Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Today's post is inspired by my #1 reader and commenter Alexis, who has the opportunity to give a commencement speech next year.  Alexis is trying to decide whether or not she wants to accept an invitation to speak at her alma mater.  It is a big honor to have people listen to you, no matter the medium.  Whether they are reading what you write, listening to you speak, or giving you their attention during a music recital, it's a privilege to have an audience.

I realize I'm now just an overeducated housewife, but I did earn dual minors in speech and communications in college.  I actually took my very first speech class in high school during the 1989-90 school year.  I was then a 17 year old senior and my teacher, Mr. Raynes, also taught drama.  Mr. Raynes died some time ago.  I think he had a heart attack.  He was a very good teacher, though... quite demanding, yet fair.  In fact, I think his speech class was tougher and frankly more enjoyable than most of the speech classes I took in college.

For awhile, I was writing speeches every week, which was hard yet exciting work.  I was surprised by how much I liked Mr. Raynes' class, especially given how many people hate public speaking.  I kind of got a rush out of it and enjoyed the challenge of coming up with compelling subjects every week, arguing both sides of an issue, and writing speeches that were long enough... or short enough, as the case might be.

My speech class in high school became surprisingly close-knit.  It wasn't a very big class and the students who took it were pretty diverse in terms of their ages, achievements, and personal goals.  Indeed, there were kids from all four classes in attendance.  From my own class, the salutatorian and #3 in my class both attended, as did another member of the top ten.  #2 and #3 are both now lawyers.  A freshman who was later valedictorian of her class and went on to attend Princeton University was also in the class.  The guy who was voted class clown was in my speech class, as was one of his friends, a weird guy who was very smart and entertaining, but a tad on the whacked side.  His father was a well-known podiatrist who later ended up having serious legal issues that pretty much ran him out of town.  There was also a young woman in the class who was very intelligent, but a bit of a social pariah.  I remember her giving several speeches about a perpetual motion machine she was trying to invent.  I also remember her having some trouble with authority.

There were a few other folks in that class who weren't particularly high achievers.  I was definitely among that group, though I'm sure some of my classmates would describe me as "weird", too.  In fact, the whacked out guy used to call me "Psycho".  For some reason, I took it as a badge of honor.

On my desk, there is a coffee mug a freshman girl from that speech class, who befriended me for some reason, gave me for my 18th birthday, which happened four days after I got my high school diploma.  I don't know why I've kept it for all these years.  I haven't seen or spoken to her since high school and it's basically a mug that you'd likely only use on your birthday, since it says "Happy Birthday" on it.  I bet she'd be very surprised I still have that mug 23 years later.  I use it to hold pens and pencils and remember how much fun I had in speech class all those years ago.  I learned a lot about my classmates and, in a weird way, it was kind of like my own Breakfast Club experience.

Today I thought I'd list a few things I learned in that speech class and elsewhere.

Rule #1: Be authentic.

Have you ever heard someone get up and talk about some subject they don't give a shit about?  I have.  At my high school graduation, the valedictorian, a guy who eventually went to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, gave a speech that was full of a lot of trite bullshit.  Now, I don't mean to say that this guy chose a poor topic.  What he said did make sense.  For instance, I remember him advising us not to drive drunk.  That's good advice.  What made his speech boring and mostly forgettable was the fact that he lacked authenticity and conviction.  He was saying the right things, but there was no passion, personality, or actual experience behind what he said.  He came off as fake and completely uninspiring.  Had he been in Mr. Raynes' speech class, he would have gotten quite a critical tongue lashing for that speech.  After all, we all had to sit out in the sun and listen to him talk for about ten minutes about subjects that didn't seem to mean much to him.

Some time ago, I was on YouTube and ran across a PSA O.J. Simpson did for the American Seat Belt Council.  It's a prime example of a guy delivering advice he doesn't really believe.  In that seatbelt PSA, O.J. Simpson was talking out of his ass, big time.  There he stood in a 70s era tux, telling viewers that he knew they didn't like being "tied down", but they should wear their seatbelts anyway.  His advice comes off as hollow and unbelievable, even though what he said made sense.  I'm sure he made bank or got street cred for making that PSA, but I doubt it saved many lives.

I'm certain O.J. is "tied down in one spot" fairly frequently these days...

Rule #2: Mind the time.

Pay close attention to the amount of time you've been allotted.  Listening is hard work; so is planning a ceremony to run within a certain amount of time.  Practice your speech until you have it at just the right length and have cut out all extraneous bullshit.  Be especially careful not to go over your allotted time.  Otherwise, you run the risk of annoying people.  Most folks have their limits on how long they can focus, anyway.  For a prime lesson on this, check out Lyle Lovett's epic song, "Church".  He illustrates this point brilliantly.

