Billy Crystal’s Sage Advice For Public Speakers

I recently read Billy Crystal’s funny new autobiography, Still Foolin Em’.

In one passage, Crystal recalls a night early in his stand-up comedy career on which Jack Rollins, the well-regarded producer who managed David Letterman and Robert Klein, came to see him perform. The two men went out to dinner afterward.

Rollins wasn’t impressed.


Billy Crystal with Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones

“We had settled into a booth in a quiet restaurant when Jack said, ‘I didn’t care for what you did tonight.’ I wanted to stab him with a fork. ‘Why,’ I spit out. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘the audience loved it, and you can do very well with what I saw, but I have no idea what you think about anything. You didn’t leave a tip.’

‘A tip?’ I managed to ask.

‘Yes, a little extra something you leave with the audience: you…Don’t work so safe, don’t be afraid to bomb. Come back tomorrow and don’t use any of this material; we know it works. Just talk. Let me know how you feel about things. What it’s like to be a father, what it’s like to be married, how you feel about politics—put you in your material. Leave a tip.’”

It seems to me that advice also applies to public speaking, since audiences almost universally want a sense of who you are, what you’re about, and what you believe in.

Overly scripted or memorized speeches in particular fail on this count. Too often, a “perfect” speech scores high on precision but low on connection, undermining the entire effort.

How can you leave your audience a tip by putting you in your material? Here are a few ideas:

  • In a speech advocating for a specific issue, address why you got involved in the cause.
  • In a sales pitch, address your initial skepticism about the product before you had an “a ha” moment which allowed you to see the brilliance in it.
  • In an informational speech, mention how the topic you’re discussing applied to you or someone you know in a real-life situation. (This video of an insurance specialist discussing his personal investment in his product is a terrific example).

Here’s the bottom line: Leave the audience a “tip,” and you’ll look mah-ve-lous.

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