I’m currently watching yesterday’s episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His guest was Bill Clinton, who recently delivered an extraordinary speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton is one of the most highly regarded contemporary public speakers and delivers hundreds of speeches every year.
When Jon Steward asked Clinton if he could tell that he was “crushin’ it as you were doin’ it?”, Clinton said the following:
“I worked so hard on that. For weeks and weeks. And then the White House designated Bruce Reed [. . .] to help me and then Jean Spurling, the national economic advisor [ . . . ] came in. And we worked for the last day and a half after doing all this other work. I was just determined to get the facts right and to simplify the argument without being simplistic.”
Like I said in yesterday’s post, great speechmaking takes hard, hard work. It takes planning and preparation and deep knowledge of your topic and argument. Bill Clinton spends weeks preparing his major speeches. He seeks help and advice and feedback and the input of experts. Even though his speech delivery may appear effortless, it is not without effort. The fact that he makes it look so easy is testimony to the sheer amount of work he puts into his speeches, and not just to an inherent ability to talk to large crowds of people.
“Hey, we need you to fill a space in our program. This speaker just backed out, see, and it’s too late to find someone outside the organization to fill their space. The presentation needs to be related to Topic XYZ. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine – you’re so good at winging it.”
I shuddered every time I got a request like that – and those requests (or similar) happened more often than I would have liked. The core of the problem was the impression that one’s ability to “wing it” was tantamount to an almost mystical capacity for speaking at length about any topic at any moment with no notice. This is a false impression: “winging it” – aka improvisation – takes practice. It takes huge amounts of practice, as well as a deep knowledge of the topic about which you are improvising.
What improvisation is not is simply cobbling something together out of thin air at the last minute with no real effort.
During a middle eastern music and dance show last night, my dance mentor gave a wonderful summary of how a skilled improvisor works. Middle eastern solo dances are generally improvised. When the dancer is performing with a live musician, it is understood that a significant part of the music will be improvised as well. Dancer and musician play off one another, and the quality of their interaction is a considerable indicator of their level of skill. They are able to do this sort of improvised performance because of their level of understanding of the songs, musical structure, and physical technique they are working with. My mentor used the analogy of a Christmas tree to explain the art of improvisation:
Every year you put up a Christmas tree. The tree is set up in the same place in the house and many of the decorations will be old favourites that are pulled out every December. Instead of the tree looking the same year-to-year, however, it is always different. Ornaments are hung in new places, new decorations are added, and sometimes old ones are left in the box. But the fundamental structure of the tree stays the same. Improvisation is like this. The musician and the dancer can improvise because they understand the underlying musical structure, the beats and rhythms they are working with, and the overall skeleton of the song they are working with. The result is a performance with the technical precision of a choreography and the intensity and passion of spontaneity.
This analogy can also be applied to other forms of performance art. Jazz and blues musicians use their knowledge of songs and specific rhythms to enable jam sessions where different musicians will go on lengthy improvised solos while the others continue to provide the backup sounds. Despite the fact that the solos are not pre-planned, they work within a structure that allows the musician freedom to play while informing the other players when to swoop back in and bring the song back to a cohesive whole. This takes a great deal of knowledge and confidence.
Speakers who develop their improvisation skills follow a similar pattern. They have deep knowledge of the content about which they speak (their song), and they have excellent understanding of speech structure and composition (their rhythm). Because of this, they are able to seemingly pluck fully formed speeches, presentations, and arguments out of the air, much as the dancer and musician appear to perform a carefully choreographed performance piece on the fly.
Here’s the kicker: this takes practise and study – lots of it. Skilled improvised speech requires the speaker to be highly knowledgeable about their chosen topics. Information must be gathered and absorbed. Related subject matter must be absorbed. Opinions need to be formed, vetted, re-formed, and tested. Think back to your university days – that is the kind of study undertaken by many a storied speaker. Equal work must be then put in on speech crafting itself. Having imaginary debates, re-scripting past conversations, studying classical rhetoric, scripting speeches and presentations, studying the techniques of master public speakers, and joining groups like Toastmasters are all ways to practice speech crafting.
Next time you watch someone give a brilliant spontaneous speech or watch a presentation and are mesmerized by the speaker’s skill, don’t chalk up their performance to some innate ability to effortlessly “wing” speeches. Rest assured that they work hard at what they do. They work extremely hard. Successful improvisation isn’t a skill that you do or do not have; it’s built up with hard graft. It is, however, something totally accessible to you and to anyone else willing to put in the work. Once you know your song/topic and rhythm/structure like the back of your hand, you’ll be able to create brilliant improvised speeches as well.
There are few feats of intelligence as beautiful as a well-composed bit of rhetoric. Today’s bit of Friday silliness gives such a demonstration, definitively settling an age-old debate. Enjoy!
There is something magical about receiving a hand-written note. Assuming that the content of the note is desirable, they give a sort of warm fuzzy feeling that can only be approximated by flowers or a box of chocolates.
As communication now is all about instantaneous delivery, hand-written greetings – especially when delivered by mail – are rendered more charming by their slowness. They tell the recipient that the writer took the time to scratch out something on paper rather than pounding it out on a keyboard; that the writer bothered to put the note into an envelope, was willing to *gasp*pay for a stamp to send it, and find the now-rare-species of Mailboxus to deposit the note.
Hand-written notes have personality. As the quality of our handwriting deteriorates, our hand becomes less perfect and more packed with personality and quirk. There may be scratched-out words and spelling mistakes galore. These are things that would be unforgivable when written in a program with spell-check but strangely charming in this context. They boast greater sincerity (whether real or no) then something printed out in perfect computer-based font. Our array of digital fonts can never provide the same communication of sheer character than a single hand-written note.
