The Gist: The best advice from a half dozen books on public speaking
A review of The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie, among others.
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Dale Carnegie discovered the secret to powerful public speaking quite accidentally.
Carnegie had given up a successful sales job in the Midwest to go to New York and pursue dreams of becoming a performer. But his acting career went nowhere and soon his savings were gone. To tide himself over, Carnegie suggested to the local YMCA that he teach a class on public speaking. Nervous students began showing up and Carnegie was mildly successful in teaching them the ancient art of rhetoric.
Then one day Carnegie ran out of prepared materials and suggested that students just get up in front of the room and talk about something that made them angry. Suddenly, his students lost their nerves and came alive with passion!
Figure 1. “Hulk is strongest public speaker there is! Hulk smash competition!”
Carnegie would go on to found a national chain of public speaking schools and write, in a best-selling book we review here, that passion is the “open sesame to Ali Baba’s treasure cave of courage.” It empowers speakers to use material they already have and care about. And most magical, passion is contagious, giving speakers their best chance at connecting with an audience (even when they’re wrong!)
Pursuing your passion is the foundation of the best practices of great oratory we’ll explore today. One of the original public speaking coaches, Plato, went so far as to warn that “a wise man speaks because he has something to say, a fool speaks because he has to say something.”
Figure 2. Note how Plato would classify filling 24 hours a day of cable news.
What do you have to say? Ask yourself what topic “you have lived with [and] made your own through experience and reflection.” Consider “if someone stood up and directly opposed your point of view, would you be impelled to speak with conviction and earnestness in defense of your position? If you would, you have the right subject for you.” In what do you believe with all your heart? What would be the last things, people, practices, ideas, identities, affiliations you’d ever give up? What do you crave to learn more about? On what do you spend your most time, money, attention? What makes your blood boil? What makes your heart sing? Why? The answers to those questions are the best sources for material – and the best chances for resonating with your audience – that you’ll ever have.
Carnegie argues that the biggest mistake in public speaking is choosing a highfalutin topic, something where you “soar into the realms of general ideas and philosophical principles, where unfortunately the air is too rarefied for ordinary mortals to breathe.” His experience was that “plain, ordinary men and women” better held “the attention of viewers all over the country” when “they were talking about themselves, about their most embarrassing moments, their most pleasant memory, or how they met their wives or husbands.” If you are talking about something grand or complicated, endeavor with all your might to explain how and why it is your passion and relate it to your and your audience’s experiences.
You’re surely starting to see that to most effectively share your passion, you need to prepare. How well your talk goes will depend on your preparation – luckily, you’re already passionate about the subject. Preparation can feel silly, time-consuming, hard. That’s why most people don’t do it. You need to remember that preparation is not for you. It’s for your audience.
Figure 3. Icarus presents a cautionary tale of “winging it”
Scott Berkun suggests getting perspective by multiplying the number of minutes you are talking by every pair of ears that will hear you. Respect the collective time that is being spent on you! There are various rules of thumb: comedians can spend over an hour preparing for every minute they speak. Others suggest a 10:1 or 20:1 ratio of time preparing to time speaking. Whatever it is, it’s a lot. My favorite observation about one of the great orators of all time, Winston Churchill, was his son’s remark that Winston spent most of his life preparing to give unprepared remarks. Carnegie reports that “Daniel Webster said he would as soon think of appearing before an audience half–clothed as half-prepared.”
What does it mean to prepare? Your general aspiration should be to achieve clarity through preparation. Berkun contends that “the difference between you and JFK or Martin Luther King has less to do with your ability to speak — a skill all of us use hundreds of times every day — than it does the ability to think and refine rough ideas into clear ones. Making a point, teaching a lesson, or conveying a feeling to others first requires thinking, lots and lots of thinking, before the speaking ever happens.” Carnegie insists: “True preparation means brooding over your topics” and asking yourself “Why do I believe this? When did I ever see this point exemplified in real life? What precisely am I trying to prove?.. Try your best to develop an ability to let others look into your head and heart.” For maximum quality, limit your subject: “Assemble a hundred thoughts around your theme, then discard ninety.” Ultimately, can you summarize your passion in a sentence? Could a child understand and repeat back your points?
Crucially, preparation is not memorization. As Carnegie reveals, “If our ideas are clear, the words come as naturally and unconsciously as the air we breathe… Because it will not come from our memories, but from our hearts.” Throw away your memorized (or written) talk to become “more alive, more effective, more human.” As Cato the Elder advises: “Grasp the subject, the words will follow”
Prepare by testing out your ideas in conversation with anyone to whom you talk – what is their reaction? Stand up and give the talk to an empty room and see how it feels. Record yourself giving the talk and review – what went right? What could be more clear? But doing this alone is not sufficient: you need feedback. Recruit some friends to give your talk to and ask them – what did they remember? What didn’t they understand? Berkun adds “What one change would have most improved my presentation? What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered? What annoyances did I let get in the way of giving you what you needed?” And the best practice of all? Give your talk again and again and again on different stages to live audiences.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. You need to structure your speech for feels. As Carl Buechner profoundly observed, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” That other original speaking coach, Aristotle, theorized that rhetoric rested on three pillars: ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotion). The most persuasive speech usually has all three elements but the majority comes from the last: emotion. My own motto, not always followed, is to buy data and sell story. If you’re making a decision, get logical. If you’re persuading someone, get emotional.
