The Three Things I’ve Learned From Eighteen Years of Public Speaking

Don’t call the killer whale tank a tank. Also, don’t call the killer whales killer whales. These were the first two things I was told when I started my summer job at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1997. Over the next three years there, talking about whales and diving with giant octopuses, and putting on puppet shows about sloths, I learned a lot about speaking to a crowd. Since then I’ve given hundreds of talks to audiences all around the world, not to mention countless classroom lectures, workshops and performances. So what have I learned in 18 years of public speaking? Really just three things*.

One summer morning in the middle of a talk, a pair of Bald Eagles raided a Blue Heron rookery just beyond the back fence that marked the Aquarium from the rest of the park. Five minutes of screeching avian bedlam later, one of the eagles burst out from the trees, clutching a limp, freshly killed heron fledgling in its talons. A heron was in close pursuit and quickly caught up. The birds clashed mid air, 13 feet of wingspan combined, and in the tumult the dead baby heron dropped into the center of the killer whale tank, a long ribbon of blood trailing into the water.

This will probably not happen to you during your talk.

However, something undoubtedly will happen that you’re not expecting. A slide will be missing or the projector will die. An e-mail notification from your ex with the subject line RE: WHAT IS YOUR %!@#ING PROBLEM will pop up on your screen. You’ll realize that your fly is open.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best ways that you can be prepared for the unexpected is not to rehearse too much. When I first started giving conference talks, I’d write detailed scripts, and practice them over and over. This worked really well… when nothing went wrong. But when something did go wrong, I’d be stuck. My heart would race and I’d lose the thread of the talk. Maybe if I was lucky I’d be able to bring it to some kind of an acceptable close. So I went back to the strategy that worked at the aquarium, with the dead herons and unpredictable sea life: build a structure, not a script. Leave room to improvise, and to respond to the unexpected.

By leaving the script behind I was also able to deliver the same talk over and over again without it sounding rote and robotic. My talks started to feel conversational, something which is very difficult to achieve when you know each sentence you’re going to say in advance. I also found myself coming up with new ideas while I was on stage, as I stumbled onto new ways to talk about a project. Maybe most importantly, I think my talks became more enjoyable for audiences, who could tell that I wasn’t just following a script.

There is an axis that every speech can be plotted along: the left end is labeled ‘No Rehearsing’ and the right is labeled ‘All the Rehearsing’. You can choose to occupy any point on this axis you want with a talk. There’s certainly comfort to be found on the rehearsed end, but be aware that you are sacrificing flexibility, and limiting spontaneity.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t practice. Practice again and again, for your friends and your coworkers and your pets. But try to make each run a little bit different; find places where you can improvise and adapt. Eventually you’ll have something that is less a rigid talk and more a framework for a talk, an architecture that you’ll be able to walk through differently every time, depending on who you might be bringing along.

Every talk is a narrative. Somehow, though, when we tend to pick the same narrative structure for a talk that we might use when telling a bedtime story to a three year old: beginning, middle, then end. While linear narrative structures indeed score high with toddlers, they tend to be boring for adults. So why do use one in a talk?

Personally, I’m a fan of the multi-thread narrative (go watch Pulp Fiction or re-read Cloud Atlas if you need a primer). I like to tell a set of small stories, that at the beginning seem disjointed, but at the end of the talk click together to make a bigger point. This is rewarding for me, because it lets think about the common thread that runs through my work. It’s rewarding for the audience, because they’re challenged to find that thread as the talk builds.

Another narrative approach that is well suited to public speaking is to reverse the script: start with the ending, and then bring the audience to the beginning. It’s so different from what people are expecting, it keeps them interested and engaged. For a masterful example of this, watch this talk by Sara Hendren:

Are you defending your thesis? Testifying in front of congress? Lecturing to a room full of German academics? No? Then it’s a safe bet that the audience is on your side. They want your talk to be good, so that they can tweet about how good your talk was.

It took me a long time to realize this, but when I did it it was a tremendous relief. The audience wants you to succeed. It might be the simplest thing that I’ve learned over the last eighteen years, but I think it’s also the most important. It allowed me to think of public speaking not as a great trial, but as a collaborative exercise. My talks became opportunities to try out new ideas (by not following a script!), and to find different ways of explaining and understanding the ideas that rattled around in my head (by using non-linear narrative structures!).

I promised myself when I started writing this article that I wouldn’t type the words ‘have’ and ‘fun’ together, but trusting that the audience were collaborators and not combatants actually did let me have fun on stage. Which got me doing more talks, which eventually led me to write this here, and this list.

Right around the same time I was learning facts about Killer Whales (top speed — 65 km/h), I remember hearing about a study that ranked people’s greatest fears. The number two fear was death. Number one was public speaking. The study was probably apocryphal, but it’s undoubtedly true that speaking in front of an audience can be terrifying. But I’ve also learned that it can also be tremendously rewarding, and it can be an excellent creative exercise, allowing you to not only share your ideas but to form and refine them.

Don’t rehearse too much. Don’t follow a straight line. Remember that they like you. I’ll admit, that’s not much for eighteen years. But these three simple lessons have served me well, and I hope they can be useful, the next time you happen to be stepping out on stage.

Capacity crowd.

*Okay, there were more than three things.

4. Silence is golden. Ums and ahs bubble up when we’re feeling anxiety about filling space. Instead, just take a pause. This works, even when the pauses are long. Want proof? Watch some speeches from the 44th President of the United States.

5. When all else fails, tell a joke. I used to use this one at the beginning of talks: “I read a public speaking book that said the best way to start off a talk is to compliment the audience. But I think you’re all to smart for that.”

6. If you’re using anything that isn’t yours in a talk, credit it on stage. Quotes, photos, ideas, arguments.

7. Stick to your allotted time! This goes doubly when you’re speaking as part of a ‘set’ with other speakers. Don’t be the person who takes 15 minutes out of a 50 minute panel with their introduction. Indeed, as a general rule, you should plan to take less time than you are given.

8. Buy a clicker. I use this one: Having a clicker allows you to…

9. Leave the podium.

10. Be nice to the sound people. They can make or break your talk. Introduce yourself, learn their names, say thank you when you’re done.



Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.

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Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.