Walking a Fine Line

We’ve all heard presentations by professional speakers, facilitators and trainers who seem distant and impersonal. We never get to know much about them, even if we learn about their topic. Audience involvement and connection is limited. There’s a low level of energy between speaker and audience.

Then there are other presenters who are telling us the third story about their second marriage or the fourth story about their last ski trip within the first 30 minutes of their presentation about alternative fuels. Now, some buzz may be produced – but it’s the hum of participants complaining that the speaker is too into himself.

This is another balancing act for speakers, another fine line to step toward gingerly and back from carefully, crossing rarely. When Toastmasters evaluate speakers, they often provide suggestions such as: “That was a good story about your unusual Aunt Margaret, but I would liked to have known more about your relationship with her and your particular feelings toward her.” This comment asks for more “I” – more personal reaction and perspective, perhaps more passion. The evaluator is suggesting that the speaker bring the topic closer to herself and consequently produce more of an impact on the audience.

When a too-little-“I” speaker says, “Aunt Margaret was an early feminist in the late 1960s,” nothing much happens with the audience. The fact itself isn’t memorable because it doesn’t connect the audience to the speaker or produce emotion. No emotion, no engagement.

If the speaker instead chooses to add more “I,” he might say, “Although my Aunt Margaret was a legendary feminist, her behavior in the late ’60s embarrassed our traditional Midwestern family. We were ashamed to have the same last name.” Just about everyone can identify with feelings evoked when a family member has embarrassed or just plain upset the whole group. There’s connection with the speaker and his experience. Providing the personal perspective raises the engagement and energy of the audience. Even if audience members are internally resistant to what’s being said – e.g., “His [the speaker’s] family shouldn’t be embarrassed. They should be proud” – they’re nevertheless involved. They’re feeling, they’re thinking, they’re responding.

                    "Check yourself out and see where you tend to fall on the continuum
                    from too much 'I' to too little 'I' in your speeches."

Let’s imagine that in a travel speech, a Toastmaster says, “There were many European and Asian tourists enjoying the beautiful beaches and cloudless skies of Cancun.” The evaluator, wanting more “I” material, might comment, “Cancun sounds like an interesting destination and you described it well. I wanted to know more about how you chose to travel there in the first place and what you experienced on your trip.” Why does the evaluator request more “I”? Because the speaker’s observations about tourists will generate little audience engagement, other than an internal, “Oh” or “Ho-hum.”

If instead, the speaker says, “Being in the minority on the Cancun beaches was uncomfortable for my husband and me; there were lots of foreign tourists speaking their native tongue. It reminded us that, whether at home or away, plain vanilla Americans are increasingly in the minority.” The increased “I” in this example can challenge the audience’s thinking and maybe generate some resistance as well. But at least it will trigger a response. 

That’s Too Much Info
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the too-much-“I” speaker. As an evaluator, you may feel uncomfortable suggesting a speaker deliver less “I.” The inference – the evaluator doesn’t want to hear that much about the speaker – could certainly be perceived as rejection. But for the same reasons that the speaker needs to add “I” at times, sometimes he or she needs to reduce “I” in order to get the desired outcome – audience involvement.

Returning to Aunt Margaret, here’s a hypothetical too-much-“I” comment: “I really like Aunt Margaret because she always had stashes of candy at her house when I went to visit. I was a sugar addict even at age two. Actually, I still am. And my favorites haven’t changed: Milky Way and Butterfinger.” Is this story about Aunt Margaret or about the speaker? Even if the speaker’s sugar yearnings interest some of the audience members, many will lose the story line, the theme or the objective. They become detached from the speech and lost to the speaker.

A too-much-“I” comment about the Cancun trip might be, “The beaches were picture-perfect, with fine-white sand and turquoise-blue water. I know everyone thinks that’s ideal, but I’m not really a beach person. I much prefer the mountains. Most of my guy friends think the same, although I read somewhere that women just love beaches.” Some of the audience members go along, willing to follow the speaker from Cancun to his personal vacation preferences, while others are distracted and want to get back to the point. When the focus changes midstream in a short speech, the speaker and the speech often don’t accomplish the objective. 

Be Neutral If It’s Needed
Of course, there are some speeches that require almost no “I” at all; more neutrality and personal detachment from the topic is desired. For example, if you give a speech to inform, you want to be more objective than if you give one to persuade or inspire. If you hear a speech to inform about the topic of climate change, then you might expect it to include facts and statistics from all possible sides. A speech to persuade, on that same topic, might include facts and statistics that particularly influenced the speaker; a story about the speaker’s current position; and actions that the speaker has implemented and wants the audience to take on, too.

Check yourself out and see where you tend to fall on the continuum from too much “I” to too little “I” in your speeches. Maybe you already do a good job of handling the “I” balancing act and you can toss this article – although if I knew you didn’t like it, my feelings would be hurt. I don’t do well with rejection, as a writer or in my personal life. Did you note the too-much- “I” detour in the last two sentences? Annoying, right?

The principles of too much or too little “I” are also true for writing and for evaluating.

If you want another opinion next time you give a speech, ask your evaluator to pay special attention. Give him or her permission to let you know, publicly or privately, whether they wanted more or fewer “I”s. Then see how that feedback works for you. 

Judith C. Tingley, DTM, Ph.D., is an author and psychologist as well as a 25-year member of Park Central Toastmasters in Phoenix, Arizona. She can be reached at drtingley@comcast.net.