Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to watch Jordan Peterson from the front row of a 5000 strong audience in Melbourne. The atmosphere was electric and Jordan mastered the vastness of space with impressive skill.
As an actress, I know it takes great artistry, ability and confidence to command such a huge stage with no set and zero props. Many actors would balk at such a daunting prospect. Yet, Jordan deftly moved from one spontaneous moment to the next, leading us on an exciting journey into the depths of his heart and mind. Whether one agreed or not with his opinions, what couldn’t be disputed was the power of his speaking skills.
So what makes Jordan’s public speaking stand out from the crowd? In short, his luminous spirit. The greatest public speakers share this inner luminosity. Think Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry, Tony Robbins, Ken Robinson and Brene Brown. All have (or had) that indefinable spark that elevates them above the ordinary. Each, in their own unique way, share an indomitable strength of spirit to mobilise enormous popularity.
I firmly believe that this spark lies within all of us — if only we would do the work to unearth it. It requires us to slough off the old defences that keep us small and instead reconnect to our inner fire so that we too can speak with the same depth of passion, integrity and generosity.
But, this takes courage; the courage to express how we feel about what we say — rather than shut down and let our words spill out in a meaningless data dump. The reason why a speaker like Jordan is so successful has everything to do with how much meaning he brings to the words he speaks. He is indisputably authentic, bristling with integrity, and doesn’t waste a single pointless moment posturing, pretending or contorting himself to please anyone.
So, let’s have a closer look at Jordan’s process, to gain the insights that will help us all speak more creatively and heroically!
1. TOOK HIS TIME.
As soon as Jordan set foot on the stage, he paused. He didn’t launch into any crowd-pleasing antics or fearfully rush his words. He simply drew a deep breath, settled his nerves, reflected on how he might begin and, only when ready, spoke. This wasn’t some cheap trick. It was a chance to gather himself for the mammoth task ahead in the most natural and human way he knew. And, speaking to over 5000 people for more than an hour would be a daunting prospect for many of us. But by breathing and settling, Jordan didn’t indulge his fears: he focused instead on his objective, remaining razor-sharp present from start to finish so that he could honour his audience with his full attention.
No matter how experienced we are, daring to be fully present makes us feel vulnerable — particularly if we care about what we want to say. But we have to learn to steady our nerves and trust our process— and Jordan did just that. He gave himself time to breathe and think — despite the pressure. Because, when you give yourself permission to breathe, relax, find your place and collect your thoughts with all the world watching, you’ll start strong. You’ll be less likely to fluster, you’ll stay on point and you’ll convey a rare emotional strength that will set you apart.
2. TRUSTED HIS FLOW.
Jordan had no script. That’s more than most actors can manage, and it is certainly a rare business person who can speak completely off-the-cuff with no notes or slides. It’s a daring high-wire act to behold. Most of us are far too concerned about failure, so we tend to over-rehearse. Yet, in doing so, we rob our speech of all spontaneity. Watch the majority of Ted Talks to see how sterile business-speak has become. Part of Jordan’s huge appeal is his capacity to speak freely and with genuine heart. He has come to understand that personal truth needs no script. Instead, he allowed his creative ideas to ebb, flow and build momentum — often to epic proportions. Nothing was planned. And it was thrilling to watch. We simply did not know which way he would go next — and, seemingly, neither did he.
Clearly, Jordan thoroughly researches his content. He knows what problem he wants to solve, how to solve it, and, importantly, why it matters. And he’s patently interrogated his own arguments. This doesn’t mean he is the arbiter of all truth. No one is. But his self-examination enables him to lay out a strong case. All of us need to research and clarify our ideas so that we sound specific and on point, and can validate our arguments. Don’t fluff your way through ill-researched assertions: Get accurately on message. Only then can you abandon your script and step confidently into flow, assured that you’ve done your homework.
3. TOLD STORIES.
Jordan is a fantastic storyteller! As he moved around the stage, he didn’t bore us to tears with endless data. Instead, like any great actor does, he brought his narrative to scintillating life by painting a richly visual picture. But, he didn’t just do this with his words. He used tone of voice, change of pace, choice of emphasis and expressive body language to do the trick. In other words, he gave us the opportunity to experience his story just as he experienced it, thereby enabling us to place ourselves right at the centre of the action. And, most importantly, he conceptualised complex psychological ideas with simple archetypes so that we could instantly connect to his meaning. Because, the best stories don’t overwhelm us with technical jargon or tired cliché; they are always simple at heart.
