The One Thing You Need To Know For Public Speaking Success

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Should you use PowerPoint? Should you have your speaking notes on index cards? Podium or not? All valid questions, but none of them really matter.

Just today someone sent me an email asking if I use PowerPoint, what kind of mic I prefer, do I have speaking notes on stage? etc… It’s flattering that people think so highly of my public speaking skills, and – in the interest of full disclosure – I work very hard at trying to be a better speaker and a better presenter. Like many people trying to figure out the best way to give a compelling presentation, I’ve spent many long years studying the trade. I’ve read many great books (for a list, please see below), worked with all sorts of coaches – from speaking and presentation skills to stand-up comics, and spend serious time attending conferences, not just for the content, but to watch and learn from my fellow speakers (watching online videos of great presenters helps as well).

It’s an art, but there is one specific piece of speaking that can take you extremely far in a short amount of time (and it makes all of the other details irrelevant).

My old self-defense coach, Tony Blauer, always used to say, "practice doesn’t make perfect… perfect practice makes perfect." Translating that to the world of giving speeches and presentations: know your content. Know your content inside and out. Know your content to the point that the speaking notes don’t matter. Know your content to the point where the slides don’t matter (and that includes when your computer crashes during a presentation or when you lose your place in the written text). The moment those butterflies in your stomach turn from instances of fear and anxiety into energy and excitement is the moment that a speaker makes the transition from presenting to being at one with their content.

Content, content, content.

In the world of real estate it’s all about location, location, location. In the world of presenting, it is all about content, content, content. Some people misinterpret the word "content" for having the "best content" or the "most unique content." I’ve seen many great speakers present content that wasn’t all that compelling, new and fresh, and even their delivery was not flawless, but because they knew their content (inside and out), their confidence in presenting that content catapulted them above the rest.

Instead of practicing every word you’re about to say or trying to remember which slide goes with which one of your points, start thinking about presenting differently…

The great books listed below will help you understand things like presentation structure, proper slide design, better body language skills, but none of them will help you get better at loving your content and knowing it so well that you don’t need accessories like a podium, index cards, slides, a confidence monitor, etc… You have to own your content. Nothing can help you get there except for putting the time and effort into knowing the topic you are going to talk about. Most people worry about the other stuff because they think it can help them improve the overall speaking experience (or make them less nervous). It might, but not by much. The nerves turn into positive energy the moment you own your content. That’s it.

Know your content. That’s what the best presenters do. Everything else is superfluous.

Recommended reading list:


  1. Yet another great post, Mitch! All my years in media and coaching media professionals I lived by one mantra – work hard and prepare so it looks effortless.
    That has helped me through many a presentation. The ones that fall flat are when I haven’t done my homework.

  2. Knowledge and experience lead to speaker confidence. Confidence (with an appropriate dose of humility) inspires the audience. Inspiration is what can provide a compelling and transformative audience experience regardless of the subject matter.

  3. Great advice Mitch. In the presentation kingdom, if knowledge of your subject is King, then a passion for it is Queen.
    I also find that using tools like Prezi help you to present differently because they force you to think differently.

  4. Good post. Great speakers share as much as they possibly can within the allotted time. But you know that have shared only one percent of what they know on the subject.
    Poor speakers share 90% of what they know during their presentation, and shake in their boots when the questions start.
    One other key point. Hope that the audience likes you.
    I used to do a lot of speaking, and also worked on organizing conferences and selecting other speakers.
    When attendee evaluations came in, across multiple conferences in different cities, the single most important factor in determining a high score was whether or not the audience liked the speaker.
    I have seen speakers deliver amazing content, but bomb on the evaluations because they lacked empathy, failed to connect with the audience and were not “liked”.
    Best wishes,

  5. Nick,
    Agree completely, I would just add be passionate about your content as well as knowing it inside and out. I express this every week when listening to students and clients present. Support tools can be there for the audience, but should not be there for the speaker.
    tweeting as @Metaphorage

  6. Knowing your content = the ability to speak extemporaneously! Thanks for the post and for the book suggestions.

  7. Great article Joel – agree with every aspect, especially your last line! As a public speaker for 20 plus years, I have had everything go wrong in a presentation that could possibly happen. But having been taught early on to “know your stuff inside out”, I always managed to cope with whatever went wrong. In fact some of my best presentations have come from the times when equipment/facilities failed! “Own the content” & getting my audience involved has always worked for me!

  8. Cool article. Knowing content cool – AND remember your audience (who they are – what their challenges
    Are?) While designing your stuff to help with those challenges!

  9. Excellent advice. When first starting to do presentations, I was one of those people who hid behind the podium and used notes. Needless to say, I usually ended up with very low marks in audience reviews. Boring, uninspired, stilted…not good. Then one day, decided to do exactly what you recommend…know my content inside and out…and be passionate about it. No notes, no podium.
    Haven’t looked back since.

  10. Mitch,
    Thanks for sharing this list of books. I’m interested in getting more into speaking and I’m sure this will be a very useful list of books to go through. I’ll be checking out your speeches online while i”m at work today.

  11. Great point. I’ve seen so many presenters get flustered when the video in their presentation doesn’t work, or when technical difficulties arise. If you know your content inside out you’ll never have to worry about whether you have a visual to go along with your words – in my opinion a slide should complement what you’re saying, not replace it.
    And when in doubt, break out the stand up comedy skills.

  12. Another great book by Nick Morgan is “Working the Room: How to Move People to Action Through Audience-centered Speaking.” I haven’t read his newest one you listed above. But, since you’ve listed it, I will. Ah, the power of word-of-mouse.

