A funny thing happened on my way to…

Written by

Andrew Millar


January 13, 2009

On every ‘cheap’ table in any bookshop, at any time of the year, there is always a little thin book full of the secrets to success at that most dreaded and feared activity… public speaking. And without exception these books always contain the following advice…: Start your speech with a joke.

The joke is designed to attract the attention of the room and focus people on what you are going to say… – a sort of hors d’oeuvre before you present the menu of the presentation.

I’ve tried it and it kind of works. But, obvious to say, if the joke isn’t funny you’re in deep do-do for the rest of the speech as your credibility is left hanging around your ankles like underwear that has suffered the fate of cheap elastic.

I’ve done a few lectures and speeches from time to time and quite enjoy doing them. And whilst I don’t necessarily agree with the joke opener, I agree you need the attention of the audience before you start. A single blast from a revolver would do it.

Or, as I observed recently, simply saying ‘Put your laptops away please’ would work just as well.

I was a delegate at a conference recently and observed this new phenomenon: an audience full of people clattering away at keyboards while someone who has spent a great deal of time preparing a lecture was allowed to simply allowed to stand up and go through the motions.

It might be my straight 60s upbringing but I thought it unbelievably rude.

If I challenged each person as to why they weren’t giving the speaker their respect, I’m sure the answer would have been ‘I’m taking notes the modern way – on a laptop!…’ But sorry, it doesn’t wash, as I saw people trawling websites, stuffing about on ebay and answering emails.… And worst of all ‘Twittering’.… Of all the useless ‘social-networks’ there are cluttering the copper paths of the world at the moment, I fail to see anything that is relevant or vital about Twitter, the free social messaging utility for staying connected in real-time.

‘Twitter’ reads like a constant stream of drivel. And to prove it, at one stage during a group forum the conference convener projected the Twitter window onto the screen behind the speakers so we could read everyone’s comments… but the speakers couldn’t. What an insult! Not that the audience had anything meaningful to add. Mostly people seemed to simply repeat whatever the speaker was saying. Like a kind of digital echolalia.

To me this was the worst excess of ‘Why do something? Because we can‘ that I have ever witnessed.

This trend towards ‘Twittering’ in presentations does for the speaker what PowerPoint does for audiences.

No joke.