Public speaking can feel like an ordeal, but take a lesson from the ancients: it’s a skill you can develop like any other
by John Bowe + BIO
Bust of L Licinius Nepos, 1-25 CE. Courtesy the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Whether you’re facing a large crowd, a handful of colleagues at a conference table, a job recruiter over Zoom, or trying to hold your own during a family fight, the all-too-common experience of speech anxiety can feel like a frustrating act of self-betrayal. You wish to share your knowledge, beliefs and feelings. Yet the moment you decide it’s time to communicate them, the words … don’t … seem. To Want. To Come. Out. Of. Your Mouth.
Think about our usual ways of describing the problem: ‘I’m shy.’ ‘I suffer from speech anxiety.’ ‘I just don’t know how to be myself in front of a group.’ We often act as though the problem stems from a psychological or emotional shortcoming within us. After years of watching our looser-tongued peers express their ideas and passions, it’s easy to become resentful and alienated. These negative feelings can reinforce our original reaction: There’s too much stuff inside of me that I can’t express! There’s something wrong with me.
This diagnosis would have seemed utterly baffling to the ancient Greek educators and philosophers who invented language theory in the 4th century BCE, and then taught it to virtually every student in the West for 2,000 years until a couple of centuries ago. From the ancient perspective, public speaking, like writing or, for that matter, military prowess, was considered an art form – teachable, learnable, and utterly unrelated to issues of innate character or emotional makeup. To them, the idea of expecting the average, speech-ignorant person to be reliably eloquent would be like expecting an untrained adolescent to perform like a seasoned warrior on the battlefield. Their take holds true today – it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to be competent, much less masterful, in an art form you’ve never been taught to practise.
Under the larger discipline of rhetoric (the study of persuasion in all its forms), students in antiquity spent years acquiring a strategic understanding of how to temper logic, emotions and words with poise. Speaking well depended upon learning how to analyse all sides of an argument and assaying all possible avenues of commonality with one’s audience before expressing an opinion. Similar to our approach to reading and writing today, speech training was a comprehensive, critical approach to knowledge, with an additional emphasis on psychology and social interaction.
The average American today speaks around 16,000 words a day. If you consider the role of speech in family life, social interactions and on the job, it’s easy to see that now, as much as ever, the ability to communicate effectively is the single most critical skill we possess. If we speak in ways that are off-putting, vague or hard to understand, it doesn’t matter how smart, hardworking or even good we might be: people will find us difficult to understand and work with. Our usefulness to others will decline with every strained interaction. By contrast, if we speak clearly and well, people will find us easy to understand. They’ll ‘get’ us. They’ll like us.
Recently, I worked with an architect who complained: ‘I went to school for years, thinking that after graduation, my job would be to design stuff. The reality is that probably 90 per cent of my time goes towards explaining ideas, working on presentations and managing discussions between teams and clients.’ Her observation holds true across virtually every advanced occupation. Brilliant as you might be while toiling at your work station, and as important as your solo endeavours are, your social and team value is judged by your ability to skilfully handle phone calls, Zoom meetings, sales and technical presentations, and client interactions. If this sounds far-fetched, how many high-ranking executives can you recall who have poor public speaking skills?
Given the importance of clear, effective speech, you’d think we’d spend lots of time learning to do it in school. Yet for most of us, at least in the West, education consists of 12 to 20 years’ reading, writing and solving mathematics problems – on paper. As our society has become increasingly knowledge- and information-based, rhetoric and speech instruction have fallen almost entirely out of favour. Many of us graduate unprepared to practise the central activity of our lives, and speech remains the most important subject we’ve never thought about.
So how might one learn in a hurry from the Greeks about speaking to an audience without anxiety? I’ll skip the tips about where to stand on stage and how to use PowerPoint, and instead use this Guide to outline the most radical and useful element of ancient language theory. You’ll learn to speak in public – to any audience, anywhere – not by mastering your emotions, but by paying better attention to how others listen to you.
