Perfect Public Speaking is an Asymptote

Recently, I wrote a post entitled Basic Speech Geometry. Today we return to the mathematics of points and lines and curves and surfaces.

An asymptote is a straight line that a curve approaches but never touches. It comes from the Greek word asymptotos which means “not falling together”. In the diagram below, the horizontal orange line (“Perfection) is an asymptote to the curved red line.


Think of it this way: You are standing in a field. To your left, a straight wall extends infinitely in the direction you are facing. You begin walking. With every step forward, you move slightly to the left, reducing the distance between you and the wall by 1% each time. As you walk, you will get closer and closer to the wall without ever reaching it.

So, what does all this have to do with public speaking? Well, perfect public speaking is an asymptote. Nobody has ever reached it and nobody ever will. There is always room for improvement. There is always room to learn.

Even the most famous speeches in history have not been perfect. If you watch and listen carefully to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you will see that even the great Dr. King himself stumbled over a word here and there. Indeed — and many people do not realize this — Dr. King changed abandoned the prepared text in the middle of his speech because he believed he was not connecting enough with the audience. Thus were born the now immortal words on the theme of “I have a dream”.

No, Martin Luther King’s speeches were not perfect all the time. Nor were Abraham Lincoln’s or Winston Churchill’s or Nelson Mandela’s or Gandhi’s. And yet … they were brilliant, poignant, inspirational and life-changing.

One of the reasons that great speakers are great is because the speakers themselves realize that they are not perfect. They know that there is always room to improve. They understand that they must learn from past mistakes and build upon past successes in order to become better speakers. And therein lies the challenge for all of us.

We might never be perfect speakers, but we can be better speakers. We can even be great speakers. It all depends on how badly we want it, and on how willing we are to work at it. So practice. Video yourself. Get good feedback. Watch great speeches. Read books and blogs on public speaking and presentation skills. And don’t be discouraged by occasional setbacks. They are bound to happen.

We will never touch that wall stretching off into infinity, but we might just surprise ourselves by how close we get to it.


I have to acknowledge my public speaking colleague, Richard Garber. He writes a great blog, Joyful Public Speaking, which I invite you to check out.

In a recent post, Richard took the time to comment in detail about about this post. He noted that although the image I used when I wrote this post is an asymptote, it does not convey the point as well as the image above (which I have pinched from his blog).

Richard took the time to create an image that supported my idea much more effectively. He also referred to that great quote by Mark Twain — “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — and noted that the same thing could be said about images.

Point well taken, Richard. Thanks!

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  1. Great visual, John! Thanks for the nod to “no one is ever perfect”. Post presentation I have made it a habit to conduct my own debrief. What worked and what didn’t.
    Last week while presenting to students I realized that in my best intentions of sharing “all” they needed to know to be able to go out and fly with strong wings, I was overwhelming them. I had to restructure my presentation on the fly and it was a tad rough. Lesson learned – as always it is all about audience, not my best intentions.
    Thank you John. Well said.

    1. Hi Janice. Thanks very much. Glad you enjoyed the post … and the visual! (Big kudos to Creative Commons for the latter.) And congrats on being able to change direction in the middle of your presentation. Not an easy thing to do. However, the most important thing, as you said, is what you learned from the experience. It will doubtless be helpful in the future.

    1. Richard, thanks so much for taking the time to prepare an article on the importance of getting the right image. I have left a comment on your blog and have gone ahead and used your (much better) image this post. I’ve also added an update to the post to draw readers’ attention to the important point you make.
      Thanks again.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International