Learning to Speak

It’s a bit foggy aboard the Queen Mary 2 on our second day out of New York. The sky merges seamlessly with the ocean, obliterating the horizon in mushy blue-grayness. But deep inside this massive vessel—the newest, largest, fastest, and most luxurious ocean liner in the world—and behind the doors of the Illuminations auditorium, the stage lights are so bright that I can’t see anyone beyond the second row. What I know (and sense acutely) is that there are 150 people in the room, and that their attention, in just a moment, will be trained on me. For the first time I feel nervous, my self-assurance fading into a maritime cloudbank along with the afternoon sun. I start to worry: Have I combed my hair? Did I get my tie on straight? Am I going to stammer?

Dr. David Vaisey, a silver-haired Oxford professor and a luminary in the world of English academia, takes the lectern to introduce me. It was never the icebergs of the North Atlantic I feared. It’s these spotlights.

Months earlier, checking my morning email, I noticed one that stood out from the deluge of spam that usually arrives overnight. It was addressed: “From Oxford University for William Gurstelle.” Yes, that storied institution of higher learning. And they had a business proposition for me: Oxford runs the Discovery Series, a continuing-education program offered on the Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2, and they wanted me to present a series of lectures on my particular area of expertise: catapults, Tesla coils, rockets, coil guns, flamethrowers, and other technology-with-an-edge stuff. I’ve carved out a niche in this area, authored books, and developed an overall reputation as the go-to guy for the facts on things that go whoosh, boom, and splat.

In return for four presentations on these topics, Oxford offered a stipend, along with airfare and accommodations for me and a guest aboard the Queen Mary 2. In an attempt to avoid appearing overly eager, I waited two days before accepting. Then, promptly, I began to feel pangs of apprehension. I’ve given quite a few talks before, and typically they involve a fair amount of nervous anticipation. I’m more a writer than a speaker. Still, I figured I would know more about my strange little area of expertise than any of the ship’s other passengers, and wasn’t an all-expenses-paid trip on a legendary ocean liner worth some anxiety?

All of that rationalizing seems a million years ago as I mount the stage and stand at the lectern. I take a gulp of water and look down at my notes. It’s my turn in the spotlight.

Historians tell us that public speaking—the art of oratory—was crucial to the culture of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. In Rhetoric, Aristotle explained his method for effective and persuasive speaking. A public speaker must master three things, he said: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos comes from a speaker’s credibility; pathos from his emotion; and logos from his logic. These simple ideas have influenced speaking traditions throughout Western civilizations in the 2,400 years since Rhetoric was published.

Public speaking has been an important part of life in America since before the Revolution. Whether you wanted to win an election, supporters for your cause, or converts for your congregation, the ability to deliver crowd-pleasing speeches was necessary. Candidates for office debated. Ministers preached. And—most relevant to the task in front of me—guest speakers at the local lyceums and other organizations such as Chautauquas and Rotary Clubs provided education and entertainment for people of all classes in cities and small towns across America.

Even with the advent of electronic information exchange—from radio and television to blogs, email, and online chats—the tradition of public speaking remains vital. Still, a great many of us are loathe to stand up and talk in front of our peers. People fear public speaking for one of two reasons. A minority of people are truly phobic, and probably no amount of practice or coaching will help them to overcome their fear. The rest of us simply realize, consciously or unconsciously, that we are unskilled public speakers. We don’t know how to use this activity to help us accomplish goals, and that makes us nervous. I do rather like to talk, publicly and privately; what I suffered from was an antipathy to the idea of exhibiting myself, in public, as mediocre. The way to avoid that was to prepare for my engagement very, very well.

I figured that reciting my talk in front of a mirror would yield minimal results, and be quite boring, to boot. So I embarked on a different sort of training program, something I called my Audible Spring, built around the observation of speakers speaking. I resolved to see every major speaker coming to the Twin Cities that I possibly could in the four months preceding my summer voyage on the Queen Mary 2. I might or might not enjoy these people or be moved by them—but I would learn from them. Stutter, strut, sweat, or swear, it wasn’t what these orators were saying, it was how they said it that mattered.

Once I became attuned to looking, I found the number and quality of lecturers coming to the Twin Cities nearly overwhelming. Another not-insignificant benefit of my self-improvement program was the food that is frequently offered after lectures. In fact, these free buffets were often superb: exotic pastries, aged cheeses, and, occasionally, the ne plus ultra of the hors d’oeuvres table, jumbo shrimp. One’s overall impression of even the driest, most obtuse lecture can always be improved by the ingestion of high-quality canapés and finger foods immediately afterward.

After attending nearly three dozen lectures, I devised a framework for understanding the world of public speaking, dividing it into a series of patterns and formats. Most speaking engagements, I noticed, fall into one of three categories: inspirational, informative, or persuasive. While some speakers may fall outside this taxonomy, it usually holds up well.

