Learn The Gettysburg Address (But Don’t Try To Memorize Your Own)

Memorizing you own speech is almost never a good idea. Reciting something word for word usually sounds stiff and unnatural, and can be a disaster for speakers who forget their place in the middle and can’t get back on track without starting over from the beginning.

But this video accompanying Ken Burns’ “Learn the Address” project is a good way to introduce kids (and the rest of us) to a bit of history by encouraging them to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Which is a pretty manageable exercise since it’s less than two minutes long and so much of the language is already familiar to most people. It’s also kind of fun to see who does well with their line readings (generally the newsreaders and politicians) and who doesn’t quite manage the gravitas (Taylor Swift) to pull it off.

You can also spend time browsing all the other videos people have posted of themselves reciting the speech. Didn’t know what Vicki Lawrence has been up to lately? She’s been learning the Gettysburg Address!

Gettysburg Address “Mashup”

Learn The Gettysburg Address (But Don’t Try To Memorize Your Own)

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Public Speaking Disasters: Miss Utah’s Second Chance

It’s always nice to see someone get a chance at redemption, and Marissa Powell got hers this morning on The Today Show. Asked the same question she famously flubbed over the weekend, she did much better when she just gave a straightforward answer (just as I had suggested). Once she can drop the trappings of the pageant she also seems much more natural and charming.

Think about how you can apply this lesson in your own presentations. Can you get rid of the formalities (slides, script, lectern) and just talk to people? Chances are your audience will like you better and you’ll be more effective.

Miss Utah Marissa Powell on the Today Show

Public Speaking Disasters: Just Answer The Question

I have to admit, I love a good beauty queen breakdown.

Luckily, there’s a steady stream of them and we seem to have a new candidate for “worst answer since Miss Teen South Carolina Caitlin Upton’s” after every pageant. This week it is Utah’s Marissa Powell being asked how to solve the problem of unequal pay for women and responding:

I think we can relate this back to education, and how we are … continuing to try to strive to [long pause] figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem. And I think, especially the men are … um … seen as the leaders of this, and so we need to try to figure out how to create educate better so we can solve this problem. Thank you.

Honestly, I don’t think this answer comes close to taking the crown from Miss Teen South Carolina. How could it when Miss Utah doesn’t even manage to work “the Iraq” into her response? But it’s still pretty incoherent and a great opportunity for us to feel superior.

So what do we have to thank for these entertaining disasters that wind up being the most memorable events of these overblown pageants? The contestants are young and probably don’t have much experience speaking in front of an audience–anxiety is almost certainly an issue. But a big part of the problem is that they are over-prepared. Just like a political candidate, every pageant contestant has a platform. So, instead of just honestly answering the questions they are given, they do their best to work in their platform agenda while trying to sound smart and smile in a way which won’t make their lips stick to their teeth. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. What do you want to bet that Powell’s platform had something to do with education (which, ironically, would have been the best angle for Caitlin Upton to have used)?

It may have been years since your last beauty pageant, but there’s still a lesson here for all of us. If you find yourself taking questions during a presentation, do your best to answer them in an honest and straightforward way. Audiences are quite adept at detecting bullshit and will quickly turn on a presenter who they see as dishonest or phony. Most of us just aren’t quick enough to speak and spin at the same time.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t prepare answers for questions you can anticipate, especially when you’re talking about emotionally fraught topics. Just deal with them honestly and don’t try to pigeonhole the answers to fit your own agenda. Always remember that if you want your presentations to be successful they need to meet the needs of your audience, not your own.

Miss Utah Marissa Powell

Miss South Carolina Caitlin Upton

Presentation Skills: Introverts and Extroverts

I really liked the TED version of this presentation because of the way that Susan Cain talked about her own struggles as an introvert with public speaking. That’s not in this condensed version, but some of my other favorite parts are, including the research that shows that audiences find extroverts to be more persuasive and believable than more introverted speakers.

I love this kind of science, but the idea that extroverts are more convincing is understandable even on a common-sense level. Extroverts tend to be much more engaging and more enthusiastic, both of which help an audience pay attention and stay focused on what’s being said. Enthusiasm is particularly powerful because it can be quite contagious and help win people over to a presenter’s point of view. If you think about it, the RSA videos are kind of like the “extroverted” versions of the original talks. They’ve been edited and animated to make them more engaging and entertaining.

