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25Jun/115

Non-Motivational Speaking Tips

I spoke Thursday night as part of Gelf's Non-Motivational Speakers Series.  The self-hurt guide author as non-motivational speaker.  Clearly a match made in heaven.  It took place at the Pacific Standard, a prototypical Brooklyn bar full of great craft beer and skinny, bearded, asshole bartenders (Spuyten Duyvil is the gold standard of this genre).  Of course I'd be invited to give a speech at a bar.  I write books in bars, sell them there too, constantly dream of opening my own, and now I give speeches in them.

It feels funny to call something in a bar a "speech," even if there was a microphone present.  Speeches are what Lincoln gave.  So we'll say what I did was a "talk."

It felt like the first talk I'd given in my entire life.  Then again, Bill Russell threw up before every single basketball game he ever played.  Then again, Bill Russell probably didn't pound a few Flower Powers before tip-off.

I've actually spoken plenty of times in my life.

I've spoken in front of college classes, classes where I'm the curriculum.

I've spoken in front of groups pimping my book.

I've even been on TV, radio, and lengthy podcasts where they almost had to tell me to shut the fuck up and that they were done speaking to me.

I've even given a few best man speeches in my life.

Weddings are always a tough crowd to speak in front of.  Everyone is itching to eat, to hit the bar again for a Scotch refill ("Seriously, Chivas is all you have?!"), to start dancing.  No one wants to hear from some asshole in a rented Men's Warehouse tux who they don't even know.  No one is enjoyable to listen give a wedding speech, but I've twice killed it.

Two tips:  be short, be funny.

Legendary comedians like Chris Rock and Louis C.K. can barely hold an eager crowd's attention for ten straight minutes, yet you think you'll be able to?  You won't.  Two to three minutes and out.  If you're not funny, or you're the bride's dad, or a female...feel free to be sentimental.  Get a few "awwwwwws" from the crowd and then be done.  Otherwise, you best be funny.

I was asked to speak for 15 minutes Thursday night which already forced me to break my "be short" rule.  I was nervous about that.  It was the longest scripted and memorized talk I'd given in my life.

I asked my buddy Phil Simon what his number one tip for giving a good speech is.

"Don't use slides," he said.

Which is odd because another friend, James Altucher (who wrote a great piece on public speaking), really likes using funny slides.  I wasn't even allowed to use slides if I had wanted to.  Which is good because I would have been too lazy to cull them together, any ways.

I studied some more of James's tips for some additional pointers.  I liked his ones about starting with a joke (obvious), being self-deprecating (not too tough when I'm already being called "non-motivational"), and shocking them with each and every point.

Opening with a joke seems self-evident and I opened with a series of them.  First, a casual faux-impromptu joke as I approached the mic:

"I've always wanted to give a TED Talk but they don't let you drink at those, so this'll have to do..."

As I took a sip from my beer while they laughed.  Then, I shocked them with my opening line:

"On my birthday this year, I got sued..."

And it was off from there.

Most comedians like to close a show, but I like to open.  Gives me a chance to kill early and get drunk late.  I hate sitting around waiting to speak and accidentally getting too drunk, forgetting what I have to say, other people already setting a high standard of speaking ahead of me.  Truth be told, the second and third slots were the best slots Thursday night.  They had the largest crowd and the most slightly buzzed and really engaged people.  But, I still liked opening.

The Non-Motivational Speaker series was an apt pairing for me.  The other three speakers all gave talks that included tales of lawsuits, hare-brained schemes, substance abuse, and barely eking out a living chasing their own dreams.  Of course, the other three speakers dreams were, respectively, to open a Big Lebowski store, hold the world's biggest jerk-off, and be allowed to legally ride a unicycle on New York City sidewalks.

I was torn.  I felt both honored and utterly ashamed to be a part of this foursome.  Alas.

I thought I gave a pretty good speech.  I was impressed I could go for fifteen minutes and keep the crowd engaged and laughing.

There's currently a big debate going on over at Slate about the new practice of charging for author talks.  I've long been saying that the modern author is going to have to learn to "play live music." Yes, agreed, typical author events ARE really boring.  That's why I had my book tour in bars right from the get-go.

It's tough, though.  We're writers that now also need to be performers.  I did pretty well, I thought, got quite a bit of laughs, but was it stand-up quality?  Not even close.  Maybe in a few years I'll be stand-up good, but not yet.  My material is good, but delivery is more important than I would have thought.  That's going to take a lot more practice.  Simply having good jokes and saying them doesn't quite get the laughs and merit shelling out big bucks to hear me speak.

Then again, plenty shelled out bucks to buy some of my books afterward.  And, that's what matters most to me.

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  1. I bet the coke is free in the TED green room, though.

  2. Thanks for the plug, man. :)


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