My View                                                   Pages 16-17


I Have Something To Say    



They couldn’t write, they couldn’t read, and they had no authority to control the behavior of their clan or tribe. They never took a college course in public speaking, and they had no overhead projector, no PowerPoint presentation and no microphone. Yet, in spite of this seemingly overwhelming lack of formal preparation, the Eastern Woodland Indians could deliver eloquent speeches.

Beginning at a young age, Eastern Woodland Indians’ speaking skills were developed through listening and observing. They listened to village elders as they discussed tribal concerns and never spoke unless asked a direct question. As they became older, they often attended the great council meetings and listened to clan chiefs debate issues of war and peace. They learned how to form a logical, persuasive argument and how to present that argument without being degrading or demeaning.

When the tribal council set a date for an important meeting, council members spent days rehearsing their arguments long before the event began. Their oratory skills also developed around campfires listening to expert storytellers paint verbal pictures of the legends of their tribe, so they learned how to weave storytelling and the metaphorical language of the forest into their own speeches. In short, they understood the power of words.

All-Purpose Tool
Communication skills are one of the major attributes of a good leader. Yet how many times have you listened to a speaker and, at the conclusion of the presentation, asked yourself: “What did she or he say?” How many times have you listened to boring PowerPoint presentations thrown together at the last minute with little regard to a coherent message?

Over the year, school administrators in every community will make presentations on improving student learning, tightening budgets and preventing bullying. But these presentations will often be overloaded with words crammed into PowerPoint slides that are poorly organized, poorly designed, poorly delivered and way too long. Even worse, the speaker often turns his or her back to the audience and reads the ill-prepared presentation word for word. After 10 minutes of being treated like this, the audience is not listening. They’re bored and they’re annoyed.

So forget the templates, clip art, and cluttered charts and graphs. Instead, focus on designing a message with meaning. If your idea is worth the investment, then design a presentation that reflects your passion for your beliefs. You’ll stand a much better chance of getting your audience to buy into the concept.

Several books and web pages offer good advice on designing and delivering your message. You might consider using the presentation style called Pecha Kucha to ensure PowerPoint presentations are focused, well-planned and free of large clumps of meaningless words. Pecha Kucha is simply 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds. The total length of the presentation is 6 minutes and 40 seconds — hardly enough time, you might think, to present an idea and communicate your message successfully, but consider some of the great speeches in history and how long they were:

  • Lincoln’s second inaugural address — seven minutes (“With Malice Toward None”);
  • Chief Joseph’s surrender speech — one minute (“I Will Fight No More Forever”);
  • FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech — three minutes (“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”);
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington speech — 17 minutes (“I Have a Dream”); and
  • John F. Kennedy’s Berlin Wall speech — three minutes (“Ich Bin Ein Berliner”).

Simple Eloquence
So the next time you make a presentation, remember that an audience’s attention span is short, especially in today’s world, where time is such a valuable commodity.

Good speakers never forget that wasting an audience’s time is the quickest way to lose them. Lincoln would spend hours preparing a speech until he knew his subject and had chosen just the right anecdote or story that would best drive home his point for his audience. And he delivered his speeches with real passion and wit. (See Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.)

Our Native American ancestors would not be impressed by today’s lifeless public deliveries. The Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, who lived with the Eastern Woodland Indians and documented their history in his journal History, Manners, and Customs, marveled at their “natural and simple” eloquence: “They speak what their feelings dictate. … Their speeches are formidable and impressive; their arguments few and pointed, and when they mean to persuade as well as convince, they take the shortest way to reach the heart.”

Robert Millward is coordinator of administration and leadership studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa. E-mail: Millward@iup.edu


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