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Bringing Words to Life

September 09, 2010

(I was invited to give a guest lecture in a public speaking class for undergraduates here at the University of Southern California last week. Many of my comments are incorporated in this “musing’.)

In 1989, Father Vaclav Maly stood in Wenceslas Square in Prague before a huge crowd of protesters as the communist system was collapsing in Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe. He called on the people of the country to resist the urge to get revenge on the communists for their decades of tyranny and injustice. He called on them to forgive. In response, hundreds of thousands of people prayed the Lord’s Prayer, emphasizing the line that says “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”. Who knows how many human lives were saved that day? Who knows how much chaos and misery was averted? His speech, and the response to it, made possible a peaceful transition to democracy. Anyone who doubts that words are things, that words are alive, that words lack power should remember that speech and feel the thunder of the voices that rose up in response.

Public speaking, at its best, brings the word to life. It is mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for language. Think of the difference between spoken and written language. The number of words spoken on a television news broadcast is many fewer than those used to write a newspaper article on the same subject. Yet the emotional impact of the spoken word story can be dramatically greater. This power can be misused, with the words unspoken and the parts of stories untold, with the choice of voice emphasis and the use of gestures. But at its best, the power of the spoken word can be a phenomenal force for good. Think of the spoken words that have moved your soul. Think of the speeches that have inspired you to action, speeches both polished and unpolished, delivered by professionals and by sincere amateurs alike.

In ancient times, up through the medieval period, when people read books, they read them out loud – even in private. Words were sacred, living things. The written word was understood as a codification of the spoken word. There was palpable power in the process of speaking, writing, and then reading aloud.

In the Bible, it’s clear that people believed that words were alive. After Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the words of blessing that would convey his inheritance, Esau complained to Isaac about the deceit. But Isaac said he could do nothing: the words had been uttered and could not be taken back. The prophet Isaiah, speaking for God, said (Isaiah 55: 11) “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” The prophet understood the word as a living entity that goes forth and makes things happen.

But all that changed when the printing press was invented, and mass communication became possible at a scale unimagined before. Suddenly words became cheap. There were so many printed words, so many new readers to read them, that people stopped reading out loud. Words lost much of their power. They shifted from being realities in themselves to becoming little more than symbols for realities.

As public speakers, you can reverse this history and bring life back to language. You can breathe vitality into words and send them forth to change the world. With the spoken word you can reach into the souls of other people and stir them to new visions and actions.

A few “rules of tongue”:
1. Never say what you are going to say. Just say it. Saying what you are going to say before you say it deflates the whole experience of speaking and listening.

2. Never apologize for what you are about to say, how you are going to say it, or how long you are going to talk. Just talk, with an economy of words and a high quality of ideas.

3. When you are telling a riveting story, nobody will notice how long it took to tell it. People go into a “zone” when they are so entranced that their mouths start hanging open. Just one very engaging story can be plenty for a speech – don’t abuse the privilege of everyone’s full attention!

4. The main content of your speech is always going to be you, even if you spend the whole time talking about a subject that seemingly has nothing to do with you! People are intently interested in how the subject connects to you personally. Share your personal stories relating to the subject, but not in a way that presents you as the subject. Let them learn about you indirectly, through your knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject.

5. Using notes or a full text when you speak is fine, as long as you are paying very close attention to the mood and reactions of the audience. There is a way to use notes without getting distracted or distracting the audience. Take an intentional pause to consult notes, and then pause to make eye contact with the audience before speaking again. It might slow down the pace of the speech a bit, but it lets the people know that you are speaking carefully, that you are prepared, and that you are engaged with them.

6. Pauses are powerful. You can get carried away with using them, just because they can be so effective, so be judicious. But making space in your speech for people to absorb what you are saying lets your words sink in and your ideas take root. Pauses also give you time to carefully observe the reactions of your audience.

7. You talk with your hands and your body even if you aren’t moving! Are you aware of what your body is saying? Do your arms and hands and body express the emotions that go with your message? Your body moves in a unique way, so don’t bother copying other people’s gestures. Use gestures that are natural to your body and are genuinely expressive of your feelings and intentions.

You can become a good public speaker regardless of your personality or physical type. Your unique qualities, your personal story are assets you can employ to share your message like no one else is able. Yes, there are techniques of public speaking that are worth learning. But once you have tried them, you should riff off of them in ways that make the most of your unique nature. Sarah Vowell on NPR has a voice that sounds a bit like a cat scratching on a sofa, but she’s a really engaging public speaker. I have known preachers who were mousy-looking guys with thick glasses and high-pitched voices, but could rivet their congregations’ attention to them every bit as much as the smooth-tongued, slick-coiffed, cleft-jawed Joel Osteen of TV evangelism fame. Don’t be a public speaker like other people. Be yourself, but do a good job of it! Let your unique personality speak out carefully, intentionally, clearly, artfully.

Writing down what you are going to say is a good idea. But I have learned, the hard way, that there is a big difference between writing for reading and writing for speaking. I do so much writing for reading that I find it challenging to flip the switch and change modes for public speaking. So, often I write down my thoughts for a speech, and read it over. Then I speak extemporaneously based on what I have written, but not word for written word. I’m prepared, I’m organized, but I’m not limited by my text.

Public speaking is not a one-way street. I have to pay close attention to the audience from the very start. I have to be responsive to their feedback. In the traditional black church, that is made easier by the verbal call-and-response of the preacher exhorting and the congregation amen-ing. The tone and volume of the response gives the preacher direction; I’ve experienced it myself when I’ve preached in black churches. But audience response is always happening, even when the pews are filled with quiet white people! The congregation is still reacting, though more subtly. I must notice their cues and modulate my speaking accordingly.

Etched in my memory is a moment several years ago when I took a group of about 12 Stanford University students to learn about farm labor issues in the strawberry fields near Salinas, California. We visited a farm run by a man and his adult son. They rented their land and didn’t make much profit from their farm, but it was a step up from being farmworkers. The students asked the father questions and the son translated. At first both men were awkward and gave curt answers. But as the students kept asking questions, the men’s demeanor began to change. The answers got longer. They seemed more confident. Their heads rose up higher and their voices got stronger and clearer. I was standing next to a young woman student and I could tell that she was noticing this, too. She and I looked at each other and we both began to shed tears. Later we talked about it. She felt what I was feeling, too. The farmers were ennobled by their encounter with the students. The farmers realized that their audience was paying rapt attention to them. The students really wanted to know what their lives were like and what struggles they were experiencing. This touched the farmers and changed the way they talked and presented themselves. They were dignified by their audience. Their story was being valued in a way that they had not valued themselves until that moment. By being caring, careful listeners, we turned two strawberry farmers, neither of whom had ever given speeches before, into public speakers in the space of an hour and a half! This is how public speaking works. The audience is changed, and that change silently reflects back to the speaker, who is changed. This subtle but powerful interaction can, at its best, lift up everyone.

Public speaking not only can give life to words: it can give life to people.

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