Think about the audience
Without any training, ‘speech preparation’ for many of us too often begins with a swoon of anxious, self-flagellating, self-centred predictions: I hate public speaking. This is going to be a nightmare. Everyone’s going to know I’m an idiot. Modern approaches to public speaking typically begin by addressing these anxieties (Imagine your audience naked! Adopt a series of power poses to produce confidence chemicals! Take a beta-blocker!)
If this is you, your next step is probably to think about your material. You have a data-set of information (figures for the Q4 sales meeting; bachelor high jinks for the upcoming wedding speech, and so on) and you grapple with how to arrange it.
The Greeks, in contrast, didn’t start with beating anxiety or with organising the speech material. They insisted that ‘the public’ is the most important part of public speaking. As Aristotle argued in c335 BCE in his Art of Rhetoric (the world’s most authoritative treatise on public speaking), the audience is the beginning and the end of public speaking.
What might at first seem like a rather obvious, if overly broad suggestion is, in fact, a simple, easy start toward comfortable public speaking. When you have a speaking engagement ahead, start your preparation by getting a pen and paper (or open a file) and list the most literal, concrete things you know about those you’ll be talking to. It might help to answer the following questions:
This initial step takes minutes and demands nothing profound. If possible, ask the person who invited you to speak why they did so. What’s your audience expecting? Are they coming for a special occasion? The more you train your thoughts towards the needs and reality of your audience and away from the chaos of your anxieties, the more you’ll know how to connect with them.
‘Lance’, a US Army veteran with three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who now worked for a firm making security scanners, came to me after he’d received an abrupt promotion from a technical customer-service position to become VP in charge of sales. He’d spent the previous year teaching airport security staff in a hands-on way how to use the machine. In his new role, he had 30 days to develop an hour-long sales presentation. ‘I’m a shitty salesman,’ he confessed. He was terrified.
I steered Lance toward this first step, to consider his audience, which he said would consist largely of law-enforcement professionals. What might be most important to them, I asked. ‘Not to waste their department’s money on bad equipment?’ he guessed. We went deeper and discussed their emotional needs. Lance realised that, as lifelong public safety officials, more than anything else these men and women probably dreaded a security breach resulting in death and carnage. Certainly, that would matter to them far more than saving or wasting a few bucks. After talking about Lance’s military experience, we realised that he, too, had been charged with protecting people around him and had seen up close the tragedy of security lapses.
Once Lance started thinking about his audience in literal terms, rather than as a generic bogeyman called The Audience, he found he had plenty to say to them.
Think about why you’re talking
Before you begin writing your speech, think about your purpose. Are you speaking to entertain, to inform, to persuade, or to inspire? After deciding, find a way to express your specific goal in a single sentence: As a result of my presentation, I want them to know X and do Y.
Defining the purpose of your speech in this way allows you to sift through the many interesting, funny or meaningful ideas that might come to mind, but that ultimately have nothing to do with your audience or your talk. As your talk becomes more relevant and engaging, you’ll find that the fear of babbling and disconnectedness that so often accompanies ‘public speaking’ will lessen.
Consider ‘Jack’, an American salesman with a European luxury goods firm who came to me for help with his quarterly sales report. The presentation typically lasted only 15 minutes, but the dread inspired by this hour-a-year commitment was deep and constant.
As it was, the report that Jack was planning consisted almost entirely of slides illustrating multiple trend lines and tangents, each heaving with figures and charts. I imagined him flying all the way to Europe, hiding from face-to-face contact, squandering his stage time with his ass to his audience while falteringly explaining information that could have been conveyed by email.
When we discussed the true point of his presentation, it was clear that it was ultimately personal. Jack wanted to get his bosses to stop wasting money on marketing efforts hatched in Europe that made no sense for his territory. He’d developed more nuanced, locally relevant ideas of his own; he wanted permission to run with them. This simple shift in emphasis (from a mouthpiece, passively relaying numbers to a person facing others, making eye contact, talking to them about something that he wanted) transformed Jack’s performance from a stilted recitation to something more like a story and a conversation. We formulated a statement about what he wished to propose, simplified his slides, and turned his ass where it belonged – facing away from his audience. Jack was energised by this process and ready to address his colleagues as his real self, rather than parroting an adopted ‘public speaking’ self that didn’t work.
