Public Speaking Rules: Absolutes or Mere Guidelines?

By: Susan Tabor-Kleinman

Image Source: ThinkStock

Anyone who has taken a course on public speaking has heard the things you must and must not do in order to be effective. And yet in my years as a persuasive speaking instructor and courtroom lawyer, I've learned that it's best to consider these rules less as dictates and, to quote Captain Barbosa of the fearsome Pirates of the Caribbean, "more like guidelines."

In fact, trying to adhere to a formula, or to mimic a star speaker's style, can be stress-inducing and counterproductive.

Brene Brown's highly viewed 2010TEDx talk on vulnerability is an excellent example of how you can use--and ignore--some common public speaking rules and still create an exceptional talk.

Here are five aspects of Brown's speech that even the novice or apprehensive speaker can use to help to create a dynamic, compelling presentation.

1. Credibility. Aristotle referred to this as "ethos" - appealing to a speaker's authority or character, or the reasons that the speaker is qualified to talk about the subject. Early in her address, Brown let the audience know that she is an academic and qualitative researcher. But did she just list her credentials? No, she didn't.

Women in particular often struggle to own their expertise. But conveyed appropriately, it's not bragging or egotistical; your audience wants to know that you know more than they do about the topic. And if you're not an expert or don't have a formal credential? Well, there must be some reason that you are speaking about your topic, so weave that into the beginning of the speech

2. Story telling. Brown built a story around her expertise, telling us about a presenter who had been stumped with how to introduce Brown. She shared the back and forth of their conversation with humor and insight into her work. And throughout the 20 minute talk, Brown tells many mini-stories. What makes them effective? You'll notice that they are concise, touch on just the most important details, and are relatable.

Brainstorm and write down mini-stories or vignettes about you, even those that you think might not apply. As you write your speech, you will likely find some of these vignettes are relevant. If you can't think of any about you, use them about your clients or others (anonymously of course).

3. Evidence. Data makes the message trustworthy, persuasive, and real. Without her research, Brown's conclusions about shame and connection would have had little impact. And as with her personal stories, Brown kept the data brief and to the point, including just the right amount of detail.

You don't have to have written a dissertation or done extensive research on your topic. Try to include some empirical data, or if that's not an option, then include a relevant quotation or two. A corollary to this is having a well-reasoned, cogent argument.In one of your practice sessions (you do plan to rehearse, right?), ask someone to listen and let you know whether your key point is crystal clear, and supported. If not, keep working on it until it is.

4. Humor. We've all heard that we should inject humor into our talks. But the key is to do it naturally, not with a contrived joke or by trying to be funny.Within the first 40 seconds of the talk, Brown has the audience laughing with her. Not belly laugh, Seinfeld joke responses, just chuckles of recognition and appreciation of her comments that tapped into universal insecurities.

Most of us really do have a sense of humor, and if your speech isn't scripted word for word (which usually it shouldn't be, but that's a different article), then simply be open to opportunities to banter with an audience member, or to make light of something about yourself as Brown did many times in her speech.

5. Vulnerability. Even when vulnerability is not the subject of a speech as it was here, authenticity and openness allow a speaker to genuinely connect with an audience. Many women mistakenly assume that this means you have to cry on stage or divulge your deepest secrets. It doesn't. Rather, notice how Brown reveals just enough about herself, relevant to the topic at hand, that we are drawn to her.

While Brown's talk is full of instances in which she does this, I was particularly taken with the segment about her search for a therapist, her friends' reactions, and the process of therapy itself. It was so open and honest. Her well-chosen information, shared with humility and purpose, brought the talk to life.

If you struggle with being vulnerable, or view it as weakness, work with a friend or colleague and get feedback on things you might share. Again, being vulnerable doesn't mean you have to sob and have a box of Kleenex at the ready; it's simply finding that sweet spot between opening yourself up enough to connect with them.

With its mixture of authenticity, well-reasoned points, clarity, connection to the audience, and engagement, Brown's speech was truly effective. So rather than stress about adhering to some scholarly dictates, consider the above elements when crafting your next talk--you'll likely end up with a presentation that's engaging, meaningful, and memorable.

Need some more tips on feeling confident as a public speaker? Listen to Bloomberg anchor Betty Liu's advice on how to be memorable on the stage.


Susan Tabor-Kleiman, JD, is Founder of Your Professional Writer™ where she crafts bios and business communication for executives, entrepreneurs, and job seekers around the world and trains others in how to create LinkedIn profiles that elevate their brand and accomplish personal and organizational objectives. She also is a Lecturer at the Wharton School of Business and frequently appears in the media and at conferences as an expert in persuasive communication and LinkedIn. Follow her on Twitter @stkwriter or find her at

Ellevate Network is a global women's network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.