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.