Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist author and speaker. He has written five books: The Tipping Point; Blink; Outliers; What the Dog Saw; and David and Goliath. All five made it to the New York Times Bestseller List. I have read the first three and look forward to getting to the other two at some point. Gladwell also hosts the podcast Revisionist History.
I recently listened to Gladwell being interviewed on another podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. The discussion is wide-ranging and free flowing, and covers such topics as Gladwell’s research and writing process; running; favourite books; and much more.
At one point during the conversation, Ferris expressed his admiration for Gladwell’s public speaking abilities and asked him to explain the difference between his keynotes that were successful and those that were not.
I have distilled Gladwell’s response into eight insights. (In the list below, words such as “I”, “my” and “me” refer to Gladwell.)
1. My breakthrough came when I realized that good public speaking requires a lot of work. It requires about 10 times more work than I had been giving it when I first started out.
2. I reached a point where I had to decide whether I wanted to continue speaking in public. Because it has its pluses and minuses. I decided that I only wanted to continue speaking if I got much better and if I changed my speaking in a way to make it more meaningful to me.
3. I decided that I needed to have much more material. I have to give different speeches; I cannot just give the same speech over and over.
4. I spend a lot more time thinking about the audience.
5. I spend a lot more time thinking about my performance. And it is important to remember that it is a performance. I am not giving a speech, I am giving a performance.
6. Giving a speech is more than just standing up and reading an article. It is a world that has its own rules and principles and I threw myself into it.
7. Whenever I speak, I strive for authenticity. It’s hard to do when I speak to an audience where I am an outsider. For example, if I have to speak to a group of IT specialists, I don’t know anything about IT. I try to say something that will engage them and that is intelligent and that will make them think. It requires an effort, but it has to feel like me; they have to feel like they are connecting with me. I can’t fake it. It’s hard work, but it’s hard in a good way. That’s what makes it interesting.
8. What satisfies an audience is my attempt to bridge the gap between us while being true to myself. And when a speaker can bridge that gap, it is very satisfying.
Gladwell said that he has spent a lot of time thinking about the points above and that it took a long time to implement them. However, the process has made public speaking much more interesting for him and, as a result, he enjoys it more. He also shares a humorous anecdote about the speaking abilities of the British historian, Niall Ferguson.
If you would like to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s conversation with Tim Ferriss, you can find the audio here. If you are only interested in the part about public speaking, it begins at 28:25 of the recording.