Margaret Hope, M.ED 160 pp, softcover ISBN 0-9683973-0-1 $16.95 Cdn $14.95 US order >
Jump to the chapter sections below:
- Improving entry and staging
- Changing eye contact to really connect
- Improving voice
- Staging props and visuals
- Renovating phrasing
- Purging word choices
In the chapter on humour I described the successful use a fitness instructor made of a food model; however, the first time I saw her use the five pounds of ugly fat it served only to distract her audience. She bounced up to the lectern showing the ugly yellow fat model and simultaneously asked at a rapid pace “How many of you would like to lose five pounds of ugly fat?” Without pausing for their response or even looking at them, she launched into all the information about her programs and how they’d help the folks lose weight. As she spoke, she fondled the fat model. Next she passed it to someone in the front row of the audience and instructed them to pass it around so everyone could fully visualize their goal. This showed a distinct lack of knowledge of her audience since quite a few of them were already slender and fit. And by passing the fat she’d lost most of their attention already. Those closest to the fat were feeling it, giggling, and chatting while others were distracted by the noise and the enticing thought of getting their turn. The fitness director rambled on and on until coffee, and then took her model and left.
That was the same speaker, the same food model, but with a total lack of delivery. She needed help not only with eye contact and timing, but also with voice, gesture, posture, staging, and movement. She’d even chosen her clothing without a thought for her audience. Her tattered track suit didn’t seem a good choice for her audience which consisted mostly of professionals in tailored suits.
To help her connect I began with work on her entry and staging. An energetic entrance was appropriate to her presentation and her personal style, but the food model was distracting, so we agreed it could be hidden in the lectern, awaiting her arrival. This freed her hands to pin on a lapel microphone which allowed her to move more freely in the auditorium and suited her natural bouncy style. She also agreed to address the audience only after the microphone was in place, her materials were on the lectern, and she’d had time to make eye contact. This entrance, combined with a very smart-looking pantsuit, established her professionalism and won the attention of the audience.
Changing eye contact to really connect
She believed she was making eye contact, but in fact she was gazing out at the audience without actually seeing any of them. Often called panning when a camera does this, the result is a blurred impression of the audience rather than a real connection. Gradually she became better at looking at one person’s eyes and sustaining the eye contact while she finished her thought, often holding eye contact for as much as two or three seconds at a time before glancing about and focusing on another audience member.
When she needed to rely on notes, she tended to look down as she began a sentence, glance up briefly towards the middle, and quickly look down again just before she finished the point. This pattern gave her little opportunity to gauge audience response and seemed to compel her to ever greater speeds. When she looked down as she concluded her points, readying herself for the next sentence in her planned speech, she signaled the audience that the rest of the sentence wasn’t very important. Once she learned to look up while she concluded her point, pause to let the audience absorb it, and simultaneously observe their reactions, she enjoyed the speaking more. She was finally realizing that her audiences wanted to hear her message.
The result of these changes was apparent in how much more she noticed about the audience and how better able she was to become conversational with them. Her rapid, forced sounding voice became less rushed and more naturally expressive. By relying less on notes and memorized openings, she was also able to improve her use of posture, gesture, and movement, which in turn contributed to vocal improvement.
With the lapel microphone amplified remotely, this speaker was able to move towards the audience in her opening, slip back to the lectern when she needed the food model, and then over to the coffee table to set the food model aside. Instead of clutching at her notes, the food model, or the microphone, she was able to open her hands towards the audience and use expressive and sustained gestures. When she asked how many of her audience had ever wanted to lose weight, she now stood directly in front of them and used an open, two-handed gesture which she held while awaiting their reaction. She didn’t immediately get a response, so she learned to suggest a show of hands and model this when she repeated the question. This brought her an overt audience reaction. Now she was connecting and she knew it. She was having fun and a bold smile lit her face, letting the audience know they’d behaved in an appropriate manner.
After her opening remarks, she needed the food model that was behind her, tucked away in the lectern. She held up her hand as if she were a traffic officer stopping pedestrians and took five large steps back to her lectern. The audience was willing to wait because they sensed something of interest was coming. Their speaker hadn’t dismissed them by turning and running away or uncomfortably skittling back to her lectern. She’d sustained eye contact throughout and kept an impish grin on her face. By hiding the model until the key moment, she staged it for maximum audience response. Now as she revealed it, the fitness director held it high and away from her body so everyone could see it simultaneously. Their gasps and giggles were her reward. She took time to enjoy their reaction before identifying the purpose of her prop and telling them they could all fondle it during the coffee break.
