I watched President Obama signing his first executive orders recently. He was closing Guantanamo Bay and revoking any real or implicit instruction to torture. Before each signature, he explained what was in the order and why it was important to enact it.
He fluffed it. Mumbled, lost track, rambled – and I bet that came as a surprise to him.
As a professional academic, he is accustomed to extemporizing in the classroom and when taking questions at academic conferences. He is also accustomed to both formal and informal public speaking, and all the signs are that he did it fluently. Now, whether he realizes it or not, he has to come to grips with a new kind of public speaking.
There are two main approaches to public speaking, and one is much easier than the other. The difference between them seems so insignificant that you can overlook it completely – as President Obama did.
This is the easy way: Stand Up
And then, you’ll intuitively do two sets of things:
- Stride about
- Gesture at things – whiteboards, slides, laboratory tables
- Physically demonstrate things
- Talk to the back of the room
- Scan your audience for signs of response
- Create openings for that response
What happens – almost by mistake – is:
You use your energy and enjoy the interaction
In an academic environment, you have the right conditions: you are standing up, whether in the classroom or in the conference hall – or at least it is so appropriate to stand that it is an easy option to take.
What happened to OPresident bama was (1) he was sitting down, and (2) interaction would have been inappropriate. Neither of these seem at all important, but in fact his whole public discourse mode had been destroyed.
Sitting down pre-empts the whole approach.
It reduces personal energy, robs you of the ability to scan your audience (even when appropriate), and makes you feel quite literally as if you’re getting nowhere. Giving a presentation sitting down, is hard.
So, remember: whenever possible and appropriate: stand up!