The first time I ever spoke publicly was in March 1991, at a Waterstones bookstore beside Copley Square in Boston. I hadn’t given the event much thought beforehand, and then suddenly I was in the back room surrounded by cartons and paperwork and being told, “You’re on in 30 seconds.”
“Oh,” I thought. I peeked through the door, saw a healthy-sized crowd and had one of those rare epiphanies. It has been saving my bacon for 25 years and it was this: “Well, Doug. Those people out there just assume you’re going to do a good job, so just do a good job.” It was that simple but it was all I — or anyone else — needed to know about public speaking. People generally want everyone to do well on a stage — they really do. And, at the very, very worst, remember what Steven Spielberg once said, which is that people will sit through 20 minutes of anything — so there’s always that time cushion. Another good piece of advice is that 200 people sitting in a room together isn’t really 200 people sitting in a room together — it’s one audience and it will have its own temperature and texture, and it is also your audience. Being on stage talking is one of the few moments in your life where you control absolutely everything, and it can be its own high. I remember seeing something online about Pete Townshend of The Who yelling at someone in the front row who had climbed on stage: “F*** off! F*** off my f***ing stage.” Words of truth.
Something will always go wrong during a public speaking event. Mine used to almost exclusively take place in book stores where, at any moment, one can encounter cappuccino machines, PA systems, crying babies, outside traffic, dead microphones — and the list goes on. It was good training because it made me think on the fly. Speaking of flies, I once did a reading event in Ontario, Canada, in a professional Shakespearean theatre with flawless acoustics and I thought to myself, “Yessirree, nothing could possibly go wrong in a magical stage environment such as this.” The first minute on stage, a fly landed on my face. And then another. I swatted them away and the audience giggled, not knowing why I was doing this and, basically, I had to speak for 50 minutes with flies crawling all over me. It was probably the worst speaking gig ever.
But wait, there was another one that was worse. It was in Quebec, and I’d done a huge amount of work preparing a properly synchronised presentation on I no longer even remember what. But I remember plugging in my laptop into the venue’s AV system shortly before the event began, and watching my desktop scramble, randomise and then fry. Vzzzzzzzt! Both the track pad and the mouse stopped working. The venue filled up and having to speak that day felt like I’d had a stroke in public. It was a terrible, ghastly event, and I’m glad it was about a year before smartphones came out or else video evidence of my shame would live for eternity in the Cloud.
One form of public speaking not usually recognised as such is teaching. I’ve had a few experiences in educational situations and they’ve been worse than flies crawling over my face. I don’t know if it’s me or what, but having to speak to college students is like having to address a crowd of work-shirking entitlement robots whose only passion, aside from making excuses as to why they didn’t do their assignments, is lying in wait, ready to pounce upon the tiniest of PC infractions. You can’t pay teachers enough to do what they do and having been in their shoes, even briefly, has converted me into a pro-education advocate. Double all teaching salaries now.
In recent years there’s been TED, which everyone seems to have a theory about. It usually has to do with the way TED creates pressure for speakers to make their message nothing less than transformative, while insisting that the passing forward of this information fits into TED’s 20-minute meme delivery system. TED speakers are almost always terrific but one wonders what they might do with more breathing room, more time for reflection and without a need to include an orgasm at the talk’s end.
Sometimes, if you’re feeling lazy, instead of a speech or lecture you can do an on-stage discussion — which is a little bit like getting away with something. But it’s a workaround that also has the potential for disaster. I have learnt the hard way that not everybody is comfy with winging it on a stage, and what was supposed to have been a 50-minute cake walk can sometimes turn into 50 minutes of torture as you try to minimise someone else’s paralysing unease, for you, them and the audience. The only thing worse than this? Q&A. Why do we still do this? Ugh. I was hoping the internet would somehow kill Q&A but apparently not. The first question is a softball, the second question is “the hostage taker” that holds the audience captive while articulating often irksome points of view, and question three is the “therapy question”, where a needy person forces 200 people to witness the deficiencies of their id. Basically, talks should be 45 to 50 minutes with no Q&A, and if too many people start coughing around minutes 35 to 40, it’s nature’s signal to you to wrap things up quickly. It’s your audience, but not for much longer.
Douglas Coupland is currently artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has a museum show at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. Twitter @dougcoupland
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland