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Three Rules of Public Speaking March 12, 2008

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Blogging.
Tags: , , , , , ,

According to Robert Scoble, the audience at SXSW that panned Sarah Lacy’s “Keynote Interview” with Mark Zuckerberg (founder/creator of Facebook) is “a bunch of Twittering Assholes.” Much has been made about what went wrong with this event, and some (like Robert) have even tried to be helpful by highlighting what should have been done differently.

Several people have suggested that the response has been overblown. Much has been made about the behavior of the audience at the event. Rather than rehash the various issues with that particular interview or taking the audience to the woodshed for their “childish” behavior, I’d rather approach this from the opposite side. What makes a good live presentation?


I have done a little public speaking myself (presenting at technical conferences and church/community groups with audiences of a few hundred to upwards of 5,000), along with other types of public performances/presentations (community theater, lip-sync/pantomime for live audiences and syndicated TV, singing telegrams, and so on). I state that here, not to try to impress someone, but simply to present some basic credentials. I’m familiar with both ends of the spectrum in terms of results: I have been successful in presenting to large audiences, and I have bombed.

I have noted that successful performances have some interesting similarities. I have identified three rules for a successful live presentation.

Rule 1: Know Your Audience
Here’s the quick summation: Your bombing is not the audience’s fault ™. This rule is probably the most important, so let me elaborate.

Have you bombed in front of an audience before? I mean, really bombed? I have, and it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. They’re having a lousy time (unless they start heckling, which is the audience’s way of trying to turn a bad time into a good one). You’re having a lousy time (unless you’re a masochist). All God’s children havin’ a bad time.

Going home after bombing is even worse. You’re angry. You’re hurt. You question everything. “Is this because my parents hated me?” “Did I leave my fly unzipped?” You even blame the audience.

I call blaming the audience the “George Costanza effect.” One of my favorite lines from George (the Seinfeld character portrayed by Jason Alexander) was “It’s a smart joke. A smart audience will get it.” In effect, his pride causes him to equate a good laugh from the audience as purely his own doing. The audience gets credit only for being as smart as he is.

The fact is, with the audience, they are who they are. If you, the person addressing the audience, don’t know who they are (what they will find interesting/funny/entertaining), it’s not their fault for showing up. Another way to look at a failure like this is to consider it competition: Do you blame your opponent in a game for being better than you? If the audience is your opponent (and this borders on the unhealthy, because they should be your ally and not your adversary), then you’re faulting them for coming to the “game” more prepared than you.

For example, several years ago, I presented “Top Ten C++ Programming Tips” at the Software Development conference. It went very well, and the reviews were good. Years later, I presented a similar session about Java Programming. It didn’t quite bomb, but it was close. It wasn’t nearly strong enough in content for the audience, which I would have expected to have been less technical than the people attending the C++ track before. In fact, the class was more technical in some ways, but I hadn’t done my homework on what content had worked well for other speakers. Lesson learned.

On a different occasion, I was providing entertainment for a Valentine’s Day banquet at a nearby Southern Baptist church. The audience was deacons and their wives (this being a brand of Southern Baptist church that would not have considered women as deacons). I opened by performing a lip-sync of Ray Stevens’Guitarzan” (a hysterically funny novelty song to listen to, and even funnier to see lip-sync’d).

When I finished performing this very funny song, the audience just sat there. No applause. No laughter. Nothing. I looked at my wife in the back of the crowd and saw the look of panic on her face. She knew that I had approximately 25 minutes of material, and all of it was just like this. This was a disaster about to happen. I had not spent time talking with people in the audience beforehand, so I had no “pulse” of the crowd until that moment.

What did I do? I told a church joke. (I don’t remember which one, but it was probably something fairly lame.) They rolled. They laughed like I’d never heard a church group laugh. I told another joke. They rolled again. For the next 10 minutes, I reworked every joke I knew to make it into a church joke (the “a man walks into a bar…” jokes all became “a man walks into the fellowship hall for a potluck dinner and…”). I closed with one more lip-sync, but by then, they were on my side, and they applauded politely.

I cannot state this strongly enough: Know your audience. If you don’t know them when you arrive, spend every available moment getting to know them. You’ll be glad you did.

Rule 2: Know Your Material
Many people feel that they “know” their material. Many people are wrong.

If you’re going to present something to a live audience, you can’t just know your material with the familiarity that exists in your living room. To present before a live audience, you have to know your material backwards and forwards. Experienced presenters are nuts about rehearsals. Stand-up comedians, who face tougher crowds than most of us will ever see, have to be even more prepared than the average speaker. Think your preacher or the president of your local civic club feels pressure when he or she gets up to speak? Are they likely to get boos or heckling from the crowd? How many people paid to come to hear them speak?

Now, to be fair, the pressure of being “on” is different for everyone, so it’s hard to make universally applicable rules. However, just like in sports, it typically takes a great deal of experience for the pressure of performing in front of a crowd to translate into something positive. As a result, you have to be so incredibly familiar with what you’re doing that you can get completely knocked into the weeds and recover immediately. I don’t believe that I have ever done any kind of live performance or presentation where things went exactly the way they were supposed to. Murphy always shows up. If you’re not ready, Mr. Murphy’s famous law will bite your backside.

