Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Creating the Speech for your Message - Q&A

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Gimmicks in Speaking - in Toastmasters and Real-Life

What's a gimmick? It's a lot of things - from loss leaders to crazy attention getters to outright attempts at misdirection used by marketers to bring people into their message, and hopefully put their products into their hands while they take the money out of those same hands. Gimmicks in speaking work very much the same way. They scream for attention. They can be crazy, but they can also be very creative, and effective.

In 2016, the World Championship of Public Speaking (WCPS), a contest run annually by Toastmasters International, was won by someone who wore underwear over his suit pants for nearly the entirety of his speech. (An official video with excerpts is below - the full speech, illegally posted, can also be found, if you so desire). This brought gimmickry on the WCPS, stage to a new level - though whether that level is high or low, I'll let you decide.

Past gimmicks on this stage include, but are not limited to:

- Falling Down on stage, and speaking from that position (2001 Champ)
- Caressing a chair used to represent a relative who has passed on
- Asking the audience to stand and repeat a phrase to end the speech (I admit it - it was me)
- Standing on chairs, and using sign language (2003 Champ)
- Singing (2008 Champ, 1995 Champ)
- Music from a boom box while in a clown outfit
- Wearing a leather flight jacket (2010 Champ)
- Wearing jeans and a bolo tie (1990 Champ)
- Starting to light a cigarette on stage (2015 Champ)
- Discarding a rose into a trash can, later pulling a fresh rose out of it (2014 Champ)
- A 57 Word Title (2016 Runner-Up)

There are more - many more - if you know of one, post it in the comments. These are just the most memorable to me. Obviously, the gimmicks from Champs are going to stand out a bit more, in general. And it is those very gimmicks that tend to promote further gimmicks, bigger gimmicks, in subsequent years, ultimately (at least so far) leading to whitie-tighties bringing home the trophy.

The word 'gimmick' is a bit loaded with, perhaps, needless negativity. The 3-point shot in basketball was a gimmick. The Golden State Warriors have done pretty well with that one. Remember, too, that the slam-dunk was at one time considered not much more than a gimmick. Gimmicks in advertising, music, movie-making, even teaching school, make for an attention grabbing situation. When used well, within a larger landscape, it is both entertaining and effective.

When the gimmick outweighs the vehicle bearing the gimmick that it becomes, to me, less than desirable, less than effective, and downright annoying. When a gimmick becomes over-used - copied by others for the sake of copying - it's unbearable.

To bring this back to speaking, think about this: if you tossed your gimmick entirely, would the speech still work?

If Darren LaCroix, in 2001, didn't fall down in his championship speech, the entire speech would have had to have been reworked. He's known as much for falling down, for saying 'Ouch', as for anything else in that speech. In his case, the gimmick was an integral part of his speech, and was a gimmick only because it really hadn't been done before. One might say that as opposed to using falling down as a gimmick, he simply used the floor as a prop.

In Jim Key's 2003 winning speech - he stood on chairs. In my opinion, if you took this out of his speech, his speech still would have been a winner. Maybe it counts as half a gimmick. The sign language, however, was a stroke of genius gimmickry that made him stand out in both delivery and emotional impact. Again, a gimmick only in that it hadn't been seen.

In 2006 - my own gimmick of getting the audience to stand and yell with me probably stood out to many as just that. I'm not sure if it cost me a victory, or boosted me to my 3rd place finish.

Indeed, most gimmicks haven't been that bad. Or, maybe they've just become accepted and expected.

I would suggest that Darren Tay's gimmick in 2016 was unnecessary. That his speech would have been just as effective if he's shows them briefly (pun intended) and moves on, perhaps bringing them back at the close. Ironically to me, his coach had at one time told me that a prop should come out for a purpose, and then be put away so as not to distract. Perhaps said coach has changed his mind since then, or perhaps Darren ignored him. Yes, the speech would have had to change in its structure a bit. But the point would have been the same. The stories wouldn't have changed. Perhaps, he wouldn't have still WON, since the 2nd place speaker also used a gimmick (57 word title).

Perhaps it is WINNING, indeed the contest itself, that is inherently, the problem.

Would Darren have WON without the underwear? Would Jim have WON without the chairs? Would I have WON if I had left OUT the Standing up and Shouting? It's the winning that tends to drive the decisions. The desire to out-do, out-perform, out-surprise the other speakers in order to stand out that makes gimmicks acceptable, perhaps even NECESSARY at this stage of the contest. The drive for the trophy brings us to pull crazy stunts, perhaps in place of true creativity.

Get outside of the contest, into the corporate speaking world, and how much gimmickry do we see? I know Vince Poscente stands on chairs and skis as he tells his downhill skiing story. Pretty impressive - especially at his age (kidding, Vince). We occasionally see the crumpled up hundred dollar bills thrown on the floor as the speaker asks if anyone still wants it (is it still worth anything, they coyly ask). There's always the 'big rocks, small rocks, sand, water into a vase trick' that was popular a decade ago.

