Sunday, March 10, 2013

Speaking, Photography and the Decisive Moment

As well as being a speaker, I also dabble in photography. My father was a professional photographer, and I spent much of my childhood at his elbow in a darkroom, illuminated only by a Wratten OB orange safelight, my fingers stained yellow by the stop bath, inhaling the pungent smell of fixer. The joy of seeing an image slowly appear on photographic paper in the developer is something that digital photography cannot offer. 

I've always admired great photographers, including Eve Arnold, Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White and Richard Avedon. My real hero was the late Henri Cartier-Bresson. I never met him, but a few years ago I was lucky enough to spend time with one of his contemporaries at Magnum photography, Elliott Erwitt. I asked Elliott whether Cartier-Bresson ever gave him advice. He smiled and said "Yes Alan, and I now pass that advice on to you. Learn the skills of your trade, and then seize the moment". That's what great speaking is about too.

Cartier-Bresson is credited with the photographic concept of "the decisive moment". He never cropped his images, and relied simply on spotting the right time to press the shutter so that everything was perfectly in place and perfectly framed. When he published his first book of images, he took the title from the writings of the 17th century Cardinal de Retz: "Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif" ("There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment").

I believe that when a speaker appears in front of an audience, a decisive moment occurs. That combination of people, place and time has never happened before, and will never happen again, and it is up to the speaker to make it memorable and significant. That's why no two speeches are ever the same. That's why a speech created with no particular audience in mind will lack impact. It is only by the delivery of a performance tailored to the expected audience, combined with the ability to react to the unique moment, that exceptional speeches are delivered.

Next time you speak, consider how your preparation and on-stage reactions combine to create a decisive moment for your audience.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

1 comment:

Stephen Bray said...

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a remarkable photographer, and his statement of 'The Decisive Moment', (in photography), "the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression", is perhaps one of the most quoted texts in photography.

My preferred Cartier-Bresson quote is what he said when he saw an account made by a younger photographer who was attempting to analyse his technique. In a letter to Patricia Wheatley, a producer at the BBC he wrote.

"I am keeping the doccument of Mr. Stephen Bray preciously in my files. To my mind he is using a microscope where he could be using a telescope, whereas for myself I prefer a knife and fork."