When you clarify your purpose for speaking to others, you force yourself to acknowledge the social, emotional reason for speaking face-to-face.
Think about your audience’s happiness
Aristotle was seldom accused of being a warm, fuzzy type of guy, but one of his biggest insights into language theory was that people listen for one reason alone: for their own wellbeing.
You might think that you’re giving a progress report about your team’s customer-satisfaction database app or a pitch for your amazing new start-up, but your audience will usually be focused on an entirely different topic: their happiness.
In his Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle enumerates the things that make people happy: health, family, wealth, status and so on. It seems like a bizarre tangent for a book on public speaking, until you grasp his point. Your success as a speaker, regardless of your subject, depends on demonstrating to your audience that you’re paying attention to the one thing they care about most. You see them, you get them, you’re paying attention to their needs.
In other words, whether you’re talking about tax policy or ways to reduce your carbon footprint, your audience cares less about the rightness or logic of your points than they do about how your ideas will improve their lives.
Making an audience happy has little to do with adopting an inauthentically ‘fun’ or peppy manner of speaking so much as demonstrating on every level that you’re speaking for their benefit, not your own. If you’re forced to give a boring sales report, for example, you can demonstrate your attentiveness by being mercifully brief and clear. The point, in the end, is to show respect for your audience’s time and attention.
I recently worked with ‘Alice’, an entrepreneur in her 60s who was engaged in a round of pitches for a technological innovation. Referring to her audience of young, male venture capitalists, she complained: ‘They’re sexist and ageist. The moment I start talking, I can just see this dismissive look. Which is ironic, because I actually know more about the tech stuff than they usually do.’
Her invention brilliantly and economically addressed an urgent, global health problem but, as she shared her pitch with me, I could see why it wasn’t galvanising potential funders. The first 10 minutes discussed her work history and the genesis of invention, rather than aiming more directly toward her audience’s self-interest. After re-ordering her presentation to lead with an illustration of the gigantic potential market for her invention – that is, by speaking first about what was clearly most interesting for her audience – Alice’s pitch, and Alice herself, became far more interesting. Within weeks of the change, she’d partnered with a major European industrial giant.
You’d never invite people to a piano recital, then fail to rehearse for it. Leading a Zoom meeting or presentation of any kind without some practice is equally ill-advised.
Speech teachers throughout history have been divided about whether it’s better to write out every word of a speech, then memorise it, or to make a simple outline consisting of broad strokes. I think you should go with whatever suits you and, either way, once your speech is drafted, here are some useful practice tips:
I’ve focused on ways that ancient Greek techniques can improve our ability to speak in public. What I find more interesting – revelatory, even – is what these skills can do for us emotionally, spiritually, socially and politically.
For much of my life, the topic of speech training was an abject turn-off. The modern approach to the subject, with its focus on smiling and faked, peppy self-confidence, seemed insincere. The idea of deliberately altering my ‘natural’ way of speaking seemed inauthentic.
I discovered the Greeks – and fell in love with the subject of speech training and language theory – in 2009, purely by accident during an interview (for an oral history about love) with my reclusive step-cousin from rural Iowa. Long the family oddball, he’d lived in his parents’ basement since high school, speaking to almost no one. At the age of 59, he broke out of his isolation and got married. How? He joined Toastmasters, the world’s largest organisation devoted to teaching the art of public speaking.
As my step-cousin explained it, speech training had served as a kind of non-psychological therapy. By learning to think less about himself and more about his listeners, he’d transformed his entire life – well beyond the relatively few moments he spent giving speeches. As I’d later learn, this technique – of paying attention to how others listen as a way of reaching our own full potential – was central to the ancients’ aspirations for speech training.
