Public Speaking: Painting to the Ear

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Tell me a story.” If you have young children in your life, this will be a familiar refrain. Just as the lure of a good story isn’t limited to children, the value of an effectively told tale isn’t restricted to entertainment. Think of the fables crafted by a story teller who lived his early years in Greece in slavery. Aesop, believed to have lived from 620 to 560 BC, wrapped numerous life lessons within tales such as The Tortoise and the Hare.

If you’re an Assistant whose professional development (PD) plans include enhancing your public speaking skills, you’ll find yourself encouraged to tell your audience a story. It may help to think about this in another manner; consider that, as Joseph Joubert so capably put it a couple of centuries ago, “Drawing is speaking to the eye; talking is painting to the ear.” As one whose talents most definitely do not extend to drawing, I find this concept appealing. For those without experience in public speaking, however, the reminder to incorporate storytelling into public speaking can represent just one more reason to be petrified.

It’s about the audience, not you

It’s said that many people fear public speaking more than death. Since it’s understandable to feel self-conscious and uncomfortable stepping into the limelight, it may help to recognise that your audience is typically a well-intended group who want you to succeed, rather than fail. Keep in mind that it’s about the audience, not you, and you’ll be two steps ahead of the game.

Facing fears: flip your perspective

Think about it; when you file in to a meeting, forum or presentation, do your thoughts turn to hoping that one of the speakers will mess up? It’s more likely that, even if you don’t share all – or any – of the views of the speaker, you’re looking forward to hearing someone else’s insights on a topic of interest. At minimum, most audience members at least hope to be entertained or informed, rather than wasting their time.

If you’re facing a speech with trepidation, flip your perspective to that of an audience member. Not only will this help frame your writing and speech preparation, but it may help allay jitters to recognise that there’s likely far more goodwill in the audience than you anticipate.

You will make mistakes; treat them as learning experiences

You may stumble your way through introductory remarks. You may trip over your tongue in expressing concepts that would normally spill forth without a second thought. You may say “um” and cringe as you hear this verboten “thought bridge” smacking your listeners’ ears … and you will survive. It was Oscar Wilde who offered that experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes, and isn’t any mistake from which we learn just one more piece of insight that will help us better succeed the next time?

If you go into your next few presentations or speeches accepting that you’ll make a mistake here and there, you’re less likely to be discombobulated when you do stumble. Remember that, when you first learned to ride a tricycle or bike, the best thing you could do after a spill was to climb back up and carry on pedalling.

Consider your mistakes from the audience’s perspective

It would be reasonable to fear making a mistake in a high stakes presentation in which your reputation may be on the line, which is all the more reason to train your focus on the perspective from which you approach public speaking. You’ll succeed best when you focus on speech writing and presentation from the perspective of the audience.

Think about the manner in which you, as an Assistant, respond when you’re listening to a presentation and the speaker makes a mistake. Imagine yourself filing in to the boardroom with colleagues to hear a presentation, or finding your way to a good seat in a lecture theatre or conference room to be further inspired. Ready? Let’s consider a range of mistakes speakers can make, and how you might react.

Subject Knowledge: If listening to a planned presentation, it would be reasonable for you to expect the speaker to know the subject matter and speak with some degree of authority as opposed to winging or, worse, faking it. As an audience member, you’re likely be much more forgiving of such mistakes if the speaker was called upon without advance notice, leading to a bit of informed extemporisation.

Nerves of Steel?

When you’re in the audience and the spotlight is on a speaker who is informed about the subject at hand, but visibly nervous, don’t you find yourself almost willing the person to relax and even shine? You may expect perfection of a professional speaker but, even in such instances, you may find indications of vulnerability serve to transform the speaker into a more relatable, human being. Keep this in mind when you make your public speaking mistakes, and move forward in as composed a manner as possible.

