March 8, 2012
CRITERION #10: POETRY
Words are magical tools that can fire the imagination,
lift the spirit, or cut to the heart.
I’m a firm believer that there is poetry even in the most prosaic of prose. Now, I’m a lover of words, mind you. And I’m aware that not everybody has that same love. However, for the purposes of effective public speaking, I recommend that you try and warm up to the idea. You only have a few things you can work with when you get up on-stage – the way you look, the way you move, the sound of your voice, the words you speak etc. On that shortlist, I think you’ll agree that the words you speak are pretty important. They are essential tools of the speaker’s trade. Tools that can be used to fire the imagination, lift the spirit, or cut to the heart. Don’t be afraid of their power. Put it to work.
I come by my love of words, because I suffered the indignities of learning Latin as a child in England. From the age of seven, my schoolmates and I were press-ganged into serving the master of Latin. It wasn’t fun. Out of earshot of the powers-that-be, we commiserated with a song that has been passed down through many generations of English schoolchildren: “Latin is a language as dead as dead can be; it killed it ancient Britons, and now it’s killing me.”
However, I have to give credit to my masters (and my parents) for knowing something that I didn’t – that learning Latin was considerably more useful that it was useless. I learned a little Greek too… and if you have those two ancient languages, you can recognize the root of something like 98% of the words in English. And, if you recognize its root, you somehow can feel intimate with a word. Really. It’s almost like it takes on a shape you can actually reach out and touch. Dimensional, sensual, sculpted, textured – words can be all this and more. Poetry.
The most obvious example of the power of words is, of course, onomatopoeia – those fabulous, musical sounding words that practically jump off the page, like gurgle, or effervescent, or shatter. What attracts us to words like these is the intrinsic personality that so clearly comes across when we use them to convey a particular meaning. Their personality is obvious. The personality of other words is not quite so obvious, but it’s got something to do with their roots; and if you look you will find it. Words like belligerent (from the Latin word bellum = a battle), or recognize (anchored by the Greek word cognos = to know), or magistrate (from the Latin word magister = master).
Anyway, the point that I’m getting at is that words are powerfully endowed with all kinds of meaning. And some words are more meaningful than others. More powerful. If you write your own speech, you need to put some of those words in it. If someone else writes the presentation, you need to search for the words in it that have that particular, poetic power. They will be there. I guarantee it.
I guarantee that if you talk to the person who wrote your speech, and you ask him or her which parts they like the most… which paragraphs they are most proud of… they will be the parts that contain the most interesting words. Even the most prosaic of speeches… from a presentation on next year’s benefits plan, to an overview of last year’s financial results… can contain some well-crafted writing. And here’s a tip. It’s very often in the adjectives.
Find the words, and mark them in your script. Now that you’ve found the words… deliver them. In your finest oratorical style.