Malcolm Gladwell on Conversation & Speaking

This morning I heard an interview Malcolm Gladwell did for Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics podcast. In discussing his analysis of Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hour rule”—that it takes that many hours of practice to become an expert—Gladwell talked about his own evolution as a public speaker.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time studying others. Because I thought that what people respond to as an audience is authenticity.”

Readers of this blog will recognize that as my favorite A-word. Gladwell continues:

“So I spent a lot of time thinking about …what is the image I’m trying to project about the kind of person I am, the way that I see the world. And I finally realized that what I am is someone who’s not too formal or studied or…I’m conversational.”

I have heard this from so many speakers who insist on going into a speech armed with nothing more than a list of bullet points. “I want it to be conversational.”

So how does Gladwell achieve that conversational tone in his speaking? Let’s listen in:

“That meant that I had to, I really had to memorize everything. I couldn’t use slides and notes and it couldn’t seem like a classroom lecture; it had to seem like a conversation with me.”

In other words, he treats each speaking engagement like a TED Talk.

Most speakers don’t have the time to memorize a speech—especially if they speak on many different subjects at different venues. And, to be fair, it is part of Gladwell’s job to speak well. At this point in his career, his appearances command a hefty fee.

But communicating is part of an executive’s job, as well. Speaking can help raise the profile of the organization they lead, sell more of its products, increase its prestige. I encourage my clients to think of speech-giving not as something that takes them away from their “real”responsibilities, but as another facet of their job as leaders.

Being conversational doesn’t mean speaking off the top of your head—please, please never do that. But it does mean practicing. A lot. And as you practice, you will find yourself memorizing parts of the speech naturally.

I don’t share Gladwell’s aversion to looking at notes from time to time. Unless you’re an actor in a play, no one will fault you for having a script in front of you. But don’t  deliver your speech to the podium—if you glance at your notes, stop speaking and don’t open your mouth again until you’re looking at the audience. If you haven’t practiced your speech, those silences can seem interminable. Practice enough and your audience reads them as thoughtful pauses.

Conversational and thoughtful. Not a bad way to present yourself.

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