Archive for the 'Speaking Tips' Category

Stage Fright? Tap Into The Power Of “The Force”

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

I had a rare experience last night – total stage fright.

When I say “rare,” I mean that I’ve been a shameless ham for as long as I can remember. So that “deer in the headlights” stare, fish-gasping mouth action, and sense of utter panic is unusual for me. And when I say “total stage fright,” I mean that my vocal cords were so tightly constricted that my speaking voice was closer to Olive Oyl than Popeye.

The occasion was an old home-town (Gainesville, TX), old home church (1st Baptist) appearance before 200 moms and daughters, most of whom I have known – and who have known me – all my life. I froze up for the simple reason that I really cared about this crowd. I was in Youth Choir with some of them, 40 years ago. My high school best friend’s mom was front and center. Heck, I was once even married to one of them’s sister! Simply put, they and I share a common history. I didn’t want to let them down, but – as my time to entertain approached – I could hardly breathe!

If this has never happened to you, trust me – it will. Stage Fright (technically known as “Performance Anxiety”) affects Olympic athletes, A-students facing exams, and even veteran blowhards like me. It need not really involve a stage in the literal sense at all, although – for most folks – a single moment at the podium or on stage does seem like a lifetime. All that is required for Performance Anxiety to kick in is an overwhelming desire to not foul up (often accompanied by an equally overwhelming desire to barf.)

Deep breaths, and picturing your audience naked except for black socks, are 2 of the most commonly recommended counter-measures. Vice-President Andrew Johnson, prior to his 1865 inaugural address, tried liquor to calm his nerves. It didn’t work (as it never does.) The booze only made him a drunk with stage fright. 1920s stage star Al Jolson eased his opening night jitters by convincing himself that every single person in the audience was an old and dear friend. (Obviously, that wouldn’t work for me – old friends in the audience were the reason for my jitters!)

Ultimately, what worked for me was this: focusing on just one smiling face. In my case, that face belonged to Jayne Austin (my former choir director, and widow of my dad’s long-time closest musical associate.) I’ve known her all my life. She’s always been amazingly supportive of my efforts onstage. Her smile was so serene, her confidence in me so complete, that her assurance buoyed me up long enough that I could get out of neutral and into a forward gear. Later, I picked out other such smiling faces. And soon, my jitters were – pretty much – gone.

Obi Wan Kenobi believed in the power of The Force. He must have been an entertainer. Smiles and reassuring nods (saying “You can do it!”) do indeed have a cumulative strength that every performer has felt at one time or another. When pointed directly at us, they give us a peace, a resolve, and a power like nothing else of this earth.

So – the next time stage fright hits you – may The Force be with you!

A Few Words On… Saying A Few Words (As Few As Possible)

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

I have written a number of times already on my aversion to lengthy speeches at parties. This is because, from long experience, I’ve concluded that most guests at most galas didn’t come to hear windy orations, and will neither sit still nor be quiet for them.

But – if you feel you absolutely must make a speech at your party – you might consider the following:

1. Who? If an audience is going to pay attention at all, they are most likely to do so for either the host or the guest of honor. Uncle Herbie’s “famous” impressions of long-dead celebrities will be drowned out by the Joyful Noise of your guests doing exactly what you invited them to do – partying.

2. What? Brief words of welcome, short prayers, and quick toasts (are you detecting a trend, here?) stand a fair chance of being greeted with respectful semi-silence. Letters and lists will actually receive more attention if they are typed up, copied, and then placed on every table. When read aloud by the host, they are either ignored or -worse – they bring the party to a screeching halt.

3. When? Typically, guests expect some form of greeting immediately after they are seated for dinner. This is not only the best time to speak, it may very well be the only time you will have everyone’s attention. Try to get all such business out of the way as early as possible, so that both you and your guests can enjoy the rest of the evening.

4. Where? The best place for any speaker to stand is in the middle of the room, or as close to the middle as sightlines permit. A raised platform not only helps those at the far ends of the room see that you are speaking, it also sends a signal to one and all that an announcement is imminent.

5. How? A fanfare or drum roll is a good attention-getter. Positioning 3 or 4 friends in different parts of the room to “Shhhhh!” loudly at your cue also works well. Under no circumstances should you start “cold” (clearing your throat, or saying “excuse me” 20 times in a vain effort to get everyone to hush. Shut them up – as best as you can – before you say a word.) Once you do start talking, say whatever is most important to you first. Don’t pause, or your guests may think you’ve finished and resume their conversations. (Another tip: if you have to read your speech, it’s too long.)

Finally, try not to fret if your remarks aren’t received with the respect they deserve. Remember – Lincoln was largely ignored at Gettysburg. You’re in very good company!

