Public Speaking Lessons from George Carlin

George CarlinSince George Carlin’s death on Sunday, the internet is flowing with links to the comic’s provocative, profane, and usually hilarious stand-up routines.  As you watch the clips, don’t just focus on his controversial subjects like “The seven dirty words”.  Notice what a true master he was as a speaker.

To my mind, he did three things that we can all learn from: he took positions, spoke with great focus, and connected with the audience with infectious passion.

Carlin Always Took a Position

Whether you loved Carlin or hated him, you have to say this about him: you always knew where he stood. And his clear positions on subjects was part of what made him so compelling.  Whether it was religion, government, or “white people”, Carlin was willing to take a stand. Too often, I see speakers who, unlike Carlin, won’t take clean positions on subjects. They’re afraid.  As a result, their presentations are dull and usually don’t serve their listeners well.

I was helping a speaker who felt that a particular business initiative should be killed. He was going to be speaking to the company’s board of directors. In his speech, he planned to simply lay out all the facts around the initiative, hoping that the board would see the light and agree. After hearing the presentation, I asked, “Why don’t you just say, ‘This project needs to end. It’s a waste of corporate resources. And here’s why?'” The speaker was afraid to be so frank. But his waffling made for a poor presentation and didn’t reflect well on him.  His lack of clarity made his presentation confusing and wasn’t going to help the board.

Carlin reminded us that good speaking isn’t just about organizing thoughts and speaking with energy. It’s also about saying something pointed and taking a position. It’s about leadership.

His Messages Were Simple and Easy to Follow

Carlin also found clever ways of organizing his messages for his listeners. He usually found a neat way of putting a tight focus on each comic bit.  One of his most common approaches was to use a single word or phrase as the glue for the piece.  Perhaps his most famous use of this approach was his “seven dirty words” bit.  He laid out the words and then proceeded to analyze every one.  He did the same thing with his classic piece about “stuff” (“That’s the whole meaning of life, trying to find a place for your stuff.”). He uses the word “stuff” over and over as he goes through his ideas around how we are all so focused on our possessions. 

We can use a similar approach with our own presentations. I helped a corporate presenter recently as he developed a rather complicated presentation on his company’s approach to logistics and supply chain management.  The presentation gave a detailed look at how his company was moving goods around the globe. It needed focus. So we came up with the phrase “optimized flow of goods” as the key phrase.  We introduced the phrase early in the presentation and came back to it throughout the presentation as a way of making it hold together.

My client probably didn’t realize that his logistics presentation had something in common with a George Carlin stand-up bit. But it did.

He Spoke with Passion

Finally, notice Carlin’s wonderful delivery.  He always spoke with total commitment and passion in his voice. He used wonderful facial expressions.  His entire body seemed to get a workout as he worked through his routines.

Most people in business speak with too little passion.  Working yesterday with a construction company project manager, I watched silently as he spoke about his work like he was reading a telephone book. “I need you to triple your energy level,” I told him. “You seem bored. I want you to stick your finger in that light socket over there.”

Carlin’s legacy will be as a groundbreaking and controversial comedian. But let’s also remember that he got there by being a great communicator.

Finding a Clean George Carlin Clip to Post Here Was Impossible

Searching for a Carlin YouTube clip to post here, I’ve struggled to find anything that wasn’t profane.  With Carlin, it’s extremely difficult, maybe impossible.  The man could lay an “f-bomb” on you. I considered including no clip at all.

But I loved Carlin. He was one of my heroes.  I listened to his records and memorized his routines when I was a kid.  

And as a speaker, he is an example we could all follow, minus the foul language.

So here goes.

The following clip is relatively clean and is about “stuff”.  WARNING!: IT DOES HAVE SOME FOUL LANGUAGE. If you don’t want to hear foul language, then don’t watch it. But you’ll be missing a wonderful bit.

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