A Showman’s Look At Public Speaking


By Duane Laflin  Originally Published in Grand Magic Magazine – August 2014

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I prepared this article as a speech to be delivered to groups of professional business people. In reviewing it, I felt magician friends would benefit from it as well. It definitely is about showmanship.

A Showmanʼs Look At Public Speaking

Contrary to what some may think, achieving success in the world of show business takes more than having the right look and possessing talent. It requires mastery of an art and excellence in a craft. Show business people must analyze and study what they do, just like people in other businesses must analyze and study what they do. People who rise to the top in stage and screen, do so because they understand their work.

Last year I watched a television interview of the Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino. It was the first time I had ever heard Mr. Tarantino talk.

Previously I had formed an impression about him, based on blurbs from the news and brief stories from other media. The impression was not positive. I had become fairly well convinced that Mr. Tarantino is a nut case.

After listening to him discuss his work, by way of that interview, I realized my opinion was out of line. He is an eccentric man, but he is definitely a brilliant eccentric. It would be a huge mistake to underestimate his intelligence. There is much more to the man than knowing how to put a shocking scene up on a movie screen. He knows his business. He is extremely clever about communication techniques. That is why he is so successful. It is why he is such a heavy-hitter in Hollywood.

Essentially, show business is a matter of being as smart and capable as possible to connect with people and communicate for the sake of entertainment and profit.

Therefore, those who want to do well in the realm of public speaking can learn much from the world of show business. Apart from goals, which for public speakers may not necessarily be entertainment or profit, the intent is the same. We want to be as smart and capable as possible to connect with people and communicate.

With that in mind, I did some serious thinking about the framework around which good entertainment is built. How do smart people in show business approach the creation of something new that they want to bring before the public?

There is no particular rule in this matter, but at the heart of what needs to be accomplished these four concepts are found.

1. Substance Is More Important Than Style

With this the issue is simple: Looking good is not good enough. If, when the curtain opens, the lighting is fantastic and the costumes are gorgeous, but the singer is off key, there is a problem. If the movie has a great director and a awesome film crew, but the actors canʼt act, there is a problem.

Relating to my aspect of show business, if the man is the possessor of fancy magic tricks and illusion equipment, but cannot create fun mysteries with them, there is a problem.
The beginning point for success in the entertainment world is having the ability to actually perform well.

Sometimes the public does not understand this, because the style of some entertainers can be so distracting. Lady Gaga is a good example. She is known for doing extreme things, such as wearing a dress made out of raw beef. It would be easy to conclude that she is interesting and entertaining because of her weirdness. There is no doubt that her sensational behavior has something to do with her success, but the truth is, the lady can sing. I saw a television special that included footage of her doing an A cappella recording. No backup instruments. No production value. Just her, standing alone singing. Her vocal ability was astonishing. There is much more to Lady Gaga than strange behavior. Beneath her weirdness is substance.

It is a simple matter that teaches speakers a simple lesson. Our first concern in communicating should be the development of content. Before we worry about how to say it, we must make sure we have something worthwhile to say. No matter how skillful we are with our speaking techniques, if what we are saying is not worth hearing, we are wasting the time of our listeners.

Whether entertainers or speakers, having something of quality to present is the starting point. Once we have it, we move forward from substance into style.
This brings us to the second part of the presentation framework.

2. Without Style, Substance May Not Be Conveyed

I know a young illusionist who performed in the same community for ten years to audiences that rarely numbered more than thirty people. He is one of the most gifted magicians I have ever known, yet his audiences were small. To his credit, he was persistent. He hung in there.

Eventually the career of this young illusionist was transformed by linking up with a producer. The producer kept the illusionist in the same community, but put him in a different building, entirely changed how the performer was promoted, and added production value to the show by bringing in exotic animals such as tigers. Overnight, the audiences went from rarely thirty to usually over four hundred. Before long the show as selling out day after day after day.

When it comes to substance, the ability of the illusionist was the same as it had been before. The difference came in how the old ability was advertised, packaged, and showcased in a new way.

