Tag Archives: public speaking

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“Making a few comments” in the spur of the moment is right up there in the pantheon of nightmares with snake handling.

Among communication skills, the ability to create an interesting and coherent message ‘on the fly’ varies greatly from person to person.  In jazz, a “riff” is phrase or entire solo, usually made up on the spot. In public speaking the same kind of moment may be called an “impromptu speech,” which is its own category in oratorical competitions.  In a theater or club we know the same kinds of instant exchanges as improvisations. Some actors are great at it.  Others need a script to find their way.  But there can be no doubt that skill at improvisation is a significant gift for a musician or actor. One of the high points of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is a tryout where an actress is asked to tell any story. The riff that results is the poignant song “Audition,” a tale about her Aunt’s years in Paris, and a turning point in her life.

I once knew an academic colleague whose role required a lot of introductory comments for speakers and panels. He was confident he could produce insights on demand. But what usually came out was a stew of badly mismatched ingredients. “Winging it” was not his strength, and made worse by his tendency to lose track of the time. I’ve also known another academic who spoke as if he were reading prose polished on a diamond lathe. No syllable was out of place.  He was mesmerizing, and also the source of more than a little envy.

Jazz gets its energy from the creative riffs of its performers; public speaking gets it’s notorious dread from the same requirement. “Making a few comments” in the spur of the moment is right up there in the pantheon of nightmares with snake handling.

 Don’t memorize your comments. We now expect that a public presentation is a form of “heightened conversation.”

Interestingly, ancient orators were not that different.  Preparing for the moment of delivery was something to stew over. But their solution was to memorize their remarks. Any figure in Greece or Rome with aspirations in civil affairs needed to be able to commit long speeches to memory.  Words and their effects mattered that much.

But memory is now considered “the lost canon” of rhetoric. We no longer teach it. And some of us suspect that our toasters probably have more RAM memory than we possess. In addition, most of us are not very interesting when reciting ideas that have been over-rehearsed. Think of a poem from 7th grade whose meaning has been drained away because it was learned by rote. Those who are especially good at this kind of thing we call “actors.”

The trick is to split the difference. Think about what you want to say at an event where you will be called up. Take and use few notes (never a manuscript). Don’t memorize your comments. We now expect that a public presentation is a form of “heightened conversation.” A few non-fluencies that creep into our remarks will not matter, if the trade-off is the impression that we are thinking about what we are saying as we say it.

2400 Times and Counting


Robert La Follette at an Illinois Chautauqua meeting, 1905  Wikipedia.org
      Robert La Follette at an Illinois Chautauqua                     meeting, 1905                            Wikipedia.org

Sometimes there is simply no good alternative to a lecture that inspires discussion of a complicated idea. 

These days the lecture as a form of communication doesn’t get much love.  The idea of an extended presentation to an audience who should want to know more usually engenders greater enthusiasm in the presenter than the intended recipients. The speaker is almost always in the thrall of their specialty.  But these days auditors are easily unfocused and distracted: often ill-prepared to sustain their attention and set aside their electronic umbilicals.

And then there are weak talkers. In our times if a dramatist wants to paint a picture of an old pedant practically dead on his feet, she can do no better than put him in front of a class mumbling on about some disciplinary canon.  My favorite is an ancient fossil of a teacher in the film Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) prattling on to his young charges who have more important things on their minds.

Educational styles favored in our times emphasize experiential learning which, roughly translated, means learning by doing.  That, along with our visual bias for the presentation of all forms of information (u-tube clips, PowerPoints, iPads and  Smart Boards), works against finding satisfaction in the cumulative power of a well-conceived lecture.

Temple Grandin at a TED Talk, 2010      Wikipedia.org
Temple Grandin at a TED Talk, 2010    Wikipedia.org

Perhaps its my training as a rhetorician, but I retain a lot of faith in a coherent talk as an effective means to both convey ideas, and perform the necessary enthusiasm for them. There is no better alternative to a call for change issued by a preacher or a public intellectual, or an invitation from an academic to greater understanding of a complicated but revelatory idea.  If we’ve been lucky, we can can recall at least a few times when we were hooked into the love of a subject by a passionate talker.  Ideas that may be dead on the page can come to life if they are embodied.

As a form, the lecture is also a meeting of minds in the same space that makes possible the kind of interactivity that often attributed to digital media, but often absent.  I recall a master- teacher biologist in my first year at Colorado State University.  He was a mesmerizing presence, at once amplifying complex ideas while giving them importance with real-world applications.  His lectures on DNA were built around an accumulating swirl of drawings created as he spoke.  The blackboard became a riot of color as he used various colors of chalk to fill in essential details of the Double Helix. His effort and interest were contagious. I also remember another professor at Cal State-Sacramento who could turn a single class period into an intellectual adventure. His lectures and questions seemed to owe something to the kinds of performances we were seeing at the time from gifted actors like Paul Schofield and Michael Caine. This teacher had all the theatrical tools he needed:  a resonant voice, an animated face, and the kind of conversational spontaneity that belied what I’m sure was careful preparation.

In truth, many of us still love good lectures. TED Talks, podcasts, the popularity of massed online courses–in addition to packaged lectures on disk offered by master-teachers–indicate a desire to be the willing captive of an effective presenter.  I agree with Molly Worthen, who recently noted in the New York Times that lectures teach the kind of disciplined communication practices we all need: the twin abilities to pay attention and to actively listen.1  Those who have mastered these skills know the rewards.

What makes a good presentation?  What talents brought millions of Americans out on a snowy Saturday night 100 years ago to hear a speaker at their local Chautauqua?  There’s no formula, but it seems clear that the best presentations allow us to see or understand the familiar with new and deepened sensibilities. They add a greater depth of understanding than we could discover on our own.

My guess is that I’ve lectured to students perhaps 2400 times over the course of a long career. My presentations are usually presented to groups of 25 students at a time: a better setting by any measure than a mass audience of a thousand or more.  Sometimes the presentations go badly, though I’d like to think less frequently these days. And sometimes I flatter myself to believe that I made an 80-minute period –the standard on our campus–fly by.  To be sure, that length is too long by at least 20 minutes. Indeed, a session that misfires in so sprawling a period can make it seem like the clock has simply stopped.  A single session that wastes 80 minutes can be multiplied times the 25 members of a course, totaling 33 wasted hours. Knowledge of those stakes puts a significant amount of pressure on any conscientious instructor.  I think I know how actors feel when they are about to step on stage.

Even so, a presenter on fire with their subject is a sight to behold.  Although the TED Talks format only gives most of its speakers little more than 18 minutes, you can feel the growing momentum when one of them has taken flight with a room of rapt listeners close behind.


1Molly Worthen, Lecture Me. Really.   New York Times, October 18, 2015, Sunday Review, p. 1

Comments Woodward@tcnj.edu