I distinctly remember saying goodbye to Jack Speer. After years of playing in the firelanes behind his house and skating on the pond near mine, his family was moving away. I can still see his eyes magnified behind the lenses of his thick glasses, and the cowlick at his forehead. I was in first grade. While our parents stayed in touch (and his parents came to my wedding 27 years later), I only heard about Jack and his radio career second-hand. Last week, during one of his NPR broadcasts, I noticed how Jack delivers a lot of content in a short span, without sounding rushed or breathless. I wondered; “Would he consider being our first SpeakEasy blog guest?” Graciously, he said yes. Welcome Jack!

How do you connect to an audience when you can’t see them? Are there radio rules? Radio is described by communications theorists as a hot medium, as opposed to a cool medium like television. That means that a listener to radio is more engaged via either mental pictures or active listening than, for example, a person watching TV. I have to use my voice, my words and the audio I have to help them engage and to paint a picture of the story for them. I believe NPR does this better than anyone. That’s one of the reasons I love radio so much. I have done some TV work in my career as well but there are many more people involved in that process and as a communicator that can be more limiting.

I notice how you sustain long and strong phrasing on the radio. Can you talk about pacing and breathing? Phrasing, pacing and writing are all extremely important in radio. Every newscast is in essence a mini-show that has to time out exactly to the second. Because of that, I try to vary sentence length and construction to keep listeners from getting bored. A long sentence, followed by a short sentence, followed by something else…for example a soundbite or a reporter piece. Something that helps to transport the listener. If all of your sentences are the same length they can run together making your delivery sound monotone and boring. We try to mix it up a bit while still getting the story across.

Have you ever worked with a public speaking coach? Any lessons from that experience? I think everyone at NPR has at one point or another worked with a coach. They try to help in terms of how we write and prepare our copy and how we read that copy. Some of the techniques they have taught me include underlying key words. An underline can involve emphasis…UP or DOWN arrows show increasing or decreasing valuations. I also use symbols such as ———–> under a word to denote emphasis or extension.. Simple, stuff but effective. We are also taught to break up sentences or thoughts. And something I still occasionally battle with is the up inflection at the end of a sentence. It can sound artificial and stilted, so it is something that I have worked to smooth out and largely eliminate from my delivery.

When you speak in front of a live audience, are you a different presenter than when you are on the radio? Speaking in front of a live audience is quite different since they can see you. You have the ability to use not just your voice but your gestures, facial expressions and even tools like PowerPoint if you need them. I have always enjoyed public speaking. Perhaps it is because so much of my communication has been done via radio where I really don’t see the person I am speaking to. There is a human connection in public speaking that I really like. I also find it very enjoyable to interact with an audience. To me the most fun thing about giving a speech is usually the Q&A at the end. Kind of like this Q&A only with more people!

Should I include the picture of us at age 5 in the bathtub in this post? I can’t believe you actually have that!

That was informative and fun. Thank you Jack.