Preparing your talk

I’m writing this after having just delivered a deeply strange “motivational talk” to 180 sixth-formers over Zoom.

Some individuals were on their phones (camera off, alas). Most were in classrooms, but sitting far from a camera and blurry, making interaction delightfully awkward.

Happily, I had the sense to name that awkwardness, and even managed to play an impro game through the internet with a teacher (thank you Mr H, hope you enjoyed your two pints of Guinness).

Having come through it alive, and not (yet) received any kind of bollocking for doing anything unspeakable, I’m happy to share this video.

It’s not of the session itself, which would require all kinds of permission from parents – but of the call I had earlier with Ms Elliot, deputy head of the sixth form.

It contains, in brief, the steps I go through before doing any talk, and you might possibly find that useful.

Thank you Ms Elliot for allowing me to share it. Please leave a comment if you think I forgot anything (or just to say how blooming marvellous Ms Elliot is).

PS. I didn’t ask people to put a hand on their nose.

As ever, please leave me a comment before you go…

Your Fans

This might sound like a wonderful thing to have, and I’m sure it is. But talking to fans can be problematic too.

The main thing to be careful about is taking them for granted, or being rude.

Another problem can arise when you try something that doesn’t fit with their fixed ideas about you: it can feel like a bit of a trap.

Back to 1. Invention >>

Your Peers

In some situations it is possible to come together as peers, with a genuinely flat structure.

Some people think they have achieved that, simply by announcing it, but it takes a bit more than that to make it work. People need to trust that it really is a safe place to share as equals.

Establishing that trust isn’t actually very difficult, but it does need careful attention and full agreement from every participant beforehand.

In a situation like this, it becomes easier to let down your guard and admit to uncertainty and mistakes.

Not long ago, I helped to organise a group of authors, who came together as equals to talk about publishing and its difficulties in a safe space. Having agreed that anybody could ask anything, and that participants could freely join or quit any discussion at any time, without offence, we had an amazingly honest discussion.

It was an experience that created strong bonds between those who were there.

Another context in which you might speak to your peers is in the meetings of Toastmasters, where individuals go to learn public speaking in front of each other. More about that later.

Or at any of the 12-step Fellowships, based on Alcoholics Anonymous, where participants gain experience, strength and hope by sharing their common problems and successes. More about that, later, too.

Next: Your Fans >>

True believers

This is the kind of audience to which, if you weren’t actually speaking, you would yourself belong.

Campaigners speak to activists, politicians address party rallies, preachers preach to the converted.

Assuming that the speaker is not some kind of cult leader (see Your Fans) everybody is more or less equal. This doesn’t make life easy, necessarily: true believers are liable to disagree about minutiae.

Next: Your Peers >>

Existing customers

Like potential customers, the ones who already pay you will be questioning, even demanding, if not actually unpleasant. (They may be very pleasant.)

The difference is that existing customers will rarely ignore you, unless you have already done what they wanted from you, or have failed to do it, in which case being ignored may mean that they do not intend to continue being your customers.

Next: True Believers >>


Colleagues are rarely your equals, because most workplaces are hierarchical.

It’s one thing addressing the people you report to. It’s another thing addressing the people who report to you.

And it’s a whole different basket of snakes if they’re all in the room together. Or, rather: that may be how you feel, but thinking of any audience as snakes is not a great plan.

Neither of these situations is “better” or “worse” than the others. They’re neither good nor bad. But you do need to understand the expectations of the people in the room.

Next: Existing customers >>

Total Strangers

If you stand on a street corner and address passers-by, you can’t assume any great knowledge of what makes them tick, and nor can you expect much goodwill from them: many people assume that if you speak in public you are either bonkers, or will shortly ask for money.

Once, writing a story for The Sunday Times about political apathy, I stood on a soap box at Brighton Pier and urged people to be more engaged. Perhaps because I was being photographed, some came over to listen to me, but none stayed long.

My friend Steve Chapman decided to launch his self-published book about creative risk-taking, Can Scorpions Smoke?, by busking on London’s South Bank in front of a box full of books, and a sign promising that they were entirely free.

People tended to stay away when he sang soulfully about himself, or about the contents of the book, but when he picked up the tempo and loudly repeated his refrain, “Book launch! Book launch!” they were drawn in.

He had discovered by creative risk-taking of his own that engaging with strangers calls for high energy, maximum volume, and a very simple message.

It has been observed that most of the preaching of Jesus, in the gospels, took place outdoors, and that much of it was brief. Even the longest of the parables would take less than five minutes to deliver. In his book Explosive Preaching, the homiletics teacher Ron Boyd-MacMillan recommends similar brevity to present-day preachers.

I might add that even “complete” strangers aren’t entirely unknowable. In the examples I have just given, the speakers could make some fairly large assumptions about based on time and location.

For instance, a high proportion of Steve’s passers-by, at the South Bank, were probably tourists, apart from the ones wearing office clothing and pacing rapidly between them.

Why does this matter? Because these tiny details can help you to customise your content. And you can also just ask questions to find out more about the people before you.

At university, I wrote a thesis about Bernard Shaw, the politically engaged playwright. Reading the massive, four-volume biography by Michael Holroyd, I was mesmerised by Shaw’s commitment, as a young man, to public speaking.

Over the course of a decade, he gave more than a thousand talks, all unpaid. One of his finest, he later recalled, was given in a downpour at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, to a small group of policemen. “I spoke very well in my effort to convert them [to socialism].” Conversion, rather than mere entertainment, was always his aim. “My platform performances are for use, not ornament.

Naturally shy, Shaw used street-corner oratory to learn how to address an audience, “as a man learns to skate or to cycle – by doggedly making a fool of myself until I got used to it.”

Next: Captive audience >>

What kind of audience is it?

There are many kinds of audience you might have to address, and it’s impossible to identify them all exactly. But it’s worth breaking down the too-general idea of “an audience” into a number of broad types.

Next: Total strangers >>