Anyone who is serious about his or her public speaking needs to watch – who knew? – the Kanye West MTV acceptance speech from a week ago. (Tip of the hat to Tim Sanders for goading me into watching all thirteen minutes.)

I don’t know if Kanye’s farrago is the longest acceptance speech ever, but it certainly seemed to go on forever, and covered (before I stopped counting) some 15 topics, each only tangentially related to the one before. The last topic, as everyone no doubt heard, was his announcement that he was going to run for president in 2020.

Now, you might argue that most US Presidential candidates’ claims to log-cabin-style origins and fresh-voices-not-from-Washington are not really very good or original bases from which to run. But Kanye’s statement that he “smoked a little something before (he) came out” is surely the most unusual political launch idea we’ve had yet – the verbal equivalent, perhaps, of Candidate Trump’s descent on an escalator to announce his lofty goal of rising to the presidency.

OK, so this musical artist needs some schooling before he’s ready to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. But public speakers, and public speaker geeks do need to take him seriously for the first two minutes of his acceptance speech.

And that’s the good news. You only have to watch the first two minutes. The rest, which includes defenses of his artistry, his interruptions, his defensiveness, and complaints about the way he’s treated, award shows, MTV, which was giving him the award he was generically complaining about — not to mention his chats about orange juice with his children – you can safely ignore.

You’re welcome.

But do watch the first two minutes. Why? Because Kanye West accomplishes the hardest thing any speaker ever has to do, and he does it better and for longer than you ever will have to do.

He does nothing.

Well, he accepts the applause. And that is, in fact, not nothing. It is extremely difficult. I regularly coach speakers about acknowledging the applause – waiting for it – at the end of their speeches. Why is that something that needs to be talked about? Because every speaker, virtually without exception, lunges for the exit as soon as he or she is done with the speech, failing to accept or even acknowledge the applause.

I get it: you’re done. You want to get off stage and hit the bar. And it’s embarrassing to have to accept applause. It feels, well egotistical.

But here’s why you need to learn from Kanye and accept that applause.

Giving a speech is a two-way activity. You give the speech, the audience accepts it. You ask them to sit passively for an hour while you’re actively giving them the speech. But human nature is deeply reciprocal. You give me something, I must give you something back, or I feel wrong. So what happens at the end of a (passive) speech to the audience? They erupt into applause.

That’s their gift back to you, the speaker. And what are you doing? You’re doing your best to ignore the gift, discard it, diss it, throw it back in their faces.

OK, so that’s not what you intend. But that’s the way it looks to the audience. You’re modest; it feels awkward to get all that applause. But you’ve got to accept it – not for you, but for the audience. Otherwise, it’s the presentation equivalent of doing all the talking in a conversation and not letting the other person get a word in edgewise.

What Kanye does at the beginning of his acceptance speech is incredibly hard. Watch his body language! He just stands there and accepts the applause. He doesn’t fidget, smirk, deflect, twist away – nothing. He accepts.

You try it. It’s the polite thing to do. It’s the way to have a genuine conversation with your audience. And it’s hard.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Nick or Bro!!!

    Did you tell the story about being in the audience with the Dalai Lama, where he arrived late and then sat on the edge of the stage and just smiled???

    I encourage speakers to stand and stay nothing for up to 30 seconds or longer if they can bear it before saying a word. It is nerve racking to do.
    As for Kanye West, the last 11 minutes were painful.

    As always – Thank you.

    Kind regards
    John Keating

    1. Thanks, John — I don’t tell that story quite as often any more, but I do still on occasion. It’s another good example of the power of silence. It does make a different point, however. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that no one in West’s audience’s life was changed by his acceptance of that applause. They did, however, perhaps feel like they mattered to him.

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