A good percentage of my client’s presentations deal with technology and science. There are numerous hurdles to overcome when presenting technology; how to make data interesting, how to use metaphor to make complex concepts digestible, how to use wit and humor to engage the audience, etc. But the most difficult aspect of talking science for many presenters is the manner in which they speak.
I think Pranav Mistry gives a good speech here despite having imperfect English. There are moments when his excitement gets the best of him, and he talks too quickly, but the bulk of his presentation is done at a measured pace. When he takes the time to breathe in between thoughts, and slow down, he is much more clear. These “micro-pauses” allow his brain to process what his articulators (lips, tongue, lower jaw, and soft palate) are doing and gives him a moment to think about language. Most of Mr. Mistry’s pronunciation mistakes (some w-v confusion, syllable stress mistakes, problems with phrasing) occur when he is speaking quickly. His brain doesn’t have time to think about pacing, articulation and the like.
You can imagine the left frontal lobe to be a little like a busy highway. The more congested the neural pathways are that connect the brain together, the less likely they are to transmit information. If you speak fast, you clog your frontal lobe with information, and it cannot do what it does best, produce language. So take your time!
“On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers, host of the (then) recently nationally syndicated children’s television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (named Misterogers’ Neighborhood at the time), testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Communications to defend $20 million in federal funding proposed for the newly formed non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was at risk of being reduced to $10 million. The subcommittee chairman, Senator John Pastore (D-RI), unfamiliar with Fred Rogers, is initially abrasive toward him. Over the course of Rogers’ 6 minutes of testimony, Pastore’s demeanor gradually transitions to one of awe and admiration as Rogers speaks. Eventually, Pastore is won over, and the CPB is awarded its full funding.” – Daniel Deibler
The question is, how did he do it? I think there are six things that Mr. Rodgers does that makes this one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen:
- He speaks from a clear, logical set of points, centered around a simple argument – that public television can be used to enhance a child’s emotional life, not hinder it.
- He centers his speech around a story; how he created Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – and that story has a very clear beginning, middle, and an end.
- He makes fantastic contrasts – he compares what $6000 dollars could do for television; pay for one hour of quality children’s programming or two minutes of violent cartoons.
- He knows his audience – the senator he is speaking to was an advocate for educational television, and Fred Rodgers makes mention of it in his speech.
- He makes piercing eye contact – effective nonverbal communication enhances your impression with your audience, and it all starts with the eyes.
- He just really knows his shit – he can quote statistics about arcane budgeting tasks, but also snippets of songs he worked on months ago.
Ultimately what makes this speech work is compassion. Fred Rodgers believed passionately in what he spoke about, so he had the energy and focus to do the hours of work necessary to put together this short speech. And that passion shows through in his every gesture, his every word. So, today, think about what you care about before you begin speaking, and remember, if you keep in mind that every speech is an opportunity, you too can change the world.
The short answer is yes, but how you do it is very, very important. If you make your product the primary focus of your speech, or Q and A, you will bore the audience, or worse, annoy them. Nobody comes to a major conference like TED to hear a product pitch. People come to hear new ideas. You must be able to craft a dynamic, purposeful, wildly creative premise to your speech first, and then strategically weave mentions of your product into the speech as you develop your material.
Take Elon Musk’s brilliant TED Q and A. The premise of his talk is really the nature of innovation, but he manages to use his three current companies, Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City, as examples. It never really appears that he is promoting his companies, because his first loyalty is to his premise (the nature of innovation). As long as you prioritize your premise and keep it innovative, inclusive, and not sales oriented, then, ironically perhaps, it is safe to do a little selling.
Most of the pundits have weighed in on the political ramifications of Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last night, but what of his public speaking craft? To be blunt, I think he does some things well, but many things poorly. Let’s break it down.
To start with, he is clearly reading off of two teleprompters. This is not a problem if you are able to coin phrases in a conversational manner, and you are very familiar with your material. Mr. Trump does neither well here. He seems unfamiliar with the language he is using, and he makes very little eye contact with the television audience or his constituents. It’s very important to be familiar with your material, and to lift your eyes off of the page, in order to make a personal connection to your audience.
As a result of this lack of familiarity with his material, Mr. Trump’s delivery is uncharacteristically tentative. When he is speaking off-the-cuff, he has some vocal variety, and punch to his language. But his voice fades when he is working with an outline, and he becomes quite monotone.
What he does well here has nothing to do with his delivery, but with his speechcraft. He utilizes personal stories well, highlighting numerous stories about heroic everyday Americans. But non-verbal communication trumps material (no pun intended), and the president’s poor delivery undermines his message.