Dr Nic

How to stop killing people with your public speeches

Let’s do the math.

If you give a speech to 200 people for 30 minutes you are consuming 100 hours of human life.

Giving an hour-long talk to a thousand people? That’s six weeks of human life devoted to your talk.


Let’s assume 6 weeks of human life is at stake. It is not a loan and you cannot give it back. One hour after you finish speaking, you’ve used up 6 weeks of human life.

If you’re bad enough for long enough you kill a whole person.

Mathematically, if 1000 people witness your speech and 0 of them change any aspect of their life then you should not have given the talk. You used up 6 weeks of human life and achieved nothing.

Let’s all pledge together:

  • I am valuable
  • I will continue to share my ideas and my work in public
  • I will continue to improve the craft of sharing publicly (for example, speech craft and blogging)
  • I will respect the time of other people as a gift
  • I will change lives

This pledge needs a name; anyone?

You are an incredible individual. You have done things, seen things, diagnosed things, solved things that no one else has done. No one else has the accumulated knowledge and reasoning that you have. You were the one who conclusively deduced that all solutions to World Peace involved chocolate biscuits.

You are also unique in your methods of communication. You have different stories, different mental models, and different approaches to communication. You do that thing with your voice and your posture. As a child you were beaten up for being different. As an adult it makes you extremely valuable.

There are human beings who need to have their lives changed by you. Your value is when other people behave differently because of you.

What to do next?

There is no check box, pass or fail, “crossing the finish line” in public speaking. I’d rather watch you play Guitar Hero. Aim higher. Take responsibility for your communication. Look at the human beings in front of you and rock their world.


Like the craft of software development, there is the craft of communication.

Practise the craft of communication. Limit the minutes/hours/days/weeks that you use of other people’s lives. Write your speeches and then practise them to increasingly larger audiences.

“I’m not very good at speeches”

Write small speeches for small audiences. As you improve, increase the size of the audience. If it’s necessary to achieve your goal, increase the duration of your talk. Though how often can you communicate 80% of your message in just 5 to 15 minutes?

If you are given 45 minutes at a conference to speak, you are permitted by me to speak for 15 minutes only. If you know you only have 15 minutes, perhaps invite one or two other people to share during the remaining time. Or give back the remaining time to the audience. Ask them to use it to think about or explore the idea you’ve shared with them.

“Where can I find small audiences?” If you’re practising a large audience speech, then pull a handful of people into a room and they can alpha test your talk. As a small group they’ll probably do something annoying like give feedback. You’re probably self-conscious enough that your brain is full of negative self-feedback, so you may or may not want their feedback. But let them give it to you. “Thanks, that’s a good idea” is the reward you give them back.

Next, find another small audience. The jokes won’t be as funny in small audiences. Large audiences laugh louder and stronger. Do the talk again.

Follow up with the first group – did they do anything different in their lives after your talk? Did they talk about your ideas or thoughts during the week? If your speech is good then some small nugget will carry with them, regardless that they are a friend/peer/family member.

Don’t worry too much if you don’t rock their world: friends and peers tend to not learn as much from you. “You can’t be a guru in your home town.” That’s not the job of a friend. Friends are there to laugh at you and put you in embarrassing situations for their own amusement. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see if your small friendly audiences thought about your talk in the days afterwards.

Even in a small room with friends, unload on them with energy and passion. Practise your communication as much as you practise your content.

“Where can I learn speech craft?”


You learnt to drive with your parents and a driving instructor. You learnt software development by writing small demo apps and pair programming. And yet some people have the audacity to stand on stage in front of 100s of people and be terrible. Those people are not you. You will not suck. You are going to learn the craft of speaking because you want to use people’s time well and you want to change their life.

Toastmasters is a club format. There is no “school” concept. Rather a group of 20 people meet twice a month and each time they all suck less. They stop stuttering. They tell interesting stories. Everyone learns something fascinating from other members who have different backgrounds and professions.