Now, for a change of pace, she moved to the overhead projector where she’d already placed a slide outlining the rest of the presentation. At first she read her outline to the audience, but that was boring and she lost contact with them. Her presentation improved greatly when, using her natural energy to keep it lively, she paraphrased from the list making sure she paused between points. When she reached the segment about goal setting, she indicated with an open hand the precious glob of fake fat resting beside the cookies.
Her speech slowed, she incorporated appropriate open gestures, and her eye contact and gesture were more often sustained. She began to examine the reasons for her choices. Looking at the audience gave her excellent feedback about their level of interest and attentiveness, while glancing briefly at the screen drew their attention to her visuals. Open, sustained hand-gestures felt awkward at first, but by rehearsing in front of a large window, she soon saw how much better it looked than her wildly flailing hands and her favourite resting position, the figleaf. She also observed that her audience relaxed once she used more open, deliberate movements and came closer to them during the opening and conclusion.
Despite all the improvements in gesture, posture, timing, and movement, this speaker was still damaging her relationship with the audience in an unusual way. After several years as a fitness instructor, she’d let her voice become overly expressive and silly at times. It probably was appropriate in the workout setting but seemed immature with this audience. Her most common problem was pitching-up on statements. “Our programs are all staffed by volunteers.”, sounded like, “Our programs are all staffed by volunteers?” She began to tape her remarks and play them back, and gradually learned to identify the disturbing pitch pattern. Once she was aware of it, she was able to rapidly correct the problem.
We used a similar taping / replaying / identifying approach to a second vocal problem. She often used identical phrase patterns repeatedly with a result not unlike a child repeating a nursery rhyme. At first many of her phrases were too long, and so the expression didn’t match the meaning. Read the following lengthy sentence aloud and place emphasis on the underlined words to understand how she obscured her message. “Our fitness programs rely almost entirely on volunteers like you who have some experience in the past with fitness and we’ll provide some training so you can make a contribution to our programs.”
First we worked to shorten the phrases and then to place emphasis on the important words to avoid a repetitive pattern. “Our fitness programs are usually taught by – volunteers. You could be one of those volunteers, if you have some fitness experience. Talk to me – if you’d like to volunteer. We’re going to offer a fitness instructor’s training course.” The goal wasn’t for her to memorize or learn the speech, but rather that she become aware of the real meaning of her remarks and make sure the emphasis reflected that meaning. Once she could apply these changes to a few speech segments, her phrasing and expression also improved dramatically in normal conversation and in less formal speaking situations. By using the tape recorder as a learning tool she had become her own voice coach.
Together we found one more excellent use for the tape recorder. Like most of us, this speaker had accumulated some favourite words, phrases, and filler noises. She often said, “Okay – - Now we’re going to…”, at the start of a sentence or “Okay?”, as if asking approval, at the end. In the first taping we counted twenty-seven uses of the word okay and determined she could eliminate twenty-six of them without changing the meaning of her speech. She agreed they were excessive but argued it really wasn’t that important. Once she listened to the tape of another speaker, who used many fillers and repeatedly used the word basically, she realized how unnecessary words and excessive ums and ahs undermine the authority of the speaker.
Excessive filler words work against a speaker because they annoy the listener. Because she wanted to build a strong relationship with her listeners, she again used the tape recorder to reduce her reliance on these meaningless and superfluous words. She would tape a small segment, play it back looking for fillers, note where they were, and try again. Using segments of under two minutes kept this exercise from becoming tedious, and she quickly learned to control her choice of language. She could have used the same technique to work on mispronunciations, grammatical errors, or poor articulation – all problems that can alienate an otherwise attentive and supportive audience.
You’ve just looked at one example of making choices and building delivery skills to enhance a business speech used repeatedly in company orientation sessions. In the next section, you’ll find a more list-like review of the choices a speaker must make to enhance delivery when communicating to an audience. You’ll again see the synergy of all the decisions you make as a speaker. For example, when you make a change in where you stand, you influence the type and amount of gesture you can use, and when you improve your posture, your voice improves.
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