Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
February 26, 201410:22 PM

Another Public Speaking Horror Story

This isn't one that happened to a specific individual.

This is a horror story that happened to all of us... and continues to happen to people each and every day. This is not what happened to Michael Bay. It's much worse. It's a pervasive horror story that is a part of our educational system, and sticks with us to the boardrooms and convention centers of every city, in every country where meetings are held. Let me explain by telling you a story: the other week, I was at a family dinner. We were discussing my nephew's pending public speech, and I was being asked for any tips or tricks that might help him be successful. I asked him where was in the process of being ready, and this is what he told me: "I've written out the full speech and I'm almost done memorizing it."

My knees buckled.

I had these sudden and terrible flashbacks to being in both elementary and high school. Being forced to write out a four minute speech on index cards, and then being forced to memorize it. The index cards weren't there for support. Those index cards were the bain of my existence. They had every word - as they should be spoken - on them. They were not be used. They were there as moral support, in case I had forgotten what was supposed to be memorized. Every peek at those cards while speaking, was a physical sign to the class - and to the teacher - that I was not prepared. In a "break the glass here in case of emergency" scenario, I would see my fellow classmates cower in panic and wind up head down, nervously reading/mumbling their way through the reading of the cards, in a effort to simply finish the speech and make it (however pathetically) across the finish line. What was learned? From the speaker's perspective, it was all about writing an essay, attempting to memorize it and then, ultimately, reading it aloud (nervously) to the class. From the audiences perspective, it's hard to remember any of the content, because we were all too busy trying to figure out if our friend before us was about to have a public meltdown. Overall, it's hard to focus on why we're there (hint: it's to learn) when everybody is focused on the performance instead.

Brutal. We still consider this public speaking.

If you look at what constitutes a good public presentation, the core of what we're teaching young people is fundamentally wrong from the first instance. Here is a breakdown of what is happening when we teach public speaking contrasted with what we should be teaching...

  • Step one. We are teaching people to write out the full speech. We should be teaching people to choose the three most important aspects of what they need to explain about their chosen topic. Let's say you are asked to give a speech on the electric bass. We are asking people to study the instrument, and then write three minutes worth of something to say. Instead, I would recommend breaking it into three (or four) chunks. Like this:
    1. Where did the electric bass come from?
    2. What is the electric bass (from a hardware perspective)?
    3. How is it played (techniques and styles)?
    4. Which bass players are inspiring?
  • Step two. We are asking people to memorize the full speech. We should be teaching people to look at each component of these three/four parts and simply write out - in easy to remember bullet points - a couple of lines about each section so you can better understand both the content you should be covering and the flow. As an example, for the first main section (Where did the electric bass come from?):
    1. In the 1930s, musician and inventor Paul Tutmarc from Seattle, Washington, developed the first electric string bass in its modern form.
    2. In the 1950s, Leo Fender developed the first mass-produced electric bass. His Fender Precision Bass is still an industry standard.
    3. In the 1960's many music instrument manufacturers began mass producing these instruments because of the popularity of rock music.
  • Step three. We are asking people once they have memorized the speech to then learn some basic physical and vocal moves to improve the performance of memorizing a written story. We should be teaching people to add color (a funny story or anecdote) to support their three key points. If you do a quick search online about bass players or funny stories about the history of the electric bass, there are many interesting and hilarious anecdotes. Takes some of these stories, think about how you can best tell them, and then insert those stories into the framework above. Knowing the stories will also be a great way to remember the key bullet-points of your story.
  • Step four. Practice. Start by trying to remember each of the main three/four concepts you are going to speak about (this is also your agenda). Then take each main point and remember the two or three pieces you will talk about within each one of them. Then repeat the last step, but include the stories/anecdotes that you will be adding in to add color and depth to them. Lastly, set-up a bunch of times in your agenda and start practicing it as if you were speaking in front of an audience (don't wait until the night before!). Practice it a lot (or as much as you can). If you can pull together a small group of friends (even if it's via Skype or Google Hangout) to watch you do it, all the better.

No more horror stories.

There is no need to write up a story and then figure out how to read it or memorize it and say it to an audience. That is not giving a presentation. That is reading something in public or reciting something from memory that was written. Writing is not the same thing as speaking and/or presenting. What this all boils down to is learning about a topic, figuring out what makes it interesting to you, supporting those thoughts with stories and anecdotes, and then practicing it enough so that you are comfortable to present those ideas in public. We need to do a better job of holding our educational system accountable to produce people who are good at speaking in front of audiences and sharing ideas. Death to writing out speeches. Death to being forced to memorize these written words. Death to index cards. Death to feeling nervous or anxious about memorization.

Let's put an end to this, shall we?

By Mitch Joel