A speech is — or should be — a direct person-to-person communication. Even when you’re speaking to hundreds of people at one time, you’ve got to be personal and particular.
A five-year old taught me this lesson decades ago.
When I was eighteen, I got a job as a day camp counselor. Pow Wow Village Indian Day Camp — I didn’t make up the name, I just worked there — ran ten one-week sessions each summer. And three of those sessions were reserved for five- to seven-year olds.
Each counselor was in charge of 10 kids. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation — looking after 10 five-, six-, and seven-year olds all day — you know what I learned that summer. Much of your time is spent herding kids to and from the bathroom.
Before beginning any activity, I always asked, “Does anyone have to go to the bathroom?” I even repeated myself. No one ever did. Then we’d get into wherever we were doing, and someone would inevitably say, “I gotta pee.” And you could tell from the way they were shifting from one foot to the other or cupping their hands that they meant business.
Once in exasperation I asked one boy — his name was Jaime — why he didn’t tell me he had to use the bathroom when I asked him.
“But you didn’t ask me,” he said.
“Yes, I did,” I said. “I asked, ‘Does anyone have to go to the bathroom?’”
“But you didn’t ask me,” he said again, insistent. And then he added the line that was a revelation to me, “I’m not anyone. I’m me.”
From then on, I looked each kid in the eye and asked, “Do you need to use the bathroom?” I’d like to say my new technique eliminated unscheduled bathroom runs. It didn’t. But it did cut down their number.
We may be grown up and mature looking, but scratch us and you’ll find the five-year old in each of us. When we hear people talking about anyone or everyone, we don’t think they’re talking about or to us.
So here’s my takeaway for speakers. Don’t speak to anyone and everyone. No such person exists. Speak to the specific, particular individuals in your audience. Look them in the eye, one at a time, and say “you.”
Photo courtesy of gavinandrewstewart at Flickr.