I had just settled in for an hourlong bus ride. I forgot my earphones, so I couldn’t use the time to listen to music or a podcast on my iphone. I settled back in the seat, and I noticed that the song on the radio had an Indian sound to it. It made me think of a Bollywood movie. A big song and dance extravangaza out of one of those movies from India, where more films are produced each year than in any other country. Can you picture this scene? Lots of people, dancing, smiling, singing. They are enrobed in bright oranges, pinks, greens and purples, and the musical number comes to a crescendo with a big choreographed finale. I don’t know what makes these movies sell. If I had to guess, it might have something to do with the authenticity, the exotic flair, the bright colors and unique sounds. (unique perhaps to those of us not from India) You might not be a fan of it, but it draws you in, and you can’t look away.
Now if we peel ourselves away from this Bollywood scene, and we think about public speaking, we can draw some similarities. Yes, I’m being serious here. We want to connect to our audience. We want to draw them in and command their attention. We can list the facts, share our messages, give a big smile, and we’re done. But let’s really bring them into it. Try describing a situation, a story which illustrates a point. And when you tell that story, perhaps something specific which you experienced first hand, take the audience back to that place and time with you.
Did you not prepare photos for your presentation? That’s ok. Use words that paint a picture. Provide the audience with a virtual experience. Describe the colors, the smells, the sounds, the sights in that story, using whatever is applicable and appropriate. If you’re trying to persuade your audience of something, you want them to be in that place where you are, so that you can convince them to agree with you or mobilize to take action as a result of your speech.
No, don’t go and describe a Bollywood song and dance scene, when you’re tying to persuade a board of directors to approve the annual budget. But share a memory of the past or a vision for the future. Be detailed in your description. Let ’em really taste it. And when you’ve hit that crescendo of what was or what could be, then bring home your point and make the sell.
I have always been mesmerized by the entertainment industry. I love to think about the process, the way a production comes together, with each person adding their part to create the finished product. And I don’t only mean the actors. I mean everyone, backstage, pre-production, and post-production, too.
I used to watch the Academy Awards from start to finish every year. This year, I was sleeping. (It was 3AM in Jerusalem when the ceremony aired live in Los Angeles.) There was a time when I would stay up to watch. But real life set in, and so did the need to get up early in the morning for work.
While I have more responsibilities now, I still love the performing arts and “The Biz.”
Today, I work with entertainers and artists, including actors, singers, and directors. I call them “my stars.” I help them prepare for auditions and participation in English language films, performing English songs, English media interviews, press conferences, and film production in other countries. I work with them to ensure they sound as intelligent in English as they do in their first language, Hebrew.
I also work with people who don’t work in the entertainment industry. And I also call them, “my stars.” When you deliver a presentation or a speech, you need to be a performing artist, no matter in what industry you work. If you are planning to speak publicly, what you need is passion. One could argue that passion is only needed if you are trying to persuade your audience to believe something or do something. But isn’t every speech a charge to action? At the very least, aren’t you trying to persuade the audience to pay attention to you? To listen? To remember your message?
When we have something to say, we hope to engage our listeners long enough to hear us, to pay attention. But passion? Really? Even if we are trying to convince coworkers to use more paperclips? Actually, yes.
Passion in our words helps convince our audiences that we believe that what we have to say is important, worth being heard, and perhaps even worth resulting in action. You may be ready to give an impassioned speech on the benefits of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, especially if you have seen it help a loved one, but how are you supposed to infuse passion into more mundane topics?
That’s where your star power comes to play. You may know that your point is important, but you may not feel impassioned about it. And that’s where we all, professional actors or not, employ a level of acting. Within moderation, a certain energy level, which we express through variation in volume, pitch, acceleration or decceleration of our rate of speech, hand gestures, facial gestures, to name a few, helps us to express passion. And that passion can often help us inspire, move, affect, and touch our listeners. I am sure that we don’t always feel passionate about our presentations. I know I don’t, at times. But if we can conjure our acting chops (skills) to infuse our presentations with some passion, that’s how we become stars.
