What makes a good public speaker

One of the defining qualities of a good public speaker is the willingness to make a fool of yourself. At the New Media Atlanta conference in 2009, Chris Brogan was the last keynote of the day. He’d watched all day as the backchannel drowned in snark. He could have chosen to play safe. Instead he started his keynote presentation with a rap song.

Chris Brogan was willing to take the risk that he might make a fool of himself. And that’s part of the reason why he’s a good public speaker.Abraham_Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln said:

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

It’s a funny line, but if you live your life by it you’ll live a stunted life. Marc of Marc and Angel Hack Life has created a clever reversal of Lincoln’s quote:

I would rather sound stupid…

Than be stupid and take no action at all.

So how to be a good public speaker? Be willing to make a fool of yourself.

What’s stopping you?

Here’s what I used to tell myself:

“If I make a fool of myself in front of all these people that would be a complete disaster. It would be the end of the world. I just couldn’t cope with the humiliation and embarrassment.”

That fear of the possibility that I might make a fool of myself stopped me from expressing myself in many situations. I wouldn’t speak up in meetings unless I was 100% sure that my opinion was right. I wouldn’t enter into a debate at a dinner party unless I was absolutely sure that I knew all the facts.

Can you relate?

I got over this when I realized that making a fool of myself was not a disaster. I realized that I could cope. That life would go on.

Take risks

The way to show yourself that you can cope with making a fool of yourself is simply this: Make a fool of yourself!

To be a good public speaker regularly take actions that carry a risk that you’ll make a fool of yourself or feel embarrassed. You’ll gradually increase your comfort level with making a fool of yourself. Here’s some examples of actions you could take:

1. Ring a wrong number deliberately and say “I’m sorry, I dialled the wrong number”.

2. Go out say shopping in a  lower standard of dress than you feel comfortable with. My partner, Tony, went shopping in his dressing gown!

3. Go to a park and pretend you’ve lost your dog. Yell out your dog’s name (you don’t need a dog for this BTW). Ask people if they’ve seen your dog.

I’ve developed a program with a list of 10 “making a fool of yourself” actions. Click through to see the list and instructions for how to work your way through it.

What makes a good public speaker? The willingness to make a fool of yourself.

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  1. Thanks Olivia – this is such great advice.

    • Hi TJ

      Glad it resonated with you.


  2. I don’t mean to brag, but I don’t even have to try to be foolish.

    All I have to do is show up, and my natural idiocy seems to shine through.

    Why play the fool, when you can be the fool?

    • Lucky you :-). It’s a great asset.

  3. I often give this advice, but I phrase it differently. I tell people, “Take a risk.” I absolutely agree that being willing to be silly, to make a mistake, help show as a genuine human being. And most people won’t take the risk.

    I suppose I see enough genuine, consistent foolishness that I don’t want anyone to think foolishness is a virtue.

    • Taking a risk is a good way of putting it. I’ve been more specific in this post to identify and challenge the basic fear that most people have, that is, looking like a fool.

  4. Olivia, I love this post. Like Laura, I am a natural kook and I pretty much lost my fear of looking like a fool by the time I was in high school. It’s liberating not to be afraid of trying new things and not worrying what the audience will think of me.

    Still, I have my moments of doubt, and so I force myself to the challenge. Last year I decided I would sing during a presentation. Didn’t plan it out, because I feared I wouldn’t go through with it. When I did, it was only one line of a song, but I was so proud of myself for facing the challenge.

    Letting yourself take the risk of looking foolish just makes you a stronger, more interesting and more confident speaker. And person!

    • You and Laura can be my role models :-. For me it doesn’t come so naturally, I do have to push myself out of my comfort zone to be silly – but it’s getting easier.

      I probably do stuff now without thinking about it, which I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing a few years ago.

  5. Oh, here’s one to add to your list: Get into an elevator and, instead of facing the door, face the other people.

    Challenging a norm was an exercise we had in grad school; I wish I could remember some of the things my classmates did!

