Unaccustomed as I am …
All great speakers were bad speakers at first
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Two friends are soon to marry and asked me to say a few words at their wedding. Their request caused me to ‘pen’ this week’s Reflection on talks, presentations, and speeches.
My first talk/presentation was some forty-seven years ago, not long after I began my career as a Forensic Chemist. Given the need to give evidence in court and present papers at conferences, new starters received training early in the art of public speaking. I write ‘training’ when in truth we were thrown in at the deep end. In my case, I was given a topic, ‘The structure and analysis of nicotine’. Catchy, eh? I was then told my presentation would be to half a dozen far more experienced colleagues. Colleagues who had forgotten more about the analysis of nicotine than I could ever tell them.
The most challenging presentation is when the audience is a handful of people. It’s much easier to look out on a sea of faces. Also, giving a talk on a subject on which your audience knows as much if not more is intimidating.
I still recall that dry-mouthed feeling as I stood before my ‘audience’. I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach so much as large birds all soaring to and fro. In my ears, I heard only my pounding heart. Then, taking a deep breath, I began. As my talk progressed, there was absolutely no reaction from those listening. They could have been playing poker. The less they reacted, the faster I spoke. My thirty-minute presentation took about twenty. By the end, I could feel my palms sticky with sweat.
The audience feedback was kinder than I expected. Much positive criticism helping me understand the dynamics of an audience and some dos and don’ts when presenting. That early tortuous experience helped me overcome the feeling of fundamental vulnerability that a person can get when standing in front of a group.
A few years later, when not long in Industry, I attended a training course on junior leadership. Part of the course was given by a psychologist. One topic discussed was the interaction of a speaker with an audience. For example, how to spot how comfortable a speaker was with that audience. Did the speaker create a barrier? i.e. standing behind a lectern, crossing their arms over their chest, or refusing to take questions until the end. It all helped me understand the psychology of public speaking.
That psychologist taught me that an audience tends to be ‘sympathetic’ to a speaker. Very few, if any, would wish to swap places with them. Very few will ask questions as so to do puts them into the role of the speaker on which the rest of the audience will then gaze.
Since then, I’ve given countless talks, presentations, speeches, and the like. At weddings, conferences, training courses, and more recently conducting guided walks.
I always look to begin any talk with something light-hearted. To break the ice with the audience and to settle me into what I wish to present. It doesn’t have to be something that will bring a belly-aching laugh. In fact, it’s best not to try for too many laughs when giving a presentation. Leave that to the stand-up comedians.
There are exceptions to that last statement. One of the worst occasions I had at a business conference was following a gifted speaker and a natural comedian. For some 30 minutes, he had the audience in his palm and at times rocking with laughter. Anything I was going to say after him would fall flat. But there was no point in trying to compete with his natural style. I delivered my talk as I’d planned. No one fell asleep, and I even received a few smiles and titters. Sometimes the show just must go on.
I also take a leaf out of Churchill’s book. Many aren’t aware of his poor early performance at public speaking with a tendency towards a monotone delivery. Now he is seen as a great rhetorical orator who fluctuated in pitch, pace, and volume. He advocated if you need notes to assist in speaking then don’t hide them away and pretend you don’t. Let the audience see them. But, of course, those magic see-through teleprompters have done away with that.
I’ve also done ‘two-handers’ with a fellow speaker. They can be tricky unless you practice the timings together. One that always stays with me was the finale of a business presentation. My co-presenter and I stood at opposite ends of the stage, then finished the presentation by ‘skipping’ like Morecambe and Wise towards each other. Our presentation was on good partnership in business, and we used M&W to illustrate that point. I’m not sure how much the audience took in our talk, but from the laughter I heard, they enjoyed our skipping.
I’ve spoken at several weddings. Three of my own! My eldest daughter’s and my eldest son’s. At my daughter’s, I did an after-dinner speech and a bible reading in the church. I am not a man of faith, so I couldn’t help glancing upwards once or twice for any passing thunderbolt when doing the latter.
So how will I feel when standing in front of the wedding guests plus bride and groom? Well, despite so many past presentations I will be nervous, no doubt. Not because I might fluff my lines but more that I don’t deliver my words in the way I wish, for my friends. I feel both honoured and humbled they’ve asked me to speak. I hope I do them justice.
Oh, and no I don’t remember the structure of Nicotine other than there are lots of Carbon and Hydrogen molecules with some Nitrogen thrown in. It’s also a deadly poison, more toxic than cocaine although it’s the tar in cigarettes that’s carcinogenic not the nicotine.
Which is my tenuous link to this week’s music. …A song I’ve always liked and that is some 90 years old. This version by the Platters that most people will recognise is a little younger …