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.


Weldon Long Author The Upside of Fear, From Prison to Paradise said...

Good stuff. I work especially hard to connect one on one with the folks in the room. Makes me and the audience comfortable.

Recently, however, walked up on stage, jacked up and ready to go, and turned around to be blinded by the spontlight. All I could see were shapes.

Had to foucus on imagining faces to relate to. Very enlightening experience and will not be caught of guard by a spotlight again

Anonymous said...

Brilliant application of the text to our lives -- especially #1. While "uhs & ums" are often an external manisfestation of poor preparation or lack of confidence in speech content, such internal causes may themselves be symptomatic of an even deeper internal factor -- a lack of genuine respect for the audience.

Sarah Gershman said...

Nice point about the spotlight. That must have been quite challenging. Shows that it pays to check out all aspects of the stage beforehand.

Sarah Gershman said...

Anonymous - Thank you for your kind words. I agree completely that if there is not an internal respect for the audience - this will come through in the delivery.