To structure for feels, understand the purpose of your talk: is it to “persuade and get action”? To inform? To “impress and convince”? To entertain? Align your speech’s emotional pitch with the purpose. Make sure your talk makes sense for your audience (or your audience makes sense for your talk). Get to know the venue and how it feels. Arrange an appropriate introduction. And then…
Grab your audience’s attention immediately! There is no time that the audience will be paying more attention than at the start. How you begin determines how fast people return to checking their text messages. For that same reason, thanking your introducer, apologizing for something, or any preamble takes up too many precious seconds. Get right into it with one of Carnegie’s three suggestions:
Figure 4. So, for example, you could run on stage. Naked. Holding a lit stick of dynamite. Screaming “I have ebola!”
First, you could start with a story. The huge advantage of this beginning is that it “hooks attention… it moves, it marches. We follow because we identify ourselves as part of a situation and we want to know what is going to happen…There is no groping for words, no loss of ideas.” Carnegie says he knows of “no more compelling method of opening a talk than by the use of a story.” After all, “one of the most interesting things in the world is sublimated, glorified gossip.” The best stories involve you (usually deficient or in the wrong, but generally empathetic and relatable) in dialogue with other named people (“adds more realism”) in some sort of situation-complication-resolution. The story must be vivid: you have “the obligation to clarify, intensify, and dramatize your experiences in a way that will make them interesting and compelling to your listeners… Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language.” Jeremey Donovan sensibly adds to “make sure your story is directly relevant to your core message.”
Figure 5. “So the first time I went to prison, I got into this argument with Warden Norton…”
Second, you could “state an arresting fact” or opinion to jar the mind. Donovan says “Though shocking statements most frequently rely on statistics, they can also express strong opinions that challenge conventional wisdom. The important thing is that your point must trigger a range of audience emotions.” If you do go with a statistic, make sure it comes alive. Carnegie tells the story of an extraordinarily effective speaker:
“Then, like a whirlwind, he struck. He leaned forward and his eyes transfixed us. He didn’t raise his voice, but it seemed to me that it crashed like a gong. “Look around you,” he said. “Look at one another. Do you know how many of you sitting now in this room are going to die of cancer? One in four of all of you who are over forty-five. One in four!” He paused, and his face lightened. “That’s a plain, harsh fact, but it needn’t be for long,” he said. “Something can be done about it. This something is progress in the treatment of cancer and in the search for its cause.” He looked at us gravely, his gaze moving around the table. “Do you want to help toward this progress?”
Figure 6. “50% of marriages end in divorce. As we raise our glasses to Don and Betty on this special day…”
But Carnegie warns not to overdo it. He believes that all speeches should be conversational and so, if you are jarring the mind, make sure you do it in a way that you’d feel comfortable doing similarly at a dinner table. Relatedly, Carnegie is very wary of disagreeing with an audience so early, especially if you are trying to persuade them. He quotes Lincoln who reflected that “My way of opening and winning an argument is to first find a common ground of agreement.” Carnegie analyzes,
Most men, however, lack this subtle ability to enter the citadel of a man’s beliefs arm in arm with the owner. They erroneously imagine that in order to take the citadel, they must storm it, batter it down by a frontal attack. What happens? The moment hostilities commence, the drawbridge is lifted, the great gates are slammed and bolted, the mailed archers draw their long bows—the battle of words and wounds is on.
Figure 7. “Most of you probably should not have gone to college. Let me tell you why…”
Third, you could “arouse suspense.” An example might be opening a book review with the promise of discovering the secret to powerful public speaking. Berkun says, “The simplest kind of tension to build and then release is … problem and solution. If your talk consists of several problems important to the audience, and you promise to release the tension created by those problems by solving each one, you’ll score big.” Donovan says this can also be achieved by asking a question of the audience using the “magical word” of “you,” “putting your listeners in introspective mode.”
Figure 8. “Was Steve murdered? As we remember him today, you should reflect on who might have done it and I’ll conclude with my theory”
And then you’re off! Carnegie demands that you “tell the audience what you’re going to say; then tell them what you’ve said.” Repeat your passionate thesis – ideally a short, actionable catchphrase – over and over again until they’re so tired of it that they can actually remember it. Illustrate it vividly with analogies, demonstrations, gestures, emphasis, volume, pauses, common language without jargon, and multisensory allusions that have emerged from your preparation achieving clarity. Consider what Lincoln considered ideal: “I don’t like to hear a cut-and-dried sermon. When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” Guide your audience with signposts as to where you are in the logic of your presentation, especially if your speech is long. And avoid quotes and jokes – use funny stories instead.