How To Shorten Those Long, Boring Awards “Thank-You” Speeches

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

I emceed an awards dinner last night at which two very deserving local citizens were honored. Each honoree had a lengthy list of accomplishments to their credit, which were read by their individual presenters. Each also had a lengthy list of folks to thank for inspiring them such heights, which were read by the honorees themselves. All of those accomplishments and inspiring folks deserved recognition. The trouble was – as it always is – that where length is concerned, more ultimately equals less when the reading of lists go on and on. In a word – it became boring. This is both unfair to the honorees themselves, and astonishing when you consider what fascinating and dynamic individuals last night’s recipients are. If anything can make these two firecrackers seem dull, then there is something very wrong with the presentation.

I propose a simple, 3-step solution to eliminate this problem.

1. List the honoree’s accomplishments in the souvenir program. At most awards dinners, the honorees know weeks or even months in advance that they are to be celebrated. There is plenty of time to compile a list which can be inserted in the event program and placed at every seat. Lists are ever so much more interesting to read than to hear. Such written accolades are also permanent mementoes of the evening. At “Oscar”-type awards events where there are multiple nominees, all of their qualifications can be included in the written program.

This frees the presenter from having to read a “laundry list” of accolades, and enables them to simply – and briefly – tell why the recipient is so deserving of honor.

2. Put the honoree’s thank-you list in the same written program. I’ve attended many awards dinners in my career. The only acceptance speeches I really remember are the ones in which the recipient shared a favorite quote, or a bit of their personal philosophy of life that has led them to be a super-achiever. Any honorees who thanked their agents, lawyers, and managers did so without my attention. I may have been there in body, but my mind and spirit were long gone.

It would be wrong not to thank family members and mentors for their continued inspiration. Listing their names in the program gives them their much-deserved recognition, while keeping the on-stage focus on the honoree. (What you call a “win-win” situation.)

3. Encourage both presenters and recipients to speak “from the heart,” not from notes. My personal favorite secret for eliciting a brief and conversational response from both presenters and honorees is to call them up to the dais, then ask them a direct question: “What special quality makes ____ deserving of this award?” Or “How does it feel to receive this award?” Questions asked in this way tend to evoke outpourings of affection and emotion, not dry dissertations.

And – I don’t know about you – but for me, nothing beats a spontaneous comment, straight from the heart. I’ll take that over one straight from the script – any day.

Uh – Uh, Hello? Can Anybody Hear Me?

Monday, November 5th, 2007

A loud drum roll followed by a cymbal crash is a great attention getter when a speaker is about to begin. Conversations cease – or at least slow – in anticipation of an announcement. Fanfares are also great for telegraphing to the audience that important words are imminent. (“Dinner is served!” – for instance.)

Unfortunately, not every gathering has access to throbbing drums and blaring percussion. Rotarians generally strike a bell when it is time for their business to begin. Other clubs tap their water glasses with dinner knives. Or do a group-Shhhhhhhh! And – of course – there’s always the old reliable sound of a throat clearing (ah-HEMMMM!) with hands held in the air, palms out.

All of these methods work some of the time (none do all of the time). But what does not and will never work is the timid approach, characterized in the title of this entry as “Uh- uh, hello? Can anybody hear me?” The answer is no, because you aren’t saying or doing something that will cut through the roar of the crowd.

Personally, I favor the “Ringmaster” approach: “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!!!!” delivered at a volume that a hog caller would envy. But – I must admit – a good shrill whistle is equally effective. And, dropping a metal tray from head-high onto a non-carpeted floor makes a pretty good gong.

Of course, then – once you (temporarily) have your audience’s attention – you still have to follow up boldly. My attitude is that any announcement which is important enough to demand a stop to all conversation is important enough to deliver with authority. Otherwise, what’s the point?

So – if your goal was to announce that the buffet is open, but you aren’t good at speaking to a crowd – simply go from one small group to the next, pointing them at the food. Believe me, once a few folks return to the room loaded down with steaming, heaping dinner plates, even the chattiest of your guests will get the message.

Some audiences – I have learned – almost never shut up. Not for an announcement, not for a prayer. Not even for The Star Spangled Banner. In such cases, waiting until you have every last person’s attention is futile – it’s not gonna happen. All you can do is get as many jabber-jaws as will to hush, then quickly (and I mean in a few seconds or less) say whatever must be said. Don’t read them a list of thank-yous, don’t go into a discourse, and – whatever you do – don’t pause!

Just say what has to be said as though you think it is important. Say it with authority. (And then quietly head to that buffet line to enjoy your pick of the victuals, before the yakkety-yaks even know what they’re missing.)

