February 27, 2013

Nothing Beats Human

As I watched Jennifer Lawrence tumble up the stairs—and listened to and read the resulting media frenzy—I was reminded of one of the most frequent misconceptions I run into when people are preparing for a speech: that it will be good if it is “perfect.”: if we knock our audience out with our authority, our facts and statistics.

But as we saw with Ms. Lawrence, this is not true. If anything, her mis-step endeared her to America in a new way. Why? Because perfect isn’t interesting to watch. In fact, it can be exhausting, overwhelming, frustrating…. what we like to see is human. Here’s an example from my own client roster:

One of my first clients was severely hampered by his need to present a perfect front. For him this translated as being very ‘just the facts, ma’am’. This isn’t great anytime, but it really gummed up the works when he had to give an in-depth speech on improving relations between neighboring nations.

Our initial practices were tough. His face and voice were expressionless and he had a death grip on the podium, so I stopped him. “Tell me about a neighbor that you have.” “What?” “Tell me about an actual neighbor that you have.” At that, he launched into the most marvelous story about his eighty-five year old neighbor of thirty years—her feistiness and zest for life. As he spoke, his whole persona changed: his face lit up, his eyes danced, he released his grip on the podium.

These are the moments when I’m grateful for video. First, I had him watch his formal, ‘perfect’ speech, then his delightful, impromptu one.  As he watched, he saw the difference: the warmth and respect he had for this woman was so much more compelling to look at than his freeze-dried facts and figures. But what to do? How could we incorporate that humanity into the topic he had to tackle?

What we did was to write the name of his neighbor into the margin of his speech every time the word ‘neighbor’ was mentioned. This helped him stay connected to the ‘human factor’ in the word neighbor, and to his own very human feelings about his actual neighbor. After that we found human associations for other dry words and concepts he had to include.  These margin notes throughout helped him to stay connected in a heartfelt way to the material he had to cover. The upshot? He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand—delighted by both his humanity and his ability to make broad concepts feel accessible and immediate.

So the next time you’re faced with having to give a talk that’s heavy on abstract concepts, statistics, work-related procedural information—anything you’re finding it hard to connect to— I recommend taking the time to find a comparable trigger from your life that helps you connect to a very human emotion, then write that word or phrase in the margin. You’ll be amazed at how this will transform the information for your audience, and you in their eyes.

Frances Cole Jones

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