Becoming A Better Speaker by Studying Professional Performers

World Dance Championship — Learning From The Pros

I attended the World Salsa Competition at the South Point Hotel and Casino this past weekend.  I was watching the noon news telecast on a local TV channel and discovered that the event was kicking off later that evening just four miles from my house.  It’s great living in Las Vegas!

The competition featured salsa, mambo, cha-cha-cha, tango, high-energy style Latin dance.  What great fun to mix and mingle with the dancers in the hallway.  There were two hundred competitors from 28 countries.  The competition finals will tentatively be aired on ESPN in March, 2007.

As usual, I’m always on the lookout for lessons-learned from the pros and how we can apply them to our speaking and use of humor.  The competition was rich with examples.  I’ll share seven of them:

Having Fun.  The best dancers looked like they were having fun.  Some of the less-experienced dancers, while still greatly talented, were looking a bit stressed out as they did their choreography.  Going through the moves with a serious look of concentration definitely detracted from the entertainment value of the routine.  And so it is when we speak from the platform.  We MUST look like we’re enjoying what we’re doing!  I remember when I was enrolled in jazz dance classes fifteen years ago.  The instruction was so much more than just the dance steps.  The instructor kept drilling into our heads the importance of having fun and smiling while we went through the steps.

Connection With the Audience.  The best dancers had a connection with the viewing audience.  That helped them feed off the energy and give it back to the audience.  The dancers who had not mastered that skill were dancing in their own bubble, seemingly unaware of the environment outside the dance floor.  It’s the same thing when speaking.  It’s never a monologue.  You’re always in a dialogue when you’re speaking, even when you’re the only one saying words.  The other part of the “conversation” comes from the energy and feedback the audience is sending to you.  If you fail to tune in to that you’ll be missing a huge part of the connection with the audience.

Preparation and Excellence.  Without question the best dancers were exceptionally well prepared.  Watching pros perform always motivates me to work harder at becoming a great speaker.  Excellence is a result of preparation and hard work.

Warming Up.  We arrived 90 minutes before the evening’s event began.  Although the dancers were not allowed to practice on the competition dance floor, a few of them did step onto the floor to get the feel of the dance surface.  And out in the hallway, which served as their Green Room for the preliminary event I was watching, they were stretching and focusing on the task to come.  They were getting ready for the main event.  So too, speakers need to warm up, physically, mentally and vocally, before taking the platform.  Find a private place to walk, move, hum, sing, swing your arms.  Do whatever warm-ups you need to ensure you hit the plaform running.  If you don’t warm-up before you take the stage, you’ll warm-up in front of the audience.  A dancer, an Olympic athlete, a professional basketball player, an opera singer would never do that.  Neither should you.

Expect the Unexpected.  One of the dance teams made their entrance, took their starting pose, and to their surprise, their music did not start playing.  They kept their cool.  They held their pose for about 30 seconds longer than they had planned.  The music started.  They were great.  They didn’t let the stage wait draw them down.  Another dancer was dealing with an article of clothing that was slipping out of pace and twice during the routine tugged at it bring it back to where it belonged.  She kept smilling and never missed a step.  The unexpected will also happen while you’re speaking.  Be prepared for it.  Never get flustered.  You’ll win the audience when you handle an expected situation with class.

High Energy.  You couldn’t help but enjoy the dance choreography.  The high energy drew you in, especially the spins and fast precision footwork.  Although slower dance styles have their appeal and grace, you can’t help being drawn to the energy of the Latin dance numbers.  The choreography was almost always arranged with variety.  One pair of dancers stood out during the free-style dancing.  Their quick footwork was amazing.  When they did their choreographed number they didn’t do any of their really fast steps until about a third of the way into their routine.  By contrast to what preceded it, the fast steps really stood out and drew a big ovation from the crowd.  When we prepare a speech we’re also looking for that variety.  Touch several emotions.  Get them laughing, bring a tear to the eye, get them laughing again, get them sitting on the edge of their seats wondering what comes next, let them relax.  It’s not what you do that is the key, it’s how you change what you do that adds the spice.

Look Like a Pro.  They were dressed like pro dancers and most had stage makeup.  Dress up for your talks to fit the situation.  Part of the reason for doing that is to create an image for the audience.  And part of the reason is to put you in the performing/speaking mindset.  Sometimes the right suit or the perfect pair of shoes is like putting on your super-hero uniform and it transforms you into the speaking mode that will lift the quality of your program.   I remember an Italian suit that did that for me.  And a pair of shoes I bought in Beverly Hills.  And a tie I first wore to a performance in a private home party with a number of famous Hollywood celebrities.  In my subsequent speaking and performing engagements, putting on a particular item of clothing made me feel ready to take the stage.