You’ll probably remember reading somewhere that the deepest human fear – more profound even than death or waking up in bed with the 45th president of the United States of America – is the fear of public speaking. That’s nonsense, of course, to be bracketed with other factoids such as the seven spiders we’re all supposed to eat in our sleep, or the impossibility of bumblebee flight. The most recent Chapman University Survey on American Fears last year found public speaking at No 52, well behind sharks (41), death (48) and Obamacare (33). That’s the science.
But there’s no question that for most of us, public speaking is a fear. A big one. It’s one that may not loom front and centre in our lives, since we will have arranged our lives, most of us, to avoid precisely the danger of having to stand up and talk in front of an audience. But when the time comes – our offspring get married, we win an Oscar or we represent ourselves in a murder trial – it will tend to scare the living daylights out of us. Ordinarily articulate people develop stammers, clasp and unclasp sweaty palms, cling to lecterns like figures in Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, read laborious jokes culled from the internet scrawled on trembling sheets of creased A4, or drink so much red wine beforehand we have to be physically returned to our seats.
And, as any public speaker knows, the business of presenting to a large audience is a confidence trick: that is, a speaker who seems to be at ease will put their audience at ease. A speaker with a look of sick terror and a tremor in his or her voice will communicate his or her own baleful vibes of unease to the audience, and enter a vicious circle. A bad joke put over with confidence will get a laugh. A good joke put over apologetically will die on its arse. You need only look at the state of current political discourse as we enter the (latest) Brexit endgame. When Theresa May is speaking, or at least trying to speak, a kind of common sense, her unease at the podium makes her sound faltering and unpersuasive; whereas Boris Johnson can speak any amount of bluster and flapdoodle and his confident delivery means that very many audiences will go along with him.
Accordingly, in this age in which, supposedly, face-to-face communication is being digitised out of existence, we’re seeing an efflorescence of books that propose to tell us how to go about speaking in public with confidence. The business sections of bookshops are bulging with how-tos on pitching, presenting and PowerPointing, and there are any number of snappy books on how to make a best man’s speech or an acceptable after-dinner turn. Take “pitch coach” Michael Parker, who followed up It’s Not What You Say, It’s the Way You Say It! with Unaccustomed as I Am … The Wedding Speech Made Easy. Or So Here I Am: Speeches by Great Women to Empower and Inspire by Anna Russell and Camila Pinheiro, out this week. Or Jay Heinrichs, whose Thank You for Arguing was followed up by the more niche How to Argue With a Cat. Or Graham Davies’s The Presentation Coach: Bare Knuckle Brilliance for Every Presenter … They come not as single spies.
And – of course – everyone now wants to be able to direct you to the TedX talk they gave in some forlorn bingo hall. There are guides for that, too. TED’s founder Chris Anderson has produced The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, which (oddly from the author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price) costs £9.99. And Carmine Gallo is all over TED like white on rice, with Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds and its follow-up The Storyteller’s Secret: How TED Speakers and Inspirational Leaders Turn Their Passion into Performance. There’s even, for Pete’s sake, a book called How to Design TED-worthy Presentation Slides.
Personally, I have a soft spot for the advice on offer in Gyles Brandreth’s 1983 The Complete Public Speaker, belonging as it does to a gentler age in which cufflinks and lecterns rather than wireless head-mics and PowerPoints were the things to worry about. Its author has the distinction of holding the Guinness world record for the longest after-dinner speech of all time, and the distinction was hard won: on his first attempt he tied with a rival, recording in his diary: “I am going to have to share a world record with Nicholas Parsons. Of course I’m effing angry.” Brandreth has not left it there. He and his barrister son Benet now sell an online public speaking course through the Gravy for the Brain website.
Many if not all of these authors tend to offer a lucrative sideline in seminars, courses, consultancies, masterclasses and one-to-one coaching – courses eagerly subscribed to by the corporate development departments of large firms as well as by individuals. Advice to those who have to speak in public – be it to a board meeting or the meeting of a boardgames society – is a vast industry. And as the list of sample publications I’ve quoted above makes clear, public speaking has mostly been a boys’ game.