“I Wish I Hadn’t Said THAT!” (Over The Microphone)

Monday, June 18th, 2007

Speaking to a crowd – I’ve seen the mere mention of it reduce professional athletes to tears, turn astronaut/fighter pilots into quivering masses of jelly, and even frighten women who have survived giving birth!

Some of us would rather do almost anything than hold a microphone in our hands to address a large audience – even an audience of close friends (and – sometimes – especially an audience of close friends!) We don’t know what to say; we’re afraid we’ll say something stupid; and – if we do – we know we will kick ourselves for decades to come.

Chill, children! Help is on the way.

At most parties – including most wedding receptions – the required speeches are short, sweet, and straightforward. If you are the host, simply welcome everyone to the party, express your hope that they have a good time, and thank your long-suffering spouse (or whoever put in months planning the event.) If there are guests of honor (as at weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries) offer a toast to them. It doesn’t have to be clever or fancy. Just raise your glass and say, “Please join me in a toast to…” Then relax. Your hard work is done. All you have to do from here is pay for the party!

If you are the Best Man or Maid of Honor at a wedding reception, and you are not a gifted speaker, you too can – and should – keep it simple (and clean). Those who aren’t comedians need not prove that fact by bombing their way through a series of lame jokes. Similarly, self-written “poems” are usually far less enjoyable for the crowd (and the victims-of-honor) than their authors imagine. Much better are succint and sincere best wishes for the happiness of the lucky couple. Avoid at all costs any embarassing story that might create later problems for the bride or groom (as in “Did you really DO that?”).

By committing to keep your verbal output at the microphone to a minimum (and keep it clean), you can avoid hours of stress before the event, and years of regret afterward.

Emcee Or Not To Emcee (That Is The Question)

Monday, April 16th, 2007

What does a professional emcee mean for your event?

In a word, insurance.

The same factors that led you to consider professional photographers and/or videographers (rather than your cousin’s brother-in-law), veteran caterers (as opposed to your mom’s bingo buddies), decorators, event planners, and musicians also apply to Masters Of Ceremonies – and for many of the same reasons.

The Pros (in all of these professions) have experience that can benefit you. They have talent, a proven aptitude for their respective tasks (after all – they are making a living at them), and – as their references demonstrate – a track record of knowing what does or doesn’t work.

The professional emcee’s job is to get the audience’s attention, lead the applause, and keep the event moving smoothly. When the next person or item on the agenda is delayed, good MCs fill the empty space seamlessly, just as they invisibly push the program along when it is behind schedule. True pros bring an almost endless fund of jokes and stories, a well-honed sense of timing, and the gift of knowing which lines not to cross. They even have their own tuxedos!

Because they come from outside your company or organization, hired emcees aren’t subject to internal politics. And – because they are pros – they aren’t overcome with stage fright/amnesia when the beam of the spotlight hits them squarely in the eyes.

Not every event needs an emcee to warm up the crowd, waken them again after dull, dry speakers (also known as the “cool-down”), and remind them to get their valet parking tickets validated on the way out the door. And not every car you own will be involved in a wreck. But isn’t a little insurance a good investment – just in case?

Toasting, Roasting, And Speeches In General

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

Toasts are an important part of wedding receptions, birthday and anniversary celebrations, retirement parties, and many other gatherings. They pay tribute to the guests of honor or to the hosts of the event.

Roasts are humorous insults directed at the honoree, and funny stories told at that worthy person’s expense.

Speeches are… boring (to everyone except the person talking).

Now that we have defined our terms, let’s look more closely at how and when each is appropriate.

A toast is short, sweet, and G-rated. It should be delivered from the heart, not from prepared notes. (If it’s longer than a paragraph, it isn’t a toast – it’s a speech in disguise.) A single quote from the Bible, Shakespeare, or Will Rogers is fine. Multiple quotes and anecdotes are s-p-e-e-c-h-e-s. Toasts (remember: short, sweet, and G-rated) are appropriate at any gathering.

A roast is funny. Both the honoree (the butt of the joke) and the guests should be amused. In the real world, this requires restraint and maturity on the part of the roaster. PG or R-rated stories must only be told in front of an age-appropriate audience. It is okay for the roastee to blush, but not to flush (become angry or embarassed.) It is never permissable to tell a story from the honoree’s past that will create a problem for them with their spouse or family in the future.

A speech is any address which can be outlined (Intro, Main Points, Conclusion) or written as more than one paragraph. At gatherings where guests have come great distances or are themselves honored personages, it may be advisable when introducing them to the audience to have a written list, so that none are left out. Similarly, when thanking multiple hosts, committee members, or contributors to a party, a written list is appropriate. Finally, a short letter to the honoree from a head of state or other dignitary can be read to the guests. Otherwise, speeches longer than 60 seconds have no place at most receptions and galas.