To speak or not to speak…

To speak or not to speak…

My Dad was a talented speaker. While it wasn’t his career, it was one of his avocations and he travelled throughout Canada speaking on a number of corporate and not-for-profit topics.

I grew up watching him prepare for those events. Watched him researching and writing his speeches, practicing them in the den as no one listened. At the time, the practice speech seemed informative, but didn’t draw my interest (of course, the fact that I was a teenager may have had something to do with that!).

Eventually I got a chance to hear him speak. I had seen the preparation, and the endless hours of practice – but what I witnessed was something I was not prepared for. On stage, in front of a crowd of peers and strangers was this 5’6″ fireball lighting up the room with his energy and his passion for the subject. He was on fire, he was entertaining and he even made topics like “Canadian metric conversion for the construction industry” compelling.

He was in his element and the people in the crowd knew it. And because of his style, not his content, people were both entertained and informed.

It was my first exposure to speaking and I was hooked.

Later in life, I was working in the sport marketing industry in Vancouver and I was blessed to find a mentor that introduced me to the business sector in the province. Another 5’6″ dynamo, Vic Lindal was an international level volleyball coach, an accomplished TV commentator, and a sport administrator. More importantly, he was an amazing speaker, having placed second in an international Toastmaster’s competition.

On stage, he was not unlike my Dad. He spun stories, gave relevant examples, made you laugh and made you think – all while getting you to understand the essential point he had come to discuss. If you didn’t have energy when you walked into the theatre, you had it when you left, and you believed that you could use what Vic had been “explaining”. His favourite story, an explanation of visualization and how Jack Nichlaus used it to putt, stays forever in my mind – and I have used it regularly when I speak and when I coach athletes.

These two men set a very high bar for the speakers I would encounter later in life, and for my expectations of myself when I speak to groups. Even back then, I realized that anyone can give a “talk” to a group. You need only write out some notes, create some relevant slides, and go read that information to the group.

But what I learned from Vic and my dad was that there was a difference between delivering information, and truly speaking to a crowd:

  1. You can’t read the information – you have to know the content. And it has to be believable (to you and to the audience).
  2. More importantly, you have to like what you are saying – if you don’t how will they?
  3. It is your responsibility to provide the energy for the room (so many “talkers” don’t seem to understand this). And that energy is contagious – once you build it in the room, the audience feeds it back to you (one of the best feelings a speaker can have).
  4. Most importantly, you have to be yourself. People are smart, they know when the speech is authentic or made-up, and they know if this is something you understand.

And finally, for god’s sake, be entertaining. You don’t have to be funny, or sing and dance, but you still have to be entertaining. People will listen (and hear) more when they are enjoying what they are listening too.

I will never be as successful or as talented a speaker as Gervin Greasley or as Vic Lindal, but I am glad to have had the chance to watch them speak, and to have their example as something to follow when I get up in front of a room.