Lately my work has been running along two separate but parallel tracks: coaching clients to be more effective and dynamic speakers who can communicate their authentic leadership, and writing (and rewriting) my latest play. That script is really taking off, and I will blog more about it later on. But for now I wanted to share something that struck me particularly this week as I was toggling back and forth between these two worlds.
In my play, I carefully craft dialogue to reflect what the characters are thinking, and what it is they are trying to communicate, as well as what they are trying to hide. This necessitates being omniscient--knowing what they know, what they are aware of, and what they are unaware of. So, as you can imagine, when my characters speak there is a lot of pausing, as well as unfinished sentences, interrupting, phrases that are imprecise followed by a "you know what I mean." Because on an intimate level, true interpersonal communication happens in the subtext, the feeling underlying what is said and not said. In fact, often the most important words are left unspoken (for a master of this, see anything by playwright Harold Pinter). The playwright uses this tool to reveal that a character is inarticulate, or does not understand, or cannot utter to words because they are too fraught.
All this is to say, though playwrights craft their characters' speech to reveal certain aspects of character to the audience, the characters themselves may be at a loss for words. Or they are speaking spontaneously, reacting to what has been said to them. Often the act of speaking itself is a sort of connection-making that says much more about them and their relationship to their conversation partner than the actual words do. Just like in real life! When we are engaged in private speech, that is.
So when I work with my students and clients on public speaking, I advise them to do the opposite of what my characters do. Since public speech, broadly defined, can be any type of speaking you engage in when you are not with your "nearest and dearest," it cannot be anything like the private speech I conjure up for my characters. In public speech, the words you say matter very much. You cannot afford to be inarticulate, or skirt the issue or leave things unsaid. You can get into huge trouble if you assume the listener can fill in the blanks. You must plan what you need to say, choose the best, clearest, least ambiguous way to say it, and then be ready to listen to what your conversation partner has to say as a way of furthering dialogue. Avoid the very human temptation to slip into the private conversational gambit of impromptu chit-chatting. You will reveal more than you intend!
The soundness of this advice has been proven to me and my clients time and again, and yet it is still occasionally met with resistance. Those who resist are generally the less experienced communicators who know they need help and so come to work with me. The other big bucket of naysayers are old-school top-of-the-heap blowhards who would never work with me in a million years. Somehow, when they find out what I do, they always feel compelled to brag about their excellent, spontaneous, loose, off-the-cuff communications style. They are lousy speakers, but since they are insulated from real scrutiny due to their positions (this is Washington, D.C., after all) no one ever tells them. Perhaps I will put them in a play someday; they are very entertaining!