I gave the worst speech of my life last week. I fumbled one incoherent sentence after another
“Until the Lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the Hunter.” — African Proverb
One of the unintended consequences of heartbreak is that you stop speaking from your heart and prefer that all communication filters through the censor board in your mind. This has a significant impact on the quality of your life as well as the quality of your communication. Over the last few months, I’ve joined a group of complete strangers working together to help improve one another’s public speaking and speech writing skills. According to a survey on common phobias, fear of public speaking is worse than the fear of death for most people. Every two weeks, we come together to deliver speeches and give feedback to one another. Today, I’ll share some of the key ‘ahas’ I’ve learned so far.
Think from the heart
One of the most profound insights from these sessions is that no one likes to think when listening to a speech. In fact, people don’t like thinking in any context. If they could choose, an audience always prefers to feel something versus thinking something. Maya Angelou famously articulated this insight in the following way: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This simple but powerful insight means that the way to win over an audience isn’t simply by quoting statistics, well-researched facts and arguments with irrepressible logic. We also need what in popular culture is known as the ‘X’ factor. If you break down the ‘X’ factor into its separate parts, it is basically about building an emotional connection with the audience based on your personal sincerity about the subject, which opens not just their minds but also their hearts to your argument. This ‘X’ factor, also commonly referred to as charisma, isn’t an in-built trait if you study great orators. It’s actually a learned skill. I always used to think you were either born a great speaker or a dud. But when you see how much difference a conscious decision to learn can make, you realise that effortless oratory actually takes a lot of effort.
What if I fall?
I gave the worst speech of my life last week. I was representing my learning group in a city-wide speaking contest and went completely blank when my name was called. I fumbled one incoherent sentence after another. I could see the audience lowering their eyes and squinting uncomfortably. I saw my friends avoiding eye contact. I turned red with equal measure of guilt, embarrassment and anger at blowing this, not just for myself but also for the group which nominated me to represent them. It was one of the most difficult two minutes of my life, and my life is no stranger to difficult moments. At the end of the speech, I felt like storming out of the room and running away. The pain was uncharacteristically raw.
The competition was on impromptu speaking. Everyone gets a topic and within five seconds of your name and topic being called, you’re supposed to start speaking. The topic of the day was “can people lie without saying a single word?” Usually the problem my friends have is getting me to stop talking. But in this case, when I was in front of an audience and when it really mattered, I went completely blank. I did eventually leave the room at the end of the session before anyone could walk up to me, but I stayed long enough to watch other speakers and learn how they dealt with the pressure. I reminded myself that I’m here to learn and this is okay. To put a positive spin on things, I told myself this is actually great fodder for my next speech later this week. I’m afraid I’ll blank out or fail again, but the best way to overcome this fear is to confront it head on.
Bricks and balloons
Every good speech or article needs to be a mix of bricks (facts and arguments) and balloons (anecdotes and stories) with cinematic tension, characters and action to keep your audience moving along with you. Another important point I’ve learned is that audiences don’t want to be told or lectured on what to think. They prefer show over tell. Share a good story and let them draw their own conclusions.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2015.
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