Do you have the gift of the gab? Or do you struggle for words when you’re standing in front of your colleagues – or a conference full of expectant attendees?

New research suggests that if you’re struggling for words, it might be because you’re going about speaking in the wrong way. A recent study of some real pros – professional comedians – found that they do indeed speak a bit differently than a control group of ordinary people.

Both groups were asked to speak extemporaneously on a variety of subjects – purposefully kept simple in nature – while lying in an MRI scanner. The neuroscientists then studied how the subjects’ brains undertook this task.

The results were surprising. The professionals focused more intensely than the average folks. The average folks worked harder to produce basic words – the pros were apparently more efficient at speaking than the controls. The professionals differed in two other key ways as well: they told more stories and anecdotes (while the control group tried lists) and drew on their memories more than the average Joes and Janes.

I can’t resist noting that the pros followed precisely the advice I would give them to achieve the greater fluency they demonstrated. They focused. They told more stories. And they drew upon memory – emotion – rather than lists – to keep speaking.

Exactly.

So how can you apply these hard-won professional techniques to your own speaking and communicating?

Three ways.

First, practice. Comedians put in an enormous number of hours honing their jokes and routines. If you want to achieve the same kind of focus (and greater ease in producing speech), then you have to be prepared to put in similar kinds of hours. There is simply no substitute for familiarity and ease with your material. Those executives who tell me that they don’t want to over-rehearse, lest they become stale, are really just avoiding the tension that goes with practice.

Yes, you have to show up with your passion every time you speak. That’s what it means to be a pro. But rehearsal enables that kind of presence. It doesn’t undercut it.

Second, tell stories. Do the hard work that I talked about last time finding the right perspective, the right structure, and the right details to bring your stories to life. Your first pass at a story is rarely the best one. It will have too much detail. It won’t begin in the right place – the structure will need work. And you’ll probably tell it chronologically from your point of view, because that’s the way you experienced it. But that may not be the best way for an audience to hear it.

Finding the clearest, strongest story in the welter of detail you’re working with at first is not easy. But the result is storytelling gold. It’s worth it.

Third, use your memory to bring your emotions to life. If you draw upon your strongest memories, and your strongest emotions, you will show up with more passion and more focus, and you will hold your audience better. You’ll also find it easier to speak fluently because you’ll be propelled by the strength of those memories. It’s all good.

Take a tip from the pros. We now know how they do what they do, at least in neuro-scientific terms. Time to start applying these insights to your own speaking.

3 Comments

  1. I never thought about it before, but people really do listen better when you tell stories, particularly those with humor related to a point you are trying to make

  2. I also think comedians have a fine sense of timing. They develop a rhythm to their speech, often aligning with the audience’s listening.

  3. Based purely on personal experience, I believe Mr. Morgan is on to something here. I am an avid viewer of stand-up comedy. I try to watch as many comedians as possible. Getting past their obvious entertainment value, I find many ideas that I struggle with vocalizing are done so with ease by these artists. Of the three vital steps laid out in this article, I find that practice is by far the least necessary. While public and professional speaking does require practice to do so effectively, the other two qualities of story-telling and emotional involvement are exponentially more valuable. An audience will forgive a person who may stumble here and there as long as their story is engaging and their emotions real. Former President George W. Bush was a notoriously bad public speaker. Despite this, he was able to rally national support after the 9/11 attacks simply through stories of heroism and emotional appeal. I know my memory recall for engaging speakers is much greater than my recall for information in areas I have a high interest, but the media presentations were much less appealing.
    Given that I am a Master’s level student in Education and Instructional Design, I naturally steer my thinking towards applying these findings to the field of my study.
    I understand applying speaking to the education profession is far from reinventing the wheel. However, research results like the one produced here makes one wonder why instilling these skills isn’t more important. Learning to speak comfortably in a classroom is not the same as effective speaking. Speaking effectively in an educational setting could, by itself, be a skill that raises learning levels across the American Education System. Engaging students is a tall task. You can place an iPad in every classroom and give students every new age learning tool we have. If we can’t get those students to be interested in what we are saying in the classroom, the learning will not improve. I guarantee, if all teachers simply applied the three step process in this article to their lesson plans, every class would see higher scores directly resulting from effective speaking. Comedians could be the way to a brighter nation, making the journey more informative and stimulating.

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