Dr. Ira A. Virtanen is a researcher in communication. She specializes in interpersonal relationships and supportive communication, in particular in the friendships of boys and men. Ira trains companies, nonprofit organizations and the research community in effective public speaking and interview skills. She is also known for reciting poems –a hobby she took on as young child and in which she has even competed. For the past decade Ira has been an artistic member of the Finnish Poem Readers Association (Suomen Lausujain Liitto) and a founding member of the poem reading group Siitä pitäen. She has worked as a university lecturer in communication at the Universities of Tampere and Helsinki (Finland), and as an ASLA-Fulbright Scholar at Purdue University (USA). Ira is passionate about opera and sports so you can spot her at any major volleyball tournament or opera house such as La Scala and the Metropolitan.
The power of poetry reading for public speakers
Ira believes that poetry can greatly enhance one’s public speaking. Why? A great speech speaks to the minds and the hearts of the listener. When the goals of the speaker and the listener are met, the speech can be considered to be a success.
You need to choose the content of the speech in a way that it addresses the concerns that the listener has and to use words that the listener understands, that speak to the many layers of who we are as people. Finding common ground, finding a space in which the speaker and the listener are equal or recognize the similarities in each other is most beneficial. Poetry is such a vessel: Poems describe experience that we all can relate to.
The following three things are useful:
Use language that stimulates the senses of the listener because words carry meaning, they carry emotions, they raise emotions and heighten our senses.
Use similes or metaphors. Reading poetry gives you a ton of unusual, fresh, accurate, surprising metaphors and imagery. In sum, you can happily bid farewell to clichés.
Poetry teaches you about assonance and alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm.
How to be great at reading poetry
A person is great at reading poetry when they become the experience that the poem describes. This means that you become aware of your own story, the inadequacies of yourself as human being, the vulnerabilities of yourself, the pains, and the aches, and the joys and the love, the hurt and the loss, and the longing and the dreaming. You recognize what it is to live and to die, and most importantly that you are like anybody else and like no one else.
First you need to find a poem that you want to recite. When you have found a poem that speaks to you or a poem that you don’t understand but it does not leave you at peace before you make sense of it then you get to know the poem. And poem readers talk about this step in very physical terms. They advice to smell, to taste, to touch the text. The experience, to make it into flesh and bone. Many learn the words of the poem and work on it with movement. Or they go watch people walk past or sit on a tram stop and try out those words on those people: “what if these words where the words of that old man on the park bench?”
Then you start practicing the poem out loud. How do the words make you feel? Which words carry more meaning? Which words needs rhythm, and which ones need slowing down. What does pause do to the message or to the experience that those words describe?
A poem when performed comes alive in front of an audience. But it will never become ready in front of an audience. The poem reader experiences a new experience with the words of the poem each time they recite the poem. And that is what is so addictive in poem reading: the poem teaches you about life, about yourself, about others, and is an ultimate way to connect with an audience, because you are communicate a shared experience of being human or being a being in the world.
When poetry saved Ira from a hard situation
In 2015 Ira was interviewed for the Finnish broadcasting company, YLE, at their morning show about her research. Her segment was going to end right before the 7:30 news. The host of the show told Ira she would ask her to give a tip for giving good support as her last question and then we would go straight to the news. When she did, Ira replied with precision: “You should start with listening”. She looked at Ira and signaled in her gaze “please, keep going!” Ira’s mind went blank and this came out:
“Well, you listen actively and emphatically, you communicate with your whole body that I am here and even if I don’t find words I won’t steer away from the situation, I won’t fear your emotion.” (That’s the less poetic translation of what Ira said in Finnish). She got plenty of feedback for the interview afterwards and people said they were particular moved by the recommendation Ira gave.
Related: Fear Can Make You Stronger
“What is most personal is most universal.” — Carl R. Rogers
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, and in it a poem: “Tonight I can write”
Routine to Shine
Learn your favorite poem of by heart and visit it often: Take long walks without a destination and talk to yourself out loud. The poem’s experience becomes your friend, your mentor, your confidant, your wisdom.
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