I almost walked out the door—and never came back.
I was working on a speech about a book I’d written a year or two back. I’d given variations of the speech literally hundreds of times. Truth be told, the speech was getting a bit stale. I wanted to shake it up. Gary Lyons, the British-born playwright who was assigned to coach me, told me to work on the speech a bit and he’d be back in a minute.
Five minutes later, Gary was back. He was not alone. He entered the room with a group of people—all strangers to me. “We have an audience for you today, Bill,” he proclaimed in his impeccable Queen’s English.
My “surprise audience” was all women. Except that they weren’t…at least not today. Today each of these women was playing a male role.
“How do you do, I’m Attila the Hun,” an attractive thirty something woman with long brown hair and big brown eyes informed me. I waited for her to laugh. Instead, she growled. And so it went. Stalin, Pol Pot, Ghengis Khan. They were all there.
“Bill,” Gary said, “I’d like you to give your book speech but make it relevant to the audience we’ve assembled here for you.” I looked at him incredulously. “Let me get this straight,” I said, “I’m supposed to give a speech on how to improve public management to an audience comprised of some of history’s most brutal despots?” It had to be a joke they played on the new guys…
He wasn’t kidding. “My audience” looked up at me. They were waiting with baited breathe to hear a speech from me. I was given no time to prepare. I glanced at the door. Only 20 feet away… I can run for it and never…ever…come back.
Instead I toughed it out and stumbled my way through the speech. Towards the end I even got into a bit of groove.
There was purpose to this madness of course. Gary was trying to show me that giving a good speech was not about standing up there in front of an anonymous audience and pontificating or performing. It was about connecting. And each audience was going to be different. And the art of a good speaker was being able to make each of the audiences feel like you were speaking directly to them and their needs and interests.
In future weeks, I would have crumpled balls of paper thrown at me while giving a speech moving around the room. I would tell a story by candlelight sitting around a (pretend) campfire with a (real) audience. I would do a fake infomercial and try to persuade an audience to buy my product—in this case a gadget-laden raincoat.
But all that seemed like standard fare compared to the homework assignments…
Gary had a different homework assignment for me each month. I simultaneously dreaded and anticipated these assignments. Each one would both take me out of my comfort zone. But they each helped me to learn—or relearn—something about myself and the world around me that ultimately would make me a better speaker.
I was told to see a play; another month to read one. One particularly memorable assignment was to go to an art gallery, see a movie, read a book and listen to music. I was then supposed to write down everything I liked most about each and see how it connected to my values. I spent two hours listening to my favorite music—really listening probably for the first time since high school. I discovered to my amazement that all these things somehow tied together—and also reflected the qualities audiences saw in me.
There was a method to all this of course. Before they’ll listen to the message, audiences want to connect to the person. So I had to go back and really understand who I was to an audience–what I brought to the table that would resonate with them.
None of this was anything like what I expected when I first came to TAI. I was far from a novice public speaker. I had given close to a thousand speeches over my career. It had been an integral part of every job I had since college. I was also a pretty busy guy in a global role at my company. My first session I told Gary that what I really needed was just a few tricks to help me go from good to great. I didn’t have a lot of time to spend going over familiar ground. “Got any cheat sheets,” I asked?
He had obviously heard variations of this before. “Sorry Bill, no shortcuts here,” Gary told me. “No cheat sheets. To get you where you want to go, we need to first go back to the basics.”
Then he put it in terms that I could understand. “Look, think of me like your golf coach. You can’t become Tiger Woods without first having a perfect swing. What we’re doing is straightening out your swing before we get to how to hit the perfect bunker shot.”
More than a year later, my swing is much improved. Through the TAI sessions and my homework assignments, slowly, gradually, I became much more aware of how what I was saying was connecting or not connecting with others, whether it was the audience in front of me, my colleague across the conference table or my friends and family. I learned how to really listen. I learned that conversational Bill is a far more effective speaker than “presentation Bill.” On this journey, I not only became a better speaker but maybe even a little better person
I’m going back again this year to work on my bunker shot.