Another Public Speaking Horror Story

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This isn’t one that happened to a specific individual.

This is a horror story that happened to all of us… and continues to happen to people each and every day. This is not what happened to Michael Bay. It’s much worse. It’s a pervasive horror story that is a part of our educational system, and sticks with us to the boardrooms and convention centers of every city, in every country where meetings are held. Let me explain by telling you a story: the other week, I was at a family dinner. We were discussing my nephew’s pending public speech, and I was being asked for any tips or tricks that might help him be successful. I asked him where was in the process of being ready, and this is what he told me: "I’ve written out the full speech and I’m almost done memorizing it."

My knees buckled.

I had these sudden and terrible flashbacks to being in both elementary and high school. Being forced to write out a four minute speech on index cards, and then being forced to memorize it. The index cards weren’t there for support. Those index cards were the bain of my existence. They had every word – as they should be spoken – on them. They were not be used. They were there as moral support, in case I had forgotten what was supposed to be memorized. Every peek at those cards while speaking, was a physical sign to the class – and to the teacher – that I was not prepared. In a "break the glass here in case of emergency" scenario, I would see my fellow classmates cower in panic and wind up head down, nervously reading/mumbling their way through the reading of the cards, in a effort to simply finish the speech and make it (however pathetically) across the finish line. What was learned? From the speaker’s perspective, it was all about writing an essay, attempting to memorize it and then, ultimately, reading it aloud (nervously) to the class. From the audiences perspective, it’s hard to remember any of the content, because we were all too busy trying to figure out if our friend before us was about to have a public meltdown. Overall, it’s hard to focus on why we’re there (hint: it’s to learn) when everybody is focused on the performance instead.

Brutal. We still consider this public speaking.

If you look at what constitutes a good public presentation, the core of what we’re teaching young people is fundamentally wrong from the first instance. Here is a breakdown of what is happening when we teach public speaking contrasted with what we should be teaching…

  • Step one. We are teaching people to write out the full speech. We should be teaching people to choose the three most important aspects of what they need to explain about their chosen topic. Let’s say you are asked to give a speech on the electric bass. We are asking people to study the instrument, and then write three minutes worth of something to say. Instead, I would recommend breaking it into three (or four) chunks. Like this:
    1. Where did the electric bass come from?
    2. What is the electric bass (from a hardware perspective)?
    3. How is it played (techniques and styles)?
    4. Which bass players are inspiring?
  • Step two. We are asking people to memorize the full speech. We should be teaching people to look at each component of these three/four parts and simply write out – in easy to remember bullet points – a couple of lines about each section so you can better understand both the content you should be covering and the flow. As an example, for the first main section (Where did the electric bass come from?):
    1. In the 1930s, musician and inventor Paul Tutmarc from Seattle, Washington, developed the first electric string bass in its modern form.
    2. In the 1950s, Leo Fender developed the first mass-produced electric bass. His Fender Precision Bass is still an industry standard.
    3. In the 1960’s many music instrument manufacturers began mass producing these instruments because of the popularity of rock music.
  • Step three. We are asking people once they have memorized the speech to then learn some basic physical and vocal moves to improve the performance of memorizing a written story. We should be teaching people to add color (a funny story or anecdote) to support their three key points. If you do a quick search online about bass players or funny stories about the history of the electric bass, there are many interesting and hilarious anecdotes. Takes some of these stories, think about how you can best tell them, and then insert those stories into the framework above. Knowing the stories will also be a great way to remember the key bullet-points of your story.
  • Step four. Practice. Start by trying to remember each of the main three/four concepts you are going to speak about (this is also your agenda). Then take each main point and remember the two or three pieces you will talk about within each one of them. Then repeat the last step, but include the stories/anecdotes that you will be adding in to add color and depth to them. Lastly, set-up a bunch of times in your agenda and start practicing it as if you were speaking in front of an audience (don’t wait until the night before!). Practice it a lot (or as much as you can). If you can pull together a small group of friends (even if it’s via Skype or Google Hangout) to watch you do it, all the better.

No more horror stories.

There is no need to write up a story and then figure out how to read it or memorize it and say it to an audience. That is not giving a presentation. That is reading something in public or reciting something from memory that was written. Writing is not the same thing as speaking and/or presenting. What this all boils down to is learning about a topic, figuring out what makes it interesting to you, supporting those thoughts with stories and anecdotes, and then practicing it enough so that you are comfortable to present those ideas in public. We need to do a better job of holding our educational system accountable to produce people who are good at speaking in front of audiences and sharing ideas. Death to writing out speeches. Death to being forced to memorize these written words. Death to index cards. Death to feeling nervous or anxious about memorization.

Let’s put an end to this, shall we?


  1. Interesting post. But what you describe is actually very different from what my kids are doing in their (private) elementary school here in Québec for their show and tells. And by the way, from grade one they are doing 2-3 a term. These kids are learning to be public speakers from an early age which is very different from my education in the UK.
    Our kids don’t memorize their speeches word for word, but do learn the key information that they want to communicate and use posters to illustrate their points.
    Interestingly, they usually go in with a three-point agenda, exactly as you propose. This has turned out to be easy for them to remember and always results in high points under the “structure” category.
    So some good news in our education system today.

  2. Thanks for these great tips, Mitch. I remember doing a written-out speech from index cards. Painful! I don’t know what students are taught today days but expect major variations based on the skills and progressiveness of the teachers.
    Listening to someone read a speech is boring. They could simply record the talk and put it on YouTube. A live speech needs to engage the audience. Spontaneity helps. Your process allows that.
    When I’m doing a one-time speech without visuals, I’ll use a mindmap with the overall structure on my iPad. This gives on-the-spot flexibility, allows smooth transitions and ensures I don’t forget key points. I’ll also record my practices, listen to them and edit. That also helps with the timing.
    PS The right Toastmasters club is an excellent place to learn, practice and get feedback.

  3. It’s possible it’s something that we’ve passed along to the kids ourselves, or they’ve picked up from school. Not sure.
    What I do appreciate about school is all the practice they’re getting at an early age. If I get the chance, I’ll quiz some of the teachers.

  4. Loved this post! I will be sharing your tips with my daughter.
    Unfortunately, I have seen the “technique” taught to your nephew in action. Up until grade eight, at least once each year my daughters had to do the memorized presentation project.
    Fortunately, throughout the school year, sometimes every week, they also had to get up and speak for a few minutes on various topics of the day, no prep, just key points, connecting with their classmates, which is great. Not sure if this was a special feature of the French Immersion program, but they definately benefitted from this.

  5. I too see this all the time – and it goes well beyond the educational system and extends into most places of work. Why? Because if this is how we learn to give presentations / speeches as kids, that’s what we’ll think of when we instruct others to give a speech or presentation.
    One interesting point (and I’m happy you didn’t bring it up) is PowerPoint, as many people think that it is it’s (PowerPoint’s) fault for many poor presentations. But, some of the very best speeches I’ve seen have used PowerPoint – so it’s really more of a core issue than a technology one.
    The one step I would add to your list of four (well really expand on it in point one) is step one should be – research. I would much rather have someone take the time to really get to know their subject, than to spend that time writing – anything. That’s why TED talks are “usually” good – the presenter lives his/her speech day-in and day-out.
    Great post,

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