Once a month or so, I attend a Speakeasy Group that I also help to organise. Speakeasy runs Groups that meet regularly and cultivate speaking, storytelling, communication and leadership skills.
The Groups meet in posh corporate meeting rooms sponsored by major professional service firms (whose staff benefit hugely from attending Speakeasy) where the latest presentation technology is laid on and the aroma of coffee and sophisticated titbits wafts across the room.
At each meeting, three of four members volunteer to dry-run a five minute talk or presentation. It could be on their core business or another subject close to their heart.The rest of the Group is totally-involved for a couple of reasons: first, they know they will also have to face the same speaking gig at some point and so are keen to watch and learn; second, they are expected to help the speakers with feedback that enables each speaker to improve.
This shared speaking experience that binds Groups together develops relationships: almost as a side effect, the Groups have proven to be a powerful networking forum.I originally got involved to improve my speaking and storytelling performance when I give presentations and communicate with business contacts. I also wanted to deal with the nerves, dry mouth and brain freeze I experience in front of an audience.
However, I have come to realise that, even if you are a professional writer or communicator, you can learn a great deal about your craft from improving your public speaking.Here are some of the lessons I have picked up from hard experience at Speakeasy:
1. To improve readability, read your written work aloud.You’d be surprised at how many stilted sentences you’ll find if you run your copy through your vocal cords rather than just scanning them mentally.Find a quiet place at work or home and read your words aloud. As a bonus, your words will begin to sound more conversational as well as readable.
2. Be concise.Thinking about being concise has helped a Speakeasy Member, a senior relationship manager at Barclays Bank, to improve communication with her customers:“In a busy day, there is only so much time for each customer,” she says. “Practising five minute presentations – without notes and PowerPoint – has freed me from a corporate straitjacket. I now speak to customers genuinely from my heart and their reactions, and my productivity, has skyrocketed. My boss has asked what I’m on!”
3. Count fillers and parasite words.
At some Speakeasy meetings, someone may volunteer to count “aahs” and “ums”, along with parasites like “you know” and “like”, and, a weakness of mine, sentences that end in “so”.
Try it out yourself: while sitting in a dull meeting or listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4, discreetly tally these parasite words. You’ll be amazed even to see professional communicators littering their remarks with “ums”. In time, you will find yourself doing it less often.
Alternatively, deliver a three-minute impromptu oration to a colleague, spouse, friend or other listener and have them count your parasite phrases as well as give you feedback on your storytelling capability.
4. Solicit feedback.
Members critique every talk in Speakeasy in a good-natured way: it is constructive – not so much eliminating the bad as building on the good. Grammarians and “um” counters offer their thoughts but there is also a plethora of excellent suggestions on how to improve.There’s even someone whose job is to monitor and critique the meeting itself: a professional – actor, presenter, comedian, author or performance poet – is present to offer tips from their background and experience.
If you want feedback, a good general question is, “Does this work?” One of our Speakeasy Members, a dynamic presence herself, keeps urging us not only to compliment but to criticise gently as well.When you are subject to the generous attention of the room after your talk, the hardest thing to do is shut up and listen! There is an almost unstoppable urge to justify yourself and your approach.
Ashley Boroda, a Business Presentation Skills Coach and former stand-up comedian who helps at Group meetings, observes that Speakeasy has provided “a cost-effective way to test new material in front of live audiences. The Speakeasy feedback helps Members refine presentations and eliminate mistakes before getting in front of audiences that really matter”.
5. Start with a story.Storytelling is an underestimated skill.
Anyone in business can learn to tell a ‘story’ in a much more authentic, passionate and engaging way. Authentic storytelling with an introduction, middle and end can liven up the dullest business presentation.Build your story from the conclusion – what you want to happen next. Be personal and don’t just use the party line. Include personal anecdotes and core beliefs.
6. Borrow techniques from famous orators (or any orators!).
Famous orators use grammatical techniques to stir emotions, remain memorable and stimulate action.Remember Winston Churchill’s “…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
This is called an anaphora: in Greek, it literally means reference point. It is a word or phrase used repeatedly to emphasise a concept and to link a series of phrases, sentences or paragraphs.
In Martin Luther King’s famous rallying call speech during the Civil Rights Movement, he used a powerful anaphora: “I have a dream”. He used the phrase at the beginning of eight sentences, with dramatic pauses, and delivered one of the most powerful speeches of all time.
If you repeat a phrase at the end of a series of sentences, it is an epiphora. A week after Hurricane Katrina devastated the USA’s Gulf Coast late in the summer of 2005, the president of Jefferson Parish, Aaron Broussard, employed an epiphora in an emotional interview with CBS News: “Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot”.Similarly Barack Obama, during his candidature for the Democratic nomination, employed the anaphora: he used two – “This is the moment” and “Yes, we can”. He used them repeatedly and they became campaign-rallying cries.
The triad is a also useful and simple technique: it is used to create a memorable threesome, a list of three points, factors or reasons linked by a common word or phrase.Psychologically, three of anything is a very satisfying number. We can remember a list of three very easily and the power of the triad is its impact and ease of recall.
This triad is from an Apple 3G advertisement (in 2008):“It’s what helps you get the news twice as fast. Find your way, twice as fast. And download files, twice as fast.”
7. Be prepared to think on your feet.
Occasionally, we do not fill the four speaking slots at Speakeasy. Instead, we are set quick talking tasks based on a number of on-the-fly items: objects – we devise metaphors based on everyday items. Or we are asked to talk for two minutes about an occasion on which we changed a business or an individual’s life.Andrew Thorp, founder of Speakeasy Groups, suggests this exercise: “When I see something in the paper, or online, or hear something that triggers an idea for a blog entry, I look at it as if it was a Speakeasy topic. It makes the blog entries easier to tackle and the result is often more readable”.
8. Seize every opportunity to talk in public.
Every chance you get, exercise those storytelling muscles. If you’re not a bit nervous or excited about speaking, you’re not challenging yourself.If you do give a speech, redraft it for your blog and other social media sites. A series of blogs on speaking subjects can develop into something bigger. Instead of just thinking in the shower, you are getting your thoughts down online.
9. Speaking skills mean leadership skills.
If you want to lead, you can’t sit back silently in meetings. You need to express your thoughts, articulate your beliefs, motivate people.Even if you don’t join a Speakeasy Group, you can still practice the lessons learned from a trip to the podium.