How to be passionate (when you open your mouth)

Vijay recently asked in the comments on a recent talk:

Thank you for a great presentation.  I noticed that your energy was explosive and there was absolutely no point in the presentation where I could detect a lull. I am interested in learning if you have any secrets or techniques in maintaining the focus of not just the audience, but also yourself as I often space out even when I am working on something that I am passionate about.

Explosive energy makes me think of being a drummer in Spinal Tap. Perhaps I should tone it down.

There are four things going on.

  1. My life is at stake.  I have bet I can make a living on my ideas and my ability to express them. I have no guarantees, no salary and no pension. Every time I write a blog post, a book or a give a talk I’m basically an entrepreneur. I’m not half invested. This isn’t a side project. THIS IS IT. I need people to buy my books, hire me to speak, and to tell others about me. When you’ve invested your heart in something, it’s much easier to appear passionate about it, because you are.
  2. I believe what I say. I really hate phony people. I hate people who water things down, intentionally mislead, or pretend they care about things they don’t. How much of what is said at work do people truly believe or care about? I think very carefully, and long, about most of what I create, and so when the time comes to give a presentation, or write a book, my points are things I truly believe.  And I’ve worked hard to make them concise. I’m not holding much back because I know it’s easier to get excited about things you deeply believe, especially if they’ve been boiled down to their essence. If you asked me to talk about my favorite tax software, or which 401k forms I liked the most, passion would be hard to find.
  3. I’ve extended my range.  If you can only play one note on your guitar, you can’t do very much. Musicians, especially singers, practice to extend their range. Most speakers have a narrow range. They only know how to get from volume level 4 to 5. If you practice, and listen to other great speakers carefully, you’ll notice how wide their range is. They can whisper (volume level 2) or almost holler (volume level 7).  You also have a range of gestures, and postures, and facial expressions. The wider your range the more tools you have to express passion, or curiosity, or humor, or anything. You extend your range through practice and coaching. I never want to be too passionate, as it’s easy to sound like a preacher on cocaine or Billy Mays. Instead my goal is to be at high level of enthusiasm  without crossing over into annoying.
  4. I have great respect for anyone who voluntarily listens to me. Speaking and writing are very subjective, and I know that reasonable people might not like me, or what I have to say. But their sense of how much energy and effort I put in is something undeniable. I never want to be dismissed by people for not being sincere. They can hate me, prove me wrong, heckle me, whatever, but at the end of the day I don’t want anyone leaving the room, or finishing one of my books, feeling like I gave half an effort.  Frankly any speaker is burning way more calories per second than any listener, but that’s often forgotten by most listeners, it’s a consumer’s market when it comes to things to consume.

Hope that helps. Let me know if it doesn’t.

For reference, here’s me speaking at Ignite:

14 Responses to “How to be passionate (when you open your mouth)”

  1. abby, the hacker chick blog

    awesome, thanks so much for sharing. reminding me of what i’ve been missing in my own writing lately & giving me ideas for what to work on improving. Your passion is contagious – so thanks, I needed some of that. :)

  2. Scott Berkun

    Abby: yay – good to know I’m of use :)

    Honestly sometimes there a fine line between being courageous and desperate. Or passionate and annoying. I think I’m arguing it’s better to come on a little too strong and risk being too much, then to come on a little too soft and have some people not realize you mean, and feel, what you say.

    People who are better communicators are really just people who manage some of these fine lines better than the rest of us.

  3. Penny

    As a novice freelance communications consultant, I can really relate when you say, “My life is at stake.” It’s exhilirating when it’s going well, and scary when it isn’t. In an earlier posting you talked about having an empty bookshelf waiting to hold the books you plan to write. That’s a wonderful sentiment, and I am creating my own imaginary bookshelf to house my achievements. Good luck in following your passion.

  4. Mike Nitabach

    Yeah, as someone who speaks publicly nearly every day, I can tell you that you hit the nail on the head. I once gave a scientific talk to a room that also included some administrative support staff. After the talk, one of the administrators came up to me and said, “I didn’t have the faintest idea what you were talking about, but I was mesmerized by your presentation.”

    Even when people have no idea what you are talking about, they sense that you are living and breathing 1, 2, 3, and 4, and they respond to it.

