Hide the Art (especially Toastmasters)

Toastmasters is a wonderful organisation for anybody who wishes to improve their ability to speak with impact.

However, there is something that has often challenged me with the “best” toastmaster speeches. They are very clearly the work of someone who has worked very, very, very hard on the words, gestures and voice that they use to deliver the speech. The “best” toastmaster speeches verge on the theatric and sometimes leave behind a sense of a natural conversation.  Toastmasters evaluations can focus on bringing attention to symbols of hard work on the art of public speaking – big gestures, long pauses, wide ranges of volume, tone and pace in voice.

I am reading Sims Wyeth‘s book “The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking” at the moment.  One of his sections is called “Hide the Art”.  It speaks about the need to hide your brilliance as a speaker.

Hide the Art

Why hide the art?  Why would you want to go to the effort to hide the work you have done on being a great speaker?

Sims refers to a number of great political orators of the Athenian state.  They knew that if the people saw them as relaxed and natural, they would be more open to listen to their ideas.  If the people saw how much they worked on their ability to speak, the people would be worried about being manipulated by them.

It is a paradox – being visibly “too good” makes you less likely to connect and persuade.

Hiding the art does not mean that you intentionally are a poor speaker.  It means what Bruce Lee refers to as Natural Un-Naturalness (see final paragraphs of post).

“The natural instinct and control need to be combined in harmony – one to the extreme you become very unscientific, the other you become a mechanical man… no longer a human being – the ideal is unnatural naturalness, or natural unnaturalness… yin yang” Bruce Lee

The swan swims gracefully over the water of the pond – only the fish see how hard her little feet are paddling beneath the surface.  This is the art of great speaking.  The art is to go through theatrical and get back to looking authentic, human and natural.

Moving people to action requires that you go beyond the level of preparation that allows you to deliver an excellent performance and arrive at an ability to hold a peer-to-peer conversation with the audience.

The path to Natural must pass through Contrived

The path to natural unnaturalness must pass through “contrived unnaturalness” – you have to do the work to move through discomfort and expansion of your natural range as a speaker – and Toastmasters is the absolute best path.  However, taking your message beyond toastmasters requires integrating the gestures, voice, words back into yourself so that the audience feels like you have not worked so hard.  This way they trust the person and listen to the message, rather than are impressed by the person, but distrustful of the message.

Great artists mastered the basics over many, many years before they found the path back to what we might call “authentic” or natural.

8 Comments

  1. Thanks Conor and all for your comments, I particularly agree with Matthew about the “stuck” part, and how to get back to a conversational style; I would add that sometimes I’ve seen TM as coming out from the same production machine, rather than getting the tactics and build the own personal style… At least is what I try to do myself – Thanks again – “being visibly “too good” makes you less likely to connect and persuade”… connect and persuade, that’s the key..

  2. Another Toastmaster here, going on 8 years myself. I agree with where Florian is going, though I also feel this is part of the journey of a great speaker.

    I think most of us start as natural, somewhat conversational. Than hit the point of being aware of how we could become better, start down that path (aka become a bit mechanical, etc…), and if we stick with it, turn back toward natural conversation.

    Toastmasters tend to get stuck in the middle. Learning the mechanics of speaking, briefly learning about applying them, but not how to match them up with our style/approach to speaking. Typically I see Toastmasters get comfortable with their speaking skills without continuing down the path.

    What would be interesting… What advice do you offer to the Toastmasters and others who get stuck in the mechanical/theatrical approach? What do we do to bring things back to a conversational style?

  3. Being a fully-fledged Toastmaster for almost nine years, I’m obviously biased… 😉 I do partly agree, but not 100%. I’m looking forward to seeing this conversation expand. To start the engine…

    Two aspects. One, not every audience is the same. Americans tend to embrace a more theatrical style without skepticism knocking on the door of consciousness. Two, the bigger the audience the more performance elements like a bigger voice or bigger gestures you need. Think about Lenin speaking to his audiences during the October Revolution. He didn’t have a microphone. And he was not quite naturally conversational in his style.

    It’s beyond doubt that authenticity is the biggest trust builder. But then again, what is authenticity? Professional speaker Olivia Schofield is a “wild cat” on and AND off stage.

    Back to you.

    1. Good aspects – audiences are different, and auditori are different.

      On the example of Olivia… what is important in her engaging with an audience is not how she is off stage, but how they expect her to be – if an audience can engage with her as she is they can then engage with the message; where the audience is “not ready” for a “wild cat” – it doesn’t matter that this is her nature on and off stage – the audience can and will not connect and her message will not be heard.

      I learnt this when speaking to a group of IT middle managers about entrepreneurship. I spoke in an excited and passionate way, sharing personal stories… and they didn’t engage. It wasn’t the type of person that they were able to engage with. They needed someone “more like them” at least at the beginning to connect to… and then maybe they could have heard what I was trying to share at the end 😉

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