Sunday, 10 April 2016

On public appearances

Not the perfect day for political musings. One observation I will not hold back on sharing is that given the magnitude of bylejakość, tumiwisizm, couldn’t care less approach and faith things will somehow fall into place, a tragedy in scale similar to the Smolensk crash is just a matter of time…

The post inspired by Michael’s deliberations on delivering public speeches, structured as a response to it, supplemented by odd thoughts and questions straying away from the main topic.

As someone who regularly addresses audiences I'm not fazed by the thought of speaking to a few score people.

The stage freight, or lack of it; is it inborn and hard to overcome, or something humans can have influence on? Some individuals are said to be born leaders or born speakers. Some people are born shy, some bold, some feel up to stand in front of people, for some it is one of the worst torments – so does not public speaking take talent?

As a teenager in middle and high-school I was a member of a school theatre. My friends and I would put in humorous self-written plays (rather than playing out dramas) dealing with current topical issues, often politics. The experience has tamed by fear of appearing in front of tens or sometimes hundreds of people, but also has developed spontaneity, as we did not have to stick to someone else’s script..

I sat down for a total of four hours to prepare and polish a speech.

How much preparation is essential? One cannot (or should not?) deliver a speech totally extemporising, as subjects may be too serious to give room for that much free-style, but on the other hand polishing up each single word of a speech to be made and then sticking to the draft word for word smacks of an exaggeration and unnaturalness.

As a student I was always most fond of scholars who delivered their lectures without aid of notes. They just came to the room, without a single piece of paper and could talk for hour and half, not because they had learnt by heart their lecture, but because the wisdom they intended to pass on was well-structured in their heads.

And my most recent experience – around a month ago I knew I would be participating in a workshop aimed at improving collaboration between two departments. I was supposed to be a passive participant. The day the workshop was due to be held I showed up at the office at 8:15 a.m., opened up by mailbox and found the message from my boss, who for personal reasons could not attend the event and had asked me to stand in for him. He had enclosed a presentation and wished me good luck, expressing his faith I was up to this task. I stared at the screen for a while and brought back the credo I sent to my former colleagues the day I was leaving the Employer: “whatever looms as a problem, treat as a challenge”. Challenge accepted!

Delivering the speech, I did not feel comfortable. I was neither reading verbatim from a prepared text, nor was I extemporising around a set of hastily scribbled notes (as is my usual habit). I was also conscious of the race against time. Because I was filling in around the main points, the output was a hybrid of the structured and unstructured; key facts and figures surrounded by a stream-of-consciousness conversational style.

The style of speaking does matter and one could argue whether it is the style or the content (probably both) that makes audience swallow every word flowing from a speaker’s mouth. I dislike people who read out their speeches. My impression whenever listening to such speeches, often monotonous, making audience falling asleep, is that the link between a speaker and their speech is lost. When building sentences off the cuff one shows up their linguistic skills as well as put their heart and brains (rather than only mouth) into delivering the speech.

My preference is to fall back on some notes, being the agenda of things to cover in a speech / presentation and serving as reminders of some stuff which should be highlighted to make the appearance desirably effective.

As I was delivering the workshop I felt uncomfortable for another reason – it had been meant to be run by a senior manager, whose role was to point up shortcomings of other people’s behaviours and bring people on looking critically at their conduct and putting forward what improvements could be made. Stepping into a senior manager’s shoes was far more distressing for me that having around one hour to work up a concept for the workshop. I had the great comfort of knowing what I would be talking about, knew well my audience (around 40 people) who would be wondering why I had been chosen to be in charge of instructing them how to improve their work.

If you think you're good, you're comparing yourself with the wrong people. Too often I hear "Panie Michale, pana była najlepsze prezentacja" simply because the others were soporific - lawyers reading dense slabs of text from a PowerPoint slide, or else people with an all-too-visible dread of public speaking.

My university experience reminds me here of the PowerPoint disease, the worst ailment of speakers and presenters. Reading out the content of a displayed presentation is the quickest way to bore your audience to death and gain notoriety of a poor speaker. A good question is then to what extent contents of PowerPoint slides and a speech should overlap. My own recipe for a decent presentation is to establish a thin link between the presentation and the speech. The slides may contain pictures, graphs, charts and main points the speech revolves around. People should listen to you, but not instead of reading when they see on slides. Down-to-earth content is what I would prefer to pack into attachments sent out to audience; those really interested would familiarise with it and keep in their files after the presentation anyway.

The fear of public appearances also makes itself felt and is discernible for the audience. I cannot claim to be unfamiliar with the stage freight, yet by no means it paralyses me. It does not stimulate me neither, but to overcome some bit of it, I tell myself if my listeners’ opinion on me is low, I am unlikely to change it. Keeping calm whatever happens is the best advice I can give. Once you make a mistake, you will not reverse it, leave it behind, erase from your memory immediately and focus on what lies ahead to avert next botch-ups.

What's the secret? To convey wisdom, not facts. People want insight, not statistics. I could have started more strongly - either with a memorable anecdote, or a startling comparison. I could have ended with a searching question. More pauses were needed - my fellow trainees said they had difficulty in digesting what I'd said, because I was in a hurry to beat the five-minute deadline.

The point about wisdom is spot-on, yet insufficient for a speaker to enchant their audience. Brilliant speech is composition of many factors: choice of words (plain language), flow and tone of voice, the aforementioned pausing and silence, body language (striking a balance between standing still and being too fidgety or over-gesticulating is an art), amount of anecdotes and humour to be interspersed throughout the speech (which should not be confused with stand-up). The balance, suited to content to the speech and situation is then essential. On top, I would pose a question whether a good speech should be a monologue or should a speaker interact with the audience, ask them questions, encourage listeners to challenge them? And to what extent should a speaker dominate audience? Shy speakers barely keep eye contact with audience who with time drift away, while too aggressive speakers who shout, run around, insist viewers take part in their show also are disliked by many…

Charles also declared war on waffle, on unintelligible words, on jargon. ('Pursuant' is one I particularly dislike.) "Use words that you use in natural speech, as though you were speaking to your aunt."

Excellent point. This has been said many times, yet deserves to be repeated; an outstanding presenter knows how to put complex phenomena into simple words, so that they become graspable for an ordinary recipient.

Know in advance where you'll be speaking, what the podium is like, try out the sound system and IT beforehand to check it all works as it should - and above all, who your audience is, and what it expects.

Back to my experience of delivering the workshop. I kept the cool head. Before other participants turned up to the hotel where the event was due to be held, I walked there earlier and blatantly asked technical crews to set up the IT, to avoid being distracted by non-core stuff.

With hindsight, given how “my” workshop was praised by participants, seems I did quite well. If I had a chance to deliver the same workshop, I would cut back on number of jokes in the introductory part of the presentation. I wanted to relieve the tension audience had, their faces were telling me they did not fancy my (often auto-ironic) jokes and though I did not make a piss of myself, I was horsing about, not something I could boast about.

Now, looking forward to next opportunities to make public appearances. Just like dancing, swimming or travelling, this is the way of giving off to the world the spare positive energy I have inside me.

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