10 Lessons from Jim Carrey for Public Speakers

I recently came across the six-minute film, Jim Carrey: I Needed Color. It is a beautifully shot and wonderfully told story about Jim Carrey’s fascination with art, particularly painting. The movie shows a side of Carrey with which many people may not be familiar, a side that contrasts starkly with his stand-up personality and with the characters that he has portrayed on screen.

Jim Carrey
Jim Carrey

As the years have passed, Jim Carrey has spent more and more time on his art. He paints and sculpts to express his feelings, to connect with others and also to help heal the broken pieces inside of him. The film offers a very poignant view into the mind and heart of the man.

As I watched the film, it occurred to me that the things that Jim Carrey says about art apply equally to public speaking. After all, when you think about it, public speaking is a lot like art:

  • It begins with an idea.
  • The speaker / artist needs to spend time alone working on it.
  • It evolves.
  • It is an expression of what the speaker / artist is thinking and feeling.
  • Eventually, it is seen / heard by others.
  • There will always be critics.

Jim Carrey: I Needed Color from JC on Vimeo.

10 Lessons

1. “You can tell what I love by the colour of the paintings. You can tell my inner life by the darkness in some of them. You can tell what I want from the brightness in some of them.”

Speakers should share a bit of themselves in every speech: a point of view; a call to action; a concern; a hope; a weakness; a vision. What they share will depend on a number of factors including the purpose of the speech, the subject, the audience and the speaking situation. Some speeches will be brighter and some will be darker, but the audience should get some sense of who you are every time you speak.

2. “The painting was telling me what I needed to know about myself.”

I begin writing my speeches with two things in mind: the audience and my message. But as I work on my speeches, many times I also learn something about myself. As you work on your speeches, think about your audience, but be open to possibility that you might be telling yourself something as well.

3. “What makes someone an artist is that they make models of their inner life. They make something physically come into being that is inspired by their emotions or their needs or what they feel the audience needs.”

Similar to the first lesson above, a speech comes from within. You take your knowledge, your experience, your emotion, your point of view and you create something for your audience. Something from you that benefits your audience in some way.

4. “I like the independence of it. I love the freedom of it. No one else tells you what you can or can’t do … most of the time.”

Public speaking offers an incredible opportunity to speakers. When it comes to preparing and delivering a speech, the possibilities for what you speak about, and how you speak about it, are endless … most of the time. Unfortunately, many people face restrictions at work when it comes to presentations; for example, in the form of mandatory slide templates. But even in such cases, with a bit of effort, speakers can still find ways to deliver something that is captivating and unique.

5. “There’s an immediacy to it.”

When you speak to an audience, you have to be 100% present. You have to be 100% in the moment.

6. “Art has to be service. You’re servicing your subconscious and at the same time you’re doing something that someone’s going to relate to, hopefully.”

First and foremost, your speech should serve your audience. But it can also help you. My good friends and fellow speakers, Florian Mueck and Olivia Schofield, like to say that public speaking is therapy if you do it right, and if it’s not therapy yet, you can do better!

7. “I was not the type of kid [to whom] you could say as a punishment: ‘Go to your room.’ Because my room was heaven to me. My isolation was welcome.”

It is, perhaps, a paradox of “public” speaking that much of your time will be spent alone with your thoughts as you work on your speeches. Get used to being alone. Get to know yourself. Enjoy your own company.

8. “People that are different have a shot at being original.”

As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

9. “Something inside you is always telling a story. I believe every single thing that you see and hear is talking to you.”

Storytelling is an incredibly important part of public speaking, in any situation. Stories add meaning; stories are memorable; if people remember the story, they are more likely to remember the message. Look for the stories in your life, big and small, that you can use in your speeches. Spend time learning some of the secrets to great storytelling.

10. “The bottom line with all of this—whether it’s performance or it’s art or it’s sculpture—is love. We want to show ourselves and have that be accepted. I love being alive and the art is the evidence of that.”

As Luciano Pavarotti said, “Some singers want the audience to love them. I love the audience.” Love your audiences and be willing to share with them the best that you have to offer. And even when people don’t agree with what you are saying—which will eventually happen if you speak often enough—if you have prepared properly and made your best effort to help the audience in some way, you have done your job.

Photo courtesy of Ian Smith

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  1. Dear Mr. Zimmer,

    I have been receiving your posts on my hotmail account for some time now and I would like to make contact with you. I am a Canadian living in Stockholm, and I have a small business English and presentation skills business here. Your posts are always very interesting from a “technical” point of view and you always have something valuable to say. (My business focuses on presentation structure, intriguing word choices and correct grammar to help build confidence in non-native English speakers who speak English quite well but lack confidence. I am not a professional public speaker as you are, but I do help business people who do.)

    I occasionally write on LinkedIn to help people, and I would like to suggest that you post this article on LinkedIn – it is excellent and really supports the belief that presentations should reveal in some way/ways the beliefs or values of the person presenting it – even more so in business presentations even though presenters are often reluctant to do so, because the audience can tell immediately if the speaker isn’t committed to the message.
    If you are interested, please view my profile on LinkedIn to get an idea of my background and if you are still interested, maybe we could connect on LinkedIn.

    Thank you for your Manner of Speaking posts and I look forward to receiving more!

    With best wishes,
    Melanie Svahn

    1. Hi Melanie. Thank you for the kind comment. I am glad that you enjoy the blog and liked this post. In fact, I have put it on LinkedIn. I have also reached out to connect on LinkedIn. Thank you again. Always good to meet a fellow Canadian here in Europe. I hope that our paths cross in person one day.

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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