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Speaker's Digest | Fundamentals of Public Speaking | EMS Glossary of Terms

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Speaker's Digest

October 2016
Volume 15, Number 9

In this issue:

Should you read your speech or speak without notes? We say it time and again: leave your text at home when you want to make a powerful impression. This month, we share another example of an impressive presentation given without notes or a teleprompter. Then, there's some interesting research from a psychology professor showing how vocal tone-and eliminating upspeak-can make you seem more influential in group settings. Finally, a good reason for you to watch Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: a reminder that non-words come in different shapes and sizes, and how their overuse detracts from your message.


In a recent campaign speech, Michele Obama demonstrated a lesson for presenters that we speak about often: when you feel strongly about a topic and want to make a powerful impression on your audience, leave your notes behind and speak from your heart.

Appearing at a rally in New Hampshire for Hilary Clinton, Ms. Obama decided to tune out the teleprompter, and her speech made a huge impact. Jena McGregor of The Washington Post called it "the absolute master class...in that elusive quality of leadership: authenticity."

Obama told personal stories. She shared real emotion in reaction to the now-infamous taped conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush. She talked about her experiences being a black woman in America as well as a mother who is raising two teenaged daughters. As McGregor said, there was "no hint of a speechwriter or script."

The teleprompter WAS there, but she only seemed to give it the occasional glance. It's hard to know if the speech she delivered was all that different from the speech on the screen, or the extent to which she rehearsed what she had to say. She certainly didn't appear to stumble over words, or resort to using non-words to fill an uncomfortable gap. It didn't matter. Her passion and emotion came through stronger than any of her words.

The lesson for all you presenters out there-when you bring a natural energy to your delivery, whether it comes from passion or emotion, excitement or frustration, you're more likely to break through to your audience. And it applies in all situations, whether a conference room presentation, a panel interview, delivering a webinar or participating on a conference call.

In a season packed to the gills with election speeches by seasoned politicians, Ms. Obama's was one that stood out and made headlines. She took a political speech and made it personal. She was obviously responding to outrage about Mr. Trump's statements, but by sharing her personal experiences, and linking them to the experiences of other women across the country, she was stepping down from her position as First Lady and effectively speaking as one of the masses.

She seemed spontaneous, not rehearsed. Just as she expressed optimism, she expressed pain. McGregor concluded, "As Obama showed, personal stories, a natural delivery and raw emotion can help leaders get at that amorphous quality of authenticity. But it must also come from the gut."

Read her comments and watch the speech here.


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THE TONE Of influence

Research from a psychology professor at our alma mater, the University of Illinois, appears to affirm that the way you say something can often have a bigger impact than the words themselves.

In a paper published earlier this year, she described researchers observing groups working through problem-solving situations, documenting both the words people spoke and the way the rest of the group reacted to them. They concluded that speakers who lowered their voices, or whose voice went down in pitch at certain points of the conversation were more influential and dominant than those whose voices went up.

The research was led by Joey Cheng, assistant professor of psychology in Champaign-Urbana who studies the hierarchies of human interaction, seeking to understand, according to her website, how people "attain influence, power and social status" in group situations.

In this situation, she brought together groups of people-meeting each other for the first time-charged with figuring out how to survive if they were stranded on the moon. Given a list of items, the group had to rank order them in terms of which would be most critical for survival. Groups were recorded, and individual statements were analyzed to identify a "trajectory of pitch" to see how they related to the influence of the speaker.

"Consistently, one or two would rise to become influential in the group, and we found that those who ended up becoming leaders had voices that went down in pitch early in the sessions," explained Cheng in a radio interview." She added that the process seems to operate below the radar, "without anyone consciously thinking about the mechanics of using voice or responding to it."

The results, Cheng said, mirror what is known about members of the animal kingdom, in which predatory animals, for example, deepen their roars to fight off competitors.

To us, it's not a surprising finding that vocal tones that deepened or went down in pitch had a stronger impact than those that went up. Upspeak is a tendency we coach our clients to avoid in order to sound less tentative. However, we note that Dr. Cheng's research found the correlation between tone and dominance, which she differentiates from respect and even likability.

"Our study adds to the evidence that humans, like many other animals, use their voices to signal and assert dominance over others."

Read the article by clicking here, or listen to a radio interview by clicking here.


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non-words, comedian-style

We have always wanted to write about the online show Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee, in which Jerry Seinfeld takes different comics and comic actors out for coffee and a bit of fun. As part of the show, he picks out a pristine, vintage car-based on what he knows about his guest-and calls the guest to arrange a pickup. There's always coffee involved at some point during their visit, and some laughing as well.

We recently watched Seinfeld with comedian Jim Gaffigan on the first episode of the show's 8th season. Seinfeld picked him up in a 1977 Volkswagen Bus in sage green with the Westfalia camper option (chosen because Gaffigan apparently lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan with his wife and four children), and they went "city camping" for a bit before they ended up chowing down on amazing-looking pastrami sandwiches at the 2nd Avenue Deli.

Throughout the episode, Seinfeld noticed a verbal pattern in Gaffigan's conversation that we think betrayed his insecurity. He teased his guest for using the word "right?" after he finishes a joke. In a quick video montage at the end of the show, Gaffigan is shown to say "right?" well over a dozen times.

It was subtle but noticeable. When Gaffigan would share a line that he wasn't sure would engage Seinfeld, he would add "right?" at the end, as if to say "I'm not sure if that was funny, what do you think?" At one point, Gaffigan tells Seinfeld that he thinks "a sense of humor is a form of intelligence, right?" Then he adds, "I think my point is...I'm brilliant. Right?" Seinfeld laughs and responds, "I believed you were brilliant right up until you said, "right?"

The context here was famous comic talking to legendary comic, but was the "right" part of Gaffigan's intended character, or a non-word that betrayed a lack of confidence?

This particular subset of non-words are mostly used at the end of sentences or statements, and serve to punctuate or confirm what was said. Gaffigan definitely was using it this way. Others might say "you know?" "eh?", "ok?", "know what I'm saying?" or "got it?"

Not only do these words and phrases take up space where a pause would be much more effective, but as Gaffigan showed, they do convey a lack of self confidence, a fear, or a concern, even a small one. If that's not part of the message you want to communicate, please leave your non-words at the door.

Watch the full episode by clicking here or fast forward to the end to see the "right?" montage.

Since this is World Series time, and we're White Sox fans, we're not going to say "Go, Cubs!" But we do send out good wishes to our many friends and readers who are Cub fans (and a few Indians fans). Hope this is your year! Thanks again for reading.


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