Victoria Beckham has reportedly taken acting and elocution lessons so she will come across as ‘more human’ when she steps into Paula Abdul’s seat on American Idol.
And she shouldn’t be mocked for this: actors spend lots of time with vocal coaches, and that’s why they’re interesting to watch on the screen. Some people have it naturally, others need more work.
Barack Obama is human, Kevin Rudd… well, you can practically hear the whirring of the tiny servo-motors and sophisticated vocal synthesis circuits that make his performances so reasonably human-like.
Naturalness is a desirable quality in your presentations, but it’s hard to do in an environment as unnatural as the stage. Here are five quick tips to help you come across as more human.
1. Open With A Story About Yourself
Humans have weaknesses, and we have a subconscious distrust of people who come across as too perfect. So open with a story that opens a little window into you, the person, rather than you, the Human Resources Director or whatever your title might be. Thanks to social media, the whole world is broadcasting its personal life into the public arena, and sharing a little of it helps breaks the ice. Obviously it’s important to keep it relevant. ‘Here are some photos of my new baby niece’ won’t cut it.
But if someone can make a bestselling book and movie out of life lessons they learned from their Labrador, you can draw on your adventures with your family, dog, salamander, neighbors or clients for a few interesting anecdotes that will lighten up your subject.
2. Vary Your Vocal Tone
Flat, monotone delivery robs your delivery of naturalness and makes you come across like a corporate robot. Concentrate on varying your tone up and down. The secondary benefit of this is that the effort of doing it shows in your face, giving you more energy and a wider range of facial expressions. Watch TV presenters and see how they vary tone and pace.
3. Break The Rhythm
Normal human communication goes back and forth randomly. Speeches tend to follow a rigid routine: talk, click, talk, click, end, any questions? Pause from time to time, and ask the audience questions. Create a conversation rather than a broadcast. It’ll break you away from your pre-prepared answers and give things a more relaxed feel.
4. Don’t Fear Contractions
Some speakers come across like they’re reading a letter from a lawyer, because they believe that contractions sound unprofessional. So they say ‘We could not believe what we had seen’, rather than ‘We couldn’t believe what we’d seen’, which is how you’d normally say it. Cautionary note - this doesn’t extend to dropping your g’s, as in ‘We’re fixin’ to deliver them cost cuttin’ initiatives’.
5. Leave The Lectern
Audiences judge naturalness the same way nature does: by watching, listening, and sniffing the breeze. They look for signs of openness, like open palms, eye contact, smiles, a confident stance. Lecterns block all of that from view, leaving you as just a head poking up out of a box. If you want to come across as more human, loosen that death-grip on the lectern and come out where they can see you. That’s why experienced reality show judges rise up out of their chair when they want to get their point across.
I wouldn’t suggest you go this far, though, all that noise and teeth-baring can be seen as a threat in the animal kingdom or corporate world.
I’m working my way through a digital box full of Chaser episodes I missed while travelling, so apologies to readers in Australia for month-old news, but it’s important for our international visitors to see a world-class language mangler at the lectern.
I refer, of course, to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Orwell foretold his arrival half a century ago in when he wrote 1984, in which language was an important tool in keeping people under control. In Newspeak:
“Any word in the language . . . could be used as either verb, noun, adjective or adverb.” *
Watch Kevin as he pulls out an invisible sock puppet and drones out this stream of Kevspeak to the German media:
“It’s highly unlikely that you’ll have anything emerge from the MEF by way of detailed programmatic specificity.”
God knows what they would have made of that, given that Germans all speak much better English than this. Probably something like:
“Why does this man not use a professional speechwriter like every other leader in the world?”
Inspired by Will.i.am setting Obama’s words to music during the US Presidential campaign, The Chaser recruited a batch of prominent Australians to do the same for some classic Ruddisms.
Forget Yes We Can. Never have Appropriate Processes or Natural Complementarity carried such emotional power
The British have long been annoyed by American films that adapt stories of British heroism to widen their box office appeal.
After the film U-571, for example, most of the world knows that Americans led by Matthew McConaughey captured the Enigma code ciphering machine and turned the course of World War II.
Though to be fair to the film’s producers, if they were seriously trying to rewrite history, they wouldn’t have recruited Jon Bon Jovi into McConaughey’s crew.
Now the rewriting of war history has gone to the highest levels of British government.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown must have been nervous delivering his D-Day Anniversary speech. At home, it’s all scandals and party mutinies. He’s on edge, and he doesn’t want to make an embarrassing error, not when he’s on the same bill as the World Heavyweight Oratory Champ. And he mustn’t let himself get distracted by Mrs Sarkozy in the front row.
With all that on his mind, it was kind of inevitable that he would re-name Omaha Beach:
The speech itself was competent enough, though rather emotionless, like reading aloud from a history book rather than telling a story. Note that unlike Obama and his teleprompter, Brown keeps it old-school with lots of note shuffling and downward glances.
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A survey of 1000 people in England has voted British Prime Minister Gordon Brown the most boring speaker in the country.
He beat David Beckham and Kate Winslet. There’s a valuable lesson in this: the best way to get your company lots of media coverage, some of it as far away as Australia, is to do a survey of 1000 people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Really, Englanders, he’s not that bad. Here’s a quick 34 minutes of him addressing US Congress.
Brown is a perfectly good speaker. He tells a story well, he understands the rhythm of a sentence, he sounds responsible and dignified, which is how you want a PM to sound in difficult times.
