Ignoring the rules of public speaking

Want to be a better public speaker? Just start by being yourself...

By: Wyl,   2 minutes


Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1874). New York City--Henri Rochefort, The Communist, In His Lecture At The Academy Of Music, June 5th

When you think of a successful speaker, who comes to mind? Someone who doesn’t umm and err in between their sentences? Umm. Someone who doesn’t wring their hands or wave them madly? Who exudes confidence and makes their point coherently, never veering off down blind alleys?

I’ve never questioned that’s what I should be aiming for when I get up in front of a crowd. Like thousands of others, I’ve watched TED talks and Do Lectures and wondered how I could be more like them. But my preconception about what makes a good public speaker may well have blinded me from what really matters and from what great speakers actually do.

When I took part in a public speaking session this week, run by The Diving Bell’s Danielle Craig, I expected we’d be asked to prepare and deliver short speeches, and perhaps marked against the madness of our waving hands and general level of incoherence. Or worse, we’d suffer the ignomy of our speeches being videoed and have to watch our own mad arms flail, suffer our own endless umms and mark ourselves down.

Instead, we got started watching a speaker doing exactly that. When Danielle started up the Dave Eggers’s talk about his project 826 Valencia, I sat forward – it’s one of my favourite TED talks. So I was surprised, when, watching for his presentation style in particular, I saw him bumble his way nervously through his speech; he wrings his hands, his words trip over themselves on the way out of his mouth, he dries up, apologises to the audience and fills his silences with all manner of umms and errs.

I found it didn’t matter to me so much how polished the speaker is, it was the strength of the story and how much I connect with what they are saying that mattered.

He was almost the exact opposite of what I’d expect from a successful public speaker. But I listened intently to what he had to say. Why? Because he makes me care. Because his passion for his subject eclipses his obvious nerves.

Later that evening I watched a few other talks online to see if the same could be true of them. And I found it didn’t matter to me so much how polished the speaker is, it was the strength of the story and how much I connect with what they are saying that mattered. Michael Fordham’s talk for the Do lectures, The Soul of the Surfer, isn’t exactly polished. Fordham stumbles, spends a lot of his talk looking down at his papers and and loses his way. But he takes me with him. Completely. In fact, some of the slicker performances I watched actually turned me off the message, as though they were almost lacking in authenticity if the talk felt over prepared and flawless.

Neither Eggers nor Fordham crash and burn – that would be excruciating. They are both articulate in their bumbling, rambling ways. They know their subjects inside out. But they both ignore most of the common rules of public speaking. And it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t.

What I think it comes down to is this: I might forgive you if your presentation leaves a little to be desired, but I won’t forgive if you don’t make me care about whatever you’re speaking about.

If I could capture half the energy and authenticity Eggers does in his talk I’d consider myself a successful speaker. And if I wave my arms around like a loon and lose my way a few times, but do it passionately, maybe I should cut myself some slack.

So here’s to the bumbler – the passionate speaker for whom the message is more important than the presentation style.

Let’s, umm, cheer them on.

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