So the comedian, broadcaster and journalist Viv Groskop’s How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking, which came out in November, is a relatively rare bird, in that it sets out to offer speaking advice drawn from female experience (“Be More Oprah”; “Be More Michelle”; “Be More JK”; “Be More Chimamanda” and so on) and with a tilt to a female audience. Groskop is reluctant to make broad generalisations about any differences in the way women may need to approach a podium, but “since it’s only really in the last 20 years or so that women have had something like an equal chance to speak in public”, generations of patriarchy may mean that “women maybe need to work harder than men to feel really comfortable in yourself so that you can transmit that comfort to the audience”.
I should say that the idea of a how-to guide for aspiring orators is not exactly a new one. Cicero’s De Oratore, Ad Herennium (for a long time attributed to Cicero but not by him) and Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory are all as much manuals as they are works of analysis. Rhetoric, as Aristotle noted, is a techne: it can be taught. Indeed, ever since democracy got going and the Athenian nobles realised that property alone was no longer enough to guarantee power – that oratory mattered – there have been private tutors (sophistiae) and speechwriters (logographoi) offering to help the monied but tongue-tied to find their voices.
As all these authorities realised, a well-written speech is easier to deliver than a dully written one, and a well-structured speech is easier for speaker and audience to remember than a rambling shambles. The tricks of style the ancients identified still work. Anaphora – repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences or paragraphs – gives a speech force and momentum. The tricolon – grouping things into three, as in “Friends, Romans, countrymen” – remains a staple of modern oratory. Likewise antithesis – contrasting one thing with another – gives you the chance to define the shape of an argument (all the better if you use it to finesse the inconvenient fact that there might in fact be two or more options). And nothing makes a speaker sound focused and businesslike like enumeratio: reeling out a numbered list of points, like the Spanish Inquisition in the Monty Python sketch. May even tried it in her doomed speech closing the Brexit debate – though by that time her goose was cooked in any case.
And, accordingly, the advice on the whole does not much change – the history of oratory handbooks over two millennia is a history of old Aristotelian wine in new bottles – but in a way it’s having advice at all that makes the difference. As Graham Davies, a former barrister who has given presentation coaching and speech-polishing tips to many senior politicians, says: “One of the things that people find frightening about public speaking is not having a process to prepare. I give people a process. Speaking is a matter of two things: deciding what to say, and saying it. And you can break that process down.”
That old wine includes knowing your audience, seeking to project authenticity, using relatable narratives and humanising examples, and giving a speech a robust structure with a grabby opening and a memorable payoff. But things have also changed since Cicero’s day. Any speaker is nowadays addressing any number of potential audiences outside the range of his or her unamplified voice. And a speech can live for ever in digital form, meaning that tone and decorum need to be thought about hard.
Sometimes, but not always, the internet is the intended audience. The TED Talk – precision engineered to be shared on social media, and at 18 minutes well geared to a modern attention span (“long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention” in Anderson’s formulation) – certainly has been a driver of recent interest in the orator’s art. Groskop points, too, to YouTube and Instagram Stories as examples of how public speaking is “getting into our lives” in a way it never has before. She speculates that “there’s something going on to do with people’s hunger for community and for face-to-face communication in an age when face-to-face communication is less and less common”.
We also have an arsenal of technological fixes unavailable to the ancients. We can write our speeches down and edit them on the page. We don’t have to memorise them – we have index cards and autocues. The autocue can be a great help, but you need to learn to use it as if it isn’t there. Davies says that in the Cameron era, Tory conference speeches used to have a wraparound plasma screen all the way around the middle balcony of the Birmingham conference centre, so that the speaker could look anywhere in the crowd and still see a text. Austerity brought back “the cheap version” (three TV-style autocues at 10, 12 and two o’clock) and, as speakers jerked their heads from one to the other, the oratory suffered.
