Friday, October 5, 2012

Presidential Debates & Public Speaking

Famous quotes regarding public speaking:

• “There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

• “Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.”

• “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

The Presidential Debate:

The October 3rd presidential debate was followed by a lot of commentary from the media. The consensus was that Governor Mitt Romney got the upper hand. As for President Barak Obama, he has earned the reputation of being a proficient orator but he was off his game at Wednesday’s debate. Like his predecessor, George W. Bush, he is reliant on a script. Debates, however, are not script-friendly. Spontaneity and impromptu responses require that the talking points be assimilated and ready to be communicated. Other public forums too, such as town hall meetings, require an unscripted approach to the public.

Those U.S. presidents who were good public speakers benefited from that gift immensely. It helped advance their cause. For instance, President Reagan and President Clinton were masterful communicators. They both managed to transcend their critics by appealing directly to the American people. Their political foes admitted as much. Others who struggled with public speaking like 1996 Republican presidential nominee, Robert Dole, and President George W. Bush (2000-2008), were handicapped in connecting even with their own supporters.

U.S. presidents and presidential nominees possessed at least four qualities that made them into good public speakers. First, they were likable. They smiled and were even capable of laughing at themselves. They managed to avoid being overly formal, mechanical and even academic. Second, gifted speakers are natural. They reveal who they are behind the podium. On occasion, spontaneous emotions show themselves, as if they were talking to a family member or friend. They tell a story; their own story. With this, the listener walks away with the feeling of having been introduced a person, not just a speaker.

Third, there is confidence in what they are communicating to the audience. They know their trade and are able to answer their critics. Fourth, because they know their trade and because they have assimilated their talking points, they do not have to rely on their script or notes too much. Bishop Fulton Sheen once said that your audience will not remember what you say if you give the appearance that you have not remembered it yourself.

From Politics to Mission:

As Christians, many of you will have to market a religious cause, tell people about a ministry you are engaged in, or publicize a conference, retreat or class you want people to attend. The key to successful public speaking or communication is to observe from those who are proficient in the art and take notes.

If you happen to be Catholic, you have to know that the Church is still lagging behind when it comes to effective communications. We live in an age of sound bites, creative advertising and current event-driven news. Yet, we, as a Church, are still publishing long documents replete with theological jargon; we are giving topic-driven sermons and talks with little reference to current events; and we are too often formal, perhaps even conventional, in our deliveries.

Here are a few tips I have learned from effective public speakers, both in the religious and secular world:

1. Know your audience. Do not assume that other people are inspired by the same things that inspire you. Appeal to their interests, their concerns and to what is familiar to them.

I belonged to many parishes. And one of the toughest things is to get men to attend any kind of religious event. For instance, in many dioceses and parishes men’s retreats are publicized in such a way as to attract women, not men. They say, “Come join us. Meet new people and make new friends.” For whatever reason, “meeting people” or “making friends” is viewed by many active Catholics as the “hook” that will get men to come to a bible study, a marriage-encounter or a retreat. If truth be told, men seldom seek a social life outside of their busy week. For them to go out of their way to attend an event, that event has to be personally beneficial to him. He is more likely to go to a seminar on how to be a better businessman than he is to attend counseling on how to be a better husband. Generally speaking, his incentive for action rests on something outside of relationships.

The reason why the Catholic appeal to men is so important now days is three-fold: First, 85 percent of all people who work for parishes throughout the nation are women. Secondly, like or not, men preside at most public institutions, including the government. As we lose men to the Faith, we also lose important institutions to secularism. Third, Catholicism is more effeminate today than it has been in several centuries. Masculine virtues are simply not esteemed by the clergy and the laity as they once were. But I digress.

The point is that the message being delivered has to be adapted to the interests, desires and needs of your audience.

2. Frontload your talk with relevance. Worry about substance later. I learned this in class from a presidential speech writer. He said if you lose your audience in the first two minutes, then, chances are, you lost your audience! Scripture should be goal but not the starting point for giving a presentation. In promoting a religious event, I have seen men and women begin their talk with a Scripture passage. Yawn! The fact is that our society is biblically and theologically illiterate. To begin with something foreign to them is to lose their attention very quickly. Begin with the latest news or an interesting statistic or a quick autobiographical story.

3. Do not stay in the biblical or religious world you are trying to communicate. Build bridges between the world people live in and the world they have yet to consider; between earth and heaven; between the news in the media and the Good News. Remind them that the life of grace is but the prelude to the life of glory. Indeed, the life of grace and the life of glory are of the same substance; two parts to a whole, if you will. Catholic communicators who are least effective rarely leave the world of the bible or the world of Faith. With this, relevance and intrigue is wanting. The gap is therefore never bridged.

On the other hand, there are worldly Christians who rarely leave this world and as such hardly doo they speak of spiritual or heavenly realities. With this, effectiveness is wanting. It has no saving power. This is why so many Catholic institutions that pride themselves on keeping up with worldly standards and trends die out. They have a high mortality rate.

In short, there are times we have to explain the Gospel as it is in itself; in its historical and theological context. But we cannot fail to bring the light of the Gospel to modern day events, issues, questions and concerns. We have to ask ourselves: How does this shed light on their life? How does this theological truth answer their questions?

4. Use brevity. Don’t be longwinded. If you have the choice between using 100 words to communicate a truth or 300 words to communicate the exact same truth, side with the former.

5. Not every talk can afford to all of these, but at least consider these tools when trying to teach or communicate an abstract truth. Consider using stories, examples, analogies, statistics, historical references and current events. Use abstract principles and expressions sparingly but use them. Quite often, the highest truths and most beneficial are abstract. It is your job to make them concrete and practical.

6. Before you finish crafting your speech and before you begin the speech itself, you should know one, two or three basic points that you want people should take away from your talk.

7. Lastly, words have to be seasoned with prayer and spiritual sacrifices (i.e. acts of self-denial). Know that the mission to convert souls is not an impersonal process whereby you press a button to get a response. As good as plans, strategies and meetings are, know these forums and instruments did not account for the spread of Christianity for the first millennium. Rather, the sanctification of souls requires the initiative and cooperation of the Holy Spirit. And even with his cooperation, there is a Cross to carry; a price to be paid. As it reads in the book of Acts: “They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, ‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.’"

Debates are one thing, public speaking is another and preaching the Gospel is yet another. But those who preach the Gospel and teach the Faith can learn a great deal from those who are proficient in debates and public speaking. Yet, the same time, the ministry of winning souls to Christ requires a set of principles and practices that go beyond mere eloquence and persuasion. As St. Paul said, "When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God,  I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. " (I Corinthians 2:1-2)