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Think, When We Talk

Published by "The Toastmaster" Magazine, April, 2003

"Think wrongly if you please, but in all cases, think for yourself."

- Louisa May Alcott -

Why do people read their speeches? Don’t they know how boring it is for us to sit and look at the top of their heads? Don’t they know that human minds are governed by the law of reciprocity which says: “if you don’t want to talk to me, I don’t want to listen to you?” These are rhetorical questions. We all know why. They read their speeches because they’re afraid they won’t remember them because they haven’t practiced enough to memorize all the words.

I can understand their point of view. I’ve stood at the lectern, the audience staring at me as blankly as a school of fish, and found my mind has gone just as blank. That’s a particular kind of hell. Actors call it going south. I remember doing a two-character play in college and, in the middle of a scene, my partner suddenly turned a pumice-stone grey. He ran off stage, jumped into his car, and drove to Saint Louis. So, first he went south, and then he went north.

“If I could just remember the damn words!” we speakers say, “then my speech would flow like honey from my lips.” We become obsessed with the words. They’ve got to be the right words, the ones we wrote last night and found so stirring we couldn’t sleep. No other words will do. The fact is we do need to remember some words, if we hope to have any impact with our speech. The question is which words?

Well, I have news. Words are red herrings. Ideas, not words, are the true units of communication. This is not to say that words don’t matter. They are what distinguish the lightning from the lightning bug, from the bug light, to carry Mark Twain a step further. It’s just that focusing on the ideas and thoughts you want to express is a more effective way to find the right words. Speakers have the advantage of being able to adjust, find new words, a new way of expressing an idea if they see that the audience has not comprehended it well. A speaker committed to getting an idea across is a hundred times more likely to succeed than one who only wants to get the ‘right words’ across.

The more you refine your thoughts on any particular topic, the more specific the words become. Those specifics, in turn, provoke more subtle, nuanced thoughts in the minds of your listeners. This is why clichés are so boring. We have heard them so often they have lost their specific meaning, as chewing gum loses its flavor after awhile. They no longer refer to a specific, original thought. Remember playing repetition as a kid? Repeating a word over and over till it lost its meaning? That can happen to just about any word or phrase. These days “weapons of mass destruction” is suffering that fate. It now takes some mental effort to re-attach that phrase to the ghastly root from which it springs.

When the word and the thought become separated from one another, the thought, the idea behind the word, begins to fade. Words without reference to specific thoughts are harder to remember. So, when you see a fellow reading his presentation, the chances are the thoughts he is trying to express are not original, or he is not as committed to them as he might be. A listener could be forgiven for thinking “If these ideas were really important and worth remembering, why can’t he remember them himself?”

It’s rather like a grocery store where we have come to think in terms of cans, packages and labels rather than the essential nutrition that they contain. When words become merely labels and catch phrases, rather than the carriers of specific ideas, they are serving the lips and nothing more. We call speakers of such words “glib.”

So, when you’re practicing your next speech, practice the ideas. How do you do that? Paraphrase. “Jam on it” as a jazz musician would say. Jazz is a good analogy for this process. You’ve got to have a strong handle on the melody, but be free enough to give expression to the emotion and spontaneous inspiration of the moment. Spontaneous feeling creates interest, excitement and drama. When you jam on it, actually thinking as you speak, it gives your presentation a more playful, spontaneous feeling. You and your audience will both enjoy it more.

It must be said, however, that there are times when reading is the necessary and desirable way to deliver a speech. In government for instance, we need the reassurance that our leaders are exercising considered judgment; that they have worked carefully with their advisors to craft a specifically worded statement. It would be disconcerting to see the President addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations off the cuff, wouldn’t it? We shouldn’t throw away a perfectly good and useful tool simply because it gets too much use. I can still advocate owning a hammer, even though some people may use it to drive in screws.

So, what should you actually take the trouble to memorize, what should you read, what should you jam on? Here are some guidelines:


  • Memorize the opening and closing few sentences. These are the most crucial moments of your presentation where emphasis and eye contact can make the difference between success and falling flat.

    You probably don’t need to memorize your personal history, though I have seen people read their own name, and the names of their spouse and children. Trust yourself to address the audience directly when introducing yourself. They want to meet you as you are right now -- direct, present and responsive.

    I suggest jamming on your favorite stories, examples and anecdotes. Try these out on friends and associates a few times and let them evolve. Refine them till they are succinct and to the point. There may be some phrases and punch lines that you’ll want to remember, but for the rest, trust it.

    Reading jokes, is definitely not funny, I can tell you from experience. Even memorized, they are a speaker’s minefield. Avoid jokes altogether, unless you’re Billy Crystal or Joan Rivers.

    You should read statistics, important facts, reports, and long, dry speeches meant more for the written record than for anyone to actually listen to.

    You should read: important governance, policy and legal statements; your personal or business equivalent to the State of the Union speech; anything meant for publication in a crisis; anything vetted by lawyers, the board of directors or other authorities.

    You should read a poem, an excerpt from literature, or any other longer passage from another’s pen (with proper attribution, of course) – out of respect for the author and to be sure you get it right.

Memorizing, jamming and reading all require practice to achieve success. The plain truth is that most speakers who read do not practice. Many of them in the business world and politics don’t even write their own speeches, which makes it doubly difficult to speak with full conviction. Their task approaches an acting job - owning the thoughts and ideas someone else has created. There is a skill in reading that will permit ideas to come to life in the words, but I’m afraid it is a rare ability. It’s far too easy to just pronounce the words and let the audience pick up the ideas for themselves. To read well, with force and conviction requires practice, even with Teleprompters.

As an actor in the theatre, I grew to love practice. The rehearsals were always the most exciting, stimulating, productive time -- we were turning the words of others into ideas of our own. I was fortunate early in my career to have had a very good director who refused to allow a word to be uttered without some genuine thought behind it. “I don’t want talking, I want thinking!” he would say, “None of that hollow-headed mouthing of words!” Shakespeare’s lines from the prologue of Henry V were used as a constant spur: “Let us . . . on your imaginary forces work. Think when we talk of horses, that you see them, printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth . . . for ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings. . .” That’s what it meant to have an idea as we spoke. We were constantly being asked to visualize. Once we had built the words into images, memories and sensations, they were ours and we could simply tell the truth. At that stage, the words were solidly memorized. Shakespeare’s words became our motto: “Think when we talk.”