Power Speaking Exerpt

Part III
The Art of the Flow

What gets across most is what we are rather than what we say. 
— Anonymous

I don’t know who said this. I found this quote in a participant guide for a seminar that I was facilitating. This simple quote, I believe, is the one big truth about public speaking. It took me a long time to understand just how powerful a truth it really is. I feared it because it forced me to go to the core of who I am – that part of me I spend a great deal of time protecting and hiding from the public.

Ironically, it is also the truth that was hurled at me from the moment I began my studies as an actor three decades ago. Like many young students in an acting conservatory, I wanted to learn acting technique. I longed to master the art of sense memory and personalization. I sought to inhale the teachings of Stanislavsky and Grotowsky, two of the great theatre gurus of the twentieth century, as if a feverish act of absorption might, by osmosis, make me a great actor. Instead, this is what Tony Abeson, one of my first acting coaches, asked of me: “Become an interesting person. Be curious about the world. Go to a museum. Meditate on nature. Read, read, read.”

I yearned for technique. Tony challenged me to acquire the intangible qualities that color and inform any technique. This book, so far, has been primarily concerned with honing the craft and technique of a speaker. In this final section, we will take the plunge into our psyche and thought patterns. This is our very own, subterranean landscape that informs everything we do. Our conscious understanding of this landscape will be the single most important factor in unleashing our speaking power. It is here where we will toss out technique so that we may, indeed, master and transcend it.

I am writing these words a week after the passing of Katharine Hepburn, one of the most honored actresses of the twentieth century. In the glut of television profiles and tributes that have been broadcast on the airwaves, one interview stands out in my mind. A neighbor and close friend in Ms. Hepburn’s later years was asked what Katharine Hepburn thought of the more recent generation of actresses. ” She really liked Sally Field,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “Sally Field?” the interviewer repeated, incredulous and clearly more than a little surprised by this response. “Well, what did Ms. Hepburn think of Meryl Streep?” this interviewer persisted, as if trying to elicit a more exalted reply. Katharine’s friend paused as if to carefully contemplate his answer, and then he said: “Well, Ms. Hepburn felt that Ms. Streep just worked a little too hard.” And then, as if to temper his judgment, he added with a smile. “But I’m sure she would have felt differently about Ms. Streep’s more recent work.”

What this gentleman described, in a clear and succinct way, is the learning arc of a performer. Fresh out of school, armed with oodles of talent and lots and lots of craft, she hopefully evolves into the mature performer who has acquired a wealth of life lessons and is willing to let them seep into the work. She, to return to a phrase we coined earlier, learns to get out of her own way. As craft becomes internalized, effort fades and becomes invisible. The performer just sort of “breathes” her character. Performer and performance all merge into an impenetrable whole.

A Speaker’s Evolution

The arc to powerful speaking follows a similar trajectory. If technique remains just that – a bag of tricks and tools – and is not fully integrated into the way a speaker “is” in front of a group, the audience will always be a step removed from this speaker. It will sit back and observe a speaker at work. Technique, and the apparent use of technique, become the barrier. They will prevent the audience from surrendering to the presentation. So, you may ask yourself, how do I resolve this conundrum? How do I make this leap from technique and a bunch of skills to “just being”? Powerfully, compellingly being in community with my audience? Does this mean I have to wait my thirty years before I have the life experience that will magically color and shape how I speak in public?

First of all, here is the good news – and it harks back to the quote that launched this section: It’s rarely about the content of what we are saying, it’s about what we radiate from the inside. My clients like to fight me tooth and nail on this one. I hear it over and over: “What can I do – the content I have to deliver is so dry and boring!” And I empathize, to a point. Some presenters have to deliver content that few folks would describe as compelling or motivational. Delivering a talk about a life-changing personal event may, indeed, seem a good deal more riveting than a speech about complying with mandatory government safety regulations. But rest assured: I have witnessed speaker after speaker mangle an emotionally charged personal story, and I have witnessed many a presenter talk about safety procedures with eloquence and grace.

I learned this lesson, once and for all, when I first began delivering seminars for Langevin Learning Services, the preeminent train-the-trainer company in the world. Soon, I found myself facilitating eighteen different seminars for this company-and like every speaker, I have some topics that I prefer to others. My least favorite seminar, by far, was a two-day course on project management. I dreaded preparing for this seminar when it was first assigned to me. I procrastinated for as long as I could. I have managed projects, and on this I am very clear: I am not passionate about project management. I don’t enjoy the administrative aspects of project management. I don’t like multi-tasking. I am not terribly interested in motivating under-performing team members. Truth be told – I am resolutely averse to everything that is essential for being a good project manager.

It turned out to be one of my most successful seminars for Langevin 
Learning Services.

This seminar, in a way, became my very own public speaking teacher. Because I couldn’t rely on my interest in the content I was presenting, I had to dig deep to find my reason for getting up and presenting this material (and this required digging beyond the incentive of the paycheck). I had to drill down to the core of who I was and what I valued. What gave me the right to get up and talk to folks, in the first place? If it wasn’t the content, what was it that truly mattered to me when I spoke? Did I have another, underlying reason for speaking in public? What did I really value about this odd and magical act of communicating with an audience?

The Evolutionary Blueprint

In this third section, we will peek under the covers and give a little dusting to the personal subtext of a speaker. First, I will invite you to investigate your personal values-they are the inner secret reason why you get up to speak in front of a group. The core that remains constant, regardless of the topic of a particular presentation. We will explore ways of crystallizing these values and bringing them to consciousness. And then we will look at any blocks or barriers that keep this intent from ringing out in an unfettered way. Not the physical or vocal barriers – we looked at those in great detail in the first section of the book. No, we want to remove the psychic blocks that may prevent you from fully shining in public.

I liken what we do here to looking at a house. Many of us like the freshly painted house that looks flawless and immaculate. Pretty. And often impenetrable. I have always been more intrigued by the slightly tattered house that is a bit chipped and reveals a prior layer of paint. The colors beneath the surface color. The blueprint behind the veneer. The origin of the building, if you will. My dad was an architect, and I grew up studying the blueprints of the buildings he was about to build. Even as a little boy I understood that these blueprints were the foundation for a solid building. They were the tangible manifestation of a clear, specific vision for excellence. No matter how much anyone dressed up a house on the outside, if this blueprint was not soundly drawn and executed, the house would eventually crack and collapse.

So let us explore the blueprint of a public speaker. To help us with our exploration, I have synthesized this seemingly elusive human map into four specific principles. These four principles, and our relationship to each of them, comprise the core that we will investigate and polish. Our ability to engage in a dialogue with these factors will have a disproportionately powerful influence on our impact as speakers. Because I want to entice you toward action, I have phrased these four principles in the terms of action language:

1. Clarify the personal values that shape every encounter you have.
2. Release your fears.
3. Embrace your spontaneity.
4. Leap beyond the confines of your well-defined walls.

Consider this section your personal homework. The assignments here are private explorations that you will need to conduct without the presence of others. The clarity you find in these explorations will lift your public speaking experience into a whole new realm – an exalted, more resonant, truly powerful zone. It will bring you closer to those magical moments of flow when everything you undertake seems to unfurl without effort. It will also help transform every relationship you engage in, every moment of your life. And this act of being in relationship – I hope this is clear by now – is the true secret of speaking to anyone.

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