PAUSE - the silent opportunity of connecting with your audience
December 1, 2014
Women's March to Freedom
March 8, 2017
Presenting like Shakespeare
January 1, 2015
I recently had the pleasure of seeing one of my students play Shakespeare in the stage version of “Shakespeare in Love” at London’s West End. It took me straight back to the days when I worked as a voice coach with actors on text in preparation for their performance. It was incredible to watch each actor in this production engage so deeply in their roles, lift the text off the page and find that fine movement between humour and pathos.
The script was written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard but clearly inspired by Shakespeare. It is Shakespeare’s profound ability to speak on universal human themes, put forward powerful arguments and move you through a rollercoaster of heightened emotions that has enabled his work to survive to this very day. The ingredients that he uses to write his plays are at the very heart of any great presentation. Although there is so much that can be said and learnt from the Bard, I will focus in this blog on just how his structure can inspire you to shape your message.
Most people I work with are scared of Shakespeare. It is interesting to see senior leaders and CEOs who are at the top of their business game crumble when faced with a Shakespearean text. They begin to stutter, stumble and after a few lines struggle to make sense of the meaning. Often what follows is “Can we work with a modern piece of text instead?” The idea that the modern text will provide them with the safety and familiarity they long for, often keeps them crippled in old habits and fixed ways of expressing themselves.
However, with a little bit of encouragement, perseverance and help in exploring the world of the iambic pentameter, caesural pauses and rhyming schemes, new discoveries can be made. It is here that light bulb moments occur, dots are connected, new doors open and fresh and exciting ways of communication are found.
Here are 3 ways you can begin to use Shakespeare’s verse structure to bring your presentations to life:
So for those of us who may not be too familiar with the iambic pentameter, here is a short summary of what it is.
The Iambic Pentameter is the metrical line in traditional English poetry and verse drama. The Iamb consists of one unstressed syllable followed by a syllable as in the word “per”. Penta means five so five sets of unstressed and stressed syllables makes the iambic pentameter.
Shakespeare’s rhythm goes something like de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum. It is this recognizable heartbeat that gives us an indication of the pulse or temperature of each line. When all is well, the heartbeat ticks on in time with the rhythm as seen in Romeo’s pleasurable discovery of Juliet on the balcony: The stressed syllable is in bold and the unstressed syllable is not.
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the Sun
When the line is shortened or has an irregular heartbeat, it suggests something is not quite right. Soon after killing the King, Macbeth with blood all over his hands says in 6 irregular beats:
This is a sorry sight
Although you are not writing in verse, you can use Shakespeare’s structure to help find the rhythm and tone of your message. Is it upbeat, optimistic and positive? Are you communicating a change idea which others might find uncomfortable or have you got to sensitively put across a difficult message? Do you find you communicate each thought in a similar rhythm and style? Is your meaning reflected in the pulse of your communication, the heartbeat of your message? If you are not varying your "Iambic Pentameter” to work with your message, know that your audience will not feel the undercurrent meaning of your presentation or worse still, think that you don’t understand or care about their situation.
Like all great orators, Churchill emphasized his speech with rhythm and repetition. His speeches’ rhythmic manner caused the audience to hang on his every word, waiting with bated breath for what came next. And like always, repetition reinforced the point he was making. His most famous speech, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”, given on June 4, 1940, employed both of these methods.
“A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all.”
Notice the repetition of the word "by'‘ and say it aloud to hear the rhythm. It is very impactful, highlights key points and leaves a very clear message to his audience.
Most of us are familiar with rhymes. Rhymes are repetition of similar sounds in two or more words, most often in the final syllables of the line. From the time we were children, we enjoyed the satisfaction of hearing nursery rhymes such as “Humpty Dumpty” or “Jack and Jill” use rhyming sounds to complete an idea or story.
Shakespeare uses rhymes for particular effects. Here are 2 examples of this:
Othello challenges Iago’s motive for slandering his wife Desdemona, through the power of rhyme:
I thank you for this profit, and from hence
I’ll love no friend, since love breeds such offence
Queen Margaret in Henry VI Part III, declaring the head of York to be chopped off uses rhyme to make her poignant attack:
Off with the crown, and with the crown his head
And whilst we breathe, take time to do him dead
As you speak these verse lines out loud, you can hear how the sound of the rhyme plays on the audience as effectively as the sense of the word.
Franklin Roosevelt in vetoing an act of congress declared in rhyme:
“This is not an act providing relief of the needy but for the greedy”
This finish was not only satisfying and clever but more importantly like any good presentation will leave you with that memorable and powerful effect.
So what rhymes can you introduce to help you get your message dynamically across?
A caesural pause is a break, usually a sense pause in the middle of a verse line as in “Shall I compare thee // to a Summer’s day?”
A pause in conversation can also be referred to as a caesural. Look for opportunities in the middle of your thought to pause and lift the meaning of a particular word or highlight a point as Albert Schweitzer’s reversal so powerfully does.
“Success is not the key to happiness// happiness is the key to success.”
If you speak this sentence out loud without the caesural pause, the word ‘happiness’, loses much of its potency and meaning.
So, when you write and structure your next presentation, have fun and play with the rhythm of your “iambic pentameter”, the “rhymes” that help make a point and the “caesurals” that highlight key information. You don’t have to be Shakespeare, but you can use his amazing structure to help you powerfully communicate your message and leave a memorable impact with your audience.