The Job of the Speaker is More Than Being a School Teacher

We perceive speakers as teachers. But what if we perceived them as storytellers that rivet us? That's the type of speaker you need to be if you want to be a successful public speaker.

Brent Burns
Brent Burns, professional business speaker and “Book Yourself Solid” Coach, speaks at the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce in Crystal Lake, Illinois, for their Business Builders Breakfast on March 6, 2009.

I’ve been going at this speaking business for seven years now.  To say “I have learned a lot” would be the understatement of the decade.  One of the biggest things I’ve learned is also one of the most basic: What does the job of “speaker” mean?

The most common answer is to define the task as being similar to a school teacher. After all, for most of us that’s more or less how we perceive an individual speaking in front of a group. And an awful lot of the time that’s exactly what you get: A lecture with PowerPoint slides.

But I’ve come to discover that the art of “speaking” is something way beyond that. Or maybe I should say way closer than that. To illustrate, let me tell you a story:

A few weeks ago I was invited to a little dinner party with a small group of people I didn’t know very well. I’m always a little antsy about such events, because what usually happens is I become the de facto entertainment for the evening.

But, much to my surprise, there was another guest at the party who was going through some very melodramatic issues in her life, and she proceeded to tell us a story that was absolutely riveting. I had never met this person before, and she was not famous, but I found myself enthralled by her story and the intensity, honesty, and humor with which she told it.

Another story: I was visiting a friend in the Bahamas and we went out to a popular restaurant. The only way we could get seated was if we shared a table, and we ended up sitting with two huge local guys who were total strangers. I was braced for an awkward 90 minutes, but one of these guys (it turned out they were both “narcs”) started to tell us some stories of his recent adventures, and all through dinner we were all just laughing hysterically. Totally unexpected and one of the best memories I have of any trip anywhere.

Hopefully, at some point in your life, you have accidentally bumped into a total stranger at a party or a bar, and they proceeded to share a story or some information with you that was perhaps not the latest in scientific breakthroughs or remotely applicable to your work but was still both fascinating and unforgettable, and gave you better insight into human nature generally. And when I try to define myself as a “professional speaker,” that’s about as close as I can get to defining what it is that I try to do every time I get up in front of a crowd.

Yes, there is “information” being imparted, but that’s the school teacher speaker model creeping in again. “Speaking” is much more than teaching. It’s about creating a state of momentary interpersonal connectedness, and sharing a true story about the reality of life that in some way mirrors your own experience but also expands your perspective a little bit. You want to hear more because it’s so pleasurable to “be told a story” and have these images dance in your mind. You laugh and feel a shared connection, and this can happen anywhere, any time, even with a total stranger.

Photo by James Jordan
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Justin Locke is an entertaining speaker. He recently appeared as an "[email protected]" Justin is also an author and playwright; his musical plays are performed all over the world. Before becoming a full time speaker, Justin spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops. In his presentations, he shares truly laugh-out-loud tales of concert disasters, as well as unique insight into the leadership and team dynamics of major orchestras. Justin is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity