Rules for Public Speaking

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I have a friend with whom I share an important compact. Here it is:

Whenever a speaker begins his or her remarks by saying, "I'm not a public speaker", my friend and I will, at that point, get up and leave. Why? If you think you're not a public speaker then why speak? Why trouble your audience? Why waste their time? There's already sufficient boredom in this life, why add to it?

Besides, if you tell your audience you are not a public speaker, you will, in addition to boring them, insult their intelligence. How? If you say, "I'm not a public speaker", but proceed to speak, you demonstrate a cynical disbelief in your audience's ability to comprehend what is otherwise obvious.

Here, then, are six fundamental rules for public speaking:

Rule Number One: No matter how inadequate your speaking skills, don't tell your audience. It will be seen, not as an act of humility, but foolishness.

Rule Number Two: Write out what you intend to say. Don't trust your spontaneity to see you through. It won't. You may be glib, but don't go to the rostrum without a speech in hand. If you have Bill Clinton's photographic memory, you won't need your written speech, but the likelihood is you lack Clinton's gift. (He once gave the right State of the Union speech while the wrong speech (from the year before) was running through the teleprompter - and he never missed a line!)

Rule Number Three: Limit your speech to 20-25 minutes. In the collective 64-years I've been running public forums - The City Club of San Diego, The Denver Forum, and The Great Fenway Park Writers Series for the Boston Red Sox - our guest speakers have asked me a thousand times, "How long should I speak?" The answer is always the same, "Never more than 25 minutes." It doesn't matter who asked the question, whether it was Jimmy Carter or Newt Gingrich, the answer doesn't vary.

Rule Number Four: Never give a speech without citations from history or literature, and, from time-to-time, a line or two from poetry. You may dazzle as a speaker, but you will dazzle even more if you drop in quotes from Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is as contemporary as today's newspaper), Winston Churchill, John Maynard Keynes, TR or FDR, Booker T. Washington, Mario Vargas Llosa, Maya Angelou, H.L. Mencken, Ronald Reagan, Gloria Steinem (trust me, that will get your audience's attention), George Orwell, Phyllis McGinley, Warren Buffett, etc.

Jimmy Carter as president famously instructed his speechwriters in a memo to disobey Rule Four. Jim Fallows, one of those speechwriters who became one of the nation's most highly regarded journalists, wrote about Carter's memo for The Atlantic Monthly about how monumentally dumb was the president's directive. Dumb it was. (Luckily for us, Carter has had a great post-presidency.)

Moreover, as it relates to Rule Four, with the advent of the Web, you cannot possibly get away with giving a speech bereft of historical and literary references. It's all there. You don't have to go to the library. You don't need to pull a volume or two down from the bookshelf. Wonderful, fabulous material is right there in front of your face, and it's just a click away! It is so good, so rich, so incredible, so mind-expanding, that there are times when I can barely contain myself. Given that incontrovertible fact - the Internet is history's greatest support system - to give a speech consisting wholly of your own thoughts is borderline criminal - if not a felony than a serious misdemeanor. And violators should be sentence to no less than six-months at the Demosthenes Reformatory for Wayward Speakers.

Rule Number Five: Know your material! Never, ever, begin a sentence by saying, "As I understand", or, "As I believe." Puleez. Spare us. If you are not certain of your facts, then in the name of all that's rational and right, say nothing. Do not call attention to your ignorance. When someone does that, says, "As I understand", it tells me that person doesn't understand. It's unforgivable to do this. If you think it will get your audience's sympathy, you're wrong. It isn't their sympathy you will earn; it's their contempt (see Rule One).

Rule Number Six: If the audience is large enough and a microphone is required, make certain: A) it works; B) that you stay in front of it (directional mikes are death for most speakers), and C) keep the sound technician close by.

Remember Rule Six and never forget it: If you can't be heard then the reason for the meeting, for your speech, is a monumental waste of time. It hasn't happened very often at the public forums I run, but every time it does I think either the sound person should be banished or the hotel should invest in a new sound system - or both.

There I've done it. Done my good deed in behalf of the commonwealth, done it in behalf of all future audiences, done it because it needed doing.

Someone had to stand up and point to the obvious. I just did.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He can be reached at