Davies takes issue with some of the old-fashioned advice about public speaking, such as the suggestion to speak more slowly than feels comfortable: “In 2018, in attention-deficit Britain, the ear can take in words faster than the mouth can deliver them.” He says you’re trying to hit “intense dinner party speed” and counsels “machine-gun bursts”, with “pauses to reload”. Gallo seems to back this up, noting that the most successful TED talks average a very brisk 190 words per minute.
Much store is set by body language, and rightly: an open posture and confident stance project a very different sense of a speaker than a hunched or cowed look. But we shouldn’t overestimate it. Albert Mehrabian’s celebrated 1967 studies on nonverbal communication are frequently misunderstood or misquoted to the effect that “your words account for only 7% of your effect on an audience”. Simply put, that’s bollocks: the Mehrabian material applied to short expressions to do with feelings rather than long speeches about the world.
Likewise, as Groskop points out, some have taken too far the suggestive (if contested) research publicised by Amy Cuddy, showing that if before you take the stage you spend two or three minutes power-posing in private (stand like Wonder Woman or Usain Bolt and hold the pose), your stress hormones will fall and your testosterone levels will rise. Misunderstanding Cuddy may, she suggests, have given us the so-called Tory Power Pose. You’re supposed to do it in private, Sajid.
But there’s an emphasis in that – in the positive feedback loop of confidence that public speaking requires – which perhaps chimes with some of its current appeal. “I think,” Groskop says, “that some of the popularity of public speaking now has come out of the self-help movement. People are saying: ‘You mean I don’t need to be scared of this? There’s something I can do?’”
According to Groskop, “A lot of people told me I should have called my book How to Stop Feeling Shit About Yourself. Because most people do feel shit about themselves when they think about speaking in public. And that’s tragic: because they probably have something really interesting to say.”
How to hold a crowd
Be confident Speaking is a confidence trick: if you’re comfortable, so will be the audience, and vice versa. You want to project what Viv Groskop calls “happy high status”. Know your audience, know your speech and know (if possible) the space in which you’re to speak. What Groskop calls “exposure” (AKA speaking again and again in public) is the only way to get real confidence, but practising in private is a start. And five minutes of Wonder Woman beforehand can’t hurt either.
Be authentic “So often, people go to the podium and, for all sorts of reasons, pretend to be something they are not,” says Simon Lancaster (author of Speechwriting: The Expert Guide). “People are wise to this bullshit. Just be yourself (which sounds easier than it really is).” That means being the best version of yourself. Speak with notes (advised) or without them if you’re super-confident. But reading the entire speech from a sheet of paper kills the spontaneity (“Readers can’t be leaders”).
Be appropriate Knowing your audience has always been the key to successful oratory. If you’re hoping to persuade, gauge not only the audience’s starting position but where you’re hoping to – and can realistically expect to – move them to; and the arguments most likely to appeal to them.
Be brief You’re competing against every smartphone in the audience. That means grabbing the attention fast, which is perhaps why opening with: “I want to tell you a story …” has become a TED talk cliche. However you do it – a joke, a startling fact, a narrative hook – you need to do what Graham Davies calls “sharpening the spear”. And three clear strong points in support of your argument will fare better than 14 vague, weak ones.
Be smart with the technology Use a lectern to hold your notes, not as a bulletproof screen between you and the audience. Pretend it isn’t there. The average PowerPoint slide, says Carmine Gallo, has 40 words on it. That’s far too many. One TED talk with 7m views was 25 slides in before they hit 40 words in total.
Be sober A drunk audience (or at least a slightly drunk one) is a boon to a speaker. The formula doesn’t work so well in reverse. As Davies points out: “When Roger Federer walks on to the Centre Court at Wimbledon, he hasn’t had a couple of swift ones.” But a large glass of the red infuriator in the speaker’s eyeline can be a powerful incentive to brevity.
… and (did we mention?) Be prepared “To sound really impromptu,” Davies says, “rehearse like hell.”
• You Talkin’ to Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith is published by Profile.