Tweaking the Speaking

I ‘ve been speaking to audiences large and small since I was in fourth grade—when I delivered MLK’s “I have a dream” speech at church. The largest crowd I have ever addressed was at a rally at San Francisco Civic Center in 2002—40,000 people protesting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and against the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian territories. Since then, I’ve given many one-time lectures at universities, high schools, youth organizations, and policy organizations– in addition to teaching college and university courses. Most of my presentations have been of high quality; at times, I’ve been in the zone and seriously moved a crowd—on fire, the words rolling like crashing waves. A few times, I’ve made the mistake of speaking over the heads of my audience. You certainly can tell you are doing that when you look at the audience and see people sitting up tall like merkats with wide open eyes and befuddled gazes, straining to understand the information. One or two times, I momentarily blanked out and completely forgot what I was talking about. The one time this happened in an extremely noticeable way, a year and a half ago (perhaps it was from mental fatigue or a high TSH level or just nerves), a woman sitting in the front row whispered to me—“You’re okay, you’re okay. You got it.” And I got back on track. Thank goodness!! There’s nothing like being in front of a full room and thinking to yourself– what was I going to say? Thankfully, that hasn’t happened more than a couple of times. Anyway, it was a great gesture by this very nice woman. I appreciated it, because it refocused my brain and helped me get back on track. It wasn’t a great presentation at all, but those are the ones you can really learn from and make improvements and work to get better. It helps to get a video copy of your presentation to review. Remember, an audience, unless you are going into an unusually hostile situation, wants you to succeed. They feel awkward too if you mess up. The audience is on your side. So speaking, like writing or painting, is an art form, and one grows better with practice. Some performances are going to be better than others. If you have talent for it, some days you will be in the zone and may amaze the audience, other days it will be good but not great. But the job of a professional speaker is to make sure that you reach a level of consistency in your presentations, so that you never disappoint and that the audience always leaves feeling informed and hopefully slightly entertained.