Your thoughts can catch you out

Dec 18 2014 by Janet Howd Print This Article

It’s a curious fact about speaking or presenting in a live situation that a positive response from the audience all too often elicits an incautious response from a speaker, leading them to try to excuse their verbal gaff with that awful phrase, “Sorry! I miss spoke.”

But errant words don’t just pop out of someone’s mouth from nowhere. They always come from the inner workings of the mind. Far from being accidents, they are actually rather illuminating. So what those people should actually be offering an apology for is their own ‘miss-thinking’.

Almost all of us carry around old cultural baggage and harbor perceptions that don’t quite fit the status quo. Beliefs, attitudes and phraseology alter over time: some once commonly-held opinions can even come to be viewed as so unacceptable as to be deemed unlawful

This being the case, unless we are sure that others around us are of absolutely the same mind, it is wise to keep such contentious views well hidden.

However, when speaking in public, there are specific dangers that can catch even the most experienced of us unawares and cause us to reveal the inner workings of our minds. One such is empathetic laughter.

Once evoked, that potent element can cause even the most illustrious speakers to assume that they are amongst like-minded friends and allow indiscretions to well up from their inner being, loosen their tongues and ‘cast away the masks of play’ behind which they normally exist.

An address given this year by no less a personage than the Pope amply demonstrates this point and the damage it can inflict on a message. Speaking on Valentine’s Day to an audience of 10,000 engaged couples and intending to promote the benefit of wedded bliss (and probably because - along with most men of his generation - he sees no harm in a little sexist jocularity), he had scripted in a mother-in-law joke.

Unfortunately, the surprised and delighted laughter with which the joke was greeted so infected the Pontiff that it propelled him to deliver two further jokes on the same topic.

Completely intoxicated with adulation by the time he delivered the last one, he chose a truly insulting example of the genre. Consequently, laughter for that joke rang with incredulity - a fact that the bulk of the media reported on while leaving the bulk of the intended message up in the air!

Months later, when addressing the European Union Parliament, Pope Francis chose the metaphor “a grandmother no longer fertile and vibrant.” to describe its members’ seeming inability to revitalize their ways of governing.

The Catholic Herald’s on-line transcript of the speech held no such a metaphor. Presumably, therefore and because the transcript revealed otherwise careful, gender-inclusive language it was that other same nemesis - an ad lib.

Perhaps buoyed-up still with recall of how much laughter the topic of older women had elicited on the 14th February, Francis hoped to cause this audience similarly to warm to him.

Whatever his intention, the world’s press had a field day with those seven words, while the value of his lengthy and impassioned pleading with the EU that it should remain vigorously alert to the needs of all races, genders and ages under its rule, gained scant attention.

So remember, no matter how important and carefully crafted a message may be or how experienced and powerful the messenger, it takes only one misguided thought expressed ad libitum to send that message into oblivion.

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About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.