    • That’s an excellent one – which I’ve thought about – but never done.

      When Tony was doing his psychology degree and studying social norms I think one of the things they experimented with was talking in the library!

  6. I agree with the take a risk comment above. Also – don’t be afraid of mistakes or embarrassment. I speak in fairly relaxed situations so jokes and humor are pretty easy to slip in. A lot of time these come from the situation at hand. I see a lot of people freeze up when this happens because it did not go with their planned speech. When this happens take advantage of it by pointing out the humor of it, and maybe slip in some (very little) deprecating humor. A good laugh works wonders for breaking in a crowd and will relax you too.

    Have a great day everybody,
    Patrick Allmond (@patrickallmond)

  7. Good stuff. Hope you enjoy the improv classes. Failure is indeed the pathway to success, and failing fast is the optimal way to succeed. There is an exercise in improv called The Failure Bow, which allows participants to own, and celebrate their failures in a positive and humorous way. I hope you learn that one.

  8. However, I am less keen on the “Make a fool of yourself Program”. Setting up these artificial situations seem i) disingenuous, ii) potentially annoying for the person your ring, etc, and iii) are situations you are in control of, so cannot really count as “failure” situations. It is more like you are making a fool of the person you target.

    We all face failure everyday in our lives anyway, very small ones usually, but sometimes more serious ones. The art of embracing failure is to acknowledge, own, smile about and learn from those failures — the genuine ones.

    • Hi Tobias

      Thanks for the encouragement on the Improv class.

      Re: the “Making a fool of yourself” program, Yes, they’re artificial situations but that doesn’t mean people won’t suffer embarrassment when they take the actions. And the point is for people to get used to suffering small and manageable amounts of embarrassment.

      From your reply, I don’t think that you need a program like this :-).

      There are people who don’t do or say very much in their lives because they are so concerned about making a fool of themselves. If they do experience failure in real life, they just freeze up and tell themselves “I’ll never do that again!”. That’s who the program is for.

      I acknowledge the potential annoyance of ringing a wrong number. But as long as its during normal hours, it causes only a tiny amount of annoyance, and for me that’s outweighed by the potential benefit the ‘ringer’ will get from taking a step outside their comfort zone.


      • Fair enough. As you say I probably don’t need this program. Had enough real life failure to learn to enjoy it ;-) If people find the program helpful, that’s good. Do they? Do you get good feedback on this?

        • I use this process with success when I’m coaching people one-on-one to help them reduce their fear of public speaking. It’s a systematic desensitization process from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

  9. Olivia:

    Yes, taking a risk and be willing to make a fool of yourself are key. I’ve also learned that be willing to laugh at yourself with the right kind of self-depreciating humor, on stage, helps disarm an audience and make everyone at ease. Humor, being willing to make a fool of yourself and taking a risk help others connect with our humanity. Audiences connect with presenters that are real, not those with faux veneer facades.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Agree, agree, agree!

      For readers in general: On the question of humor I would add that it’s not a prerequisite to being an effective business presenter (I make a distinction here between an effective business presenter and a professional speaker). If humor is not something that doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t stress over it and don’t try and force it. Jan Schultink made this point in the comments to my How to propose a toast post. As you develop your ease and your ability to take risks in front of an audience, your humor may well develop. That’s been the case with me.


  10. Dear Olivia,I still had no idea about why should us be willingness to make fool of ourselves

    • Hi Yen
      Thank you for asking the question.

      Being willing to make a fool of yourself is another way of saying “be willing to take risks when you’re speaking”. If you’re always very careful when you’re speaking, making sure you don’t make any mistakes – then you won’t be at your most engaging.

      On the other hand, if you’re willing to take risks, willing “to make a fool of yourself” you’ll be spontaneous, you’ll act out your stories, and you’ll be an engaging and compelling speaker and your audience won’t be able to tear the eyes away from you.

      I hope that helps to explain.



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