The practise format is interesting and successful. You give three types of speeches: 5-7 minute prepared talks, 1-3 minute impromptu talks, and 2-3 minute improptu evaluation talks about the previous speakers. That’s right, you get immediate evaluation from another club member!

Every club is different so visit a few of them to find a club that you like. Some a filled with old farts who value meeting protocol over having a good time. Some clubs like doing competitions. Some clubs meet weekly. Some clubs meet for breakfast or lunch or in the evening.

It’s relatively cheap.

You will learn the craft of speaking and leadership. And conversely, though not explicitly promised in any Toastmasters literature, you’ll stop killing people.

Is it really that important?

Personally, I think its a bit unfair of a presenter to be bad in front of a large audience for a long duration and say “I’m sorry if I was bad. I’m trying to get better.”

But! It is far far worse is the competent presenter who does no preparation, does a terrible job, and merely hopes it goes better next time. There are human lives at stake. One of them might be mine.

As a public speaker you have a gift – human lives. You have their time and their open minds. Aim high. Change lives. You are special. I hope to experience you speaking awesomely at a conference near me soon!


Thanks to Zach Holman for our chat on the plane back from Ruby MidWest and for proof reading and fixing the post. He is a great speaker and will definitely convince you of whatever snake oil he’s selling rock your world. Just look at these slides!

22 Responses to “How to stop killing people with your public speeches”

  1. Dr Nic says:

    Find your local toastmasters clubs (there are probably several) via this site http://reports.toastmasters.org/findaclub/

  2. ivan says:

    Ehi Nic, very good post, thank you, I didn’t know about toastmasters, I’ve checked out and there is 2 clubs in my city too… I think I’ll join them! :)
    I hope to see one of your speeches one day

  3. Dr Nic says:

    Ivan, let me know how you go with Toastmasters!

  4. ivan says:

    sure, I’ve already written to a club to go (22/11) and see how is it, there will be fun. I talked in front of some people only once, and it was just for closing the event :)

  5. ivan says:

    since this morning I’ve watched a lot of toastmasters videos on youtube and man…. they’re all great, from the uber-top-speech to the ice breaker one… I’ve also watched videos on pubic speaking and other stuff like that… I think that you can change the life of someone with just a simple post like this one, just giving useful info, not just when you talk on stage (there you obviously have all the other useful tools like voice, etc)
    but at the end everything is how we move next since when we get that info.. :)
    and btw, with this post (and knowing toastmasters thanks to it) I think that you’ve changed mine (I think I’ll follow both clubs, one speaking english and the other with my own language…i’m 25 and i’ve so many things to learn and i want to do it :) )
    thank you nic, glad to be an ey customer where works people like you :)

  6. Dave Hoover says:

    Great post Dr Nic! I shared some thoughts here: http://nuts.redsquirrel.com/post/12790791425/how-to-stop-killing-yourself-by-listening-to-speeches

    tl;dr don’t just sit there and let public speakers kill you

  7. Dr Nic says:

    Ivan, I look forward to hearing how your first meeting and your first speech goes! The initial ice breaker speech at Toastmasters is a great idea – the topic is easy – introduce yourself :)

  8. Dr Nic says:

    Dave, that is an important point. I think with the proliferation of laptops and smart phones its far easier – and almost automatic – for audiences to reject unengaging speakers.

    Perhaps even it is too easy? Speakers must now compete with each audience members important list of “other stuff I could be doing now” for attention. The solution to me is to dramatic and engaging upfront in the first minute, to buy yourself another 5 minutes of attention. With that 5 minutes, earn their attention for the remaining 20-40 minutes. Sort of like a headline advertises the first paragraph, and the first paragraph advertises the remainder of an article/blog post.

  9. Great post!

    I presented right after you this year at WindyCityRails, and saw firsthand how you’ve established a style that is informative and engaging and fresh. I definitely felt the pressure to ‘Bring it’ for the audience, and make sure I delivered lasting value for their 45 minute commitment.

    I think a big part of what you are suggesting is to PRACTICE, and to know your speech thoroughly. I would like to see more technical gatherings provide opportunities for new speakers to improve their craft through panels, lightning talks and screencasts.

    For a new speaker, it can be overwhelming to fill 45mins with solid content, but ‘Everyone can do 5mins’ on something they care about.
    I try to structure my talks in 5-10min sections, each of which has been supported by a few blog posts, and would make for a decent lightning talk or screencast. I often use jing.com to record a 5min section, then send the screencast to a few close friends to get their feedback.

    I know there are a lot of people that would like to present, but are nervous about being in front of a crowd, and also about ‘knowing their stuff’ well enough. If we can encourage more venues to do lightning talks, panel/Birds of a Feather gatherings, and screencasts, I think we’ll see a new wave of confident, passionate and polished presenters.

  10. Dr Nic says:

    John, lightning talks/rejectconfs are one of my favourite sections of conferences for their high ratio of content:time!

    As a forum to practise speaking: lightning talks have one potential downside. Due to the time constraint beginning speakers tend to rush. They have 15 mins of information to jam into 5 minutes. One suggestion is to share 3 mins of information in 5mins, and use 1 min at the start for a good introduction, and 1 min at the end as stress-free breathing space :)

    The goal of a lightning talk is to raise awareness of something and to call the audience to action (do a demo, read a blog post, etc)

  11. ivan says:

    Nic, I’ll let you know then. Just a question, how much time do you usually put on try the speeches before the big day? Speeches of few minutes length would be easily tried 10 times (like 3-5*10=30-50 minutes), what what about 30-45 of length? trying it 10 times would require 5-7 hours, that’s a lot of time when you have the whole days completely full and just few hours at night on just few days :(

  12. Dr Nic says:

    Ivan, yes one of the benefits of short speeches is they are quicker to practise! As you say, it takes 45 mins to practise a 45 min speech. And what do you really learn? In 45 mins you cannot practise arm gestures or story telling or stage craft or audience engagement or posture.

    Practise 5-7 min speeches and learn all the skills of speech craft. Once learnt, you will start writing 45 min talks that fit into your style and skills. And you won’t need to practise them 10 times. You will only need to practise them to ensure the story flows; you will already have the skills of speech craft available to you on the day.

  13. ivan says:

    do you write down every time everything you want to say in your speech? or just few key points to remember you? I hope is the latter =)
    Now I should just find out a place where practice, at my house with other housemates (who I completely ignore) and loud at every time of the day it’s kind hard… I probably should change house eheh

  14. Dr Nic says:

    Ivan, when I first started Toastmasters I wrote the entire speeches out, and practised how I’d give them action for action. That is, I gave talks like they were short plays.

    I practised in empty rooms, at parks and sports ovals, and walking down the street.

  15. ivan says:

    How long have you been a Toastmaster member and after how many months have you seen some results? did you already have talk experiences before them or were you just at the beginning and scared from taking any talk? =)

  16. Dr Nic says:

    Ivan, no more questions. Grasshopper, time for you to practise :)

  17. ivan says:

    Hey Nic, I’ve just got back from one meeting (as a guest), that’s really cool! People that speak so well, I want to became one of them :) Actually for the table part I was scared to be chosen (didn’t happen), I don’t have much improvisation at the moment, I need to learn, try and train :)
    I hope to met you in SF one day, maybe at one of your events

  18. [...] recently came across a really cool blog post by Dr Nic titled ‘How to stop killing people with your public speeches‘ where he talks about the importance of practicing our presentations so that they actually [...]

  19. [...] recently came across a really cool blog post by Dr Nic titled ‘How to stop killing people with your public speeches‘ where he talks about the importance of practicing our presentations so that they actually [...]

  20. Nic:

    Excellent advice. I’d call that pledge the Presenter’s Promise.

    However, I think your startling opening about killing people is a silly exxageration. You’d probably have to be a parody of a philosophy department to waste that much time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f_p0CgPeyA

    My longer comment is here:


  21. Steve Zhang says:

    A nice article! very useful information. Thanks Dr. Nic

  22. [...] How to stop killing people with your public speeches [...]