12 Lessons from Pablo Picasso for Public Speakers



Pablo Picasso


Pablo Picasso was one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century. His paintings are among the most recognizable of any great artist that has lived. However, Picasso was not just known for his art; he was also know for his wit and pithy sayings.

While reading through a collection of quotes by Picasso, it occurred to me that much of his wisdom is directly applicable to public speaking. Here are 12 quotes by Picasso with some ideas as to what we, as speakers, can learn from them.

1. “Action is the foundational key to all success.”

Lesson: If you want to become a better speaker, you have to speak. Seize every opportunity to get on your feet in front of others, whether it is a 45-minute corporate presentation or a 30-second toast to a colleague over lunch. It all adds up.

2. “Computers are useless. They can only give us answers.”

Lesson: When it comes to presentations, computers are not useless. I am a fan of the (proper) use of slide presentation software such as Keynote and PowerPoint. (Computers were much less powerful in Picasso’s day.) However, before using the computer to design their slides, speakers should first think about their presentations: What is the objective? What should the audience do? What is the key message? Why should the audience care? Once these questions are answered, then the computer can be used (if necessary).

3. “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”

Lesson: When preparing for a speech or presentation, it is important to gather, create and generate as many ideas as possible. But then, you have to filter those ideas down to the best ones that will support your message. The others have to go. Perhaps you will be able to use them in another presentation some day, perhaps not. 

4. “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”

Lesson: Less is more. Too many presentations break down because the speaker tries to do too much in too little time. Once your key message is 100% clear in your mind, you must focus with laser-like intensity and cut anything that does not support that message. Many of the quotes that you will find in other posts on this blog are about the importance of simplicity. That message cannot be repeated too often.

5. “One must act in painting as in life, directly.”

Lesson: Be concrete. Use clear, simple language when you speak. Avoid the use of vague, business-speak jargon that means nothing and serves only to confuse. Say what you mean.

6. “For a long time I limited myself to one colour—as a form of discipline.”

Lesson: All speakers can improve. Some speakers—especially those just starting out—have room for improvement in many different areas. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Choose one or two areas for improvement and work on them. When you have made satisfactory progress, move on to something else. Small steps will take you far.

7. “Inspiration exists but it has to find us working.”

Lesson: Always be on the lookout for interesting facts, stories and ideas that you can use in your presentations. Read widely—literature, newspapers, trade magazines, blogs, quotations. Start a file for interesting stories that you come across. Evernote is a great way to clip and store interesting things electronically. Read A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink. Get in the habit of carrying a small notebook and pen or electronic device such as a Smartphone to record great ideas that come to you whenever they come to you.

8. “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Lesson: In fact, good speakers never try to copy other speakers. Good speakers know that they can only be themselves. However, good speakers are quite willing to “steal” from others. And here, I am talking about trying out something that they have learned from another speaker, or read on a blog such as this one, or learned in a course on public speaking. Nobody knows everything and we should be open to learning from others. But we should never try to be like others.

9. “All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”

Lesson: Many people have seen more than their fair share of dull presentations bursting with slides crammed with text and bullet points. Many of them believe that this is how serious presentations are supposed to be. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Refuse to give in. Some text is fine, but also use images, video, stories, props, demonstrations, audience participation and other creative ideas to make your presentation stand out. Remain an artist.

10. “My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”

Lesson: There is only one you. On stage, as in life, be yourself.

11. “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Lesson: Never stop growing as a speaker. Try new things. Seek out opportunities at work to give presentations. Join a public speaking club such as Toastmasters and give speeches on a variety of topics. Take a class in improv comedy. Try to speak at a TEDx or Ignite event. Try Pecha Kucha. Stretch yourself; you’ll be surprised how far you can go.

12. “He can who thinks he can, and he can’t who thinks he can’t. This is an inexorable, indisputable law.”

Lesson: Whether you improve as a public speaker is ultimately up to you.

Photo courtesy of  Flickr / teadrinker


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