Archive for the 'Speaking Tips' Category

When Ya Gotta Go…

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Yesterday, Iran’s president spoke at the United Nations. As he began, the entire UK delegation walked out. No, they didn’t need a potty break. It was an act of protest against an oppressive regime. And no one present missed the message.

Today, I spoke at a luncheon. Mid-way through my presentation, two ladies walked out. As it happened, this was not a protest. Instead, it was… a doctor’s appointment.

In the real world of public speaking, these things happen. Cell phones ring. (And occasionally – someone in the audience actually answers the call.) Talkative types continue their conversations, oblivious both to the speaker and to those around them. Waiters and busboys in the kitchen assume incorrectly that – with the kitchen door closed – we can’t hear them. Teens and 20-somethings text non-stop, like demented court stenographers (except that I’m pretty sure they aren’t writing down anything I say.

And sometimes, a person who would never dream of being rude simply feels an urgent call of nature. They exit because – when ya’ gotta go, ya’ gotta go.

All of these interruptions are distracting for the person speaking. But few such situations are improved by the speaker calling attention to them. For this reason, as long as people leave the room (or text) quietly, I try to hold the focus of the rest of the audience, because I understand that these are only momentary distractions.

However, in the case of ongoing noisy rudeness, I’ve learned (the hard way) that it is much better to let an audience of their peers correct the bad actors, than for me to do it directly.

If I take someone to task from the podium, I am assuming the role of parent or teacher of an unruly child – and that’s not my function. But – when I simply stop speaking, glance at the offending persons, then open my hands at mid-chest in a gesture of “what?” – the audience almost inevitably does the heavy lifting for me. Choruses of SHHHH! fill the room. Once in a while, a stern Good Samaritan will even walk over to the blabbermouths, and they fill the disapproving parent/teacher role. Better them than me.

There may be no known cure for the rudeness disease, but there is one pretty effective treatment. It occurs every time I am introduced on stage by someone well-known to and well-liked by the audience – someone who brings the instincts of a Marine Drill Sergeant to the podium. When that beloved peer lays down the law in advance, telling the crowd that they will turn off their cell phones, and they will listen attentively in a way that brings honor to their group, it has a most beneficial result. Generally, folks who know they are being held to a higher standard of behavior rise to the occasion.

At least – until they gotta go.

Before Making That Important Announcement – First, Get Their Attention!

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Why is it that – even with everything that goes on at a 3-ring circus – the ringmaster is always heard?

There are 3 reasons: First, he’s a pro and is experienced at making himself heard. Next, he has a PA system which can be even louder the trumpeting elephants and laughing rug rats. And finally, he has a band to help him.

All of us have heard fanfares. We know that when they are played, they signal that important information will follow (“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s eat!”) But – even to someone from Mars with no cultural awareness of fanfares, the fact that they are louder than the surrounding noise gets our attention – at least for a moment.

This is why I hate to see shy violets try to hush a room. They always start by clearing their throats (which accomplishes nothing in noisy surroundings). Then – in an almost apologetic voice – they add a meek “Excuse me” (ditto the reaction above.) It’s sad to watch, and worse, it never works.

The way to quiet an audience is to break through their myriad conversations and thoughts in a bold way. Fanfares are great, gongs or cymbal crashes are good, and even a good old fashioned loud whistle (either the kind you make with your mouth, or the one that coaches and referees use) is pretty reliable. Any of these should momentarily lower the ambient sound in the room a few decibels.

The key to success, however, is what comes next. The instant that the fanfare opens the door a crack, whoever plans to speak must barge right in to fill the sonic void. And nothing – repeat nothing – has ever improved on the classic ringmaster’s cry: “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!!!”

Say it, say it fast, and say it loud. And there may be hope for you in the circus, yet.

To Enjoy Your Speaker – You Have To HEAR Your Speaker

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

A public address system and keyboard travel with me to virtually every job. At those venues where my musical equipment isn’t needed, I’m very happy not to have to drag hundreds of pounds of gear inside. But where I go – it goes.

My best guess is that most professional speakers don’t have a business card reading, “Have P.A., Will Travel.” Likewise, the chosen venue for your next event may offer limited access to sound reinforcement. So, assuming you want to hear what they have to say, what can you do to ensure that your program presenters’ words will carry throughout the room?

1. Put your presenter at the 50-yard line, not in the end zone. By placing your podium at the mid-point of the room, instead of at one end, you automatically (in most cases) bring the majority of the audience closer to the sound source. Less amplification is needed.

