The unwritten rules of public speaking

There are unwritten rules to almost every interaction in the world. First dates end with both parties saying they “had a great time”, people say they’ll “think about it” when they don’t want to do something, and every public talk in the world ends with an applause.

That’s just how things work.

Speaking of public speaking, here are some other “rules” the audience plays by:

  • People will stay until the end (it’s very unlikely for someone to walk out after a few seconds or minutes because doing so makes them look weird in front of everyone else)
  • There will always be clapping at the end
  • If a few people stand up to give a standing ovation, it’s likely others will follow suit (to avoid being left out)

Of course, these rules only apply to in-person audiences. Anyone who’s ever watched an online video knows entirely different…

  • Even if a video would have been massively valuable to you, you might not like the title enough to even watch it (after all, you don’t know how good it is until you watch it)
  • Most times, you don’t watch the entire video. After all, if there’s another video that’s more worth your time, it’s easy to click away part way through
  • Even if you like a video, you probably won’t share it with your friends (unless it’s especially great, or targeted to them).

Here’s how all this applies to your TED Talk — 2 talks may be almost identical in terms of the audience response (people will clap and so on), but drastically different when exposed to an online audience (hundreds vs millions of views, even for a credible platform like TED Talks).

Surprising, right?

To have success with an online audience and “go viral”, you have to consider a few factors:

  • Your title has to compete not with someone’s normal day, but with other talks (ie: asking your friend if they like your title isn’t as valid as asking them if they like it best out of 10-15 others)
  • You can’t “read” the audience and see if something needs explaining (you can’t see them since they’re behind a screen and may be watching your talk years later)
  • Anything confusing/overexplained or not as fascinating could be the cause of someone

…all of which are depressing as hell. How in the world can you craft a perfect talk?

The good part is…it’s not up to you to be a genius and do everything perfectly. All you need to do is find Message-Market Fit.

What are other hidden “rules” for public speaking? What about rules for other interactions? (eg: “how are you? Great!”, or “how was the meal? It was great, thanks!”).


Ryan Hildebrandt
Ryan Hildebrandt
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