Thought Catalog

How To Be A Public Speaker — Or, The Art Of The Keynote Address

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Shutterstock / Maxim Blinkov
Shutterstock / Maxim Blinkov

There’s a Mitch Hedberg joke about how Hollywood tries to turn every comedian into an actor. He said that’s like going up to a chef and saying: Yeah, but can you farm?

Marketing and business and writing (and a lot of other fields) are the same way for some reason. If you achieve any kind of success in them, people start to ask you to speak. Of course, at first this is absolutely terrifying. You tell yourself that you became a writer precisely because you were bad at speaking and now you’re going to embarrass yourself.

But it doesn’t need to be that way–whether you’re a writer, a businessman or businesswoman, a marketer, a coach, or anything. Because public speaking is not only nothing to be afraid of, it’s actually fun and an incredibly compelling way to spread your message.

Below are some thoughts on mastering the art of public speaking. A few of them are tips given to me by coaches, but most of it gleaned from my own hard experience as a keynote speaker. I’m sure some of these are going to be a little controversial–I’m not going to talk about affect or persuasion techniques because I think that’s all crap. I’m going to talk about how to deliver a message in a way that feels authentic and actually leaves the crowd with something they can use.

And a note on me: I think my results speak for themselves. I’m represented by one of the best speaking agencies in the world, I’ve spoken all over the world (Finland, Austria, Australia, Brazil, New York and everywhere in between) both to large crowds and very small, private groups, I’ve earned well over six figures in fees in the last three years, done a TEDx talk, addressed big companies like Google and the military, written keynotes for other people, I’ve done 10 hours live on camera, and I’m humbled that people seem to like what I have to say. I’m not saying I’m the best or even that I’m great, in fact, I know I still have a lot I can improve on. But here’s what I’ve learned so far in my many talks to many thousands of people. I hope it helps.


