Volume is not intensity, a lesson from Man of Steel

I’m a Forensics nerd.  I consider my time spent in Speech and Debate through high school and college to be the best investment I’ve ever made.  I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the final awards at the 2013 Phi Rho Pi national tournament last month and my wife has managed to stay involved as a part time coach and business partner to various forensics organizations internationally.  We both speak at conferences and in college courses on the importance and application of good communication techniques.  The motto Ted and I use on this blog comes from that provenance: “The good life, preferred by the geek who can speak” isn’t just a nifty rhyme.

One of the big challenges in verbal communication is to purposefully convey intensity without, well, shouting.  It’s a tough concept to articulate since we do it so well unconsciously but tend to fail when someone says “I like what you’re saying, but it’s flat, passionless and needs more intensity.”  It’s not what you say but how you say it has never been more true than in the case of trying to show resolve, dedication and seriousness all rolled up in one.  I’ve been trying to find a way to illustrate this point simply for over 20 years.

Enter the latest Man of Steel trailer, solving my problem for me.

Why yes, I am a Superman nerd, too.  Thanks for asking.

Go back and listen to Michael Shannon (General Zod) deliver those lines.  If you’ve never seen Shannon in Boardwalk Empire, his performance there is worth a look, too.  As you listen to his pacing and tone, at first it sounds one-dimensional and bored but once he finishes the first sentence or so you get the sense the character is ready to explode at any minute.  That’s the trouble with delivering intensity without yelling; it is easily mistaken for indifference.  In Boardwalk Empire, Shannon’s character has a lot of context, color and scenery around him to help broadcast that emotional intensity.  In the trailer, you can’t even see his mouth move or a single facial expression for context.  Sure, there’s explosions, dark music and spaceships but those are distractions.  Tune those out and listen to his pacing and pitch.  That monotone and deliberate delivery is unhurried, purposeful.

Shannon could have elevated the volume like a Samuel L. Jackson character or Leonidas from “300”.  I don’t think “This is Sparta!” comes across quite the same way without that vocal explosion but it’s not at all subtle and the approach doesn’t work in a business setting or the typical small room of a Forensics competition.  You can’t go around shouting at your colleagues, so how do you communicate your commitment to the message?  Slow down.  Force the listener to hear every word through your pacing and keep the message brief.  That kind of delivery is exhausting to process on both ends, so get to the point and move on.

It took 20 years for a Superman movie to give me the right example.  Ted will probably tell me I’m not watching enough movies.  Fair enough; now I’ve got some material to add to my workshop on public speaking for professionals.

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2 Responses to Volume is not intensity, a lesson from Man of Steel

  1. Michael Shannon is the most terrifying element in Boardwalk Empire. He devoted several episodes worth of work preparing to make our skin crawl. I look fwd to seeing him in the new Superman. I wish I had that low-intensity burn, but it’s awfully hard to control it like Shannon does.

    • Peter says:

      Man, that guy is just frightening. When you see his interviews and other video, he’s just this goofy dude yukking it up. Ted and I spoke about this very thing yesterday. That’s just how good an actor he is. From goofy to disturbing in one take.

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