The 10 Commandments of Suck-Free Speaking

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Last week, I had the amazing fortune to have been invited back as a featured blogger at the World Business Forum at Radio City Hall in NYC.

The speakers were world class, including people like Charlene Li, Jim Collins, Al Gore, Jack Welch, Steve Levitt, Nando Parrado, James Freakin’ Cameron, Martin Lindstrom. All were charged with not only holding the attention of, but mesmerizing the audience of 5,000 CEOs and top-level business leaders from around the world.

The content was, for the most part, fabulous (which I rarely say coming away from a conference), but the real gift for me was the chance to absorb how the best real-content (not schtick-fest buy-my-stuff hawkers) presenters own a stage and inspire an audience the size of Radio City.

I took notes on some of the content, more on that in a later post. But I also took notes on presentation technique and distilled it, along with some of my own awakenings, down to the following list of 10 things the best presenters had in common.

So, without further ado, here are my…

10 Commandments of Suck-Free Speaking

1. Give a damn – If you don’t they’ll know…and you’ll suck.

2. Tell great stories – Craft ones that engage, entertain, educate and inspire.

3. Practice…A Lot – With rare exception, speakers are made, not born.

4. Co-create the experience – Empower your audience to own and guide it.

5. Bullets kill – Use slides only to expand and illuminate, never as a crutch

6. Simplify – You don’t need to prove you’re smarter, they already know you’re not.

7. Be generous – It’s about them, not you.

8. Create a script – Then throw it away, the magic is in the process, not the product

9. Lean into the fear – It means it matters to you, that’s a good thing.

10. Focus and flit – Speak to one person at a time, then another, then another.

Bonus Commandment – Don’t be a butthead. Fly your freak flag, but not for affect and never out of arrogance or anger.

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55 responses

55 responses to “The 10 Commandments of Suck-Free Speaking”

  1. Brett says:

    Bonus commandment #2: Slow down. If you go fast, you’ll appear nervous (because you are) and you won’t be able to get your message across.

    (Oh, and Jonathan, there’s a typo – “your” instead of “you’re” – on commandment #6)

    Excellent post!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Soory, I was writing too fast, lol!

      • Laura Martin Bovard says:

        I think Jonathan may have been correct it is “you don’t have to prove you are smarter” which shortens to “you’re” not “your”

        and thanks for the post, I’ve been doing more speaking lateley and these are definitley helpful tips.

  2. Jon Thomas says:


    First, great name! Second, great post. As a presentation coach and designer I look over posts like these with a fine-toothed comb, but you’ve pretty much nailed the commandments. I especially like that you included storytelling, which isn’t mentioned enough when talking about effective presenting. Stories are so powerful and engaging.

    Jon Thomas
    Presentation Advisors

    • Jon Thomas says:

      Added tip: Respect your allotted time. Rushing at the end to fit in all your content doesn’t help anyone, and going over time doesn’t either.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Honestly, I think storytelling should get 90% of the focus in not only speaking, but writing and marketing. It’s just THAT powerful

      • I agree wholeheartedly with you both. Storytelling is, I think, the thing that binds us most tightly together as people. Our shared oral tradition is one of the fundamental ways that we can preserve history, and make connections with one another.

        To that end, I think being a good speaker is founded most basically on being a good storyteller. The public speaker is, after a fashion, the bard of our modern era. It is her responsibility to offer us a way to share experiences that give us insight.

        Great post! This one’s getting a bookmark.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, Adam Baker, Sarah Pinnix, Tom Webster, Jim Everett and others. Jim Everett said: Ignore if you want your speaking to suck! RT @jonathanfields The 10 Commandments of Suck-Free Speaking – […]

  4. Jonathan,
    I get asked to speak a lot and I realized recently that one reason that this happens is that I’m a story teller. I get to my point by way of anecdotes that people can both digest and be excited to go re-tell. So, essentially, I write material that people can steal! And it seems to work for both the speaker (me) and my audience.

