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Jerry Seinfeld: Lessons from a pro

Unpacking Jerry Seinfeld's recent Duke Commencement Address


My guilty pleasure is preparing dinner with a glass of chardonnay whilst watching Seinfeld with my noise-cancelling headphones. Once I finish the series (all 66 hours worth), it doesn’t take me long to start watching it from the beginning again. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan. 


For that reason, I was thrilled to see this video recently released containing two of my favourite things: Jerry Seinfeld and public speaking. 


If you haven’t watched Jerry’s recent Duke commencement address, grab a coffee, take a break and do so. Here’s my take on what makes it a brilliant speech. 


—Doing away with cliches—


Dull speeches incorporate cliches. Cliches are the low-hanging fruit of the speaking world. They’re safe, familiar, and they sound nice...but, due to their overuse, they don't carry any meaning.


To get his audience’s attention, Jerry does the opposite, he intentionally says things that contradict cliches. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • “To hell with passion.”

  • “Fall in love with everything...Find something where you love the good parts and don’t mind the bad parts too much. The torture you’re comfortable with.”

  • “If you…have no idea what you like, what you’re interested in, or what you want to do in life, you are the luckiest ones here.” 

  • “I would like to take a moment to defend [privilege].”  

  • “Work is wonderful. I definitely won’t be looking back on my life wishing I worked less.” 

  • “Thanks for the phoney degree and the ridiculous outfit.”


These anti-cliches are humorous and thought-provoking.


—Incorporating quotables— 


A quotable is a pithy phrase or sentence you want to write down or get printed on a t-shirt. They’re catchy and often encapsulate a key idea. Jerry’s speech is peppered with quotables. Here are my favourites:


  • “We’re proud of things we should be embarrassed about, and embarrassed about things we should be proud of.”

  • “The better job you’ve done in finding a path for yourself, the more boring and predictable your life is going to be.”

  • “The slightly uncomfortable feeling of awkward humour is ok.” 

  • “Don’t think about having, think about becoming.”

  • “The only two things you need to pay attention to in life are work and love.” 


Quotables are effective at distilling ideas into digestible, bite-sized takeaways for the audience. 


—Eye contact— 


It is hard to know whether or not Jerry is reading from a teleprompter. My guess is he is and yet he manages to connect with different sections of the audience left, right, and centre.


Whether or not you're speaking with a teleprompter, if you are presenting in front of a large audience, mentally divide your audience into sections, and aim to make “eye contact” with one section at a time. In doing so, the people in that section, will get the impression you’re looking at them. Just remember not to favour one section over another, and don’t forget about those on the edges. 


—Signposting—


Signposting involves outlining, in bullet point form, what it is you’re going to cover in your speech/presentation. Jerry incorporates signposting when, after his introduction, he says, “I will give you my three real keys to life: bust your ass, pay attention, and fall in love.” He then delves into greater detail about each. This shows the audience what to expect and provides an easy-to-follow structure.


—Hand gestures—


Delivering a talk from behind a lectern isn’t ideal, but sometimes it’s necessary, especially when the lectern mic is the only form of amplification available. In this case, Jerry doesn’t let the lectern prevent him from using his hands. He gestures left and right, but more importantly, he gestures BIG.


Remember: when incorporating delivery techniques such as movement, facial expressions, and gestures in front of large audiences, exaggerate. Otherwise, they’ll get lost. 


—Not drawing attention to inadequacies—


I have a hunch Jerry was recovering from a cold at the time he gave this speech. His voice is a bit crackly and strained. However, he doesn’t draw attention to it or make excuses for it.


Speakers that apologise for not being prepared, having a dry mouth, being underdressed, forgetting lines etc. do themselves and their audience a disservice. Apologising, in many ways, is the same as making an excuse for why you might not do a good job. Don’t make excuses. Just get on with it. 


Have a watch and be inspired.


A fantastic speech by a brilliant man. 



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