Participation, not Observation

Fred Smith develops the point of encouraging participation not observation.

By Fred Smith

   One way we can improve out speaking skills is by remembering that our goal is not simply to have people quietly while we talk, but to have their minds actively engaged by our subject matter.

   One of the common mistakes made by speakers is trying to create false feelings by over-dramatization — by telling sob stories, or getting tears in their voice, or yelling. Listeners quickly realize that the speaker isn't depending on the subject matter to produce the emotion, but the dramatization. And when people are thinking more about how you're saying something than what you're saying, your effectiveness is lost.

   On the other hand, some are so deadpan, they might as well be reading a recipe or a research report. You'd never guess that thought real people were listening.

   In either case, my recommendation is to try more conversational speaking. People listen to it without antipathy. When I raise my voice, people have a tendency to put up a barrier to my increased volume. It's like that story about the kid who told his mother he'd decided to be a preacher. "Why?" she asked. "Well, if I'm going to church all my life, I'd rather stand up and yell than sit and listen to it." The minute someone starts yelling, people mentally distance themselves. Many preachers think they're doing this for emphasis, but generally it doesn't work that way. It deemphasizes.

   If I want to say something really important, I'll lower my voice — and people will kind of lean forward to hear what I'm saying. In a sense, you're putting intimacy in a point by lowering your voice. You're saying, "This point means something to me. I'm telling you something from my heart."

   By increasing the volume, often the point comes across as part of a performance than a heartfelt point you are making to another person. If you want your audience to digest what you are saying --- don't perform.

   I don't want people to observe. I want them to participate because the whole object of speaking is to influence attitudes and behavior.

   How do I encourage participation? Not necessarily by being entertaining. If people are listening for the next story or next joke, I've become merely a performer. I've got to be smart enough to know when my material is getting inside them. I may need to make them laugh. I may need a pointed statement. But when they are genuinely listening and understanding, they are participating.

   My goal is not to have people say, "Oh, you're such a great speaker." Then I know I've failed. If they are conscious of my speaking ability, they see me as a performer. They have not participated. My goal is for people to say, "You know, Fred, I've had those kinds of thoughts all my life, but I've never had the words for them. Now I've got words for them." Then I feel I've given them a handle for something. I've crystallized their thoughts and experiences into a statement or story and made it real for them. I've enabled them to give it to somebody else.

   Obviously speakers must do the talking, but you let the audience "talk,"too. You talk for them. If I'm making a controversial point, I'll say, "I can tell by your faces that you really don't agree with that." Or "You're saying to me, "that's all right for you to say but that doesn't fit my situation. And I agree with you because all of us are not alike."

   What I've done is to say their words for them. They're thinking, He understands. He's not trying to stuff this down our throats. And they want me to continue the conversation.

   The key here is to make sure we see the process as a conversation and not a performance.