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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

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.



Only connect

It's a new year and I am getting lots of calls from folks who have resolved to improve their public speaking. My callers have a variety of needs: conferences to present for, remarks to make, pitches to deliver. If you have any of these coming up you may be doing this right now: writing a draft, right-sizing it to give your audience just enough (but not too much) info. Then you'll shape it using the classic beginning-middle-end narrative structure. You'll remember to use story effectively both as a framing device and for specific examples. And when you finish you'll be all set, right?

Well, no. Mastering your content is only half of it. Communicating your message depends as much, if not more, on your delivery. Time and again I have seen people who fail because they can't connect with their listeners. It's not just picking the right words and arranging them the right way that makes such connection possible. After all, you're not submitting a memo or a report. You're communicating through speech so you and your listeners can connect directly. You need to own what you are saying. And feel compelled to communicate it. Only then can others feel your enthusiasm, disappointment, or whatever underlying human emotion has led you to engage in this inherently scary act of public speaking.

I know, I know. I've heard it, too: it's best to "speak from the heart" (i.e. without a prepared text). That way you naturally connect with your audience. WRONG! When speakers neglect preparation to avoid sounding "scripted" they end up with a mess of underdeveloped points and random anecdotes, just wasting the listeners' time.

The truth is, to be a great speaker you need clear, powerful content and emotionally resonant delivery. It takes time to work on both parts of effective messaging, but what's the alternative? Being "fine" (a.k.a. boring and instantly forgettable)? Not getting your message across clearly? Feeling terrified because you can't call up those reserves of "passion" you were depending on, and find yourself staring in horror at three bullet points as your only lifeline? That's what makes people fear public speaking more than death itself.

You can do better. Here's hoping 2017 will be the year you start making those crucial communications connections!


A holiday wish list

If I were able to give gifts to each of you, you'd find these under your tree (or wherever you find your holiday surprises): wishes to help you all become terrific speakers in 2017.

I wish for you:

  • cooperative contacts (or research assistants) who will give you specific details about your audience: who are they? why do they want/need to hear from you? why do they want to hear it now?
  • mental space to fully prepare what you are going to say prior to the day before you have to say it.
  • an internal outlining and right-sizing alert system so you will sense when you are going on too long, getting off track, or giving more information than your audience can digest.
  • the knowledge that classic story-telling models are best, because audiences can follow a narrative structure: Beginning (introduction and scene-setting); Middle (three to four--NO MORE--points); End (wrap up and conclusion).
  • awareness of the physicality of the act of speaking to keep you from getting stuck in your mental cul-de-sac where that nagging negative voice lives.
  • realization that it's about the message, not about you, freeing you from obsessing over your hair, shoes, or whatever your Achilles' heel is.

If you get even a couple of these in your stocking, your performance as a speaker will improve immensely . . . and soon, too. If you don't, you can always give me a call. I'll probably have something left in my gift closet!