But overall, I don't see many professional speakers relying on gimmicks to carry their speeches. This is in part, perhaps, due to a longer format - even 20 minute speeches in the TED format are almost 3x as long as a Toasmasters speech. Most keynotes are 30 to 45 minutes long. Professional audiences aren't necessarily mesmerized by gimmicks unless you're already billed as a performer/speaker (magic, juggler, dancer, singer), and in fact, have been known to be turned off by such dramatics.

As we go forward this contest season, lets be judicious in how we use gimmicks, as well as how we receive gimmicks. Know why you're using them, know why they are important to your audience, know whether or not you really need them. Are they just the hoped for extra points on the ballot, or are they the integral aspect that drives your point home? Do they ADD TO, or DISTRACT FROM your message? Is your gimmick all that you will be remembered for?

As you go forward, speaking in the real world, don't mistake it for the Toastmaster world. Going over-the-top with gestures, costuming, even wordplay, can cost you credibility. It's a whole new stage out there, outside the supportive walls of TM, outside the slam-bam 5-7 minute speech format.

Remember, no matter how many 3-pointers you shoot, the game can't be won without the fundamentals - layups, mid-range jumpers, and free-throws. How balanced is YOUR speaking game?

(Editor's Note) This blog isn't intended to besmirch any Champ, or even Toastmasters in general. I love the Champs, I love TM. Every winner earned it. They did what they wanted to do, what they had to do. This blog, much as my entry last August, is about understanding what is important in speaking - about our motives and how we choose to impact the audience as a higher goal than the goal of winning a trophy. Not everyone can win the trophy. But everyone CAN win the audience.

(Editor's Epilogue) I intended to write this as a follow up to my blog about the 2016 World Championship of Public Speaking - a post that garnered a ton of attention, both positive and negative, and really super-charged the reach of Speak & Deliver. Like any good marketer/blogger, I promptly, if unintentionally, abandoned the blog entirely. But if you're reading down to this epilogue, know that I intend to be back on a regular basis, and a book will be forthcoming.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 World Championship of Public Speaking - A Serial Contestant's Perspective

I mentioned on Facebook that I would 'be writing a blogpost about the World Championship' - even though I haven't blogged, apparently, since April. A few people actually asked me to tell them when I posted it. Therefore, I better write it.

First - a couple of caveats: 
1. I did not coach, nor did I even know, any of the Finalists this year.
2. I did compete, but took 2nd at District. For the first time ever.
3. I have competed in the Semi's eight times, the finals twice, taking third in 2006.

Second - a blanket statement:

All finalists are great speakers. All went through the wringer to get there. All gave excellent presentations, and were worthy of being there.

Now, for the 'Perspective'...

Speech contests, and contest speeches, are curious constructs.

Judged anonymously by relative amateurs of varying experience and personal speaking ability (some world-class, others working-class, and occasionally, other should-go-back-to-class), the contestants face bias and subjectivity, combined with the unknown factors of who their judges are demographically and ideologically, and it can feel like an impossible task.

Populated with mostly amateur speakers of the same varying experience and personal speaking ability, judges are armed with a sheet of objectives the speaker must meet, and then emotionally sort through speeches about dead relatives, terminal diseases, terrible hardship, mixed in with the occasional ego trip followed by the grand victory, occasionally peppered with a nod to mom/grandma/great uncle twice-removed for teaching them right. It also features gimmickry - standing on chairs, props, falling down on stage, and, oh, so much more. Even so, the higher the level, the better the speeches, and for the judges, it can feel like an impossible task.

I know this sounds a bit pejorative and sarcastic, but it's truth. The playing field is pretty even for all - so no unfairness is implied. Themes of the human condition are used because they reach the most people. Tony Robbins often says 'success leaves clues' - and the speech contest is full of detectives picking up on what has worked before, so we, more often than not, get served the same messages, in very similar packages, despite the vast diversity of speakers delivering them.

The 2016 World Championship of Public Speaking surely was an impossible task - to compete in, and to judge. It showed all that is great about the contest and the Toastmasters organization, as well as all that is, occasionally, expected and traditional.

I'm going to stay positive in this review, much as I want to be critical here and there.

Katina Hunter - An Audience of One. Great chess story, excellent use of short young child vs. tall older child, and the ability to make herself the hero of a story without coming off as arrogant.

Donald Crandell - clearly had fun on stage, kept it light, Live With It message was a unique concept. Nice amputee soldier story at the end.  Makes me wish my fake leg with help me climb mountains. I think I need an upgrade.

Elliott Eddie - one of my favorite topics - Give Yourself Permission. Interesting story about wanting to be a filmmaker and his supportive wife.

Kim Kaufman - owned it. Went all in on GPS and the concept of Recalculating - a speech I've almost written myself a few times. Clearly excited about her experience, and her message. Strong close.

Sherwood Jones - as a fellow comic book geek, I definitely connected with his opening. Personal Connection message was important and timely. Good humor, and extra points for working in PokemonGo.

