Speaking From The Heart

Mohandas Gandhi (1869 -1948), better known as the Mahatma (Great Soul), was one of the most inspiring orators of the 20th Century. He is a classic example, however, that great speakers are made. His first public address in London (circa 1890) was a complete disaster. He was meant to give an address on the merits of a vegetarian lifestyle. He read the first line of his speech but nerves got the better of him and couldn’t go on. A friend read the rest of the speech for him.

Gandhi learned from this experience and found a positive in it. “My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words,” he once said.

This economy of words, as he called it, is a valuable point to remember in day to day communications. As he put it, “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” He believed listening was the better part of conversation. He took this attitude into his public addresses as well. He was against what we would call “spin,” but focused on the straight forward, honest message. He spoke from the heart to the heart, with respect for those who listened.

He had learned to speak only what he thought was important. When he spoke, it was with passion. It was the core of the message that mattered, not his ego when he addressed an audience. A great example of his mature speaking style (and one that sums it up as well) was his reflection that, “Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologize for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

So what can we learn from the Mahatma? Firstly, good speaking takes work. Secondly, don’t waste your time and that of your audience with the unnecessary. Finally, speak from the heart!

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Painting with Words

A speech or presentation can be like the work of a Dutch Master (a simile). While Rembrandt and Vermeer worked in oil, we orators work in words. The pictures we paint are in the mind, not on canvas, but we should be nonetheless meticulous in our efforts to make them colourful.

I have started with a simile, though I personally favour metaphor. Metaphors are “figures of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” Such phrases as “lost in a sea of nameless faces,” gives an example of some of the imagery that can be conveyed by words. But simile, with its more direct comparison, “As brave as a lion” or “As bright as a button,” provides clear unambiguous images.

I began by referring to Old World artists, but I also like the more home-spun art of the Americans. Grant Wood’s American Gothic is an excellent example. And so it is with words. Home-spun, folksy metaphors can give a colour and dimension to a speech. Here are some great examples of such down-to-earth phrases: “Nervouser than a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory,” “Prettier than a speckled pup,” and “Scarcer than hen’s teeth,” all leave vivid brush strokes on the imagination.

Whatever your preference in art, find the verbal brush that suits your style!

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Talking Points

Talking points are defined as a topics that invite discussion or argument. These are useful in political campaigns, but also in making presentations more generally. Good talking points challenge and stretch your listeners. These topics can capture imaginations and set the stage for persuading an audience to come over to your point of view.

But how do we use them? A great starting point is to define your main message. What exactly is the issue, and why should your hearers care about it.

That established define key sub-points. Don’t bombard your listeners with hundreds of semi-significant details, but rather give three or four strategic facts to ponder and digest. Then, develop those points with significant evidence and supporting materials.

When organising your presentation use sandwiching with strongest point first and highlight it to make the most of its persuasive power. Place any weaker arguments in the middle and finish with another strong point.

Be sure to stick to the point though. Use only materials which support your case. Don’t use any arguments you can’t substantiate, or deviate from your main topic. Where possible provide specific examples that support your argument. Concrete examples are always best, though real-life anecdotes can give your talking point an emotional appeal.

 

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Be Real!

“Real” people are seldom boring. People who reveal something of themselves, start to build a connection. Audiences begin to feel they’re getting to know you. This sense of relationship gives a little “magic” to the verbal transaction. It is not “at” an audience but “with” an audience and as such gives a shared experience. This sharing reduces any boredom, as it offers an engagement of its own. Being real also includes speaking from the heart, don’t over think, or over-prepare (over preparing is not the same a practicing, but rather trying to be “too perfect” and thus sounding unnatural).

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A Higher Art

Why is oracy generally and rhetoric in particular seen as “a higher art?” The Roman politician, lawyer, and orator Cicero summed it up thus, “Rhetoric is one great art comprised of five lesser arts: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and actio.”

But what are these lesser arts? The first, inventio (invention) is the process of developing and refining your arguments. You need to know exactly what your stance is, if you are going to persuade others of it.

