As a speaker, are you focused on saying things that can change your world? Or are you fixated on delivery skills you consider too weak for effective communication?
Virtually every industry and profession praises outstanding speaking abilities. These days, it seems that everyone is expected to be a master communicator, from the average worker to the C-suite and board room.
The reality, as we all know, is very different. Can it be that the demand for excellence in oral communication is itself hindering the development of strong speakers?
Is there just too much pressure to perform?
Was Steve Jobs simply too hard an act to follow?
The rush to achieve speaking excellence can result in what might be called the effect of the Hollow Speech: a performance of brilliance that echoes with emptiness from a lack of anything worthwhile on the inside.
Perhaps, then, it's time to come around again to content as the soul of great speeches and presentations.
Words, Words, Words
Hamlet, when asked by Polonius what he is reading, replies: "Words, words, words." His response is humorous, though appropriate. For once again, Shakespeare gets it exactly right: the gist of an effective message lies mostly in the content, with delivery skills in a supporting role.
Actors who work frequently with classical material are well aware of this effect in Shakespeare's plays: the lines are so good, you don't really have to DO anything but say them. No "acting" is required!
Or as Spencer Tracy is said to have remarked when asked what an actor should concern himself with: "Know your lines and don't trip over the furniture." (I'm also fond of Noel Coward's remark when he attended one of his plays, in the middle of a long run, that he hadn't seen since opening night: "Tomorrow morning there will be a rehearsal to remove all of the improvements.")
In today's world of speeches and presentations, audiences don't want oratory from speakers; they want a dialogue, a conversation between audience and presenter. But the content must be of the highest quality to justify everyone's time, presence, and attentiveness.
An Ideal Model, Then and Now: The Gettysburg Address
When it comes to great content spoken plainly, we cannot do better than to familiarize ourselves again with Abraham Lincoln's 1863 masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address.
On that day in November, at the dedication of a Union cemetery at the site of the famous battle, the renowned orator Edward Everett spoke for two hours, without notes as was the custom of the age.
President Lincoln uttered 10 sentences, which took him a little over two minutes. Yet as Everett said to Lincoln afterwards: "I wish I could have expressed in my two hours what you said in your two minutes."
Contrary to a popular myth, Lincoln did not jot his speech down on the back of an envelope on a train approaching Gettysburg. As with all of his speeches, he thought and wrote carefully.
The result was the ideal model of effective communication, consisting of great content, spoken well. Lincoln's voice, we are told, was a high-pitched Kentucky twang. Yet then and now, it was the words chosen and spoken that moved his audience.
To hear this in action, listen to the contemporary actor Jeff Daniels's version of the speech, below. You'll hear the "call" of a speaker talking to a crowd. But more importantly and movingly, you'll be aware of outstanding content spoken plainly: the ideal formula for moving one's listeners.