Confessions of a Public Speaker: Masjid Edition

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Originally posted at MuslimMatters.org. I recently finished a great book, Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, and thought it would be interesting to contrast some of what is in the book with masjid 'speaking' experiences. Berkun's book offers interesting discussion on public speaking itself, observations, and then a few tips and tricks.

What follows here are my random notations and thoughts from when I read through the book. The focus is heavily on the main public speaking activities in the masjid (i.e. khutbahs).

Lesson: Four Versions of Each Talk

He quotes Dale Carnegie as saying,

Good speakers usually find when they finish that there have been four versions of the speech: the one they delivered, the one they prepared, the one the newspapers say was delivered, and the one on the way home they wish they had delivered.

This is perhaps one of the most important lessons for any public speaker. Everyone has something they wish to communicate, a formulation of it in their head, and then there's what actually comes out. Often though, the speaker ends up obsessing about points that do not matter - in fact, as Berkun notes, they're often the opposite of what the audience even cares about.

It's kind of like that khateeb who quotes some esoteric 'point of benefit' that he feels is truly amazing, but no one else gets. Then after the khutbah, you see him going around asking everyone what they thought about that one point, and no one cares. Then he cannot figure out why people didn't like his talk. The book gives a poignant advice that everyone should keep in mind,

It's the mistakes you make before you even say a word that matter more. These include the mistakes of not having an interesting opinion, of not thinking clearly about your points, and of not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience.

I cannot emphasize enough how much this describes the vast majority of khutbahs and halaqahs I have listened to at the masjid. What I find is not necessarily a lack of knowledge from our speakers, but rather a lack of the simple skill of planning your talk. The more that it is planned and mapped out, the less likely that the audience will walk away with something you weren't expecting.

The Conundrum of Finding a Good Khateeb

They must find speakers who are:

  1. Famous or credible for a relevant topic
  2. Good at speaking
  3. Available

Two out of three is often the best they can do.

This is true for most general organizations. Most masjids can only meet one of the three criteria, and it is usually the last one. While there is a vicious cycle of too many spots to fill without enough qualified people, there are some steps we can take to mitigate this.The primary one is an attitude shift in our communities. Congregations need to raise the bar for what they expect out of the khutbah and communicate it to the administration. This is the only spiritual nourishment many people get for the entire week, and if the person giving the khutbah is just a warm body with an audible voice, then we have failed the community. The second thing that needs to happen is for the masjid administration to put more emphasis on having a good khutbah.

Too many masjids just worry about filling the spot without looking at the quality. If your regular khateeb isn't a good speaker - send him to Toastmasters. Do SOMETHING. But administration has to take this responsibility seriously. Once they fully grasp the importance of the khutbah, then khateebs will also step it up and stop mailing it in every Friday. There has to be an effort to find the best khateebs and do whatever you can to bring them in to your community.

The Sunnah Helps the Speaker

We all know that we should sit as close to the speaker as possible to show that we are paying attention, and so on. Keep in mind that this benefits the listener as much as it benefits the speaker. When someone is talking and the crowd looks empty, it can negatively affect them. This is true even if 500 people are in the room, but it's a room that holds 3,000.

For an hour I sucked - an endless hour of misery, speaking into the Grand Canyon of rooms, with each and every word traveling slowly across a sea of empty chairs. I heard every word twice, once when I said it, and two seconds later when it echoed against the back wall, unimpeded by the sound-absorbing powers of an actual crowd. ... The solution to this ... rests on the density theory of public speaking ... I realized that the crowd size is irrelevant - what matters is having a dense crowd.

So next time you are at the masjid, move in closer to the speaker. It will make the speech itself better too.

Simple Keys to a Good Speech

Great speakers are connection-makers, sharing an authentic part of themselves to create a singular, positive experience for the audience.

If anyone has ever looked for a guideline on how to do a halaqah or khutbah, this is an indispensable piece of wisdom.

The difference between you and JFK or Martin Luther King has less to do with your ability to speak - a skill all of us use hundreds of times every day - than it does the ability to think and refine rough ideas into clear ones. Making a point, teaching a lesson, or conveying a feeling to others first requires thinking, lots and lots of thinking, before the speaking ever happens. But we don't see the thinking; after all, it's not very interesting to watch. We only see the speaking...

Also, never forget why people are there to listen to you speak. They might want to learn, or be inspired. Whatever the case may be, make sure to service that purpose. A speech given without the audience on your side is doomed to failure. The key to keeping them on your side is the preparation.

Audiences are very forgiving. They want the speaker to do well, so they will overlook many superficial problems. But if the speaker is not going to think carefully about his points, willfully disregards his own material, and gets lost as a result, how forgiving can the audience be?

In other words, most people don't care to hear random rants and raves, and people definitely notice when a speaker is mailing it in. If you have the responsibility to speak to a crowd of people, take it seriously and prepare.