The flip side of this is that with enough preparation, the pressure of performing in public can be absolutely energizing. Several years ago, I was asked to perform a funny lip-sync on a syndicated TV show. Just before going on-stage, one of the other performers asked the stage manager how many people would see the show.

He replied, “Son, they cancel shows like this if less than a million people tune in.”

If I hadn’t rehearsed and performed my material several hundred times (and that is not an exaggeration), I might have been paralyzed by this information. Instead, it became an adrenaline rush that I had to control. At that moment, I have no doubt I could have set some kind of personal best in weight-lifting.

Lastly, knowing your material also means editing it down to make it “tight.” If the audience can think ahead of you, then you’ve not got it right yet. If the presentation has a lot of “fat” in it, that provides a toehold for the ADD types in the audience to go astray. Unless you’re looking to bomb, don’t give them that opportunity. Keep it interesting by keeping the pace up with tight editing. Pregnant pauses and unintentional “dead space” are signs that you weren’t prepared.

Knowing your material at a fanatical level will not eliminate the need for knowing your audience, but it can certainly help you recover from what would otherwise be “death, on-stage.” You simply cannot know your material too well.

Rule 3: Know Your Limitations
Most of us are not Jonathan Winters or Robin Williams, and therefore cannot just “be entertaining” at a moment’s notice. Even those of us with improvisational abilities are highly unlikely to be thought of with such geniuses. Likewise, some of us can sing, others can’t. You may sing extremely well, but you’re not likely to be equivalent to Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. Even with the right material for a given audience, and even if you know it better than you know your Mom’s phone number, there are some realities that you’re going to have to accept.

I have accepted, for example, that I will never be great at nightclub stand-up comedy. With enough practice and some well-rehearsed material, I can keep geeks or church people entertained, but the traditional nightclub crowd puts demands on a stand-up performer that I don’t possess the skills to meet.

Remember the Software Development conference I mentioned earlier? Well, one year, the morning’s keynote speaker was Dana Carvey, and my session immediately followed his keynote (though obviously in one of the breakout rooms with a much smaller audience of about a hundred people). Knowing that Carvey’s performance was fresh in the audience’s mind, I improvised a variation to one of my tips about the C++ language (specifically, deleting a pointer to memory twice) by saying:

Don’t want to do it… wouldn’t be prudent

The track chair met with me shortly after the conference was over, and was puzzled by some of the comments in the reviews. In particular, several attendees had noted in their review: “George Bush impersonation needs work.”

In their own way, the attendees were telling me, “you’re no Dana Carvey.” Carvey is a great stand-up comedian. I’m not.

Learn from Mistakes
Each of the three rules above are given in the context of learning from past mistakes. Obviously, to learn from a mistake, you have to get out and actually make the mistake in the first place. That takes courage, and involves opening yourself up for criticism from a variety of sources.

In addition, you can learn from the mistakes of others. Watching the Lacy/Zuckerberg interview is useful in this context. However, you can also learn something about the “George Costanza effect” by watching Lacy’s post-interview comments. You can learn: Your bombing is not the audience’s fault ™.


1. Oscarandre - March 16, 2008

I do a lot of public speaking, often to hostile audiences and sometimes ust to conferences and the like. The advice you give is very sound,Tim. It’s worth remembering that many people rate public speaking as a greater fear than death – so it also takes a great deal of courage or ignorance to stand up and put yourself out there.

2. Tim - March 16, 2008


Why does it not surprise me that you would have experience doing so? Given your gift for writing, I would think that you would be spellbinding at a mic.

Thanks for the follow-up, and you’re right about the fear of public speaking. What may seem trivial (or fun) to you and I is something that can be terrifying if you don’t do it often enough to overcome the fear of failure.

That, or I’m really ignorant. 😀 – Tim

3. Tom - March 16, 2008

Ok… can you define several years for me? It seems that several years ago I had hair… 😉

Good advice, I’ll have to delete the George Bush impersonation from my normal speaking routine…

4. Tim - March 16, 2008


Since I used “several years” a couple of times, I’ll clarify. I was a presenter in the C++ Track at the “Software Development Conference” from 1994-1997. The funny lip sync was just after this, in 1998.

As for Bush, skip the “thousand points of light” reference, and go with the “nuke-you-lur.” 😀 – Tim

5. starduster - September 16, 2008

Thanks, Tim, for all your good advice. I just happened on this site, and relish it and your words.

My grandfather used to say he’d rather face a room full of machine guns than people, so I fully comprehend what you’re saying.

Keep up the good work.

Peace out.


6. Margaret N. Poxon - January 23, 2009

As a hard of hearing person, I have rules you did not mention:
1. Speak up and into the microphone if using one.
2. Don’t let your voice fall to a whisper (part of speak up).
3. When describing something on a map, picture, face the audience when speaking (some people need to read lips).
4. Repeat questions from the audience. Summarize if lengthy.
5. When giving the answer, address it to the audience, not just the questioner.

7. Tim - March 5, 2009


Those are excellent additions to my list. Thank you for stopping by and thank you for sharing your thoughts. – Tim

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