Body of Knowledge

Leadership Through Public Speaking

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

“When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the chards and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them…
When I was sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

One of my colleagues and I recently had the very rare opportunity to have a casual meet during the afternoon in my office over a glass of wine.  Such discussions, where wine is involved, have a tendency to wax and wane toward the philosophical and obtuse, and this one was no exception.

He remarked about how he has watched me evolve over the past several years into a somewhat expansive individual and, in particular, was commenting on the number of speaking engagements I have had and the depth and breadth of the content. What had struck him in particular was how I was able to keep the attention of the audience and what advice I might offer to hone his own skills.

It was obvious that this was going to require more than one glass…

I thought about it for a moment and recalled an assignment to read the poem by Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” from Leaves of Grass whilst in grade-school. This poem made a great deal of difference in the development of my presentation style during my early years in that I learned to keep the message concise and to not loose the meaning of the message in the minutia.

Whether written or verbal, in order to deliver an effective presentation, you have to treat it like a play. First, you set the stage. What is the era? Where is the venue? Who are the various characters and their roles? This establishes a “context” through which the information flows and transforms trivia into knowledge. Whatever you do, don’t recite your resume. It will come across as self-serving, arrogant and obnoxious. The people who are in attendance know you are good and you do yourself a disservice by telling them.

Next, you deliver the content. Whatever you do, don’t read a speech. Prepare your content and deliver it with some conviction and passion. If you are not excited, your audience will go to sleep. I don’t like to stand at a podium fawning over my PowerPoint. I like to move around and provoke and otherwise engage the audience. Look them in the eye. Watch their body language. They will let you know if you are “bombing” and moments away from getting the “hook.” Above all, be entertaining. Sprinkle anecdotes and examples throughout the entirety of your talk. Loosen up and have fun.

Remember to speak WITH or even TO your audience, and not AT them. Don’t drag your audience into the forensic details of your topic… sometimes, less is more. There are probably a wide range of individuals in your audience with very few being topic experts in the field upon which you are speaking. Don’t alienate or confuse them or come off as a “wind-bag.”

The objective is for you to give them something to which they can relate, and then assimilate and make it their own. It is not to beat them into submission.


Paris is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence. 

He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 25,000 members.


For more information on Paris, please check his Linked-In Profile at:

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