What a Tibetan Buddhist lama can teach us about speaking

Lama Norlha Rinpoche
Lama Norlha Rinpoche

I heard Lama Norlha Rinpoche recount last night his harrowing escape from the Chinese invasion of his homeland, as well as subsequent events that brought him to our little corner of Tennessee.

His speaking situation was not one that many speakers would want to face. Speaking in what seemed to me to be a mixture of Tibetan and English, he had to wait patiently for an interpreter to tell the standing-room only crowd (I would estimate between 160 and 175 people gathered at the Blount County Public Library) what he had just said. Though the facilities were outstanding, the sheer number of people overwhelmed the air conditioning system.

The library’s host did a very calm, professional job of managing the crowd, but obviously knew little about the speaker (she completely mangled “Rinpoche,” which is more of a title than a part of his name–understandable, but also telling the speaker she is likely not familiar with Tibetan Buddhism).

The audience was a mix of supporters, the curious, the reluctant (at least one high school class attended in lieu of a final exam), and perhaps even the hostile (I picked up snippets of conversation indicating some folks where trying to figure out “what those folks are up to”).

Despite that, Rinpoche proceeded to hold the attention of most of the audience for 75 minutes.

Here’s what we can learn as speakers:

  • Converse. Though he didn’t speak directly to audience members, Rinpoche simply conversed about his memories, and his translator likewise maintained a conversational delivery. Frequently, Rinpoche and his translator would simply talk back and forth a bit as she worked out his intention. That conversational feel came across to the audience.
  • Understand your audience. Although the audience was diverse, Rinpoche understood they were mostly not Buddhists, but they were all human. He spent the time on things of interest to everyone.
  • Focus on telling a story. Most of his talk consisted of him recounting the events of his life, from his entry into the monastery at 14 (after getting educated there from age 5) to the struggles of his country to his trip to our Smoky Mountains. Far from a dry recitation of fact, he followed the structure and cadences of storytellers that predate writing. He spent little time on background, getting straight into his experience as a captor of the invading Chinese. He painted verbal pictures that allowed us to “see” in our minds what happened.
  • Use drama and humor. Rinpoche wove together heart-tugging scenes about his separation from his family and the privations he and his compatriots experience with descriptions of rolling down mountains and self-deprecating comments that drew chuckles from the audience.
  • Don’t JUST tell a story. He used his own story to highlight the importance of his dedication to both peace and freedom, and to subtly strengthen his ties to an American audience. I’m not suggesting this was some sort of conniving strategy, but rather his awareness of the importance of connection. In other words, he told stories, but they were stories with a point, one that he made clear.
  • There is a universal human language. Speaking though he was through an interpreter, Rinpoche freely gestured and modulated his voice as he described the scenes from his mind’s eye. Both through the skill of the interpreter and the natural ability to connect the interpreter’s words to the gestures, facial expressions, and paralanguage just seen and heard from Rinpoche, his nonverbal communication supported his words almost as well as they would have had the delivery been simultaneous. Once again, “out loud” has impact that goes beyond the mere delivery of words.

Have you heard a speech through an interpreter? What did you observe about effective communication still working in that situation?

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.