  1. Public speaking is only hard or scary if you don’t think you know what you’re talking about. That’s relatively simple to fix.
  2. That stuff about picturing the crowd naked is ridiculous. Just imagine (rightly) that they know less than you about the topic you’re speaking about. After all, that’s why they brought you there! What is intimidating about getting up in front of some people and introducing them to something new and interesting that you’re an expert about? Nothing. So relax, you got this.
  3. Tell stories. They are all people remember. Stores also the most powerful way to make a point.
  4. A tip for everyone on what a story is from the master, Robert McKee: A list of facts or events is not a story. It’s a narrative. Tell stories.
  5. A talk that doesn’t catch people’s attention at the beginning will not keep them there until the end. Start strong.
  6. Should you have slides? Should you not have slides? There’s no right or wrong answer here. My thinking is this: Slides complement what you’re saying on say and provide visual emphasis for the point you’re making.
  7. Have someone really really good make your slides. I worked with professional designers to get the raw materials and my partner (my wife) builds the specific presentations using that as a baseline. You can get something amazing from 99designs.
  8. David Ogilvy said (and I agree with it in most cases) that if you put something on the screen, don’t depart from that. That is, if you use a quote–repeat the quote. If you have bullets, use the bullets exactly. The point, he said, “lies in assaulting your audience simultaneously through their eyes and their ears. If they see one set of words and hear a different set, they become confused and inattentive.”
  9. Share what you know. Don’t hold back. When I do marketing keynotes, I try to go through real and complete case studies from my career. When I speak about philosophy or strategy, I try to give real, honest information about my own life and what I’ve studied. Stuff your talk with real hands-on strategies and tactics you’ve used–don’t worry about holding back. I told Fortune Magazine this recently: “If you give away hard-won information and knowledge, you’ll get something back.” I firmly believe that and I think the evidence backs it up.
  10. The same advice that works for a keynote speaker works for a presentation to your boss or colleagues. They can read a Powerpoint themselves. If you want to change their minds or get them to understand something, you’ll need to illustrate and articulate.
  11. Pretending to have affect or charisma makes you look like a sociopath (here is an example if you want to see it…Ramit is not the problem). Just be yourself. For some people, that happens to be the cool, smooth, artificial stage presence and that’s an advantage but also a curse. For most of us, it is not. Be who you are.
  12. In other words, you’re not Malcolm Gladwell. You’re you. That’s a good thing.
  13. Slow down, man. Slowing down is always good advice.
  14. But isn’t an hour of talking a lot to memorize? Here’s a structural trick I learned. Memorize a strong introduction and conclusion but make the middle of the talk a loose series of stories and examples which you queue up with your slides. This way you start and end strong, but you still maintain the ability to improvise and keep a natural delivery. I promise that you can memorize that little bit without difficulty.
  15. Speaking of memorization, my friend the late Seth Roberts, taught me that walking on a treadmill (or just regular walking) helps the brain memorize. I’ve practiced my talks everywhere from a 24 Hour Fitness (not out loud) to the beautiful Bondi to Bronte beach walk in Australia.
  16. Don’t wear grey or anything that shows stains. When I was 21 years old I had to give an address to a very angry community board in San Francisco on behalf of American Apparel. They made us wait for hours outside before the meeting starting. You can see my terrible pit stains in the photos. I’m still embarrassed.
  17. Personalize each talk. Have room to add recent examples, have room to add something that connects directly to their country/field/business. This takes extra time but it makes a difference. It’s always worth it. For example, at the Vivid Festival in Sydney in 2014 I had included very specific and relevant case studies from Australia that directly tied to my presentation.
  18. Say no. It’s tempting to say yes to every gig. It’s only an hour’s work right? It isn’t. Speaking can disrupt your life. You fly in, you have to take some time to get adjusted, you have to do the sound check, the talk you talk is usually shot, there are other commitments involved and so on and so forth. What I’m saying is don’t underestimate the toll that talks can have. Pick the best opportunities and knock them out of the park. Be wary of the “Come talk for free” offers or events you’re not truly excited about because it will show in your presentation.
  19. Jokes are good too. People remember laughing. It also shows you understand your topic well enough to know what’s funny about it.
  20. Turn your talks into articles and your articles into talks. My piece, Here’s Some Marketing Advice: Your Product Sucks, started as a talk to a small, exclusive conference called MastermindTalks. It’s now been read thousands and thousands of times online. A talk I gave for US Military Veterans at Fort Bragg as part of American Dream U also turned into an article. These SlideShares that I made to promote my book Growth Hacker Marketing, have now been used as speeches. With Robert Greene, we once turned one of his talks (which we had transcribed) into an ebook. It’s been great for him.
  21. One time, I gave a talk and there was a photo of me in the slides. It turned out I was wearing the exact same shirt and jeans in the photo as I was onstage. I made a joke about it which surprisingly killed. I have to be honest: because of the reaction to the joke, I’ve done the same thing on purpose several times. Go with what works.
  22. It’s ok to be a wreck before you go on stage. Most of us are.
  23. No one cares about your company. I don’t know why companies–particularly tech companies–spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars sponsoring conferences so that their employees can get a speaking slot. They inevitably send their most boring person on stage who runs the crowd through a pitch deck from which absolutely nothing actionable can be learned or accomplished. If this is what you’ve been tasked to do, here’s a tip: Don’t just get up there and talk about what you do or are doing. We don’t want to see your internal talk. Talk about what people can learn from what you do.
  24. The Stoics have an exercise called premeditatio malorum–essentially negative visualization. They think about all the things that can go wrong so they can be prepared to endure and make the best of them. In your mind, envision the projector not working, the crowd being distracted, your message going over their heads.
  25. First off, that’s not so bad is it? Worst case scenario, stuff is awkward for a few minutes. Now, what can you do to prepare so none of those obstacles prevent you from delivering a compelling talk?
  26. In 2013, I spoke at The Next Web’s main conference in Amsterdam, one of the biggest tech conferences in Europe. From that talk, I’ve landed 3-4 other international talks. Why? Event organizers come there to source speakers. Know which stages will lead to other stages and crush it.
  27. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. I’ve worked with a couple different speaking coaches and you’ll find that their advice is frustratingly tactical. You should have said this here. Don’t move your hands that way. Here’s a warmup exercise. Don’t say “Um” so much! The reality is that most of us are not doing speaking full time. We shouldn’t be focused on improvements on the margins but on the things that will make the biggest difference to our audience. That means focusing almost exclusively on improving the message and on hitting the shots we know we can reliably hit.
  28. As I like to say about writing, having something to say is the most critical part. Developing a talk that is unique, that is personal, that is powerful and practical will get you a lot further and help you stand out from the crowd far better than competing with all the others doing the professional circuit.