    Thanks for a great Top 10 of un-sucking my speaking skills. Do you have a poster of this for sale? Merchandising is calling you Jon!

    PS – Did you meet James Freaking Cameron? Was he as quirky as he seems on Entourage? (I assume that’s where you go his middle name)

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yep, storytelling is the killer speaking app. Didn’t meet “Jim,” but I was struck by not only his thoughts on the creative process, but on leadership. Smart, driven man.

  5. And to make a it an even dozen: “Flirt with your audience!” 🙂
    Seriously, this tip helped quite a few of my clients.

  6. So good! Thanks for this list- copying now. 🙂

  7. Patti Murphy says:

    Jonathan, this post came just in time, as I am preparing to give a talk in a few weeks and have had a bit of trouble pulling it together and finding a focus. These tips are great…thanks!

  8. Anne Wayman says:

    Ahhhh – let’s make it a baker’s dozen. The easiest way to slow down is to actually listen to yourself as you speak (talk).

    And I’m so glad you’ve got a typo – I didn’t notice it; my spelling is far too creative as some in my audience are quick to point out.

    Jonathan, I laughed with pleasure at this post.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Love the additions! And, yup, I think maybe you and I both specialize in creative spelling…sign of genius, I’m quite sure!

  9. Reese says:

    Aside from our own lives/experiences, how can we build up an arsenal of great stories? (books, i know…but that feels vague. I read a banana load but still stratch my head over the building of a library of stories).

    Any thoughts master jedi? 🙂

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Reading a lot is important, but also, go deeper into your own life. There are so many small moments that occur throughout the day that can become the basis of great stories. I like to keep a notebook or voice recorder on me at all times so that I can capture them whenever they happen. Then go deeper into your past and look for the bigger moments, awakening, conversations, people, experiences, breaking points, revelations, failures and success.

      I’m a big believer in the notion that we all have a ton of stage-worthy stories, it’s just that the most powerful ones, most of us don’t want to share, because it means revealing too much of ourselves. But, inevitably, those are the ones that really hit home.

      Cuz, in the end, we’re all just a bunch of kooks looking to be loved.

      • If I may, Miz Reese, I think that the value of reading is more about seeing how other people turn their experiences into stories—learning process and structure and voice—than in finding stories to tell.

        Finding your own stories is about mining the life you’ve led and then having capture devices at the ready. In addition to Jonathan’s suggestions, I’d say think about having someone interview you, or about interviewing yourself. Do the Proust Questionnaire, for example, and after each item, tell a story about *why* you chose that answer. Or think about advice you’d give someone who was going through something difficult—something you’d been through. What stories would you tell by way of illustration? B/c yeah, we’ll give advice, but of course we all know that the advice we best like to get is the story kind.

        Finally, I’ll put in a plug for Toastmasters. There are speech assignments that get you to focus on finding and telling your own stories, and in a very structured, supportive environment. Incredibly helpful, and DIRT CHEAP. Love Toastmasters.

        Good question—thanks for raising it!

        • I have also seen some excellent speakers tell stories of the interactions they have had with audience members which have added brilliant insights and great jokes to the original content. So your stories can come from what happened to you yesterday or what happens today as you work with a client on your stuff.

          Great post – thanks Jonathan

        • reese says:

          thank you both! that was uber-helpful, and such solid takeaways. I really appreciate it 🙂

      • Walt says:

        “Cuz, in the end, we’re all just a bunch of kooks looking to be loved.”

        …can I use that in my poem/song?

        -Walt Ruggles, College Student and Aspiring Artist/Entrepreneur

  10. I like point number 3:
    “Practice…A Lot – With rare exception, speakers are made, not born.”

    When I’m getting ready for a presentation, I make it a point to rehearse at least 10 times before the event date. Rehearsal goes into the preparation leading up to that point of course. It might sound excessive but ultimately, it also helps refresh my point of view to improve and/or present things from a different angle.

