Joe Queenan’s Guide to Public Speaking: How to avoid utterly humiliating yourself in front of a bored and yawning crowd

Joe Queenan’s Guide to Public Speaking

How to avoid utterly humiliating yourself in front of a bored and yawning crowd.


June 13, 2014 2:24 p.m. ET

People routinely say that being asked to speak in public is their No. 1 fear, inspiring more dread than flying. The idea of speaking to a group of people, even if they know the audience, scares them…well…speechless. And when it does come time to mount the stage, inexperienced speakers only make things worse by resorting to corny jokes and sappy, improbable anecdotes. Their agony makes everyone else in the room feel uncomfortable. The room reeks of flop sweat.

There is also the flip side to public speaking: having to listen to it. Few things in life are more unpleasant than being trapped in a conference room or a banquet hall or a church or a mausoleum and being forced to listen to somebody run his mouth—especially the ones who think they’re funny. The class clown, now age 65. The expert with the PowerPoint presentation. The gadfly. The failed standup comedian. The CEO giving the self-congratulatory speech about doing well by doing good. The Mark Twain impersonator, the Ben Franklin stand-in, the doddering old fool who brings Washington Irving to life.

Nothing known to man is more grueling than having to listen to these bloviating huckleberries: amateurs who don’t know that they are amateurs. Which, in fact, is the very definition of an amateur. Though “bloviating huckleberries” comes pretty close to the perfect definition too.

I know whereof I speak. In fact, I know whereof I do not speak. Twenty-eight years ago, a woman who ran a speaker’s bureau heard a tape recording of me at a Washington, D.C., hotel, addressing a roomful of people working in public relations. It was my first speech, and I gave it just a few weeks after I’d had my first op-ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal: “Ten Things I Hate About Public Relations.”

Drawing on this material, as relevant today as it was then, the speech dealt with the untrammeled idiocy of contemporary flackery. The flacks, who had no illusions whatsoever about the virtues of the career they had chosen, loved it. It was a reasonably entertaining talk, though not one that would make anyone forget Mark Antony or Winston Churchill or Honest Abe or even Chief Joseph.

The woman contacted me. She said that I was amusing but unpolished. She thought I might have potential. So she sent me to a three-week course in public speaking at an office in Washington, D.C. Dutifully, I took Amtrak from Gotham down to the nation’s capital every Wednesday for the next few weeks and learned how to entertain a roomful of strangers. Our mentor was a patrician old pro who told us to maximize our strengths (wit, charm, savoir-faire, experience) and minimize our weaknesses (weak speaking voice, poor memory, shyness, no sense of humor).

There were four other students in the class; one of them was the future political commentator Chris Matthews, who was very unsure of himself at the time. This would later change. I learned the ropes quickly—always remember to thank the person who introduced you; start off with some lighthearted, self-deprecating anecdote; never, ever read a speech because the sight of all those sheaves of paper will make the audience lose heart—and the woman got me a gig addressing something called the American Recovery Association at their annual convention in D.C.

The fee was $2,000, minus a $500 commission and $650 to cover the cost of the course. The message was clear: If I handled this first assignment well, a rewarding career as a public speaker beckoned.

Things did not work out well. The American Recovery Association was, for all intents and purposes, the National Association of Professional Repo Men. And rather than addressing them while they were having lunch, I was billed as a sort of all-purpose, postprandial cutup.

After finishing their meal, The Men From Repo were herded into a large banquet room like lambs being led to the slaughter. Tough, street-smart lambs, some named Luther, some named Huey. I seem to recall that my introduction noted that I had been published in the New Republic. That really got the boys in the mood.

There were several hundred practitioners of the repossessive arts in the room that day, including repo wives and a smattering of repo children. Everyone looked like he had a shiv in his sock. Even the kids. They all seemed to come from places like Flagrant Buttes, Ark., and Fort Regret, Ind.

I gave pretty much the same speech I had given to the P.R. flacks the previous year, lighthearted fare about the humorous foibles of businessmen, investors, publicists. The flacks had laughed. The Repoistas didn’t. The Repoistas weren’t interested in the humorous foibles of businessmen, investors, publicists. That lay outside their bailiwick. I, too, lay outside their bailiwick. They hated me. They loathed me. They loathed my bailiwick.

The woman who ran the speaking service had hired a cameraman to record the event. This was going to serve as my promotional reel. When I started speaking, the cameraman was standing all the way in the back of the room. About 90 seconds into my spiel, he moved all the way up front and set up shop a few feet from the stage so that he could get nice, tight shots of me that wouldn’t show hundreds of Repo People grimacing, snarling, reaching for their truncheons.

The whole thing was a disaster. Nothing I said clicked. I think I even wisecracked about wrapping up the speech 20 minutes early and prorating my fee. Nobody laughed at that either. There was, I noticed, a nicely wrapped gift waiting on the far side of the stage. But they didn’t give it to me. The speech lasted about 30 minutes, and I don’t remember anyone laughing once.

