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16 Years and 13 Questions

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. I think after 16 years of regular rhythms of public speaking I’m close to the 10,000 hour mark. Communicating is, in some ways, like playing golf. You can actually have unhealthy habits in your golf swing and still shoot relatively well. (That is if you over compensate and if you don’t play too often. I know this first hand!) However, if you don’t correct poor habits, over time, the more you play, the more your score starts to rise. Your poor habits eventually take over and your effort and overcompensation become futile. The same is true when it comes to communicating regularly. Several years ago, I noticed roughly 13 common denominators after successful or fulfilling experiences in communicating. More recently, these 13 commonalities have become questions that I’ve used with others when helping them develop or assess their onstage communication skills. If you could add a “14th” commonality or question, what would it be?

What specific purpose were you pursuing in your talk? (Did the talk achieve it’s purpose and why?)

  • How did you outline your talk? Was there a clear objective in your own mind? (I've heard it said "If there's a mist in the pulpit, there's a fog in the pews.")

  • Would have been able to clearly articulate the goal of your talk in three minutes?

  • How did you view your talk in your mind? Memorized paragraphs, bullet points, slide-deck based, pictures, etc...?

Was the talk informative, inspirational, instructional, or contemplative?

  • What was the feel or mood of the talk? Did you dip in and out of different spaces?

  • If you moved from one feel or mood to another, how were those transitions?

What were the two strongest moments in the talk and why?

  • Identify the moments in your talk when you felt like you had captivated hearts and minds into a singular moment and notice what happened to facilitate that moment. 

  • What were your vocal dynamics like? Did you speed up and slow down? Did you get louder or softer? Were you in an informational space, or a narrative space?

  • Can you pinpoint the shift when you felt like people leaned in a little bit? 

What type of person would have connected the most with the talk and why?

  • Can you identify the type of person you may have written this talk for? Sometimes you can find more clarity with a very specific audience.

  • What would this type of person be able to connect with, and did you include that in your talk?

Did you sense any moments when there was a disconnect in the talk?

  • Where did you miss people? Did you have any jokes that fell flat? Did you use some information that was inaccessible?

  • Did you have any places in particular that you disconnected from the talk? If you found yourself being pulled somewhere else mentally, there's a good chance the people you were talking to felt the same.

  • Was there any place where you felt the room get fidgety? This can be a clear indication that you may have disconnected with the people in the room.

Did you have a full contextual understanding of your audience?

  • When going into a speaking engagement, it is imperative that you understand the context of who you are speaking to. Is it a church? Who is in the church? Is it an urban or suburban church? Younger crowd or older crowd? Educated? Artsy? When you begin to ask yourself these questions, you can begin to get a better picture of how you can connect to the people you are speaking to.

  • What questions do you need to ask to get a full understanding of your audience? Develop a list that will allow you to make some headway in this area. The right message with the wrong medium is the wrong message.

How well did you annunciate? (Scale of 1 to 5)

  • Annunciation is key for people to understand you. You may need to seek the advice of some trusted friends to tell you how you came across to them.

  • Did you notice yourself tripping over any words or phrases? Note these for future use and awareness.

Assess the pace of your talk. (Were you satisfied with the variance between times that when your cadence was fast and times when it was slow?)

  • Your cadence is the speed at which you are talking, and the best of speakers know how to weave in and out of a cadence to their benefit. Speeding up at times, and slowing down at others.

  • When assessing the pace of your talk, you may need to ask some trusted others who heard you speak. We often have a hard time assessing ourselves as we speak. We are focused on too many other factors to have an unbiased opinion about pace and cadence. 

Assess the variance of your talk’s emotional weight. What percent of the talk was...

  1. light hearted

  2. middle of the road

  3. heavy

How strong was your opening? (Scale of 1 to 5) Why?

  • What was the transition of you coming on stage like? High energy? Somber? Did you have notes? Where did you put them?

  • What was your cadence like in your opening? Did it contribute to the feel of your talk?

How strong was your ending? (Scale of 1 to 5) Why?

  • What was the transition into your ending like? Did you feel like you were able to continue to captivate people as you closed? Or did they check their phones to see what time it was and if they had any notifications?

  • What was the goal of your closing? To challenge people? To inspire them? Could you clearly articulate what you were asking of the audience you were speaking to?

When were you boring or when did the talk feel bogged down?

  • This may be a hard pill to swallow, but there is a good chance that you may have not been riveting the entire time you were talking. Did you notice any moments where you may have lost people? Was there any place where you felt like you weren't making good of the words you had to use?

  • Can you ask someone you trust for honest feedback? "I loved your talk" is wildly unhelpful. "I didn't get ________" might give you a place to go to work. Value others' honest feedback and you'll begin to hone your craft.

If you could go back and redo the talk, what changes would you make and why?

  • I'm all for leaving it all on the stage and having no regrets, but remember, this isn't about re-living your mistakes and wishing you could do things better. This is about taking the data given to you by your feedback and making changes so that you can be the best at what you do.

  • Knowing why you make changes is almost as important as the changes themselves. Change for the sake of change is a massive time-suck. Change for the sake of progress is the only way to get better. Use your feedback to give you a head start next time you speak.