So, tell a visual story. And relive your story live on stage. Do this by using your fullest voice, body language and imagination to describe your scene in specific detail so that others can also picture what you yourself are seeing. And don’t forget that the hero of your story must be real and vulnerable with a tough problem to face. Because stories that show flawed humans — like you and me — overcoming seemingly insurmountable fears to reach their goals, are inspiring. Don’t just reel off dull numbers and charts that lull even the brightest of listeners to sleep; instead, weave a vivid and compelling narrative through your data that excites your audience and emboldens them with newfound possibilities.
4. WELCOMED CRITICISM.
Jordan has clearly thought through the many objections to his arguments and ideas. Having analysed his story from different critical angles and rooted out as many problems as possible, he isn’t afraid to be critiqued. He faces disagreement openly, generously and head-on. Because, being able to debate and discuss our well-researched ideas is a supremely confident move. It says we are not afraid of disagreement. And, if we can engage with, rather than defend against, criticism, we are in a much stronger position to refine our ideas and move closer to truth. Remember: There is always something of value to be learned from the perspectives of others — even when we disagree. It helps us clarify our strategy.
Many people avoid that level of conflict. They would rather cling to being “right” and silence any disagreement in case anyone were to discover the fragility of their argument. But, in running from their discomfort, rather than learning to handle it better, they stunt their growth, learn nothing of the world and can often sound arrogantly inauthentic. Far better to stand tall and welcome objection. Dare to engage with those who poke holes in your argument as it builds your emotional strength and helps you to think critically, on your feet, and, most importantly, to engage with rather than resist others — even those with whom we may vehemently disagree. Aim for open discourse. You’ll be taken far more seriously than the person who is patently defensive, divisive and, worst of all, resistant to question.
5. FORGETS POLISHED.
Jordan thrilled us by refusing to project a faux polished version of himself. Instead, he stood on the stage as comfortably as he could and allowed himself to explore the rougher edges of his ideas. There was no attempt to prove himself nor downplay his ideas. He simply was irrefutably himself. At one point, his voice even trembled as he began to wring his hands in what seemed like angst. And he came across no less confident for it. Because, this is a man who simply cares about what he is saying, communicates it with compassion — and his audience loved him for it.
Artful public speaking is most definitely not about standing on a stage like a perfect pitch-bot spewing pre-rehearsed, scripted thoughts that lack all vitality. It’s far better to be human whilst staying powerfully on message. And don’t let anyone dictate to you how you should be on a stage. Because, no one knows you better than you know yourself. You must develop agency and let yourself discover your own rhythm. For those of us who are naturally introverted, this may mean cutting eye contact for a while so we can breathe, think and process what we truly want to say rather than rushing to speak empty words. And, ultimately, you need to trust yourself. This requires far less effort than you think, but much more courage. In a world that demands everyone perform a song and dance, simplicity stands out. So do less. Much much less. And discover the excitement of true authenticity, which far out-trumps any idealised version of what a powerful speaker should be.
6. ADDRESSED HIS AUDIENCE PERSONALLY.
Despite the audience numbering well over 5000, Jordan spoke to each and every one of us as if we were the only person in the room. This made everyone feel involved. He did this by only ever speaking to one person at a time. The rest of us picked up on the intimacy and subsequently felt personally addressed. No matter how great our content, if we can’t include everyone in the room, many of our key listeners will drift. They’ll consciously (or subconsciously) know we’re talking at rather than to them and will disconnect from our material.
Reading your audience is key. You must pay attention to them, even when you’re not directly looking at anyone. The trick here is to read the energy in the room without taking that energy personally, because this is the way to remain connected and centred however your audience reacts. In my early days as an actress, I once performed an entire play whilst one chap slept on the front row! Had I taken his snoozing personally, I would have lost my flow and tanked the play, which would have been disastrous not just for me but also for my fellow actors and the majority of the audience who were actually awake! So I ignored the sleeping man and resolutely focused on my objective to give the audience who were listening an enjoyable experience. I thus learned to never take my audience personally, good or bad, whilst still honouring what really matters — connection to my mission. With this quality of attention, you’ll start to be less self-conscious, more generous and will develop a lightness of touch you may never have imagined you possessed. You could even start to find the hiccups amusing.
I later found out that the sleeping man was a homeless fellow who had ingeniously snuck in for some quick shut-eye!
Whether we agree or not with Jordan’s opinions, it is undeniable that this is a man of integrity, self-respect and honesty. He speaks to the core of who people are, knowing full well that they, like him, feel both pain and joy and may well also carry heavy personal burdens. This level of connection inspires trust. He listens generously, speaks his truth, believes in your potential and is confident enough to take on disagreement without losing his nerve.
If we too can develop the emotional strength to speak with integrity and never compromise our voice, we will communicate on a far more human level and our words will bristle with aliveness. And, whatever we say, we’ll cause ripples. We’ll develop substance, our ideas will create impact and we’ll finally evoke the change we long for.