So you’ve got a speech coming up and you’re nervous. You’re freaking out. Public speaking is terrifying. “Oh my! What am I to do?” you cry, because in this scenario you’re a 19th century dandy. Why? Why not I say.  

Well, you should have come to us earlier. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help. Obviously this isn’t going to be anywhere near as effective as the full ‘Primo Deluxe Tijuana Sunset Package*’, but we can do a bit of first-aid to help get you through the day.

*Jacques: Do we even have a Primo Deluxe Tijuana Sunset Package?

Damo: No, but they don’t know that.

I consider this guide to be the DNA of public speaking. We all know that DNA is the building block of life, and a lot of you will know that DNA is made up of four nucleotides represented by letters - G,T,C,A - guanine, thymine, cytosine and adenine.

(That’s why the film Gattaca was called Gattaca!)

So too is any public speaking engagement a combination of four fundamental elements of performance:

No, it doesn’t make some trite acronym you can say during a job interview. Grow up.

Now, realise that this guide is the barest of bare bones. The full workshop is packed with way more value than this, where we go into psychology, neuroscience, rhetoric, philosophy and maybe even comedy if we have time. But this will do in a pinch.  

This is the DNA of public speaking:

1: Attention: Nobody Ever Gives You Their Full Attention

The most common misconception that civilians have about performing is assuming that people are paying attention. They really aren’t.  

“You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount.” - Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin, 2010)

Nobody has ever, in the history of mankind, given anyone else their full attention. We like to say that we do, but that’s one of the thousand little lies we tell ourselves to get through the day.

 “You will become less concerned with what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” - David Foster Wallace.

Think about how much attention you pay to other people (be honest) and realise that’s exactly what they’re doing right back to you - even if you’re standing in a spotlight and yelling at them through a microphone.

You’re the centre of the universe, sure, but everybody thinks that of themselves.  

This is called the Spotlight Effect (Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. 2000).

We think that everyone is paying as much attention to us as we pay to ourselves, but what we don’t realise is that they’re actually paying the same amount of attention to us as we are to them. (Bordering on the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight).

When you’re watching someone else talk are you really giving them your full attention? Really? Even if you’re really interested in what they’re saying there’s still a significant part of your brain that isn’t even in the same room. You’re worried about how the bills are going to get paid. You’re trying not to forget to buy milk on the way home. You’re still upset about your football team being beaten three days ago.

There are at least dozens of things occupying your attention, even if you’re not consciously aware of it.

How much attention are you paying to this article? Do I have 100% of your attention right now? Or are you thinking about other things?

Nobody gives you the same amount of attention that you give yourself. We’re all Kanye West, he’s just more honest about it.

Now, you need to realise that this is tremendously liberating. It means that you have an astonishing amount of wiggle room in your performance and nobody will ever be the wiser.

Back when I was in high school we did a school production of Macbeth. I was the eponymous character (of course) and as opening night drew closer I started to fret over the significant amount of the script I still hadn’t committed to memory. I had most of it down, but there were a couple of lines here or there that I kept forgetting.

Then my drama teacher gave me one of the most salient bits of advice that I’ve ever received. She said “the audience doesn’t know Shakespeare”. And she was right. On opening night as I delivered Macbeth’s famous dagger soliloquy I got nervous and missed a line. And nothing happened. No one noticed. Or if they did, which was doubtful, no one cared. The 99.9999999% of the rest of the performance was solid enough that they didn’t even notice.

All public speaking is like that. When I’m doing comedy I don’t care if I skip a line or miss a bit. The audience has no idea what my set is supposed to be. They just roll with it and tune in and out, while they try to forget about their own lives for a few minutes.

If you’re speaking and you say the wrong thing, or stutter, or stumble over a word, the only way that anyone is ever going to pay attention is if you call attention to it yourself. So don’t. Just roll with it. Because the only one who cares is you.

2: Internalisation

‘Asking a comedian to do real improvisation is like asking a magician to do real magic’ - Carlos Alazraqui, Set List (2012)

The reason that comedians seem to be so good at coming up with snappy responses isn’t to do with some metaphysical talent for le mot juste. It’s because a practised comedian has plenty of time to think.

The real trick to comedy (and by extension all performance) is taking something that has been committed to memory and making it appear as though you were letting it rip straight from the top of the dome.

When I’m performing I know my set. I know what I’m going to be saying, even if I don’t know it word for word (which some comics do. You do you.) I talk about X at this point, which leads me to Y, then I bring it all home with Z.

This means that when I’m actually performing, I’m on autopilot. My mouth makes the words happen without any direction from my brain. This means that I have ample time to assess the situation and modify my performance at any given point.

Since my brain is a couple of seconds ahead of my mouth, I’m actually appear to be a couple of seconds in the future. So when I look like I’m reacting to something that just happened, I’ve actually been processing it for a second or two and setting up for my attack run.

This process of learning your set is known as ‘internalisation’.

I don’t mean learn everything word for word, like you’re studying for a NIDA audition or a court appearance. In fact, that approach will probably make you sound stilted and stale. But learn enough so that you can let your mouth drive for a bit while you have a think about things.

Learn where the important bits are and make sure you nail those, the rest will fall into place.