  29. In other words: Focus all your energy on having a message that will wow the people listening.
  30. If you feel more comfortable with a podium, ask for a podium. Don’t pace the stage like an inspiring motivational speaker if that’s not you. If it is you and everyone else is using a podium, tell them you don’t want it. If you like to talk with your hands, do it. People who coach speakers for a living way overthink and over-analyze these things. Again: having a good, interesting message will make up for almost any quirk.
  31. All’s well that ends well. It doesn’t matter how well you did during your talk if you bomb the Q&A. Likewise, you could give an abysmal talk but if you own the Q&A it radiates back onto your speech. Learn how to answer questions, anticipate what the crowd will want to know and leave as much time for Q&A as possible. I love doing the Q&A because it’s a real rather than stilted interaction. You want to close with this connection, not go out with a whimper.
  32. By the way, if you’re not good at answering questions about the topic you spoke about–you don’t know it well enough yet. Remember, people are just looking for some individual attention. Answer the question how you like, provide some value and move to the next one. You’re not being interrogated–it’s a back and forth.
  33. Also if you finish early, don’t stress or kick yourself, just open it up for questions. No one will mind.
  34. But what about critics or haters? First off, remember that you are the one on stage–that is a real power. The crowd will side with you if you act with confidence. Watch how comedians deal with hecklers–they go after them. Same goes for leading or trolling questions during a Q&A, tease back or put them on the defensive. I once had a journalist accost me after one of my talks on media manipulation. Why would I back down? I’m the one with the microphone.
  35. If you lose your place mid-speech, don’t panic. Take a beat and go to the next story or example you know. You can always backtrack with your slides (this is why I always ask for a clicker when I talk).
  36. Speaking of ending well, your aim isn’t to leave the crowd with a to do list. It’s to leave them with a strong understanding or theme. Your job is to change how they think–the rest of your work, be it books or articles or consulting services–that’s what they follow up with. But if you can leave them with a new way of seeing–a new pair of glasses as they say–you will have done far more than most speakers ever do. It is an added bonus if they can put the insights into practice right away. When I talked at the first Marketing Rockstars Festival, the main feedback I got from the team there was that they liked that my talk “deliver[ed] insights that can be applied on the next day in the office”.
  37. Want a standing ovation? David Ogilvy once gave a speech and at the end motioned the crowd to stand up with his hands. They did and all 1200 people began a standing ovation. Don’t get too caught up on how the crowd received you. As Marcus Aurelius would say, praise and applause are just the clacking of tongues and hands.
  38. Every time you get on stage is a chance to get better. Remember that.
  39. Collect email addresses at the end of the talk. I have a slide that gives a bunch of bonuses (including chapters of one of my books) if people just email an address I’ve made specifically for that talk–hypothetically FinlandBonuses@gmail.com–which automatically replies with what I’ve promised on stage and then I follow up to add them to my list later on. I’ve collected many new people this way.
  40. When I gave my TEDx talk at the University of Chicago, I deliberately tried to position it around a contradiction–this idea of Stoic Optimism. I didn’t want to just give some general introduction to a topic, I wanted to give people a new way of thinking about two well known but misunderstood concepts. Try to think about doing this with your talks.
  41. Don’t be afraid to make your talk about fundamentals. I gave one of my talks for Google to a group of CMO’s and marketing executives. I was terribly nervous that the talk I’d designed might feel too basic, especially after watching the other speakers go over all sorts of advanced data. It turns out that by discussing the core and critical fundamentals, we were able to talk philosophically in a way that no one else was. They were able to take something away from mine on the strategic level, while everything else felt like work.
  42. Managing your own speaking career is tough. I think it’s good to have an advocate working on your behalf (and is well worth the commission). Why? Three reasons, one it can be hard to be objective about your own value and worth during negotiations, two they have better and more robust contacts than you, three, stuff will go wrong and conferences are often disorganized–have someone else who can be the bad guy for you. My marketing keynotes are represented by the The Lavin Agency, it’s been great so far.
  43. I gave a talk in São Paulo once and I kept feeling like I wasn’t getting feedback from the audience. Turns out because they weren’t native English speakers, it was taking a little bit longer to land. Give international crowds an extra beat. The talk would have been better received if I had treated the audience different and taken the language and cultural barriers into account.
  44. Ask questions to people who’ve seen you talk. What did you like? What did you not like? What can I do better? The talks I am going to give this spring are going to be better than the ones I gave last summer because I sought out and applied feedback. We can always get better.
  45. Being introduced is hard. One trick I learned from Tim Ferriss is that a video can do a better job introducing you than an MC or host. So when I do keynotes to journalists, entrepreneurs or marketers, I usually run the trailer to Trust Me I’m Lying instead of having someone read my bio. And then of course, I always start with: “I’m sorry but that video makes me look way cooler than I actually am.”
  46. If someone comes up to you after and tells you you did great, take it with a grain of salt. That’s what we instinctually say whenever anyone gets off stage. It’s just being nice.
  47. Be cool to the people organizing conferences. Too many speakers are total dicks.  I’ve got friends all over the world now because I took the time to actually hang out and get to know the organizers. I’ve met some great people at Marketing Rockstars Festival, Reaktor Design Day and The Next Web conferences who I stay in touch with and would visit or hang out with anytime.
  48. Organizers are always happy to give tips and thoughts for stuff to do in their city, and they love showing off what is usually their hometown. If you guys have a good time together and they think you treated them, their city and their attendees well they are far more likely to invite you back and recommend you to others.
  49. In fact, try to attend the conference too–or at least part of it. You learn a lot, you meet new people and you make an appearance. When I was working with Linkin Park, Mike Shinoda gave a talk at some tech conference in Vegas. I’ll never forget how blown away everyone was that he sat in the back of the room at a bunch of sessions after. There is always more to learn. Never think you’re too good for it.
  50. If you don’t want to do it alone, bring someone with you. I travel with my girlfriend (soon to be wife) for this reason. We always have a good time and she helps make sure the talks go well and gives me feedback. Doing paid talks is a chance to travel for free. Who is going to say no to that?

Most of my advice comes down to: Deeply and intimately know what you’re talking about and feel passionate about sharing it with other people. Yes, I get that there are plenty of other people making their living as speakers despite, you know, never having actually done any of the things they are “teaching” other people. Don’t be distracted by that. Someone else’s shamelessness is not an excuse for you.

Talk about what you know. Focus on improving the things that make the biggest difference, care about your craft and jump on opportunities as they come up. This will get you much further–in the long run anyway–than any other thing.

Good luck up there. I’m sure you’ll do great. TC mark

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