  13. Dead on, Mitch. My best presentations have been the ones in which I know the content inside and out, to the point that I barely even have to refer to all the speaking notes I’ve prepared.

  14. Mitch,
    When I first saw your presentation, you were up against a headliner called Anthony Robbins! Even though your style is totally different, I felt a genuineness and passion about what you were talking about and that made me want to listen. I think once someone understands the privilege of having peoples time and ears they take their topic and presentation to the next level.
    I have used Prezi myself and find it does change the way I present. I think it asks you to think more in terms of concepts than just content and forces a type of coherence that many presentations lack. The visual representation gives a lot back to your audience . A beautiful tool.

  15. Great blog! I completely agree with every aspect that you have presented in this blog. One thing I have noticed when it comes for me to do public speaking is that I tend to let my nerves get the best of me. Which makes me completely forget what my purpose was in presenting this topic. Like you said, “When preparing for public speaking, we tend to forget how important “content” makes a difference. As much as we like to prepare for things, “knowing your content” captures your audience in thinking “Wow” this person knows what they are talking about maybe I should listen. Again great post and I will utilize this blog for future presentations.

  16. I remember being holed up in a midtown manhattan hotel room all afternoon the day before a big presentation. I was practising in the mirror instead of enjoying central park. I’ve also filmed myself. I knewy stuff but had some annoying ticks.
    What actually matters though is that you connect and the message sticks. STRONGLY recommend Made to Stick.

  17. Mitch,
    This post could not have come out at a better time!
    I have a speaking gig tomorrow, that I have been preparing for!
    Thanks for this.

  18. Good post Mitch. If you don’t know your stuff, how can you teach it? And that’s what presenters are really — teachers.
    I also agree with the comments people made about being passionate about your subject and using that as a way to instill passion in and connect with your audience.
    The information a speaker is sharing is important but the presentation really is 90 percent about the presenter.
    I’ve used overheads, chalkboards, PowerPoint, handwritten notes, typed speeches and notecards over the years as a speaker, trainer and university instructor. I’ve finally settled on a modified PowerPoint, where the PPT is used for some visuals (photos and video), some humor and maybe to highlight a great quote.
    It’s interesting to me that many people say presenters have come to rely on PowerPoint too much, but when I haven’t used it, I have received audience feedback marking me down because they thought PPT was “missing.”
    It seems that maybe audiences have started to rely on PowerPoint as well. Perhaps too much?

  19. Great insight and relevance Mitch. I first saw you present at the Art of Marketing Conference in Toronto. Since then, I’ve purchased your book – Six Pixels of Separation, have refreshed my corporate strategy to be more relevant to clients, purchased Presentation Zen, changed my presentation strategy and focus all resulting in new business with a tier 1 pharma company. Appreciate the insights and thanks for helping me grow my business.

  20. My undergraduate degree is in Communication Studies, I competed nationally in intercollegiate debate, did competitive public speaking and give presentations frequently in my profession. You could teach the major! Knowing the content cold and loving it is absolutely the answer. This is a wonderful post for anyone who is still nervous about public speaking. Kudos!

  21. Thanks Mitch! Did the process of writing the book also feed into your public speaking skills? I guess it’s another way of being immersed in the content.

  22. Mitch, your post on this subject has really helped me. I am not a speaker in terms of giving keynotes or being asked to speak in front of large crowds. I do give plenty of talks to small groups and I teach about social media. Well, I always fetl that I am not qualified to be a “real” speaker because of a plethora of excuses not the least of which are “I need to be able to memorize, make my talking points flow smoother, have a great powerpoint presentation, and don’t forget the big one…my hair! LOL!
    So, I want to speak and teach more but I have long held this fear that somehow I am not ready because I don’t have very well defined talking points on note cards and all. I have some notes but mainly I like to share what I know for sure and let the crowd ask questions.
    If passionately knowing your content is the main ingredient, then I have pleanty of that. I just thought it was too simplistic to think that knowing your subject was the most important thing. That just seems too easy because I really love talking, reading about, eating and sleeping all things social media especially the parts of it that help people actually connect and communicate. And, I love talking, sharing, and hearing from others.
    Who says I need to have formal lessons and years of training about how to stand or what to do with my hands before I can start speaking. I’m sure I’ll learn along the way. I thought these physical things were the most important. I’m encouraged to read the comments from many here who agree with you that if a person wants to be a great speaker, they must put first things first and that is to really know what you are talking about.
    Thanks everybody. I can now scratch off a few more of my excuses.

  23. Mitch — Thanks so much for the recommendation and the great blog. It is all about content — provided of course that your body language supports that content rather than fights against it. Every communication is two conversations; the content and the body language. When the two are aligned, the message gets through and you can be an effective communicator. When the two are NOT aligned, the audience believes the body language every time.
    Message to Keith: Thanks for your recommendation. Please know that my new book is called Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma. Give Your Speech, Change the World is the paperback version of Working the Room. The publisher insisted on retitling it when it came out in paper.

  24. Like most things in life, there’s a balance to be struck here. You need to know your stuff inside and out. You need to be a true authority. However, I’ve seen far too many people who spoke above the audience instead of to them. They never cared, and therefore were never heard. Know your material, but know your audience too, and how to keep them interested. As the old saying goes, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

  25. Connecting with the audience is both the hardest and one of the most important components of a successful presentation. I just tried something new for the first time, and it went fairly well, after the audience warmed up to it. I had the audience tweet or SMS me questions while I was speaking, and then answered the questions either as I was presenting or during transitions in the presentation. And Nick, I’ve heard you speak, and you are excellent!

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