Five rules of public speaking


Everyone is afraid of speaking in public. As far as fears go, they say, public speaking is up there with death in the family. Death in the family is especially hard because it involves having to speak in public.

Some people get better at public speaking, and some never do. I follow a few rules to make it easier on myself. These rules might not work for you, and that’s just tough. I once knew a guy who had to do a talk while on a presentation skills course. He stood in front of us, trying to talk and forgetting to exhale. His arms floated upwards like the arms of a tubeman attached to a kiddies jumping castle. No amount of advice will ever help him. His problem with public speaking is not the public, but speaking. These rules will mean nothing to him, and if you’re like him, they won’t help you either.

There are five rules of public speaking. Self-help books always come up with seven somethings, but I can’t. There are only five. Also, those books take a lot of time to explain seven simple things, and that seems like cheating. Why not have a short list on the back cover so that people can get the gist of it in the bookshop without all the fluffy shit?

Here are the five rules of public speaking, on the back cover: all speaking is public, never have a script, listen, take your time, embrace trouble. See? It’s easy.

Others will tell you to find a focus and to prepare, to practice and to deal with nerves and to engage with your audience, and a sixth thing, and a seventh. That’s all bullshit. Do that if you want to be an ok speaker. If you want to be great you’ll have to risk following the rules below, or five others like them.

Here they are.

Rule #1: All speaking is public speaking. It isn’t really hard because you’re already doing it. If you had to take a crap in public it would be hard because you’ve never done that as an adult. But whenever you speak it’s to at least one other person, which makes it public. Speaking to a group is daunting because you forget this. Speak as you would to someone you know, someone you like.

Rule #2: Don’t have a script. You can prepare to any degree you want to but don’t script what you want to say. If you do, you’ll fuck it up. If you recite a script you’ll miss what comes next at some point and then everything will go to shit. If you have no script you cannot miss anything, can you? If you speak from your heart, naturally, everyone relaxes and any hesitation you might have is the same as you’d have if you were just speaking, and not a big deal. It doesn’t matter how bad you might be without a script. You’ll be better than with one.

I once messed with this rule and paid the price. I was at a wedding where I knew the bride and no one else. The groom had many friends who recited Scottish poetry at the reception. After a while the bride started sending me messages from her table, begging me to stand up and say something. I refused on the grounds that I didn’t know anybody, but she kept at it until I gave in. I decided to quote from the Tom Robbins book Still life with woodpecker. Quoting is like having a script. I talked from my heart and then I talked from the book and then, when I turned to the crucial page in my mind, there was nothing. I was supposed to say, “Answer me that and I will reveal to you the purpose of the moon,” but the page was blank and remained blank.

Speak from your heart, never from some script.

Rule #3: Listen. When I was a kid my mother started us off with single lines, something like, “The girl is five.” We’d have to take this line and tell a story from it. We complained that we didn’t know what came next.

“Just travel in time,” she said. “Imagine that you’re in the audience, listening to yourself. Say what you hear yourself say.”

We wailed that we couldn’t travel in time.

“Just listen,” she insisted.

Later we got what she meant. Say what you want to hear.

Rule #4: Take your time. Do things on your own terms. It puts people at ease and it puts you in control. Do this even when you’ve somehow forgotten the thought you just had. Those who are listening don’t know what your next utterance will be. It could be the word aardvark. Do something else until you remember. Let them wait while you find your way.

Rule #5: Embrace trouble. You might as well. Trouble is going to embrace you, sooner or later. Somewhere along the line, something is going to fuck up. Running into trouble is a chance to have fun, not a reason to die. Let’s say that you’re doing a presentation with a lot of graphs and bullet points. Even though you stayed up all night to put this shit together, it now won’t load and everyone is watching you. A throat is cleared. You could die or you could say, “I wondered last night, as I was putting these slides together, why we really needed them.”

If it still doesn’t load you can close your laptop and rub your hands together and say, “Let’s see for ourselves.” Then you can talk about your slides and paint them with words. Have fun, and they will too. Trouble is a gift.

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