What we can learn from the great Gatsby

Whether you’ve seen the film, read the book or both, I think you’ll agree Jay Gatsby is a character concerned with image management. Since this is a recurring theme in public speaking, let’s have a look at what we can learn from both his successes and his failures in this regard.

Work at it

Despite the questionable nature of Gatsby’s business activities, he worked hard for what he achieved. Undaunted by the size of the mountain he had to climb, from pauper to magnate, he applied discipline and energy and five years later had reached the summit, with apparently unlimited wealth and a string of useful connections. Of course, this was not the end in itself for Gatsby but that’s another story. For our purposes here, the dedication with which James Gatz reinvented himself is a lesson in what can be accomplished through focused exertion.

If you want to be good at public speaking (or anything else, for that matter), you have to work at it. While it’s true that some people take to it more easily than others, we all need to put a lot of time and effort into planning, composing, structuring and rehearsing our talks, not to mention the mental discipline it takes to overcome fear and get into the right frame of mind to deliver a successful speech or presentation. But the great thing is, this investment pays off every time. If you’re properly prepared in every way, you will always be fine, no matter what happens.

Be realistic in your ambitions

Gatsby’s fatal flaw is believing he can get what he wants purely by force of will. While such a positive attitude takes him a remarkably long way, he runs aground when he moves into uncharted waters where he can’t control the outcome. I’ve talked about this kind of magical thinking on the blog before (see Set yourself up for success, not failure) and I won’t go over it all again but knowing the limits of one’s own power to make things happen can be the difference between predictable, prepared-for success and unexpected, unprepared-for failure.

Never let the mask slip

A crucial element in image management is always to stay in character. Once you’re into the public-speaking zone and you’re the cool, unflappable you that you become on these occasions, it’s essential you never allow this to wobble. The great thing about this is, it becomes self-fulfilling and as you rack up more and more experience it takes less and less effort to keep the mask in place.

In Gatsby’s case, he is only partially successful in presenting himself as a wealthy, influential gentleman. The wealth and influence he has striven for are genuine; he has become this new character and although this is a role he chose for himself, rather than being born to it, it has become real and he carries it off with panache. This is the same for you in your public-speaking persona: you really are cool and unflappable.

The problem for Gatsby, in the superficial, snobby society of Jazz-Age New York, is persuading people of his credentials as a gentleman. Pursuit of his ultimate goal compels him to pretend to be something he isn’t and, although he makes a valiant attempt, he can’t quite pull it off.

As public speakers, we have no reason to feign anything other than being at ease in front of the crowd (which, as I say, when we’ve been pretending for long enough, becomes genuine). It is a huge mistake to give the impression of knowing, having or being anything we don’t/haven’t/aren’t – the consequences of being caught out are far worse than those of being honest in the first place and, if nothing else, the fear of being rumbled is distracting.

Use self-exposition cautiously

To the hoards of party-goers who accept his hospitality on a regular basis, Gatsby is a mysterious, even mythical personage, whom the vast majority have never met and about whom wild rumours abound. While I’m not suggesting you go anything like as far as this, even if it were practical to do so, there is no doubt that an image can be ruined if the audience gets a glimpse behind the curtain. The line between being honest and straightforward and undermining our authority by revealing too much about ourselves can be a fine one and it’s important to draw it in the right place. This will vary according to the circumstances and your own disposition but it’s something well worth thinking about as you prepare for your talk.

Use vivid language

As Gatsby struggles to discuss a past only loosely based on actuality, the language he uses sometimes lets him down. On page 42 of my copy, the narrator confides to the reader, “With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter. The very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image except that of a turbaned ‘character’ leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger through the Bois de Boulogne.”

This is a vital lesson for public speakers and one that goes far beyond image management into the heart of successful speaking. If we want people to listen (and believe us), we have to create vivid mental pictures for them, realistic scenes coloured in with the right amount of relevant detail. To facilitate this, I find it useful to bear in mind the advice given to writers: show, don’t tell. Often, a point can be made more effectively and memorably by giving a couple of illustrative examples than by stating the bald fact.


About Georgie

Coach and consultant in effective communication - public speaking, interviews & pitches, training, lecturing, meetings, debates & discussions. Motivational speaker
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