Brain Pickings

George Plimpton on the Art of Public Speaking and How to Overcome Stage Fright

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“The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized.”

The art of giving a great presentation has occupied humanity for as long as recorded history can trace, from the great oratory schools of Ancient Greece to the TED era.

In How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 timeless rules of writing, Bill Cosby’s 3 proven strategies for reading faster, and James Dickey’s beautiful essay on how to enjoy poetry — legendary Paris Review editor George Plimpton shares his secrets of combating the fear of public speaking.

He begins with an emphasis on doing your homework, with a grounding reminder of what research meant a generation before the age of Google, email, and Wikipedia:

The more you sweat in advance, the less you’ll have to sweat once you appear on stage. Research your topic thoroughly. Check the library for facts, quotes, books, and timely magazine and newspaper articles on your subject. Get in touch with experts. Write to them, make phone calls, get interviews to help round out your material.

In short, gather — and learn — far more than you’ll ever use. You can’t imagine how much confidence that knowledge will inspire.

He advocates for setting the tone quickly and purposefully, in line with the main objective of your speech:

An audience makes up its mind very quickly. Once the mood of an audience is set, it is difficult to change it, which is why introductions are important.

[…]

There are four main intents in the body of the well-made speech. These are (1) to entertain, which is probably hardest; (2) to instruct, which is the easiest if the speaker has done the research and knows the subject; (3) to persuade, which one does at a sales presentation, a political rally, or a town meeting; and finally, (4) to inspire, which is what the speaker emphasizes at a sales meeting, in a sermon, or at a pep rally.

Plimpton stresses the importance of sounding spontaneous and — ironically, but without irony — offers some tips on staging spontaneity:

The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized. I’ve found it’s best to learn a speech point by point, not word for word. Careful preparation and a great deal of practicing are required to make it come together smoothly and easily. Mark Twain once said, ‘It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.’

“No speech was ever too short,” a duo of legendary admen famously advised, and Plimpton agrees: He wrote this the year TED was founded and, like any great oracle of culture, he intuited the format-meme that TED would eventually rein in, arguing for the supremacy of the 20-minute talk over the hour-long academic-style lecture:

As anyone who listens to speeches knows, brevity is an asset. Twenty minutes are ideal. An hour is the limit an audience can listen comfortably.

In mentioning brevity, it is worth mentioning that the shortest inaugural address was George Washington’s — just 135 words. The longest was William Henry Harrison’s in 1841. he delivered a two-hour, nine-thousand -word speech into the teeth of a freezing northeast wind. He came down with a cold the following day, and a month later he died of pneumonia.

He shares a counterintuitive insight about the size of the audience:

The larger the crowd, the easier it is to speak, because the response is multiplied and increased. Most people do not believe this. They peek out from behind the curtain, and if the auditorium is filled to the rafters, they begin to moan softly in the back of their throats.

Plimpton concludes with a few related words of wisdom on stage fright:

Very few speakers escape the so-called ‘butterflies.’ There does not seem to be any cure for them, except to realize that they are beneficial rather than harmful, and never fatal. The tension usually means that the speaker, being keyed up, will do a better job. Edward R. Murrow called stage fright ‘the sweat of perfection.’ Mark Twain once comforted a fright-frozen friend about to speak: ‘Just remember they don’t expect much.’ My own feeling is that with thought, preparation and faith in your ideas, you can go out there and expect a pleasant surprise.

And what a sensation it is — to hear applause.

How to Use the Power of the Printed Word is fantastic in its entirety, featuring more wisdom from John Irving, Tony Randall, Jane Bryant Quinn, and other luminaries.

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