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What Mr. Rogers Can Teach Us About Public Speaking

What Mr. Rogers Can Teach Us About Public Speaking

September 2023

Flash back to May 1969 when Fred Rogers, who was hardly the folk hero he would become, appeared before a Senate subcommittee in an appeal to keep a $20 million grant in place for public broadcasting that President Nixon wanted to cut in half.

As might be expected, Rogers talked about money — the $30 budget his first children’s program lived on 15 years earlier and the comparatively bountiful $6,000 that financed his TV show at the time. But he put those figures in a meaningful context. That $6,000 would “would pay for less than two minutes of cartoons” then shown on commercial television — two minutes of what Rogers with obvious disapproval called an animated “bombardment” of violence.

Then he talked about what he hoped “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” offered as an alternative. Because he was “constantly concerned about what our children are seeing,” he hoped to counteract mainstream entertainment for kids with what he called a “neighborhood expression of care.” He talked about “trust” and “feelings” and “the inner drama of childhood.” And he read the lyrics of one of his songs — one about “being so mad you could bite” — and how anger, once understood and acknowledged, can be managed.

“Mr. Rogers could have come before the committee armed with nothing more than facts and figures, but he didn’t,” says Jessica Mancari, senior vice president of strategic communications for the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), who spoke at the Council’s Sept. 7 Virtual Workshop: Crafting Presentations and Speeches. “Instead, he humanized the issue and made it personal, which is what made his appearance so persuasive and so memorable and such a model of effective communications.”

A Roomful of Strangers

It can be tempting, when making your case before a roomful of strangers, to hide behind a wall of scientific-sounding data. But as Jean Card, principal at Jean Card Ink and another presenter at the workshop, put it, “Even economists don’t want to hear numbers” from a speaker. Any audience will feel assaulted by too many statistics. “Be kind to them,” she said. “If you have slides, 20 is too many, and never have more than three numbers per slide.”

This isn’t brain science — even if you’re an expert on issues that can be difficult for outsiders to understand. “Insurance can get complex,” ACLI’s Mancari said at the workshop. “But even people who know your field can relate to a personal story, and insurance, when it comes down to it, is about families and their finances. People are people, even if they work in fields that require expertise about complex matters.”

The fact that you sometimes get to speak to an entire ballroom of professionals in a specialized discipline can work to your advantage. “Smile just to show them you are eager to geek out with people who are interested in the same subject, however arcane it might be to people outside the business,” Card told workshop attendees. “This is your opportunity to forge relationships with peers, before and after your talk. Anybody can feel some anxiety before they make a presentation, so try to remember that your audience wants you to succeed. And part of being kind to them is being mindful of their time. Fewer words are more powerful than too many. Finish early. That leaves more time for the Q&A, which the audience almost always finds more interesting than your prepared remarks — and much more interesting than your PowerPoint.”

Part of being kind to the crowd is devoting sufficient energy to audience analysis. “You need to know who you will be speaking to,” Mancari said. “Why are they there? What do they need to know and what have they heard before?” This is especially important when you are writing a speech for someone else — for the CEO, maybe — and you need to prepare them properly for their big moment.

The Job of the Ghost

As difficult as writing and making presentations for yourself can be, ghosting remarks for executives in your own organization can present special challenges. Doing a good job prepping the boss can require more access than many CEOs expect. “In this situation, the boss’s executive assistant can be your best friend,” according to Sarah Flocken, founder of SLH Communications, who also spoke at the workshop. “It’s not enough to have one meeting with them before writing the remarks. You can ask to sit in on meetings you might otherwise not attend, just to observe them in action.”

It’s important to be able “to capture their personality in what you write,” Mancari said. “Do they express themselves in a clipped, staccato manner, or is their speaking style slow and even lyrical? Do they take long pauses? Are there catchphrases they favor?”

Just because a person is the CEO doesn’t mean they don’t get nervous before a major address. They do, and part of your job is to prep them so that they feel as confident as possible as quickly as possible. “Explain your process to them at that initial meeting to talk about the speech,” Flocken recommended. “You want them to know what to expect. You want them to feel that you’ve got their back.”

Ask them about their experiences as a public speaker and when they felt that a particular speech went well and why. Do they prefer using a teleprompter, a script, or just talking points? “Even if they say, ‘I got this,’ and don’t need talking points, prepare them anyway,” Mancari said. For press conferences, “anticipate troublesome questions and prepare responses,” Flocken recommended. “Anticipate how events in the news might inform questions that reporters will ask, and prepare possible responses.”

Breaking the Ice

Dress rehearsals are huge — whether someone else will be using a speech you have written for them or you’re the speaker yourself. “If you’re the speaker, I recommend arriving at the event early and chatting with the person who does the introduction and to people who will be in the audience,” Card said. “Then you can weave something they might have said into your remarks. It’s part of forging that personal connection with the audience — it’s an icebreaker.”

As for evaluating the success of a speech, presenters at the workshop think there is a more useful way to measure such things than looking at forms that audience members fill out. “Speakers can read a room,” Mancari advised. “Do a quick debrief. Ask the speaker how they feel it went. How do they feel the audience responded? After all, how they feel about it is an important indicator of its success.”

In Your Own Conference Room

Much of this advice can apply to meetings in your own conference room, with colleagues. Even participating in these small, informal get-togethers can be stressful for many otherwise confident professionals. If you find speaking in such settings nerve-wracking, warm up by asking a colleague to elaborate on something they said. “You can say, ‘That was really interesting. Can you say more about that?’” Card suggested. “This can warm you up so you feel more comfortable when it is time to say something yourself. And remember this: There are situations where you can sound more intelligent asking a question than you can making a statement yourself.”

By framing a question in such a way, you can make your colleague more confident, engendering good feelings in both of you and in the room. “People don’t always remember what you say,” Flocken reminded us. “But they do remember how you made them feel.”

Which brings us back to Mr. Rogers’ Senate testimony and how an effective presentation can make an audience — even a skeptical audience — feel. By the time the witness was beginning to wrap up his remarks, Sen. John Pastore, the subcommittee chairman, calling himself a “pretty tough guy,” confessed to having “goose bumps.” Then, moments later, Pastore told Rogers, “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

Dress rehearsals are huge — whether someone else will be using a speech you have written for them or you’re the speaker yourself.

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