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It's Magic Time!

Magic Time

I’ve been up in front of audiences for the better part of my career. Whether it is behind a mic, in front of a class, or before an audience, I’m comfortable talking to people.

Notice I didn’t say broadcasting, teaching or presenting. Because all of these skills fundamentally require the not-so-simple ability to talk with people. If you’ve seen the clip of producer-director Michael Bay’srecent meltdown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, you know public speaking isn’t as easy as it looks.

I was fortunate. By some stroke of luck I was assigned to speech class my first semester in college. The instructor, Robert Pearce, had been a professional public speaker, which I thought was the coolest way to make a living.

I was an inarticulate 18-year old kid who sounded like Bobby Bacala in The Sopranos. Mr. Pearce was my Henry Higgins. He taught me how to think and speak extemporaneously. It was my Pygmalion moment.

Extemporaneous speaking is conversational speech that belies the amount of preparation it takes.

Trust me, if can make a living doing that, like he did, anybody can. Here are some of his tips:

Kill the Slide Deck. A slide deck won’t do your work for you. Audio-visual aids are great, but make sure they’re the real deal. Don’t show slides of your last five books. Display your last 5 books on the podium. Much more effective.

Don’t memorize—associate. This is the most important tip. Professor Pearce would never let us read off of a script or even have a handful of notes. All we were allowed was a single four-by-six inch index card for notes. And we could only use one side! The secret was to jot down phrases that you could associate with your key points.

Not relying on a script, a slide deck, or a sheaf of notes achieved two things. First, clicking slides, reading from a script or rifling through a pile of notes is distracting and disrespectful to the audience. Second, the single note card helps avoid a flub like dropped notes or a projector malfunction.

Years ago, I was managing a conference. I invited a gentleman from a global technology firm to do an hour-long presentation on a new product his company had unveiled. He showed up at the conference hotel three minutes before he was scheduled to speak. He had flown in that morning—to the wrong city!

When he discovered his mistake he quickly rented a car and drove hell-bent-for-leather to the right location—some 120 miles away. Hadn’t eaten since the night before. Where most of us would have been drenched in sweat and suffering a panic attack, this guy checked the knot on his tie, took a sip of water and went on to speak for a full hour. No script. No PowerPoint®, no pile of notes.  He brought the house down. All on the strength of one, four-by-six index card.

Trust me, it works!

Don’t sound rehearsed—be rehearsed! Every speaker says the same thing: “I don’t want to sound rehearsed.” As odd as it sounds, the best way to sound rehearsed is not to rehearse. If you don’t rehearse you won’t be comfortable with your material. You’ll fall back on your “script” as a crutch.

Instead, know how much time you have to speak, and then “back-time” your speech into that length. 30 minutes of mic time? Prepare 30 minutes of material.

As you do this you’ll gradually cut your notes down to the bare minimum. Each time you rehearse time yourself. Keep doing that until you can fill your allotted time and not run over.

It’s normal to speak a little more quickly when the adrenalin surges, so you’ll have a little more time than you think. When you have your thoughts, words and the time aligned, then that’s the time to jot down your highlights on your index card.  

One more thing: Rehearse one last time right before you leave for the venue. I rehearse to my image in a mirror. The mirror image substitutes for someone in the audience and helps lower my self-consciousness. It’s a good way to leave your anxieties at home or in the hotel room.

You can’t have it all. You’ll be relying on 24 square inches to sum up everything you know on a topic. Accept the fact that you’re going to forget something. Don’t let it bother you. In normal conversation you always leave out some things you planned to say. Don’t get nervous and don’t go back to your previous point to add it. That will only confuse listeners. Save it till the end if you have time.

Focus. There are different ways to do this. One way is to pick one person and focus on that person as you deliver your speech or presentation. The problem is you could make that person uncomfortable. 

Another tip is to pick the person furthest from the podium and concentrate on that person. The thinking is that focusing on the last row brings everyone else into your field of vision. Nice thought, but if you’re focusing on everybody, you’re not really focusing on anyone.

Instead, focus singly on different people.  This is how you speak to a small group. You speak to one person, then turn and speak to another and so on. It’s how you communicate everyplace from the family dinner table to the boardroom. It’s more conversational. It makes you, as the speaker, look more animated, and it lowers your anxiety level as you start to focus less on the fact there are 200 people in the room and more on your material.

Above all, enjoy. They say the late actor Jack Lemmon had a particular ritual before he began filming every scene. He’d look into a small mirror, smile at his reflection and and utter his mantra, “It’s magic time!” right before he started his scene.

 I’ve always loved the image of this well rehearsed professional comparing himself to a magician—in total control of an attentive audience.

Find your own catch phrase and have fun with it. Remember, not everybody gets to do this for a living. We could be working!

Now go make some magic!