Kaishika Rodrigo - Loved her pacing and vocal variety. Concept of Chiseling Out Your Masterpiece is another message I've almost used in the past. The whole 'the statue is in the marble, waiting for you to release it' is intriguing. She showed real joy as she spoke.

Josephine Lee - 3rd Place - now this young lady knows who she is. She played up the California girl in a way that made it endearing when it easily could have been annoying. Her humor and timing was spot on, and contrasted well with her closing revelation about her friendship.

Aaron Beverly - 2nd Place - forever to be remembered as '57-word-title-man', his message that talking a lot doesn't equate to saying a lot was truly original for this venue. Lots of energy, great 'Bus Lady of Doom' story, and excellent delivery almost launched him into first place.

Darren Tay Wen Jie - 1st Place - Captain Underwear. Literally put tighty-whiteys on over his pants for the majority of his speech. Took the concept of bullying from external to internal, a theme I have used repeatedly over the years. Grabbed our attention, offered a twist ending, tremendous humor. A worthy champion.

Now - here's where I may tick some people off. The person I wish had won:

Thien Trang Nguyen Pah - her theme of subtle domestic abuse was certainly 'out there' for this contest, just as her 'body image' theme in her semi-final broke the mold. She was emotionally open without being manipulative. The speech was crafted well, in structure, word choice, and staging. She even got a huge laugh in the middle of a tough, tough speech. To me, no other speech approached the 'professional speech' level of this offering.

Now, I say this without wanting to take anything away from any other contestant. And with full knowledge that this is my opinion, and will likely be met with opposition.

I understand why she didn't win, or even place:

- first speaker
- heavy theme that made people feel uncomfortable
- theme that may have not been received the same by the diversity of cultures

So, sure, it makes sense. But for my money, she was the best speaker, with the most important message, delivered in the most professional way. She didn't need gimmickry. She didn't need a laugh every 12.5 seconds. She didn't have to ask us 'Have you ever....' a million times. She just had to be authentic, identify the problem, touch our hearts, and offer a solution.

I understand why the Top 3 were the Top 3:

- humor
- memorable gimmicks
- energy
- universal messages

Hey - they were ALL great, and all of them had an argument for the Big Trophy. For what it's worth, my wife had Darren picked all along. In fact, everyone has their favorite, and no champion is ever unanimous.

My takeaway for Toastmasters today, however, is this:

How long are we going to allow the same formulas, the same message types, the gimmicks, to overwhelm true professionalism?

I regularly hear that 'no one would use a speech contest speech in real life', and when I show the championships to outsiders, they laugh at how 'over the top' we are. Is this who we want to be? Is this the type of speaking we want to promote? Darren, all the rest, and even myself must be forgiven for allowing ourselves to fall into this formulaic way of speaking - and even the judges must be forgiven for voting for it - because it IS what it has ALWAYS been for so long. Success leaves clues. Unfortunately, it doesn't always lead to GREATER success. And isn't that what we should be striving for in our crown jewel contest?

Thien, if you ever read this, know you are a champion in this speaker's eyes - and, trophy or not, I hope you Win Anyway as you go out into the world to Speak & Deliver the most important messages of all.

Darren, Aaron, Josephine, and all other contestants, if you ever read this, I mean no disrespect. You were awesome. You did what you were supposed to do, just as I have tried to do for over a decade now. Enjoy your triumphs, and keep inspiring us to grow.

I hope our beloved contest, as well as our organization, continues to grow as well.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Epic Keynote - a Review

Yesterday, I reviewed several books I've read this year in my Win Anyway Blog. Two of those books, The Art of Doing and You are a Badass, had some good lessons for speakers, but were still motivational in nature enough that I included them in that batch of reviews. The only true speaking book I've completed in 2016 is Jane Atkinson's 'The Epic Keynote' - which clearly belongs here!

I like Atkinson's style in general, and her book 'The Wealthy Speaker' is a great guide for beginners. Diving in this book, I was searching for a great keynote 'formula' that would make me look at what I'm doing in a whole new way.

What I got was the same old structure I always get, in the most simplified fashion possible.

Doesn't mean it's bad, however. In fact, it's filled with anecdotes from other speakers, almost to a fault. Atkinson seems more intent on compiling wisdom than chronicling her own.

The book covers a bit of old ground from The Wealthy Speaker, helping the reader identify the type of speaker they want to be, and who they should target. Then it hits the big topics - content, humor, style. It also talks about technology, storytelling, speaker's bureaus, and other ancillary aspects of the business, including finding a coach.

I did enjoy reading 'Tips From the Masters' and 'Flashpoints' from Mark Sanborn, Joe Heckler, Patricia Fripp, Darren LaCroix, and many, many others. I also found David Leiber's storytelling formula helpful.

It's easy to read, filled with short bits of accessible wisdom. If I'd picked it up 15 years ago, I'd be really impressed with it. If you're at the beginning of your journey in speaking, this is a great book for you. Just because it fell short of my likely too high expectations doesn't invalidate its content.

2 1/2 out of 4 Stars


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