The Art of Conversation: Public Speaking in the Pandemic Era

The dying era of the art of conversation, as Howard Stern claims, is unquestionably abundant in productions of spoken language.

Podcasts are intimate and music is conversational. It isn’t that new productions are less powerful these days— it’s that professional speaking has diminished entirely. Because of shortened attention spans, the average modern listener now wishes to experience a more perfect rendition of the speaking techniques that orators in ancient Greece utilized.

However, is this truly the case?

Stern’s statement rings true— the art of conversation is said to be extinct, and not because figures such as Larry King have passed away. It’s because we are still looking for a new definition of modern speech, and we are in a deadlock. This is a frantic battlefield, especially for those organising webinars or talking to their friends over online communication platforms.

This prompts us to embrace the challenge of creating online spoken content resiliently. Not only has the pandemic shaped new standards of communication, but it has also urged more people to develop an understanding of these standards. As such, I will share my observations through my experience of being a TEDx speaker.

“In one sentence, what are you going to talk about?”

“Under which of the following categories does your talk fall under?”

“Briefly describe and give an outline of your talk.”

“How does your idea fit the event's theme of ‘Resilience amidst disruption’?”

“Please list any relevant work experience, skills, volunteer experience or projects.”

“Please tell us about at least one of your favourite TED or TEDx talks and why it is your favourite.”

This is how it starts: defining the purpose and value in the application form. There’s no surprise here— imagination is its own form of courage, so everyone capable of answering these questions must have an idea worth sharing. Simply add a bit of experience, and you will be on your way to proceed to the next stage of the application.

Following the theoretical beginning is the experimental next step.

Speakers need to prove that they can deliver their ideas passionately. “They’ll want me to do an elevator speech,” I thought at the time. And the organisers did; they asked me for a 1-minute video that showed my speaking abilities. Although tension, narration, and plot can be constructed in thousands of thousands of ways, it is always valuable to be able to pitch your vision. But why? It’s because this encapsulation of an idea aligns with the telescopical mechanism of a recollection of facts which we use to learn. If your listener can recall the general idea, then it’s a good starting point for him or her to recall an exponentially increasing number of details from your message for a few next questions. An anecdotal example is that it is simple to go from the statement, “it took Odysseus so long to come back home,” in order to remember some more details of his journey.

This process is how the themes of TEDx speeches are created— value, structure, delivery, and experience. After writing and fact-checking the script, you need to show the next five drafts to the greatest critic of your work to get acclaim. Production is the final step.

After making my way through a thicket of cables, tripods with cameras, and trying to stay focused, I kept finding new ways to artistically express my ideas. Only the awareness that thousands would see me later on helped me envision a human behind the camera.

“From medical imaging, lighters, to electronic devices, piezoelectrics have taught us how to approach science resiliently.”

I liked it, since there was a personal touch to it.

“By the way, who am I talking to…?” That thought crossed my mind often.

“Know it now. Repeat!” I said out loud.

Click. Camera on. Quick mouth stretching before speaking. Go!

“As absurd and vicious as this innovation may sound to some, DARPA invented an Extreme…”

Cut. Should’ve been in a more Clintonish style:

“Wait, that’s how sonars work, don’t they…?”.

Not surprised enough.


“Where is my toothbrush!?”

Something is missing in this process. Not only does it fail to show the thinking process that I used to modify my TEDtalk and create my style of speaking, but also it does not give you the insight into what I had already known while approaching the challenge.

Let’s start with the basics:

1. Create a connection with the audience. Keep it simple by starting with something that you and your audience have in common.

2. Don’t open with a joke— in the beginning, the audience is still adjusting to your voice. Instead, create an information gap so that they stay with you.

3. It is crucial (and easy) to pause before saying something really important. Alert the audience by emphasizing the value of your speech as soon as possible.

4. There is another silent way of communication that accounts for most of the transferred meaning: your gestures must resonate with what you are speaking. This saves you a lot of words that you would’ve had to say out loud. Or even worse, excess words that you would’ve had to put on your slides. Do not commit the “read me speech” crime.

6. Make sure to change the pace of the speech so that it aligns with the content you are about to deliver.

Under normal circumstances, a rehearsing and re-writing process like that would be rewarded with enormous energy from the audience. There is nothing more empowering than standing in front of a lecture theatre and commanding the attention of your listeners. I do wish that I had given the speech in person; however, as we are in a pandemic, the new normal is to reinvent public speaking for a virtual setting.

As filmmaking is not one of my assets, I can only point out the speaking and speechwriting trends that I consider valuable for online speeches.

On a conceptual level, speechwriting will change by building an atmosphere more effectively in an online setting. This is what I was thinking when I was imagining my audience. This change promotes techniques that everyone can follow along with at home, because this breaks the distance between the speaker and the listener. This is evident in the new talk shows during the pandemic, where a number of talk shows had the absence of audience laughter, and home-shot segments were included as part of the show. They seemed edgier, and hence more intimate. These changes will have to be embedded more and more effectively into speeches, which may eventually create obstacles for less skilled speakers in keeping the audience engaged.

Why? Firstly, more accustomed listeners will gradually be able to see the slightest mismatches in meaning and non-verbal cues. Secondly, time constraints and the lack of professional recording settings will prompt people to experiment with their everyday environments to convey their messages; without a more professional recording set, though, creativity will differentiate successful speakers from unsuccessful ones. Finally, analogies may start to mix if one listens to many speeches. This ambiguity may make speeches less memorable.

However, one should remember that the mechanism described above does not disallow mistakes or imperfections! For example, Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, sometimes converts his failures into jokes during his monologues.

This already illustrates another trend, where personalisation and direct contact with the audience are going to be crucial in creating an interactive experience. It is important to note that it is harder for a speaker to react to the audience, which is an important skill to keep the audience interested. After all, audiences often find it easier to tell if they are having a good time rather than whether they are able to follow the logic of the speech, because they are perceiving a person who is reacting to them. In my TEDx speech, I encouraged the audience to repeat my moves at home. The need for interactivity may be explained by the “Bandersnatch effect”. This is a situation where the audience does not keep watching your performance in the same way as they would have been “obliged” to do in a setting that they were unable to leave. Instead, they will watch other content simultaneously, mixing it with yours. So why not follow this trend in the pre-recorded materials? Give power to people by preparing different formulations of the same message in order to obtain free feedback on what they care about. It may not always be the best choice for them, but their responses will always indicate what you need to watch out for.

Finally, the lack of in-person interactions makes the speaker’s job more difficult in selling their personality in front of a webcam. Naturally, this causes speakers to stress out. When strained beyond the positive threshold, everyone feels uncomfortable. The awareness that many online presentations are recorded and that one’s mistakes are preserved forever could even magnify this feeling. The solution is to introduce relaxing content— be it special effects, graphics, editing, or humor. Everything leaves an imprint that will make your speech unforgettable. The added benefit is that it helps the audience relax, and shows them that you have the ability to underpin key concepts behind your presentation in an effective manner.

Apart from these methods, the only thing left is to remember the law of supply.

Talk is cheap because supply exceeds demand. — John L. Mason

In short, less is more. The only way to attract more people to listen to you is to deliver higher quality ideas.

How should one go about doing all this?

Stay resilient, and look for resources. Start by watching TEDx Bloomsbury on YouTube— this year’s conference is themed “resilience amidst disruption”.

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