The second, disposition (arrangement) is the process of organizing your arguments for their fullest impact. Whether sandwiching your weaker points between stronger ones, or a progressive build-up of ever stronger points, the arrangement of presentation is a skill to be developed.

Elocutio or style, is the third sub-art. It is the process of determining how you phrase your arguments using rhetorical techniques such as metaphor and hyperbole.

The fourth important skill is memoria or memory. This is the process of memorising your speech in order to avoid the use of notes. This is not only by rout retrieval of the speech itself, but of supporting materials such as literary references and statistics that might enhance your presentation or lead to impromptu embellishments in response to your audience.

Finally delivery or actio comes into play. This is the process of practicing your delivery. Not only of the speech’s text but of your gestures, inflections, and pauses as well.

This complex arrangement of “arts” leads to the mastery of the “uber-art” of rhetorical persuasion; or as Cicero put it “speech designed to persuade.”

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A Speech to Stir Emotion

In 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce attempted to lead 750 – 800 of his people to Canada rather than be confined to a reservation. The U.S. Army pursued him, and after a trek of over 1100 miles, and culminating in a five day long battle, he formally surrendered his remaining 431 people to the authorities. His formal surrender speech to General Nelson Appleton Miles on October 5, 1877 is powerful in its sincerity, simplicity, and brevity:

“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohulhulsote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led the young men is dead.

It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are–perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead.

Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

One hundred thirty two words which potently tug at the heart. They are a masterpiece of the spoken art.

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Rehearsal

Where do you practice your speeches? Do you practice your speeches? Some speakers are adept at always pulling off spectacular presentations with the minimum of advanced preparation. They have the key concept, the background knowledge, “and they’re off.”

Most of us, however, don’t have that ability. We plan our talks, edit our drafts, tweak here, and tweak there. Practice or rehearsal of any given address gives confidence, aids in the tweaking, and generally polishes “the finished product.” But where should we rehearse? For some it is an exercise best done in front of an audience. No not “The Audience,” but of the tried and true “product testing panel” of friends and family. This approach has the benefit of constructive feedback, and the ability to test the timings and flow of the speech with a generally non-threatening listener-ship. It does have the drawback, however, of lessening the impact or surprises of an address if the same individuals will be in “The Audience.”

Personally, I practice while driving. I have a fairly long commute each day, and this allows me to play with ideas, and phrase and rephrase my content. It also helps me to “perfect” my timings against the digital clock on the dashboard.

Then there is the evil step mother approach. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall does have its merits. Joey Asher of Speechworks cites three benefits of the talking to the mirror rehearsal style. First of all, it lets you see how you look. No not how beautiful you are (that part is obvious), but how you present yourself. It helps to develop not only the verbal content but the gestures, and use of floor space as well. It can also aid you in seeing any distracting motions or nervous habit you might have.

The second benefit is that it helps you to perfect your smile. It reminds you when practicing that “your speech is enjoyable.” If you have a pleasant expression and smile, it gives a warmer feel to your audience and makes them more receptive.

Asher concludes by noting that the mirror can help you with eye-contact. This interface with your audience is worth “its weight in gold.” It shows you are interested in them. Remember the speech is for them, not you. It also helps you overcome any over-reliance on notes. If you’re looking at your auditors, you aren’t looking at your crutch. This gives the impression of competence and confidence to “The Audience.”

Whichever rehearsal method you use, be comfortable with it. It needs to work for you. It is nevertheless helpful to find one and then use it effectively. Unless, of course, you are one of those gifted, transcendent speakers for which the mere hint of a topic can turn into a standing ovation oration with no practice at all.

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The Ten-Second Rule

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Most people in the Western World have heard of the five-second rule (or alternatively for some the three-second rule).  It is a cultural belief that if food falls to the floor, it is still “clean” for the requisite number of seconds.  Rightly, or more probably wrongly, it is thought such food isn’t contaminated yet.

