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On Public Speaking and the Golden Globes

On Public Speaking and the Golden Globes

By Dennis Loo (1/13/14)

I watched some of the Golden Globes last night. The awards show is paid attention to not because of who is doing the voting (the relatively small number of Foreign Press Association members) but because it is the last major awards show before the Oscars and therefore tends to predict the Academy's choices. (Delightfully, even though Jessica Chastain won for Best Actress in the Globes last year for playing CIA torturer/interrogator Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, those of us who were trying to discredit the pro-torture/pro-CIA faux documentary style message of ZDT were able to turn the tide against the film between the Globes and the Oscars and it got only a shared minor award at the Academy Awards).

What struck me in general about the awardees' acceptance speeches last night was that the people who are among the very best in the world at appearing before others, have trouble speaking extemporaneously. Jacqueline Bisset is taking the most heat for this, but nearly everyone else also had trouble speaking without a prompter. What actors are good at is delivering lines that others have written. They are amazingly good at taking on the persona of the person they're dramatizing. It's a special talent and one that humanity values tremendously. But have them have to speak on the spur of the moment before a crowd and most of them have as much trouble as the rest of us do.

It underscored something that I realized in a revelatory moment when I was in graduate school after I had just given a guest lecture on 20th Century China and the Cultural Revolution in particular. I was sufficiently nervous giving that talk (not because of the subject but because I was not very comfortable speaking before an audience) that I could not monitor what I was saying while speaking: one part of me was speaking but the other part of me couldn't pay attention to what that part of me that was speaking was saying. That supervisory part of me had no idea what the other part of me was saying and whether any of it was even coherent. No one in the room, however, appeared to be puzzled by what I was saying and no one stood up to say: "That doesn't make any sense! How dare you waste our time with such nonsense!" They appeared to be appreciative of what I said, even if not everyone agreed with its content. So someone inside of me knew what he was doing and was putting sentences together that made sense. The revelatory part of this was that I concluded that if some part of my brain knew what it was doing, then I could rely upon that part of me to speak in public, even if the other supervisory part of me was temporarily incapacitated.

This is consistent with what W. Timothy Gallwey wrote in his classic and wonderful book, The Inner Game of Tennis. In it he takes the insights of Zen and applies them to tennis. He refers to Self I and Self II, with Self II being the supervisory self, the sense of who I am, my ego, wanting to be in charge. In insisting on this and not trusting Self I that if left to do his or her thing, it can play the game far better than Self II can, you hamper your ability to play the game fully. I love the anecdote he tells in the book about a player who tried Gallwey's technique and was able to improve his serve's speed by a lot, but then reverted back to his old habits and far inferior serve. When asked by Gallwey why he was doing this the player replied that he knew that his Self I serve was much better, but he didn't feel like he was doing it when Self I was in charge.

The other insight that followed from my China talk experience in graduate school was that what mattered to those who I might be speaking to was not who I was or how I appeared physically to them - when we're nervous we tend to worry about how we look and sound. What matters in fact is the content of what I am saying.

If what we have to say is worth hearing and particularly if what we're saying concentrates and raises to a higher level what others have noticed, experienced, or wondered about, but perhaps have not been able to quite put it into words yet or they don't have access to as much history, science, and theory, then it will resonate with others and will elevate where you and they collectively can go. What a close study of history and revolutionary theory will do is allow you to see beneath the surface appearances and probe to the essence of what's going on.

The interaction between the individual and the group is also evident in public leaders addressing a rally or audience, athletes competing on a field of play before a stadium of fans, actors performing on stage, musicians playing before a live audience, and teachers speaking in front of a class. All of them experience the same dynamic of the interplay between performer and audience. This interplay is either strong or tepid. When the connection is strong, the audience feels that the performers in front of them are expressing their deepest sentiments and highest aspirations, entertaining them by striking a responsive chord, or perhaps stirring their darkest fears in a concentrated way. The audience members hear and recognize elements of themselves through the performer/leader. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 37)

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