This past weekend, I had the honor of judging the state finals of a national oratorical competition for high schoolers. First of all, cudos to the students–one of them only a 9th grader!–for showing the courage to step before their colleagues, families and us judges to deliver their presentations.
The format required each contestant to deliver a memorized presentation that could be no shorter than eight minutes, and not a second longer than ten minutes. To fall short or run long triggered penalty points. No applause was allowed. No notes, either.
After all of the prepared presentations were finished and scored, each contestant was allowed exactly five minutes to prepare remarks on a topic chosen out of a hat, and then deliver a speech that could be no shorter than three minutes nor longer than five minutes. Again, steep penalties awaited anyone whose remarks fell outside the timed guidelines. The assigned topics were chosen from a list of possible choices of which the contestants were all aware, all of which dealt with some element of the U.S. Constitution. So, they weren’t entirely blind-sided, but they had no idea which one they’d be hit with.
As an aside, I had good success on the debate and forensics teams when I was in high school–back when “public speaking” was the only definition I knew for the word, forensics. I cannot imagine the pressure these kids were under, and I applaud each of them for hanging in there–even during those horrific moments when they lost their place in their speech and the room full of adults bled silently for them while pretending not to notice.
As a judge, of course, I had to notice. I only regret that there was no opportunity to speak to the contestants afterward, and maybe provide some points they could work on. Instead, all they will see is their numerical scores.
We haven’t discussed public speaking much recently in the Killzone Blog . . .
Now that the world is pulling out of pandemic panic–at least my corner of it is–I think the time is near when we will once again speak to people’s eyes instead of just a webcam, I thought it might be a good time to share some of my observations on speaking essentials. Here goes:
Be prepared but don’t overcook.
Professionals–even the ones who don’t get paid–owe it to themselves and their audiences to know what they’re going to talk about before they start. If the presentation is a factual one–driven by statistics and such–it behooves the speaker to have that stuff down flat–or to have quick access to a cheat sheet.
I witnessed a couple of vapor-locks among the student contestants yesterday, and in each case, it was clear to me that the issues were not their problem, but rather that they had forgotten the order of the words they had memorized. In each case, even when they were on track, they were so intent on getting the lyrics of the speech right that they forgot that the audience was there to hear the music, too. They want to watch the speakers make their point in a passionate way, even if the words are flubbed a bit. That happens, and as soon as that spark of panic flashes, the remainder of those eight minutes last for-friggin’-ever, even for the audience.
Tell a story.
Every memorable speech has a narrative attached to it. While statistics are important, and a presentation may collapse in on itself without them, they carry much more weight when they are wrapped within a compelling story. The added advantage of having a story to tell, it’s much harder to forget where you’re going, and the specific words themselves bear less importance.
When I give a formal presentation, the only element that is truly memorized is the ending. I used to memorize the beginning, but I’ve learned that those first words offer a unique opportunity to connect with the specific audience.
Don’t pace, but use the stage.
My preference is to not speak from behind a lectern. I think it’s a barrier between me and the audience, and that is the antithesis of what I’m trying to accomplish. I also prefer a lavalier mic to have access to both hands. The competition this weekend had no lectern and no amplification. That last part was a real disservice to the kids because the acoustics of the room were far from ideal. At least they all had to face an identical challenge.
I will concede that many of the best speakers and performers ply their craft while their feet remain within a three-foot-diameter circle, and that that is probably the most effective approach. I am incapable of doing that. I need to move.
Recognizing my need to fidget, a speaking coach taught me to put the fidgeting to good use and use it as a tool to connect to more of the audience. I generally start downstage center, then move along the apron to the left and then the right and back again.
A couple of the weekend’s contestants–interestingly, the same ones who vapor-locked–paced aimlessly as they tried to squeeze their memories for the words they’d memorized. They looked as the floor, or perhaps as far as the apron of the stage, but they made no effort to make the kind of eye contact that is meaningful.
Own the stage.
In the competition, the introduction for each contestant was the same: “Ladies and gentlemen, Speaker Number One (or two . . .).” Remember, applause was forbidden. The student then entered through a door at the back of the stage and launched themselves. There was no countdown or nod. Their timer started when they uttered their first words. That’s a tough way to begin.
Think about it. When was the last time you watched anyone perform anything without at least a little crowd preparation. That biographical intro at the beginning of a conference presentation is essentially a transition that hands the stage over to the speaker, for which the speaker is rewarded with applause s/he hasn’t even earned yet.
Of the weekend’s contestants, most entered with their eyes cast downward, with every element of body language shouting how nervous they were. Some did better than others, but only one realy nailed it
A high school junior with the poise of someone far older, she entered from that back door with a bright smile. As she walked to her mark in the middle of the stage, she seemed pleased to see everyone whose gaze she met. When she hit her mark, she clasped her hands loosely at her waist, and continued to silently greet the audience as she settled herself. Before she uttered her first word, she had everyone’s attention. From that point on, she did everything right.
It wasn’t till afterward that I realized that she had assumed ownership of the stage from the first second she entered that back door. For all I knew, she could have been petrified with fear, but if she was, she flawlessly performed the first duty of public speaking: she made everyone feel comfortable.
So, TKZ family . . . Any other suggestions to share?