I’ve seen a lot of speeches recently, coached and written a good number more for clients, and given a few of my own.  Here’s my latest list of good speaking habits, dos and don’ts, and lessons from the front, five this time, five the next time.  In no particular order except perhaps passion.

1. Don’t Try to Be Funny. We live in a pop-saturated culture, and comedians are at the top of the pops, from Jon Stewart on down, or up, depending on your preferences.  So every speaker wants to be hip, wear black, and play with a microphone while reducing the audience to helpless guffaws.

Don’t try it.  It’s the wrong model.  Comedians hone a few minutes of material for months, working endlessly on the set ups, the punch lines, and the comebacks for when the punch lines don’t work.  They’re trying to control the audience by crossing boundaries, delivering surprises, and creating laughs.

A speaker should be trying to do something else:  take an audience on a journey.  A good speech is about the audience, not the speaker.  Sure, it’s both entertainment and instruction, but the best model for that is teaching.

So let the humor come out of your attitude toward your material, and your passion, not pre-planned jokes.  Setting yourself up to be like a comedian but not quite a real one is setting yourself up to fail.

2. Use Props.  We live in a desperately virtual culture, and workers live in –all too often – sensory deprivation chambers at work.  There are beige cubicle walls, background hums of both human and non-human noises, and the same perspective every day.  And in front of them – the computer.  So, if you’re giving them a speech, bring it to life by bringing life into the room.  Something real.  Something surprising.  Something fun, or moving, or a little bit scary.  Bring life into the room.

3. Dress Like You’re the Star.  Visuals are important.  But the most important visual is you.  So dress better than the audience, dress differently from the audience, dress like a star – figure something out that sets you apart, just a little.  And don’t dress down – if you show up in shorts and t-shirt, you’re going to have to work 167% harder just to get to OK.

4. Don’t Do Q n A at the End.  This baffles me.  How is it that someone can spend hours on PowerPoint slides, and even (Praise the Day!) rehearse, and then turn the last 15 minutes – or more – of the speech over to random chance or the potential rant of some disgruntled audience member?

You need to control the close.  That’s the last thing that happens, and so it’s the first thing that people remember.  Don’t turn it over to a nutcase, or someone who wasn’t listening at a crucial moment and wants you to recap for him.

5. Don’t Tell Anecdotes.  Storytelling is all the vogue, and that’s basically a good thing – or it would be if people knew how to tell stories.  They – speakers, this means you – make two kinds of mistakes.  First of all, they vastly overestimate the fascination an audience has with the their personal life stories (the life stories of the speakers).  We are interested in how you’ve failed, if that’s relevant to the topic, so that we can learn from you.  We do expect to have someone else tell us at the beginning of the hour why you’re cool enough to be speaking to us.  But somehow self-advertisement sounds crass coming from you.  Get someone else to say it.  Don’t tell us how you made your first million.  You’ll put in way too much detail, and we’ll end up hating you.  Don’t do it.

Second, speakers tell anecdotes, not stories.  Stories have a hero (do I need to tell you not to make yourself the hero?), conflict, struggle, difficulties, failure, troubles, and more conflict, struggle, difficulties, failure and troubles, a low point, a climax, and a resolution.  Like sex in high school.  Anecdotes basically say, “this happened.”  That’s not interesting unless it directly pertains to our lives right now.  Like, “you just won a million dollars.”  That’s an anecdote, but it’s a good one.

A story would go like this:  you want to make a movie about a secret government project you wish to expose.  You struggle to get funding.  You get some interest, but just as you’re about to get the money, a mysterious man dressed in black somehow prevents your would-be funder from funding you.  Perhaps by killing the funder — anyway, the funder disappears and you never see her again.  You start to run out of money.  You mortgage your house again, you sell your furniture, your spouse leaves you, you’re broke and then some – and with your last dollar, you buy a lottery ticket.  You win a million dollars.  You go on to make your movie, and the man in black is at the premier.  He walks up to you just before the movie begins with a menacing look in his eyes and says…

Don’t you want to know what he says?  That’s a story.      

Next time:  more speaking dos and don’ts.  


  1. Great post. I still believe in the power of stories, but not the grandiose “I’m a raging success, and here’s how I did it.” As you say, tell me how you failed, and how that painful experience gave you a perspective to improve. That will build empathy, whereas grandiosity will build envy and cynicism.

    Thanks, Nick!

    1. Thanks, Jack — that’s precisely the issue with the self-aggrandizing sort of personal narrative. We humans are perverse, and the “I’m wonderful, here’s how I did it, now you can do it too because I’ve told you,” we find completely uninspiring, whereas the “I screwed up six ways, got lucky on the seventh try, and here’s what I learned,” is moving, memorable, and full of inspiration. Go figure.

  2. Yes! People play fast and loose with the definition of story. Not everything is a story. A series of random observations is not a story. A quote from Winston Churchill is not a story. Only a story has the impact that a story should.

    1. Thanks, Rob — we’re in huge agreement here. I could tell you stories …..but in truth they’d be anecdotes:-)

  3. I really don’t see what’s wrong with doing a question-and-answer session at the end. Yes, some people could try to take it over. However, there are ways to get an audience member to get to the point.

    1. Phil, the issue is that you’re turning over the last moments of the talk to chance, and to anti-climax. Instead, I recommend taking Q n A at say, 20 minutes and 40 minutes of a 60-minute session. Then, take a few more near the end, close them out, and then have the last 3 – 5minutes of your speech at the very end, so you control the close and the final impression the audience gets. Obviously, many speakers do the traditional Q n A at the end; this is just a smarter way to do it.

  4. Such a valuable piece Nick.

    Especially the “don’t tell anecdotes” part…I think anecdotes are probably just part of being ill-prepared, since most anecdotes we have told over and over before and are comfortable with them. But I just sat through a speech where a guy talked about what he learned and how he innovated as a pizza delivery guy. It had a point, (give away something to get something) but at the same time we were supposed to take away how how smart the guy was.

    1. Thanks, Andrew — I love the example. As important as pizza is, we just don’t want to hear that person X innovated in startling ways when working as a pizza delivery person — it makes the rest of us feel inadequate.

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