My 10 Rules for Public Speaking
But beware—I do strange things in front of an audience
I learned this craft unwillingly, at least at first—and it was all because of music.
It started at age 13, when I pestered my parents to buy me a record player. There was a sweet little model at nearby Clark’s Drugstore. My highest life goal at the time was to place the turntable near my bed and listen to my favorite songs over and over again.
At first, my parents said no. But I didn’t give up. My mother soon grasped how much I wanted this hi-fi and, shrewdly seizing her leverage, finally agreed that it could be mine—but on one condition. I had to enter a local public speaking contest for high school students.
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This was an unsettling proposition. I had no experience in public speaking, and I was just a 9th grader, and one of the youngest in my class—how could I compete with 17 and 18 year olds on an equal footing? I considered saying no, but I desperately wanted that record player.
So I worked hard on my speech, and when the dreaded day arrived, I stood up in front of a roomful of grownups, and gave my little talk. To my surprise, I took home the prize—and, a few days later, my first turntable. I kept it all the way through college.
Over the next few years, I entered—and won—a few more speech competitions. And then I was confronted with real life public speaking demands. I won a college scholarship from a business group, but to collect the money I had to talk to a huge auditorium full of people at their annual convention. I walked up on stage and gave a joke-filled speech that was almost a comedy monologue. It had an amazing effect—once again, with an audience where everyone was more than twice my age. I was such a hit that, over the next 24 hours, I got numerous requests for a copy of my speech.
But the reality was that there was no copy. At this stage, I was already speaking without a prepared text—which seemed like the jazzy way to do things. I also found it easier to riff off the energy in the room rather than memorize a talk. That’s still how I operate.
From that moment onward, my life seemed to force me into public speaking at every turn. I got another scholarship to study overseas from the Rotary Foundation, but one of the conditions was that I would give talks at lunches and dinners for Rotarians. I did dozens of these in the US and England, and soon learned what was expected of an after dinner speaker.
The demands got even greater after I finished Stanford Business School, when I was thrust into giving presentations to high-powered CEOs who would interrupt and cut you into pieces at the slightest sign of weakness. Again and again, I was the youngest person in the room, but had to take charge of the situation.
By the time I left those business projects behind to lecture on jazz at Stanford, I was fearless in front of an audience. I was just in my mid-20s, but had already survived hundreds of experiences dealing with every kind of audience, including some very hostile ones. Lecturing to college students was easy as pie compared to situations I’d been through. Even better, my focus on spontaneity meant I could speak on almost any topic at the drop of a hat.
In time, I was enlisted to train others in public speaking. But that was trickier. What exactly did I do in front of an audience? And could I teach it?
Eventually I jotted down some rules. Many of them violated accepted public speaking techniques, but that didn’t bother me. You often have more impact by going against the grain. And these rules had proven their value to me over and over again, even in difficult situations where much was at stake.
For your possible benefit, I’ve listed ten of them below. But I must warn you that I have a tendency to do strange things in front of an audience. So you will inevitably find that a few of these rules run counter to conventional wisdom.
Ted’s 10 Rules for Public Speaking
(1) The Podium is Death:
I may start my talk at the podium, but I get away from it at the first opportunity. I see others who hold on to the lectern for dear life, almost as if they’re rodeo cowboys on a bucking bronco. But unless you are a father confessor, you shouldn’t keep a big wooden slab between you and your listener.
Speaking is more than just words. Your movements and physical location reinforce the message you’re delivering, or undermine it if you don’t do it right. When you do stand still—as you will from time to time—it creates high drama, and focuses everyone’s attention on what you are saying. And when you move, the energy moves with you. Which leads to my second tip . . .
(2) Invade the Audience’s Space:
At a key juncture in your talk, actually move into the audience. This is easiest to do if you are off the stage and on the same level as your listeners. There will usually be a middle aisle in the room, and when you start walking up it you will feel the energy rising all around you.
Humans are mammals and always pay closest attention when others invade their space. At that juncture you will have everyone intensely focused on your presence and totally aware of everything you say—so you only do this at the most significant moment or moments in your talk.
(3) Embrace Spontaneity—Even (or Especially) When It Seems Risky:
I perhaps take this to an extreme—the last time I used a script was in high school. I do have an outline, but I try to avoid looking at it while I am in front of an audience. So it’s really just an outline in my head. And I will depart from it at a moment’s notice, if it feels right.
