Advice from a master showman — Penn Jillette in HBR

“No one cares about what you write or say. They’re looking for any excuse to not read or listen. You have to make sure they don’t have one.”

Master showman Penn Jillette in 2013

Penn Jillette, photo by Angela George (Creative Commons license)

Master showman Penn Jillette—the talkative half of Penn & Teller—credits this advice from a substitute teacher with changing his worldview.

Jillette may seem an unlikely subject for a profile in Harvard Business Review (October 2016 issue)—he doesn’t run a billion-dollar company or manage thousands of employees. But Jillette has spent more than four decades capturing and keeping people’s attention.

Be yourself—without hesitation

Regular readers will recognize many of these ideas; I write about them frequently. But here, listen to what a master showman has to say:

I’ve never been able to get an audience interested without being interested myself. I find that if someone is talking about their passion—whether it’s horizontal oil drilling, Spanish nurse porn, or stamp collecting—I get sucked in.”

In other words, authenticity can make even the most arcane subject fascinating.

And start strong. As Jillette’s teacher said in the quotation at the beginning of this post, never give the audience an excuse not to listen to you:

“No one wants to hear your stupid speech. So if you stutter, or ramble, or if the sound system is bad, everybody in the audience is relieved; they think, ‘Oh, good, we can go on daydreaming.’ When you go out on stage, you’ve got the opening two minutes to get the audience thinking, ‘This is the most important thing I’ve ever heard” or “This is grabbing my heart and changing my life.’ So it’s passion and mechanics. If someone is phenomenally skilled, we watch. And if someone has unbelievable passion, we watch. Very rarely do we get people who do both at once, but when we do, they’re remembered forever.”

Of course, maybe you don’t want to be “remembered forever.” But if that’s the case, why even bother to leave home?

  • public speaking
  • speeches
  • storytelling