Those of the inspirational ilk are usually billed as “motivational speakers”; characters who have made it their job to tell people to reach higher, to try harder, to be more creative, or to think outside the box. For such speakers, their credibility—Aristotle’s ethos—might lie with their unparalleled ability to throw out base runners at second base (Johnny Bench) or endure astronaut training (Buzz Aldrin), but in many cases, it’s a matter of self-proclamation: The speaker is a successful motivator by dint of being a successful motivator (Tony Robbins).

Persuaders distinguish themselves with a cause or a calling. They preach, rant, and cajole, warning against the monoculture of corn farming (Michael Pollan) or plead for higher levels of journalistic integrity (Seth Mnookin). Like the motivators, they often employ a formula: Launch with a startling story, fill the middle with facts and statistics, and bring things to a close with a stentorian call to action.

The third group, the informers, seeks to explain things to people, not change them. Usually less dynamic than the other types of talkers, they make use of graphics-heavy presentations and are prone to reading from notes; they lecture about science, politics, and the seldom-heard stories behind well-known events. My own talks fall largely into this category. Certainly, I love my subject matter and I hope my enthusiasm for it comes through. But you can’t please everyone. I feared coming across as stodgy or pedantic, cringing visibly if my auditors were to check their watches, or worse, leave early.

The length of a typical lecture runs fifty minutes, give or take ten minutes. But fifty minutes spent simply informing, persuading, or motivating always seems too long. The speakers I like best merge these genres. If they’re good, they spend some time in two areas, and if they’re great, they hit all three. Both Dan Pink, a journalist and Washington insider of some repute, and the Guthrie Theater’s Joe Dowling were stellar, mixing all three modalities seamlessly and effectively. When inspiration, information, and persuasion are expertly combined in one neat package, as happened with these speakers, a lecture can be as amazing for the audience as any other, perhaps more artistically oriented, cultural experience.

Still, the personal and more intimate nature of a lecture distinguishes it from other forms of public entertainment, such as a play or a concert. As much as we would like to ask Osmo Vänskä or Joe Dowling why they interpreted Beethoven or Tennessee Williams in a particular way, the opportunity to query them personally doesn’t often happen—except in a lecture. Thanks to the virtually mandatory Q&A session afterward, audience members have a rare chance to connect directly with those people at the center of attention. It’s that personal connection between speaker and listener that can make a lecture a profound experience, one with immediate impact. Using their own words directly and passionately, speakers can transform an audience: The audience may become more informed, more enthusiastic, or more partisan. The fact is, they go away different from when they arrived. Add a buffet and it can’t be beat.

So it was that last spring I found myself gobbling up every lecture I could find (and quite often, the food offered afterward), in many cases attending more than one a day. My improvement program began with Salman Rushdie at the Thursday noontime Westminster Town Hall Forum in downtown Minneapolis. The novelist exuded bravado and confidence, traits not unexpected from someone with a Powerball-sized fatwa on his head (and no bodyguards, either, at least not in sight).

Still, while Rushdie was persuasive and motivating, he was also opinionated, facile, and glib. “Do not start me on The DaVinci Code,” he sneered. “A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.” The audience nodded and snickered knowingly, though no doubt more than half of these people had read and enjoyed the book.

Later that week, Paul Sereno, a University of Chicago paleontologist, visited the State Theater in downtown Minneapolis. Uncharacteristically for a lecture, the sponsor, National Geographic Magazine, created a bit of advance hype with promotional materials that gushed about him being “a real-life Indiana Jones” and “one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People.” But while Sereno was an adequate informer, he was but a so-so persuader and no motivator at all. Sadly, there was no bullwhip and no lost ark; nor was there much excitement. And while his talk was heavy on facts and photos, basically (and ironically, for a paleontologist) it had no bones. Despite all the talk of dinosaurs, fossils, and grueling, sweating African expeditions through the desert, I left more exhausted than exhilarated.

After these initial forays, the local lecture scene heated up. My calendar grew clogged with opportunities for intellectual enlightenment. Simon Singh, a Cambridge-educated cosmologist, best-selling science writer, and BBC television host, visited Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where he made a strong case for the importance of science education. While he is a persuader of some talent, Singh is primarily known for his ability to inform, having made his mark as perhaps the foremost explainer of the Big Bang Theory (the subject of his latest book). Singh was also quite entertaining, sprinkling in clever gimmicks and telling some pretty good jokes. In all, even if I found it hard to fathom his explanations of what happened in the first ten-billionth of a second after the universe began, he managed to make even string theory and twelve-dimensional space-time sound rather user friendly.

A few weeks later, St. Louis Park’s own Tom Friedman visited Macalester College. The New York Times columnist was earnest and smooth, as he’d better be at a reputed thirty-five thousand dollars per lecture (a fee that might explain why there was no post-lecture buffet on this occasion). Friedman, a Macalester staffer told me, does use a formula for his speeches—one that I thought worked quite well. A fine informer and a superior persuader, Friedman began with a joke and moved adroitly through a presentation of the gist of his book, The World is Flat, via a bullet-point summary of world politics as shaped by the economic rise of India and China. He made one well-articulated point after another, finished up a scant hour later—and voilà, he was thirty-five grand richer.

