Wednesday, December 06, 2006

When speaking of speakers, courtesy rules

Wikipedia image
Supposedly, our most common fear is public speaking.

Yet some experienced speakers, overly comfortable at the stump, blithely deliver presentations with so little regard for their audience, one wishes they’d contract this phobia and never speak publicly again.  And yet many other speakers, who are utterly paralyzed by the prospect of giving a speech in public, are the ones we ought to hear from. Sad irony.

Fortunately, most public speakers are conscientious enough to adhere to a few intuitive rules and share their knowledge, views, etc. in a responsible manner. Only courtesy and common sense are needed. 

Back in 1992 retired U.S. Admiral, Stanford University professor and Ross Perot running mate James Stockdale began to speak at a vice presidential debate by asking, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” 
His opening was greeted with laughter and later parodied on TV. I laughed too. At the moment, Mr. Stockdale sounded like a stunned buffoon before a worldwide audience.  More sad irony since he was, of course, a genuine American patriot, scholar and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran.

Although Mr. Stockdale, who died last year, was mocked for those lines, he began that debate by trying to explain exactly who he was and why he stood before us. So simple, yet how many times do speakers drone on without giving even the most perfunctory information about who they are, what their organization does, or what we can expect to learn from them?

Before drafting your presentation, consider what your audience really wants or needs from you.  Then stick to it. Save your meandering town hall style for friends and family.  Start by explaining who you are, your organization’s mission and your role. Share an agenda or an outline for the presentation that tells your audience the sequence of topics you’ll cover. Mention that after your prepared remarks, you’ll take questions. Don’t leave us guessing or assume we know any of these things. We don’t.

Of course, some famous speakers don’t require much introduction or a clearly stated agenda because those things are often obvious to their audience. But famous speakers don’t get a free pass. We come to hear them for the same reason we come to hear ordinary people like me. We want a better understanding about something the speaker knows and the speaker’s job is to transfer that understanding as effectively as possible in the time allotted.

Years ago I attended a breakfast event in Chicago where the keynote speaker was a renowned economist. People, who had paid handsomely to eat cold eggs and hear her views, packed a hall at a swanky downtown hotel.  Midway through her presentation, she began talking about her relationship with one of her children. I don’t mean a short, illustrative anecdote that related to her topic. I’m talking about useless paragraphs spewed out to an audience that just didn’t care. Nobody in the crowd was inherently uncaring; the problem was a speaker who forgot her purpose and indulged some odd impulse to stray.

Finally, if you use technology to underscore your points, make sure it works or don’t use it. If you frequently can’t connect to a website, get that video clip to run properly, etc. don’t hope for the best knowing you can summon an attendant while your audience waits.  Think about a paper chart or sock puppets instead.

In sum, as present to all of us subjected to public speakers from home, school, church, government, nonprofit organizations, or business - when it’s your turn to speak; please respect your audiences’ time and they’ll respect you for it.