Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is it You Speaking, or Your Surrogate?

Who are you when you take the stage?

Last night I took Kristi out to see a movie called Surrogates. Its a B movie at best, but put forth an interesting premise. At some time in the near future, technology creates robots that we can control - in fact we 'inhabit' these robots, living our lives through our 'surrogates'. We see through their eyes, talk through their mouths, as our human selves sit in safety, hooked up to brain sensor machines that allow us to completely experience the world through our idealized, yet mechanized, counterparts.

It's marketed as a way to keep people safe from harm. Why go out in the world and risk getting hurt? Living is just too dangerous. In the world of this movie, crime is drastically reduced, and people are content to live vicariously through their custom-made counterparts.

Of course, with Bruce Willis in the lead role, it quickly becomes an action flick, alternating between Sci-Fi philosophy and Save the World heroics.

If you could, would you rather speak through a robot in front of an audience, instead of going up there in person? Now, realistically, we can't do this yet, and if this were the movie, you would be a robot speaking to an audience of other robots.

Speakers can, however, fall into a 'surrogacy' trap. It is easier for some to create a 'speaking persona' - a style that is separate from your true self, when you are on stage. In advanced cases, a speaker literally turns into an actor once they get in front of others.

This approach may seem to make sense - after all, speaking in front of a group takes skills that are different than speaking conversationally. Or does it? I would suggest that speaking in front of a group should be more of an enhancement of your normal speaking style. When you start turning into a different person on stage, you risk losing your audience. This hurts both on stage, and when you turn back into yourself the minute you walk OFF stage.

I'm often told people can see me 'turn on' when I hop onto the contest stage. My energy level rises, my gestures get bigger, and I enjoy every moment. But I have worked over the years, by watching videos and listening to recordings of myself, to make sure I don't go too far into performance mode.

Creating a 'speaker's voice' and a 'speaking persona' may seem like a good idea. A way to protect yourself from the realities of speaking in public. But ultimately your connection will weaken, your authenticity will fade, and people will stop hearing your message as they watch your 'surrogate character' go through the motions on stage.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Speaking With Notes: 7 Best Practices

Every speaker speaks with notes - even the ones that insist notes shouldn't be used at all!

When speaking 'without notes', our brains are still referring back to what we have written in preparation for the speech, or referencing touchpoints in the room that represent tentpoles in their presentation. Even if you are speaking off the cuff, you are pulling information out of your head as fast as possible, essentially looking for notes in the broad files of your brain.

Without getting mired too far into the neuroscience of note usage, let's look at ways you can use notes effectively in your presentations.

1. 4x6 Cards
I prefer these to 3x5 as they allow for a larger font to be used, and are easier to sort through. To effectively use cards, print one point per card - one sentence only that will trigger the segment you've practiced 100 times. Triggers get you to the story, and prevent you from reading from the card. At most, have a short Transition sentence and the Trigger on each card, to help you go from one point to the next.

In addition to Triggers and Transitions, quotes that must be read correctly belong on notecards, as well as statistics, research attributions, poems - anything that must be word for word.

I find that printing my notes in 36 pt. type or more on the computer, then cutting and pasting it to each card keeps my notes legible, and allows me to hold the cards further away, so as not to obscure my face or mouth as I refer to them.

2. 8 1/2 x 11 Sheets
Loose leaf, heavier stock, 36 pt. type or more. Keep these on a lecturn or table that can serve as 'home base' between segments. Avoid notebooks, particularly spiral bound. Folding the sheets into half-sheets will make them less obtrusive, if you must carry them around with you.

In the picture above, President Bush has the right idea - big type for visibility, but it isn't all that readable, and could potentially cause readability and flow problems for him as he looks back towards them on the fly.

Content-wise, the rules for sheets mirror the rules for cards - Triggers, Transitions, and information that must be exact.

3. Symbols
An old memorization technique, that isn't memorization at all, but simply symbolic notes, is to assign your speech parts to objects, or places in the room or on the stage. Taking note of your surroundings, and assigning each plant or corner or picture in the room a part of your speech allows the room you are in to become a giant cheat sheet. Even sticking colored felt shapes around parts of the stage can serve as quick mental triggers as you move through your content.

4. PowerPoint
Sad as it is, PowerPoint is a tried and true crutch to get you from point A to point Z in your speech. I'll discuss PowerPoint later on this week - you must be cautious that points A-Z don't result in simply snore-filled Z's instead!

5. Using the Audience
If you have handouts with your points on them, you can actually create audience involvement by having them remind you of your next point. Perhaps award someone in the room the right to be your prompter. It gets the audience involved, and can provide an opportunity for both interaction and humor throughout the speech.

6. Proper Eye Contact
It's easy to anticipate your need to use a notecard as you complete a point, resulting in you ending your final sentence as you look at the card for your next statement. This weakens your voice and posture, leading to a weakened point at the end of your last segment. When using notes, always finish the last statement with your eyes out on the audience, pause to emphasize the point, then move to the next card.

7. Practice, Edit, Practice Again.
The tighter the flow of your speech, the less need you will have for notes. The more you practice, the less the crutches of notecards, loose sheets, Power Point, etc. remain necessary.

Speaking with notes is not the end of the world. Being tied to notes, distracted by notes, and hidden by notes is pretty close, however. Don't be afraid or embarrassed to use notes, but practice with them, and use best practices as you take them on stage. Notes or not, you are expected, by your audience, to go out and Speak...and Deliver!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Toastmaster Friday: 5 Steps to Surviving Table Topics Successfully

Table Topics: while its not quite as bad as getting the third degree, the emotion in the above picture is easily identified with once you've been called on! When I hear people talk about the hardest part of a Toastmasters meeting, the strong majority answer is Table Topics. Sometimes the role of Table Topics Master (who leads the questions) is the easiest role to fill, since that person doesn't actually face a question!

