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Master the arts of creating and performing talks

What the Oscars can tell us about speaking

Are you going to an Oscar party this year?

At the last one I attended, as we came into the party, we were given an Oscar “ballot.”  Each of us marked off our predicted winner for each of the many awards to be given.  While this could be used as a wagering tool, we simply used it to help sustain interest during the long show.  “Yes!  Best black-and-white short documentary in a foreign language!  I have five points now!”  As I marked my ballot, I noticed that there are many awards for acting and many for writing.  This is not a particularly astute observation.  I am sure you noticed this as well.  What may have escaped your notice is how profoundly this distinction should impact the way we understand and improve our speaking.

Someone creates the words.  Someone delivers the words.  These are two distinct talents.  The writer is probably not a great performer.  The performer is not likely to be a great writer.  But all speaking involves these two very different parts.  Whether we are speaking one-on-one, in a small group, or to a large audience, both parts are involved.  And for all us regular folks, we have to master both parts by ourselves.

Understanding the distinction between creating and delivering is the first step in becoming effective teachers of oral communication.  I refer to these two parts as creating a speech and performing a speech.  “Creating” refers to everything we do before we open our mouths; “performing” refers to everything we do as we are speaking. 

Let’s think about creating a speech first.  Sometimes the process is instantaneous—coming up with what to yell at the umpire after a bad call.  Sometimes we work hard to construct our comments—deciding what to say at the team meeting.  But before we speak, we do certain things.  If we are to be effective, we think about the audience and design our talk specifically for them; we come up with content; we organize our words; we may design some aids for the talk; and we adjust our appearance to fit the situation.  Again, we do this for all verbal communication, whether our audience is one person (interview), a few people (meeting), or many people (presentation), but we often do these things without giving them all as much thought as we should.  Some people are very good at building speeches and some professionals excel at this part of oral communication.  All the rest of those whose jobs require good oral communication, though, need to understand what is required before they ever utter a word.

Of course it makes no difference how well remarks are constructed if they are never spoken.  I prefer to use the word performance rather than the word delivery because I think the former does a better job of conveying what is really involved.  In any event, as we speak, we need to do certain things.  We need to be poised; we need voices that make it possible for every word to be heard; we need some life in our voices to avoid being dull and boring; we need to make eye contact with audience members; we need to gesture; and we need to pay attention to speed and pacing.   If we do those things, we will be effective conveying the message no matter what the situation is—interview, meeting, or presentation.  Some people are very good at performing and some excel at this part of oral communication.  But, again, the rest of those called upon to speak in the workplace need to understand what is required as they speak.

I realize that there are many ways to describe the skills I refer to here.  We have buried people seeking help with communication skills under an impressive number of descriptors: content, subject knowledge, information, appropriate facts, the 5 Ws, clear message, articulation, enunciation, elocution, speak clearly, intonation, expression, inflection, enthusiasm, and so on.  I will make an argument for consistency and simplicity another day.  Whatever language you hear, clearly separate the words that describe what we do before we speak from the words that describe what we do as we speak.

I sometimes get a “Well, duh” reaction when I explain this, as if everyone already knows this.  At some intuitive level, I think we all do know this but look around.  How many resources specifically talk about this crucial distinction?  How many books and workshops are being sold that don’t keep these separate blurring what is done before speaking with what is done during speaking (e.g., “Chapter 4: Content and delivery“)?  How many trainers/managers can articulate, “Well, I’m pretty good at constructing a talk but not so good at giving it” or vice versa? It seems that most “experts” don’t know this most important concept.

The distinction between building a speech and performing a speech is profound, and understanding that distinction will make a profound difference in the way we approach all oral communication.  It is the starting place for mastering speaking.