It might be tempting to think of speaking as being similar to something like singing, or playing an instrument. It’s actually more like being the conductor. The conductor of an orchestra has to know the music inside out and back to front. They know where it gets loud (fortissimo) and where it’s quiet (pianissimo). This part is staccato, this is legato.

The conductor knows that this bit is simple, this section is complicated. They’re not worried about the individual notes, they’re looking at the music as a whole.

Then they get a feel for the piece as it’s being played. Does it need to be faster? Do we need to slow it down?

That’s what you need to do with your speech. Break it down into bullet points. In screenwriting we’d call these ‘beat points’. For instance, if you were giving a best man speech, it might look something like this:

1. How long I’ve known Robbo [it’s always Robbo]

2. He was always a bit of an [insert backhanded compliment here]

3. I remember when we did [sordid tale, hastily censored because the father of the bride is in the room]

4. Then there was the time we did [second sordid tale, slightly less edited because groom is looking incredibly nervous]

5. But then he met [insert name of bride], and everything became [insert sappy emotion here]

6. And I couldn’t be happier for both of them [wish everyone the best, get back to drinking]

If you know the structure of your speech then you can focus on keeping it real. On being present and in the moment, on being the conductor - dropping in a couple of jokes if you feel up to it, bringing it back down to earth if things are getting raucous, and building towards the crescendo.

By internalising the speech, memorising the essential bits, you give yourself time. So even if you forget a chunk your brain has a chance to remember it, or come up with another solution.

3: Sensation: Use the Senses

Humans are visceral creatures. We like to be grounded in the world of the real, the physical instead of the abstract.

So instead of listing out your bullet points, describe them. Use all of the senses.

(By this I mean the five classical senses - we actually have over 30 senses, like proprioception. Alright, I’m going off on another tangent, back to the point.)

You’ve probably heard the classic bit of storytelling advice ‘show, don’t tell’. But what does that mean?

Well, don’t tell me it was a dark and stormy night. Instead, I want you to show me stumbling through the mud. Hands numb with cold, fingers unable to close, grasping at shadows. I want you to describe how heavy your shoes become when they’re soaked through with icy rainwater. How your legs feel like you’re dragging them through molasses. How your nose tingles with that petrichor smell of ozone.

Alright, so maybe a bit over the top, but that’s still way more interesting than ‘dark and stormy’, right?

When you’re performing live you’re telling by showing. You have to paint a picture using words. You have to sing a song with gestures.

So ground the audience in the aesthetics of the story. If you’re doing a bucks speech, don’t tell me that you got on the beers in Phuket. Describe the noise of the red light district, the smell of watered down beer, your shoes sticking to the nightclub floor.

Instead of meekly saying ‘well I guess you had to be there’ make your audience feel like they were actually there. Your speech will come to life and your audience won’t even feel like they’re listening to someone talk, they’ll feel like they were in the moment.

4. Punch: Don’t Clutch The Punch

This is getting a bit technical, but for the last point I thought I’d include something that really emphasises the difference between an amateur and a pro.

What do I mean by ‘don’t clutch the punch?’

I’ve taken to calling this the ‘TED Pause’. You see it all the time in TED talks.

A TED talk will be given by someone who is obviously very smart and very talented, but is also very obviously not a comedian.

So what they’ll do is they’ll drop a joke into their talk, because it’s generally a good idea to drop a joke in a talk.

And then...they’ll wait for the laugh. And the laugh doesn’t come. (This could happen for a variety of reasons, if you want to know more, it's all in the workshops)

So what happens is they look really disappointed and awkward. And then because they look so disappointed and awkward, the crowd will suddenly realise that there was a joke that fell flat and then everyone - performer, crowd, millions of people watching at home - all feel awkward together. In comedy we call this clutching the punch(line).

It’s expecting a certain response from the audience and then being stunned when it doesn’t come.

When you have a joke in your speech you need to deliver it like it ain’t nothin’ at all.

You want to give a slight pause, just enough space for the audience to ‘get it’, and then move on.

One of two things will happen. Either the audience laughs (which is what you want), at which point you will very magnanimously pause your speech to allow them the time to appreciate your great wit.

Or they don’t laugh, at which point you’ve already moved on and nobody was the wiser and you don’t stand there looking like a git.

Clutching the punch makes you look desperate and audiences hate that. It’s an instinctive reaction all audiences have to neediness. Sometimes they will deliberately not laugh just to punish you.

So what you do is you keep talking. Then, when you’re interrupted by their laughter, it will look like you’re so naturally funny that you didn’t even notice you were telling a joke. That you drop gold on the reg, this happens to you so much that you do it without thinking. Then you pause and allow them to bask in your genius for a few seconds. Or if it all goes tits up you can just pretend it didn’t happen and no one needs to cringe.

So that’s it. Well, no, that’s not it. That’s the tip of the tip of the iceberg. There’s way more than this. But it should be enough to get you started.

And above all, have fun. I know it sounds like trite advice, but it’s the truth. If you can have fun while you’re doing this then your audience will have fun too. As humans we like to watch people having fun, we absorb it by osmosis. It’s infectious. And if you follow the advice I’ve just given you, you’ll probably have fun. I sure do.


Damian Smith