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Poetry, more than practically all other forms of writing, is meant to be heard. The poetry slam movement got started in the 1990s and breathed new life into a dying art form. Almost everyone has given an oral presentation for business or made an introductory video about themselves. Too often people bemoan their fear of public speaking. If that’s the case, you might be well-served to observe a poetry slam or two. Too often we draw arbitrary lines between creative endeavors vs. business endeavors. It doesn’t have to be that way. In honor of April being National Poetry Month, I’d like to explore how the energy of a performer in a poetry slam can help all of us be more effective speakers.

I don’t consider myself a great public speaker by any means, but I’ve grown by leaps and bounds over the years. Can you remember what your high school speech class was like? I remember cramming entire speeches onto note cards and then reading the information verbatim to my fellow classmates, many of whom I’d known since kindergarten. Communications 101 in college wasn’t much better, but at least we could only use outlines to assist us. What really broke me out of my shell was waiting tables. Countless classes a decade of teaching experience later, and I still squirm at the thought of speaking before strangers, but I relish presenting to my peers. In part, I’ve learned how to tap my inner-performer when the time comes.

Think back to all of the better speeches you’ve observed or given over the years. What do the most memorable speakers have in common? Think about your criteria as you watch this poetry slam video below. Be forewarned, Katie Makkai does drop an F-bomb toward the end. Click the following link if you would rather watch a clean language version instead.

Now let’s compare notes. Some essential elements present in memorable oral presentations include:

  1. Passion
  2. Purposeful Message
  3. Body Language
  4. Eye Contact
  5. Timing
  6. Relatable Examples
  7. Engaging Tone
  8. Enunciation
  9. Pronunciation
  10. Rehearsal

Obviously, most of us take it down a notch depending on the context our message must be delivered in. While I may seek out audio and video readings of poetry on a regular basis because I love the emotion and rhythm of the words, I’ve also learned a thing or two about how to be a better public speaker thanks to poetry slam videos. One of my main regrets in my trip to Chicago was missing the Uptown Poetry Slam.

Katie Makkai’s “Pretty” is an example of a definition poem. She uses lines of free verse to make an argument against standard notions of what it means to tell a girl to be pretty. I used to play this video (sans F-bomb) when I taught poetry units to high school students. It always led to an interesting discussion about societal pressure to “buy things and look pretty.” My connection with the subject matter of the poem runs deep. Back in 1995, I was just another pretty girl who wanted to be so much more than just a facade. Reconciling that with my academic leanings has made for some interesting tales to be told another day.

Image of Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB for 1995 High School Graduation

What qualities do you look for or possess when it comes to effective public speaking? Have you ever been to a poetry slam? What was your personal reaction to the message in Makkai’s poetry video?

Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use the high school graduation picture featured in this post.

Article by Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB 

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