Before important talks, I will rehearse a few times—but every rehearsal ends up sounding very different. That’s a good sign, and what I want. So the outline is really more for me to grasp the various ways a talk might evolve when I’m actually in front of the audience.
Not everyone is comfortable doing things like this, but even if you want to take fewer chances, your talk must still feel spontaneous and in-the-moment. The audience wants that. They are energized by something that is happening right now and in this place. They will tune out the moment it sounds like you’re working through your pre-set talking points. Even if you require careful scripting and rehearsal, you still should strive for a feeling of spontaneity when you’re actually facing your listeners.
(4) Remember That the Audience Always Wants You to Succeed:
I’ve never met anyone who went to an event hoping to be bored and disappointed. The audience really, really wants you to succeed, and if you give them even the slightest chance at having a good time, they will cheer you on.
Just understanding this takes away much of the fear of public speaking. Even better, this desire for success is contagious—and in both directions: When you radiate enjoyment, the audience feels it too. When the audience is having a good time, you do as well.
That’s a virtuous circle, and you want you get into it as soon as possible. You should try to find a way of signalling within your first minute in front of an audience that everyone will have a good time today. Often you will even see the relief on the faces of people in the crowd in that moment when they realize that your talk won’t be a kind of punishment or chastisement. They will be grateful—and you will be too.
(5) Don’t Be Afraid of Humor, or Even Silly Jokes:
At a very early stage, back when I was still a teen, I realized that I had won several speaking contests, but I was still afraid to tell a joke to a large audience, especially of adults. I fretted that they wouldn’t laugh, and I would feel stupid or awkward. To overcome this, I forced myself to tell jokes every time I spoke to a sizable group. Not only did I overcome my fear, but I learned how powerful humor is. It wins the audience’s love and support. The joke can even be second-rate, but they will still appreciate that you cared enough about their entertainment to tell it.
I once took an accounting course from Charles Horngren, who would periodically interrupt his dense lectures on cash flow statements and accelerated depreciation to tell a joke. The jokes weren’t always funny, but we welcomed and applauded them, if only because they showed how much he cared about our mood and engagement.
I’ve met people who believe they are above all this. It’s not just the fear of telling a joke to a huge audience, it’s also a fear that their dignity might somehow be compromised. Don’t believe that for one second. Joking is no joke—even for serious speakers it is one of the most powerful tools in the whole elocutionary arsenal.
(6) You really don’t need slides, and if you insist on using them you must deal with the consequences:
I once had to give a presentation as part of a class assignment at business school, and I was the only student who did it without slides. At that point, I was very hostile to the notion of turning my talks into slide shows. Okay, I later made my peace with slides—you really have no choice in many instances. But if you’re bringing a slide deck to the gathering, the audience will never be sure whether they ought to pay attention to you or to the slide. It’s even worse when you hand out hard copies of the slides to the audience members before your talk. If you do that, you will probably lose everybody’s attention. You’ll find yourself talking to a distracted group paging back and forth in the deck, and ignoring most of what you have to say.
So never give out the hard copies until after you’re done speaking. And when you do talk with slides, try to signal to the audience when they should look at the screen, and when they should pay attention to you. Sometimes you need to point directly at the screen with a thrust out index finger, while at other junctures you should dramatically strut away from the screen in a way that brings attention back to you. In these settings, you’re a conductor, but it’s the focal point of the listener that you’re conducting.
Finally, if you decide to throw out all the slides, and just speak from the heart (coherently, of course), you have my complete support. I note that if you buy a book of the 100 greatest speeches of all time, you will discover that none of them were accompanied by a slide presentation. Four score and seven years ago, as you see from this chart. . . .
(7) Tap into Your Own Craziness:
Every one of us is an odd duck—you, me, and everybody else in the pond. We work hard to hide our peculiarities and nonconforming behavior patterns, especially in front of strangers. I’m now going to tell you to do the opposite. You can learn from jazz musicians in that way—they have fewer inhibitions than most, and will do things on stage the rest of us would never consider. Watch Thelonious Monk get up from the piano to dance. Or Miles Davis turn his back on the audience. Or Sun Ra wearing his Afrofuturist garb as if he just got off the spaceship. Or Dexter Gordon doing that bizarre thing holding his sax sideways like it’s a saint’s relic. The stranger they are, the more we love them. Public speaking is like that too. If you have quirks and eccentricities, let them rip. The audience will remember you for years to come. And, believe it or not, they will remember what you said too.
(8) Don’t Be Shy About Giving Your Roadmap to the Audience:
When you go on a trip, you want frequent updates on your progress—that’s why the map apps give you so much information. Audiences at a talk are no different, so feel free to give them explicit feedback along the way.
If you have something you want them to take very seriously, just tell it to them straight: “I want you to pay close attention to what I’m going to say next.” If you think they are taking things too seriously, you can say: “Why is everybody looking so glum? Sit back, relax, and let’s have a good time today.” If you are entering the final stretch of your talk, you can actually say: “We just have a few more minutes together today, so let’s make sure we make the most of it.” Before your last point, you can actually say: “This is the last point I’m going to make today.” Etc. etc.
These may seem like throwaway lines, but they’re actually key parts of your talk. Listeners appreciate the guidance, which is useful in itself. But they will also be more engaged and attentive, which is another positive. But most important of all, they feel like they are working in tandem with you, and this makes them far more committed to the entire experience and its outcomes.
(9) Pay attention to other speakers, and steal all their best techniques:
Whenever I see a skilled public speaker, I pay attention to every word, gesture, and nuance. And if something works, I start using it myself. I had a friend who used a very strange gesture whenever he made an important point in front of an audience—he would raise his right hand up above his head, and when he got to the most important words in his talk, he would point emphatically with his right index finger down at the ground in front of him. I have no idea what this gesture was supposed to indicate, but it had an amazing impact on the audience. It was like the gates of hell were about to open up in front of the podium. I started using it myself, and it’s riveting, especially if your downward hand thrusts are in rhythm with your words. Yeah, it sounds goofy, but it works.
I heard another speaker who would wait until after he had made a very important point, then he would pause, and after a few seconds would say quietly: “Do you see what I’m saying?” or sometimes just mouth one syllable: “See?” It was almost a whisper when he said it. I couldn’t believe how much power he extracted from that one word: “See?”
And I have numerous other devices of this sort—specific phrases that engage a listeners, timing effects, odd gestures, facial expressions. By the way, the three best kinds of speakers to study are comedians, preachers, and TV wrestlers. Politicians are surprisingly bad at this kind of stuff.
(10) Be a Rock Star and Savor the Moment:
The audience will feed off your enjoyment. And don’t tell me that it’s impossible to have fun in such a stressful situation. Every last one of us wants to be heard and acknowledged, and you will never find any situation that delivers those goods in more abundance than public speaking. It’s almost as exciting as playing music on stage—in fact, the adrenaline rush feels almost the same in both instances. So just as you are about to begin your talk, tell yourself: I’m a Rock Star and I Totally Rock! And it’s not a lie—for the next few minutes, that will exactly be what you will experience.
I’ve watched a lot of you on video, both seated and on a stage. Three things pop out at me. First, you use a lot of odd public-speaking gestures that don’t quite line up with or exactly seem to go with the point you are making, rather like Spaulding Gray in David Byrne’s True Stories. As with Gray, however, the effect of all the hands raised up or fingers pointing into palms or making circular motions at random moments is rather mesmerizing and makes me pay more attention. Second, your speaking style is a bit stilted. Yet you make up for it brilliantly through a rich vocabulary, a careful erudition, and through conveying a sense of the overarching structure of your remarks, no matter how long they are. As Byrne said once in a song lyric, I want to talk like I read. And you do. Lastly, you tend to repeat yourself, even from one talk to another, rather like Dexter Gordon or Thelonious Monk returning to a favoured riff or quote. The effect serves to make what you say more memorable and conveys a vision that connects all your speeches and writings. A lot of effective public intellectuals do this, from Noam Chomsky to Jordan Peterson. If you’ve heard them a few times, you get their overall vision. As a communicator, you are in good company. Ever thought about running for office? haha
Love it, Ted! I do jazz history presentations, and I learned long ago that the audience doesn’t come for the slides, but for me. They want warm blood, and humor, and life. I’ve been told over and again, “Your enthusiasm is contagious.” Recently one of them told me, “I never liked jazz until today.”