Throughout your speech, always empathize with your audience. Be grateful for their time and attention. They want you to succeed! Identify with them and advise how you can help “solve their problems and achieve their goals.” Talk with them as friends. Fast Company reports this was the secret of the Great Communicator:
When Ronald Reagan wrote about public speaking, he shared “a little secret that dates back over 50 years to my first stint at a microphone.” On his first day as a radio broadcaster, Reagan was nervous. He wondered how he would “connect with all these people listening to the radio.” The secret? Instead of talking to a “group of unknown listeners,” he imagined he was speaking to the “fellows in the local barbershop.” Reagan wanted to replicate that banter—where everyone would swap jokes, talk sports, and tell stories.
Another thing Reagan and many of the great speakers would do is have specific sections of their talk that could be adapted to any audience. If your talk relies on statistics, find some that are focused on the community to which you’re speaking. If your concept is unfamiliar, analogize to something they know well. Best of all, tell some stories about people they know or at least recognize. Carnegie tells a story about how one of the great titans of British journalism was asked what interests people. The answer? “Themselves.”
Whatever time you’re assigned, use less. As Ira Hayes quipped, “No one ever complains about a speech being too short!”
Once you’ve wrapped up your points (three is usually a sound number), you have a few options for your conclusion. You can (finally) thank the organizers and the audience. You can follow the example of comedians, who try to use their second best joke as their opener and their best as their close: what is the single best analogy, demonstration, story that illustrates your point?
Carnegie himself preferred to end by appealing for a specific action related to the talk, ideally one that could be done immediately. So, not “Please help this organization,” but “Pull out your phone right now, text this number, and give at least $25.” Not “Write your Congressman,” but “Sign the letter on your table right now and I will personally deliver it.” Not “Love your family,” but “Take your kids out for ice cream tonight and tell them that you love them!” Donovan also suggests “Many of the most satisfying talks recommend that listeners take tiny actions that can lead to large personal and societal benefits.”
Of course, if you’re following this review, so far you’ve not actually given the talk. Just prepared it. But that’s 90%! If you are pursuing your passion and you’ve achieved clarity through preparation, you’ve earned the right to speak.
As you head toward the stage, you just need to remember: You’re not nervous. You’re excited.
Carnegie says everyone’s scared, even the greats like James K. Polk, whose nickname was “Napoleon of the Stump.” Mark Twain said there were two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and the liars. Bergun tells us why: “Our brains, for all their wonders, identify the following four things as being very bad for survival:  Standing alone  In open territory with no place to hide  Without a weapon  In front of a large crowd of creatures staring at you.”
Figure 9. Hence Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”
But it’s to your advantage! Carnegie says that this is your body “getting ready to go into action.” Bergun cites Dr. John Medina’s Brain Rules to note that “it is very difficult for the body to distinguish between states of arousal and states of anxiety.” A Harvard Business School study took advantage of this and found that speakers who told themselves they were excited, not nervous, performed better than control groups left to their nerves. But you can also maximize your readiness by getting enough sleep, eating right, knowing exactly where you need to be and when, and exercising sometime before to get rid of nervous energy.
So, get pumped! You’re going to share your passion! “Draw yourself up to your full height and look your audience straight in the eyes,” Carnegie advises. And then just start. It’s a lot easier once you get going. “Adopt the tone of a passionate one-on-one conversationalist… speak in your own voice with authenticity, interest, and humility,” suggests Donovan. In other words, talk like a human being. It doesn’t need to be – perhaps shouldn’t be – perfect. You’re aiming to persuade, not become a robot. Let your personality shine! Power through. And next time you’ll be even better.
Figure 10. I speak publicly with some regularity and I wanted to know best practices. So I asked and Googled around and came up with a list of books that were most frequently, most strongly recommended. Dale Carnegie is more famous for his advice on how to win friends and influence people but his quick and easy way to effective speaking is the best book I’ve read on the subject. 9/10
Figure 11. When you look into the best practices of public speaking, TED frequently comes up. Jeremey Donovan is an obsessive analyst who got interested in public speaking when he joined Toastmasters and subsequently watched practically every TED video three times, making notes on common features. His book on how to deliver a TED talk has lots of insightful observations from an extremely popular format. 8/10. (Incidentally, I also read another book on TED but it is not a fraction as good – or as focused. Too often it dwells on the substance of the talks rather than the way they’re given. So, for example, one piece of advice it offers is that you can choose to be happy – which is all very well and good, but has little to do with speaking well.)
Figure 12. For a relatively amusing take from a professional public speaker, check out Scott Berkun’s confessions (7/10). Or, if humor is your thing, you could check out an amateur’s attempt at stand-up comedy (6/10) – he passes along some interesting lessons. But Berkun has perhaps the most fitting passage to end this email on:
No matter how much you hate or love this book, you’re unlikely to be a good public speaker. The marketing for this book likely promised you’d be a better speaker for reading it. I think that’s true on one condition: you practice (which I know most of you won’t do). Most people are lazy. I’m lazy. I expect you’re lazy, too. There will always be a shortage of good public speakers in the world, no matter how many great books there are on the subject. It’s a performance skill, and performance means practice — and that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid to write this book.
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