The oldest canard in public speaking is that people fear it more than death. But nobody ever put “jumpy about the big speech tomorrow” in a suicide note.
But people do fear giving speeches.
They shouldn’t. You know why? Because speech audiences are the easiest people in the world to talk to. Speech audiences are like dumb, friendly drunks—and the bigger the audience, the dumber, the more friendly, the more drunk.
Audiences are less intellectual than individuals, and more emotional. Less self-involved and more empathetic. Even if it’s a business speech, they don’t have their work brains on; they’ve got their church brains. They’re not parsing every statement logically, and you have to put a real clunker out there to wrinkle the studiously guileless brow of a member of a large audience. Remember this guy, who effortlessly convinced his large audience that his childhood dreaming on a log on a hillside overlooking San Francisco resulted in a real-estate giant’s new corporate mission?
An audience member will laugh at something she’d only smile at in conversation, and guffaw at something she would laugh at. With the exception of flinty Australians, I find that audiences cry at card tricks. (And Canadians cry at the sight of the deck.)
Speaking coaches often encourage speakers by telling them “the audience wants you to succeed.” Oh no, the feeling is far stronger than that. The audience is at least as terrified that you won’t succeed, as you are. The audience is unable to fathom all these people coming all this way only to have the speaker shit the podium. They would rather see an actual car accident. (Luckily, such Hindenburgian hellfires don’t happen often. But when they do, they get 1.7 million views.)
All of the above is truer, the bigger the audience. Once I was asked to give a speech to a dozen speechwriters at the United Nations. A couple weeks before the event, the organizers told me the audience would include some other communication staffers, and be more like 25. Fine. Then word spread and the number went up to 60. Then 100. Eventually, about 350 people—pretty much every single staffer who had ever contributed a syllable or a fact-check to a speech at the United Nations—filled a huge auditorium that looked like the General Assembly itself. It was awesome, and the talk went over big.
Conversely, I have given talks that were warmly received by 100 people that classes of 15 regarded a bit skeptically.
That’s because the bigger the audience, the more emotional, communal—and the less intellectual, individual—the collective mentality. That’s why it’s common to hear someone say they heard a great speech, then ask what it was about and have the person fail to remember much about it at all. (Whereas, that’d be an odd report on a small gathering, or a one-on-one conversation. “I don’t remember much of what Nancy told me, but boy, was she great!”)
People aren’t listening and thinking when they’re in a big audience. Writing speeches for them isn’t just “writing for the ear,” as speechwriters have long been taught. It’s writing—no matter how hifalutin the audience—primarily for the heart.
That doesn’t mean dumbing the talk down. Individual audiences have individual tastes, and if they value rigor, they know what rigor is supposed to sound like and they want to hear it and they will object to its absence. But it’s the sound they want to hear, rather than the content itself. H.L. Mencken famously criticized the speeches of President Warren Harding because he said they were written for “an audience of small-town yokels, of low political serfs, or morons … wholly unable to pursue a logical idea for more than two centimeters.”
Such imbeciles do not want ideas—that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention. What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures. As I say, they can’t understand many words of more than two syllables, but that is not saying that they do not esteem such words. On the contrary, they like them and demand them. The roll of incomprehensible polysyllables enchants them. They like phrases which thunder like salvos of artillery. Let that thunder sound, and they take all the rest on trust. If a sentence begins furiously and then peters out into fatuity, they are still satisfied. If a phrase has a punch in it, they do not ask that it also have a meaning. If a word slips off the tongue like a ship going down the ways, they are content and applaud it and wait for the next.
Beneath the bombast, Mencken has a point—not just about yokels and morons, but about all audiences, and how they listen to speeches, no matter how tightly and sincerely those speeches are written. They hear speeches more like music than like words. They’re too busy to take in complex new ideas: They’re seeing, they’re feeling, they’re seeing what they’re feeling. And all things being equal, they’re as likely to remember the aroma of the chicken salad being brought in for lunch, as to recall the thesis of the speech.
Speechwriter and speaker, don’t take this to mean you shouldn’t be create a speech with intellectual integrity. And certainly don’t take it as permission to not get the words exactly right.
Who is dumber or drunker than an audience at a comedy club? That does not mean comics can afford to be sloppy with their language. No, it’s where they go to sharpen their act, down to the syllable.
On the new HBO documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream, Jerry Seinfeld tells what fascinated him about Carlin when he was young: “I wanted to be just like him, getting every word in the right spot. Because when he did it, it thrilled me, you know? And I wanted to do that. I wanted that skill. And I’ve spent my life pursuing it.”
And Seinfeld once explained how precisely he went about writing a joke, and if you haven’t seen it, you should. You think your work is exacting? Seinfeld took two years to write a “simple joke” about the invention of the Pop-Tart.
To have a chance at having a specific effect on an audience, the words have to be precisely written and delivered in order and rhythm. I don’t care how you do that—a well-rehearsed script is probably the most realistic way to do so in the hurly-burly of corporate or political life—but that’s what must be done.
The speaker’s request, “just give me some bullets,” usually translates to, “I’m just going there to show my face. This talk isn’t going to make a difference one way or another.” And the speaker’s refusal to ever present precisely? That usually means the speaker doesn’t believe what she or he says will ever make a difference one way or another.
But to make a difference with a presentation, a speechwriter must recognize that no one actually invited the speaker to teach the audience something truly new (any more than people go to a Springsteen concert hoping to hear the new stuff). A much more likely motive was to have the audience reminded of something old—and to have the spiritually bolstering experience of being reminded of that thing collectively, as a community.
And quite certainly, nobody came here hoping to have their mind changed. They came hoping to have their values reinforced, their courage bolstered, their love for their fellow human beings restored.
Whatever else you want to do in a speech—get people to consider a novel point of view, to stop doing something they’ve been doing or to take a new action or buy a thing you are selling—you have to do all that other groundwork first.
It’s not speakers who should be nervous.
It’s their speechwriters.