Passionate public speaking is as much performance as it is emotion
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
A quick scan of public speaking advice articles, especially on business sites like Forbes, will highlight the importance of passion. “Why Passion Beats Technique In Public Speaking” or “Why Is Passion Important In Public Speaking?” I don’t disagree that passion is great, but the discussion often turns to what’s going on in the speaker’s soul. As a coach, I can focus on performing passion. I’ve coached lots of people with passion who sounded bland. I know lots of great speakers who sound passionate, even when they’re delivering the same basic talk for the 100th time.
I routinely assign students to speak on public policy topics. Why? Such topics demand research and argument. Also, since policy is always new, I avoid some plagiarism problems. Often, I’ll assign the speech and have a student who claims, “I can only speak on topics that I feel passionate about.” What a limitation! Good speakers can find the grain of interest in their subjects and then perform their passion well.
The audience cannot see inside your head or your heart; they can only see and hear what you do. However, we live in, what Linguist John Haiman called, “the cult of plain speaking.” Just say what you mean and be who you are! The cult of plain speaking demands passion as a precursor. Good speaking can only happen once an internal emotional threshold is passed. No thanks. I’ve got 10 presentations to give. I don’t have the time or emotional resources to become passionate about a new office policy or quarterly results. If you feel great emotion and passion on a topic, that’s wonderful; they still need to show up in delivery. Passion and emotion are a bit lacking? So what? They still need to show up in delivery. Passion-felt is irrelevant if it isn’t passion-seen.
In this sense, passion isn’t only an internal emotional state, it’s also a performance issue. In some ways, speaking is like character acting. I have a couple of talks and workshops that I have run, at this point, hundreds of times. I can do them in my sleep. Each performance, though, is unique because I have to focus on that specific audience in front of me. And each performance is “passionate” because I know what that sounds like for me.
When we watch a play, we acknowledge that the characters on stage are not necessarily the true personalities of the actors. In speaking, there should be much more overlap between persona and person, but there is still a gap. The problem, I think, is that most people see this gap as a flaw. I can’t speak on that topic because I’m not passionate about it. No! You have to speak on that topic AND you have to look passionate about it.
To approach this from a slightly different angle, we can understand it in terms of collapsing social roles. In The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett talks about how public and private roles used to be distinct. We deployed different aspects of ourselves in public life with its public norms (civility) than we did in private life. Sennett’s concern was that we have allowed private life to kinda take over. We now expect much more access to all parts of a politician's life than we once did.
Bruce Boyer draws on Sennett in his book on men’s fashion True Style: The History & Principles of Classic Menswear. As a fashion writer, Boyer laments how we’ve lost the distinction between business wear, formal wear, casual wear, and sportswear. Everywhere and every day, it seems, is casual Friday. Boyer points out, this actually hasn’t made life easier, more comfortable maybe. Without an agreed-upon set of norms, everyone’s cast adrift, hoping to put something together that looks good.
What does this mean for speech? Well, you have a business suit, a casual nice dinner outfit, workout clothes, and lounge wear. Wearing your sweats to a non-zoom business meeting is inappropriate. Does that mean that you are denying your true sweatpants-wearing self? You’re lying to all your colleagues by wearing this double-breasted prison? Of course not. You’re performing a public role publicly; the sweats are for a different aspect of yourself in a different part of your life. So too with speaking. There isn’t a single, unitary self that must be released every time you open your mouth. You perform your workplace role by putting on the right clothes in the morning; you perform the same role by putting on your passionate voice when talking about interesting workplace things. Find the relevant virtue that the audience values and perform your take on it. Usually, we look for passion, which simply indicates a deep level of speaker interest.
How do you know what your passion/emotion sounds like when performed well? Practice and imitation. I think imitation is good for thinking about how to perform something like “excitement” or “passion.” I don’t mean do SNL impersonations of famous speakers. You should look for models of imitation that are kinda like you when you sound good.
For “passion,” I drift to those speakers who convey their passion in a professorly way. I’m a professor, not a pastor. I can convey a deep passion, but it’s normally routed through the intellect. For most of the presentations I give, this is perfect. If I’m speaking on speech or debate, I want to show my profound commitment to speech’s pedagogical mission: helping people convey their ideas. I see this as a noble pursuit. I can look around and find other academics who talk about their studies in similar ways. As mentioned above, I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a master at this. Take a look at this clip where he responds to open questions at the Hayden Planetarium. He briefly talks about his fascination with Newton.
Tyson gives multiple quick examples, illustrating his mastery of Newton’s corpus and experience. Each one of these examples is interesting and accessible. You get the sense that he understands Newton deeply, but he doesn’t hide behind complexity.
His speech performance is excellent. He moves from a relaxed tone to fiery intensity and back again. His gestures go very big and he counter-balances them with small, tight gestures close to his chest. When he digs into a concept his words are so clipped and sharp they show an intense love of the topic. In another scenario, the same tone might come across as angry.
No one could watch that clip and say Tyson lacks passion. Now, he’s probably trotted out each one of his examples and illustrations at least a dozen times. I will never know what’s in his head at that moment, but I know the performance plays into what audiences assume passionate looks like.
Watching Tyson, I can imitate certain traits. I think his gestures are particularly powerful as he moves from moments of intensity to levity. That’s something tangible I can try to work into my performances. Do I look like Tyson when I’m passionate? Sorta? Maybe? That’s not the goal. I want to watch him for tools and ideas to practice with.