How to Be a Great Public Speaker: Lesson One - Get Over Yourself

Stop picturing your audience in their underwear. 

Seriously.  Stop.  I don’t know where that advice originated or why it persists as the “thing-to-say” to nervous public speakers, but it needs to go away.  Like now. Really. Because, it’s really bad advice.  

In fact, it’s such awful advice that I think you should hold it personally responsible for every terrible speech you’ve ever had to suffer through or will one day be forced to politely applaud.

Why is it such terrible advice?  

Think about all of those terrible speakers you’ve had to endure: the boring speakers who lost you at hello…the lecturers who spoke in jargon and/or never looked up from their notes…the self promoters who saw every sentence as an opportunity to tell you how awesome or clever they are…the condescenders who seemed to resent you for lending them your ears…and – of course – the nervous Nellies whose fear of being seen as terrible public speakers actually makes them terrible public speakers. (No one enjoys watching someone who doesn’t want to be on stage.)

Do you know what they all have in common?  They all think giving a speech is about them.

It’s an honest mistake.  The speaker is typically at the front of the room.  All eyes fall on them.  Heck, the speaker is usually the reason folks show up for a speech, (speechwriters don’t tend to draw big crowds) and we – as a society – have a tendency to create stakes for speakers giving speeches.  I mean, great speeches are associated with the speakers who give them, right?  And as soon as President Obama finishes his State of the Union Address, tonight, an army of pundits is going to start dissecting his speech and what it means for him, his presidency and his legacy.

So, it doesn’t take a narcissist to assume that the speaker is the most important part of public speaking, right?  

Right.  It's a logical assumption, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. Because, public speaking isn’t about the speaker.  It’s about the audience. 

It’s true.  I mean, what's a speaker without an audience?  A random guy talking to himself?

Moreover, great speeches don’t become great without an audience.  For example, I don’t think school children would be studying Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech if -- instead of addressing a crowd of 200,000+ from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial -- he’d shouted it at a handful of tourists looking for the Cherry Blossoms. 

Even more, I’m pretty sure MLK’s speech would be long forgotten if the gathered crowd hadn’t understood his metaphors and/or zoned out before he got to the good part.  Actually, if you know the history of King’s speech, you know he added the “I Have a Dream” part extemporaneously – at Mahalia Jackson’s prompting - when he realized his prepared remarks weren’t having the desired effect on his audience… Because, you see, MLK knew what all great speakers know, to give a great speech, you not only have to pay attention to your audience, you've got to respect your audience.

How do you respect your audience?  Well, for starters, you don’t mentally undress them.  (In fact, taking away someone’s clothes – without their explicit consent – is pretty much the opposite of respect.)

But that’s not the main reason I think we should stop telling nervous speakers to picture their audiences in their underwear.  The biggest problem with that particular piece of advice is that it not only fails to redirect the inward focus that fuels fear -- and bad speeches -- it reinforces it.  Instead of telling speakers that public speaking isn’t about them or their failure or their success, we’re encouraging them to focus on themselves, to trivialize their audiences to make themselves more comfortable.  (That’s advice on how to give a bad speech, not a good one.) 

Good speakers aren’t self-conscious, in part, because they’re not thinking about themselves, they’re thinking about their audience.  (Just to be clear: when I say they’re thinking about their audience, I don’t mean they’re thinking about what their audience thinks about them and/or whether the audience will laugh at them, applaud etc. I mean they’re focused on their audience’s engagement, whether or not the audience is following the speech, interested, having a good time, etc.) 

So, if we can't tell nervous speakers to picture their audience in their underwear, what should we tell them?

How about...get over yourself.  Giving a speech isn't about you or what you want to say, it's about what your audience hears and what they take away from your speech.  If your speech fails, it won't be because you had a bad audience (that's a cop out) it will fail because you thought that you and the way you relate to the world is more important than your audience and how they relate to the world.  That's a big mistake, because when it comes to giving a speech, your thoughts and feelings are irrelevant.

You don't become a great public speaker by telling audiences you're a great public speaker, you become a great speaker by being great to your audience.  So, stop asking what your audience can do for you, and start asking what you can do for your audience.

Next week…
Lesson Two: How to Get Over Yourself and Respect Your Audience

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