Several years ago, I sat down for a leisurely breakfast with one of my favorite people on the planet…1994 World Champion of Public Speaking, Dr. Morgan MacArthur. I always enjoy our conversations because we discuss a range of topics from the inane to the sublime. Morgan makes me laugh…a lot…but he also makes me THINK. As I often do when Morgan and I get together, I reminded him of memorable things that I have heard him say over the years, the way that he masterfully recalls some profound experience, how he uses his whole body to not only re-tell a story, but to re-LIVE it. People often compliment me on how I use my voice and my mouth to re-create realistic sound effects, but Morgan is the MASTER. He told me that he began using mouth-sounds when he was 8 years old, and that he even bought a book on the subject. He had a specific PURPOSE: to make his re-creations sound AUTHENTIC. And that’s where the seed for this brief blog was planted as I found myself wondering about my own level of authenticity, and my own sense of purpose.
As an executive speaking coach, I teach professional speakers the art of making full use of the platform…from presentation style to stage management…body language to eye contact…from facial expressions to the power of the pause…and everything in between. These are the techniques that I’ve been asked to share at Toastmasters conferences on 5 continents, and at National Speakers Association chapters across North America. Every once in a while, someone will approach me after a speech and tell me that I’m a great ‘actor’. I’ve even had educators tell me, “I could use your performance as a great example for my drama students!” A compliment! FANTASTIC! But…when that happens, I sometimes wonder about my level of authenticity. Yes, I have taught, “Don’t tell us; TAKE us.” I have taught, “BECOME the characters in the story.” I have taught, “Use dialog not to re-tell but to RE-LIVE.” So it’s difficult to avoid the question, “Am I so good on the platform, so smooth in my delivery, so dramatic in my presentation, that I am viewed as a talented ACTOR and not a passionate presenter?” And if I find myself questioning my authenticity, then why am I doing this in the first place?
That day, as I began to rattle off snippets from 3 of Morgan’s speeches, as I quoted verbatim entire sections of his 1994 World Championship speech ‘Stuck to a Bucket’, as I told him about the masterful way that he interwove multiple stories to hammer his message home, and as I recounted how he earned tumultuous applause in the middle of his winning speech, Morgan hit me with a dose of wisdom. He said, “Brownie (he ALWAYS calls me Brownie, and he’s the only person who does!) Brownie, to tell the truth, I couldn’t give that speech again. I’m way past that now, but that speech wasn’t about me. I was just a conduit for a message.”
BOOM! That was it! That was what made his message AUTHENTIC. That was Morgan’s ‘WHY!’ As I began to ponder his words, I thought about the myriad reasons that I have heard speakers give for taking the platform. Some wish to conquer their fear of public speaking. Some simply want to improve their speaking ability. Some speak to pass a public speaking course at a college or university. Some speak because they were asked to say a few words at a wedding or other celebratory occasion. Some speak because they HAVE to…their job responsibilities require it. Some speak because they want to become professional speakers, and some speak because they have their sights set on the Toastmasters International World Championship of Public Speaking. These are all completely valid reasons, and undoubtedly there are more reasons than I have stated here. There are a few people who, if they are TRULY honest…especially with themselves, will admit that they like the attention, they like the ego boost, and they really like to impress others with their eloquence. That’s entirely up to them. But when Morgan said that he was a channel for his message, I recalled a similar experience.
In 1995, as I prepared for the Toastmasters Region VII speech contest (it’s now a Semi-Final), I ‘hit the wall’ and my creative juices seemed to dry up. I shut myself in my office, determined to reap the benefits of my solitude. As I struggled with my message, I was overcome with a wave of inspiration and found myself writing furiously. Within minutes, a clear message was staring at me from my computer screen. “This is good!” I thought to myself, and I heard what sounded like an audible voice. “THAT is the message you must give when you get to the contest. There will be someone there who needs to hear it.” I pushed away from my desk and searched for the source of this inspiration. Silence. Nothing. No one. But in that moment, I resolved to prepare myself, not for a contest, not to win a trophy, not to impress the judges, but to leave a MESSAGE. That night, my WHY came sharply into focus, and a few weeks later, on the night that I won the Region VII contest, a young woman approached me with tears in her eyes. She said, “Thank you, Mark. That speech was for me.” My immediate response was, “You’re the one!” which clearly surprised her, until I explained what had transpired a few weeks earlier. That brief encounter with a perfect stranger validated my WHY and forever altered my perspective about authenticity and purpose.
It’s not my place to criticize ANYONE’S reasons for speaking; please understand…that’s not my intent. And please don’t think that I’m suggesting that every speech has to be an experience bordering on the spiritual or supernatural. Nothing quite so amazing has happened to me before or since then. But every time I take the platform, I do so with purpose. For almost 20 years, I delivered the same presentation 200 times a year…to youth audiences. Each time I had the same energy, the same drive, and the same passion, and people often asked, “How did you POSSIBLY maintain your enthusiasm for the same speech, day in and day out, for TWO DECADES?” My answer is simple. Belief in my message and my genuine care and concern for my audiences. My WHY may seem like an idealistic cliché, but as corny as it may sound, but my goal whenever I speak to students and educators is to change the culture of that school, and to support the initiatives of the hard-working administrators and faculty. That’s a pretty significant ‘WHY’ and even though it may seem a bit lofty to you, that ‘WHY’ kept me going for years. Similarly, when I address a corporate audience or a ballroom full of convention attendees, I am driven to inspire them to reach new levels of excellence. My desire to help them achieve and exceed their own expectations is a solid ‘WHY’.
Your next Toastmasters speech may not call for you to change your world. Your next few moments at a microphone (or in front of a computer screen) may be to deliver a toast or a eulogy, and I quite frankly don’t expect you to transform your tribute into a message to move the masses, unless you choose to do so. However, I will ask just one thing: Before you deliver your next presentation, think about the pearl of wisdom that was dropped into my lap by my friend Morgan MacArthur, and think about how you will be perceived by your audience. It is my hope that they will not see you just as a talented speaker or gifted performer, but they will easily acknowledge both your purpose and your authenticity, and quickly recognize your WHY.
Mark L Brown, CSP
DREAM BIG; WORK BIGGER!