And the rest of us out here in the English-speaking world think Scottish accents are cool.
His only issue is the hands. We’ve spoken of lecterns before, and how they give presenters something to grip.
PM Brown, gripping a chest high US-style lectern, looks like a butler bearing a wooden tea tray.
The survey did better on the positive side of things, rating uber-raconteur (and unlikely Twitter star) Stephen Fry as best speaker, beating even Barack Obama.
No arguments there. Here’s Fry talking about the joys of swearing. It’s intercut with scenes from old British TV shows - American readers might find Fry’s comedy partner vaguely familiar, it’s the youthful Hugh Laurie before he became House.
Really great presenters understand the power of imagery, using words to conjure up vivid pictures in the audience’s mind.
Like Barack Obama’s recent:
“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
That final line leaves a very clear image that will remain with the listener a long time.
Other images make you feel a bit, well, uncomfortable.
Regardless of how you feel about Kevin Rudd, nobody could accuse him of being a sexy man. Calm, methodical, in control, that’s what we expect from Kevin Rudd.
Over the car radio this morning came this news item:
“Kevin Rudd is set to unveil his stimulus package in Parliament today.”
Unveil? Stimulus? Package?
Please, think of the children. As we head further into difficult times, we must find different words for this sort of announcement.
With media full of Obama speech analysis, it’s not a good time for would-be politicians to come up short in the oratory department.
JFK’s daughter Caroline Kennedy has withdrawn her candidacy for Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat, citing ‘personal reasons’.
Helping her decision was a firestorm of media ridicule for a interview in which she said “y’know” 139 times. It made the average teenage girl sound like JFK by comparison.
It’s tough on her. She’s a well-educated, intelligent person, but she’s just not used to the spotlight, just like many presenters.
And when you’re nervous, there’s a natural tendency to fall back on a favourite phrase: going forward, like, anyway and other favorites. You don’t even know you’re saying them.
The only way to weed them out is to rehearse.
Start with informal rehearsals, just you in the office or wherever you feel comfortable. Videotape yourself. You won’t just pick up the “y’knows”, you’ll also notice physical mannerisms like touching your face or jingling coins in your pocket.
Then plan for an on-site rehearsal for the actual presentation, particularly if it’s in a staged environment. Everything feels different with a dark room and lights in your face.
Spend the time to get comfortable on the stage. Meet the AV techs and do a voice check. So when you hit the stage, you’re concentrating on a powerful opening and creating a link with the audience, not worrying if the microphone’s working properly.
Someone recently asked me who was the best speaker I’d ever seen.
I’m not a big fan of the holy-rollin’, pump-‘em-up, Nine Steps to Success school of speaker. They’re all the same, every last one of them.
I prefer presenters that break with the conventional templates, like Edward de Bono slumped over in his chair in the middle of the stage drawing squiggles, the Tom Waits of the overhead projector.
The best speaker I ever saw, coincidentally at the same conference as de Bono, was Noel Pearson, Director of the Cape York Institute, lawyer and aboriginal activist.
His passion is ending the handout mentality among his people, built up through years of good intentions from government and welfare agencies. He believes passive welfare is at the root of the social deterioration of indigenous people, and speaks of the balance between rights and responsibilities.
Not a standard topic for a conference on current business issues, rather than social ones, with an audience of overwhelmingly white finance and marketing types. He had the audience spellbound for an hour, without raising his voice or leaving the lectern. He painted a vivid picture of a world that few of us know or understand, and methodically explained how well-meaning actions can have the opposite effect.
If you define the success of a presentation by how effectively it changes the way the audience thinks, then this was up there with the best. It was a stunning display of… reasonableness.
Some lessons from Noel Pearson’s presentation style:
The Power of Not Being What They Expect
Pearson was calm, reasonable, and logical, which was not what the audience expected from an aboriginal activist. That instantly changed their willingness to listen. Kind of like Barack Obama’s success in escaping the stereotype of the Jesse Jackson-style firebrand.
Without wanting to trivialize what Pearson or Obama have overcome, we all have our stereotypes when we get up to present: Self-Indulgent Marketing Guy, Out-Of-Touch-With-Customers Finance Woman, Dandruffy IT Man. If you can break these expectations, their minds open up to your message.
You Don’t Have to Shout
A lot of speakers are really concerned about being ‘energized’, and that’s generally a good thing. But if you’re energetic all the time, there’s no light and shade. Speaking quietly and calmly can draw people in, making it seem more like a conversation than a broadcast. It creates intimacy, even in a large hotel ballroom.
Eye Contact: Show You Know Your Stuff
Pearson rarely looks down, even when he’s delivering a really complex message. Obviously his legal background helps. Apart from the non-verbal benefits of looking the audience in the eye, it shows that he knows his material, and he believes in it. When you see politicians reading from a script, you tend to think: “She doesn’t really believe that. She’s just reading something one of her staffers wrote.” If you’re really passionate about your topic, you should know your material.
The clip below shows Pearson speaking at a breakfast. He gets off to a nervous start, with lots of ums and face-touching. But once he gets the flow going, he has a superb command of language. It’s a compelling demonstration of the delicate art of telling people their views are wrong without causing offence.
Ian Whitworth believes passionately in the power of live communication, without the buzzwords and bullet points. He works as a creative director and principal of agency A Lizard Drinking. He is also one of the founders of audiovisual company Scene Change. Ian is an ex-professional presenter and long ago, ex-audiovisual technician. For non-presentation stuff, try @ianwhitworth.