Speaking in Public – Guten Morgen from Berlin

Away from home again today, in another city, another country. Waking up in a hotel room I can see the sun rising over the buildings. This is a conference of art writers, critics, curators, lecturers and artists from all over the world.

We’ve all come together to give voice to our responses to rising nationalism and what has come to be called ‘Populism’ (though there are a lot of discussions about what this term means).

We often despair of humanity when we listen to the awful news that newspapers often seem to take a kind of grotesque delight in sharing with us, and yet, if you come to a conference or congress like this one, it’s easy to have your faith and hope in humanity restored. The level of expertise and intelligence, motivated by a certain kindness and progressive, hopeful thought, is astounding, charming, beguiling.

People bring their ideas, their languages, their absolute fluency in multiple languages, their style, their sense of humour and their ability, to think, discuss and debate, and exchange, in an energetic, hard-working spirit and a creative atmosphere. It goes on for days (the entire congress here is about 9-10 days and I am attending 4-5 of them). Every day the organisers have laid on a different wonderful twist of the eganda, with new provocations and discussions arising.

For the last few days of the congress, the discussions wind down and our hosts start to ferry us about their city, showing us world-class art in exceptional galleries and museums and special places of interest. Of course, they also keep us very well-fed and watered throughout, and the hotel is great too. (As one of the chosen speakers I am very pleased and proud to say that all of this is paid for by the organisers and by my employers at my university.)

But maybe this report is not in the slightly more analytic spirit of my usual blog, so, before I close, I’ll just say a few words about writing for your voice, for the stage, for the conference:

I believe I may be unusual in the degree of conscientiousness, mixed with a kind of perennial anxiety, that goes into my preparations to speak in public. Public speaking  is feared by almost everyone, but it should realy be practiced as an art, a skill by everybody, I think, because it can be so empowering. Furthermore, there is almost no point crafting a beautiful text to speak, if you don’t add to this the equal consideration of how you are going to present it sonically, aurally, performatively.

Of course, this is no easy task, and it comes with years of practice, with training, with mistakes made and learned-from etc. etc. But I am just stressing the importance of never taking for granted that, just because your ideas and your writing may be excellent, that you will necesarily do your words justice at the podium.

The best it can be, I find, is when you know you have worked and worked a text so that each and every sentence feels good in your own mouth. None feel too long, all feel equally and genuinely interesting, and none  feel in any way incidental, extraneous or excessive. Each has a point, and your job is to ‘land’ every point (to ‘land’ it in the minds of your audience).

Interestingly, once a text is really ready for the voice it becomes the master of your voice i.e. it will now dictate to you how you will behave, what your tongue, your lips, your mouth, your body language, and the sounds that comes out of your mouth will do. Ultimately it will determine whether and how your words and ideas are heard, felt, understood and registered.

What I also mean here is that your completed text is not completed for the page but for the stage. It is a script, a script that is capable of animating your own body, mind and spirit, and THUS animating those of the audience. In this way a reading is a live event, quite unlike reading the the same words in a journal or on a screen.

And this, of course, is the ultimate excitement of the conference or congress, the reason people have travelled long and far, for days in some cases, from all over the world, to be here, to speak and to hear together, and respond to ideas, honed and crafted in words, and performed as a live event, a festival of well-meaning thought, the thoughts of some of my favourite human beings, of new acquaintences and old friends I meet once every year or two, whenever I can attend.

Now, I hear the Sunday bells ringing across the city, and I sign-off –  Guten Morgen from Berlin!




2 thoughts on “Speaking in Public – Guten Morgen from Berlin

  1. Excellent to hear a positive coming from a supposedly negative conference idea. And yes I can honestly say that your lectures I attended at Chelsea were memorable.

    Liked by 1 person

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