Worst Quotation On Public Speaking and Leadership (Ever)

Without further ado, here it is:

"The chief function of the body is to carry the brain around"  - Thomas Edison

In all fairness, Edison probably wasn't talking about public speaking and presentations when he said that. One might even imagine that his hyperbole was calculated to draw a chuckle from his interviewer (a bodily reaction, mind you, not a solely intellectual one). Joking or not, Edison's notion - Intellection Trumps All - is one of the fiercest bugbears that waylays those who must speak in public, as well as those of us who profess to coach them. All of us spend a lot  of our time in school and university sitting down, learning with what's between our ears, neglecting the rest. Even if you consciously rebel at Edison's idea, as I do, education has been cast largely in a mould that conforms to the proposition that our brains are always the main point.

How do you react to this quotation?  It's not immediately apparent that such an attitude has to be overcome when somebody of Edison's stature pronounces so categorically in favor of the "je pense, donc je suis"-view of matters. But, trust, me: it's the worst attitude, if we're speaking about, well, speaking.

Pause a moment to gauge to what degree you concur with the inventor.

Pause to inquire if how you do presentations and how you lead reflects his attitude. Are you a talking head talking to other talking heads? Is that how you register effective communication, just with your head?

How would you know, as a speaker or as an audience member, if you tend to use your body as little more than a transportation device? And why does it matter?

Permit me to discuss why it matters by first getting you to consider one piece of public speaking advice. It's a piece of advice that is widely circulated as an idea, but, ironically, is rarely discussed as something that comes from the body,  being perceived by other bodies. That piece of advice is: Use vocal variety. ***

When people simply apply this directive without specificity and without spontaneity, then you hear predictable cadences. And this sometimes sing-song, sometimes strident, delivery does not necessarily result from over-rehearsal, although that can happen. This issue wouldn't matter, and this advice would never be offered, if Edison were correct. However, most audiences, I've observed, exist from the neck down as well, and they are prone to weigh their heart-felt and gut-reactions, if what they're hearing and seeing shows some heart and some guts. And they notice when their hearts and stomachs are at odds with their heads  -  or not even being addressed at all.

So how do I use vocal variety spontaneously? I hope you're asking. Answer: pursue an appropriate action that is fun to accomplish and that requires you to connect your yearnings to your audience's yearnings. 

If you are going before audiences with the purpose of informing them, or reporting to them, then you won't vary your voice and speech much, because those actions do not require you to deal with your audience in a specific, present tense communication. And they're not much fun.

The three variables you can change about your voice are: rate of speech, pitch, volume. How you vary your voice and speech is influenced by your native language, regional dialect,  upbringing, gender, organization of ideas...we vary these things spontaneously all of the time, without coaching. Why do we vary our voices? It promotes understanding, plain and simple - not just intellectual understanding, but the stakes of the communication: its significance.  

It's often the significance of the occasion, when we're standing before a group, that causes us to tense up. (That's one way to discover that your body is not merely a transportation device.) When we tense up, our ability to consciously manage the organization of ideas and the physical aspects of communicating diminishes.  What's at stake can get lost in a welter of data, while our feeling for what is at stake gets lost under the effort to clamp down on our nerves. Understanding the stakes never becomes clear and present for the audience, if it is not expressed with spontaneous vocal variety. Your subject won't matter if one of the actions you are performing before an audience consists in clamping down. Much of voice production is involuntary and our vocal quality reveals a great deal about our emotional state, no matter the words that are being spoken. Thus, having one's "content" super-prepared will not alleviate or mask the tension that occurs when you go before an audience that is judging you, evaluating you, and yearning - yes, yearning - for you to be effective. Being knowledgeable and prepared will not, by itself, conjure vocal variety, or any other type of charismatic behavior.  If you imagine that the function of your presentation is to simply inform/report to/or engage your audience, then you have not set a goal sufficiently interesting, fun or active enough to wake up your own body and imagination, so that vocal variety can occur spontaneously under the pressure of presenting.

If informing/engaging/reporting are the actions you choose to pursue during presentations, then you are succumbing to Edison's dictum, and you and your audience will be denied the occasion to really connect.

"Informing", "reporting", "engaging" are the words I often hear when I ask clients to identify their purposes in presentations. Informing and reporting are much more efficiently accomplished in written communication alone; there's not much your voice and presence can add to these actions. "Engaging" your audience sounds good as a goal, partly because we use locutions like, "we had an engaging conversation", but that's an abstraction. Okay for a description, but try to do it. (Go ahead, "engage" a nearby object or person. I'll wait.)  Like any action, "to engage" must be sharpened and brought into focus in order to be accomplished.

Instead of using your body to transport your head, use your head to begin transporting your body, by defining your purposes for presenting with fun, active, specific verbs. 

This kind of preparation will spur you to use vocal variety spontaneously. Imagine a presentation where you perplex an audience with a conundrum, before you entice them to join in on piecing together a solution to a problem or adopting a new perspective? If you can begin to see how those verbs define purposes that have a little more blood in them than "inform", then you might begin to feel how your communications can become more urgent and energize an audience. Finding precise verbs for your purposes, in a given situation, is not as easy as reeling off a list of "do-able" actions, (though that's not a bad place to start). Nevertheless, whether your purpose is modest or dramatic, defining it with active, do-able verbs is a sure way to begin mobilizing more than your cerebral cortex to achieve your goals. Whatever the intensity of your yearning (or inhibition) with regards to reaching your audience, you can be sure that your body and voice will express it, no matter what fine-sounding content your grey-matter has generated. 

So, to sum up, Edison's quote is the worst for public speakers and leaders, because it dismisses everything that happens below the eyebrows that moves us to action. But don't just take my word for it: since I gave you the worst quote, I'll try to balance it with something better. From, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership:Tools & Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, by Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky:

"If leadership involves will and skill, then leadership requires the engagement of what goes on both above and below the neck. Courage requires all of you: heart, mind, spirit, and guts...You might think about this idea as the convergence of multiple intelligences...or the collaboration among physical centers (mind, heart and body). But the central notion is the same. Your whole self constitutes a resource for exercising leadership."

***A note on the style of this blog: sometimes I'll be discursive, and sometimes I'll try to write in a manner that is oral. You'll notice that in the asterisked paragraph above "a piece of advice", or a variant of it, is repeated 3x in a short span. Most people are taught to avoid this kind of repetition in expository writing. But it is exactly the kind of repetition that helps orient an audience when composing for oral presentation.