February 21, 2011

Training vs. experience

Last week I was a judge in a student speech contest. It was a bit nostalgic for me, as I was on the speech team in high school (when they still had speech teams), and I could see my former so-earnest self in these students.

What stood out the most to me, besides the fact that these students were more articulate than most adult speakers, was the glaring contrast between training and experience. These are not the first high school student speakers I've ever encountered, but they were among the most trained, and it was enlightening to watch.

Each student gave a five- to ten-minute speech on the same topic. They were referred to only as speaker #1, #2 and #3, so the judges wouldn't be swayed by any possible personal connections. There were no introductions before the contest.

Once everyone had spoken and judging ballots turned in for tallying, the students were introduced, given certificates of participation and small scholarship checks.

Here's when things got more interesting. The students hadn't been told that they would be expected to say a few words at this point. They were not prepared.

The students' speeches had been highly choregraphed and mostly memorized, although at this level of the competition, they were allowed to read from notes. Their notes appeared to be written out word-for-word. Facial expressions, gestures and vocal inflections had all been rehearsed (the students are all aspiring actors, coached by an acting teacher).

While the speakers demonstrated some real feeling and occasional humor, I didn't experience much emotional response to the speeches or the speakers, even though the topic was somewhat "loaded" and controversial.

When it came time to talk about themselves, for just a few moments, two out of the three students were uncomfortable and clearly at a loss, and the third gave as brief a statement as he could.

They were reluctant, flustered, a little embarrassed, and had no idea what to say about themselves. One girl, in particular, was a completely different person than the one who had just given the speech -- ten times brighter, livelier and more personable than when she was giving her speech. But far less articulate, and I then understood the incongruous nature of her presentation. It was coming from a version of herself that was not authentic. It was like night and day watching these formerly eloquent and seemingly confident teens attempt a few impromptu sentences.

These students have all been trained to give a speech -- or memorize a script -- but not to connect with an audience: two very different things. We frequently see this disconnect on awards shows, when a highly trained actor is at a loss for words upon receiving the Emmy or Oscar, because speaking from the heart has been superseded by memorizing dialogue.

These students are still young, and still learning, and they have plenty of opportunities ahead of them to learn how to connect authentically with an audience and speak freely from the heart, no matter the topic or venue.

But I want to pass this message along to the adult speakers out there who focus solely on the planning, scripting, choreographing and memorizing of speeches: Training on techniques and rehearsing the words is not enough.

1. You must learn to engage emotionally with your material in order to engage emotionally with your audience.

2. You must make opportunities to speak in front of a wide variety of audiences.

3. You must allow yourself to be human and real, to be the same person onstage that you are offstage.

4. You must take every opportunity to speak off the cuff when the occasion warrants it.

5. You must learn to speak to audience members as individuals, as though having a one-on-one conversation with each person.

6. You must be willing to throw away the parts of your "script" that aren't working and just be with your audience.

Only through many varied experiences (both good and bad), will you fully develop as a speaker, as someone confident enough to stand up and talk freely, articulately and comfortably about yourself for two minutes with no preparation.

What would you add to this list?

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