I recently saw “A Star Is Born” with my wife on a rare night out (we have two young children). It was a fantastic movie and a must-see for anyone who loves performing and presenting.
The film is about a washed-up rocker (Jackson) who falls for a young, poor, talented singer (Ally), and gives her the courage to find her voice, I think the film offers a lot of wisdom in regard to speaking in public. Ally is searching for stardom but doesn’t truly find it until she follows Jackson’s advice, and sings from the deepest parts of her soul. Only when she makes her singing deeply personal does she truly “have something to say” (in Jackson’s parlance).
Do you personalize your speeches? Do you plum the depths to find material that is secret, provocative, honest? Do you tell stories? Do you work to relate to your audience, to share your humanity, with all of its messiness? Or do you neaten things up to make yourself look “good”?
Brave public speaking, like brave singing, happens rarely. But when it does, it unites, it inspires, it transforms. Think today about your speeches, and ask yourself “Am I being brave?”.
I think John Mulaney is one of the best comedians around these days. What can we learn from him from a public speaking perspective? Here are three things I think we can take away:
His pacing is very deliberate – Notice the tempo at which Mr. Mulaney speaks. It’s very measured, but it never feels belabored. That’s because he is using his tempo to create vocal variety, emphasizing certain words with volume and pitch.
He makes eye contact with his audience – Pretty straightforward, right? If you want to create a relationship with the audience, you need to look at them.
He has clearly rehearsed – It’s never a good idea to wing a presentation, but we don’t want to sound too canned either. It’s often best to rehearse from a set of simple bullet points and allow yourself to improvise within that structure. Mr. Mullaney clearly has a few “bits” he is working with, but he doesn’t sound like he has thought out each word he is going to say. He stays loose with his execution.
The obvious problem is she spends a lot of time talking about herself, and not a lot about Aretha Franklin. She has tried to clarify recently, saying that MTV asked her to “share an anecdote” about Aretha, not “give a tribute” but that hasn’t quelled the backlash. Here’s my take; if you think that your speech has the possibility of being misconstrued, ask the organizers for a clarification! When you take on a speaking event, it’s important to think very carefully about your material and your audience, and this is doubly true for solemn events like tributes, funerals and the like. Madonna would have done well to ask directly if her speech was meant to be a tribute beforehand, and then tailor her speech accordingly.
Majora Carter gives an impassioned, brilliant speech in the video above, taken from TED in 2006. There’s a number of things she does very, very right from a public speaking perspective. What’s most impressive is the way she uses personal stories to illustrate larger social problems; her family’s migration story became a basis for stats and facts about redlining and economic injustice in the South Bronx, the story of her childhood neighbourhood’s tragic downfall and her brother’s death is used to contrast her experience with her largely white audience, and to point out economic inequality.
But, alas, Mrs Carter falls prey to the same problem that bedevils many TED talkers; she speaks much, much too fast. Facts and figures rush by the audience in a blur. I would guess that is because she is trying to cram a 45-minute speech into her 20-minute time allotment. She would benefit greatly from pairing her speech down and breathing at the end of each thought. A recent study found that pausing 5x in a one-minute speech makes your material more memorable. So take your time! If you are a quick talker, try using a metronome to control the rate at which you speak.