2. Check that all equipment works, prior to starting your program. At one gathering where I spoke last month, the podium itself had a small built-in speaker which should have been adequate for the room. But the service organization who were my hosts had draped a small banner of the front of the podium, rendering the speaker totally useless. All too often, other similar podium/speaker sets aren’t plugged in – again offering the presenter no assistance.

3. Quiet the room, before beginning. A presenter with a strong voice can usually be heard, even with no PA system at all – if the room is quiet. The difficulty is to get everyone to settle in and hush up. I recommend placing a few “shushers” at strategic points around the room, so that – as you prepare to open the program – a chorus of “Shhh” from throughout the room will bring a halt to the racket.

Presenters go to quite a bit of effort to conceive, write, memorize, and perfect their programs. With a much smaller amount of time and energy on your part, you can keep all their hard work from going to waste.

Open Mouth – Insert Foot

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Impromptu remarks at a social gathering – be they toasts, words of welcome, or expressions of thanks – should always be brief, G-rated, and sincere. Please notice that I didn’t say they should necessarily be funny.

A very special few folks have a gift for humor, and seem to have that magical ability to spontaneously say something which is amusing (or even downright hilarious). Sadly, most of us don’t have that knack. Thus, the clever bon mot we intended to deliver comes out as a lame, and sometimes even offensive blooper that we wish to God we could take back.

(I know from whence I speak. Just last month, I tried to lighten up what I thought was an altogether too serious discussion at my church. My attempt failed miserably, and I felt like a total jackass.)

No one is ever offended by a short, sweet, sincere statement. It’s only when we try to be stand-up comics that we stuff our feet squarely into our mouths. What was intended to be witty comes out as half-witted instead.

Also, when we are nervous (as we tend to be when speaking publicly), our delivery of even the funniest of material is adversely affected. We sound strained, and the humor of our words is lost.

None of us likes to embarrass ourselves. The sad thing is – nobody makes us do so. These are all self-inflicted wounds.

So my November Resolution is to keep my comments quick, clean, and straight from the heart. I’d rather be remembered as the guy who said the nicest thing than as the class clown. If you do the same, you’ll kick yourself much less often.

Do You Really Want THIS Table Next To The Band?

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Last Friday, my band played for an upscale 89-year old organization which hosts 4 elegant events each social season.

Over the past few years, several younger couples (ie. in their 40s and 50s) have joined the club’s members of long-standing. Their presence has caused both the repertoire and – later in the evening – the volume of the music to move in a more contemporary direction than has been customary in the past.

And therein lies the dilemma for both the party chairpersons and the musicians. Older members of the club would be perfectly happy for the music and volume to stay in the pre-electric (acoustic) style. But to keep bringing in and pleasing the newer members who will be the future of this and other similar organizations, their music – played at “their” volume – has to be part of the mix.

So I was astonished this past Friday to see that a table for 8 had been set, literally, 3 feet from the edge of our stage (and directly in the line of fire of our PA speakers). And – at that table – had been placed some of the most volume-sensitive members of the club.

In order for us not to offend this one table all night long, we would have had to play at dinner music volume for all 4 hours of the party. And – if we had done that – our presentation would have been wrong for the rest of the room (especially for the younger members.)

So, we had 3 options: move this one table further from the band; let those people dictate the volume and repertoire for the whole room, all night long; or know in advance that they were going to be unhappy campers as the tempo and volume climbed throughout the evening.

The decision seemed obvious to me, but it wasn’t my choice to make. And, apparently, the folks at that table had specifically requested to be seated there. Much consultation followed. Ultimately, the table was moved, and no complaints about volume were registered.

But a valuable lesson was – I hope – learned. The tables closest to the band should always be reserved for those who are most comfortable with volume. Muzak is great in elevators, but it doesn’t inspire folks to leap out of their seats and fill the dance floor. The sound level doesn’t have to be blaring or deafening, but – for anybody born after 1960 – a successful dance requires something more than “background” music.

Keep Wedding Toasts Short, Sweet, And Memorable (For All The RIGHT Reasons)

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Fathers of the bride often make brief welcoming remarks at the wedding receptions my band plays. Typically, the proud papas welcome their new son-in-law into the family and invite all guests to have a great time.

Only rarely is such paternal prose memorable. One occasion was when a Dad said that his wife had only given him three duties – to “show up, pay up, and shut up!” After which, he sat down.

