Manner of Speaking

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

As the years have passed, 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.

I was so impressed by the film, that after watching it the first time, I immediately hit “Replay” and watched it again, this time taking notes. As I jotted down the different points, it occurred to me that the things that Carrey says about art apply equally to public speaking.

After all, when you think about it, public speaking is a lot like art:

The film is immediately below. It is followed by 10 lessons that I have taken from it that I believe are valuable for public speakers.

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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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.”

Lesson: 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