Practice makes perfect

Practice makes perfect

Tue 11 Jun 2019 3:19 PM

Italians love to speak. They are naturally engaging conversationalists who can talk charismatically for hours if you let them. Why, then, does the spunk, magnetism and volume disappear when an Italian steps onstage?



Commedia dell’arte actors, late 16th century, Paris, Musée Carnavalet



In the wake of the Italian national and European parliamentary elections, for which I coached politicians from two different political parties, it is an interesting time to study Italian public speakers. You might say that Italy is, like many other countries right now, in a “populist” mood. This is reflected in the body language and speaking styles of current politicians. Think Trump. Think Salvini. They move often, use a lot of torsion (the amount of twisting and swaying that goes on in the top of the body) to bring them closer to the people, their people. Their sentences are shorter and filled with common words and expressions. Gone are the lofty vocabulary and stature, the stillness, the repetitive power gestures of master speakers.



Thus, when coaching Italians to become better public speakers, especially politicians who aiming to win in the May European parliamentary elections, I’ve started encouraging them to integrate this informal behavior into their speaking style to attract a larger voting base. It is easier said than done, given that most people’s mental images of good orators and respected politicians are, typically, stiffer or at least stiller types like Winston Churchill, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. and, most recently, Barack Obama. But at this moment in the 21st century, when countries are fractured by polarizing issues, it is fundamental that politicians be approachable and accessible rather than formal and detached.




In the transfer from real life conversation to the stage, something is lost for many Italian speakers, which is why they seek me out for public speaking coaching. Italians have much of what it takes to be naturally dynamic public speakers. They excel in communicating through body language. Expressive gestures and facial expressions often replace a verbal message entirely or, at the least, reinforce that message. How many times have you been given the “What are you talking about!” gesture (fingertips touching and facing upward in a forward shake) unaccompanied by those words? I have, often. The use of the body to communicate more effectively is built into the Italian culture. Commedia dell’arte is principally a physical theatre style, where words come second to physicality and gesture. This physicality bleeds into the Italian speaking style, both onstage and off, and it can make for energetic public speaking when embraced.


For non-Italians who are unsure how to use their hands and bodies when speaking, the first assignment I give is to go out, observe Italians and imitate their nonverbal communication style. Italians also excel at vocal variety.


I’ll bet you’ve never come across a monotone Italian. The variety of pitch and tone and the intrinsic musicality of the language is such that it can lead outsiders to misinterpret a normal conversation for an argument. The lively cadence is so deeply embedded that when Italians speak conversationally in English, they transpose the cadence onto the English words: “Do-uh you-uh want’a pizza?” This quality has morphed into ridiculous stereotyping, but I actually advise clients who sound monotonic and need to find more vocal variety to copy the musicality of Italians.



So, what happens when Italians have an audience? Oftentimes, verbiage. One of the golden rules of public speaking is brevity. Comedian George Burns joked, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible.” Onstage, Italians often go off-script, talking a lot without saying much, which can frustrate audiences and weaken what might have been a powerful message.



Strangely enough, when Italians are required to speak publicly in English, they become monotone. Their extraordinary variety of pitch, tone and emphasis is thrown out the window and replaced with a staccato flatness. In addition, I’ve found that whether or not their English is good, Italians are often embarrassed by their accent and abilities, and their vocal delivery and physicality reflects this. They tend to rush through their speech so quickly that they become impossible to understand. Furthermore, like most speakers who are nervous, Italians close off their bodies and fidget. I have to coach them back into their voices and bodies by helping them understand and reincorporate their authenticity.



What makes speakers truly great is to speak genuinely with passion and a deep purpose, and be able to communicate those using their words, voice and body. No audience enjoys an insincere speaker. Those who are natural and full of character are the ones who connect with their audience and truly inspire them. Helping clients find this spontaneity and conviction is what eventually brings the biggest change in their speech writing and speaking skills. Italians are some of the most spontaneous and passionate people I’ve ever met, yet public speaking is not a part of the Italian educational system. High school debate teams don’t exist. There are few regular opportunities to give schoolwide speeches in Italy like there were in my middle and high school days, so without some training and awareness of the qualities of a good public speaker, it doesn’t come as easily to Italians as it might to, for example, typical American businesspeople. Practice can make perfect though, and charisma and presence can be learned.



Article by Elia Nichols:

Elia Nichols is a public speaking and communication coach, actress, and professor, who has worked throughout America and Italy and is proud to claim Florence as her home.

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