A Rose by Any Other Name

What happens when a speaker mispronounces someone’s name? As an exceptional Assistant, you likely draft or review speaking notes for your boss, inserting phonetic pronunciations of any names – or words in general – over which your boss may stumble. If you don’t know the correct pronunciation, you seek it out. There’s no shame associated with approaching the individual in question, or someone close to the person you’ll reference in your speech, to confirm pronunciations.

Ask any person whose name is spelled in a manner with which others are unfamiliar, or with a name reflecting a culture with which we’re less informed, and you’ll find a person who will be both appreciative and relieved that s/he doesn’t have to smile through yet another mispronunciation. If your speech includes a reference to someone who will not be in your audience, but has a name requiring guesses at pronunciation, that doesn’t let you off the hook. At minimum, such guesses had best be informed ones; naturally, the exceptional Assistant will make the bit of time required to properly research the pronunciation. Independent of doing the right thing by someone’s name, your credibility with your audience will suffer if you reference a person, product or company and don’t pronounce the name properly.

Do you ever read letters to the editor of your local paper, or online subscriptions? I still remember one such letter of seven or eight years ago; the author had embarked the day before to a convocation ceremony where his son’s girlfriend was among the many who crossed the stage to receive a baccalaureate degree, a hard-earned credential. This was a day of great anticipation and celebration for the graduand’s extended family; hair stylists had been visited, everyone was dressed in their finest, a bouquet and other gifts were in hand for post-ceremony presentation to the grad, and dinner reservations had been made for continuation of the celebration. Family members and guests made their way to their ticketed seats so that they could enjoy witnessing this young woman’s transition to graduate and proud alumna of her institution before the group departed for a favourite restaurant for further celebration.

Imagine the chagrin, then, when this young woman reached the top step and was called to centre stage – with the university representative mispronouncing her surname. The frustration fairly sizzled off the page of the local paper. The fact that the institution’s representative beautifully pronounced the names of literally hundreds of other students during that same ceremony – one of more than five convocation ceremonies that week – meant nothing to the newspaper’s correspondent. A highly personal moment that had been approached as the capstone honouring an expensive educational career had been reduced to a sense that this family’s graduate was simply one more student, or number, to the institution.

When I’m in an audience and hear mispronunciation of an individual’s name, I wince inwardly but appreciate that we’re all human. If I hear a speaker wreak havoc with more than a couple of names in a single speech, though, I begin to wonder how much respect and attention the speaker paid to the subjects – in other words, the people – being referenced when preparing and practising the speech. People are generally forgiving, but are far less inclined when a speaker repeatedly mangles names.

Take Some Calculated Risks, and Practice Your Public Speaking

Risks are inherent in much of what we do; your organisation likely has a risk management program. Treat your forays into public speaking in the same manner by managing and mitigating your public speaking risks.

How? Remember to prepare and deliver your presentation from the perspective of the audience. Practice your remarks, in front of a mirror and then in front of one or more trusted colleagues, friends or family members who will give you constructive feedback. As you build experience, you’ll quickly find that sentences that resided so neatly and even elegantly on the written page or computer screen do not necessarily spring to eloquence in spoken form. It’s true; while you’ll work toward speaking from key words, acronyms or phrases that represent the speech you’ve written in full, rather than literally reading your speech (or, worse, your PowerPoint or Prezi materials) to your listeners, you’ll find yourself re-working some of your original sentences, or adjusting pacing so that your words flow most appealingly.

Just as it takes more than a quick draft of speaking notes, or one or two practice sessions to build an effective presentation, it requires more than a couple of articles to explore the dynamics of becoming a confident and generous public speaker. Watch for more from Exceptional EA, and begin practicing your skills at “painting to the ear”.

2 Comments on “Public Speaking: Painting to the Ear

  1. I don’t want to leave your site Shelagh, because I always find something to DEVELOP this little further. Everyday I discover a new topic I’m interested in. And the wide range of choice in content is amazing. It’s like doing an online course, but in a conversation with you. Thank you for the dedication!

    • Thanks, Paula, for your kind and inspirational note. I love the analogy to taking an online course, but in conversation together. It’s my pleasure!

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