12 Lessons from Pablo Picasso for Public Speakers

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

Pablo Picasso was one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century. His paintings are among the most recognizable of any artist that has lived. However, Picasso was not just known for his art; he was also know for his wit and wisdom.

While reading through a collection of quotes by Picasso, it occurred to me that much of his wisdom is directly applicable to public speaking. Here are 12 quotes by Picasso with some ideas as to what we, as speakers, can learn from them.

1. “Action is the foundational key to all success.”

If you want to become a better speaker, you have to speak. Seize every opportunity to get on your feet in front of others, whether it is a 45-minute corporate presentation or a 30-second toast to a colleague over lunch. It all adds up.

2. “Computers are useless. They can only give us answers.”

When it comes to presentations, computers are not useless. I am a fan of the (proper) use of slide presentation software such as Keynote and PowerPoint. (Computers were much less powerful in Picasso’s day.)

However, before using the computer to design their slides, speakers should first think about their presentations: What is the objective? What should the audience do? What is the key message? Why should the audience care? Once these questions are answered, then the computer can be used (if necessary).

3. “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”

When preparing for a speech or presentation, it is important to gather, create and generate as many ideas as possible. But then, you have to filter those ideas down to the best ones that will support your message. The others have to go. Perhaps you will be able to use them in another presentation some day, perhaps not.

4. “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”

Less is more. Too many presentations break down because the speaker tries to do too much in too little time. Once your key message is 100% clear in your mind, you must focus with laser-like intensity and cut anything that does not support that message. Many of the quotes that you will find in other posts on this blog are about the importance of simplicity. That message cannot be repeated too often.

5. “One must act in painting as in life, directly.”

Be concrete. Use clear, simple language when you speak. Avoid the use of vague, business-speak jargon that means nothing and serves only to confuse. Say what you mean.

6. “For a long time I limited myself to one colour—as a form of discipline.”

All speakers can improve. Some speakers—especially those just starting out—have room for improvement in many different areas. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Choose one or two areas for improvement and work on them. When you have made satisfactory progress, move on to something else. Small steps will take you far.

7. “Inspiration exists but it has to find us working.”

Pablo Picasso constantly sought inspiration. Always be on the lookout for interesting facts, stories and ideas that you can use in your presentations. Read widely—literature, newspapers, trade magazines, blogs, quotations. Start a file for interesting stories that you come across. Evernote is a great way to clip and store interesting things electronically. Read A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink. Get in the habit of carrying a small notebook and pen or electronic device such as a Smartphone to record great ideas that come to you whenever they come to you.

8. “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

In fact, good speakers never try to copy other speakers. Good speakers know that they can only be themselves. However, good speakers are quite willing to “steal” from others. And here, I am talking about trying out something that they have learned from another speaker, or read on a blog such as this one, or learned in a course on public speaking. Nobody knows everything and we should be open to learning from others. But we should never try to be like others.

9. “All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”

Many people have seen more than their fair share of dull presentations bursting with slides crammed with text and bullet points. Many of them believe that this is how serious presentations are supposed to be. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Refuse to give in. Some text is fine, but also use images, video, stories, props, demonstrations, audience participation and other creative ideas to make your presentation stand out. Remain an artist.

10. “My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”

There was only one Pablo Picasso. There is only one you. On stage, as in life, be yourself.

11. “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Never stop growing as a speaker. Try new things. Seek out opportunities at work to give presentations. Join a public speaking club such as Toastmasters and give speeches on a variety of topics. Take a class in improv comedy. Try to speak at a TEDx or Ignite event. Try Pecha Kucha. Stretch yourself; you’ll be surprised how far you can go.

12. “He can who thinks he can, and he can’t who thinks he can’t. This is an inexorable, indisputable law.”

Whether you improve as a public speaker is ultimately up to you.

Photo courtesy of  Flickr / teadrinker

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    1. Thanks, Conor. Much appreciated! Picasso was great. I have been to the Picasso Museums in Paris, Barcelona and Luzern, and this summer, when we were in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario had a wonderful Picasso exhibition. I never tire of him.

  1. Probably the most fundamental is #12 (I think this is why you put it last) as, without 12, the rest don’t matter.

    1. Indeed, Seb. I played around with the order of the quotes, but the one that ended up as No. 12 seemed to me to be the most fitting one with which to end.

  2. Picasso wasn’t my favorite, either … until I saw his early works (pre-Cubism) at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Phenomenally talented while still in his early teens. If you ever wonder about his gift and ability because you’re not keen on his more famous later works, visit this museum. The portraits he created as a 15-year-old leave no doubt that he was a supernova prodigy.

    1. Thanks, George. I’ve been to the Picasso museum in Barcelona and know exactly what you mean. I’ve also been to the Picasso museums in Paris and Luzern, Switzerland. In fact, the photographic exhibition of Picasso that is based in Luzern has come to Geneva for four months so I am looking forward to seeing it again.

  3. Number 4 reminds me of your earlier Chopin quote. Indeed, many of these 12 seem to be universal truths that can be discerned in great achievers in a variety of disciplines. The challenge for your readership will be to translate reading these lessons (intellectual assimilation) into living these qualities (embodiment). Thanks for a thought inspiring post, John.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

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Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International