10 September 2009

Speaking well

Posted by Jessica Ball

I won’t touch on the political parts of the President’s speech Wednesday night (or the fallout from adults not being able to behave like adults, on both sides), but I do want to write about the way in which it was delivered.

Public speaking is a big part of being a geologist, whether you’re talking to a lab section, lecturing to a class full of hundreds of people, or giving a talk at a conference. One of the things that my professors and other mentors have stressed, many times, is the importance of speaking well – and that doesn’t just mean being able to intelligently discuss your subject material, it means making it interesting. I could be talking about a volcanic eruption, which is one of the most flashy and exciting processes that goes on in geology, but if I gave the talk in a boring way, it would leach all the excitement right out of it.

Because I think President Obama’s address was an excellent example of rhetoric, I’m going to use him as a guide to good speaking techniques. (NOTE: This doesn’t necessarily mean that I remember and use all of these techniques when I’m speaking – I still get nervous during class presentations, and I have a number of bad habits I could get rid of. But I know what I can work on, and these are good examples of those things.) You can bring up videos of Obama’s recent health care speech to see what I’m talking about, as well as videos of the other people I mention.

  • PRACTICE: This is the single most important thing you can do before giving a talk. You can bet that every single president has had speech coaches at one point or another, and that no one goes out and delivers a State of the Union address, for example, without having gone over it a few dozen times. President Obama probably practices enough to memorize most of his speeches, since he doesn’t spend much time looking at his notes or a teleprompter. Since that’s not always possible for someone giving a lecture to a class or presenting a class project, for example, at least make sure you know how your talk progresses – memorize the main points you want to get to, make notecards to remind you, and deliver the talk to your friends, parents, pets, potted plants, walls, etc. The more comfortable you are with your subject matter, the better your talk will be.
  • Posture: This is your stage dressing. If you slouch or hunch or turn away from your audience or stiffen up during a speech, they’ll read your body language and deduce that you’re not happy or comfortable or interested in the material. If it’s not worth your time, why is it worth theirs? President Obama is very good at standing straight but not looking uncomfortable about it; he also turns and moves a little to keep from seeming glued in place. (The more recent former President Bush was all right at this, but he also tended to cling to the lectern during his speeches, so he came across as stiff and uncomfortable.) It’s not good to take this too far and start rocking back and forth, though; that’s just as annoying.
  • Hand motions: These are really important for underscoring your speech. Hand motions can put emphasis on a point or help your words flow. Combined with your tone of voice and volume, they can make something really memorable, or indicate that one part of the speech is important but not the main point. President Obama is great at using hand motions, and it makes his speeches very emphatic. On the other hand, one reason that former President Nixon is so painful to watch is that he has terrible timing, and his gestures don’t match what he’s saying. It’s like watching someone else control his body. Also, if you’re not comfortable using your hands, don’t cling to the lectern or wave the laser pointer too much or bang your pointing stick on the floor (or your feet). I’ve seen people do all of these things, and they’re awkward and distracting.
  • Eye contact: This is a trick they taught us at our TA training – pick a person in the audience and look at them for a little while. Make your audience feel like you’re addressing them and not just the back wall. I’m pretty sure the President does this, because he’s shifting his eyes around the room when he talks, and he’s not staring at the teleprompter or his notes. Probably most of us still need notes for a long lecture, and don’t have teleprompters, but it’s a good idea to look up at your audience more often than you look down.
  • Tone & volume: Talk loudly enough to be heard, but modify your tone as appropriate, and don’t talk in a monotone (remember Ben Stein? Audiences hate that). Be a little louder and more emphatic when you’re making an important point, and pull back a little when you want the words to flow. Singers do this; it’s the reason they get louder or softer, choppy or smooth, to give the appropriate emphasis to the lyrics they’re singing. You don’t want to trail off into mumbling or speak like a robot, because it gives the impression that you don’t think it’s important; modulating tone and volume keeps the audience interested.
  • Enunciation: Nothing is worse than a mumbling speaker. If your audience can’t understand you, they’ll stop paying attention. In addition, make sure you’re pronouncing words correctly – it makes you look bad when you mispronounce a word, and it’s easy to get an incorrect pronunciation into your head. Look it up beforehand; use Dictionary.com or a colleague. (I absolutely hate it when people say nuclear “nuke-u-lar”, for example. This is not a dialect or an accent thing; it’s just wrong.) President Obama speaks very clearly and loudly, and I suspect that he could have given his speech without microphones and everyone would have heard it just fine.
  • Stalling tactics: Saying “um” a lot erodes your poise and is, frankly, painful for the audience. Stalling words (“um”, “ah”, etc.) are sometimes necessary, though, especially if you’re thinking about the answer to a question (because most people don’t speak how they write). If you must pause or stall, think of other ways to do it, and work on getting comfortable enough that you don’t do it (in speeches or lectures, at least). Rephrase the question or make an easy comment before going on to your answer. Presidents giving speeches usually have teleprompters and can avoid this, but stalling techniques come out when they have to answer questions at press conferences (this is true for pretty much everyone, including President Obama). Also, “like” isn’t an acceptable stalling word ever. It’s really immature and older listeners find it annoying (and grammatically incorrect, to boot.)

It’s not easy to remember all of these, of course, but the best speakers try to incorporate at least a few things (with practice being the most important one). Someday I hope I can be as good a speaker as the people who’ve taught me, and in the meantime I’ll keep on working these tricks and techniques into my class presentations, conference talks, and anywhere else I can.