I’ve been reading and re-reading the basic Asian books of wisdom over the years in the hopes of acquiring a little myself.  Not much has stuck, but I do find the insights fascinating and the opaque language maddening.  So there’s that.

On my latest re-read of The Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, it occurred to me that this seminal, mysterious book on sword fighting and strategy might have some wisdom for public speakers.  So I read three different translations of these five chapters or books (Ground, Water, Fire, Wind, Void) with their advice about how to stand, how to fight large groups of people, how to fight one-on-one, how not to use a particular system, and on and on.

Musashi himself has always fascinated me.  He claimed to be self-taught, and to have worked out something deeper than a system as he wandered around Japan taking on challengers, Ronin, and anyone who wanted to fight.  At first wanting to prove that his “no system” was better than anyone else’s system of fighting, he killed everyone he took on until he tired of killing, and then he merely disarmed them.  Ultimately, he stopped fighting altogether and took up painting and poetry.  He died of cancer in meditation in the mountains at a fairly young age, probably his late 50s.

In Musashi’s fight or flight world, five ideas stand out that apply in helpful ways to public speaking.

First, there is only one strategy in war – to kill.  Musashi never wavered from this, even when he stopped killing in his exhibition matches.  Similarly, in public speaking, a speech should always be about one idea and one idea only.  Ruthlessly eliminate everything else.  As you’re prepping your speech, throw out everything that doesn’t support that one idea, even if you love it because it’s your favorite funny story about the time your dog sang the national anthem and it always gets a laugh.

Don’t look, just see.  This is an interesting idea.  What Musashi seems to be saying is that, in battle, if you look hard at someone’s sword, or a particular alignment of troops, or whatever – you’ll miss the bigger picture.  So you set your eyes ‘soft’, and see everything without focusing on any one thing.  This advice holds up very well in speaking – in alternation with making eye contact with specific people, of course.  At regular intervals, set your eyes on soft focus and take in the room.  How is everyone feeling?  Is the audience generally attentive?  Restive?  Are they still with you?  You can be misled by focusing only on particular people, who may not be a good sample of the whole.

Empty your mind.  Musashi advocates going into battle with the ‘mushin mind’ or ‘no mind’.  The idea is to be empty of specific intent so that you can be completely present and react to circumstances without hesitating.  In war, it’s how you stay alive.  In speaking, it’s how you come up with that hilarious quip in response to the audience member who asks you a challenging question out of the blue.

Understand the enemy mind.  Musashi, it will not surprise you to learn, heavily stresses thinking harder about the enemy’s mind than your own fears, concerns and predilections.  The audience is not the enemy, but thinking about the audience, and putting yourself in their shoes, is the essential beginning point for developing any speech.

Be flexible.  Musashi’s point of pride was that he had no system, so he could, in essence rise above any system and beat it because of his superior meta-level thinking.  And he proved that superiority over and over again by defeating everyone who tried to take him on.  Similarly, in public speaking, anyone who is too committed to a particular approach is going to appear overly scripted to the audience and thus not authentic.

The Five Rings was written to explain Musashi’s non-system system of sword fighting and strategy.  It has some interesting applications to public speaking, but don’t take it too literally.  Don’t bring your sword to your speaking event, unless of course you’re giving a speech on the samurai.




  1. Hi Nick

    Great content – thank you.

    I would like to take this opportunity to share a story with you. A story in line with “Ruthlessly eliminate everything else”

    One day a professor turned up in a hall to give a lecture. To his surprise only one woman was present. He thought it was hardly worth his time, so he said, ‘I hope there would be many more people here today, but you are the only one, what shall we do?’

    ‘Well’, said the woman, ‘I’m a farmer and not an expert on your subject but if I was to go to feed my cows in the morning and I found that they all escape except one, I would still feed it.’

    At this, the professor cheered up and launched into his lecture. He talked and talked. Finally, after three hours he came to a resounding finale. ‘Well’ he said, flushed with his delivery, ‘what did you think of that?’

    ‘Like I said’, replied the woman ‘I am not the expert on this subject. However, if I came to the barn and found all my cows were missing except one, I would feed it but I wouldn’t stuff it with everything I had.’

    Kindest regards
    John Keating

    1. Brilliant — thanks, John — I love this story. I’ve often heard variants on the first half of the story — giving it your all even if the audience is small — but not the second half, which has wonderful wisdom in it too!

  2. Thanks for another great post, Dr Nick.
    This phrase caught my eye about Musashi, who I’ve never heard of before: “his superior meta-level thinking.”
    This is a topic I’ve become more than a little obsessed over recently, after a few online exchanges with an educator in Boston who talks about Vertical Learning. One particular exchange with him unblocked all of my resistances to how and why I wanted to get my message out. It’s basically about sense-making and revising previous mental models as more things make sense.

    I’ll share his explanation here, in case it will be useful to your tribe:

    As a result of this exchange, I’ve had hundreds of new neural connections and it feels as if my mind is exploding! Really quite profound. Not sure if it will mean anything to anyone else, but I felt I had to share.

    Kind regards,

  3. Hello Dr. Nick

    I read your article with great interest on the conclusions.

    Definitely liberating the mind from self-limiting systems is a great approach that definitely saved Musashi’s life most of the time. As a Coach but also as a Sword Art Champion, I see things a bit more different: Not having a system is not equal to be on a meta-level. He is still fighting, just the “no-system-style” –
    Being on a Meta Level would mean to liberate yourself from that level too. Unarming seems to be a way (and by the way in his last fight he killed his most probably most dangerous opponent with a wooden stick (kind of a Bokken) – but still it is on the fight level. Meditating, painting and sculpturing is the Meta-Level he achieved. Only then he left the level of fighting.

    The Problem with the book of the five rings is not the translation but to be able to translate from sword fighting to something different. As a sword fighter myself, I can read and learn from every lesson he is describing and put it into the business context.

    As speakers, we should release ourselves too from the level of speaking to or at an audience and get into a real interaction, coming from the heart, sharing deepest emotional topics. You automatically go into state and the audience becomes part of your story of the moment… Then a real connection and the real magic between your speech/story and the “audience” happens.

    As Samurai Business Coach and Excellence Counselor and international speaker, I often integrate Asian (mostly Japanese and some Chinese) wisdom into speeches but also into business coaching.

    – Speaking is not war, so it is not about winning – which sometimes happens when speakers try to pitch.
    – Presence and Awareness are too neglected skills in business, but by speakers too. The Bushido says “If you focus on one direction, you will neglect the other 99”. – Become a motorbike driver and you know what that means. If you don’t think for all of the people around you, you will not survive. As a speaker, we must master awareness and presence, which is only possible by emptying our minds.
    – Understanding our audience, their needs and concerns should be a basic skill, but definitely, it needs to be trained constantly.
    – Being flexible is only possible when the speaker is authentic and coming from the heart, meaning not performing on stage – a common trap that speakers tend to tap in.

    I would encourage speakers to really connect from the heart with the people in the audience, to contact them, build eye contact, learn to have all senses open and the miracle happens…

    Yet thank you for your research and also to put your insights into that article, showing us that we can learn from so many sources all around.

    1. Christian — thanks for the thoughtful and profound comment. I deeply appreciate you sharing your wisdom.

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