“Effective Oral Communication” is a skills course in my portfolio. Students learn the art of giving a talk. It is a profoundly rewarding teaching experience to see students blossom over a semester. I strive to transform clichéd and tired sounding truths—made so by well-meaning yet constant repetition—into vibrant and accessible ones. So here are five truths re-imagined.
Re-Imagine “Be Yourself”
The fool Polonius admonishes his son: ”To thine own self be true.” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3) I imagine his son musing, “Well, right. Like who else would I be true to ?“ So, I have three items I mention on day 1. I quote Oscar Wilde who cuts to the actual point: ”Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” I also mention a boy from Buffalo (me) moving to Texas in 1981 and donning cowboy boots and jeans. Not a good fashion choice and most certainly not a reflection of who I was then or am now. I end by drawing two stick figures (side by side): one figure seemingly large and imposing, the other seemingly small and insignificant. Identical except for size. Here is the message: our goal in class is not to turn you into anyone’s Mini-Me; no, our goal in class is to turn you into the very best version of yourself. As lawyers (like in golf) it’s always you versus the course, not you versus anyone else.
Re-Imagine “Be Memorable”
Sadly, this truth is mutating into a belief that Power Point is a must. It isn’t. With Power Point, the audience scans ahead, oblivious of what the speaker is saying. (We survived the plains of the Serengeti by scanning the horizon for danger. The cognitive wiring remains.) Let’s do some re-inventing. Get a Power Point that unfolds section by section. Our trial tech did a superb job of this. Use a prop. On the first day of Professional Responsibility, I bring in a beautifully colored paperweight. I read the captions on the side and their accompanying messages: Respect ; Excellence; Communication; Integrity. The origin? A gift from Enron for giving an ethics talk at their annual retreat. (Whenever a student suggests an arguably shady practice, I say in mock horror, “Oh look the Enron cube is glowing!”) Or be memorable by the vivid use of concrete words and concepts. In EOC we watch President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in the Summer of 1962. We are in a “space race” with the Soviet Union. Two choices for his theme: Talk about “the U.S. being preeminent in space” (NASA’s favorite), or “We will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” The first is fit for Power Point mush, the second is fit for an inscription on a monument.
Re-Imagine “Be Funny”
To paraphrase President Trump: ”So much wincing.” That’s exactly the effect by starting a talk with a ”joke.” These jokes are usually lame, seldom purposeful, often perplexing. Instead, think self-deprecation if sincerely meant. (Me and cowboy boots or the Enron Cube). Or try indirection. In August, I wrote that my grandmother worked hard every day on a dairy farm because dairy cows don’t grasp the concept of a weekend. The original draft was just a factoid: dairy cows must be milked daily. The second is banal; the first, I hope, brought about a knowing smile generated from the reader’s own cognitive processing power.
Re-Imagine “Be gracious”
Too often, we fritter away an audience’s precious time by starting a talk not with a lame joke but with profuse thanks to the audience, to the program committee, to mom and dad. Don’t. (Well, unless you are accepting an Oscar.) Instead, do what speakers do in the military: B.L.U.F. (Bottom Line Up Front). As the Talmud advises, one who steals time steals what can never be replaced. Forgoing doing so is the essence of true graciousness.
Re-Imagine “Be Brief”
This is not at odds with Number 4.You are giving a talk to other human beings. They sometimes need a pause to digest and assimilate your message. In class we recite poetry to learn the power of the pause. Read the following out loud, from “Ode to Autumn(Keats)”: “Where are the songs of Spring?/Aye, where are they?/Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” Now drop the rhetorical question. Hear the difference ? Yes, the question lengthens the talk by a tad but truly is the pause that refreshes. It may also help eliminate empty fillers like ‘am,’ ‘ah,’ and ‘you know.’
Yet there are three truths that will keep on humming long after our last lectures are given and forgotten. Here’s one: Be hard on yourself, be good to yourself. Students of the art of oral communication easily embrace the first clause, yet effortlessly ignore the second clause. Judge yourself by your current progress, not your aspirational progress. Students: be kind to yourself. Here’s the second: speak from your “heart of heart.” ( Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2)) Peggy Noonan writes that the greatest speech of the second half of the 20th Century is in “Godfather Part II”. Hyman Roth knows that Michael Corleone killed Roth’s beloved mentee Moe Green. Roth speaks to Corleone. Listen: ”As much as anyone, I loved him and trusted him.”; “Someone put a bullet in his eye.”; “(w)hen he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, “this is the business we’ve chosen.” As Noonan explains, “good, hard, simple words with good, hard, simple meanings.” And a final truth, one that I am learning as a teacher: Being the very best version of yourself is a goal well within every student’s grasp. And if that isn’t wonderful thing, I don’t know what is.