Learn From Superlative Speakers, But Don’t Imitate Them

by Bill Lampton, Ph.D.

You might think that incorporating some of the styles and habits of your favorite speakers into your own speeches will improve your presentation. Unfortunately, the opposite is probably true. Here are three pitfalls of imitation in public speaking.

Are you familiar with legendary show business impersonators Frank Gorshin and Rich Little? In their heyday, they could imitate public figures-politicians, actors, TV newscasters, authors, athletes, and others in the public eye-so convincingly that you almost felt the person being parodied was really standing before you. They mimicked voices, facial expressions, postures, and gestures more accurately than most other entertainers.

When we give a speech, possibly we're tempted to take a similar approach, in hopes of duplicating the appearance and actions of a presenter we idolize. Yet while even the earliest teachers of rhetoric-including Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian-advised their students to watch and learn from prominent orators, including their teachers, they cautioned against imitation. Cicero said the truly gifted speakers rely on imitation very little.

Many centuries later, Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the early attractions on the American speaking circuit, echoed this strategy. "Imitation is suicide." He explained, "I must be myself."

More recently, Roger Ailes, Chairman of Fox News, and once a speech coach for Ronald Reagan, wrote: "You just have to be yourself at your best. The truth is, you already have the magic of good communication within you, because nobody can play you as well as you can."



Briefly, consider these three pitfalls of imitation.

Cicero pointed out that the tendency was to imitate the worst qualities of those you watched, since they were the easiest to duplicate. He was suggesting that we can't pick and choose the presenter's characteristics we will duplicate. Possibly we might demonstrate more of their weaknesses than their strengths.

Another consideration: No matter how skilled you are, you are not likely to embody your role model's assets perfectly. That's left to the original speaker, and to the professional impersonators. Sure, you could try to increase the frequency and duration of your pauses, hoping to achieve the dramatic impact Paul Harvey conveyed for decades. However, that was his special gift, not yours.

Then again, keep in mind that your audience chose to hear you-you specifically, no one else. If they had wanted to see and hear an actor, they would have bought theater tickets. To borrow from Roger Ailes once more, "You are the message, and once you can 'play yourself' successfully, you'll never have to worry again." He adds that "The trick in good communications is to be consistently you, at your best, in all situations."

In closing, I emphasize that we can definitely learn plenty by observing superlative speakers in action. However, we lose our individuality if we try to become them when we face audiences. Audiences expect and want the authentic you and the authentic me. Giving them our genuine selves, we will receive plenty in return.

Bill Lampton, Ph.D., Communication Consultant, Speech Coach, and Video Trainer, "Helping You Finish in First Place." Visit his Web site, Championship Communication. Call Dr. Lampton: 678-316-4300

 
  

 
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