Public speaking

I’ve only given a few talks in my life, but this hasn’t deterred me from developing strong opinions on the subject of public speaking.

I think my opinion mainly derives from a deep distrust of oratory. I’m just not certain that anyone should ever be convinced of anything after hearing a verbal argument. Since it takes more time to think than it does to speak or listen, I don’t expect much more from such talks than a hint of some new perspective. If I think it’s worthwhile, I’ll do my own research and thinking on it later.

As for expository talks, I typically don’t retain very much. I prefer the leisure of text over the wild velocity of the pedantic tongue. Knowing this, I tend to take note of the little things that pique my curiosity. Again, these are things I look into later.

I don’t believe for a moment that I’m atypical in this. Memory is fallible, or the written word is superior; in any case, the typical talk seems to be optimized for uselessness.

The uselessness of the average talk is so profound that speakers must seek advice on the matter, so as to inoculate themselves against the human tendency to do reasonably well at trivial things like talking. It takes skill to burn time artfully.

In this connection, four pieces of advice are often dispensed:

  • Imagine your audience naked
  • Visualize your goals
  • Expect to succeed
  • Practice, practice, practice

However I’m fairly sure that the opposite principles work even better.

Rather than imagining your audience naked — something that might make you feel mildly perverted or nauseous, and is useless in the company of nudists — it is better to imagine that they’re illusory. Fully become a solipsist for a moment, and imagine that you don’t really have an audience, or rather, that you are your audience. This may sound narcissistic, but remember, you can’t neglect the outside world if there isn’t one.

Rather than visualizing your goals and taking steps toward them, embrace your rambling. Sometimes, the most pleasant thing is to spend thirty minutes talking about, and listening to, something that could fit on an index card. I don’t know about you but when I go for a pleasurable walk, I take the winding path.

Rather than expecting to succeed, simply don’t expect anything. Bear in mind this is not the same as having low expectations. Having low expectations is a miserable state to be in, but having high expectations is just as foolish.

The key is to have no expectations at all, and to think of the applause you might receive after giving a talk a happy surprise. And if you’re heckled, that too is a surprise, and a happy opportunity to heckle back.

Finally, rather than practicing, you should practice as little as possible. If you haven’t practiced, then it’s not possible to have failed in execution. The thought you will put into your talk while talking will be sufficient to satisfy your audience’s chief expectation, which is to hear someone talk about something. And if you have any interest in the topic you’re discussing, it’s possible that your audience’s ultimate desire to hear someone interesting talk about something interesting will also be satisfied.

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