A Few Thoughts On Public Speaking

Next week I’ll give my 100th investing talk in London. In the last 10 months I’ve spoken in eight countries on five continents. This wasn’t planned – I grew up with a debilitating stutter – but it’s been the most enjoyable part of my career, by far.

Speaking is the least scalable but most effective way to get your point across. Everyone’s busy, so getting and keeping someone’s attention is a superpower. But books gather dust; blog posts can be read later; TVs can be muted. Sitting in a quiet audience in a dark room staring at one person with a microphone focuses attention in a way no other medium can match.

But speaking is hard.

Anything you do over and over gets easier. Yet few people – no matter how many talks they’ve done – can completely shake the nerves of public speaking. I think its fear is primal. Here’s an analogy: Take a six-inch beam. Lay it on the ground. You can walk across it no problem. Maybe you can do cartwheels on it. That’s the equivalent of having a conversation with one person. Now elevate that beam to 100 feet in the air. Suddenly you’re terrified to take a single step, and your balance is so bad you may as well be drunk. That’s public speaking.

A few things I’ve learned along the way:

The audience wants you to win.

Most audiences are not judges. They’re just people who want to hear something that will make them think or laugh. A speaker struggling on stage is painful for the audience to watch. They grimace when you grimace. Reminding yourself that everyone in the room wants the same outcome makes public speaking feel less like fighting a competitor and more like leading a team.

Memorizing every word can be dangerous.

If you compared two talks that I intended to be the same, my guess is 90% of the lines would be verbatim. But the 10% that varies – narration I’m making up on stage – is what I consider the most important, because it’s what keeps the talk from sounding too robotic. Good actors are paid a lot of money because speaking a line that you memorized in a way that doesn’t sound like you memorized it is hard. Everyone’s different, but the strategy that works best for me when writing a new talk is to deeply memorize key story points while giving myself a little freedom to speak naturally while on stage. A song you hear at a concert will be slightly different than the version you hear on the radio. It’s the same song, but musicians give themselves a little leeway to express tones and cadence however they want in that moment. Speakers should do something similar.

Confidence is as important as content.

I don’t want this to be true, but it is. Nothing is worth saying if you can’t say it with confidence, because a truth spoken hesitantly can be less persuasive than a falsehood said with authority. Any hesitancy you show will be interpreted by the audience tenfold – more if they aren’t already familiar with you.

Tell a story.

No one wants a lecture. But everyone likes stories. You can put lecture-like material into a story, but without a story you’ll lose people’s attention after a few minutes. Someone can reread a paragraph, or rewind a video. But a live talk is a one-shot deal where the audience probably isn’t even taking notes. They have to understand the topic instantly. And stories are the easiest way to quickly contextualize complicated topics. This is as true after a talk as it is during a talk. Dump a bunch of numbers on someone and they’ll forget them before they walk out of a room; tell them a story with those numbers and they may remember it years later. Steve Martin said: “I believed it was important to be funny now, while the audience was watching, but it was also important to be funny later, when the audience was home and thinking about it.” That philosophy extends beyond comedy.

Just not too long.

The first rule of writing – make your point and get out of the way – applies to speaking as well. But it’s easy to forget that, because when you’re on stage it’s tempting to think that you’re the center of attention so you can ramble on as you please. People ramble more during talks than they do in documents, and it can be painful to sit through. Having an audience in front of you does not prevent them from pulling out their phones to scroll Twitter once you’ve lost their interest.

Make your point, make it quick, make it memorable, and move on.