If you are offering a toast or a greeting at a reception, your comments shouldn’t be that brief, but here are a few tips regarding what they should be.

1. They should be from your heart – not from your notes. Notes interfere with making eye contact. Eye contact emphasizes sincerity. So – whenever possible – work without a script. Your words will flow better, sound more natural, and – best of all – come across to your audience as more sincere.

2. They should be friendly, rather than funny. Often – especially when we feel stressed – something we intended as a joke winds up falling flat. Or – worse yet – it may actually be offensive to persons in your audience. Why take that chance, when you know that everybody will appreciate a friendly word, warmly delivered?

3. They should direct attention to the bride and groom, not deflect attention from them. Reality check: nobody comes to a wedding reception to hear what the dad or best man have to say. The centers of attention are the bridal couple, so your remarks should be about them, not you.

As a long-time observer of wedding reception toasts (I’ve seen over 2,000 of them), the best ones always seem to me to be those that are short, sweet, and G-rated. Any memorable lines (like “show up… shut up,” etc.) are strictly a bonus.

So – as you ponder what remarks you should make – my best advice is “keep it brief and nice.”

Acoustics: A Speaker’s Best Friend (Or Worst Enemy)

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

I played for the grand opening of a new office building yesterday (I get all the glamorous jobs). Like most lobbies, yesterday’s was a combination of glass, steel, and stone. It was also large. In other words, the builders had contructed a natural echo chamber.

A little bit of “reverb” makes music sound fuller, so – for me – it was a wonderful venue. But at the mid-point of the party, several dignitaries made short speeches. And – for them, as well as for those trying desperately to understand their words – it was… not as wonderful.

As the voices bounced off all those hard surfaces, their tones came back – again and again – to interfere with the intelligibility for those in the audience. The faster a person spoke, the more difficult it was to understand them. When anyone from the audience coughed, cleared their throats, or spoke to someone beside them, those sounds bounced around as well.

For anyone further than 6 feet from the speaker, secondary (bounced) sounds soon overpowered primary (or direct) tones. I was less than 4 feet away, and I still missed a substantial chunk of what was said. (I got the impression it was something nice about the building, and those who had played various roles in its construction.)

If you are planning an event at a similar location, know that speeches will be made, and hope that your audience will be able to understand the speakers, do yourself a favor: invest in fabric.

Every party supply house should have draping available. Hung from portable stands, just for your event, it will absorb ricochet sounds and prevent them from bouncing back. Four such drapes, no bigger than 8 feet high and 8 feet wide, would have made an enormous difference yesterday.

To get the most sound absorption for your buck, I recommend placing your decorative drapes in front of the corners in your room. (Picture an “X”, with the fabric at each of the 4 points.) Not only will you dress up your venue, but you really will be astonished at the improvement in sound characteristics.

Of course – now that people will actually understand what you’ll be saying – you may want to go over that welcoming speech, one more time.

Don’t Wear Out The Crowd, Before The Headliner Ever Comes On Stage!

Monday, August 4th, 2008

It’s an election year, and that’s good for my business!

Music helps set the mood at political rallies. Campaign managers always do their best to have the crowd worked up to fever pitch at the exact moment the announcer booms the name of the candidate. When it is done well, the effect is electric, magical, and makes everyone in the room believe their candidate is really going to be the next _____ (choose one: a. President, b. Senator, or c. Governor, and not d. – answer in a future trivia quiz.)

The trouble is – it’s not always done well.

And the biggest recurring boo-boo that I see is having too many (and I mean way too many!) preliminary speakers. After a while, the crowd has already heard all the campaign promises and bombastic rhetoric their brains can hold in one night.

By the time the guest of honor finally takes the stage, the audience is worn out. And that’s not fair – either to the headliner, or to those who paid big bucks to see and hear him or her.

The same thing – too many, and too repetitive speakers or toasts – also adversely affects major birthday gatherings, anniversaries, and awards banquets. Each summer, when Mary Kay Cosmetics brings 30,000 pink ladies to my town, musicians and deejays play for dozens of individual awards gatherings. The highlight of the evening is supposed to be when that year’s top salesperson is announced, applauded, and asked to tell the secret of her success. Unfortunately, by the time her name is called, half the crowd is usually already soaking their aching feet in their hotel rooms.

I could go on, but I’m betting you get the point. So I’ll close by simply saying: if the goal of your next party is to honor a particular person, truly honor them by presenting them to the crowd at a time when everyone in the room is still present, sober, and has not already overdosed on oratory.