The ten-second rule is a little more demonstrable, and applies to pauses when speaking, especially in public presentations. It follows a basic principle that if you break your spoken momentum for two or three seconds, listeners may assume you’ve lost your place.  A five or six second pause makes it clear you have stopped intentionally. But, as every teacher knows a pause of a full ten seconds draws the attention of everyone in the audience, including those distracted by other activities (doodling, texting, etc.). After such a break, the audience assumes the pause was intentional.

This approach is counter-intuitive.  Many novice speakers feel threatened by the silence.  But remember, you as the speaker are in control.  Martin F. Tupper put it well when he said, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.” With practice, such strategic silences will prove you oratorical maturity to your audiences.

As a beneficial side point, a sharp, purposeful pause allows you time to collect your thoughts, and the hearers will have no idea you used it for that purpose.

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Planning and Organising a Presentation

There are many approaches to planning an address. There was a running joke (with a clear undercurrent of truth to it) when I was studying homiletics that all you need to write a sermons is, “A story, three points, and a poem.” While this may well be over simplified, it nonetheless reflects many a sermon, and points to the need of some sort of structure.

One easy way to structure a presentation is used in educational circles. While I am uncertain as to its origins, it has surfaced in several sources, and is an effective model. This is the “Cheeseburger Model.”

So let’s construct the perfect cheeseburger. To start we need a bun. This gives us a framework to pile the rest into. The top of the bun is your introduction, it states the intention or thesis (main ideas) of your presentation. The bottom of the bun, is reserved for your conclusions, and any restating of your thesis, or main ideas.

Central to your presentation is the meat of the matter. Yes, the patty is essential. This is the main body or point(s) of your speech. [Yes, you can have more than one main point, after all, multi-patty burgers are all the more juicy, and appealing].
But meat on bun, while potentially satisfying, can be a little boring, so why not add some toppings? A few tomatoes, some leaf, and a gherkin or two. These are symbolically the examples that can enhance your presentations. These “sides” [pun intended] illustrate your points, and give that little “crunch” to your audience.

Now your burger is getting really appetising. But now you have the opportunity to really spice it up with some sauces. These figuratively, are explanations to make sure your points are understood. They often are the “mayo” of why, and the “special sauce” of how, where, and when.

There you have it a juicy, multi-patty, well garnished, saucy masterpiece. It’s all there for you and your audience to enjoy.

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Developing Vocal Resonance

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The vocal chords are just the beginning of the story. Like many instruments the sound making apparatus needs to be amplified and the sound enhanced in order to make its full impact. Consider the reed of an oboe or clarinet. The reed produces the sound, but it is perfected by the cylinder of the rest of the instrument. Or the twanging of strings, look how much richer it is when vibrated through the open space of a violin or guitar.

So it is with the human body. Once the sound is produced in the throat, the head (sinuses and nasal cavity), and chest take over. These air filled cavities in the body perform the same function for the voice that the body of a violin or clarinet does.

You can improve the resonance of your voice by developing and training these areas. I found when researching this aspect of public speaking, that most sources use the exact same exercises which seem to indicate either a common source, or innate wisdom. Either way I will repeat them here with only minor variation.

Number one – posture. If your posture is good, then your voice will be too. Over simplified, perhaps, but still a great starting point.

Hum, yes hum. The second approach to developing resonance is simple humming. Stand straight and hum any note at a pitch which is comfortable to you. Then alter the pitch slightly lower noting the sensations in your chest. Hold that note and continue to hum until you can feel the vibrations in your chest, and then attempt to increase the intensity of the humming vibration. Try this again by returning to your original pitch, then go upwards this time. You can then repeat the exercise, but on the next round shift your focus to the sensations in your head rather than chest. Try repeating this full procedure 3 or 4 times.

The third technique involves holding your nose and saying out loud any sentence you would like to say. Somewhere it was recommended that the phrase “Many mighty men making much money in the moonshine” should be used. This quote while in several sources, does not appear in the older guides, however. The point that is important, however, is that you say it forcefully. Then immediately let go of your nose and say the same phrase. Make note of the differences in your vocal sound. Repeat this until you are happy with the control you have.

Practicing these will develop your instrument. Happy humming!

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