Zappos CEO: When Giving Speeches, Just Wing It

02/18/2011 10:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Excerpted from #1 NY Times Bestseller Delivering Happiness by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh

In the two years leading up to the announcement of the Amazon acquisition, Zappos started getting more and more media coverage. A lot of people assumed that we must have stepped up our PR efforts, but that wasn't the case at all. We simply continued doing what we had always done: constantly improving the customer experience while simultaneously strengthening our culture.

The funny thing is that a lot of the press we got was for things we had first done several years earlier, such as paying employees to quit during their new hire training or occasionally sending flowers to customers. We didn't intend for any of the things we were doing to end up in the news or on blogs. But every once in a while, a reporter or popular blogger would pick up on something that we were doing, and the story would spread like wildfire. We were as surprised as anyone else by the publicity because it was never planned for on our end.

We learned a great lesson: If you just focus on making sure that your product or service continually wows people, eventually the press will find out about it. You don't need to put a lot of effort into reaching out to the press if your company naturally creates interesting stories as a by-product of delivering a great product or experience.

As our media coverage increased, I started receiving more and more speaking requests for different conferences and industry events. One of my first speeches was at the Footwear News CEO Summit in 2005. I remember I was a nervous wreck, because I hadn't really done much public speaking before. At the time, I agreed to do it because it would be a good opportunity to tell the Zappos story to a lot of footwear vendors we were still trying to establish relationships with.

I wrote out my entire speech beforehand, and then spent a month memorizing it and rehearsing it. I couldn't sleep the night before my speech. It ended up going okay, and I was relieved when it was finally over so I could catch up on my sleep. Even though I didn't really enjoy the whole experience, it had a very positive impact on our business, so I was glad I had done it.

Over the next year, a few more speaking requests started trickling in. I agreed to all of the with a feeling of dread, but I knew they would help build our business and our brand. I also thought that, as uncomfortable as I was with doing them, they were opportunities for me to grow both personally and professionally. Like anything else in life, I figured that public speaking was just a skill that required practice on a regular basis. Each speech I gave was just another practice session.

During my first year of public speaking, I was diligent about writing out my speeches beforehand and memorizing them. It took a lot of time to do, and I would never sleep well the night before my talks. Sometimes, while giving the speech, I would accidentally skip over or forget a sentence or an entire paragraph, which would leave me temporarily flustered on stage as I racked my brain trying to remember the lines I had practiced the night before.

With each speech, I found myself slowly improving. But I still didn't enjoy the actual speaking itself. Even though my speaking was helping build the Zappos brand, I thought that maybe I just wasn't meant to be a public speaker because I was so uncomfortable with the process, even after having done it for a year.

And then one day, I had an epiphany. I realized that nobody knew what I had written down beforehand. Nobody would ever know if I skipped a sentence, a paragraph, or even an entire section.

I had also noticed that while people appreciated the content of my speeches, they generally commented about two things afterward. They told me they really enjoyed the personal stories, and they said that, even though many of them had already read about Zappos in the press, it made a huge difference to actually hear it come from me. They told me they could really feel my passion for company culture, customer service, and Zappos in general.

So, for my next speech, I tried a completely different approach. I decided not to memorize or rehearse anything. I would just wing it and see what happened. I knew I had a lot of stories I could choose from on the fly to tell, and I knew that as long as I stuck to topics I was passionate and knowledgeable about -- customer service and company culture -- that I would have plenty of material to draw from to fill the time.

When I finally got on stage, I still had some jitters for the first minute or two as I adjusted to the audience and the room. After that, the time just flew by. The audience was more engaged than they had been in my previous talks. I even managed to get some unexpected laughs from moments in my stories when I was just trying to tell a story instead of trying to recite lines from a script I'd written.

I would later learn that I had achieved the state of flow. In his book by the same name, researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a type of happiness, in which someone loses sense of time, self-consciousness, and even self. That's exactly what happened to me.

From that point forward, I used the same formula for all of my speeches and found that most of the rest of the stuff that I used to worry about usually just fell into place. I just went by three basic rules for my talks:

1. Be passionate.

2. Tell personal stories.

3. Be real.

I made the mistake once of agreeing to speak at a conference about a topic that I wasn't actually passionate about. Even though I knew all the content inside and out, I wasn't able to speak passionately, so my performance turned out to be only okay. But it was a good learning experience.

Today, whenever I'm invited to speak somewhere, I let them know that I will only speak about certain subjects, which may or may not match the overall theme of the conference. I then leave it up to the conference organizers to decide whether they are okay with that or not. Usually they are fine with it, but occasionally not.

In those instances, no matter how much money the conference is offering to pay Zappos and no matter how good an opportunity it would be for Zappos to be exposed to that audience, I always do the same thing. I politely decline.