Both your honoree and your guests deserve no less. zestril
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That Podium Is REALLY An X-Ray Machine!

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Ursuline Academy of Dallas is a college preparatory school for young women at which Speech is a required subject. For the past 4 of their 100+ year history, I’ve taught a summer school Speech class there. Most of my students – if given a choice – would be happily sleeping late or earning some summer cash, rather than hanging with Mr. Tanner (and – for several of them – I’m sure that “hanging” feels like an apt metaphor.) They are draftees, not volunteers. So this year, I decided to let them in on a little secret which has a direct application for them, and which could have implications for you, the next time you are called upon to speak to a group or are listening to another speaker.

You see, a lot of folks think that a podium is an object designed to hold our speeches or notes. But what it really is, is an X-ray machine that allows the audience to look straight into a speaker’s soul.

I’m not kidding, and I don’t believe I am exaggerating. Whether the speaker is delivering a wedding toast or a keynote address, their words almost always tell us more about themselves than the topic at hand. For instance, we learn fairly quickly whether they feel passionately about their subject, or if they have taken the time and effort to craft memorable phrases.

For those who are especially glib or who have a wealth of speaking experience which lends a patina to their oratory, it may take a series of such “snapshots” to show their true selves. (But hey! – we often need multiple X-rays, as well.) Even so – as this year’s presidential candidates have proved, again and again – ultimately, the podium eventually reveals all.

This is why – from Day 1 – I always encourage my students to speak from their hearts, to write-edit-and re-write for clarity and conversational tone, and to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse (as in “practice makes perfect.”) Because I am primarily dealing with novice speakers, such actions also help minimize Performance Anxiety, better known as Stage Fright.

A standard cure for Stage Fright used to be for the speaker to picture his listeners naked. (It was thought to make audiences less intimidating to nervous speakers.) But really, it’s the speakers themselves who bare all. And that’s the “secret” truth about the podium that I’ve shared with my class.

(From here on in, I’d better have nothing to hide. Someone will be looking right through me!)

Sometimes, The Audience Says “No” To A Program

Monday, May 5th, 2008

I was once introduced by a Program Chairperson/Drill Sergeant, who admonished the crowd with these words: “Turn off your cell phones, turn your chairs around this away, and be quiet! I want to hear what our speaker has to say, and I don’t want any chatter from you interfering with my concentration.”

It was both gratifying and slightly embarassing at the same time. Fortunately, everyone in the crowd knew and adored the lady/Drill Sergeant, so they cheerfully did as she ordered.

At one job this weekend, I would have given anything to have had her introduce me again. The crowd, 300+ lady conventioneers, were having a final brunch together before heading back to their homes. They had already sat quietly for a series of speakers throughout the previous 2 days, and had only just returned from a church service. A significant portion of them (roughly half) were far more interested in chatting with one another, than in listening to yet another speaker. So, chat away is exactly what they did.

Some crowds take a while to settle down. But usually – if I persevere – within a few minutes, they will cease and desist, then listen to the program. On those occasions when one or two die-hard talkers don’t get the message, the other guests will often “shhh” them.

That didn’t happen today. In fact, the general level of noise in the room only grew as I continued. That’s when it dawned on me that a 35 to 45-minute program might not have been the best idea for this particular audience. Nice background music, to which anyone could choose to listen – or not – would probably have been better.

If you find yourself in the position of today’s Event Chairman, planning a dinner and deciding what – if any – entertainment to offer, here are a few suggestions:

1. First, give serious thought to whether this is a situation where your guests will want to sit back and be entertained, or whether they would prefer to engage one another in conversation.

2. If you do decide on a program, be aware that your speaker/entertainer expects and deserves a basic level of courtesy from the audience. Jokes whose punchlines can’t be heard aren’t funny. Song lyrics and meaningful information which are muffled by crowd noise are lost.

3. Finally, it is rude – both to the speaker and to those in the audience who are actually trying to listen – to have ongoing chatter in the room. It is no different than if someone sat down in front of you in a movie theater, then yakked all through the feature.

How do you prevent such occurrences? Well, you might try simply imparting your expectations to the crowd with an introduction like this: “And now it’s time for the moment we’ve been waiting for – our Program. I’ve told our speaker that we have the most attentive and courteous audience he will ever see. I know you won’t let me down.”

If that doesn’t work for you, I can give you the number of a lady Drill Sergeant.