Owning the Stage

By John Gilstrap

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?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

19 thoughts on “Owning the Stage

  1. That’s too bad that students weren’t afforded an opportunity to receive more than numerical score feedback–particularly when they are taking time to engage in such an important topic as the Constitution. It would seem to me that that type of feedback would close the educational loop on such an exercise.

    I participated in a speech competition back in the dark ages but can’t remember the details of how it was set up. 😎

    All good points mentioned, especially avoiding just telling the facts, but tell a story. Makes people perk up & it triggers them to get more engaged because it feels more personal somehow. While as a history nerd I don’t mind the statistics, I know most people have a harder time staying engaged that way.

    • Time pressure. Many such ordeals . . . er, opportunities involve many contestants. There isn’t time to provide feedback, nor even to make notes for written feedback. And, besides, far too much feedback would tend towards meaningless, feel-good euphemisms for you flopped: e.g., “You sure stood there bravely!” Or “Your knees hardly knocked at all!” Or “I could hear every word!”

  2. Man, that competition sure put those young’ns through the grinder, John. I’m not sure what purpose not giving them feedback served. Even American Idol contestants got some creative criticism.

    I’ve a couple bones to toss into the KZ bowl this morning. One, it’s worthwhile for writers to absorb the TED Talks mechanisms – not just for public speaking techniques but for general storytelling. A great resource is TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED Talks https://www.amazon.com/TED-Talks-Storytelling-Techniques-Best/dp/1507503008/

    Another bone deals with nerves. It’s perfectly normal to get butterflies before a presentation. I’ve done the mother of all public speaking and that’s (many times) giving evidence before a judge, jury, lawyers, and a crowded gallery. A little nerve-calming trick is to place your fist over your solar plexus and lightly press while keeping your other palm covering the fist. It looks perfectly natural like a relaxed frontal clasp – not like an at-attention arms down, or power-tripping hands-behind-the back, or a confrontational arms-folded-in-front.

    The pressure on the solar plexus relieves the central nervous system stress. Trust me. It works. And I learned the trick from a lawyer – probably the only good advice I ever got from a lawyer.

      • I resemble that remark!

        An acting trick: before you go on, put your palms together in front of your chest, elbows out, and press hard, at the same time pushing your breath all the way out while making the sssssss sound.

    • Garry! Why on earth didn’t you share this tip before I did my debut TV appearance? I might have had a little saliva left in my mouth. ?

  3. What an ordeal for those kids. Thanks for sharing the story, John, and for participating in an important facet of their education.

    Two tips I’ve heard:

    Imagine the audience is naked. That causes the speaker to smile while the audience believes s/he is simply being friendly.

    Choose one friendly-looking person in the audience to make eye contact with. Keep going back to the person for reassurance.

  4. Thanks for another great post, John, on a topic rarely mentioned. My two bucks: use hand gestures for emphasis, utilizing the entire forearm. It comes naturally to me, being half-Italian, but it works in getting the audience’s focus on you.

    • ‘Atsa right, Giovanni! Hand gestures are molto bene!

      Beware, however, of repeating the same gesture. After you’ve used a grandiose gesture once, it gets more and more absurd with every repetition. Feedback, when available, often consists of the judge waving his hand the same way multiple times as he recites his critique.
      {Thank you, Jack LaCerte.}

  5. Thanks, John. Great tips. One additional tip: If you’re using a sensitive lavalier omni-directional mic, and moving around the stage, beware of on-stage speakers (monitors). If you get too close to the speaker, you can set off a feedback loop and get a terrific squeal. That will wake up your audience.