My mother, who was a church organist for many years, really gets this song...

Rule #3: Don't read.

There's nothing more boring than listening to someone read a speech.  Besides the stilted way it tends to sound, when you read, you run the risk of not maintaining eye contact with the audience.  Unless you have  a TelePrompter, you usually have to look down to read, which means your audience will be looking at the top of your head instead of your face.  A lot of communication is non-verbal and your facial expressions are a big part of that.

In Mr. Raynes' class, I learned to make outlines of what I wanted to say.  I would put single words or short phrases that would serve as reminders of points I wanted to make.  And then I would practice in front of a mirror until I had the speech nice and tight.  I'd take the notes up to the lectern with me and, if I needed a prompt, would glance down at it.  It was on one side of a 3x5 index card, so there was no temptation to write too much.  The good thing about having very brief notes is that you're less likely to panic if you miss saying something.  One or two words in an outline, designed to remind you of what you mean to say in a natural way is all you need.  Look down very briefly, take a breath, and speak.  Don't read to your audience.

Listening to OJ's PSA, I realize he's also very likely reading from a TelePrompter, which makes his PSA even more ridiculous and weird... 

Rule #4: Don't over rehearse or memorize.

When I was in grad school, I once watched a classmate give a speech that she had obviously memorized word for word.  I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if, during her speech, she somehow got distracted by something and lost her place.  I mentioned to her that it seemed like maybe she had rehearsed a bit too much.  She didn't appreciate that observation, but I made it with the intention of pointing out that she was coming off stilted and unnatural and I worried that she would lose her place, which could have spelled major embarrassment.

Rule #5: Say what you mean.  Mean what you say.

One time, in Mr. Raynes' class, I made a huge error and misspoke in a way that would have been a disaster had I been speaking to a group other than those in my class.  I was talking about euthanasia and how I felt it should be a legal option for those who have an illness or disability that made their life unbearable.  Somehow, I made a statement that made it sound like I wanted to exterminate sick and disabled people.  When Mr. Raynes pointed it out to me and said I sounded like Adolf Hitler, I was completely mortified.  Of course that wasn't what I meant... but it sure was what came out.  Fortunately, I wasn't running for public office or acting as a spokesperson because what I carelessly said could have easily ruined my career.  In the 24 years since I made that mistake, I have never forgotten it.

At the same time, never apologize for what you say.  Don't start a speech with an apology.  Let your audience determine whether or not you should be sorry.  Say what you have to say and try to let the chips fall where they may.

Rule #6: Don't make up new words or phrases.

Again, in grad school, I once had the privilege of seeing a colleague give a fantastic presentation on sexually transmitted infections.  Her speech was passionate and she spoke with conviction.  I listened to every word, coupled with the very graphic photos she had brought to show us what could happen if we weren't careful about sharing sexual intimacy with others.  And then, instead of saying the word "taken", she said "tooken".  It was a word that she had used in a slangy way-- one that I heard often heard said in that area.  Everybody knew what she meant, but it still really detracted from her speech.  I pointed it out to her.  Later, I explained that I hoped I hadn't embarrassed her by pointing that out, but I thought she had given a stellar presentation and I hated to see it needlessly marred by her use of a non-word like "tooken".  It was a very simple fix-- just to remember to say "taken" instead of "tooken"-- and it would leave her audience with a better impression.  She thanked me for telling her.

I also made the same mistake when I used a oxymoronic phrase in a speech that didn't actually make sense.  Beware of non-sequiturs, too.  Use solid facts and figures when you give examples.  Don't just pull things out of your ass... literally or figuratively.

Rule #7: Insurance is a good idea.

This actually has little to do with giving conventional speeches, but I did still learn this valuable lesson in Mr. Raynes' course.  During that class, we had to make a video.  We used Mr. Raynes' CamCorder, which was a pretty high dollar, sophisticated piece of equipment in 1990.  Somehow, the camera got dropped while we were filming and was ruined.  Fortunately, Mr. Raynes had insured it and it was replaced free of charge.  *Whew!*

Rule #8: Appreciate your audience.

I don't know that you always have to specifically say "thank you" to your audience.  After all, if you say something that means anything to them, they should probably be thanking you.  Just remember, listening is hard work and having people listen to you is an honor.  Appreciate your audience for hearing you.  Don't waste their time.  Respect them for respecting you enough to sit still and listen.

So... those are my eight rules for public speaking, along with a little walk down memory lane.  Thanks for reading.    

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