Miss Copson’s Guide to Public Speaking

By Bjorn Turmann

Bjorn Turmann

Several hundred years ago (okay, I’m guessing), two words were put together to form a phrase, a noun, that changed the behaviour of global civilizations. Two words that when used on their own generally garner a much different response: public and speaking. Take away the a-n-d and, well, we know the rest. So, what is all the fuss about public speaking, and is there a way to finally break-up those two words so they can live alone again (or with a more suitable partner) in peace and harmony? Public with speaking was not an ideal marriage. It’s 2017…surely, we have something new for them, yes?

Miss Copson was my third-grade teacher in Vancouver (several hundred years ago). And because of Miss Copson, I learned to love what was perhaps the earliest known version (to me, anyway), of public speaking; something she cleverly called, “the feely bag.” Elevator pitch for the feely bag: show and tell except way more interactive. The rules of the feely bag were simple: bring in something you love and talk about it. Do I have your attention, students? Yes, teacher! Please make sure that whatever you bring can fit inside a paper bag. Why’s that teacher? Because all of your classmates will take turns dipping their hands into the bag and feeling what’s inside. It’s like a surprise then right, Miss Copson? Yes, but what’s most important to the feely bag presentation is what happens when you reveal what’s inside the bag; when you pull it out and tell a story about why you love it. I am very certain (memory don’t fail me now…) that there was not a student in that class who didn’t look forward to participating in the feely bag – both as listener and speaker.

Let’s revisit that awkward marriage for a moment and see how they are doing as a couple. Bored, uninspired, disconnected, stressed, struggling with a bad experience…all of the above. With some counseling, we can probably work this out. But first, let’s turn to page one in the Miss Copson feely bag manual to see what we can find that’s relevant to solving our public speaking marital issues. A scan of the paragraph above finds everything you need to know about being a confident…relax, breathe, you’ll be fine…public speaker.

Let’s start with “bring in something you love and talk about it.” I have been involved in communications work for over 20 years. I’ve seen thousands of presentations by all levels of speakers. I can say, with absolute confidence, that even the most technical content can be delivered with something the speaker loves, something they don’t think is “boring.”

Consider this: you are the speaker. The symphony conductor. You are there because of something you know about the topic; something you likely know well. As Miss Copson might say, “you brought it in.” So, inside that whatever you brought in is a story. Something you experienced, worked on, discovered, developed…all of that is relevant and relatable to you (key word relatable; if you relate, you will participate – more on that in a second), and this is how your passion comes through – even if you are the quietest, shyest person in the room.

I have seen speakers who, despite limited English skills, had the room’s full attention. How? One reason: a story that was personal to them (relatable) and relevant to the topic (relatable to the audience). You don’t need to be masterful at English – or any language – to be a memorable speaker.

Second: feel. Humans are an emotional species. We own individual feelings. There are no two communicators exactly alike. We are alone out there. Thus, we want – and need – a speaker to engage our feelings, find those points of human relatability. If they don’t, we get bored – fast. And we all relate to how painful that is! Miss Copson had eight-year-olds literally feel something; but that brings up another important word: participation. You as an adult speaker might not want everyone to come up and dip hands into a paper bag (go on, why not try?), but you can still have them participate. How? Listening participation. “Today, I have brought in something that I have spent a long time understanding. I want to share that story with you.” On that simple sentence, you will have my listening participation…I feel good about this presentation already.

Third: surprises and different. The big reveal to the students may not have been a complete surprise (though as I remember it, kids brought in some cool things), but it was certainly very different. You grabbed my listening participation and now you want to tell me a story about that? Nice! Surprises are energy-changers. We need to be shaken up in order to listen. What’s surprising about your story? Tell us!

Four: props. That object, whatever it was, acted as a prop we could speak to in front of Miss Copson and our classmates: we could see it and, of course, touch it. This “puts people in the story” (key point). Participation energy steadily rising because I feel connected to the story – and the speaker sharing it. All of us have seen the early iPhone launches; Steve Jobs on stage, pacing, holding up his revolutionary phone. He didn’t even have to say very much. The iPhone was the prop and the story flowed from there. Everyone felt the surprising, the different.

Miss Copson’s feely bag exercise was story speaking at its finest. Hang on…voila! There we have it. Maybe if we introduced speaking to story (sorry, public, but you’ll be fine on your own) we could have a better time at the next corporate meeting? That junior manager sure was a great story speaker. Yes, but there is a big client coming in next month; we need to present a convincing case for them to stay with us. Who would like to do some story speaking for that? All of you…really? Why didn’t we get that reaction last month? Oh, right, everything’s changed since the divorce. Thank you, Miss Copson.

(Bjorn Turmann is the Founding Director of SpeakingEnergy (Hong Kong) Ltd. He consults on strategic story communications to a long list of the Fortune 500. Bjorn’s fourth novel, In This Invisible, will be out in October.For more information: SpeakingEnergy.com)