8 Tips from Kurt Vonnegut to Make You a Better Speaker

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the United States’ most intelligent, witty and beloved authors. His novels such as Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions and The Sirens of Titan are still widely read and just as insightful as they were when they were first published.

Kurt Vonnegut

In the 1980s, Vonnegut wrote a short essay entitled “How to Write with Style”. It appeared in the book How to Use the Power of the Printed Word. His advice is aimed at writers. However, as I reread the essay the other day, it struck me just how relevant Kurt Vonnegut’s advice is for speakers as well.

The essay is summarized below. The words in italics are from Kurt Vonnegut.

1. Examine your writing style

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead—or, worse, they will stop reading you.

Lesson: Improving the way in which your speeches and presentations are structured and delivered shows respect for your audience. You will also become a better speaker.

2. Find a subject you care about

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Lesson: You should care about the subject of your talk. If you don’t, the audience will know. Audiences are smart; they can tell when a speaker is just going through the motions. All the flashy delivery techniques in the world will not save a talk if the speaker is not fully invested. So talk about something you care about. If you have to speak about a subject you don’t like, find a reason to care about it. If you can’t do that, find a reason why the audience should care. If you can’t do that, find someone else to do the presentation.

 3. Do not ramble, though

I won’t ramble on about that.

Lesson: Keep things tight and focused. Everything in your talk—stories, data, slides, anecdotes, exercises—should support the message and further the objective.

4. Keep it simple

Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.

Lesson: Too many people are afraid to use simple words. They worry that the audience will think them unsophisticated or just plain stupid. Nonsense. Winston Churchill said that, broadly speaking, the short words are the best and the old words best of all. By some estimates, more than 70% of the words in English are monosyllabic. Use them!

Likewise, look for other ways to simplify your language. For example, why do we “come to an agreement” (4 words, 6 syllables) when we can just “agree” (1 word, 2 syllables)? And please keep expressions like “interdepartmental synergies”, “paradigm shift”, “disambiguate” and “best of breed” where they belong. The garbage bin. 

5. Have the guts to cut

If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Lesson: This point is related to Points 2 and 3 above. But it also brings to mind another important lesson: less is more. I have seen many presentations break down because the speaker tried to cover too much material. There is a limit to what audiences can retain. Cover fewer things and cover them well so that the audience remembers them. Trying to cover everything usually results in the audience remembering nothing. Not a great strategy.

6. Sound like yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. … I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. …

All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have?

Lesson: Don’t try to copy others. Be yourself. Be authentic.

7. Say what you mean

My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable—and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Lesson: Say what you mean. Of course, you can add your own style and flair, but at the end of the day, the audience has to understand you. So be clear.

8. Pity the readers

They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school—twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify—whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

Lesson: We all suffer from the curse of knowledge. When we know something, it is difficult for us to remember what it was like when we didn’t know it. We need to step back and realize that while everything in our presentation might be obvious to us, it might not be obvious to others. And so, we often do a poor job of communicating. We need to be patient with our audiences, and design and deliver our presentations with them in mind.

In his essay, which you can read in its entirety here, Kurt Vonnegut offers a final tip, but it is related to the technical aspects of writing. For those interested, Vonnegut recommends that writers keep a copy of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White close at hand. (I have had a copy on the bookshelf next to my desk for years.)

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7 Replies to “8 Tips from Kurt Vonnegut to Make You a Better Speaker”

  1. Very Nice!

    You cover a wide range of material with class and skill.

    If you ever bring out a book, I will be the first in line to pre-order or buy it.

    Good Luck! Thank you for the good work.

    1. Thanks very much, Rashid. I appreciate it. In fact, I have been working (wrestling) with a book for some time. I am at 100 pages or so. My goal is to have it finished this year, so stay tuned.
      Regarding the video that you shared, I have removed it from your comment, not because I don’t like it. I think it is great! It’s just that that video is the subject of my very next post as a natural follow-on from this one. So I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. Sorry for having to edit it out. Cheers!

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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