I mean… copy!
“Good Artists Copy. Great Artists (and Public Speakers) Steal!”
If you’ve never worked in the arts (or music, like I did), you may not be aware that everyone starts out building their skills by copying the masters.
As a young jazz singer, for example, I spent countless hours with my little cassette tape recorder trying to imitate Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Betty Carter, and Carmen McRae.
I would listen to a phrase, then rewind the tape and sing the phrase along with Ella, Sarah, Betty, or Carmen.
Did this constant attempt at imitation make me a copy of my idols?
Not at all.
But it did make me much more aware of what they were doing to sound so good — and you can use that trick to develop your public speaking.
Copy Other Speakers to Learn What They’re Doing Right
It almost never makes sense to try and sound like someone else when you’re talking to an audience. But trying to sound like someone else during practice time is fine.
That’s because copying another person’s sound, or rhythm, or enunciation is a great learning experience, and can stretch your own abilities. If you decide to try this, though, just remember what musicians often say:
Don’t be content to borrow another person’s style. Try to steal it (truly make it your own).
When You Copy Other Speakers, Don’t Be Content to Borrow. Try to Steal!
You’ve heard that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” right? Well, repetition is the sincerest form of imitation.
To “borrow” from someone else’s public speaking style, repeat what they’re doing — repeatedly — like this:
- Start out with a good quality audio or video of Speaker X making a presentation (or just talking)
- Play the first phrase (only the first phrase, meaning up to the time they take their first breath)
- Now pause the tape and repeat what you just heard, out loud. Try to match the speaker’s tone, speed, emotional affect (cheerful? authoritative?), and anything else you can copy. Don’t worry about analyzing what they’re doing, just see how close you can get to their actual sound
- Now do the same thing again, with the same phrase, until you feel like you’re as close as you can get for now; then, go on to copy their next phrase
Separating the Borrowers from the Stealers
Now comes the fun part. (Well, actually, the first part is fun, too, if you’re not beating yourself up for not being more like Speaker X, i.e., “good enough” already!)
Take what you’ve been imitating and start to play with it. One meaning of “play,” for those of you who, like me, find this a slightly foreign concept, is “exercise or action by way of amusement or recreation.” Like my daughter and her cousins, sticking their toes in the water in 1993 (right), stick your toes in the public speaking water by taking some playful, if slightly scary, actions; for example:
- Imitate Speaker X when you’re doing something random, like ordering a pizza
- Speak your own words with Speaker X’s style
- Say Speaker X’s words in your own style
- See how much of Speaker X you can sneak into a casual conversation before the other person figures out you sound different, etc.
All of these games, and all the others that may occur to you, help bring what you like about Speaker X into your own repetoire, so that you have the option to draw on Speaker X’s strengths, as well as your own.
Just remember, this is all developmental work. When you go to give an actual presentation, or remarks, or pitch, forget this stuff and focus on the thing that’s most important: Connecting with your listeners, and giving them the gift of your ideas!