The internet is full of advice on how to give good presentations, and convince an audience of whatever the speaker thinks it needs convincing of. In contrast, there is a remarkable lack of advice on how to give bad presentations or talks. Luckily, the German author Kurt Tucholsky sensed this need ninety years ago, and provided his advice for bad speakers (and, incidentally, good speakers, too).
Kurt Tucholsky was a brilliant German journalist, satirist, writer, and sometimes-poet in the 1920s and 1930s. The bulk of his work consists of contributions to the newspaper Weltbühne (“World Stage”) – he produced so many published texts that he wrote under a total of five names.
His writing is always to the point, cutting away unnecessary bulk and showing the reader the world as it really is, sometimes using a mirror. The trademark Tucholsky dry humor and sharp judgement is hard to translate, but I gave it a go anyways.
Advice for a bad speaker
Never start with the beginning, but always at least three miles before the beginning! Like this:
“Ladies and gentlemen! Before I get to tonight's topic, let me briefly …”
Here you have pretty much everything you need for a beautiful beginning: A stiff address; the beginning before the beginning, an announcement that and what you're going to speak, and the little word “brief”. This way you'll win the hearts and ears of the audience in no time at all!
For the audience loves this: To be forced to listen to you like to do tedious school homework; that you threaten what you will say, are saying, and have already said. Always nice and circuitous.
Do not speak without notes – it gives such a restless impression. Best read out your speech. That's safe, reliable, and everybody likes it when the reading speaker peers up suspiciously after every quarter of a sentence to see if everybody is still there.
If you don't want to listen to this friendly advice, and you insist on speaking without notes … you amateur! You ridiculous Cicero! Follow the example of our professional speakers, our members of parliament – have you ever heard them speak without notes? They are sure to prepare notes at home on when to yell “Hear, hear!” … Well, if you really have to speak without notes:
Speak like you write. And I know how you write.
Speak in long, long sentences – those where you, having prepared yourself in the peace of your own home, ignoring your children, since you need the quiet to work, know exactly where they end, having nested dependent clauses as deep as the English language permits, so that the audience, dreaming restlessly in their seats, imagine themselves in college where they used to like slumbering while waiting for a period like this to end … well, I have just given you an example. This is how you must speak.
Always start with the ancient Romans, and no matter what you're talking about, speak about the historical background of the matter. That's not just a German trait – all people wearing glasses do it. Once, at the Sorbonne, I heard a Chinese student speak in a good and fluent French, but to everybody's delight he began like this: “Allow me to begin very briefly with the history of the development of my Chinese home country since 2000 BC …” – he looked very startled when people started laughing.
That's what you have to do, too. And you're completely right: they won't understand a thing, and how could they understand a thing, without the historical background … quite right! People did not come to your talk to hear about real life, but for things they could just as well look up in books … quite right! History, giv'em history!
Never mind if the vibrations you send into the audience return – that's immaterial. Just speak, indifferent to your impact, to the audience, to the air in the room; just keep talking, my dear. God will reward you.
You must put everything into subordinate clauses. Never say “Taxes are too high”. That's too simple. Say: “In addition to my remarks, I'd like to note briefly that I'm under the impression that taxation levels …” That's how it's done!
Remember to drink a glass of water every now and then – people like to watch that.
If you make a joke, laugh beforehand, to make sure nobody misses the punchline.
A speech is, how could it be otherwise, a monologue. After all, only one person speaks. Even after fourteen years of public speaking, you still don't need to know that a speech isn't even just a dialogue, it's an orchestral work: A silent crowd communicates constantly. And you have to hear that. No, you don't have to hear that. Just speak, read, thunder, storify.
In addition to my remarks on speaking technique, I'd like to note briefly that a lot of statistics always make a speech a great success. They are very soothing to hear, and since everybody is able to recall ten different numbers effortlessly, it's always great fun.
Remember to announce the end of your speech well in advance, so that the audience won't suffer a stroke for joy. Paul Lindau once began one of his feared wedding speeches with the words “Let me conclude.”. Announce the end, and then start over from the beginning, and speak for another thirty minutes. This can be repeated several times.
You don't just have to have a structure, you have to recite it to the audience – that's a good way of spicing up your speech.
Never speak for less than 90 minutes, otherwise it's not even worth starting.
When one person speaks, everybody else has to listen. This is your chance! Abuse it.
Advice for a good speaker
Main clauses. Main clauses. Main clauses.
Clear structure in your head, as little as possible on paper.
Facts, or appeals to emotion. Sling or lyre. A speaker is no encyclopedia. People have those at home.
The sound of a single voice is tiring; never speak for more than forty minutes.
Don't seek to achieve effects that aren't in your nature. A stage is merciless - you are more naked there than when sunbathing.
Mark Otto Brahms' words: Cut content can't fail.
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