Presentation pie

Pie: what unexpectedly lands on your face when you’re trying to be cool.

I was the “preacher” stand-in on Sunday, speaking at a Unitarian church about 60 miles from here while their minister was on vacation. It was the second time I’ve presented this particular sermon. The first time, about five years ago, was at my home church and it went over very well.

In the ensuing years I have gotten much more skillful not only at speaking but at crafting a tight speech/sermon. I reworked the old speech, lightened it up with some humorous quips and images, and added a rousing call to action at the end. It was definitely improved, so I felt confident all would be well.

After what happened on Sunday I can tell I need to go back to improv class, because those skills would have been handy.

Before I was to speak, the Sunday School director invited the kids to come forward for story time.  She started telling them a tale that seemed surprisingly similar to what I was about to talk about. At first I thought, “This is good – I can refer back to a couple of her ideas when I speak.”

But she went on and on, pretty much summarizing in kid’s language what I was going to talk about. As she finished she looked back at me and said, “Heheh, I hope I didn’t spoil your story….”

In Toastmasters we are warned in our introductions never to give away the speaker’s main points. For example you might say, “Today Mary will tell us the story of Goldilocks.” But you’d never say, “Today Mary is going to tell about how a little girl happened into a bear’s home while they were out and had to try every chair, bowl, and bed before she found one that was just right. Mary?”

OK, this woman’s version of the story lacked the depth, detail and brilliance of mine, and she missed some of the juicy parts, but still, she left me holding a half-eaten sandwich.

So I got up to speak and noticed that this was a crowd that likes to keep its distance. Most folks sat as far back as possible; the front five rows were empty. I thought I was in Missouri with the “show-me” congregation. Crossed arms, implacable faces.

Still, I wasn’t worried because most audiences respond fairly quickly to the warmth of my manner (not bragging; it’s true).

Ah yes. The congregation soaked up my words like a sponge. That is to say, my words landed on the congregants and disappeared without a trace.  It was like talking to acoustical tile.

I plowed on regardless and I guess it was all right. Next time I’ll bring bagels to toss into the crowd at the end of every page of text. That would get a rise out of them. But if it didn’t I’d add lox.

Afterwards I talked with a friend who had belonged to my church before she moved to this community. She noted that there were a lot of old folks in the group and said that this was their usual “response” to the sermon.

It made me really appreciate the pleasure of speaking to a responsive audience.  My home congregation really hangs in there with the minister or any guest speaker.   At Toastmasters we are totally attentive to and appreciative of the speaker, even if it’s crap. We know that soon enough we’ll be up front and want that kind of support for ourselves.

On behalf of speakers and teachers everywhere, the next time you’re in an audience, do your part by giving the person up front the gift of your full attention. Laugh, frown, cry in response. You’re there anyway; might as well be fully present.

5 responses to “Presentation pie

  1. I’m not going to give your blog address to anyone in my congregation. I’m embarrased enough for the whole of us. I knew while Lise was talking that she was doing the unforgiveable. I know it’s silly to be shamed by someone else’s behavior but I felt so bad I wanted to throttle her when we spoke to her outside later. If you never want to come back, that and the frost factor of our elitist group ought to do it for you. It made me miss all of you in Vancouver even more. Thank your again for lunch. Next time it really is my turn to treat. Loved having you to myself for a while on Sunday. May your days be blest with warmer receptions. Namaste’, Mary

  2. Just a little anecdote. I went to a storytelling workshop last week with Kevin Brooks, who is a storyteller for Motorola. He talked about looking for a kind of blank expression in your audience which indicates that people are listening. They’re listening so intently that they’re not doing anything with their faces or bodies. They just kind of sit there, mouth slightly open. They’re busy processing.

    It’s something that he said threw him off at first, because it didn’t look at all like they were interested. But now he sees it as a sign that he’s doing well.

  3. Thanks, Carl, for the interesting perspective on the “rapt” (blank-faced) audience. I still think I could have been more improvisational in my response, both to the children’s story and to the blank faces. I also may not have given these older folks sufficient time between paragraphs for them to process what I just said.

  4. Mary – not to worry. I’m a big girl and can take care of myself. I learned a lot… especially that I need to be much more willing to go off script (WAY off script if necessary) to respond to unexpected circumstances.

  5. That was mean – not particularly Christian either.
    My husband does public speaking and tends to take Carl’s view. A little constructive feedback is always helpful though.