A Lesson About Public Speaking From The Sopranos

When James Gandolfini died in June, I decided to finally watch The Sopranos. I tore through the entire series in barely two months.

I loved it.

In the weeks since I finished watching the show, I’ve mourned its absence in my life. I miss Tony Soprano, his long-suffering wife Carmela, his troubled adolescent son, his sharp-witted daughter, his never-pleasant mother, his insightful therapist, and his mafia cronies from the smoke-filled backroom of the Bada Bing!. I miss Tony’s vulnerability and wit, his impulsiveness and his amorality.

Great art often does that. It leaves us feeling a sense of loss when the characters exit our lives. If you’re not an ardent television viewer, you’ve surely experienced the same feeling when reading a book or seeing a play. The characters continue to live with you, and you wish you could follow their lives long after the author ended the tale.

The Sopranos

As I reflected on the loss I was feeling, I realized it contained a lesson for public speakers. The Sopranos left the air before I was ready to let it go. The same was true when HBO decided not to renew In Treatment, and I suspect I’ll feel the same way when Mad Men ends its run next year.

I miss those programs, but imagine if they had continued for several more seasons, outlasting their welcome and wearing down their audience? My wistfulness might have been eroded, and I would have slogged through a diminished version of those shows out of joyless loyalty.

Knowing when to exit the stage is a critical component of good public speaking, as well. Exit at the right moment, the audience will reflect fondly upon you and your presentation; exit too late, they’ll remember you as the person who didn’t know when to quit.

For me, that’s particularly important to remember when my presentation is going well. When things are clicking with the audience, my energy soars. It’s an addictive feeling I can only describe as a high. In those moments, my instinct is to want to keep on going. Who wouldn’t? I’m enjoying the crowd and the crowd’s enjoying me.

But as Seinfeld’s George Constanza sagely noted, it’s better to leave ’em on a high note. Exit the stage while the audience still wants you around, and you just might linger fondly in their memories a little longer.

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