Soon after Friedman’s talk, I went to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, expecting to listen to David Horowitz, the well-known conservative ideologue. I found to my dismay that I was there to hear David Horowitz, the Portland State University professor and not-so-well-known social scientist.

“Let’s welcome the real David Horowitz!” enthused the scholarly colleague who introduced him. As if to make himself more real to the audience, this Horowitz spent the first half-hour reading his own biography, wherein he offered copious details of his professional relationships with various faculty members from the University of Minnesota’s history department. Beyond that, however, he actually offered interesting notions about the effect of American popular culture on literature, the performing arts, painting, and comedy. And the buffet afterward was outstanding: several mixed-fruit tarts, a properly rich tiramisu, and some unbelievably flaky mille-feuilles.

As it turned out, Friedman was just the opener for a season of big-name speakers: My schedule soon filled up with dates to hear former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, NPR reporter Don Gonyea, explorer Anne Bancroft, and writers T. Coraghessan Boyle, Tracy Kidder, Sebastian Junger, and David Halberstam, to name a few. I learned something from just about every one of them, too. Sandra Day O’Connor, for example, was a surprising master of body language. Gesturing vigorously and to great effect, her hands amplified and emphasized her speaking points in a way that words and voice could not. In his speaking, as in his millions-selling series of books, Jack “Chicken Soup for the Soul” Canfield had a real knack for taking trivial-sounding principles and puffing them up to sound important. Plus, the snack buffet after his talk was heartier than most, a plain but filling spread of fresh fruit, miniature bagels, and various non-gourmet cheeses (Gouda or Stilton would be a bit pretentious for a guy like Canfield).

No land-based buffet, free or otherwise, compares to the Queen Mary 2’s four-room extravaganza. On average there are five world cuisines represented, and the fish selection alone ran from sushi, to finnan haddie, to deep-fried haddock. But then everything on this liner was beyond beyond. (When big Mary was first launched in 2003, she was the longest, widest, tallest, and heaviest passenger ship ever built. She lost that last distinction to Norwegian Cruise Line’s Freedom of the Seas last year, but the QM2 is still the largest ocean liner—as opposed to cruise ship—ever built, and she remains the tallest and longest passenger vessel.) Besides the couple dozen restaurants and bars, there are five swimming pools, several art galleries, a fitness center, a spa, a library, a casino, two theaters, a ballroom, five classrooms, and a planetarium. I spent hours anticipating my trip, studying the brochures, choosing the right books to read while stretched out on a padded teak deck chair, and learning how to tie a bow tie for the formal nights.

Once my girlfriend and I finally flew to New York and boarded the ship in Brooklyn, my first order of business was meeting with the continuing-education staff from Oxford University and the three other speakers booked for the trip. They were all Oxford professors, it turned out: David Vaisey, a venerated historian and the retired head of the Oxford Bodleian Library, probably the most important scholastic library in the world; Hans-Joachim Hahn, a renowned professor of contemporary German culture; and the delightfully named Harry Sidebottom, an Oxford don with a wry sense of humor who specializes in Greek and Roman history. I was selected for this voyage to provide a non-academic counterpoint to these distinguished scholars—and also, not insignificantly, the people at Cunard felt my subject matter would appeal to younger passengers.

The other lecturers were invaluable as the time for my first presentation drew near. Vaisey in particular was a veteran cruise-ship lecturer. “It’s an older crowd,” he pointed out. “Most of these passengers are here because they’re interested in what you have to say. But these are really comfortable seats. As soon as the lights go down, a few will go to sleep. They can’t help it. Don’t let the snoring break your concentration.”

The house lights GO down and the spotlight comes up—on me. For fifty minutes, I take my listeners through the history, science, and social significance of various contraptions that were the most powerful, most complex, and most expensive machines on earth for nearly two millennia. I move from Alexander the Great’s arrow-shooting ballistas to the great counterweighted hurling machines of England’s Angevin kings, to catapults, trebuchets, and mangonels—but soon I leave my notes behind. I move into what is known as “Csikszentmihalyian flow,” a state in which words come to the speaker easily and quickly. I have to remind myself to keep the pace down to a fast walk.

While I had given dozens of lectures, doing so aboard a luxury liner, and with the Oxford imprimatur, gives me added incentive to excel. I soon find that my months of preparation were worthwhile. I bring nearly every technique, every tip that I collected to bear. People respond favorably to my sprinklings of alliterative and onomatopoeic phrases. My pauses for dramatic affect come off, well, dramatically, and not, as I had feared, like I have simply lost my place. And the visual aids—slides ranging from Telsa coils to Ottoman sultans, and video clips featuring lively demonstrations of various machines and devices—make a profound difference in getting my material across, as well as giving people something to look at besides me.

Afterward, I was told that I could review a video of my lecture—and that, in fact, this video would be cablecast on a continuous loop via the ship’s close-circuit television system. If you think hearing your own recorded voice is strange, try watching a video of yourself speaking. It is far worse. But “you’re always your own worst critic,” Vaisey and Sidebottom said. After a few replays, I did indeed cut myself some slack. I had crossed the North Atlantic without hitting an iceberg.