How I Feel About a Lot of Islamic Speeches

All talks and presentations have a point of view, and you need to know what yours is. If you don't know enough about the topic to have an opinion, solve that problem before you make your presentation. Even saying, "Here are five things I like" is a strong position, in that there are an infinite number of things you did not choose. With a weak position, your talk may become, "Here is everything I know I could cram into the time I have...."

I also call this "quotation knowledge." You all know the types. It's that one speaker, who every time he speaks, the talk is just full of quotations. It might be ayaat, hadith, quotes from famous scholars - but it's just quotes. No reflection, no communication. Have you ever heard a khutbah on adab, and it sounded like the speaker was just reading the titles of Bukhari's chapter headings? I have. It's not fun to sit through.

What's Your Point?

Points are claims. Arguments are what you do to support your points. Every point should be compressed into a single, tight, interesting sentence. The arguments might be long, but no one should ever be confused as to what your point is while you are arguing it. A mediocre presentation makes the points clear but muddles or bores people with arguments. A truly bad presentation never clarifies what the points are.

This reminds me of pretty much every single fiqh debate/discussion I have ever heard random people in the masjid engaging in.

Make Objective Decisions

Before I continue, I need to put something out there. I detest the fact that people want to kill the sunnah of moonsighting and replace it with an unfounded calculation system. There, I said it.

My biggest problem with regards to this issue is masjid boards who establish policies about which opinion to follow - and it all comes down to communication.

Know the likely counterarguments from an intelligent, expert audience. If you do not know the intelligent counterarguments to each of your points, your points cannot be good. For example, if your presentation is about why people should eat more cheese, you should at a minimum know why the Anti-Cheese Foundation of America says people should eat less cheese.

Let's keep our masajid and communities intellectually honest. If you have a position of responsibility, then the onus is on you to make sure you've investigated all sides of every issue. If you are going to speak to an audience, and advocate something, then know it inside and out. If you are going to establish a moonsighting policy for your local masjid, then make sure you have objectively read all the arguments both against and in favor of it. I'm not advocating that average masjid board members give fatwas, but we need to be realistic. When you are in that position, you have an amaanah. Choosing things based on convenience or because its the latest fad is not acceptable. The more people are educated about their own contentions, the better off we will be. I'm fairly certain the vast majority of fights in Muslim communities are a result of people simply not thinking things through. So there's the answer, properly evaluate things before saying something.

Specific Tips for A Khateeb

Practice, practice, practice.

If you're too lazy to practice, expect your audience to be too lazy to follow.

Have a title for your khutbah (in other words, focus),

If you had only one single point, what would it be?

Make good notes. For what it's worth, I don't buy the theory that the top echelon of giving a khutbah is not having notes. I feel that the key is learning to make effective notes.

Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt all used a short outline of five or six points - often with just a few words per point - to help them recall their hour-long speeches while giving them. If you do enough thinking in advance, all your brain needs is a little list, and most of the speaking will take care of itself.

Public Speaking is Story-Telling

Concern the audience with stories. Communication needs to be a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Berkun gives a great example,

It's one thing to say, "Here's line 5 of the new tax code." That's just a boring fact ... It's quite another to say, "80% of you in the audience confused line 5 with line 6 on your last tax return, which cost you $500. Here's how not to make that mistake." Even a topic as mind-numbingly dull as tax forms becomes interesting if the speaker cares both about the problem and the people affected by it. When an audience is curious about the story you're telling, they'll follow your lead almost anywhere.

Ever wonder why two speakers can talk about the same topic, use the exact same reference materials, but one is amazing and the other one not so much? This is a big reason why.

The Broken Feedback Loop

Feedback is critical, and it's especially difficult to get good feedback in the Muslim community. Most people, even when asked, will simply give curt responses like "It was fine."

As a result, there are thousands of bad public speakers running around under the impression that they're doing OK. The feedback loop for speakers is broken, and they have simple never been told they did not perform well, much less how they can improve. Like singers in the early rounds of American Idol who sincerely can't believe they're not the next Whitney Houston or Frank Sinatra, many people live inside a bubble of denial. They've heard enough polite compliments to safely ignore any painful truths that slip through. They may even jab back, decreasing the odds that people will offer any future critiques.

I'm 100% positive that every single Muslim (at least in America) has met that guy. Please, don't be that guy.

Always get feedback from people. Berkun gives a great set of quick questions you can use,

  • How did my presentation compare to others?
  • What one change would have most improved my presentation?
  • What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered?
  • What annoyances did I let get in the way of giving you what you needed?

Even when someone compliments you, take it to the next level. Ask them what specifically they learned, and what you could do to make it better. Ask them to email you a critique of your speech.

If we all encourage one another, and humble ourselves just a bit, we can raise the bar for the entire community.