Originally published 2007-12-16.
Many of us speakers hope to touch an audience profoundly. We want our words and ideas to survive the closing applause, to be remembered, to manifest themselves in listeners as future actions. Among the myriad of elements that make up a delivered speech, I am often asked whether it is more effective to speak from the heart or have amazing speaking techniques?
In a debate in August, 2000, I took the side of speaking from the heart. Here is what I wrote:
Before we sell the merits of speaking from the heart, we must first define what it means. What does it mean to speak from the heart? I have some ideas. It is not speaking to the heart -- deliberately inserting emotional material to elicit emotional responses from the audience. It isn't just telling sad stories. Who says the only emotion from the heart is sadness? If your heart is glad, let it be glad. Speaking from the heart is being fully present and in the moment. It is being centered. It is sharing from your essence, in each moment. It is being authentic, being real. It is about sharing your feelings with the audience and inviting them to share with you. Too much focus on technique bulldozes the audience's desire to feel with you. They don't get a chance to join in because we're too busy showing them our latest techniques.
Recently, I heard a dull, listless presentation by a speaker, after which the introducer marvelled at how the speaker, "always speaks from the heart." I was dumbfounded. The level of passion in this presentation was something akin to advanced tax accounting or mortician training. If it was from the heart, my heart struck an iceberg and sank...
On another occasion, I participated in coaching some young people in presentation skills. Each person was to speak for three to four minutes. Then I was to ask them a question to give them practice on answering audience questions. One person shared a difficult life moment and another shared their delight with a long-time loving relationship. My coaching to them before they spoke consisted of encouraging them to open up to their feelings as they shared their story.
The one sharing the difficulty spoke quietly, with their head down, and very little body movement, but the words! This young person spoke with absolute clarity and wisdom. The end of the presentation was marked by silence. Everyone looked at me expecting "the question." I apologized. "I'm sorry," I said. "I have no question; I was totally captivated by what you shared with us."
I've heard hundreds of speeches. How could I get lost in thought? It was because this person spoke from the heart. The emotions that were shared with us were shock and sadness.
The person sharing their joy with a loving relationship of several years lit up as they spoke. We saw it in the face and body movements and heard it in the voice. Everything about the presentation showed us that the speaker was genuinely delighted with what was happening in their relationship. We could hear it, see it, and feel it. This person spoke from the heart. The emotion was joy.
These two speakers required no preparation, no practice, and used no techniques that they were aware of, yet they communicated effectively. They clearly expressed their ideas and delivered them with emotions congruent with their message. They shared a piece of themselves, and in doing so, allowed us to share with them.
Let's look at another speaker, the now late Christopher Reeve. Several years ago, Mr. Reeve was paralyzed in a horse riding accident, left quadraplegic. Later, I heard him speak about walking again and the supportive love of his family. How effective were his techniques? -- Let's see. Body language? None. Gestures? Nope. Facial expressions? Almost none. Voice? Raspy and very low volume. But when he spoke, I was glued. I was moved when he told of the importance of having a positive attitude. I was inspired when he shared his conviction that he WILL walk again. The sparkle in his eye as he spoke of his wife shone through any lack of technique. Christopher Reeve spoke from the heart and I listened.
I could not find a video of that moment, so I'd like to honour Christopher's memory with this video.
In 1981 in St. John's, Newfondland, I attended History 1000 at Memorial University, taught by Dr. Malcolm MacLeod, a slight man, bearded, pleasant. At the start of the term, his class was full. His subject was causation in history and the burden of unity in Canadian history. He presented with great passion, almost romantically. Sometimes he held the textbook in one hand while he waved off the ghosts of dead politicians with the other. Other times, he would stop, squint thoughtfully, and pose a question to the class. He LOVED what he did. At the end of the term, his class was still full. Need I say more?
Speaking from the heart doesn't limit the subject to heartfelt matters. Yes, even accounting can be interesting if the presenter is genuinely interested and allows that enthusiasm to shine through.
Six years of my membership in Toastmasters took me on a journey, a journey first of mustering the courage to stand and speak through my stuttering while feeling my fear of doing just that. Then it taught me a collection of great techniques: how to stand, how to hold my hand, how to use my voice, how to structure a speech, etc. This part of my journey dissatisfied me. It gave me many answers, but missed the one most important one. It wasn't until I started studying voice with Barclay McMillan and magnetic speaking with Lee Glickstein that my search went to a new level, beyond technique.
Barclay and Lee encourage us to become integral with our subject matter, neither memorized, nor driven by technique. They encourage us to move with the feeling and allow the audience to move along with us. When we unite with the audience then neither they, nor we, will concern ourselves with technique. Being there is more important, speaking from our core, speaking from our heart.