So, I actually refer to all my clients as “my stars.” When we invest the right energies in our communication, the sky’s the limit.
What is a pause? It’s the momentary stop or break from whatever it is you’ve been doing. Let’s say it’s a break in speaking for our purposes. People often think that a pause signifies something terribly amiss during our presentation or conversation. Did we forget what we were going to say? Are we drawing a blank? Are we slow?
Pauses are actually an extremely useful tool in our speech arsenal. (credit to my colleague Alex for the terms speech arsenal- I love it!) If we examine the positive effects of pauses in our speech, we see that pauses serve a number of uses, including:
giving us time to breathe
giving a chance to remember our next point
giving the audience a chance to digest what we have just said
giving the audience a chance to wake up and pay attention to our next point
providing dramatic effect and emphasis
Pauses do something else, as well. They can help us appear as though we’re speaking extemporaneously, meaning, “off the top of our heads,” thinking through what we’re saying as we say it. (even if we’ve really practiced and memorized our words specifically for our presentation.)
And if we take this to the realm if inter-personal communication, that pause connotes that we are listening to the speaker, and we’re thinking before we respond.
Maybe I’ve sold you- pauses sound great. But when and how can they be bad? We know that too much of a good thing can be bad for you, right? If you’re going to pause, and you should, remember that the pause shouldn’t last for more than a second or two. Pause too long, and the audience may squirm, you may lose their attention, or they will think you’ve just derailed your presentation.
Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of numerous books on conversation, has indicated that pauses and their relative length can be a cultural thing. For example, a conference call with people from New York will sound very different from a conference call with people from California. This is because people in New York speak faster, and the slightest pause may indicate to others that the speaker is finished speaking, and someone else may begin. Californians, however, may use slightly longer pauses in their speech, and a pause doesn’t necessarily mean they are done with their point. This means that if New Yorkers and Californians are participating in the same call, there could be confusion over when someone is finished speaking and the next person should begin speaking. Click here for Dr. Tannen’s full article on the subject.
I received a call recently, and the caller let dead silences hang in the air for minutes at a time. Ever the conversationalist and someone who likes to make people feel comfortable, I kept thinking of things to say. But then I remembered that he called me. There must have been a reason for his call. So I let some of these long pauses continue, thinking that perhaps he was just waiting for me to stop talking before he attempted to tell me something. And I waited…and waited. And it was agonizingly awkward. Oh, he finally did say something. It was something that was probably difficult for him to say. Whether it was good news or bad news, I was just relieved once he finally said it. The anticipation was killing me.
So, in summary, pauses can be a great tool for public presentations, as well as intimate conversations. Timing is everything, though.
Sleep Before You Speak. You may not have heard this one before. Think Before You Speak? Maybe. Thinking before you speak is an invaluable precept to live by. So many times have I said something, only to cringe each and every time I replay it in my mind. What was I thinking? Why would I say such a thing? Thinking, and then administering some carefully considered control over your words is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of appearing as the fool. More and more often, I now find myself smiling on the inside, having triumphed over the foolish by refraining from saying something which will only cause me grief later. So why am I singing the praises of the Think Before You Speak adage? Well, I just wanted to make sure we were all clear on that one before I introduced a variation on it.
Now then, Sleep Before You Speak. If you are feeling exhausted like I am feeling right now, then the thought of sharing a cohesive communication or a presentation probably seems daunting. So don’t do it. Get some sleep! So much seems possible when we’re coherent. If thinking before you speak is the security gate to the estate that is your message, then getting the sleep you need is the key to that gate. Get your brain rested and ready to go before even attempting to think. We haven’t even started discussing the actual communication, spoken word, gesture, etc. For now, just rest up. We’ll be able to function and process and prepare our sentiments and strategies after some quality shut-eye.