Want to create magic when you speak? Let's go there.
You'll first have to step with me into th Way Back machine. We'll set the dial for 800 B.C., and the Way Back positioning system (the WPS) for the Eastern Mediterranean . . . .
Johannes Gutenberg vs. the Cyclops
We're here to witness the episode of Odysseus and the Cyclops from the Odyssey. As you'll recall, as Odysseus and his men return from Troy, they run into a nasty character named Polyphemus: a gigantic cyclops with a taste for men. One by one, he dashes the Greeks' brains out and devoures them. But clever Odysseus gets the monster drunk, drives a sharpened stake into his single eye, and leads his men to escape by clinging to the wool underneath the cyclops's sheep. (Blinded, Polyphemus feels each sheep as it leaves his cave.)
Of all the stories in the Odyssey, Odysseus and the cyclops remains the most remembered. Imagine how thrilling this tale must have been as it was read (and probably sung) by a bard in ancient Greece. And that is when a change took place, around 800 B.C.: Shortly after Homer lived, the Western world was introduced to the written rather than the oral word. We went, that is, from a world of orality to one of literacy.
Audiences at speeches and presentations have been paying the price ever since.
The Chasm Every Speaker Faces
Since Homer's time, in stories, plays, books, and essays, we've become increasingly trapped in a bookish world. "Trapped" because the literary approach, although deeply rich, is not as immediate as the world of orality. Authors and essayists live by the pen. Bards, actors, singers, and public speakers all live in, and for, the world of oral performance. Audiences listen (and watch) in real time, which is the only time these performers have to reach them.
Yet how do we prepare our speeches and presentations? . . . We write them down—whether on a yellow legal pad, keyboard, iPad, or PowerPoint slides. We are comfortable in this world because it is what our schools teach us. We inhabit the inner salons of our literary preparation, then try to leap over the chasm between that world and the oral world where our presentation lives or dies. (Click here to download our cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")
Do As I Say, Not As I Write
It may seem self-evident that a speech's words need to be conceived to be heard rather than read. But how many of us truly listen to the sound of words in our own ears so that they'll reach the ears of our listeners? And not only the words! What about rhythm, cadence, the music of language, the sound-sense of terms and phrases? What about conciseness and impact? How effectively, we can ask ourselves, do we use silence? Do we employ that particular speaking tool at all?
When it comes to speeches and presentations, speaking for the ear rather than the eye is the forest we don't see for the trees. The great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So is public speaking that lives fully and lustily in the world of oral performance.
Takeaways from this blog:
- Speaking is fundamentally different from writing as a form of communication.
- Written language can take its time; spoken language must be immediate and visceral.
- An oral presentation demands words conceived for in-person audiences listening in real time.
- Not only words but the rhythm and music of language are important.
Dr. Genard's previous blogs on this topic:
- An Ideal Formula for Moving Listeners: Great Content, Spoken Well
- Think It, Speak It, Write It
- The World's Most Powerful Tool for Persuading Audiences