    I need to get better at using images. I think I have gotten better, but hey, there’s always room for improvement 🙂

  11. Diane says:

    Love your post, Jonathan! A couple of years ago I became petrified of speaking, something I used to enjoy. I began to reflect on what made me so anxious & it was #7. I was way too focused on myself wondering, “Do they like me, do they think I’m stupid, is my accent annoying (I’m Southern)…”? So I began focusing on _serving_ my audience and enjoying the process; eventually I got over the anxiety.

  12. Ian Aspin says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    These are crackin’ tips, thanks for pulling ’em together.

    I especially like 7. “Be generous – It’s about them, not you.” I guess this attitude works for almost everything when dealing with people.

    For those who are show-offs (who? me? never!) it takes a bit of thought to avoid getting carried away with all the amazing stuff we’ve discovered and are bursting to share. What tips do you have to help people show their generosity and humility and at the same time give a talk that really moves people?

    Cheers for all the good stuff you keep pumpin’ out week in and week out – much appreciated.

    Much love,


    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Just keep asking “what can I give them that’ll solve their biggest pain or deliver an unexpected delight.” Often it’s as simple as crafting a story that triggers an awakening. And, leave plenty of time for Q&A, that’s soooo important

  13. Awesome – thanks Jonathan! Perfect timing for me as I’m presenting in front of a big audience this Thursday. The good news is that I’m super passionate about the content and feel great about the opportunity to present to a captive audience. Your TEDx talk on Fear was a huge inspiration in this regard, and I really appreciate your ongoing encouragement.

  14. You’ve got printers printing all over the world with this post! Thanks for really getting at the essence of what makes a presentation work. #8 is my favorite. I’m putting this in my ‘essential wisdom file’. Your brilliance tickles me. Thanks for sharing it with the world.

  15. Ten excellent points. I would add one to the organization of your speech: use the power of three’s. Make no more than three main points that support the ONE main reason you’re making your speech. From those three points you can use stories, factoids, anecdotes, etc. to drive home the point.

    And I echo your idea to practice, practice, practice. Get a flip video camera, record yourself several times. You’ll find and delete those crutches that you didn’t even know you had.

  16. Angelique says:

    “Bullets kill.” Love it! If you need an outline to keep your place, hold it in your hand. Don’t force it on the rest of the room!

  17. Randy says:

    Great wisdom that once again revolve around story telling…. I love stories but I’m not so hot at storytelling… where can I learn how to be a better story teller? Where is the online course or book or tele-whatever on how to become a great raquanteur?

  18. Michael Gass says:

    Excellent info Jonathan. Just wanted to say thanks for sharing it. Good stuff.

  19. EJ Ellis says:

    Brief & to the point – excellent! Love the bonus–that one is pure gold, and a lot more people need to heed it.

  20. A high court judge and professional speaker friend of mine told me he does an hour of planning, scripting and practise for every minute he speaks….and he has been doing this stuff for thirty years!

  21. Amy Harrison says:

    I would also suggest asking questions rather than making points.

    I taught my first ever workshop last week and afterwards was aware that I had guided a bit too heavily with “what’s important is…”

    In hindsight, I’d have had fewer discussion points and allowed time for the group to actively come to their own conclusions.

  22. David Dunne says:

    Great post Jonathan! There were so many really fantastic speakers at the WBF, but two of them would really benefit from reading your post!! Charlene Li and Renee Mauborgne were a big disappointment with old ideas, old examples, and a monotone delivery. Vijay Govindarajan superbly dug the audience out of a Renee induced coma, and managed to have fun despite Renee eating heavily into his slot. He was a major bright spot. But it was Nando Parrado held the audience for every minute of his speech. What an amazing story of life an love, the real kind. Story telling is as you said, the key to a great speech.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Agreed, Nando was tremendous. In part because he was so real, in part because he was the only one talking about humanizing the quest for business success, but in largest part, because of his story and the way he shared it. Man, not a dry eye in the house after that Mike and the Mechanics soundtracked video.