For those who don't know, Table Topics is designed to improve impromptu speaking skills. The Table Topic Master asks a question, then calls on an unsuspecting member of the club to answer it. The goal is to speak for at least 60 seconds, but no more than 2 1/2 minutes, in answer to the question. Many clubs award a 'Best Table Topics' award at the end of the meeting.

I have seen Table Topics questions and answers range from philosophical to absurd to deadly serious to laugh-out-loud funny. Its really in the hands of the speaker - you can turn the question just about any direction you choose, once you are comfortable enough to do so.

5 Steps to Surviving Table Topics Successfully

1. Be alert - listen to the people answering before you, and don't let the Table Topics Master catch you unaware. Even though the questions are different for each speaker (usually), you can catch the spark of creativity from a prior speaker, reference their answer, and, if the topics are themed (ie: Halloween), you can start thinking in those terms ahead of time.

2. Pause - when asked the question, don't feel you must pop up and start talking. Give yourself that 'speaker's moment'. It's longer to you than it is to your audience. An effective verbal pause is addressing your audience and repeating the question (ie: Thank you Mr. Table Topics Master, Fellow Toastmasters, and welcome guests. If I went back to college, would I rather take a Quantum Physics class, or Bowling?). It resets it in both your mind and the mind of the listeners, and can help launch your thought process. It also burns about 10 seconds of your 60 second goal...!

3. Answer the question - at the very least, provide an answer to the question. Even if its a simple yes or no. Back up your reasoning anyway you choose - you can even lie (though that's not as helpful in terms of practicing transferable skills into the real world...or is it?), but answer it.

4. Bridge (optional) - say you don't want to talk about the topic. Answer it quickly, then quickly switch to a topic you can easily talk about. Don't ignore the question, but change the subject (ie: I doubt I'd take Quantum Physics OR Bowling, but I would love to take a class in underwater basketweaving with the football team. I love football....).

5. Logical, Calm Conclusion - when you see the green light, you're safe to wrap up, if you choose. Don't just say "Oh, good, so - Thank you Mr. Table Topics Master" - which I've seen done even by veterans! End by answering the question again, and if you bridged, answer both the original question, and reinforce your conclusion (ie: I can't wait for the game tonight. Would I take a Quantum Physics OR Bowling class? No. But underwater basket weaving? Absolutely! Go Bears! (pause) Mr. Table Topics Master.)

Most importantly, have fun - there's nothing at stake. Toastmasters is designed to be a safe haven, even if you're in a corporate club. The more fun you make it, the more relaxed you'll be. And in a relaxed, yet alert state, you'll find impromptu speaking becomes easier every time you practice.

Next week, I'll talk more about Table Topics theory - how it can help, and how to use Table Topics to its maximum real world value. Today, I just want you to survive.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Grammar in Speaking: Learn Yourself Good.

Image courtesy of the Simpson's Chalkboard Generator.

Notice I didn’t say good grammar – though as Public Speakers it is a primary goal. Our use of grammar is a reflection of who we are, from our upbringing to our education, from our geographic point of origin to our economic class. Correctly or incorrectly, grammar is a tent pole on which we are evaluated, judged, and categorized.

5 Effective Uses of Grammar:

1. Incorrectly
To make a point. Incorrect grammar in the midst of an otherwise grammatically correct presentation will draw attention to your point. Use this to either illustrate a mistake or to create humor.

2. Colloquially
But tread lightly! In the South, using “y’all” is appropriate, although still best used for humor unless you are a Southerner yourself. But beware over-usage, which may be mistaken for disrespect. I added an 'eh?' to my speech at the World Championship of Public Speaking in Calgary, thinking "it's been a running joke all week, why not?" It didn't prove helpful to the speech. While it didn't turn the crowd against me, it's non-effectiveness equated to ineffectiveness in that situation.

3. Simply
Don’t risk confusion. Many speakers spend hours to hone a sentence for the perfect phrasing, and the result will often leave the audience straining to remember (or even understand) the fancy words.

4. Clever Phrasing

Triads and Alliterations.

a. Triads are words in threes, often with the same first letter, such as big, bad, and bodacious. Presenting ideas in threes is one of the oldest tricks in the book – our minds are trained to pick up on triads – not too little, not too much.

b. Alliterations are words that sound the same used to make a point: expect my advice to be concise and precise.

5. Correctly
What a concept! Correct usage of whatever language you are speaking in identifies you as intelligent, learned, and credible. It allows the audience to focus on the meaning of your message instead of critiquing the words from which it’s built.

An often over-looked grammatical faux pas is the umm, err, ah method of stalling or regaining thought. While many speakers dismiss this concept, saying it “keeps them real”, who would you rather listen to? I go nuts listening to someone say uh 20 times as they work to make their point, regardless of their inherent genius.

The best approach when you are grasping for words or concepts is silence. It’s never as long as you think it is, and it almost always makes you look thoughtful and ponderous. It will often work in your favor, underlining the point you have just made.

Your use of grammar as a speaker will work to build your image to the audience. Poor grammar will often pigeonhole you as a pretender and limit your opportunities. Strong and creative use of grammar will set you apart from the crowd, and add to your credibility on the stage as you Speak & Deliver!

If grammar is a weakness, (and just ask a few family members, they’ll tell you), fix it. Take a class at a community college, or go buy a book and analyze a recording of your last presentation. Use grammar check when you write. As my old English teacher used to say: “You must know the rules in order to know when to break them.” This investment in yourself is well worth your time and money!


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