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Public Speaking: Breaking the Rules

To be fair, if there are rules as far as presenting is concerned, they’ve developed more as a best practice code, rather than as stringent laws. Rules probably vary considerably in their application according their context and the audience being addressed.

Because I watch speakers in action regularly, I frequently notice rules being transgressed, sometimes in a justifiable context, but more often not. I’ve seen excellent speakers poorly attired, or with hands in pockets who seem to get away with it and still have the audience eating from the palms of their hands. When have you earned the right to break the rules?

Three key considerations are:

  1. Were members of the audience offended?
  2. Did it detract from the credibility of the speaker?
  3. Did it detract from the clarity of the message?

The Presentation Law of Relativity applies thus:

Speakers will get away with breaking rules in direct proportion to their celebrity or expert status – as perceived by that audience.


This means, quite simply, that a famous speaker has more chance of being forgiven for a poor speech or flaunting best practice than an unknown speaker. It may not be fair, but that’s how it pans out in life. But is it that unfair? If you’ve paid your dues, and done enough to have earned celebrity status, particularly as a subject expert, then perhaps you’ve earned the latitude that goes with it.

For instance, I saw Dr. John C Maxwell, during a live speech in a large auditorium stop and write down what he’d just said because he thought it was quite neat and didn’t want to forget it. He kept an audience of thousands waiting for almost 20 seconds as he thus indulged himself. He did it so well that it earned him a laugh! The context was his status as a world famous international author and speaker, and he pulled it off with humour – successfully. This may not seem a serious transgression, but a relatively unknown speaker may have appeared disorganized or arrogant, rather than light hearted or quirky as Dr. Maxwell did on that occasion.

Then their is another lesser law – the Presenting Law of Context which applies thus:

The context in which the transgression was committed determines it’s seriousness.

The above example crosses into this law. Comedians in comedy clubs easily get away with swearing, unless it is a comedian who’s brand revolves around the opposite. I recently attended “An Evening with John Cleese”. Ten minutes before the interval he let out his first, well timed and dare I say unexpected expletive. Whether one approves or disapproves, the context and timing had the audience in stitches.

Speakers known for their content rather than their dress sense may also be more easily forgiven.

ConverseIy, I recently attended a Financial Mastery seminar, and grimaced as many of the speakers broke several rules, including poor attire, awful slides and risky humour seeming oblivious to the groans of the audience. Clever marketers perhaps, but unexceptional speakers.

Rule transgressions may include being late, sloppy attire, turning your back on the audience, hands in pockets or in a defensive position like the fig leaf, staring at the screen for long periods, shouting, swearing or being condescending. Unfortunately, some of the worst transgressions like blasting large volumes of text on to the screen or having far too many slides remain quite commonplace.

There are far too many speakers gracing the stages of the world that are invited to do so because they know their topic, not because they are exceptional speakers. Just as one is expected to pass your drivers test before driving a vehicle unsupervised, perhaps the welcome day will come when would-be speakers will be required by international law to learn a few basic rules before alighting the podium half-cocked.

However, until that day, it’s their choice, just as it is yours when you next grace the podium. The alternative, of course is to learn the rules, so that when you do alight the stage, you deliver an outstanding performance.

You will then rightfully stand accused of perpetuating the good name of speaking in public.

Paul du Toit, co-author with Alan Stevens of the Revised Edition of “The Exceptional Speaker – How to Deliver Sensational Speeches”

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