Monday, March 2, 2009

Public Speaking 101: A Case Study

Dear Friends,

Our reader, Kimberly Lynn, sent us this very funny clip from a 1966 film called The Ghost and Mr. Chicken , starring the late actor, Don Knotts.  God rest his howlingly funny soul. I remember watching this as a kid, and man, do I recall this scene. Talk about empathy pains!  In this clip, his character Luther, is giving a speech at a community event. As I watched this cringing and laughing, I thought what a great coaching piece this could be for all of us.  I was feeling his pain in particular, having just done a writing workshop two weekends ago where at last minute I was forced to change classrooms. I lost the ability to use the computer and projector.  You mean, I'd have to just talk?  Without my electronic props?  Say it isn't so! Take a look at the clip, and then come on back--

There are so many things that go wrong here that contributed to his melt-down.  Right out the gate, he has technical problems with a screeching microphone.  His hands are shaking.  His voice follows suit.  He loses his  notes.  He has people sitting close and behind him on stage, which can be unsettling to our kind.  A woman he has a big crush on is sitting in the audience. His opening joke goes over like a fart in church.  And, he is getting heckled.  What else? Well, his bowtie looks way too tight. That can't be good.  Finally, he is giving what seems to be a brain-numbing speech at a festive outdoor event, when people are probably stuffed with hot dogs and pie.  Anything I missed?  

So, imagine that you have been given the opportunity to freeze frame this public speaking debacle, jump in and give poor old Luther some in vivo coaching.  What would you say to him? How could you help him survive his public address? 

Keeping with the ghost theme here, I've got a copy of the latest Newberry winner, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, to the person that comes up with some of the very best coaching tips for him.  

I also want to point out that Robin has just posted the covers for three YA novels written by our accomplished readers in the sidebar on your right.  This is part of our newish showcase of our tribe.  Congrats to Tanita Davis, Cynthia Leitich Smith and Susan Schmid. May your books live long, and reach far and wide!

Best of luck to you and... peeps, help save Luther!  
Mary Hershey


Anonymous said...

Oh dear. Poor Luther, lol!

How about telling him to pick one person (not the pretty girl!), imagine the rest aren't even there, and just tell that one person what he has to say.

Rachel Green said...

buggrit! Sharigreen said what I was going to suggest.

How about ignoring everyone and giving the speech as if you were all alone, practicing.

tanita✿davis said...

*shudder* Poor Luther.

I was watching a Japanese animation film called My Neighbors the Yamadas, and the same thing happened to the father during a wedding. Each couple has to make a speech to wish the happy couple the best -- his wife accidentally handed him her grocery list instead of his notes. It was dreadful, but he improvised and talked about how horrible situations may come up in life -- and marriage -- but accepting that beforehand is the key. It was hilarious.

Unfortunately, I don't think there's anything I can say to help Luther. Except run when they ask you to give speeches.

Thank you for posting my book with such other celebrity authors! Whoo!

Anonymous said...

I saw Ghost And Mr. Chicken in theater as a kid and I was scared silly. I can still close my eyes and see the sheers stuck in the portrait.
poor Luther.

Thank you for posting my cover! I love the art which is the work of British illustrator Steve Stone. Speaking of scary, Stone has done a lot of Steven King's paperback covers.

Casey Something said...

Hello! I just discovered your blog yesterday. I'm thrilled with what you're doing. The promotion aspect of potentially becoming published scares the crud out of me!

Now, as for Luther... gosh, poor guy. I know nervousness and fear has a tendency to layer. Once you feel your body starting to panic it just gets worse and worse because you're SO aware of it.

Some things you can do (other than practice!) are:

Be well prepared.
Have a back-up plan.
Practice beforehand with friends and/or family.
Focus on relaxation /breathing techniques if you know you're going to be a mess.
Oh, and, of course, don't lock your knees.

Ha! At least Luther didn't pass out.

Yat-Yee said...

I applaud Luther for continuing despite the paper and the jokes and the shaky hands and voice. Good job, Luther!

