James Bond’s public speaking lessons

The superspy movie series offers chase scenes, explosions, martinis—and also some good advice for speakers.

Sometimes New Year’s resolutions have unintended consequences. I started a new exercise program with the usual results—which is to say, nothing much yet—and needed something to while away all those hours on the treadmill. So I began watching all the James Bond movies in order, from the early, cool days of Sean Connery, to the sentimental Roger Moore, through that other guy, then Pierce Brosnan and finally Daniel Craig. More than a half-century and twenty-three official films.

There’s a lot of mayhem. A prodigious tally of explosions, an innumerable body count, and a huge, huge pile of wrecked machinery, including an astonishing number of expensive BMWs, Audis and of course Aston Martins.

All good fun. But what, if anything, did I learn about public speaking while watching Bond save the world, drink his martinis (shaken, not stirred), and finish off so many mad evil geniuses?

I learned three things that speakers can put to work immediately, upping their game, perhaps even lifting it to Bondian levels:

1. Skip the preamble.

What was fresh about the franchise was that, rather than beginning with a set of credits, Bond plunges us right into the action. We start with a murder, at the very least. Frequently a chase involving some of those expensive cars. Often, lots of big things are blown up in the process.

Bond starts with a bang, and you should too. Don’t begin with an introduction. Preferably, someone else does that for you, but if not, resist the temptation to say, “Let me tell you a little about myself (or my organization).” Nothing is more tedious for an audience. They care about what’s in it for them, not you.

Sorry. But that’s the way it is.

If you must introduce yourself, do it after you start your talk proper. Do the chase scene, then run the credits, just like Bond. If you hook your audience first, it will tolerate those credits.

Also, don’t start with an agenda. Can you imagine Daniel Craig beginning a Bond movie with an agenda?


2. There’s eternal appeal in setting wrongs right and restoring order.

Bond is all about maintaining the status quo—but first a whole lot of mayhem needs to ensue. It’s that flow of starting with a wrong and finding your way to the right that is so appealing to most people. Frame your speech accordingly.

What is the problem, need or wrong that you want to solve, ease or correct? Begin with that, and then move on to your solution. It’s also the ancient Greek insight into speech construction. So you might think you’re smart enough to outthink Bond. But Bond and the ancient Greeks? I’d say don’t even try.

3. Don’t surprise us—fulfill our expectations.

One of the problems with modern storytelling and speechwriting is that writers and speakers think they need to astonish us with a twist we didn’t see coming. That sort of surprise is highly overrated.

What the neuroscience shows is that people actually love the way traditional stories fulfill our expectations. It’s not the surprise we want, it’s the familiar pattern that gives us a sense of control and allows us to say, “I knew that’s where it was headed.”

We love Bond, not because he astonishes us with something new each outing, but because he doesn’t. We can count on him to restore order every time, and in our chaotic modern world, isn’t that much, much more satisfying than whacking us over the head with something we never anticipated? That’s just another day at work—who needs it in our storytelling and speeches?

Bond endures because he is a predictable force for order in a chaotic world. Speakers, you have the opportunity to do the same. Help your audiences feel more competent rather than less. Show them how something is done. Tell them a secret to the way the world works. Help them with some tips for coping with the modern world. They’ll respond by rating you as “cool.”

And there’s nothing better than that.

(Just for the record, the best Bond line of all was uttered by Pierce Brosnan in “The World Is Not Enough,” when his co-star says, “I would have given you the world!” His reply: “The world is not enough.” Of course.)

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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