When Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States in January this year, you might have expected pop megastar Lady Gaga to steal the show. However, it was the 22-year-old youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman who became the talk of the world the following day.
As the Guardian newspaper put it, Gorman's reading of The Hill we Climb, a poem of hope and unity, "transfixed the inauguration crowd", while former First Lady Michelle Obama applauded Gorman's "presence onstage" and the confidence she exuded.
Gorman's performance is all the more impressive when you discover that, for most of her life, she had a speech impediment that made her "particularly terrified of speaking up". Back in 2018, Gorman talked about worrying that her words might "jumble and stumble". More recently she has admitted – like Michelle Obama – to suffering from "imposter syndrome". She questions, she says, not only whether the words she shares are good enough, but whether the way she says those words is good enough.
So, what lessons can we learn about public speaking from this inspirational young woman, who left her Los Angeles apartment for the first time in months to fly across the country, during a pandemic, and perform in front of a massive, unfamiliar audience?
Lessons from Gorman's performance
Firstly, I'd encourage you to take five minutes out of your day and re-watch Gorman's performance if you can. It's a perfect masterclass in poise, power and presence. Here are just some of the aspects Gorman does so well:
- Adopting a confident stance, standing upright with her head held high.
Gorman's posture commands our attention from the off.
- Smiling and making eye contact, scanning across the audience so everyone feels included.
These rapport-building tactics reflect Gorman's overall attitude to her audiences. She treats them, according to Vogue magazine, "not as an abstraction but a collaborator".
- Enunciating every word clearly.
Gorman couldn't pronounce certain sounds and letters, like r, until just two or three years ago, when she taught herself to speak again from scratch. She uses that new skill to ensure we hear every single word during her five-minute poem.
- Using bold, controlled gestures to reinforce her words.
Gorman's open arms invited us into her world, while her hands playfully signalled the importance of specific phrases.
- Employing her voice as an additional communication tool.
Gorman sped up to inject energy and urgency, slowed down to gain attention and turned up the volume to emphasise. These are tactics she picked up when re-teaching herself to speak. That process, she says, gave her an "understanding of the complexity of sound, pronunciation, emphasis", an understanding she uses to bring her words to life on stage.
- Allowing her personality to come through.
Even at a distance, the Prada overcoat in Gorman's signature yellow and striking red hairband worn like a crown (also Prada) gave us a glimpse of Gorman as individual. Close up, her facial expressions and the obvious passion and enthusiasm she held for the occasion and the message she was sharing revealed even more of her personality.
While much of Gorman's success is obvious – things we can pick up by watching her perform – there's also a lot going on behind the scenes, from preparation and practice to managing nerves.
Lessons from behind the scenes
For the inauguration, Gorman practised reading her poem over and over again, until she was confident the feared jumbles and stumbles wouldn't happen. To perfect the overall performance, she spent "a lot of the night-before performing in the mirror". All this practice takes, says Gorman, "a lot of energy and work".
When it comes to nerves, Gorman has a lot of them. After all, we know she suffers from imposter syndrome and worries about whether she'll pronounce her words clearly. Add to that the almost unimaginable scale of the inauguration event and it's no surprise that Gorman interpreted the idea of speaking in front of millions of people as "its own type of terror". Yet none of that terror was obvious to us as an audience.
This, it turns out, is par for the course for Gorman. A stage director who often works with the young poet says her nerves never show up, even just before a show starts. "They've been processed and dealt with," he says, "before she walks in the door".
Even on inauguration day, Gorman set her worries to one side. In an interview with James Cordon on the Late Late Show the day after the event, Gorman explained what she thought and did in the moment before she started reading: "you have all the human anxieties. I'm cold. I know Biden is right behind me. How does my hair look? My nose is sniffling. Don't trip, don't mess up! And so you kind of have to let go of all that".
By separating herself from her anxieties, Gorman becomes, as she puts it, "a vessel" for the words and the message she's so keen to share. To use a line from her own poem, it's an approach that allowed Gorman to "step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid" and deliver a performance we can all learn from.
Anna Faherty is an author for accountingcpd. To see her courses, click here.