The first rule of public speaking: F**k the rules

Get your hands out of your pockets!
Make a hand gesture every time you state a point!
And for God’s sake, don’t forget to pause every seven and a half seconds!
It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?
Public speaking is so often dominated by rules:

  • What to wear
  • When to speak
  • When not to speak
  • How to move

It’s enough to make you feel like you’re at a boot camp rather than on stage, and for many people, these speaking rules weaken their impact. Think about how many times you’ve seen a speaker gesture robotically, move from point A to B with the charisma of a rock.
If you’re looking for the right rules for your next speech, there is only one to follow: F**k the rules!

Be yourself – the rest will follow

I was taught to speak by following a set of extremely specific tips. It’s the kind of advice you’ve heard a thousand times before, including in the paragraphs above. But when the time came to speak, I was so focused on those rules that I completely lost my message. My speech was flat, boring and it didn’t have any impact whatsoever.
Bring your comfort zone for message delivery into a public context.

Bring your comfort zone for message delivery into a public context.

One conference, I gave up.
I had just delivered another rules-based presentation that failed to get anyone engaged. So, for my final talk that weekend, I dumped all the rules! I didn’t rehearse. I ignored the voice in my head analysing what I was doing on stage. I knew the message and just treated it like a casual conversation with a friend.
And it worked so well! That experience was a revelation. It has such an impact that a number of people came up to me after the talk. Some remarked on how relaxed I looked on stage, which is nice, but the most powerful thing was how excited they were about my idea.
The idea! They got it. They were excited. That’s what matters in a speech or presentation. They heard what I was saying – and they saw the value.
By ignoring the alleged ‘rules’ of speaking for an audience, I’d managed to connect with people better than ever before.
That’s one thing with public speaking: it’s incredibly subjective. Every single person on the planet reacts to things differently and has their own way of communicating. By trying to force a single set of public speaking rules on everybody, most people end up conforming to a standard that just doesn’t work for them.

How to be yourself on stage

Of course, “be yourself” is a lot easier said than done – especially if you’re not confident in front of an audience to begin with. The key here is to focus on your message – the idea you want to bring to life. And the messages that help the audience see the value of this idea. When you are clear and excited about what you want to say, you don’t need to worry too much about how you are going to say it. It just flows 🙂
If you believe in your message, you’ve probably spoken about it with friends, family or colleagues before. Reach back to those conversations – what made that so easy? Was it the audience, the environment, the time of day?
Or was perhaps it the lack of expectations or rules around your delivery?
Are the rules restricting your public speaking capability?

Are the rules restricting your public speaking capability?

Take that with you. Bring the mindset you have when comfortably discussing your message with friends, and ignore the rules of public speaking. Chances are, you’ll engage with far more people than if you get hung up on rules, gestures, body language, etc.

Replace your rules with guidelines

While I’ve been trashing public speaking rules for most of this piece, I have to say – the intention behind those rules is good. After all, they’re there to (theoretically) guide you and improve your speaking skills. But too often, they just don’t work. That’s why I think everyone should take a page out of Bill Murray’s book**, and replace your rules with guidelines.
Rules are rigid, they cannot be changed. They restrict you rather than empower you. Guidelines however, provide direction but allow you make the final decision based on what works for you. For example:

  • ‘Hold eye contact for three seconds per person’ is a rule.
  • ‘Holding eye contact can be good for engagement – use it when you can’ is a guideline.

Saying ‘bye’ to the rules will free your public speaking up more than you realise – but it’s only one step on the journey to being an excellent orator. For more tips, download a free chapter of my book, “What’s Your Message”!

** In the movie Ghostbusters, Bill Murray’s character is seduced by a beautiful ghost. He says;

“I make it a rule never to get involved with possessed people.”

(She kisses him passionately and continues to seduce him.)

“Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule…”