How to be an ‘interesting’ speaker

Most speeches and presentations are dull affairs. Soporific experiences to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Part of the fabric of everyday life; like a visit to the dentist – but more frequent.

But why should this be? After all, there are plenty of interesting, articulate people around. So how is it that so many of them are rendered boring when called upon to stand before an audience and speak?

Ask a colleague what they think of PowerPoint and you’ll find a clue. Chances are they’ll tell you that in their experience most PowerPoint presentations are about as stimulating as a general anaesthetic. However, if you ask them about the presentation they’re currently working on, don’t faint from shock when they tell you it’s going be a PowerPoint one.

Could this apparent contradiction be explained away by the fact that they are brilliant at using PowerPoint? Surely if that were true, we’d already be living in PowerPoint heaven. No, the usual response is that they use PowerPoint because everyone else does. It’s just the way things are – like taxes and computer crashes.

We humans are inherently paradoxical creatures. Within our hearts we dance to two very alluring but contradictory tunes. One expresses our overwhelming need to be part of the herd, while the other gives voice to our acute desire to discover and assert our individuality. The success of each depends on the failure of the other.

Take, for example, the history of stock market bubbles and crashes. From time to time the herd becomes caught up in the frenzied buying, or selling, of shares, irrespective of whether or not it’s a good time to do it. This is a powerful demonstration of just how much the herd’s behaviour is driven by the heart, not the head. The greed of the herd inflates the bubbles, while its fear pops them, and creates the crashes. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of this mayhem, it’s the handful of individuals moving in the opposite direction who amass the profits.

It may seem like a giant leap from the stock market to the writing of a speech, or presentation – but it isn’t. Interesting speeches and presentations are written by individuals, not herds. So always ask yourself: “what kind of speech, or presentation, would the herd produce in this situation?” And then do it a bit differently.

The key word here is ‘bit’, because you’ll find that even the slightest deviation from the predictability of the herd will result in a disproportionately substantial benefit. There’s no need to go mad and turn everything on its head. Think instead of chaos theory and the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil setting off a tornado in Texas.

In your next presentation you could decide to surprise, and delight, everyone – including yourself – by not using PowerPoint at all. Or, you could try using it sparingly: a small number of slides as an accompaniment to your script, rather than as the main course.

The problem with herd slides is that they usually have far too many words and bullet points in them. You could experiment with slides that contain no words at all, just an image. And the image you choose could be one that acts as a visual mnemonic for one of the small number – ideally not more than three – main points you want your audience to take away with them.

When you’re writing your script make an effort to avoid over-used words and phrases, because the herd is addicted to them. So try not to be ‘passionate’ about things. ‘Passionate’ is a perfectly respectable word that’s had the stuffing knocked out of it by years of over-use and abuse.

Genuine passion is associated with intense emotion. Nowadays the herd is passionate about everything from ice-cream to plumbing. But if you’re passionate about everything, you end up being passionate about nothing.

So give praise to the herd, because thanks to its existence, being interesting isn’t half as difficult as you might think. It’s simply a matter of learning to trust your individual impulse, and allowing it free rein. And, finally, remember to pay attention next time your individual impulse asks the question, ‘why?’


  1. Martin

    Another great blog post. Loved the metaphor about the herd and the fact that even a minor adjustment to the norm can make a huge difference.

    Keep up the great work.

    Duncan Brodie
    Goals and Achievements

  2. Hi Martin

    Another thing, that even some of the most frequent presenters miss, is putting a broad enough effort into understanding the audience. The ‘analytical’ side of it tends to be done reasonably well by good presenters (who are the audience, what are they interested in, what is there knowledge level etc etc), but the ’emotional’ side tends to be forgotten – what will the audience think of the delivery style and technique.

    For most people, it doesn’t take a great deal of creative imagination to imagine what it is like watching and listening to someone read lengthy bullet points from slide number 78 of 154 – but putting a small amount of effort into really remembering how that feels will do more to put decent people off doing that to any one else than just about anything else!

    Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, for both content and style preparation…

    Simon Roskrow

  3. Susie Finch says

    I also loved the herd metaphor: you are spot on that no matter how much an individual may loathe ‘boring’ PowerPoint presentations there is still the tendency to go down the bullet point road themselves – because they think it’s what people expect. Personally I think the video (introduced to me by Garry Platt) in this feature should be complusory viewing for everyone using PowerPoint – it still makes me smile.
    A couple of years ago I saw a presentation that had just a few slides – one of a sandwhich, one of a plate of sandwhiches and then the dessert. The fact that I can still recall the images (and the point they illustrated) speaks volumes – the presentation didn’t have anything to do with sandwhiches by the way!
    Perhaps ‘passion’ should be the subect for your next blog Martin? In which case this may be of interest


  4. Actually, I use powerpoint a lot and pepople lovet it. I think it’s because I don’t use it to remember my talk an display “lines”. I use it to spice up my talk with images or interesting (simple) illustrations.

    This makes my powerpoint an interesting focus point and back drop, that helps information stick and be digested – not a sleeping pill. I also some time use it to introduce a surprising or a playful angle to what I’m about to say.

    My basic strategy is to always have an argumentation running. I’m always getting to somewhere with that I say – I don’t just stack lots of facts on top of each other.

    And then I EVALUATE every time I can. Understanding the audience is key, like Simon says. Evaluating my talk often reveals things I didn’t catch during the talk. If it’s a very small crowd, I simply ask them at the end. If they’re more than 20 (or we have little time), I use a systematic “evaluation tool”, we’ve built for that purpose. It’s called Speakerscore ( and we have opened it up for others to use as well.

    I find it especially useful to read the comments and to see where scores are either very high or very low. That’s where I find the do’s and dont’s for my next talk.

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