  23. […] The 10 Commandments of Suck-Free Speaking — Public speaking can be tough. If you need help getting preparing for a speech or presentation, check out these tips! Jonathan Fields […]

  24. J.D. Meier says:

    > … the magic is in the process, not the product
    Beautiful. And so true of so many things.

  25. Mick Morris says:

    Absolutelyfrigginawesome! I really wish a lot of people whom I have the pleasure of “listening” to or being “spoken at” by would click on over here and pay attention!

  26. Gina says:

    Love it! Really- if you don’t care, it will be painfully obvious to those listening to you. Why subject them to that? Put your heart into it or don’t do it at all.

  27. […] The 10 Commandments of Suck-Free Speaking oh yes. particularly number 3 Name: Required […]

  28. Sean Bengry says:

    Great stuff Jonathan, short and to the point. Is there any possible chance that the presentations/conference you refer to was recorded and placed on a video sharing site?

  29. Awesome. Advice and information you can actually use. I speak a lot, try and practice much of this, but it’s always good to find something this clear with one or two things I hadn’t thought about.

  30. Hi Jonathon – great list of 10 here – I find that many biz folks overlook #3 too much. if practice is good enough for Winston Churchill, it’s good enough for the rest of us!

  31. Thanks for this. I especially resonate with ‘don’t be a butthead.’ 🙂

    Seriously, storytelling is a must and one I need to master.

    The others that strike me – practice, create a script, then ditch it – speak to me. Pun not intended. I’m a partial improv speaker – I prepare according to what I’ve promised, and what I want them to take away, then I improv. I’ve never been able to stick to a script, but I do have a clear intention of what I want for them. I’ve been known to chuck my entire presentation when I saw that the audience was in a completely different place.

    I also appreciate the comment about honoring your time commitment. It’s so important to respect people’s time. I’ve been amazed by how often speakers will not respect the time and attention of the audience and will start late with nary an apology.

    Thanks again, Jonathan, for these tips and reminders. I promise to not be a butthead, at least in front of an audience.

  32. Sara J says:

    Such a good post! Thanks for this list- I took some notes.

  33. Cheryl Dolan says:

    LOVE this post! I would add one more that I teach in my workshops: Stand and wait at the end of your piece and receive the applause from the audience – really take it in as a thank you from them and to them. Very powerful (I have seen way too many speakers rush off or turn away – it’s very disappointing for the audience and unfinished for the speaker).

  34. Edwin Jansen says:

    I was lucky enough to have caught your Manifesto presentation last week at Blogworld and it was easily one of the best and most inspiring I saw. In my opinion your biggest strengths are #1 and #2. You told great stories and your passion for the subject was unmistakable. Thanks for all the great info and ideas – I wrote two pages of notes!

    In the process of explaining your presentation to someone else who missed it I think I may have thought of some things that could make it even stronger. For instance, you could mention the site ChangeThis as a place for someone to get their Manifesto published. If you are interested I can email you some of my notes and suggestions.

    Thanks again for the great talk.


  35. Ed Cyzewski says:

    Isn’t it interesting that bullets kill for public speaking, but for a blog post they’re often the best medicine?
    Thanks for this list.

  36. […] The 10 Commandments of Suck-Free Speaking (tags: Speaking) […]

  37. Anna Selner says:

    I think your 9th commandment has been for me the most important. How can we get something of life without getting out of our confort zone? Learning to fight my fears has brought me the most and I can simply everyone to do the same. But you have to choose your fights. The fear you fight have to bring you something more, which is not the case of a parachute jump (at least, for me)!

  38. Gil Reich says:

    Bonus commandment?! Really? Did the people of Israel say “Hey Moses, these are great, but can we PLEASE have one more?”

    (BTW, I really did like the post).