The aim of being different is to stand out from what is around you.
Nevertheless, I am sure we have all met individuals who loudly proclaim their difference and then once we get to know them we find they are not that different at all or that their difference only exists on a very superficial level.
A piece of very loud and aggressive rock music can grab our attention, but if there is then no further contrast within the music, loud and aggressive gradually becomes the ‘same’ and uninteresting.
So, when I suggest ‘Be different!’ as a speaker, I am certainly not saying, do something loud and gimmicky just to grab attention (there is enough of that happening out there already).,
I am talking about creating that difference within your delivery, within your structure and within your speech content.
Look for opportunities to create contrast so that your presentations don’t suffer and become flat and uninteresting.
On the one hand, human brains have evolved to recognise and enjoy patterns:
we see faces in the clouds, recognise patterns in the weather, and connect effects with causes;
we get used to the idea that if the doorbell rings at 9.30 am it is probably the postman.
However, if unusually the doorbell rings at 12.30 – that is interesting! – Who can that be?
On the other hand, although we are reassured by repetition, we become stimulated by variety:
changes in tone; contrasting ideas; injections of emotion; the breaking of patterns.
Therefore a key skill for a good presenter is to learn to mix the reassurance of pattern and rhythm with the stimulation of contrast and surprise.
If you have ever played a hiding or tickling game with a baby, you will have discovered,
first of all, they love the predictability and the repetition:
‘One-step, two-step and tickly under there,’
but even they get bored when it becomes too predictable…. until you decide not to tickle - or to tickle somewhere else and then once again they are fully involved and back in the game!
We are programmed to recognise patterns, but once the pattern is too predictable, we tend to lose interest, which means that if our presentation or training follows a flat or formulaic pattern, we need to think about how to vary it.
Below I have added a very short extract from a wonderful speech from MP Hilary Benn in a debate about whether the UN should extend airstrikes to Syria (2015).
I have not chosen it for any political reason, simply because it is a fine example of excellence on so many speaking levels and is therefore worth looking up and listening to in full.
At the end of the full speech, he receives applause from all sides of the House of Commons and we can hear voices from both sides of the House declaring ‘Brilliant’, ‘Excellent’.
The speech is simply a wonderful example of great delivery, structure, and considered content. As with all great speeches, much of their weight and significance comes from the gravity of the situation and its context. An issue of major significance is reflected in the appropriate language and imagery. As he delivers this speech, Hillary Benn finds himself in the delicate position of promoting a course of action that differs from that of his own party leader and so his ability to strike the appropriate tone is also masterful.
On many levels it is worth examining, hence I frequently use an analysis of its form, content and delivery as a golden example of much of what students could aim for in their own speeches.
And so I have taken this very short excerpt to highlight some examples of contrast in rhythm and variety. I could have taken many other parts of the speech instead.
From the outset he sets up a very clear and effective contrast between the concepts of ‘complex conflict’ and the fact that at its heart it is ‘very simple’. (In so doing he is performing the principle job of every presenter - to clarify and to make the seemingly complex seem simple and thereby guiding his audience towards what is important).
When he introduces the next lines with ‘What should we do with others to confront…?’ he gives us (as he does regularly throughout the speech) the reassuring pattern of a small list:
‘our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer’
(By delivering a list, typically of 3 items or examples, a speaker can create that ‘Goldilocks’ reassurance, which can then be used either to create an internal contrast ( 1 and 2 are similar and 3 is different – ‘ready, steady,and go’ or ‘one step, two step and tickle’ or else the whole list can be used to suggest depth of examples or to contrast with a next idea.)
The re-emphasis of ‘the yoke, the cruel yoke,’ embeds the yoke image into our minds while allowing the speaker the opportunity to create extra vocal variety by stressing the incremental ‘cruel’ to the already mentioned yoke. (If he had really wanted to, he could have added a third increment for even greater emphasis, such as ‘the oppressive yoke’ or ‘the degrading yoke’ and so using the power of ‘3’ to really make the image of the yoke stick. Think of a hammer and a nail: tap tap tap. Often it is the third and heaviest ‘tap’ the hits the nail home.)
