Sunday, November 30, 2008

Work, Not Talent, Tends to Distinguish Speakers

I just read an article from Geoff Colvin, a writer I really like in Fortune magazine. It is titled "Why Talent is Overrated," and it is about how the notion of a "natural" in most endeavors is a myth*. I see lots of parallels in speakers.
  1. If at first we don't succeed, we give up. -- Many new speakers get in front of a crowd, and when they aren't the next Orson Welles, they give up. However, it takes some time and practice to become proficient. There are no known genes for public speaking. We need to develop our writing and our speaking styles. Very few speakers step up and hit it out of the park early. That's why pro speaker Darren LaCroix preaches, "Stage time, stage time, stage time."
  2. We are not always willing to undergo "deliberate practice." -- I spoke about this in my November 12 post. I once heard that successful people are willing to do what unsuccessful people will not do. Author Colvin speaks about deliberate practice, which comprises activities that are meant to deliver performance. I recently delivered a six-year-old, award-winning speech to a large group of Toastmasters. I did not take for granted that I knew the material. I practiced it repeatedly in my car, and gave it to three Toastmaster club meetings, each a different audience. The repetition led to familiarity, and the feedback led to improvement. Nothing magic or accidental there. Sure, there are other ways I would have preferred to spend my time, but I would not have had the payoff I received. More important, my audience would not have received so much value either.

  3. We don't set the right goals. -- When we have a speaking project, our goal is not the speech itself. As Colvin points out, "The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome. For instance, a speech whose end goal is to inspire the audience requires you to do more that fulfill those objectives. You need to make sure the speech is organized well, that you are using your body properly, that your vocal variety is effective, that you are using your props to full effect, et cetera. Meeting limited goals leads to limited development.

  4. We often don't see the benefits of our hard work; we focus only on the work itself. -- I once heard the great Zig Ziglar speak of his hard work to lose weight, when he arose early every morning just to job, until he reduced his weight and waistline but improved his health. He concluded that "we don't PAY the price of good health, we ENJOY the price of good health." Likewise, we enjoy building a good marriage, raising children and other goals in our loves. Likewise, we should all be enjoying work that goes into our speaking skills. That includes crafting the text of a speech, pulling together the various elements that will make it successful, and test-driving our work in front of various audiences. This is the price we pay for excellence, but it is hardly slave labor. There is always an opportunity to have fun with it.

We all have our barriers. A woman in one of my clubs became a competent communicator despite having a hearing impairment. I constantly struggle with a speech impediment, and I have to write my speeches in certain ways in order to avoid words that I will stumble over. John Stossell of ABC News and actor James Earl Jones had to overcome stuttering. But all of the work is worth it, as it is the only path to success, not the imaginary "natural talent." Geoff Colvin sums up in this way: "...The price of top-level achievement is extraordinarily high. Maybe it's inevitable that not many people will choose to pay it. But the evidence also shows that by understanding how a few become great, all can become better."

* Geoff Colvin's book, "Why Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else," is published by Portfolio Books, a member of the Penguin Group.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Value of Toastmaster Conferences

As I've noted throughout this blog, I'm a veteran Toastmaster, having won four District championships and competed in a Regional competition - the semi-final of the World Championship. My friend, JoAnn, is new to TM and she is working hard to develop her considerable native talent. But we both got a lot out of the weekend conference we attended for District 38 (Philadelphia and NJ). And it just shows the value of Toastmaster events, which are designed to benefit many levels of speakers with a wide variety of abilities.

The way the conference started was fun way for me. I was part of a Friday night "Humor Showcase" -- which basically means that a few of us got to tell funny speeches to a receptive audience that had been drinking. I gave a speech titled "Orchestra in My Pocket," which is about playing the harmonica. I wish I had committed it to YouTube to show you, because apparently it's funnier than it may sound. But the beauty of the event was that I wasn't competing and there were no time constraints, so I just riffed on it, just as Lenny Bruce brought a jazz mentality to comedy. Man, it was fun. Plus JoAnn got to see how I took a club performance, which was more staid, and embellished it without the constraints of time or in some cases taste.

JoAnn enjoyed seeing all the different people, the personalities and characters, that comprise Toastmasters. She also got to see all the elements that go into a good speech: the physicality, the vocal variety, the crisp writing, and in the case of the Table Topics contest, the wonder of extemporaneous speaking. In her words: "Watching all the talent makes me want to step up my game." She's ready to attend another one.

