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Malcolm Gladwell has great hair. Beyond that, he is one of my favorite authors.

He has written such great books as Blink, Outliers, David and Goliath, and Tipping Point. He’s also a very engaging speaker. He has also given several TedTalks that you can find online — certainly worth listening to.

He was recently interviewed on the BBC Radio show, “Desert Islands Discs” and the host asked Gladwell about public speaking. In particular, he asked Gladwell what made a person a great speaker. Here is part of his answer:

I like the challenge of standing in front of a group of people and being required to reach them … People have travelled to be there and what an audience wants is to be taken seriously. They will put up with a lot if they have the sense that you have thought about what you are doing with them in some considered way. Once they get that sense from you they will travel with you in many far and distant directions.

What turns off an audience is the notion that you’re giving them the same speech you’ve given many times before. That you didn’t even think about them that morning or about what you wanted to say. as long as I communicate that notion – you are special to me; I’m giving you this talk for a reason. Then you’re fine.

Let’s break down his answer in two ways.

  1. A great speaker understands they have a responsibility to reach their audience. In most cases, we speak not to impart information but to change a person’s mind, behavior, or path. As a speaker, that is your responsibility.
  2. A great speaker takes his audience seriously. This is so important! If you don’t take your audience seriously, it will creep into your attitude and presentation. This lack of empathy will create a disconnect that is hard to repair. It also shows a disrespect for people who have altered their schedules to hear you speak.

An audience can tell the difference between a speaker who is simply going through the motions and one who is passionately engaged with them. This is one of the inherent challenges in “stump speeches,” the speeches we give over and over — different audience, same speech. Without an extra bit of effort to contextualize or personalize, it will risk coming across as insincere or even dishonest.

But as Gladwell points out, if a speaker is willing to go the extra mile to consider his audience, the audience will “travel with you in many far and distant directions.”

You can download the entire BBC interview here.