If the advice is to be given *at the moment* and not for future events, I would just focus on the physiological: breathe deeply and slowly while smiling to show you know exactly what you're doing and that silence is part of your plan. When the heart rate calms down, then just say one thing that points attention elsewhere: "What a great town we have!" or "Isn't our band fabulous!" or "I love America!" and leave, waving cheerfully.

Anonymous said...

(I'm having to battle blogger to get this comment to post! Work, darnit!)

Poor Luther. That was painful to watch since I could see myself making a fool of myself in a similar way, though there are a few things I would do differently:

- As others said, practice, practice, practice. Know the words so that if you lose your place you don't stop cold, but if you do...

- Have fun with it. Luther tried, and it fell painfully flat. I saw author Sherrilyn Kenyon give a great speech at a writing conference last year, and most of her speech notes had been destroyed or splattered by a spilled drink on the plane ride to the conference. She stumbled over her words but was so sweet and honest about WHY, that everyone was laughing with her, not at her.

- Make your note cards sturdy! If you know you'll be speaking outside, use a spiral-bound index card booklet or notepad, or a fix larger papers to a binder or clipboard.

- Go up on stage when it's still empty. It will give you a feel for the arrangement and help you mentally prepare for the real thing.

- Suck on a cough drop or mint to help your voice. When I get anxious, I lose my voice. Most notably, this happened at my wedding and right before my agent pitch session at the aforementioned conference. A cough drop helped me have enough voice to survive.

- Dress appropriately, yet comfortably. Having a bow-tie cut off circulation isn't going to help. You need to dress right, but still be dignified. If a woman knows she needs to walk up stairs to a stage - but she's a klutz in heels - wear classy flats. If the strapless bra doesn't defy gravity the way it should, wear a different top or get a new bra. The last thing you need to be worrying about is flashing the crowd - you're supposed to imagine THEM naked, not the other way around (though that imagine-them-naked method never worked for me).

Anonymous said...

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is still one of my favorite movies. I actually have a copy of it in my office.


I especially love that particular scene, even though it is a little painful to watch. I’m not sure what advice I’d give Luther, other than you had better step off that stage and retrieve those blasted notes!

Also, it might be a good idea to have a second copy on hand—just in case.

And Mary, your situation renders me panic-stricken AND speechless!

Pray tell, what did you do?

Anonymous said...

Most people who give speeches for the first time think that if they know their stuff, it'll be fine. I certainly thought that! But really, what you need to do beyond that is NAIL your opening and closing. Your entrance, posture, greeting, ice breaker, and opening question to audience--just before you get to the meat of your speech, that is what determines people's energy and reception to you. Practice your opening and closing a LOT. Run it by a ton of people (if some of them don't like your ice breaker joke, have more than one back up hook: a story, a question, or a series of facts, or even engaging the audience by asking them to shake hands with each other or think back to a time when they felt ___). Know your opening cold, not just the words but the nonverbal patterns and the balancing act of connecting with your audience while you perform. Once you've got that audience connection, it's a natural confidence builder and you'll find it a lot easier to relax as you drill down.

Mary Hershey said...

Tons upons TONS of great stuff here. How will we ever choose? Thanks so much, everyone!

Mary Hershey

Mary Hershey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Uh . . .

Open with a joke?


Anonymous said...

I'm going to be a bit of a contrarian here, and say only memorize, really nail, etc., your opening if that makes you more comfortable. If, on the other hand, it pushes you back into yourself, so you're focused on reading your lines properly, instead of just talking to the audience, don't do it. I do much better if I don't know exactly what I'm going to say, if I don't script it too closely. I just jot down the points I want to make and go over those tirelessly -- how I present them is a thing of the moment.

The benefit for me in that is that the part of my mind that would be freaking out about the audience is busy planning how I'm going to make this point.

I think it might be really important to do everything you can to make yourself feel as secure as possible, whatever those things are. There is no absolute right or wrong, just what's right or wrong for the individual...

(In the interests of full disclosure, I'm just over the line into extraversion -- under stress I become more introverted, but under normal conditions, an extravert.)