Tuesday, June 16, 2015

When Public Speaking Works Best

I’ve never done improv comedy, but the recent piece in IHE about the benefits of improv training rang true.  I’ve seen it in my own public speaking.

At graduation this year, I introduced the recipient of the annual teaching award.  As it happened, this year it went to someone who teaches public speaking.

Publicly introducing someone who teaches public speaking for a living is a bit, well, intimidating.  She’s a professional.  Over the years,  I trial-and-error’ed my way to a method that mostly works for me.  

I say “mostly,” because sometimes it just isn’t in the cards.  Some days, for whatever reason, you’re just off your game.  On those days, it’s helpful to have enough technique that even in the absence of inspiration, you can at least come across as competent.  Inspiration can be encouraged, but it can’t be forced.

In my early teaching days, I discovered quickly that I couldn’t work from a script and still fill entire classes.  They were just too long, and a hastily prepared script read by a nervous t.a. sounds like, well, a hastily prepared script read by a nervous t.a.  It isn’t pretty.

But some of the early fails, as painful as they were, actually served a purpose.

Have you ever been at a pool, and seen someone do an unintentional, and presumably painful, belly-flop?  Do you remember how you felt when you saw it?

You probably didn’t heap scorn on the poor schlub.  You probably winced and felt bad for him.  He probably felt silly, and pained, for a little while, but then moved on.

The “moving on” is the important part.  Knowing, viscerally, that you can fall on your face in front of an audience and not die is liberating.  It makes improvisation possible.

The most annoying public speakers are the ones who simply ignore the audience.  That can take the form of endless droning, or, paradoxically enough, it can take the form of a hermetically-sealed performance.  One professor in grad school -- I won’t name names -- used to give remarkably smooth, canned lectures in the 300 student intro class.  I was impressed at his facility, and the complete lack of “um,” “uh,” or any discernible verbal tics.  Students hated him.  They saw him as an actor performing a part, utterly indifferent to them.  They were right.

My best moments as a speaker have consisted of a layer of improvisation on top of a prepared framework.  The words were substantially ad-libbed, but in a context that had been thought through in advance.  Having the safety net of a clear framework, the knowledge of where I was going, and the security of knowing that the worst that could happen wouldn’t do permanent damage, made it possible to follow the muse of the moment.  I could improvise knowing the direction I wanted to go, and having faith that I’d get there one way or the other.

The Boy is attending his first dance this week, squiring his crush.  It took him a little while to work up the courage to ask her.  I told him that the same principle holds when asking a girl out.  I got shot down plenty of times in my day -- not meaning to brag -- and it always stung in the moment.  But the next day, I was still there.  The world didn’t end.  It was okay.  I could shake it off and move on.  Realizing that the worst-case likely outcome wasn’t really that bad made it easier.  When he asked “but what if she says no?,” I could answer “well, what if she does?”  He didn’t have an answer for that, so he was able to ask her.

Preparation and improvisation aren’t opposites; the former actually improves the latter.  When you’re confident that you know what you’re doing, and that you could survive a face-plant, it’s easier to improvise effectively.  Besides, much “improvisation” is actually something closer to “set pieces.”  You may not have the words written out, but you have a relatively well-defined “bit” that you’re performing.  Sometimes it’s the connective tissue between the bits that requires the most planning.

I don’t know what a professional teacher of public speaking would say about that, but it seems to work.