At a certain point, as often happens in these situations—or so I have been told by the shellshocked survivors of similar debacles—I felt myself leave my body and waft over to the edge of the stage and watch this dire peroration slouch toward its ignominious conclusion as if somebody else were giving the speech. “I sure wouldn’t want to be that guy,” I said as I watched myself going down in flames, the way William Wallace must have felt watching himself getting hung, drawn and quartered at Smithfield in 1305. “This is just horrible.”

Afterward, at a reception at the National Press Club that the Repo Boys probably wished I hadn’t mustered the chutzpah to come to, I gamboled up to a well-turned-out patriarch and said, “Let me get this straight. Do guys like you go to Stanford and get M.B.A.s and then hire people to repossess merchandise for you? Or what?” He looked me up and down, contemptuously, and said, “Son, every single person in this room started out at 3 in the morning breaking into cars.”

“Now, would that include the children?” I asked.

That was, for all intents and purposes, the end of my speaking career. I was like Lord Jim or Icarus or the guy who made “Heaven’s Gate.” I’d had my shot at the big time, and I’d blown it. I was through. Done. Kaput.

These days, I occasionally do a little event at a university or the public library or a Rotary Club luncheon—usually unpaid—but those are in front of friendly, homogeneous audiences that I can easily manipulate. Neighbors will laugh at anything. Literally anything. Those local events are a piece of cake. But I would never give another speech to complete strangers, the sort of thing professional speakers do all the time. I am not good at it. I am gabby and well-informed and reasonably funny, and my material is more than adequate, but that is not enough.

Public speaking is a skill, and almost nobody has it. The ability to entertain an audience with which you are not perfectly attuned, an audience including a few people who may in fact, despise you, requires real talent, not just nerve.

I have seen such talent on display only twice in my life. Once was when Walter Cronkite gave the keynote address at a Tavern on the Green luncheon celebrating the introduction of a revolutionary power-surge protector—yes, saintly, incorruptible Walter did take those kinds of high-paying gigs. The other was a pre-graduation day speech that Seth MacFarlane (the “Family Guy” guy) gave at Harvard. Everybody else I have ever heard was awful.

Public speaking is no picnic in the best of circumstances. Most of the time, when an organization or civic group asks someone to address them, they really wanted someone else. No matter what they tell you, they really wanted Colin Powell. And if they are paying you even a modest honorarium, they will act like they own you, like they rented you out for the evening. In these circumstances, with a bunch of adult frat boys getting unnervingly chummy in that strange way that grown-up frat boys will, it is not surprising that so many speakers fail.

Still, most speakers fail because their speeches are no good. They often fall flat because they have a phoned-in quality, because they are stock speeches the speaker has given over and over again. No effort has been made to tailor the material to the audience being addressed, and the audience knows it.

I once heard a famous newsman tell a roomful of civic-minded suburban women that America needed to recover its lost passion for volunteerism, for doing important work pro bono. Civic-minded suburban women don’t need to be told about volunteering. Civic-minded suburban women are what keep small towns alive; the suburbs would die if they had to wait for the men to do anything they didn’t get paid for.

Other speeches fail because of inappropriate material. I once heard the founder of a celebrated toothpaste company talk about how his firm did not experiment on live rats. Did not, did not, did not. Never had, never would, come hell or high water.

This was an after-dinner speech in a church hall in front of a bunch of devout senior citizens. Dessert had not yet been served; nobody wanted to hear anything about rats. Anyway, most of the people in the room were members of the Greatest Generation. By and large, that generation didn’t lose much sleep over the plight of lab rats.

On a few occasions, my expertise in the field of disastrous speechifying has proved useful to others. I once had to talk a famous young British novelist down off the ledge when she found out that the 1,200 guests at the Metro-Detroit Book and Author Society luncheon expected her to speak and not just read to them. She was terrified.

I told her that the room was made up of people who loved books and loved the people who wrote them, so they would be well-disposed toward her. They would want to know about her background, her family, her ethnic group. This audience wasn’t the enemy. Nary a repo man was to be seen anywhere. This audience wanted her to succeed; only the cruel enjoy watching another human being embarrass herself.

The game plan was simple. I told her to make eye contact immediately with a sympathetic face and then work that person to death. Speak to that person as if she were an old friend. If she could find a second sympathetic face, terrific. Work them, back and forth. Do the Obama thing, side to side, back and forth, as if your head was on a swivel. But don’t scan the entire room looking for additional receptive targets because some Gloomy Gus, some snarling churl, could easily derail the whole experience with a disheartening sneer or yawn.

Once you’ve found one or two people who seem to like you, glom on to them with the Vulcan mind meld. And pray for the best. But stick to that strategy. Don’t get cute. Don’t push it.

The last time I spoke in public, at a bookstore in Connecticut, I spent the whole time trying to make the sullen woman sitting in the back row laugh. Just once. Just a titter. Just a halfhearted chuckle. Forget about eliciting a guffaw. A wisp of a smile would do. I used my best material. I went into overdrive. I swung for the fences. I reached back for the old fastball and let ‘er rip.

But my wife never laughed once.

—Mr. Queenan writes the Moving Targets column for The Wall Street Journal. His most recent book is “One for the Books.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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