Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The secret of successful public speaking revealed

Conversation at Sunday lunch drifted to public speaking - the fear thereof. As Seinfeld says, at most funerals people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. I say, anybody can do it. Kids say, you would say that.

What I should have said next has only just occurred to me.

You're mistaken if you believe that people who are good at public speaking worry about it less than people who are frightened of it.

They worry about it more.

They deal with that worry by spending a lot of time preparing. That's probably why they're good at it.

Thought I'd better write that down.


  1. As a scientist, when I give a presentation, I know that at the end I am likely to be faced with a load of awkward questions. Sometimes these will be from people trying to prove a point and show how clever they are at my expense.

    'Normal' public speaking - best man's speech, funeral eulogy, whatever - thus holds no fears for me, because I know I can simply sit down afterwards.

    Practice and experience help too, of course!

  2. This is spot on David. I do loads of presentations and have done for years. I always get nervous and I always ensure I am well-rehearsed and well-prepared.

    I have done presentations when I haven't prepared (or had time to prepare) and these are the ones that have not gone well.

  3. Hi Dave,
    I have some comments which relate to both your Jane Austen/ Big Star piece, and to public speaking. (Can’t believe I’m commenting on a piece about JA – Pride and Prejudice was the reason I gave up English A level!)
    Like JA my mother did not attend the funeral of either of her parents, who died in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Jewish tradition back then was that women did not attend “The Grounds” , the term used by Jews for a cemetery. Funerals were attended by men – which meant boys over the age of 13, bar mitzvah age, such as myself, did attend.
    We, that is my family and I discussed this change in tradition following the funeral of my much loved father who passed away a few weeks ago. Not only did my mother, sister and daughter attend, along with many women friends, but my nephew and his wife brought their 8 month old daughter. This would have been unacceptable or shocking until relatively recently.
    This brings me on to my second point, relating to public speaking. The tradition back in the day was that there was no eulogy for the deceased at a Jewish funeral. I believe that this was somehow connected to an egalitarian idea that we are all equal, and in our lives perform both good and bad deeds, and also that those in attendance knew the deceased. This tradition has also now changed and the Rabbi, my sister and myself all spoke lovingly respectfully and (hopefully) somewhat humourously about my dad at his funeral.
    But here’s the point. The Jewish tradition is to bury the dead as quickly as possible, within a day if possible. My dad died very suddenly and although I have thought long and hard about my dad over many years, the combination of circumstance and custom and ritual, and the fact that there was much running around to organise the funeral, meant that there was very little time to prepare what was perhaps the most important speech I have had to make.
    So…..what I found was, that if you know your subject really well – and I did! –and you are passionate about it -him in this case- and do not let emotion overwhelm your delivery, it is possible to speak publicly and creditably without too much preparation.
    I do however agree with you! Preparation and practice makes perfect – as it does with any performing.

  4. I need to learn how to do this and quick as it's a requirement of my new job. I am currently useless at any form of verbal communication but I have to raise my game now.

  5. Some of us are born worriers, most of us worry about particular things. In general, I don’t think “people who are good at public speaking” worry too much. What I do think is that they give it a lot of thought and preparation. A few butterflies or “nerves” before being announced come with the job; they soon pass aren’t the same as worrying.

  6. I don't know how you distinguish between nerves and worries. All I know is I don't sleep the night before public speaking and I can't eat anything for five hours before. When one of my daughters got married a couple of years back I made sure the speeches came before the meal because I knew I wouldn't be able to eat if they came afterwards.

  7. Nerves and worries? Definitely allies, but I mentioned “nerves” merely as another way of (sort-of) defining what many people also call butterflies in the stomach. A temporary and very short period of tension.
    When I was at school, short-trousers and all that, I was frightened to death of raising my hand to answer a question, even when I knew the answer was correct. Scared of the spotlight I suppose. It was intimidating, but not debilitating. I don’t think it was apparent to the rest of the class, but thinking that might be so could have contributed to the alarm. Who knows.
    Despite this, I still raised my hand if I thought I could offer the correct answer.
    I had some of the same when it came to reading aloud. Though not as bad, for reasons I can’t begin to work out. Actually I’ve never tried.
    This continued until I was about 13 or so. I think. Whenever, somewhere along the line it stopped. The fear vanished. It wasn’t an epiphany and I don’t know when I fully realised. Lucky for me I suppose.
    I’m not even famous at home, so none of this really matters, except to me. Nevertheless, I do some public speaking on a semi-regular basis and never get nervous. I don’t know why. As I say, lucky for me and I’m not knocking it. The fear I had as a youngster might return as easily and quickly as it vanished, but I doubt it. I perk up and concentrate a bit as the “moment” approaches and remind myself that I have some idea of what I’m going to say, but that’s about it.
    It may be that I’ve never done a truly Big Occasion, but they’re about as big as most average souls encounter.

  8. And something I also observed years ago is that people who present well all work on scripting their speech beforehand, tweaking it in rehearsal until perfect.

    And then talk as if off the cuff when the big day comes.

    I'll never forget a certain scribe working on the elevator pitch for a magazine launch codenamed E for Entertainment. (Whatever happened to that?). If memory serves me well that script got changed/tweaked/improved on a daily basis for a fortnight before the event. It all went swimmingly well.

    That experience of going over and over the script has stayed with me ever since and it's a lesson I pass on to anyone who listens. If you're not rehearsing in the car and in the shower, you're really not giving it your best...

  9. I thought you might be interested in this recent article called "The Silent Crowd: Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking", by the American writer Sam Harris:

    He talks about his fear of public speaking and how he overcame it, giving some good advice along the way.

    He also explains that he used to use the example of Thomas Jefferson to justify avoiding public speaking. Apparently, Thomas Jefferson was terrified of public speaking, limiting his speech-making to two inaugural addresses which, according to John Adams, he simply read aloud "in so low a tone that few heard it."