Public speaking has been said to be a greater fear for many than that of death itself. And indeed, it is difficult to both put together a message worth saying and to conquer the fear that no one hearing it will care very much about it.
This is not a problem I have ever had. From a young age, I showed a propensity for speaking in public that began as cuteness and soon spoiled into annoyance (ask my parents). I had training in debate and extemporaneous speaking in school, and I have never been afraid to stand up and speak my mind on the spur, without notes, with full risk of my mental outline running off the rails. I realize what a gift this is. And of course, it was very helpful in my television career as a reporter for The Golf Channel, when I sometimes had to be coherent, even downright erudite, on a moment’s notice.
But being in that business for more than 12 years, I could never understand the habit of some of my colleagues at other networks of filling the space between thoughts with ums, ahs, and so much other verbal detritus. Oh, don’t get the wrong idea — the occasional junk syllable works its way into even the best anchor’s or reporter’s presentation. We’re all only human, after all. But watch one of the 24-hour networks, and it won’t take long before you’ll see — and hear — a supposed professional out in the field, in a live shot, utter six or seven ums or ahs between elements of an on-camera stand-up. These are people who speak for a living.
Oh sure, live shots are nervous things, and very often there’s someone from the control room back home talking earnestly in your earpiece about how little time you have left, or make sure you mention such-and-so. But on-camera colleagues, I beg you to resist. Slow down. And yes, stop. Take a pause when you need to. It’s a hurry-up world, but your viewers aren’t reaching for the remote that quickly. As I found in my career, we all speak too fast on the air sometimes, and a little slow-down will make you sound more natural. And an occasional one-second pause will make you sound more authoritative.
Don’t believe me? How about one of the greatest public speakers of all time? Winston Churchill gave some of the most stirring speeches in English, in any language really — and he was a nervous public speaker. In The Last Lion, William Manchester’s* monumental three-volume biography of Churchill, we discover that the great man wrote out his speeches to the House of Commons, word for word, with various degrees of indentation to keep his eyes in the right place on the page.
Among his most famous addresses was the one Churchill made to a joint session of Congress in Washington on the day after Christmas 1941, less than three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Recall that Great Britain had, by this time, been resisting the Nazi evil nearly alone for more than two years, assisted only by Roosevelt’s lend-lease program and the other so-called “measures short of war” from the isolationist United States. Now that the U.S. had been forced into the conflict, Churchill’s effort to rush over to Washington and address his new military partner was seen as an enormous symbol of alliance.
In the speech, which you can listen to (and watch) here**, you will hear one forgivable “um” when Churchill remembers his late mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, who was born the American Jenny Jerome, and remarks on how proud she would have been to see him at that moment. But after that, and throughout the speech, Churchill never relies on nonsense syllables to bridge his thoughts, never feels the need to fill every millisecond with the sound of his voice. Instead, he pauses. Briefly, yes, but effectively, sonorously, letting thoughts fly home to their bullseye targets, allowing hearts to swell and minds to join him — speaking not only words, but bonds, truths, promises that lay the bedrock foundation of conviction.
“What kind of a people do they think we are? Is it possible they do not realize…that we shall never cease to persevere against them…until they have been taught a lesson which they…and the world shall never forget.” During this forceful incredulity at the sheer audacity of the Axis powers, Churchill actually looked down at his notes, as he often did. But it is impossible to take your eyes — and ears — from him and his message.
If he can pause and make himself heard across the decades, so can we, even in the reporting of a moment.♦
* The third volume of The Last Lion, which came out in 2012, was completed after Manchester’s death by Palm Beach Post reporter Paul Reid.
** The date of the speech is misreported in the opening graphic of the video.
©2013 Adam Barr