In 4th century BCE Greece, prior to the invention of Athenian democracy, public speaking was virtually forbidden. However, with the advent of elections, trials and other public forms of debate, speaking to groups of people became a common and, in some cases, required activity. The ability to express one’s opinions to one’s peers became an essential component of social and political life, a means for keeping public discourse from being hijacked by loudmouths, liars and charlatans, but also the surest route to wealth and power.
As the subject became universally taught, the Greeks and, later, the Romans found that language skills are like the operating system that connects us to others. When we’re unable to advocate for our point of view, it’s far too easy to become sidelined, alienated and angry, to whine that ‘people are selfish’ (for not understanding us) and that ‘public discourse sucks’. A citizenry trained to speak up is a citizenry far less likely to suffer from bad politics or mass alienation.
These notions appealed to my preoccupations with the many forms of alienation characterising modern life, from rising levels of loneliness and mistrust (among neighbours, regarding government and other public institutions) and declining levels of civic engagement. After decades of obsessing about unchecked corporate power and the rising gap between rich and poor, I began to wonder if many of our social and political problems might be ameliorated if we re-embraced the subject, dropped two to three centuries ago, of rhetoric.
The subject today is nearly synonymous with ‘bullshit’ or posturing. We say: ‘Oh, that’s just rhetoric’ to discount, for example, political speech as being more slanted than our own, everyday utterances, which we perceive as ‘natural’ and free of design. For the Greeks, however, all speech is constructed; everything we say proceeds from motive, using art. In my youth, I’d realised with tremendous self-importance that everything is a pose, and everything and everyone is phoney. Refusing to embrace and master the art of speech, however, never made me smarter, better, more articulate or more authentic than anyone else. To the contrary, I found myself profoundly unable to speak my mind – highly inauthentic, I later realised.
My more recent immersion in this subject has helped me understand and alleviate what I fear is a global epidemic of self-centredness: it’s not the world’s job to understand me; it’s my job to express myself in a way that allows others to do so. As the Greeks realised 2,400 years ago: change comes about through two means – by violence, and through successful use of words. Your ability to master speech is the best tool you’ll ever wield for changing the world to your liking.
For inspiration, watch these great speeches from history (which don’t show up when you search for ‘great speeches from history’):
Will Rogers’s ‘Bacon, Beans and Limousines’ (1931) speech: one of the most beloved US entertainers of the 20th century violates nearly every cardinal rule of public speaking while delivering a powerful condemnation of wealth inequality in this national radio speech delivered at the height of the Great Depression. Rogers’s gift for speaking truth to power was seldom better displayed.
The former Texas governor Ann Richards’s keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1988: this charming but powerful crowdpleaser could by itself serve as a primer on classic rhetoric and expert speech technique.
Check out my book I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection (2020). More a prequel than a how-to, it argues that, now more than ever, we need to understand and embrace the long-lost art of speech training (a helpful appendix explains how to prepare and deliver a good speech).
Read a highly accessible layperson’s introduction to basic rhetorical concepts and history at the Art of Manliness website founded in 2008 (suitable for men and women alike).
Join or learn about Toastmasters, the world’s largest organisation devoted to teaching the art of public speaking (and the leadership skills that go with it).
Aristotle’s Ars Rhetorica (or The Art of Rhetoric) is nearly impenetrable, but endures as the world’s most authoritative treatise on rhetoric, available for free download from MIT.
Cicero’s De Oratore, published in 55 BCE, remained a central text on rhetoric and public speaking for 15 centuries. Easier to read than Aristotle, and full of chestnuts.
Simply Speaking: How to Communicate Your Ideas with Style, Substance, and Clarity (1997) by Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter to the 40th US president Ronald Reagan, offers a brief and clear guide on how to write and deliver a good speech.
Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1992) by the historian Garry Wills reconstructs the masterful (and near-obsessive) process by which the 16th US president Abraham Lincoln wrote perhaps the most powerful speech in US history – in just 272 words.