  5. Sean Crawford

    I just came home from a big public meeting where I spoke a few times to give advice or share experience. What I think kept me from putting the “too” in passionate was that I was focused on the message and just let the emotion leak out as it naturally would in a huge room, for an issue I care about. The opposite would be the young person who focuses on using emotion because they fear that passion is all they have to offer. (As opposed to, say, practical advice and confidence in a realistic perspective.) Hence their being like Scott said, “desperate.”

  6. Harris Moin

    I salute your passion but disagree that your life is at stake.
    Your life was at stake when you gave your second interview at Microsoft but not now I guess. As from then to now you have earned the right to choose living the way you want. You might be afraid of the failure and love what you are doing but maybe your life is not at stake.

  7. Peter Merholz

    One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t emit too much energy. No matter how over the top you think you are in amping yourself up, it’s never too much. I’ve found giving about 125-150% of my normal energy works well.

  8. Scott Berkun

    Harris: You’re right in a literal sense. I won’t die or starve if I give a bad talk. But I have a lot more at stake than your average person does in their average presentation.

    My point is an easy way to be more passionate is to pick a topic, or frame your arguments, in a way that is of deep interest to yourself (and of course, to your audience). Then it becomes natural to have more energy, since you’re invested in what you’re saying.

  9. Scott Berkun

    Peter: I agree, and it’s something most people only learn through coaching or watching video. People have a sense for how much energy they’re giving off, but they don’t realize how much of it gets lost 10 or 30 feet away. Working at 120% or 140% of what feels normal actually seems normal to most people in the audience.

    This is another way of thinking about range – I mentioned volume, but that’s just one kind of energy. There are others.

  10. Olivia Mitchell

    Hi Scott, I love this, thank you.

    I agree with you that you can be too energetic. If your audience is in a low energy mode and you start your presentation at a high level of passion and energy there’ll be a disconnect and some people may dismiss you as “over the top” and “hyped up” even when your passion is totally sincere. I start at a level of just above the audience’s and then raise my energy levels bringing them along with me.

    There are also cultural differences as to what is seen as acceptable. Early in his speaking career my partner was given the feedback in an evaluation form that he came across as a hyped up American motivational speaker. This was not intended to be a positive comment!


  11. Brian

    Nice summary. Sounds like the traits of an authentic presenter. Also, I commend you for mentioning Spinal Tap and Volume, but not turning it up to 11!

  12. Marion Chapsal

    Now I understand why people talk so much about you and why you make such an impact.
    It’s the first time I’m watching a video of you, and frankly, I expected you to come across much more excited and “like a preacher on cocaine”(I’m French, you see…)
    Instead, I see simplicity, honesty and humility wrapped into pure dynamite, “ignited” by 100% PRESENCE.
    Triggered 3 ideas I will develop in a next post (thanks for the inspiration!):

    1)No wonder we, as presentation coaches and trainers, find it so hard for corporate clients to express themselves with Passion. Do they believe in what they say? Do they actually feel that put their life at stake when they present? Do they respect those who listen to them?…
    Our role is to remind them of the fire which is burning inside of them.Why do they CARE?
    Taking them back in touch with their inner child is one way.Telling their story is another.

    2)I agree with Olivia there’s a cultural dimension when you’re speaking in public. We each need to find what is the most comfortable with our personality and our culture and pay attention to the audience’s culture. But your point 4 (respecting anyone who’s listening to me) should take care of that!

    3)I love when you say “there are other kinds of energy”.
    You talk about volume, about gestures, postures, facial expressions.Smiling and making eye contact are also potential “dynamites”.Using my background and training as a theater actress, I’ve discovered other sources of energy. It comes from within, from your desire to share. It can be turned off or full watts, just like a light bulb.You hardly need to speak very loud or gesticulate when you find it. Actually you could very much stay still and silent and be intensely present.
    Et voil

  13. Dev

    I love your authenticity. I feel I am a punching bag in this Life or of God (Mythically). I never give up, no matter what situation I am in or created for my self. However, I always remember to smile and be strong as some one, some where is going through the hell. :) Peace brother you will do good in life or you might have already doing.



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