As a closet introvert myself, I know that I’m a much more effective public speaker because I make a conscious effort to be more extroverted. I try to bring as much energy as I can to every presentation, I tell my best jokes and stories in an attempt to be entertaining, and I talk to people that I don’t know in a way I’d probably never do if we were random guests at a party.

The difference between being an introvert and at least being able to act like an extrovert is often the difference between success and failure in a presentation. Maybe you’re not a natural extrovert, but a lot of people (including Susan Cain and myself) aren’t, and we’re doing passable jobs at public speaking. Can you manage to be an extrovert for 30 minutes? An hour? Try giving it a shot. If you’re still having a hard time, try co-presenting with someone who is more outgoing than you are. I find that I’m even more successful when I’m paired with someone who is an extrovert (or seems like they are one).

That doesn’t mean that I’m telling you to be fake, to put on a personality that isn’t your own. Audiences react badly when they perceive that someone is acting “phony.” What you want to do instead is be the best, most interesting and energetic version of yourself.

RSA Shorts–The Power of Quiet

Informal Presentations: Building Relationships

Building relationships, not a client list

I didn’t notice the slogan on this taxi receipt until I was home from Texas and figuring out my expenses last week. But I immediately knew which driver had handed it to me.

On its own the phrase “building relationships, not a client list,” wouldn’t even register with me. It’d be just another meaningless promise, like “Chevron Cares.” But this guy had made an impression on me. When you get a taxi driver who tries to engage you it’s usually awkward. They insert themselves into your conversations when it’s not appropriate or they make small talk about the weather or where you’re from when it’s clear that they really don’t care. It’s so obvious that they’re just trying to increase their tip that I generally try to look busy with my phone to avoid the chitchat.

This guy, however, made it look effortless. He didn’t trot out the standard conversation-makers and he didn’t interrupt when my business partner and I were talking. But he helpfully explained that the insane-building we were wondering about was the Perot Museum (of course!) and entertained us with a story about a previous passenger and why we were hauling her bag around in the car with us. He made the ride so easy that it actually seemed like we already had a relationship. When we arrived at the airport he handed me his card and said “call me next time you’re in town and need a ride.” And it actually seemed like a good idea to me.

I always tell people that they should treat all of their interactions like little informal presentations. Talk to people. Learn something about them and share something about yourself. See if there’s anything you can do to be helpful to them. And, above all, be genuine. Because as soon as people think you’re acting insincere or, worse, like a salesperson, they’ll do whatever they can to distance themselves from you.

In other words, build relationships. Because you never know when they’ll be useful.

Michelle Obama’s 2012 DNC Speech

Despite the fact that an election season like this one provides a wealth of material, I usually avoid commenting on political speeches. But I’m going to make an exception for Michelle Obama’s speech last night because, even if you didn’t understand or agree with a word of what she said, it would be difficult to argue that she didn’t deliver an incredible performance. She was warm, funny, and seemed comfortable on that huge stage. Best of all, she used personal stories to illustrate her ideas instead of making political attacks.

Back in July the President said that his biggest failure had been his inability to tell the story of his first term. Maybe he should have let his wife do it earlier and more often.

Aaron Sorkin’s Syracuse Commencement Speech Rerun

Aaron Sorkin was recently caught “borrowing” his 2012 Syracuse University commencement speech from a very well-regarded source–himself. It turns out that much of what he says comes directly from a convocation he gave in 1997 at the very same school. In their coverage Slate calls this recycling, but it seems to me that the more apt metaphor would be the rerun, especially since the speech also borrows from Sorkin’s TV shows, including The West Wing and Sports Night.

I’m torn about how I feel about this. Anyone who speaks to an audience reuses their best material, but it seems to me that an audience at an event like a commencement speech expects an original, inspirational performance, not something that has been re-purposed from elsewhere. It’s a little like making the same remarks at two different funerals. They might be nice words, but they lose their impact when you know they’ve been used elsewhere.

Of course all of this would have been much easier in the era before we all carried around video cameras in our phones and everything was available for study on YouTube. Then all of the Syracuse grads could have enjoyed the speech without having known they were watching a rerun.

Slate’s story