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.

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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 >>

Nothing is boring

If something interests you, that’s wonderful. But you have probably found out the hard way that it may not be interesting to everybody else. So it’s perhaps reassuring to recall that nothing is boring in itself. It’s context that makes it boring – or interesting.

Imagine that you are on a long journey, and you have a seat reservation. After a little while, your neighbour introduces himself and mentions his line of work:

  1. He’s a producer with one of the big studios in Hollywood
  2. He’s a special adviser at 10 Downing Street
  3. He works in scaffolding

It’s probably true for most people that 1. or 2. would sound fascinating, because our general everyday culture considers those roles to be glamorous. It’s possibly also true that most people, hearing 3., would groan inwardly and hope the conversation doesn’t go on too long – perhaps even reach in a bag for a book, or even pretend to fall asleep.

Of course, this scenario would not typically be called public speaking, or presenting, but remember: by answering 1. or 2. the speaker will have typically won himself an audience, while with 3. he will have lost one.

As you know, having lived through something a bit like this, probably many times, the situation is not unalterable. The willing audience can still be lost by the Downing Street adviser bragging, or in any number of other ways, and the reluctant audience can still be won over. I’ll come back to both those possibilities later. For now, I want simply to observe that context is important.

If the man who works in scaffolding were speaking to a conference of property developers and builders, his insights might suddenly seem terribly important, even thrilling.

Whereas the Hollywood producer, addressing those same property developers and builders, might quickly lose their interest and goodwill if he wasted their time peddling gossip about movie stars. To keep their attention, he would need to find an expression of his own interests that overlaps with theirs. Something like: “What the building industry could learn from Hollywood.” Or, “How making a film is like building a penthouse.”

Again, this is something that most of us grow into doing in everyday conversation. We try to find a common interest. But when it comes to “public speaking” or presenting to an audience, some people forget about the norms of conversation and switch to a weird form of one-way broadcast.

Most audiences don’t want to be lectured by somebody who ignores their own interests, any more than you do when you are stuck besides somebody chatty on a long journey.

By the same token, an expert audience of property developers doesn’t want to be spoken to by our friend in scaffolding as if they knew nothing about the matter in hand – as if they were a stranger on a train. The conference audience are already experts. They don’t want to hear what they already know. They want a clear message – something either challenging or reassuring (or both) about an important and current issue.

Which is to say: a really general overview of scaffolding, while possibly acceptable to a stranger on the train, is too general for a conference full of experts.

The more narrowly you focus the topic, the smaller your audience will be: builders may be gripped by a story that makes property developers take an early coffee break – and vice versa.

This is not all bad news. On the contrary, it can be seen as a big plus. Because the narrower topics will be sensationally absorbing to the handful of people who listen.

Next: What kind of audience is it? >>