‘the yoke, the cruel yoke, the crushingly oppressive yoke’
In this case – probably correctly - Hilary Benn felt that might be a bit too much!
Vocal contrast is expertly demonstrated in the next section where the almost neutral tone (which in itself is seemingly inappropriate as he is talking about possible acts of terror – and thereby creating an internal tension between how he delivers the words and the implied brutality contained within the meaning of those words), is further underlined by the smooth reiteration of ‘or’ before each city name. The tonal contrast is then set up when he delivers the impassioned personal testimony that breaks out in the next sentence with the words:
The effect is of expressing the threats to each of these cities in terms almost disassociated and remote, which is then deliberately contrasted with the more passionate personal call to action, (which is what he is ultimately urging from his audience)
Rhythm and repetition for a speaker can come in many forms; creating patterns and breaking patterns; contrasting ideas; emotive, passionate vocabulary, emphasis – all opportunities for vocal variety.
For instance the ‘surprise’ in Haydn’s ‘Surprise Symphony’ comes from the relaxed mood of the opening of the final movement and then a sudden break in the pattern. Shock! The audience that invariably fell asleep during his concerts is woken up.
In contrast to which, I have fallen asleep many times in my youth listening to rock music, because although it is loud and aggressive, once the pattern is set it often does not change and becomes strangely hypnotic and soothing. Ask factory workers who spend all day next to loud machinery.
The motivational speaker Mark Gorman explains that he is often accused of giving such optimistic and positive messages in his presentations that he is unfairly getting people’s hopes up too high.
As he tells this he deliberately mimics some of the negative comments he receives in a flat, depressed and uninspired voice until he suddenly bursts forth:
‘You had better get your hopes up!…’
Further contrasts can be created by the speaker by the literal physical demonstration of a clearly defined argument: ‘on the one hand…on the other..’
And it can be created through deliberate choice of imagery or vocabulary;
‘War does not decide who is right, war decides who is left.’ (Bertrand Russell)
Brilliantly impactful, because it not only contrasts right and left but also plays on the alternate meanings of each word.
As human beings, we are born to question and explore,
hence too much repetition can instill an emotional response called ‘boredom’
whereas a bit of novelty induces the more positive response of ‘curiosity’.
A wise trainer, speaker, or storyteller will recognise that both urges exist:
the pleasure of recognising a pattern and
the thrill of seeing a break in that pattern.
This is why so many parables and nursery rhymes are woven out of almost hypnotic patterns of repetition and nearly always ‘on the third occasion’ something different happens to break the pattern.
The effect of the Billy goats Gruff, Goldilocks or the 3 Little Pigs is set up by establishing a pattern and then breaking it
None of those stories would be very inspiring (in fact probably rather dark and depressing) if on the third occasion the exact same thing happened again!
Musicians practise scales and exercises in order to master recurring patterns so that when they occur in the music they can recognise them quickly and play them.
However, like the Billy Goats Gruff story, it is the little changes and variations within those regular patterns that make the music worth listening to and ultimately turn ‘boring’ into ‘Bach’.
Therefore bear in mind the same holds true in any training or teaching environment where new processes or material needs to be learnt.
If teaching new computer software, the student will enjoy and be reassured by the recognition of the pattern:
‘Click on menu, click on file, click on documents...
as long as it is mixed with small steps of variety,
‘but this time open…’
As a musician learning new music,
I remember the progress from total novelty,
all new and almost overwhelming – ‘scary’
to recognising and mastering the pattern and key areas – ‘encouraging’ ,
to feeling comfortable and enjoying being able to play the piece – ‘reassuring’,
to becoming tired of playing the same thing night after night – ‘boring’.
All trainers and presenters need to remember that for many participants there is a very thin line between overwhelmed and bored and we need to find where that line is for each particular group or audience.
Therefore trainers, speakers and storytellers who want to keep their listeners engaged and alert should always search for a balance between
the comfort of repetition and rhythm and
the stimulation of contrast and surprise.
Be different, but know why!