HUGH CULVER

My Million-Dollar Lesson About Public Speaking

Updated to Speaking on May 28, 2024.

When I got into the business of speaking I actually didn’t know it was a business. I thought public speaking was something people did once they retired from their “real” job or needed to pay some bills after returning from climbing a mountain or running an ultra.

Fast forward almost 20 years and many millions of dollars, and not only did it become my business, but I helped many hundred others to join it as well.

Like most businesses, there is a lot of competition for your hour on stage and even more advice about how to get good at it. Some experts insist you tell more jokes or make eye contact with someone in the front row. Others tell you to invest in a fancy slide show or have a unique brand for your message.

All great stuff, but there’s one bit of advice even better: make it about them.

Hummingbird

Audience attention is like a hummingbird. 

When your audience recognizes something for them – something they want and need – they zoom in with complete attention. And then they’re gone.

As you drone on about the research behind your advice, or why smiling in the mirror releases endorphins they’re thinking about the text that just buzzed on their phone, how they need to go for a pee, or why the person next to them is hogging the armrest.

It’s not that your audience doesn’t care, or that they have better things to do with their time – it’s just that listening is hard work. Part of the problem is your audience can listen and process what you are saying twice as fast as you can speak. Add distractions in the room, trying to understand something you said minutes ago, and bladder control, and the odds of holding their attention are stacked against you.

Your ace in the hole is to use a universal truth about all audiences: they are selfish.

Selfish

Everyone in your audience has a gap. That gap is the space between where they are, in work and life, and where they want to go. The gap could be about productivity, happiness, money, health, or hundreds of other needs, like a peaceful world, or lower taxes. 

As a presenter, your job is to grab their attention, get them to lean in, and deliver valuable, actionable advice. Because, like a radio tuned to station “ME”, they are always alert for something about closing that gap. 

It’s great that you had a life-changing experience, or discovered a mind-altering insight, but they want to know why they should pay attention. After all, when they head home from the event or sign off the Zoom call, all they have is what they can take action on.

Here are 5 ways to do that.

1. Be likable

The opening of any great speech is not about the speech – it’s about proving you are likable and building their trust. Be likable so your audience can relate to you and build trust so they want to listen to what comes next.

Being “likable” is not something you can turn on, like a light switch, but there are simple techniques that help:

  • Stand beside the lectern, not behind it. Ideally, move around the stage and move your gaze around the audience.
  • Dress at the level of your audience and a little above.
  • Don’t try to impress your audience with, as Mark Twain quipped “a five-dollar word”, when simple language will work.
  • Smile. Enough said.
  • Admit your faults. The reason you are on stage is because you have done something 90% of the audience has not. If you want to be more likable, step down off your pedestal.
  • Be approachable before and after your time on stage “Remember that even when your speech is over,” writes speaker coach Craig Valentine, “it’s not really over. You are still on stage.” 

2. Tell a story

Stories are the magic dust that makes audiences lean in and pay attention. When you launch into a story everyone in your audience silently dons a director’s beret and begins developing a movie in their mind with them as the lead character. Like the foundation of a building, you need to build on those memory-anchors with your key points.

I use stories to kick off a speech, end a speech, introduce lessons, or reinforce stories about people who have used the lessons I’m sharing. Stories work.

3. You, not me

When you use “you”, or “your”, instead of “me”, or “my” you invite your audience into your message, encouraging them to feel a part of the conversation instead of being passive listeners. This is a subtle change, but over the course of your presentation, it will make a difference.

As you practice your speech, pay attention to how many times “my” and “I” come up.

4. Give examples

Theories, concepts, and strategies are only as good as the action steps that support them. The better you translate theory into action, the more valuable you become.

For example, if I’m delivering a lesson on small wins in health, I will include a quick list actions like drink water first thing in the morning, walk at lunch, record your exercise, and reduce alcohol intake to once a week. 

5. Sell progress

The content in your speech should be like a roadmap for closing the gap your audience arrived with. There might be a lot of detail, but they have a direction to head in. 

Now you need to sell progress. Progress toward a goal is like pouring gasoline on a flame—we are more motivated and we want more.

In my presentation on making small wins, I have my audience write down and share with their neighbor one thing they will do that day to get started. I know that any step in the direction of their goals – however small – dramatically improves the chance they’ll take another step.

Journey

A great speech is not 60 minutes of content—it’s a journey. As TED speaker and civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson shared “Your audience needs to be willing to go with you on a journey.”

It took me a long time to realize that just because I had lessons, stories, and research that didn’t mean it was all helpful or valuable. The secret to a great speech is to throw away anything that’s not about them or them making progress.

When you get it right, your audience will take you on a journey, bringing you more opportunities, buying your products, and becoming loyal followers.

And then the business will come to you.

 

Want more about the business of speaking? Here are 3 more posts:

Death of a Public Speaker
Why You Need to Tell More Stories
The fastest way to get more consulting, speaking, or coaching work