Storytelling is one of the most powerful devices in public speaking, everyone says it. And to tell stories, we need to interpret characters. On the other side, some of the most flattering comments we can get about our performance are: natural, true, genuine.
Actors or speakers
Actors and speakers have something in common. They perform on a stage, trying to move an audience. They mix preparation, rehearsal and improvisation. Also, they try to appear as spontaneous as possible. But this last feature is much more important for speakers, than it is for actors. Being on stage gives us a privileged position to influence the audience. An audience that, still, doesn’t like to feel manipulated, and who is there to watch a speaker, not an actor.
After examining Pres Vasilev’s speech from 2013 some weeks ago, I will take an example from 2015 World Championship of Public Speaking, when Mohammed Qahtani got the first place with The Power Of Words. For me, his performance gives a good example of various ways to incorporate characters in a speech. How does the speaker interpret them, depending on the reaction he wants to evoke from the audience?
I don’t like when speakers show off their acting skills too much. In this sense, Mohammed Qahtani’s performance is one of my favourite examples. He delivers quite a “crowded” speech, with multiple characters. Anyway, he is able to keep an atmosphere appropriate to his message, without being too theatrical.
To support the main point of his speech, Mohammed sets up three scenes, each of them involving different characters. The message he wants to convey is that the words we choose to communicate our ideas do influence the way our listeners react to them. As if mirroring his own message, Mohammed uses body language and vocal variety differently to picture each of the characters. Let’s see how he plays each role to leave a specific impression on the audience.
Add color to a simple story
In the first scene, from 2:30 to 3:45, we meet Mohammed’s 4-year old son. Even if it leads to a serious message, this story is neither dramatic nor sad. The speaker approaches it with levity, and generates an enjoyable moment for the audience. He uses a figurative body language to interpret his son, showing how he behaves instead of describing it – and we know that one of the golden rules is show, don’t tell. Mimicking the voice of a kid could have been tricky, as a childish adult voice easily becomes ridiculous. So, I think that Mohammed’s choice to keep the boy silent is functional to maintain a light atmosphere, without creating a comic vignette. After the good laugh he has already received in the introduction, using strong humour again in the first paragraph could have been too much. The speech ultimate goal is to be inspirational, not purely humorous.
Exaggeration ignites humour
So, after a strong introduction and a personal story in the first paragraph, the middle of the speech may be again a good spot to insert a humorous moment. The second scene goes from 3:50 to 4:35. In this case, Mohammed takes the acting a step further with an exaggerated body language and vocal variety. The hunched posture, awkward facial expression and screechy voice sketch perfectly the picture of a nerd scientist. In this way, the scene serves two purposes. On one side, it gives another example to support the message. On the other hand, it creates a funny moment, that keeps the audience engaged.
Eventually, the last scene is the longest (from 5:00 to 7:00) and the most dramatic one. The story has a fatal ending, therefore the atmosphere can’t be as light as in the previous ones. We have three characters, and the speaker portrays each of them differently. Mohammed’s friend is the protagonist, the one who is living the struggle personally. I think this is the reason why the speaker keeps low profile in his description. Only for one sentence he uses acting to show that the character is drunk. Even there, the performance is moderate, to avoid extremes and keep a sort of austere tone.
Then, we meet the father. Also in this case, the speaker maintains the low profile, distinguishing him only by the abrupt tone with which he replies to his son’s call.
Characters or scene?
The only moment when Mohammed uses body language and vocal variety in an evident way is the end of the scene. Here, we don’t have a character who needs to be defined personally, but only for his function. So, instead of meeting the doctor as a person, we are transported into the moment when he tries to save Mohammed’s friend’s life. In addition to the doctor’s words, the speaker uses vocal variety also to mimick the sounds of the medical equipment. Again, a good use of show, don’t tell. As a side note – I find that he exploits the double meaning of the word “clear” in a very clever way, to turn the doctor’s order into a transition to the conclusion.
Every time we decide to interpret characters in our speeches, we should find the best way to portray them. This does not depend only on the nature of the character, but also on the atmosphere and reaction we want to evoke. Speakers are not actors, our main goal is not to show off how good we are at performing a role. For speakers, body language and vocal variety should serve the ultimate objective of our speech: convey the message.
(Image by skeeze on Pixabay)