From time to time it’s important to take a step back and put the world of public speaking into perspective. I do take it very seriously, and I am completely passionate about it, but it’s also important to recognize that public speaking is one human activity out of many, we don’t burn people at the stake any longer for disagreeing with us, and ultimately life is about love and work, as Freud noted, so at the very most public speaking should only occupy your thinking 50 % of the time. And so here are my ten rules for thinking rationally about public speaking, whether it’s something you dread or love, whether it’s a career for you, or a religion, and whether or not you ever will consider trying to master the art and science of it.

1.A presentation is a brief phenomenon. It’s measured in minutes, typically, and the trend is toward shorter and shorter speeches. Unlike, say, chess games that can go on for days, or agriculture, which is measured in seasons, speeches are planned and timed to the minute. There are many implications that follow from this simple observation, but here are three. Minutes are important, and you should always give a few of them back to the audience – end early, not late, in other words. If your speech goes badly, and inevitably some will, then realize that you will live through it. If minutes are important to this art form, then seconds are too. Good public speaking is all about timing. Use your seconds wisely. Don’t just fill them up with words – use pauses, gestures, and silence as well.

2.Your most important job as a speaker is to find your voice. Clients often ask me if their messages are new enough. But there’s very little that’s truly new in the advice we humans give to one another. Aristotle figured out most things a couple thousand years ago. Rather than obsessing about novelty, realize that what is new is your voice. If you draw on your own experience, insight, and stories, then not only will your message be a new version of what may be an old truth, but no one will be able to say it just the way you can. Human voices, when realized, are unique. That’s your real job – finding your unique voice. Don’t quote someone else – say it the way only you can.

3.Slow down and pare down. The mistake that most rookie speakers make is to try to tell their audiences too much, to cram everything in, to tell them everything they know. One thing I’ve learned over two decades of coaching is that different clients need different approaches. Brilliant advice offered to one person falls on deaf ears of someone else. They’re at different places, or differing levels of skill, or have different issues. One size most certainly doesn’t fit all, and that goes for the presentations and their audiences too. So rather than try to dump what you know on everyone, spend some time figuring out what you’re going to leave out, what you’re going to not say, and how you’re going to use silence to best effect.

4.You’ll learn more from audiences that don’t love you than audiences that do. Early on, most speakers just want to be loved. They want an endless, ongoing standing ovation from their audiences from the very start. And so presenters placate their audiences, tell them what they think the audience wants to hear, and avoid challenging their audiences really to think hard. The result is the endless stream of mediocre presentations happening day and night around the globe. It’s only when you get the courage to make your audience hate you that you’ll find out what you really need to say to them.

5.You can’t give speeches in your head. Speakers run through their speeches in their head and believe that this is rehearsal. It’s not. You need to use your body to give a speech, and to rehearse one, because we embody our emotions first in order to find out what they are. In your head, you can say it quickly, smoothly – and blandly. In your body, you find the clumsy moments and the issues with connections from one part to another. Never rely entirely on the mental. Public speaking is performance art.

6.Let it go. A speech is the product of the speaker, the message, and the audience. When it’s done, it’s gone. Let it go. Don’t let the accumulating weight of all your successes and failures become what defines you. If you do, you’ll stop being capable of being truly present and creating that performance art. You’ll just start phoning it in. Never, ever phone it in. You, your message, and your audience deserve better.

7.Not all audiences should hear you. I can always tell a rookie author because when I ask him “who’s your audience?” he says, as if it were obvious, “Well, everyone!” That’s a writer who hasn’t thought clearly enough about what he is writing about and who should read it. In the same way, not every audience will resonate with your message. It’s everyone’s job – you, the meeting planner, the speaker bureau, the organizers, whoever’s involved – to try to get this right beforehand. It’s always obvious after the fact.

8.You’ve got to take care of yourself, but not too carefully. Some of my clients, when they become successful, become divas. It’s hilarious to watch, and I secretly love it precisely because it is a sign of success. You get the only-brown-M&Ms-in-the-bowl-in-the-hotel-room-which-is-set-to-69-degrees phenomenon. It happens, truly. But you’ll have more fun if you remember that you are actually just another glorious human being, with all the rights and limitations pertaining thereunto, and don’t end up taking yourself too seriously.

9.You are not your speech. Along the same lines, never confuse yourself with your message. You are more (and sometimes less) than your message. The message can change. The speech should change. Speeches are not sculptured objects; they are monuments to a moment in time only. You should never give exactly the same speech for more than a few years running.  Knowledge changes, audiences change, you should too.

10.In fact, you should never give the same speech twice. Speeches need to be tailored to specific audiences. The main points may be similar, or even the same, but you always need to customize your presentation to a particular audience because if you don’t it means you’re not thinking about that audience as much as you need to.

Public speaking is important, even life-changing and world-changing sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we have to take it with desperate seriousness. All human endeavor is ultimately temporary, and we are but dust in the wind. So enjoy yourself, make it as perfect as you can, and then trust to luck. Good hunting!

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks Nick for such a thoughtful and meaningful blog. There is so much here to reflect upon whether one is just starting out as a speaker or has been at it for years. You are the master.

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