Today the Professional Speechwriters Association opened registration for what I think will be one of the most insightful courses we’ve ever offered: “Vital Writing for Virtual Leadership Communication,” with Tim Pollard, CEO of the persuasion consultancy Oratium.
Tim’s central point, as he explains below: As hard as it is to get a message across powerfully in a traditional communication setting, we now face the challenge of adapting the thoroughly social process of oral communication to a profoundly asocial environment.
Like you, I’ve been thinking about the size of that challenge for about six months straight.
In fact, I’ve been casually making a list of “Things That Happen While Listening to a Speech in Person That Don’t Happen Online.”
• A shared time of day, mood lighting, room temperature, olfactory sensation, sound quality and general level of sobriety. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to be able to rely on your audience having those things in common. But it’s a pretty big deal when suddenly you can’t. Experiencing a speech in the evening with a Grain Belt beer buzz outside Fargo, N.D. is wholly different from taking it in at dawn in an open-window apartment in Saint John, with a rooster going full-on, not to mention downtown Bangkok during rush hour.
• A sense of social privacy. You’ve seen how fast a whole audience, however recently convened, goes from Copacetic to Consternation when a door is left open to let sounds from outside waft in. Why the universal anger, when that sound rarely makes it hard to hear the speaker? Because it’s a violation of our magic place—a rude reminder to the gathered that this, here is not everything, everywhere. On a Zoom speech, the audience experiences no magic place in the first place.
• Group gratitude to the orator, for speaking to us so we can stop trying to make conversation with one another. Seriously—what a relief.
• An energy in the room that’s almost never boredom, exactly. Boredom is when you’re home—alone, or with the people you love. In a roomful of strangers or acquaintances, the mood is usually one or more of these: restlessness, impatience, anticipation, comfort, tension, joy, or love. In other words, the mood is always stimulating in one way or another. (After the very worst conference session in the history of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I heard one speechwriter tell another that the audience’s hatred of the speaker bonded the members together even more!)
• The pure thrill of seeing a high-wire act. One lonely man or woman walks bravely in front of hundreds of strangers and tries to entertain them. It’s a potential disaster every single time. And a potential triumph, too. And almost always, after months of anticipation, it is something in between. And we all get to watch it together! No wonder people are always eating at these things. Benjamine Knight, we could save a lot of money if instead of goddamn crudite, we gave them peanuts and cotton candy.
• The sheer unpredictability of human behavior, which means there is always a chance of the audience breaking out in a barroom rumble, a square dance or Caligula-style group sex. Yes, the chance is low. But the possibility, unlike when you are on a group Zoom call, is there. And you’ll be damned if you’re going to miss it.
• The ability to humble-brag about having attended this momentous event in Chicago or London or Paris or Tokyo. A speechwriter pal of mine has been dining out for three years about a tip he gave at his very first PSA World Conference to the head of speechwriting for a huge international government body. That anecdote is considerably less cool if it involves a breakout chat on a Webex call.
So that’s all the stuff that the audience of an online presentation is not getting out of it. Of course, there’s a massive flipside:
Listening to a speech in person forces you to try and repeatedly fail to tune out an overwhelming amount of stimulus. The guy shifts in his chair in front of you. Does he have a bad back, or was it a sign of restlessness? A woman looks at her phone. Is she impatient with the speech, or dealing with a worried boss back at headquarters? Is this talk boring—or should I be annoyed that my colleagues can’t fucking sit still? You have to decide for yourself! And how are you going to do that, when you haven’t been listening! What is the matter with you?
One PSA regular has a brain condition that makes a conference a barely bearable cacophony of sound and an explosion of light; still, he attends every year anyway, because he needs the stimulation. When he told me that, I wanted to tell him, I know exactly how you feel.
So how do you write speeches that use the few advantages of an asocial environment, while overcoming all the drawbacks of this antiseptic, chilly, airless medium?
It’s the most important questions in leadership communication right now. Register for the Vital Writing for Virtual Leadership Communication and get the answers you need.