Must See TV (for speakers)?

Have you seen The Messengers on TLC? This is another one of those reality TV competition shows, but this one is about public speaking. For that reason, it is “Must See TV” for all of us who want to learn about public speaking. It’s certainly on my viewing schedule, but I have a few reservations about it.

Each episode, the contestants go through some challenging experience. The first week, they had to live on Skid Row as homeless people (but homeless people in really nice down sleeping bags). The second week, they had to pick crops along side migrant farmworkers. They then give a two-minute speech based on their experiences. The audience members vote on the speaker they liked the best. The speaker with the lowest number of votes gets eliminated. The last remaining speaker wins the grand prize of a speaking and publishing deal.

The speeches are the best part of the show. Each contestant has a different approach to speaking. One speaks with rhythm and poetry. Another speaks from his religious beliefs. One tries to emulate his favorite motivational speaker. And some, you wonder how the producer could have possibly picked them. The first eliminated contestant told the audience he had to pee and then gave a lame “I really don’t know what to say” speech. An unfortunate part of the program is that the producers don’t show a couple of speeches in their entirety because they took up a considerable chunk of time showing the experience of the week.

The judges are another part of the show that I find weak. To be fair, there isn’t much that the two judges, Richard Greene and Bobby Schuller, could say in the few seconds that they address the contestants. You can’t give a full Toastmasters evaluation in that time. But they either gush about how “authentic” a speaker is or find some reason to rip him or her apart. In the early episodes, it’s clear which speeches work and which didn’t. As the weaker speakers are eliminated, and the differences in speech quality become narrower, I hope the judges will point out more what makes one speech work better than the other. (With fewer contestants, they should have more time to do that.)

Despite the weaknesses in the show, there is plenty that The Messengers can offer a budding speaker. It’s beneficial to watch how these speakers turn their experiences into a two-minute speech. It also helps to see what works in a motivational speech. The best ones tell a personal story, enabling the audience to connect to the messenger and his or her message at an emotional level. Subtle speaking styles such as rhyme and repetition prove effective, while over-the-top histrionics do not.

Most importantly, I appreciate how public speaking is treated as an art and something worthy of a television show. It sure beats watching bad singing and nasty alliances.