Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Speech! Speech!

For many people, the notion of public speaking instills a fear only slightly behind death, but way ahead of root canals. The thought of standing in front of an audience and giving a talk about anything scares a lot of folks down to their toenails.

Not me. I enjoy it. Making a bunch of people laugh when you want? Inspiring them to something that stirs their hearts? Imagine how it feels to be a rock star with a stadium full of fans grinning and loving every move you make. Or to realize that your acceptance speech made half a billion people smile at how tickled you were. This is puppies and kittens, very heady stuff, a potent–and addicting–drug. 

(Writers can have this, albeit the gratification isn't instant. "I loved your book, dude. I stayed up half the night reading it." Never hurts to hear that, I grin every time, even years after the book was done.) 

Having been a professional writer for thirty-odd years, I have done a plethora of panels, speeches, classes, MC-ing, even a little stand-up comedy, and after a few hundred times, you start to get a little less nervous about it. I'm comfortable onstage.

Well. Mostly. There are still occasions whereupon I find myself jittery, the butterflies trying to escape from my stomach, pucker-factor high. I do it anyway, and most of the time, it turns out great. Each speech is different, but there are tools I can take from one to another, and usually make 'em work.

But if you are afraid of standing up there and saying your piece, there are ways to get past it. 

I was once the toastmaster at a convention and the Guest of Honor was a well-known and award-winning writer who was terrified of giving a speech. He admitted it to me. Comfortable in front of a keyboard, not in front of people. My advice was, okay, here's what you do. A) Don't tell them. If you just stand there, and you don't shake so bad somebody calls the fire department because they think you are having a seizure, they can't tell by looking. (And they are disposed to like you, else you wouldn't have been invited. They'll cut you some slack.) Don't start by apologizing for the dish you are serving, let them decide. 

b) Use the Magician's Gambit. (I never imagine, as one bit of advice goes, that the audience is naked. That way lies madness, I have waaay too much imagination.)

The Magician's Gambit goes way back. Lot of them have great mechanical skills in sleights or working tricks, but they don't have the stage presence that draws in an audience. So the old advice was, don't be a magician, be an actor playing a magician. 

That might not seem useful at first glance, but how it works is, by removing yourself one step from the act, the action becomes less subjective. If you are a actor playing a role, you study the part, learn the beats, and you can emote, go over the top, chew the scenery, and it is a deliberate action. Sometimes this is just enough of a remove to allow you to become less inhibited, and if you are relaxed and not so tight you are apt to pull something if you turn your head, your performance will be better. Trust me, if your audience can see that you are relaxed and having a good time? It translates. They are usually willing to go along for the ride. 

If they are embarrassed for you and pray that a compassionate lightning bolt will strike you  down and put you (and them) out of your misery? Not so good. 

This not the be-all, end-all, playing a role. And the closer your public persona is to who you really are, the easier it is to play the part and the more genuine it will feel, to you and to an audience. John Wayne was never known for his, um, range as an actor, but the chops he had were consistent, and who he was. You hired John Wayne the actor, you got John Wayne the man. That came through, and people trusted it. Sometimes, one trick is all the pony needs to get by. 

I tend to ratchet it up a bit when I go to a convention or to do a speaking gig. Still me, but amped–I talk too much, and louder than necessary. I wave my hands a lot. I excuse this by saying I don't get out much. Still, my on-stage-persona is how I do it over coffee at home, albeit with the knob turned down a bit for the spouse and dogs. 

It's like telling the truth. Do that, you don't have wonder which lie you told. If who you are in private becomes who you are in public? That's like free money.

The second way to get past stage-fright, at least partially, is the Seven-P Principle: Proper planning/preparation prevents piss-poor performance. 

You have to give a talk, write it down. Learn your bullet points without having to use your notes. Practice in front of a mirror, using a video recorder. Time your speech or reading. Rehearse it. Know it backwards and forwards. Give it to the dogs, the cat, the wall. Work on your delivery until it sounds spontaneous; as if the thought, which is brilliant, just crossed your mind. 

You see the old trick of a politician stepping up to the podium, looking at his speech, then tossing it? Hey, I had a prepared speech, but bag it, I'm going to talk from the heart! If he then gives a memorized version of that speech, people can tell. If he really talks from the heart? They can tell that, too. May not agree, but they know. 

In Hollywood, they say, When you can fake sincerity, then you got something. But if you are actually sincere? Much better. 

If you can't tell a really funny joke, for God's sake, don't tell one. If you can? Great–as long as it is appropriate for the venue. That one about the fat, senile old guy? Might not go over well at the AARP-sponsored Weight-Watchers meeting. Or it might have them rolling in the aisles clutching at their pacemakers. Dying is easy; comedy is hard. If you are in doubt, skip it. 

Anybody can read a speech out loud. If you are a great writer and have a great speaking-voice, this will work. If not, might as well print copies and pass them around. The best speakers look you in the eye and make you think they are talking to you over a cup of coffee and every word from their lips is off-the-cuff and meant for your ears, even if every bit of it is memorized and has nothing to do with you. 

You still might get lost or clutch up, but it is less likely when you have it down pat. If you know the material, if it matters to you, if you are passionate, that all helps. You can always look at your notes if you wander off. (My favorite speech notes are pictures. Little cartoons that link one to the next. That way, I get the general gist without having to look at a lot of text that might blend together, and a picture is worth a thousand words.)

Getting up in front of a crowd is a skill, just like any other, and unless you are a natural, you need to practice it to get better at it. Once you have some chops, then it doesn't matter if it's ten people in a sleepy Saturday morning panel or a thousand people in a ballroom. The moves are the same. (Truth in advertising: A big crowd is a double-edged sword. If you are doing well, the energy influx is powerful and you can use it, channel it, give it back and make yourself better. On the other hand, if you are screwing up in front of a big crowd, it's worse than doing it in front of a small one–the silence is ever-so-much-more deafening ...)

But: That passion thing? You read your story or say your say with as much skill and conviction as you can either way. Ten people get the same ride as a thousand. Never phone it in.

One more tip: Don't forget to breathe. Do it early, and do it slowly. It helps. 

So, there you go. Your fear of public speaking all resolved. 



xen said...

When I was a senior in high school, I had to read a poem in front my English class. I was truly horrified. The teacher had made it clear that failure to read before the class would result in failing the course. I went to the drama teacher for help, and she gave me very similar advice, "Take a step back. Pretend it's not you." That advice, along with "practice, practice, practice," lead me to an "A" for the poem, the project, and the course.

Dave Huss said...

I have been teaching for over ten years and as a college professor, I have given a lot of advise about public speaking over the years. My best advise comes from an old Tom Hanks/Sally Field movie about doing comedy, "Do not try to speak to your whole audience all at once. Pick one person, talk to them and then move on to the next person and so on". I have found that this gets me by in a small room or a crowd of thousands.

Steve Perry said...

Good stuff, Dave.

I find that if there is one bored kid in the audience and I can get his attention and interest, everybody else is easy.

If there are only a couple who seem to be into it, I talk to them.

If they are all bored, I'm in trouble. It's happened.