One of the best business relationship building weapons I have in my arsenal is a pack of old-fashioned Thank You cards. I go through quite a lot of these. There are always occasions where you can send someone such a card. Thank people who have taken you for coffee or lunch. Thank professionals who have gifted you with time in one way or another. Has someone gone above and beyond what they promised you? Send them a thank-you card. Did you receive a referral? That’s another thank-you card occasion. Send them out with abandon. They feel great to send and wonderful to receive. But the rub is that they must be an actual card, with a hand-written note, mailed to the intended recipient.
If you are concerned that sending out such cards seems too familiar, too grannyish, or too feminine, despair not! There are so many varieties of these cards out there that you can easily find ones that suit your personality, the character of your recipient, or even the specific reason for the thanks. For my business-related thank you cards, I prefer to go for a more masculine colour scheme, font, and colour. Personal thank you cards run the gamut from elegant and feminine to bold and a little hyper. It is actually rather fun picking out the most appropriate card from the pile.
Including postage, each thank-you card ends up costing me about $2 and takes about ten minutes to write. They invariably have more impact than any thank-you note sent over email. It’s cheaper and faster than taking someone out for coffee, and the warm feeling lasts much longer.
Let’s start off this post with a quick apology to you, reader, for the gap in entries this last week. I was somewhat indisposed, being at the hospital with my husband in order to bring this lovely little bundle into the world:
All three of us are doing extremely well. I am healing nicely, my husband has melded into the role of Dad magnificently, and my baby boy is healthy, calm, alert, and an utter joy!
Going through pregnancy for the first time gave me an interesting look into the trap of information overloading. The anxieties, concerns, and delights of pregnancy and impending motherhood sent me to the internet again and again in order to dig up whatever I could on my Issue du Jour. Regardless the circumstance, question, or worry, there was always a glut of information to be found. Expert advice, personal stories, agenda-heavy tirades, and woefully out-of-touch recommendations – seek and ye shall find. It doesn’t seem to matter if you are looking into a complicated matter like pregnancy or a relatively simple thing like sprained ankles. Every Google query will create hundreds of results, many conflicting, many misleading, some highly worthwhile.
This sort of information deluge can often have a result opposite of what we wanted: uncertainty instead of answers, increased anxiety instead of reassurance. A quest for answers becomes a rather arduous journey of info and source evaluation. If you are feeling particularly lost or vulnerable about an issue, this can set you on a treadmill of info seeking, info seeking, info seeking without ever finding an answer satisfactory to your needs.
When the number of websites and articles on any given topic is seemingly endless, it is very easy to become overloaded and overwhelmed with information.
This is something I personally struggle with; being a methodical researcher who is naturally curious with a penchant for fact-checking, information overload can become quite problematic. This is also the case for many of my colleagues and friends. Eventually, you need to get off the info treadmill, if for no other reason than to reclaim the time spent surfing the internet and hopefully regain a bit of sanity. At one point, I needed to completely forgo searching for anything related to pregnancy and motherhood. The number of viciously judgmental web pages, internet flame-fests, brutally misinformed articles from “reputable” sites, and general “mommy war” type crap was beginning to enrage me at their mere suggestion. Yet I would still keep looking at them, on topics ranging from pre-natal exercise to newborn sleep patterns. Eventually, I had to cut myself off. After a couple days of struggling not to slide back into the habit of looking at “just a few” search results, I was much happier.
I don’t have much in the way of advice for backing away from needless internet searches. I found that I have to go cold turkey for a couple of days when I begin spinning my wheels with an info overload topic. Some of my friends have used timing techniques, only allowing themselves fifteen minutes for looking into any single topic. Others may find that limiting the number of search results they are allowed to click on helps. It may take you several tries to find a method that works for you. Resetting this habit is a wonderful thing, though – as I said, it turns the world back into a much saner place.
Have you ever subjected yourself to information overload by endlessly searching a given topic? If this was a habit of yours, how did you break it?
Up-cycling, reusing, re-purposing, refinishing, and other activities that take old things and polishes them up into something newly relevant are very, very hot at the moment. This surge of interest in making use of well-worn objects can be chalked up to a number of factors: frugality movements, tough economies and lower disposable incomes, environmentalism, and so on. Good for the environment, good for the soul, good for the wallet – and coming up with re-purposing schemes can give your brain a heck of a workout, too.
So why are we so hesitant to do the same with written or spoken material?
I’m not talking about completely ripping off someone else’s work and claiming it as your own; plagiarism is an unnecessary and unforgivable sin in my heart. Rather, why do we shy away from addressing topics or writing stories or giving speeches that have been inspired by what we’ve heard from other authors or speakers or intellectuals? Why is there often an expiry date attached to classic materials that make us reluctant to dredge them up after a few years – or decades – or centuries?
Taking an old piece and re-working it in order to increase it’s meaning in today’s context is an excellent exercise. We have a huge intellectual history on myriad topics that is available for us to draw on. Taking lessons from our past and reformulating them into something relevant today has huge value. Simply because someone has “said it before” doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be said again. It’s likely that we can use our own contextual nuances to put a new spin on an old idea. Old doesn’t mean dusty and irrelevant. Nor does revisiting someone else’s work mean that your work is unoriginal and uninspired.
Plus, it’s a fantastic way to get over writer’s (or speaker’s) blog. Ssssh! Don’t tell anyone!