The most unique, educational experience of my life was not in college, but a semester teaching speech to the inmates in maximum security at Oak Park Heights, Minnesota.
I had taught for more than a dozen years in three graduate theological seminaries, Baptist and Benedictine, and had also trained numerous business execs. But for sheer enlightenment--and fun--nothing matches that experience in prison. The chairman of my department at the University of Minnesota had asked me to teach the course, because no one else wanted to. It was their loss.
These guys were not nice guys. Five had been convicted of murder and one of them was a serial killer, while the rest were just ordinary thieves. The class varied between 12 and 15 members, depending on whether someone had been put in solitary for a few days.
The first day was a knock-out. I began by asking each of the prisoners--including the sociopaths--to stand in front of the class and tell me why they were taking the course and what they wanted from it. It was a hoot. Those guys were really good--at snow jobs. Never in my life had I witnessed an entire class that good at bullshitting. They told me what they thought I wanted to hear. It was a very poor job of audience analysis on their part. When they all finished, I was silent for a couple minutes, looking at my notes, and purposefully creating tension. When I stood up, I smiled and started out complimenting them. I let them know their presentations were great, clear, and even showed promise. But then I went on, explaining: "You all delivered the finest snow jobs I've ever heard in 20 minutes. I've never heard as much bullshit in one setting." The room erupted with howls of sustained laughter.
The truth came out. Every single prisoner was taking the class so he could speak well in front of the parole board. I decided right on the spot to harness that motivation and revamp the course to achieve their objective. It was the most motivated group of people I have ever taught. Those of you who've had psychology would appreciate this: The motivation was completely intrinsic--they were really self-motivated. I didn't have to motivate them--and probably couldn't have if I'd wanted.
The most memorable thing about the class was that I learned more than they. Talk about feedback and questions. It was nonstop. When the class material wasn't useful, they told me so--and why. When they wanted more input on a subject, I heard from them. When they were having difficulty preparing a speech, they asked for help. Their critiques of each other were thoughtful and concrete. And no one seemed offended by the feedback. They were as uninhibited as four-year-olds. There was less defensiveness around the critiquing of their presentations than I've ever encountered.
They also instructed me on my classroom demeanor. I got several lectures on private space--how close I could safely stand to them, and how I'd be signalled if I got in their "space." They talked openly about personal differences regarding private space. I was told never to walk behind the serial killer and stay about three feet from him--he had his back and chair against the wall. He nodded his head in agreement as his classmates explained. When I stooped down to help another guy at his desk, they interrupted to tell me who I could touch on the shoulder and who I couldn't--and why. (Obviously, several inmates intended to protect me.) They demanded that I critique their speech ruthlessly. They wanted no whitewash from the professor.
That class confirmed an important fact for me: All of us have to deal with the same three issues to become a successful speaker. It's true with undergrads, seminary students, graduate professionals, managers, executives--and even prisoners.
1. Audience analysis. I succeeded by focusing on the needs and objectives of the prisoners. Actually, I had the class in the palm of my hand at the end of the first 30 minutes and they stayed there for the rest of the quarter. They also quickly learned the importance of speaking to their audience intimately. So we spent a disproportionate amount of time assessing the characteristics of people on parole boards. Like the thieves some of them were, they really "cased the joint"--the parole board. The local drug dealers are often the best marketers in a community, but thieves, I've decided, are fabulous at audience analysis. Once they understood its usefulness to speech, they did an impeccable job.
The rule remains true: unless your materials are adapted to your audience, you won't get a hearing.
2. Personal confidence. The research shows that once audiences detect anxiety in the speaker, his credibility and the perceived value of his message go downhill. Furthermore, systematic research finds that audiences can readily detect the emotional state of speakers, and that they assess the emotionality of the speaker (confidence or inhibition) before they pay attention to the actual message.
Speaker confidence goes hand in hand with credibility. In other words, audiences trust and pay attention to confident speakers. The opposite is also true: if the audience doesn't think you're confident about what you're saying, they'll tune you out. Personal confidence is the most vital characteristic of all good speakers.
A minority of speakers have little personal inhibition from the start and so they can move quickly to thinking about their message and their audience. The sociopaths lacked personal awareness, and seemed almost inhibition free. They asked again and again for direct feedback and took it very seriously. None of them lacked intelligence, and as a result they were a very quick study.
Most of us would learn and grow a lot faster if we, too, dropped our inhibitions about getting feedback. Sure, good speaking requires practice and coaching, but it really requires feedback, more feedback and still some more feedback.
You have to be confident and comfortable with yourself to accept feedback, and use it to connect credibly with your audience.
3. Simplicity. Speeches are organized either deductively (a big idea, supported by evidence), or inductively (a problem to solve, with the means to resolve it). In business, speeches tend to be both informational and deductive(e.g.project status, update), or persuasive and inductive (e.g. an argument to get buy-in for a project, organizational or strategic change). The best persuasive speeches hang a small amount of relevant data on the skeleton, major in stories and examples to move the emotions and get buy-in.
Twenty-five years ago business people pooh-poohed narrative. Today you'll find most of the best execs use story. Here, for example, is a typical business blog on using stories to overcome fear. You can learn to tell stories if that's not a part of your heritage. When you're trying to persuade, sell an idea or get buy-in, nothing beats organizational simplicity and a good story.
I learned later that three of the guys who were up for parole were all successful at the hearing. I don't know whether that was good or bad. But for sure, the principles of good speaking remain the same in every situation.