At some point in the public speaking workshops I conduct, I ask the audience this question:
"What happened around 2,800 years ago that changed the way we communicate?"
The most amusing answer I ever got was from a young trainee who volunteered: "The dinosaurs died out?" After his colleagues were through gently ribbing him for his skewed sense of history, I gave the answer:
"We went from the world of orality of Homer and the ancient bards, to the modern world of literacy."
If you think about that yourself for a moment, you'll realize just what a profound occurrence this was for effective communication. In terms of the speeches, presentations, lectures, and all other oral performances we give nowadays, it was indeed momentous.
And the key words in that last sentence are these: oral performances.
In the change from the oral tradition of epic poems like the Odyssey and the Iliad and tribal stories passed on around campfires, to the world of Paradise Lost and the Harry Potter books and everything in between, we entered the world of fantastical riches made possible by the literary arts and printed material. But we lost something as well.
We lost the ease and immediacy of a story told by one member of our species to others, expressed in real time, and imbued with the power and passion only the human voice and body can deliver. (For more on leadership skills to engage and inspire listeners, download our cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")
The Problem with Presentations
Ever since this break between two great traditions--oral and literary--speakers have found themselves in a disordered state with regard to effective presentations. We feel it and see it at the moment any speech or presentation begins. And it has to do with the speaker's preparation beforehand.
The problem can be easily stated this way: In preparing to speak, we occupy the literary world of notes, computer screens, PowerPoint slides, or perhaps a full manuscript. Because of our education from elementary school all the way through college, we're comfortable in this world. After all, we've spent thousands of hours on reading and writing in those classrooms. So we know well how to prepare and amass information for our upcoming presentations.
And if we don't actually find time to get up on our feet and practice . . . so what? We've done our homework and we're set to go.
Except, we're not.
Think It, Speak It, Write It
The reason we're exposed and vulnerable rather than prepared, is that at the moment of moving from the literary world of our written content, to the world of orality of any speech or presentation, we find ourselves astride a chasm of influence.
Because these worlds aren't the same! What reads well, and flows in terms of language, logic, and argument in the literary world, usually doesn't succeed equally well in the world of orality. There are many reasons why this is true, but to give just two important ones: Arguments can develop over time in a literary work. But audiences listen to speakers in real time—which mean that presenters have to develop their stories more quickly and with greater impact. And the other reason? — Words that look good don't necessarily sound good.
So I tell my clients to approach their speeches and presentations in a different way, i.e., to conceive them from the start as oral performances. That is, if they know they're going to deliver material orally, they will benefit from a more effective approach:
I call it "Think It, Speak It, Write It." Rather than writing notes immediately as they begin to work on their presentation, I suggest they think about what they might like to say first. (This assumes that they're up to speed regarding an audience analysis, knowing the needs of their listeners, and the message they want to convey). "Once you've done this," I go on, "Say what you've just come up with out loud. If it sounds good and true, write it down. Then think again, try that next phrase or sentiment aloud, and write that down. Proceed this way to the end of your speech."
By the time the client is finished, they'll be halfway down the road to having internalized their presentation so that they're nearly ready to deliver it. Even more important: they'll have conceived, tested, and practiced their presentation in oral terms. And that after all is what their audience will be ready to receive.
It's a radical, simple, age-old, amazing, and easy way to make a speaking performance that's immediate and powerful, perhaps like nothing that particular audience has heard before. And therein lies a tale.
Takeaways from this blog:
- Writing and speaking are different forms of expression.
- Audiences listen in real time, so make your points concisely.
- If you'll be giving an oral presentation, "Think It, Speak It, Write It."
- When the words sound right to you, they will to your audience too.
My previous blogs related to this topic: