over-gesticulate. Others shift back and forth. Whatever your speaking tick is, chances are it is a symptom of an inner anxiety or struggle. For example, we tend to use filler words such as "umm" and "uh" when we do not feel confident about the content. Identify the external symptom, diagnose the underlying issue, and focus on resolving that rather than on fixing the tick.

2. Own your message. Make certain you truly understand the essential message you want to communicate to this particular audience. If you take the time to clarify your content, it is much more likely that your delivery will be strong. Often it is when our message is unfocused that our voice shakes and we stumble over our words. Just like tsaarat, the external reflects the internal.

3. Synthesize content, voice and body language. The audience will pay attention, when what they hear is also what they see. Here are a few suggestions:

Move purposefully. If you change directions in your content, turn and walk the other way on stage. If you are taking a moment to address the audience more personally, step away from the podium and move towards them.

Vary Tones. Mine your content for emotional shifts. Perhaps in your opening remarks, you want the audience to feel intrigued. Later on, you want them to feel frustrated. At the end, you hope to inspire. Let your voice express these contrasting emotions. Speak with feeling and let the feelings reflect the substance.

Speak to Individuals. You've worked hard to craft your message for your audience's needs and interests. Now, use your eyes to strengthen your connection to each individual in the room. Make eye contact with one person at a time - the general rule is one person per thought.

One final thought: The Talmud also explains tsaarat as a physical manifestation of lashon harah, the sin of harmful speech.

How compelling it must have been to see physical proof of the damage caused by hurtful speech! Tsaarat is a reminder to each of us of the power of the spoken word. May each of us continue to learn how to use our words to inspire the changes we seek.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rachael Ray and the Art of Public Speaking

From this week's NYT Sunday Styles:

Jonathan Rosen, the agent to Food Network stars, describes how he knew that Rachael Ray would succeed:

"I told her I felt like her personality translated directly across the screen and made you feel like she was in the room with you."

Truthfully, when I first watched 30 Minute Meals, I said to myself, "What makes her special? I could totally do that!"

And now I realize that this is her secret weapon.

Rachael Ray's slip-ups, cutesy expressions, and goofy laugh make her seem not like some celebrity chef, but like your fun (and albeit sometimes annoying) girlfriend. She's not giving a cooking demo - she's chatting it up with her buddies.

We can all learn from this.

The next time you get up in front of an audience, try saying to yourself, "I am not giving a speech. I am having a conversation with people I care about." You don't have to be best friends - or even know the people in order to find sometime about them you care about - even if it's just, "I care that they understand what I am trying to say because it will be helpful to them."

You will connect with an audience, when you speak to them as if you are having a one-on-one conversation with each person in the room.

From the Green Room: To master the art of public speaking, don't just give a speech to an audience. Have a conversation with the audience.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Adapting to the Audience

Recently, I worked with a rabbi to help him prepare a pre-Passover sermon. He worked hard to prepare and practice a meaningful and powerful message. The rabbi tended to need to write everything down beforehand and was working on developing a more conversational, spontaneous style.

Little did we know how far he would take that.

The morning of the sermon, he says in his own words, "I looked out and saw - the audience for the drash (teaching) we worked on was just not there. In its place were two families in shiva, two or three people out of work, a few dealing with illnesses. Hurting people."

So this rabbi did something quite courageous. He adapted the speech at the last minute to make it a sermon about hope.

He told himself, "If I really am committed to what I have to say, and to my relationship to the audience, I will be able to speak without the notes."

Which he did.

Afterwards, one person said, "Great drash." Another said, "I don't know if you worked on this a lot or just winged it, but it meant a lot to me."

Indeed. This rabbi went beyond simply giving a great sermon. He connected directly to the individuals he was speaking with.

From the Green Room: Prepare. Then, when necessary, trust yourself to be able adapt your speech to the audience when necessary. The connection you make with the people in the audience will be worth it.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

How to Give an Acceptance Speech: The Top 5 Things My Dad Did Right

Last Friday, I had the privilege of hearing my father speak at a ceremony honoring his 25 years of service as the first and only president of his organization.

My dad knows I'm his biggest critic - but that day, I was his biggest fan.

Not only was I tremendously proud of his accomplishments, but of the (dare I say) perfect thank you speech he gave.

Here are 5 things he did just right:

1. He kept it brief.

2. He spoke with genuine emotion.

3. He did not spend a long time listing people to thank, but rather expressed gratitude for the honor itself - for the privilege of having served a cause he is passionate about.

4. Rather than thanking the audience for helping him reach this day, he thanked them for helping him serve the organization all these years. We all felt part of the journey.

5. He brought everything back to the essential mission of the organization - and thus made those around feel inspired to continue the effort.

Great job, Dad.