Performing on Stage
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
You know how I always tell you the truth? Well, this time I have to warn you up front that keeping that habit could get a little tricky. For one thing, the truth I know may be only true for me and nontransferable. For another thing, the truth that works for me may not even work for me, but I’m just too vain to realize it. Nonetheless, the issue is important enough to warrant taking some risks. So, here goes.
Sooner or later, everyone has to engage in public speaking. It would be wonderful if our schools taught students that skill in a structured way, if only because, without that ability, one cannot fully participate in the democratic process of government. Not to mention advance one’s career. You need to be able to stand on your feet, stare out at an audience staring back, and tell them what you want them to know lucidly, effectively, and — one can only pray — with some humor, wit, or even eloquence. You need to be able to field questions or challenges to what you’ve said, while standing or sitting on a platform that makes you more visible than anyone else in the room and too far above rug to get a running head start. Sometimes you’ll be the one on the rug hurling those questions and challenges. That gives you more control over the situation, but, on the other hand, you probably won’t have had as much time to prepare as the speakers. Your only real “control” might be to sit down and shut up, even when a speaker’s remarks cry out for an ex tempore challenge.
Many years ago (all right, many, many), my college held a fundraising event, a mini-bazaar. One fundraising gamut involved students selling tickets for a drawing. Two students were to stand up on a small raised platform in the middle of the auditorium and hawk the tickets to passers-by. I was one of those students. Inept? The word is totally inadequate. An embarrassing experience? The word is GRIM. After a while, I noticed this gentleman leaning against a kiosk watching us. He was the father of another student. After noticing us noticing him, he walked over and asked if he could help. Whoosh! With blinding speed, we were off that platform and, somewhat more slowly, he climbed aboard. You never saw anything like it. He took one deep breath, looked around, and started to sell. It was amazing. People who were passing us by like we were paint on the wall started to queue up. Dollar bills were sprouting out of his fingers as he couldn’t slow down enough to put the money in the cigar box. Half an hour later, we were rich. So he got down and we got back up. And what happened? Wall paint all over again.
How did he do it? Was it magic? Was it charisma or some personal quality? Why do some people shimmer and shine on stage while everyone else just quivers and quakes? Is it a gift, something you either have or you don’t? Or is it a learned skill that one can acquire with some diligence? I’m not sure, but I do know that if you have a knack for it, you can hone your technique, and, even if you’re no natural, you can still improve. Test yourself. Even if you believe that anyone opening a dictionary to look up “stage fright” would see your picture staring up at them, try to recall the last time you got a laugh or won an argument, even in a one-on-one situation. Because if you can do it in conversation, then you can do it on a podium.
The big secret of public speaking is to make it conversational, to see your audience as friends or colleagues that want you to share what you know, or, on occasion, as opponents, who need to be taught a few sharp lessons, lest they lead others astray. The only difference between a public speech on an issue and a private dialogue on the same issue is that you have to supply whatever the interaction with other parties might have. In the case of a lecture on a topic, that means anticipating what the audience might need to know, what details might interest different people in various situations, what tips might prove useful, what aspects might confuse them. Then you match up whatever you already know, research what you don’t, and — ta-da! — you’re ready. If you’re going into a controversial area, then you might want to hold back some of your content for rebuttal time.
So where, you may ask, is the advice on how to use PowerPoint slides? Or how about the “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”? You won’t get that kind of advice from this former public speaker. I think most audiences send up a silent, polite groan whenever they see the lights go down and the screen light up. From sitting erect in their seats, the audience slumps as their brains convert to alpha waves. And as for that “triple threat” advice, that’s just dumb, even dumber than the advice assumes the audience is.
Here’s one rule I always set for myself, Quint’s Law of the Gig: You have no right to trap some poor sods in their seats to listen to your maunderings unless you make an honest effort to entertain them somehow. The reason for your making a speech may range from espousing a cause, to training colleagues, to educating the world, but it’s still a gig. It still needs some visceral reaction. Humor and wit are the usual desirables, but emotional responses will do — a little inspiration, a little rabble-rousing. Be a riot or start a riot, but give them some buzz!
Now here is where the question of skill-building gets dicey. Perhaps a talent for comedy or even for demagoguery is inborn. On the other hand, for a list of clown schools, go to http://www.clownevents.com/list/listschool.shtml. Let’s assume you can learn to see the funny side of things and pass it on. You may even be able to hone a quick wit with practice and good examples. How often have you said to yourself, “You know what I should have said?” or, “The next time s/he says something like that, I’m going to say ...”? Well, next time that happens, don’t just shrug it off. Complete the phrase. Think about it for a while. Polish it every time you think about it. Imagine yourself in other situations, e.g., correcting some talking head on television, verbally kicking some op-ed writer’s behind, saying a few right words at a ceremony. Get in the habit of working on your speech and, trust me, some fine day in a real-world situation, you will be shocked to find yourself turning just the right phrase at just the right time. One caveat, though: If you’ve been honing put-downs, you might want to insert a small pause button in case your first big moment of eloquence is a little imprudent. That little kid in the story may have been right on the money when he shouted out, “The emperor has no clothes on,” but it’s possible his parents didn’t get their government grant renewed.
Watching others do what you’d like to do can also help. Start with great lines from the foremost American geniuses. Each of them has more than one “Wit and Wisdom” book out, according to Amazon counts: Benjamin Franklin (13); Abraham Lincoln (14); Mark Twain (8); Will Rogers (3). Or maybe situational eloquence would prove more instructive. Try reading one or two pages a day from any of Oxford’s Anecdotes books, available in selected flavors — literary, military, royal, scientific, legal, political, medical.
One final note. Some people admire the eloquent and think their talent beyond their reach. It isn’t, at least not so far that it can’t be shared. Some people don’t admire them and think they’re just a bunch of egotistic show-offs. Maybe so, but the real egotists are the shy. “Everybody’s watching me! Everybody’s listening to me! Everybody’s judging me!” Talk about a head trip! I recall once sitting in the back of a hall watching and listening to a speaker go through the tortures of the damned. She did everything wrong — dimmed out lights, useless slides, no eye contact, staring down at the page, reading it word for word. But I couldn’t leave because I felt so sorry for her. She was shaking head to foot throughout this ordeal. She was so pathetic, she made the audience suffer in sympathy. Then, as her speech was ending, she saw relief in sight, relaxed, looked up, grinned, and cracked a joke. I got so angry that, I do believe if I had had a rock, I’d have thrown it at her. Here she was a smart, friendly, fun person and what did she stick us, the audience, with — a painful, victimized dullard.
If you’re still reading this editorial, if you read my editorials with any regularity, if you listen to my editorials in podcast, I know you! You’re sharp. You’re funny. You’re opinionated. And if you don’t go to that dais, hop up, and “infotain” that audience, well ... you’ll get yours! .