Her reaction and learning points illustrate why I encourage my fellow TMs to attend conferences. Even though I won the District Humorous Speech contest twice and also came in second another time, I still learned from the contestants, who were just remarkable. Like JoAnn, I was reminded of how one has to use the body and vary the voice. If I didn't think I could learn from these events, I wouldn't waste my time or money. But the people in my District are terrific. In turn, I'm very proud that many of them come to me for advice and believe I bring value. I always try to comport myself in a way that makes me worthy of that trust.

So JoAnn has a great attitude. She went there to learn not just to be seen and check it off her to-do She found lessons to incorporate into her speaking career. If you are a Toastmaster, I heartily recommend that you attend your conferences. Odds are that they are a worthwhile investment in your speaking career.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No Substitute for Memorization

Last night at one of my Toastmasters clubs, I delivered a humorous speech that I first gave five years ago. It's called "Orchestra in My Pocket," and it's about playing the harmonica. I'm surprised by its popularity in my local TM District 38. I won my first District championship, and I've been asked periodically to deliver at special occasions (sort of like the guest star; I pick up a free dinner every now and again.) It's sort of being Ron Howard; he won a couple of Academy Awards, but people only remember that he played Opie on Andy Griffith.
Anyway, the feedback was great last night, everyone laughed, we all had a good time, folks were surprised that I actually PLAYED the harmonica, etc.
At the end of the evening, a fellow member shook my hand and said, "Now you didn't memorize that speech, did you?"
I was surprised, because that is my mantra to my fellow TMs: "Always memorize your speeches." I asked why he thought otherwise. "Well, that's the loosest I've every seen you." The implication was that I so relaxed that had to be winging it.
Interesting observation on his part. So it only proves my point. You will never look relaxed if you are struggling to remember what you need to say next. You must memorize. And you must also structure the speech so that one point leads into another, without any sudden twists or turns. for example, I play certain melodies on the harmonica at specific points in the speech to cue the next section.
When I gave the speech last night, it was my first time in about four years. But I rehearsed in my usual way:
  1. I did several readings into a cassette recorder until I had about 30 minutes worth of recordings.
  2. I practiced by playing the tape over and over while reading the script. This formed a mental bridge in my mind between the aural and the visual. As I progressed through the actual performance of the speech, I could see the words in front of me, what I call a "virtual cue card."
  3. I also rehearsed during my driving time by playing the cassette in the car. (When I bought that car four years ago, I had to make sure it came with a cassette player. they are becoming scarce.
Apparently I looked relaxed when I gave it, so it must have worked. So I'm glad that folks enjoyed my speech, but I am also glad for the validation of my methodology.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A World View for My Book?

Got interesting feedback on my book. A publisher outside the country took a quick look at it is has expressed interest. He likes the subject and believes it would fit his titles. But he has an issue; he said that a have a USA book, not a world book. Hmm, that's interesting. He elaborated that I needed to see my subject as encompassing the world, not just the United States. Some three examples:
  1. I spoke of celebrating the New Year in Times. As he put it, "New Year's is New Year's. Unless you have a specific reason for mentioning Times Square, don't. Let it relate to your reader's experience of New Year.
  2. I spoke about the US economy as "our economy." As he explained, "Many of your readers may be US citizens, but many will not. The economy touches the entire world. When you talk about 'our' you set a barrier between you and anyone who is not a US citizen, which is most of the world's population."
  3. To make a point, I used a baseball story. He made the point that if I specifically needed to talk about baseball because it is the only way of making the point, then it may be okay. But if the same point can be made in a more universal way then do so. But I should forget individual teams. (In this case, I talked about the famous Red Sox collapse in 1986.) "For most of the world, these teams are just names," he explained. "Think of universal terms which will grab your reader with relevance wherever they happen to be: London, Sydney, Frankfurt, Singapore or Savannah, Georgia. If you don't, you limit not only your readership, but also your own authority on being someone who is a world expert on the subject."

Wow, good feedback. It's so easy to fall into the narrow American view of the world. I wasn't even thinking about world publication until I met this gentleman. Now that it's a possibility, I'm willing to do what needs to be done.

Anyone else have experience with international communication? I do, but I never thought I could apply it to be first book (still unpublished). Promising stuff.