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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

When funny isn't


It's an old story: "comedian misses target, shoots self in foot." We expect that when amateur comedians, and even professionals, are trying out new material in a comedy club. But when they are acting as MC for an awards luncheon, the job is somewhat different; they need to walk a finer line. I am sure they know this, intellectually. But they cannot resist. So it shouldn't surprise me when something like this happens. Vanessa Bayer was tasked with providing an opening monologue, so I guess we could cut her some slack for thinking she was the entertainment. But her real job was to honor six women at Variety's Power of Women luncheon. So even if she was going to throw in a joke, she should have made darn sure it wasn't going to be one that would denigrate a woman, especially the mother of one of the honorees. But her friends who saw her rehearse her monologue probably told Vanessa it was "edgy" and "cool," and so she went with it. And bombed. 

I understand this is an occupational hazard for comedians. Sometimes the jokes just don't work. Even for the pros! So why do non-professionals insist on sticking random jokes in their speeches? Just last week I had to lay out my argument for excising a joke from a client's speech. As you can tell from the date of this blog post I have been singing this tune for years now. But the problem seems to be getting worse, not better. These days, with increasing pressure to include "tweetable moments" in every public appearance, speakers are trying to up their game and social media profiles by including a few "zingers" and "one-liners." My advice: don't!  You can make straightforward statements of belief, share compelling snapshots of your vision, and/or dazzle us with the facts in ways that resonate well enough to be tweetable. But leave the comedy to the professionals! If even SNL stars can't get it right all the time, realistically, what hope do you have?


It starts with structure

I finally got to see Hamilton on Broadway late last month and it was as amazing as everyone says! Since I am both a history buff and a theatre person, I was pretty sure I was going to love it. The music and story are familiar to me by now, but what really impressed me was the staging, choreography, and very specific use of space. The choices a director makes regarding the set, and how the actors move through the space defined by that set, reveal volumes about his plan to bring words and notes to life.

I also marveled at how the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, shaped the script. I have read the Ron Chernow biography, and I have written a few plays myself based on history and biography. So I am always intrigued to see how other dramatists pick and choose which part of a true story to tell, how to minimize the need for "artistic license" while condensing a life or part of a life into two hours and change. I settled into my seat at the Richard Rogers Theatre that night with a few questions about the structure of Hamilton. But they were all answered when I saw the play. The choices Miranda made worked perfectly in the fully-realized production. Any holes I perceived were due to my partial experience of listening, not seeing.

I bring my playwrights' perspective of structure to my work with speaking clients. When crafting speeches we often run up against the same issues a playwright does: where to focus our story, which parts to tell, and how to structure the telling so the story is fully revealed. Often this means making decisions that are as painful for my clients as cutting a favorite character is for me. Or eliminating the third Cabinet Battle must have been for Lin-Manuel. But we have to be selective. We have to hold back some of the things we want to share, otherwise we confuse the audience. If we give them too much information or lead them down a mental side street we can lose them before we get to the main point. And then we have set ourselves up for failure, because audiences stop listening when their enthusiasm and interest evaporate.

Some of my clients realize this, but many don't think issues of structure and right-sizing pertain to their material or occasion. They think getting to the point is all that matters. So they do some sort of vague intro at the beginning, tick off their main points (often with far too great a level of detail) and conclude with "any questions?" And they wonder why their audiences are not engaged!  

Take a tip from those of us writing plays whose source material covers decades, miles, and casts of thousands: find the essential story you want to tell and make sure everything you utter is a part of that story. Cut anything that is not (speakers, unlike playwrights, can save those bits for the Q & A). Your audience will stick with you. Because everyone always wants to know how it ends!



Second bananas and comic relief

Last month I shared my current theatrical activities with you. This month I am up to my eyeballs editing the galley proof of Becoming Calvin--tedious, but necessary. On the opposite end of the creative spectrum, I was thrilled beyond words last Monday to share the magic as my incredibly gifted actors (pictured here) brought A Very Present Presence to life.

So I have been laser-focused on the details of language, immersed in what language reveals about character. The degree to which someone speaks in an organized fashion, for example, conveys much about their mental state. One way to show that a character is a bit addled, whether by habit or circumstance, is to depict him as engaging the mouth before engaging the brain. Or speaking in sentence fragments, or in a repetitive rhythm that alights again and again on certain words like a mantra or verbal talisman. As a writer, I use these characters sparingly, because they never actually say anything; they think the act of just making noise is enough. And so they don't further the plot, or generally underscore the theme. They provide comic relief, and are usually put onstage to interact with the protagonist, to reveal something about her character, something she, in turn, can act upon.

That is one reason I find listening to our current President so unsettling. I am not used to seeing the comic supporting characters take center stage! And there is good reason for that: they are not the ones who have anything of consequence to say or do. Putting these second bananas in the spotlight subverts the whole structure. Which can be the point, I suppose. If you are a brilliant playwright like Tom Stoppard, you can turn two minor characters into leads in Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and use that device as a springboard to meditate on truth, art, and reality.

Maybe that is what people love about Donald Trump. That subverting of existing structure. That vision of someone "just like me" up on a pedestal: "he's no leading man but he is our leader!" Regardless of how they feel about his policy, anyone who cares about professional standards agrees he does not sound like a leader. Even in last Tuesday's scripted speech, read off of a teleprompter, he could not let go of his need to extemporaneously improve the prepared text. As the odious reference to the length of the standing ovation for Carryn Owens proved, he cannot discipline his discourse.

