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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What Makes A Good Speaker?

by Paula Gail Benson

For a number of years I’ve participated in writing groups where I’ve been the program chair or served as a panel moderator. I know what it’s like to be constantly seeking out interesting presenters or thinking up unique yet relevant questions. It can be difficult to present a fresh perspective or make connections among diverse individuals in order to facilitate a fascinating conversation.

I particularly enjoy hearing craft discussions, but I know marketing, social media management, and the road to publication are topics of great interest for many writers. For our local Sisters in Crime chapter meetings, we try to balance authors with procedural experts like judges, community police, and forensic anthropologists. We’ve had excellent business of writing presentations from authors Raegan Teller, who explained how she successfully navigated the road to independent publication, and James M. Jackson, whose analyses of the markets and Amazon publishing strategies were in depth and revealing.

What makes a person a captivating speaker?

Recently, I attended a professional meeting organized by the National Conference of State Legislatures where Dolly Parton was the keynote speaker. Around 4,000 people gathered in a ballroom, not to hear her perform, but to listen to the story of how she began and developed an Imagination Library Foundation that, to encourage the joy of reading, each month distributes a million books to children from birth to age five.

The mayor, who introduced her, made a small error in referring to the Governor who would be interviewing her. After all, this was living legend, Dolly Parton. Nervousness might be expected. Dolly made a point of sympathizing with him, saying she likely could have made the same mistake. Her words kept the situation light and moving forward.

I would have been perfectly content to listen to her for hours. Later, I thought about what she had done that made the whole experience special and apparently effortless.

First, Dolly is incredibly genuine. Her assurance in presenting herself seems to be an innate quality she exhibits all the time. But, it has to be difficult to simply relax and be yourself in front of thousands of people. Dolly has that remarkable gift, and it flows over the audience, making everyone feel at home and comfortable in her presence.

Second, she had an interesting story to tell, and told it in a way with which others could identify. She grew up with a very intelligent father, who always provided for his family, but never learned to read. He was her inspiration to cultivate reading among children. She started her program in her home county thinking it could potentially spread to a few neighboring areas, and was delighted when it extended to other states and countries. She said that her father had more pride in children calling her “the book lady” than in her singing.

Third, in telling her story, she was very respectful of her family situation, stressing that her father was an excellent businessman and her mother was a great encourager of her music. She demonstrated her own humility and pride by emphasizing the advantages she received from the caring individuals and role models who guided her earliest steps.

Fourth, she took the time to laugh at herself, one of her most endearing qualities. When you laugh at yourself, the world laughs with you, not at you.

Fifth, she gave more than was expected. We were there to hear her speak, but she also reached for an electric guitar so she could play and sing two songs. (“Coat of Many Colors” and a song she had written for the Imagination Library program) The audience was delighted.

While Dolly Parton’s skills have been honed over a lifetime, they are certainly adaptable and excellent characteristics to look for in locating good speakers. Being genuine and humble, telling your story in an interesting and identifiable manner, showing respect for those who have helped you, being able to laugh at yourself, and giving more than an audience might expect are good guidelines for success in any presentation.

Have you ever been fascinated by a speaker? What qualities did that person have?


KM Rockwood said...

I'm always fascinated by the charisma some speakers display. Unfortunately, so many of them go into politics, or otherwise "waste" their talents!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

What a treat to hear Dolly speak and sing!

I heard Kellie Pickler sing one hot and humid summer night. She stomped around the stage in her cowboy boots and told stories about her granny and childhood. What a fun concert.

Paula Gail Benson said...

KM, political speakers can be intriguing, too. You just need to know the right venue!;) I should mention that at the end of the conference we heard from presidential biographer Jon Meacham. His speech was compelling because he gave personal recollections of working with President George Bush (41). The National Conference of State Legislatures had a wonderful lineup for this conference.

Margaret, it was a treat. Kellie Pickler is a wonderful entertainer. Isn't it interesting how we're willing to put up with the heat to hear country singers? Trace Atkins gave an outdoor performance at NCSL and we stuck with him to the end. He was fantastic!