3 Tips to Become an Exceptional Public Speaker

There is a narrative arc to a well-told story. The audience needs to be invested in the main characters. They need clues about who someone is to care about what happens to them.
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In November, 2012, I spoke at TEDxUtrecht. I am not going to belabor the anxiety and exhilaration felt, the camaraderie among such a diverse group of thinkers (or how because its Amsterdam, the after party was a hallucinogenic delight). Instead, amidst all of the congratulatory emails was this unsolicited email (trimmed down but without any alterations):

Hi Todd,

A colleague just forwarded me the video of your talk. Perhaps your friends will unite in telling you it was wonderful. For me, it wasn't. I will be stunned if it makes the cut for the TED site. I know I *love* great talks and lectures. I love great teachers. But for me this was boring. My wife had the same reaction.

I only went through it once and could have missed something, but I think a huge deficit was you did not tell even one story. A great story, especially a personal story in which the speaker shows vulnerability and learns something, is especially effective in a TED talk.

Next... you gave the audience all these expert-speaker-to-listener, less-than-surprising bits of advice. Not at all effective. Not that interesting. I think you could be more effective with a better structure and different content. Just my two bits.

[insert random person I never met or heard of]

I thought I was pretty damn good. You can't see it in the YouTube video, but the host even brought me out for a second ovation. Thus, I was surprised, irritated, and anxious by this email. Everyone else liked it. I know myself well. I was the one sharing the room with the crowd; I could see and feel their reactions. The email stung. But after reflecting on this email for a week (because this is the power of negatively toned emails... your brain gets stuck in the velcro hooks), I realized this critic was dead on. Even now, years later, I can read this email and thank this critic for pointing me to the way. The obstacle is the way.

Before and after this experience, I have been in the audience for hundreds of talks and watched hundreds on the internet. From this, let me distill three lessons learned on what makes a great public speaker and what crushes the dreams of an audience who offers the gift of rapt attention... for at least seven seconds.

1. Tell Stories.
There is a narrative arc to a well-told story. The audience needs to be invested in the main characters. They need clues about who someone is to care about what happens to them. There should be sufficient information about the situation that is central to the story (whether it be a struggle or discovery). The audience needs to be put at the scene with exquisite details about what can be seen, heard, and felt. They need to feel the impact of what you or the main character went through. This should lead to a meaningful denouement. There should be a motive for each part, whether it is to flesh out the context, evoke emotion, or teach a lesson. Do not dive into irrelevant details that detract from the purpose of the story.

That being said, one motive that could cost you the audience's attention is too much concern about actual events. If you want to tell a story about holding your child for the first time with the knowledge that this is the beginning of a lifetime of fear, doubt, and guilt, let me inform you about what nobody cares about. Whether there were three or four medical personnel in the room. Whether the baby was swaddled in a white and blue striped blanket or a polka dot one. Stay focused, have a purpose for each segment of your tale and lead up to a meaningful conclusion that makes sense with the rest of your presentation.

1a Caveat. Make sure stories told are your own and they are truthful. Your experiences are the most valued treasure of a public speaker. Do not disrespect the audience by stealing/borrowing someone else's. You are in front of them. You are the chosen one. If you want to tell the stories that another speaker uses then go home and have that person speak in your place.

2. Be Emotionally Expressive. We live in an age of data overload. To stand out from everything else that can grab the audience's attention, you need to be present. You need to feel the emotions that match what you are talking about. Which would you prefer -- (1) a speech with no flubs, proper elocution, and perfectly timed pauses or (2) a speech with a few mistakes that the speaker self-deprecatingly laughed at along with a few moments when they became overwhelmed by relived memories? If you find it difficult to express your emotions openly in front of a room full of people, your body can help. Use exaggerated facial expressions, move your entire body closer or farther from the crowd, crouch down or stand up taller, do what is needed for you to feel and for the audience to feel what you are feeling.

2b Caveat. Make sure your emotional expressions match the content of your presentation. Nothing is worse than people waving their hands around while they are talking about what it is like to experience a quiet mind. Then there is the infamous "T-rex" when speakers bend their arms up at the elbow with dangling forearms and hands -- distracting the audience from attending to facial expressions, words, and whatever meaningful image is on a screen behind you.

3. Use Meta-Comments. There is a reason we listen to speakers instead of reading transcripts. We want the social connection. To make this happen, let the audience know what you are experiencing right there, on stage. I am fond of joining the audience in amazement of great science ("this next study is going to blow your freaking mind! Ready?"). Last week, for the first time, my 7-year-old twin girls and 2-year-old saw me in action. As might be expected, they did not sit still. When my 7-year-old, Raven, was asked what she thought of my work, she quickly responded, "It was sooooo boring... all he does is talk."

There was one moment when my 2-year-old, Violet, escaped the clutches of her mother and ran around the crowd with her arms out to be picked up, by me. For me, the talk stopped, and I gladly picked up this giddy little creature, kissed her, and held her in my arms while continuing where I left off. Within seconds, she squirmed out of my arms and ran back to her spot on the floor. Fully present, I said something to the effect of "Sorry, family first... and what awesome timing to illustrate my point." (I can't remember what I was talking about, but it had something to do with love... seriously, Violet had killer timing.)

The crowd was not upset at the intrusion. They want to be with a human, not a robot. They want someone who is present, reacting to what is going in the room, not someone who has an automated plan of what is going to be said and what gesture is going to be performed at the proper juncture of time. The beauty of meta-comments is that they jolt you out of the pre-planned performance and in the same vein, they wake up and entertain the audience.

3a. Caveat. Your job is to be present with the audience but do not forget that it is their entertainment that is of primary interest. Meta-comments that are for your benefit are only to be used if you think the crowd has a similar vested interest.

There are plenty of other strategies to impart. Such as how to present statistics and research findings in a way that maximizes curiosity and shock value. I personally love presenting slides with a single number on them such that attention to what I say is required to satisfy the audience's intrigue. Then there is the beauty of altering the speed and volume of your voice. Nothing is more powerful (and personally scary) than silence. It draws the crowd in, attuned to what is going to happen next. Stay tuned for a future blog post on what not to do as a public speaker. Perhaps we can put an end to speakers that ask the audience to shout an affirmation with them: "Can I get everyone to say 'I deserve to be happy?'"

Unleash yourself

Honor the audience

Show that you love and bleed just like everyone else does

THE NEW BOOK IS FINALLY RELEASED: as of yesterday, with Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, we debuted, The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self - not just your "good" self - drives success and fulfillment. Learn more about what the book is about in our Q&A with the editors of Psychology Today. And pick up a copy, give a gift to a friend.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self -- not just your "good" self -- drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to