The same thing applies to public speaking. If substance is not presented properly, few people will listen. We must know how to get attention. We must know how to create focus. We must make ourselves interesting to ensure that we are heard.

In spite of having great knowledge, a poor speaker is still a poor communicator. How we say what we say does matter. It is a big mistake to think that offering valuable information is enough. We must package the information in a way that makes people want to possess it.

This brings us to the third part of our framework for presentations…

3. An Outline Defines Substance

In the effort to be practical, how do we know that we have something worth sharing with an audience? How do we know that worthwhile content is present? ! Entertainers make a list. When preparing a concert they do not just say, “I am going to sing.” They write down the songs they are going to sing. On paper they create a skeleton structure for the show.

They decide what will happen first, second, third, fourth, fifth and so on. They think about how the things they plan to do will fit and flow together.

When designing a new show I do my homework. I make a list of the tricks, funny business and illusions that will be part of the program. I study this list make sure we have enough material. I ask myself, “Do we have what is necessary to make a strong show, or do I need to find some more things?”

A speaker should do the same. A person who thinks, I am super familiar with this topic, I will just get up and talk about it, may do well a time or two, but that is all. The gift of gab can take someone a few hundred yards down the road to success, but it will never take a person all the way.

Disciplined preparation is essential to long-term success. The first step in disciplined preparation is creating a list of what we have to offer. For speakers, that is an outline of what we want say. In outline form we write down the essence of the substance of our speech. We look at it. If this outline is anemic, we realize the speech will be anemic. Therefore we work on the outline until it is strong. By doing this we provide ourselves with the foundation for a strong speech.

Which introduces the final part of the presentation framework.

4. A Script Crafts Style

All great entertainers work from a script. The truly great ones act so naturally that others may not even realize a script exists, but it does.

Script means they have worked out the best way to say and do something and that is how they say and do it.

I was watching the comedian Robin Williams on a late night talk show. The host said something that made Robin Williams think of something humorous. For the next five minutes Robin Williams delivered some of the funniest spontaneous comedy lines I had ever heard in my life.

Some days later I happened to turn on the television to see Mr. Williams being interviewed by a news commentator. The commentator said what made Robin think of something humorous. For the next five minutes, Robin Williams delivered some of the funniest spontaneous comedy lines I had ever heard in my life. Then I realized, they were the same spontaneous comedy lines he had used on the previous late night talk show. It dawned on me that the lines were not so spontaneous. He was on script. He was using prepared material that had been prepared so well it did not sound like it was prepared.

As time went by I discovered that people, such as high-level performers in Las Vegas, craft everything including their ad-libs. An ad-lib is a remark that supposedly is made at the spur of the moment without thought. The great ones do not risk having a bad ad-lib. Their ad- libs have been thought about. They are written into the script. If you attend the show more than once you will find the same, supposed one time remark, being said every night.

The lesson in this for those who want to excel as public speakers is the understanding that an outline is where a presentation begins, whereas a script is what makes a presentation marvelous. Development of a good outline is not sufficient preparation. The outline is like bones. The script is flesh and blood and character and passion.

Having a script means we write out, word for word, what we want to say. As we write, we try to figure out the absolute best words and expressions to use. That is how it is done in show business. That is what you find when you analyze those who are at the top of that field. When you take a look at those who are considered the “best of the best” in the realm of public speaking, you will find the same thing.

Maybe on another occasion we can discuss the fact that creating a script does not mean you are a slave to it or that you must worry about sticking with it word for word. Actually, having a great script gives you freedom to relax and safely do something that is somewhat impromptu. For now, the lesson is that the process of creating the script, and learning the script, is what equips us to speak comfortably and effectively.


It is the framework for designing good entertainment presentations.

  • First, there is the question of substance. We must be sure there is something of quality to share.
  • Second, there is the knowledge that, without style, the substance may not be conveyed. Effort is made to make the substance as interesting as possible.
  • Third, a list or outline is created to identity and define substance.
  • Finally, a script is prepared to ensure that substance comes across with appealing style.

That is how entertainers think. It is also a very good way for speakers to think.

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