The Importance of What You Say

People laugh when I tell them I’m a professional speaker. They assume at first that I’m some kind of self-help guru or infomercial star. But when I explain that the average American says 15,000 words a day, mostly at work, and frequently to convince others of their ideas, they stop laughing. I explain I’m primarily a writer, but that to make a living as a writer I must often speak about my work.

Just about anyone in the professional world is, in effect, a professional speaker. Every single idea in the history of the business world had to be explained to at least one other person before it got approved, funded or purchased by anyone else. Call it what you like–sales, marketing, pitching or presenting–but I know the history. Despite dreams of a world in which the best ideas win simply because they should, we live in a world where the fate of ideas hinges on how well you talk about what you’ve made, or what you want to make.

People are surprised to learn that for centuries many of the great writers in history, from Emerson to Mark Twain to Peter Drucker, made much of their incomes not from their ideas alone, but from the interest people had in hearing them talk about those ideas in person. A different level of understanding comes from seeing someone explain her ideas to you, before your own eyes, in real time. You can’t shake hands or share some beers with an idea, but you can with its creator.

From my studies of innovation history (see The Myths of Innovation), I know that the difference between relatively uncommon names like Tesla, Grey and Englebart, and household ones like Edison, Bell and Jobs, has more to do with their ability to persuade, convince and inspire than their ability to invent, create or innovate. One potent thread in the fabric of reasons why some ideas take off and others don’t is the ability entrepreneurs have to explain to others why they should care. The bigger the idea, the more explaining the world demands. Yet these skills are constantly trivialized in many organizations, leading to dozens of great ideas being rejected, and their creators wondering why lesser rivals with weaker concepts are able to capture people’s imaginations and pocketbooks.

Dale Carnegie is often quoted as saying, “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” His intentions were less cynical than people take this quote to mean. The goal isn’t to treat people as if they were stupid. Instead it’s to get them to pay close attention to what you’re saying. Speaking is not trivial. The attention of people who have what you need is precious and special. It must be treated with the deepest respect. To learn how to tell a good story, one that connects your ideas to their needs, or your products to their dreams, without succumbing to the hawkish tricks of the latest gadget infomercial, requires effort and careful thought. How do you choose what to say? What angle to take? There are an infinite number of ways to introduce an idea. How can you be confident you’re choosing wisely? The only way to know is to pay attention to the craft of words, and the performance of presenting them. I see too many inventors and executives who see speaking about their work as the least important thing they do. And it shows. To the detriment of the quality of their ideas, their presentations are the spotty lens through which those ideas will be seen. Without dedicated effort, those lenses distort and betray what it is they truly have to offer.

The simplest step in the world is curiously the one few use. Anything you expect to do well must be practiced. Any kind of pitching or presenting is a skill, and no amount of thinking about doing it can compare with what’s learned from the experience of doing it. It’s taken me 15 years of pitching, presenting and teaching, giving hundreds of lectures around the world, to accumulate the knowledge represented in my book, Confessions of a Public Speaker. I explain for posterity the many mistakes I’ve made over those years, and the important lessons that could only come from those mistakes. It’s those mistakes, born from the effort of trying to convince others of the value of my ideas, that have led to whatever talents I now possess. And while books like mine can, through fun stories and insights, show a way, at the end of the day the choice is always up to you. How important to you is what you say?

[This post originally published at]
[1. University of Texas Study]

8 Responses to “The Importance of What You Say”

  1. Phil Simon

    Great post.

    “The bigger the idea, the more explaining the world demands.”

    Amen to that.

    I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on our ability to communicate well. The paradox is that many of us recognize the need to effectively communicate but so many of us struggle with it. We rely on jargon. We sent far too many e-mails. We ignore the curse of knowledge.

    Nothing is guaranteed, but writing and speaking well sure as hell ups the odds that our ideas are implemented successfully.

  2. Pablo

    Hi Scott,

    Isn’t the end goal (or at least, an essential first step) to get people’s attention?

    Mark Manson nailed it recently in this article, you might be interested in reading it:



    1. Scott

      Sure – in most relationships you have it’s not hard to get at least a few minutes of attention (e.g. coworkers, friends, etc.). In most situations getting attention isn’t as hard as keeping it.

      I did read that article – it was excellent. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Mike Nitabach

    The Carnegie quote is excellent. I frequently tell my trainees that it doesn’t do any good to play it like Sherlock Holmes, with a big reveal at the end. Tell the audience what to expect, deliver on that expectation, and then reiterate the main points. That makes people relax and feel smart, which is your goal as a persuasive speaker. Because if you make the audience feel smart, they will be receptive to what you are saying. If you make them feel stupid or confused in a misguided attempt to generate dramatic tension, you will only piss them off and make them hate you.

    1. Scott

      So many speakers let their fear drive them to want to intimidate the audience, which rarely works out well for anyone.

  4. Giri Berenstein

    Great post, and so true.

    I loved the idea that we’re all professional speakers so much, I had to share it with some of my colleagues and other important people. You also inspired me to write a post in my own blog, referring to the challenges we face as communicators in a second language, in a foreign culture (I apologize for not sharing – the post is not written in English and google translate doesn’t due it justice).

    I think the time I first felt really comfortable in my new land was the first time I comfortably spoke in public – in English.

    Thank you,

  5. Scott

    Thanks Giri. Hard for me to imagine the challenges of speaking in another language – it’s hard enough to speak in one language much less two.

  6. Andrew

    Old article, but this theme is modern anyway. By the way, I read your book „How Design Makes The World”. I got many ideas for my projects. Thanks!


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