A good presentation entertains, informs, and connects

The Fall/Winter 2011 newsletter of the Canadian Stuttering Association features an article by Jaan Pill in which he describes what he’s learned about connecting with the audience:

A good presentation connects with an audience

During the past twenty years of volunteer work, I have served as one of the co-founders Canadian Stuttering Association (1991), the Estonian Stuttering Association (1993), and the International Stuttering Association (1995). I became involved in such work pretty much by accident, following a visit to a three-week stuttering treatment program in Edmonton in July 1987.

Before I attended the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR) in Edmonton, I had avoided public speaking whenever I could. Since then I’ve made many presentations. In 1990, for example, I delivered a series of lectures in Estonia about Western approaches to the treatment of stuttering. I also spoke on that occasion about a self-help group that I had founded in Toronto in 1988. These lectures led directly the founding of the Estonian Stuttering Association a few years later.

I had always wanted to make presentations. When I was in high school, as a joke some friends nominated me to run for election as president of the student council. Although I stuttered severely as a teenager, I took on the challenge. I had to make a campaign speech in the high school auditorium to the assembled student body.

I recall the looks of apprehension on the faces of some of my classmates as I made my way up to the podium. Fortunately, I had written a good text and had rehearsed my presentation endlessly at home. My speech went well, somewhat to the surprise of everyone, including the speaker. I won the election by a landslide. I didn’t do much public speaking after that, but I enjoyed this moment in the spotlight in front of a microphone. I still enjoy using microphones.

I began to stutter at the age of six. Aside from exceptions such as my campaign speech, in my late teens and early twenties I stuttered severely. At times, I could not get out any words at all. One time I phoned someone and tried to say hello. The “H” sound at the beginnings of words was especially difficult for me to say in those days. After thirty seconds of trying to say hello, I hung up the phone, without saying hello. I’m sure you can imagine how that felt.

“You’re not supposed to be able to do this”

Fortunately, after the Edmonton clinic – and following several years of daily practice, and regular analysis of two-minute recorded segments of my performance in everyday speech tasks such as conversations and phone calls – I had a good sense of how to apply my fluency skills during presentations. The next task was learning how to really connect with an audience. I had done a great job connecting with an audience in my campaign speech in high school but in subsequent years I had to relearn that skill.

As a keynote speaker at a Speak Easy International Foundation conference in New Jersey in the early 1990s, I began a presentation by describing in detail the relationship, at the level of decision making, among three international stuttering associations – ISA, IFA, and ELSA – and realized at once that the audience found that my intricate overview of decision making in the international stuttering self-help movement was one of the most boring topics they had every had the pleasure to encounter.

Fred Murray, a pioneer of the worldwide self-help movement for people who stutter, was in the audience on that occasion. After my speech, he congratulated me on a great performance. He was impressed that I had picked up on the cues from the audience and had immediately switched the topic of my presentation. He said I would make a great contribution to the self-help movement in the years ahead.

His prediction turned out to be correct. He was one of my mentors in my volunteer work in the early years, as was Einer Boberg, who had been a co-founder of ISTAR along with Deborah Kully, in the mid-1980s. For the rest of the talk, on that occasion in New Jersey, I had switched to telling a compelling story – the story of how I had become involved with the self-help movement in the first place. The story goes as follows.

When I had first started making fluent presentations to large audiences, after July 1987, during each presentation a voice inside me would say, “You’re not supposed to be able to do this. You’re supposed to be falling flat on your face.”

That voice really bothered me. My non-stuttering friends couldn’t see what the big deal was. At first I thought I should get some psychotherapy to deal with this annoying inner voice. But then I realized that what I needed to do was to compare notes with other people who stutter. I thereupon formed a local self-help group for stutterers and began comparing notes.

After a year of meetings, a speech therapist who stutters – Tony Churchill of Mississauga – came to speak at one of our meetings. I asked him about the inner voice. He said this voice was telling me I needed to make some adjustments to changes that had occurred in my life. After that, the inner voice never bothered me again.

Having seen the benefits of learning from other people who stutter, through regular meetings of the local self-help group, which members took turns in organizing and leading, I became an active member of the worldwide stuttering community.

How to speak with a person who stutters

I still use that story in many of my presentations. It’s a crowd-pleaser. Everybody loves that story. In talks to fluent audiences, and in media interviews, I also like to share information, because it always gets a good response, about how to speak with a person who stutters.

I offer the following hints:

(1) maintain eye contact, as it reminds those of us who stutter that we’re still part of the human race, even when we stutter severely;

(2) give the person enough time to finish her or his own sentences; and

(3) avoid remarks such as “slow down” or “take a deep breath” as such remarks are unhelpful, unless you’re a speech therapist getting paid to offer such advice.

Aside from learning how to apply fluency skills and how to choose entertaining and informative content, I’ve also learned how to deliver a presentation in a way that connects with the audience. In my thirty years of public school teaching, when observing teachers making presentations to other teachers, I had noticed that a teacher reading from a prepared text did not make the same connection with the audience as a teacher who spoke extemporaneously, referring only occasionally to notes that briefly outlined the topic of a presentation.

I’ve learned to combine a thoroughly rehearsed prepared text – in which I refer to the written text only occasionally, while maintaining eye contact with the audience – with plenty of extemporaneous or ad lib commentary that I make up as I’m speaking. All the while, I keep track of my speaking time by referring to a stop watch, as I’m aware that audiences, and event organizers, like it when a presentation takes exactly as many minutes as has been agreed upon, during the planning of the event.

These are approaches to public speaking that have worked for me. I always strive to make my next presentation even better than the last one. The ISTAR clinic in Edmonton is built upon a strategy of continuous improvement. The treatment program changes from year to year in response to clinical experience and the most recent research on treatment methods in countries around the world. That approach has always inspired me, and I strive to adopt the same philosophy with regard to the development of my presentation skills.

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