I find fault with this, but wonder if that is part of his attraction--his lack of coherent communication. That much praised "telling it like it is" won over 28% of the nation's eligible voters in November. Even though he is now The Winner, he still speaks like someone put onstage for laughs. We doubt his intent, because his muddled communication style ensures we never really know what he is saying. Which suits him just fine! It also allows him considerable leeway. He can say, as he did while campaigning in Iowa, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," and most of the public thinks that is comic exaggeration. But is it? Many of his supporters say he doesn't really mean everything that comes out of his mouth ("you should take him seriously but not literally.") Others believe every word, and are now gleefully celebrating his actions by saying "he's doing just what he said he would!"

If you squint, you might be able to see this as a brilliant strategy. If a speaker does not look or sound like a leader, we will never expect thoughtful leadership from him. Playing the second banana gives him latitude to say and do whatever he wants. But unlike a play, where such a character's actions and words cannot do much to derail the plot, this is real life! So his mode of communication, far from being the useful smokescreen supporters want it to be, is actually extremely unethical. And highly dangerous. It also seems oddly familiar to me, like I have read this play before. Actually I think I have written this play a very early draft! When a supporting character takes a detour that threatens to lose the entire cast in the wilderness, you see the red flag. That means cut, edit, rewrite. Get that character offstage if you have to, and by all means never give him the lead in a scene.

What is the real-life equivalent, I wonder?


Communing as community

Welcome sign at our launch partyThis month I've been busy helping launch Pipeline Playwrights, a new theatre company that three playwright friends and I have started. I am also getting my third-to-latest play, Becoming Calvin, ready for publication, and planning for a staged reading of my newest comedy, A Very Present Presence. Spending time in the theatre, with its practical problem-solving and newly-created imaginary worlds, has been a welcome respite from current events. And I wonder if we were somehow prescient in the summer when we crafted Pipeline Playwright's mission statement: "Our goal is to communicate individual truths that transcend the separate self and bind us together in community." This concept of community has since become, for many of us, a crucial component of moving forward and getting on with life.

Community is the essence of theatre. Yet writing a play, like writing a speech, is a solitary act. In both cases the what of the writing is your vision or message. But why, exactly are you writing? Because you need, on some level, to get thoughts out of your head and offer them up for others to see, hear, share. So far, so good. But once written, how does your message reach your audience? Working as a director I know that actors best convey the playwright's intention through action. And the same holds true when you speak: you need to find the action. That may sound a bit daunting, but it shouldn't be, because speaking is, by its very nature, a physical activity! Think about it: whenever you stand up (or sit down) to speak publicly, you engage your body in getting your message out there. You're like the actor who gets the playwright's message across by acting--not in the sense of "pretending," but "engaging in action."

Making these connections is why I love working as a Communications Artist! It allows me to help my clients put community into every communication.


Speaking privately in public

With some reluctance I listened to Donald Trump's inaugural address last week. His speaking style has been like fingernails-on-a-blackboard to me since he began campaigning. But as a speaking coach, I knew I had to. So I livestreamed the speech on PBS last Friday, hoping to gain some insight into why his communication style has resonated with so many people. This speech was a bit more formal than his usual, but it still had elements of his trademark manner. I was reminded why he is such a gift to comedians, with confusing syntax, simplistic vocabulary, and overall crassness. There is nothing at all leader-like about the way he presents himself.

And yet I know that is what his voters say they responded to during the campaign: his complete and utter upending of The Rules, which extends to grammar, it seems. But I still was not sure what exactly it was about his speaking style that won them over.

Then it dawned on me. He speaks publicly but does not engage in public speaking. He is very much in private speech mode. And he's not alone is using private speech in a public place; it's an easy trap to fall into. We all know, of course, that when you're speaking at a podium it's public speech, but so is the meeting in the board room. Even most of what you engage in at the worksplace, though it may be informal, is still public if you don't know your conversation partners extremely (I-can-trust-you-not-to-tell-anyone) well. Public speech tends to rely as much on transactional as relational speech. For example, you develop relationships with co-workers to get things done. In private speech, relationship is paramount; transactions are often absent. It is the act of connecting that gives the conversation meaning. Subtext is all in private speech. So when we know people well and have bonds of trust with them, we can be sloppy in our word choice, not finish sentences, say "you know what I mean"--and trust that they probably do! With intimacy we assume an understanding.

That is what Donald Trump's speech conveys. (John McWhorter shares a similar conculsion in his op-ed in the New York Times.) Though Trump is not personally close to his audience, his mode of speech implies intimacy to them. He uses pseudo-private speech (which his supporters call "authenticity") as his mode of delivery. It does nothing for me; I find the casual tone, lack of preparation and general thoughtless disrespectful in the extreme. BUT I can see how it might appeal to others who identify as the "forgotten people." Thinking the leader of our nation sees you as one of his buds must be very empowering.

When most of us use private speech, talking to those we know well, there is opportunity to clarify misunderstandings. And when friends say things we don't always agree with, we know them well enough to judge what they really believe and will act upon. If we're unsure, we ask. That will never be possible with Donald Trump. We will never know what he truly believes. His "just plain talk" approach worked to get him elected, yes. But one of these days those who voted for him will find out that his "honest authneticity" was just a trick conveyed by his undisciplined speaking style. When they realize they never really knew him, that he was the friend who got all the benefits, I would guess that many of them will see his "relatability" as a huge con.