Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tell a Story

Read Chrystia Freeland’s essay, “How to Succeed in Business Journalism,” in the August 22d issue of The New York Times Book Review. I could quote here 2 or 3 full paragraphs, changing no more than a phrase or two, and make them directly applicable to public speaking.

I’m going to quote, instead, from Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer, where I give advice to public speakers that is similar to Freeland’s advice to business journalists.

Humans are storytellers. We try to understand our lives and the events around us by creating stories. Until we learned to scratch symbols that represented our words, we told our history, our beliefs, our warnings, and our fears in stories, in parables, and in myths.

“We remember best what we hear or read in story form.” (p. 11)


“In our culture, we often believe we are oriented to the bottom line and that facts are the only reliable bases for decisions. Human brains, however, are not as well equipped to work mathematical of logic problems as they are to make judgments based on intuition and experience. . .

“An attorney asked me how he could get a jury to understand the complex financial instruments that led to the recent economic collapse. He said, ‘I spent days trying to work through them myself. Finally, one night at two a.m., I got it. So how do I reduce all the work I had to do into something a jury can understand?’

“By telling the jury that story. Tell them the process that led to your discovery. Tell them about the wrong paths you went down, and your frustration, and how stupid you felt. Give them a chance to empathize with you. They might not fully grasp all the complexities themselves, but they’ll feel a connection to you and to your side of the argument.” (pp. 75-76)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Are You Ready?

The New York Times business section is providing more advice that can be applied to public speaking. In the October 10 paper, Howard Schultz, chairman, president, and CEO of Starbucks, was asked for his advice to new CEOs.

He said that very few people coming into the job believe they’re qualified. Every time we speak in public, it’s a new situation. Very few of us believe we’re qualified, or have rehearsed enough for this new subject or that new audience.

So, his advice about insecurity? Use it as a strength, not a weakness. Let people see that you’re vulnerable, and you’re showing them that you’re human.

Translating that paraphrased statement for our needs: So what if you make a mistake or two? Steve Allen once said that a performer would have to fall off the stage into the bass drum before someone noticed. I’ll add that if you do fall off the stage into the bass drum, hitting the cymbals as you go, everyone in the audience will be thrilled that they were there to see it, and will buy more tickets with the hope that you’ll do it again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Apologies Not Accepted

When I was growing up in the midwest, a hostess cooked twice as much food as her guests could eat, and then apologized for whatever she presented or had failed to present: “I don’t know what happened to the corn pudding;” “My cake didn’t rise like usual;” “At least I remembered to take the Jello salad out of the refrigerator this time.”

Dinner began with assurances from the guests about the quality of the corn pudding, was interrupted with the story of the missing salad, and ended with a slight argument over the lightness of the cake. Not leaving much room for conversation about politics, or even the weather.

I attended a presentation this week that followed that pattern. The presenter began with a story about having failed to appear at a presentation the week before, and segued into an apology for having arrived late with disorganized materials. He said several times that if his wife/business partner were there, she would be able to better explain this concept or answer that question.

Why apologize as you’re serving the corn pudding? If the guests had previously loved the hostess’s corn pudding, now they’re forced to reconsider. Maybe it doesn’t taste that good after all, or maybe their taste discrimination is off.

What is the value of telling an audience, in detail, that you forgot to keep an appointment? Are we going to trust anything else you say?

Last month I heard a band member say, halfway through a performance, “and we’ve only practiced twice.” Now the audience is sitting there reassessing the entire evening: “Maybe it was more ragged than we thought.”