Culture: Off the cuff

From the December 2015 issue of The Rotarian

When I was in high school, public speaking was not considered glamorous. It was a required course relished only by people who also approached debate as a sport or who were thrilled by the prospect of student government.

The rest of us dutifully stood at the front of the class, reading rushed words off index cards, trying to picture our classmates in their underwear, but feeling naked instead. When it was over, we were glad we would never have to do that again.

Life, however, has a funny way of making you regret much of what you did – and didn’t do – in high school. Some years later, as a writer, I found myself giving readings and talks. I realized I would actually have to know how to stand up in front of (fully clothed) people and give a speech.

Being a decent writer doesn’t make you a decent speaker, and I quickly discovered that public speaking wasn’t something I could wing. As my high school teacher tried to tell us, it’s a skill that must be acquired.

I started looking around for help and found an organization formed by people in my shoes. We met weekly. Everybody stood up and spoke. We had to give a succession of speeches, which was hard at first. I gave a speech introducing myself, then went on to give others about things like Googling myself and the Dunning-Kruger effect. (Look it up.) People laughed and seemed to enjoy them, so I relaxed and gradually improved.

What was worse was the part of the meeting when one person stood up and selected victims at random for questions on a given topic. When chosen, we had to speak for two minutes without stopping. It was timed, and it was terrifying. My mind would go blank. My sense of humor vanished. I would sit like an arctic hare trying to blend in with my surroundings. One time I talked for a minute, then froze. The next minute was filled with nothing but silence.

Fortunately, the group was a forgiving one – they had all been there. And even this exercise became more bearable as my symptoms of public speaking anxiety (Mark Twain was the first to call it “stage fright”) became less severe. Glossophobia is a common phenomenon, especially for those of us who are introverts, but it’s an irony of our era that, despite all the ways we can communicate virtually, we want more than ever to hear from speakers directly.

For a fee, companies like Oratory Laboratory and Vow Muse will write toasts, personal speeches, even wedding vows for you. Websites offer to help with public speaking anxiety. You can even send your kid to public speaking summer camp. Because sooner or later, we know we’ll all have to get up and say something.

“The demand is increasing,” says speaking coach Jezra Kaye, who works with business executives. “More people are expected to use public speaking skills at work. And many people are now aware of a public speaking career, because of things like TED Talks.”

TED Talks, which mix storytelling and social science, have bestowed a strange new celebrity on people who previously would have kept their noses in books. They rack up millions of views online. They launch careers. They have become so successful, such a cultural force, that they have even inspired a backlash: Critics call them a glorified self-help forum or “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.” Either way, TED Talks have made public speaking sexy. But as fun and informative as they can be, it’s best to watch them with an impartial eye.

“What I would love for people to understand,” says Kaye, “is that it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to what you see when you’re watching a national TED Talk. When you’re looking at, it’s important to understand you’re looking at the end result of hundreds of hours of guided preparation. You’re looking at a video that was edited from a four-camera shoot. You’re looking at somebody’s job for the year before they give that talk.”

While inspiring, TED Talks shouldn’t be the yardstick by which we measure our own speeches. But one thing we should take from them is the realization that storytelling, if done right, can make every speech better.

“Stories need a lot of work,” says Kaye. “They have to be shaped, and they have to be shaped by trial and error. You don’t know what the audience is going to respond to until you tell the story – particularly if it’s a funny story.” She recommends practicing a story out loud, in front of people, at least a dozen times before taking it on stage.

It’s too late for me to go back to high school, but I did want more instruction. So I went to the library and found an audio course called “The Art of Public Speaking,” by an archaeologist named John Hale. He uses some of the great speeches in history – by Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, Marie Curie, Tecumseh, and Demosthenes of Athens, among others – to illustrate how to be a better speaker.

The tips were pretty basic: Use humor. Be yourself. Practice, practice, practice. Those were probably the same techniques our teachers gave us all those years ago. But hearing the words, and in some cases the actual voices, of the people who put those words to use was brilliant. It reminded me that even before the Internet, PowerPoints, and TED Talks, public speaking – oratory – has always been a force in human affairs.

Speeches have launched wars. They have changed the course of history. Hale quotes one of the greatest orators of modern times, Winston Churchill: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.”

So this growing hunger to hear things directly from people is not surprising. The spoken word, whether used to close a sale or open a mind, remains one of the most powerful forces in the world.

Frank Bures is a frequent contributor to The Rotarian whose book, The Geography of Madness, comes out in early 2016.

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