Master the arts of creating and performing talks

Blame the messenger.

You have heard the phrase before. Someone brings you some bad news, and, as you begin to get upset, he says, “Hey, don’t blame the messenger!” At a job I had years ago, our team leader said it often. He came back from meetings with reports of all the new things we had to do, new forms we had to fill out, new laws we had to be aware of, and new programs we had to implement. As we got agitated and began to complain, he always used the phrase on us. It certainly seemed fair. Why vent at him when it was the policy we hated? Don’t blame the messenger.

Lately, I have come to think a bit differently. There are cases where we should blame the messenger. For example, I attended a webinar about more effective ways to use video for instructional purposes. I think the message is an important one. Many trainers are going to have to figure out how to create online instruction, few have expertise in the area, and many are going to be hesitant or resistant. We can kid ourselves, but change is difficult, and trainers are generally buried. Training concerns, new technologies, shifting requirements, and meetings are all-consuming. An SME may have time to explore new video technology, but the average trainer doesn’t so someone has to be the messenger to bring the new information to the trainers—and that messenger had better be good.

Which brings me back to the webinar. What was really needed there was a high-powered communicator with excellent oral communication skills. First, the speaker had to make sure the presentation was designed for the audience: trainers interrupting their day who are not really looking for a product pitch or complicated jargon. I was stunned that the presenter seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking. The speaker should have well-designed visual aids that engage the audience, but instead we saw the typical PowerPoint slides with bullet points and massive text. Who wants to see that on the small screen? (Or the large screen, for that matter.)  The speaker should have content that is understandable, but instead we were buried in jargon: “CPL can be done through your LMS, but with our GVLS system your content curation is…”  Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed. It was poorly constructed.

Of course, as readers of Own Any Occasion know, constructing a talk is only half of the speaker’s job. The talk has to be delivered. Poor delivery can make well-made presentations worthless. Let’s look at a key element of performance, life. In person, speakers command some attention; in a webinar, the absence of a physical speaker diminishes the attention level of the listener so the speaker has to be exceptional. The speaker has to be lively, engaging, animated, powerful, and maybe humorous. These are necessary to sell any new idea. Unfortunately, the webinar speaker was none of those. Most attendees left the webinar before it was over. Blame the messenger. He ruined the presentation and poisoned the idea of using video.

The cost of ineffective oral communication is high. Recently, I visited Curtis School in Los Angeles to examine their progressive communication initiatives. They realized that an effective school requires great verbal skills among all the adults: teachers in the classroom, at parent-teacher conferences, and at back-to-school nights; leaders presenting new initiatives to teachers and parents; support staff (the first people parents see when they enter the school); staff members who present at workshops and conferences. Education is a verbal business, but not all educators are comfortable or competent speakers. They realized that all of their staff needed to be better communicators. Is that true at your workplace, too?

Most adults would benefit by improving their speaking skills. We are the messengers. How many great ideas in your business died because they were presented poorly? How many employees get upset because a manager communicated poorly? How many times have you looked around at a staff meeting and seen glazed eyes and clear disinterest? If these have happened, blame the messenger. Or better yet, get them some help.