I was inspired by some recent client stories of successes and failures to create a short list of counter-intuitive speaking lessons that most people learn the hard way.  Here you go: I hope this list saves you some pain down the road.

First, a couple of thoughts about the business of speaking, then three about the speech itself.

Fearlessly say ‘no’.  It’s gratifying to get the call to be asked to speak.  You immediately want to say yes.  And usually, you can.  But there are some speeches you shouldn’t give.  Ask yourself, do my message and my voice fit this audience or is it too much of a stretch?  It’s not just about the money, either.  The more money that is offered, as a rule, the harder it is to turn down the speech.  But is it a good fit?  Which would you rather be – the highest-paid speaker at the conference with the lowest ratings, or the lowest-paid speaker with the highest ratings?  If you answer the former, you’re cruising for a speaking bruising.

Allow your competitors to help you.  Get a gaggle of speakers together in a room, and you’ll rapidly exceed what the fire marshal safely allows for egos in an enclosed space.  But you’ll also find another thing happening.  A surprising number of those speakers like nothing more than to compare notes, help each other, give you great feedback, share tricks for a comfortable life on the road, and so on.  Technology, too – ask a fellow speaker about technology and you may have to prepare to spend the night.  Yes, your peers will compete with you, but they’ll also go to huge lengths to help, because at base they are outgoing, caring, beautiful people.

Speak from your gut.  A lot of speakers give me pushback on the subject of rehearsal.  They’ll say something like, “I don’t want to get stale,” or “Won’t I get bored with the talk,” or something like that.  But the purpose of rehearsal is not to enslave you, committing you to a life of endless, boring repetition.  The purpose of rehearsal is to set your gut free.  All creativity, all play, begins with a base that you understand and then adds something new on top of that.  Speaking should be the same.  Start with a basic text that you drill into your muscle memory.  Then, start playing on top of that.        

It’s not a speech; it’s a conversation.  The long-term trend in public speaking has been toward shorter and shorter speeches with higher and higher production values.  The logical endpoint of these developments is a thirty-second commercial.  But these trends miss the point of getting people together in a room.  It’s to have a face-to-face conversation.  The best speech I ever attended was a seminar with Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy’s advisor and speechwriter.  Sorensen sat down in the front, an old man with failing eyesight, and a wealth of memories from some of the most thrilling moments in twentieth-century history and speechmaking.  There were, incredibly, only a half-dozen of us in the room.  Sorensen started speaking, and I think we all held our collective breath.  After about 90 minutes, his daughter entered the room to try to pry Sorensen away for dinner.  He said, “I’m having a great time; let’s go a little longer.”  We were held spellbound for another hour.  He talked about the Inaugural Address, the Civil Rights movement, and the Cuban Missile Crisis – from the perspective of someone who was in the room.  He did ninety-five percent of the talking, but it was certainly a conversation, because he was acutely tuned to us, his audience, and it was unforgettable.

It’s not stand up; it’s Improv.  Andrew Stanton has a great line in his TED talk:  “Storytelling is joke-telling.”  Because he delivers it after a successful joke, the audience laughs again and presumably accepts the line as true.

Except that it’s not true.  Storytelling and joke-telling are two fundamentally different things.  Good storytelling requires a character to go on a real or metaphorical journey with some kind of conflict.  A great story reveals character and resolves the conflict.  A joke involves a set up that pushes you to look in one way, then a punch line that takes you in a different direction.

Not the same.  Rather, take as your model Improv.  Specifically, long-form Improv where the audience throws out an idea and the Improv team builds conflict and story around it.  The humor develops out of the situation.

That’s where you should be living as a speaker, too.

Hope these help.  Enjoy the road.

Get on the road and come to our one-day Powerful Public Speaking workshop in Boston, October 24th.  Still a few seats left, and early-bird pricing ends in a week. Sign up soon!








  1. You have great articles on here! Have you ever considered becoming an affiliate member of National Speakers Association? You could help/coach so many speakers.

    1. Thanks, Rhette — I’ve got as many clients as I can handle, but I’ve always appreciated the NSA. It’s a great organization for speakers.

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