    • This reminds me of the Dorsey HS assembly where student office nominees were given stage time to boost their candidacy. “Yell King” hopefuls would lead the audience in a school cheer. The last chap came on, shouted “Gimme a ‘D’!!!” and leapt in the air, midway between the giant stage speakers. Upon landing, the sound of his Keds hitting the stage was amplified and fed back in a loop, resulting in a horrendous noise that resembled an elephant breaking wind. An African elephant, the largest that ever lived.
      As the auditorium exploded in laughter, “I wasn’t me!” he pleaded, pointing at the speakers. “It was them.” The laughter went on and on, and there was no pity vote. He lost by a large margin. On the other hand, his performance will never be forgotten.

  6. I remember reading somewhere that the thing people fear most is death. Second on the list is public speaking.

    Going back to Kris’s post from yesterday, I think some people have a natural talent for speaking in front of an audience. The rest of us need all the help we can find to conquer our nerves. If I have to speak to an audience, I prefer to use a lectern that I can hold on to.

  7. Practice. In front of a mirror or even a row of empty chairs. Even if you are talking about your latest book in a series, practice. Know your highlights and hit them.

    Deep breath, clear your head. Go get them.

    Unlike these young people, it is OK to have notes. I have seen professional speakers who work from written notes and just highlights. One speaker had his podium copy in very large print, triple spaced. He could glance down and still maintain eye contact with his audience. His as delivered speech had only a few different words than the prepared notes.

    If you are using facts, charts, quotes, etc. have them in the notes. Particularly these days.

    “How did you come up with that number?”
    “I didn’t. Steve Edwards, CEO of CoxHealth Springfield did. I trust the head of the hospital about ICU usage.”

  8. I feel for those kids. As someone who has talked to kids not a lot younger than those about sex (once you’ve done that, you can talk to anyone about anything), I really don’t have a problem speaking to a large group. I do like to use PowerPoint slides when I talk–that gives the audience something to look at besides me once I get started.

    And really know your subject inside and out. It sounds like the kids at the competition didn’t.

  9. Hobbit of wisdom that I am to newer writers, I’ve given this advice to writers about promotion. Pick your strengths and focus on them. If you’d rather die than speak in public, don’t speak in public. Your career will not end, and your books can be promoted in other ways. Most interviews can be done with typed replies, and you’ve got plenty of time in your career to practice at the podium before you have to give your Pulitzer speech.

    I’m a teacher. I’ve always been comfortable when I teach so my speeches tend to be a bit freeform. I usually have the first sentences written down in huge print to prime the brain pump while it’s spinning at the idea of a bunch of strangers staring at me, then the rest of the speech is giant print bullet points to keep me focused. I buy the heaviest paper I can find to print it out so it’s easy to manage, and I number each page in case of the dreaded dropsies of the pages. I look at the audience, not the pages, even if my brain is in the liminal space where I create. Most people can’t tell.

    And as a teacher of literature, here’s a nice story about author promotion and speeches. Mark Twain, the god of oral story telling and charm, was actually worried about his first author tour which back then was standing in front of a large audience and giving a speech. Before each speech, he’d hire some people and sprinkle them in the audience. They’d know when to laugh at his jokes or applaud so that the rest of the audience would, too. Because he was Mark f-ing Twain, he didn’t need these people, but they gave him a sense of comfort. These days, it’s nice to have a few friends or family in the audience to give you that confidence.

  10. I was once told on a Friday afternoon that I had to address an EPA Conference in Atlanta at 10:30 the following Monday. The speech hadn’t been written. The final slides weren’t emailed to me until 10:00 a.m. on Monday. I didn’t count the house, but the program said there were 500 attendees registered. How did I manage? A couple of years of Toastmasters’ training. Besides being fun, Toastmasters meetings taught me everything I needed to speak. Since then, I’ve acted in performances of 17 of my plays at various venues from San Pedro to Santa Barbara.

  11. David O’Connor of the Cook County Attorney’s Office said that if you cannot summarize your case (no matter how complex) in eight minutes you’ve lost the jury. On this general subject Professor Keith Miller once told me “You can have a folder but write down your salient points on it. Make three good points and sit down.”
    As Polonius said. “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

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