Mike Kilcoyne – Lie, Cheat, Steal: How I Give A Talk

Mike Kilcoyne was one of the presenters at Ignite Denver #19 in February. This post is a cross-post from his personal blog.


Recently, I spoke at Ignite Denver 19, an incredible event hosted by even more incredible people that consisted of a bunch of quick, snappy (and often hilarious) five minute talks. It was awesome. Here’s what I learned.

Ever since I hit puberty, people have suggested to me, you should do radio with that voice! (I get it, I have a face for radio.)

Never once has anyone said to me, you should speak in front of people about your ideas! (I didn’t get the hint, obviously.)

So for the past year or so, any opportunity I’ve gotten to put together a speech or talk or presentation, I’ve taken. It’s been a totally selfish endeavor, but it’s an interesting way to test out messages to different audiences, and to tell cool stories.

That includes: Eulogies like this, pitching ideas at work, trying to sell people on some organization I’ve been working with for just a week, announcing my name during an ice-breaker or presenting a unique interpretation of a section of the Torah at my local synagogue (that one was interesting). For me, these are speaking opportunities — tiny moments in the hot-ass sun, if you will.

Really, any chance I get to speak in front of more than a few people with their attention centered solely on me is a speaking gig. (And it’s a wonderful opportunity to stroke my own ego.)

And when it comes to talks — presenting a cool idea to a large audience — I’ve learned an incredible recipe for success: lie, cheat and steal. That’s it. Here’s how:


The first thing I do to completely disarm my audience is completely lie about my credentials.

I tell them I’m an incompetent buffoon (false, kinda) who: barely graduated from college (true), doesn’t know what a PHD is (false) and was never published in any sort of academic journal (also true) and am therefore completely unqualified to discuss what I’m about to discuss (absolutely fucking true).

Here’s where the lying comes in: I’ve set the expectation that for the next five, ten, fifteen minutes, my audience is going to witness a bumbling idiot futz around on-stage, stumble over his words and lower the collective IQ of the entire audience. (That last part might be true, too.)

The reality is: I have a ton of poise (because I breathe, more on that in a bit) and confidence on-stage, great wit because I know my content in and out and just don’t give a fuck and really powerful messaging because my stories make sense, are ridiculously simple and (somewhat) insightful.

Lower the expectations of the audience and anything you say after that immediately comes as a delightful surprise.


A script is an exceptional tool — it gives you clarity of direction, ideas and key takeaways, and when delivered well, can really enhance your message.

The issue is, on-stage, you can’t rely on a script, or notecards, so if you fuck up, and your brain goes into total oh shit mode (and you’re not an expert at presenting, and catching yourself), you’re screwed. Totally screwed.

I just cheat. Here’s how:

A. Create a deck with pictures. Images that, for you, trigger a particular set of emotions, stories, ideas. Cats are fine. Memes work. Landscapes are way too vague.
B. Have a basic framework for your story, remember intently the beginning, three (or more) key points in the middle and the end.
C. For the really difficult details — specific statistics, quotes, ideas, etc. — put those on the slides in text. Bonus cheating: For all of your details, put those in text on the slides (no more than a few words, though). They’ll help the audience, and they won’t even realize that you’re a total hack.

That’s it. It’s basically cheating. If you have these three things down, you can wing it from there and deliver an awesome presentation. And the cool thing is that now, you don’t have to worry about memorizing a script you wrote (which can fuck up your timing), or losing your place (because it should be obvious on your slides) and even if (and when) you do fuck up, just take a deep breath and move onto the next slide. If you play it off super casually most people won’t even notice or care.


If you’ve read a book (or a few in the past several years), chances are, there are plenty of ideas and theories and statistics and stories that you can extract and basically rip-off to craft your own unique narrative.

My presentation was about five daily habits. (You can check them out here.) There wasn’t one original thought or idea in it.

These were the main takeaways: Keystone habits are crucial for success; the only way to develop keystone habits is by starting small; there are plenty of really simple ideas that you can start implementing into your daily life immediately that will have huge residual effects on your levels of happiness and stress over the next 30 days or so.

The first one — the notion of keystone habits — I got from Charles Druhigg’s, The Power of Habit. The second bit, I learned from James Clear’s blog, most of which he has adapted from much more prestigious behavioral psychologists. And the last piece, and many of the habits I included in the talk, were discussed in Shawn Achor’s, The Happiness Advantage.

There are no original ideas. Just steal your content from other people (but give them credit, too), and give your own unique spin on it.

Tell your story.


As soon as I wandered into the auditorium, about an hour and a half before I’d be rumbling on-stage and presenting in front of peeps, I started having difficulty breathing when I’d realized just how large the audience was going to be. (A few hundred, at most.) Easily the biggest audience I’d ever spoken to.

And then I sat around in front of the stage, waiting for the speakers before me to make their rounds. I was going third. It couldn’t come soon enough.

Soon after, I’m tucked away in the side of the stage, hyperventilating and trying to ensure that I don’t pass out before I get a chance to talk. The only thing I’d digested since lunch was three or four Neapolitan wafers.

And then — Michael Kilcoyne! — and I wander, up to the mic, in front of the audience of a few hundred insatiably hungry audience-members, and the natural expectation is that, as soon as I grab the mic, I’m just going to start running my stupid mouth.

Instead I pause, take a deep breathe (into the mic), and then start. The audience laughs a bit, because it’s awkward. And then I start opening my gullet to spew whatever nonsense I’m about to start talking about. I’m not sure where I was going with that whole beard thing, were the first words out of my mouth.

They laugh some more.

Now I’ve got them.


In many studies, public speaking is viewed as one of the most common paralyzing fears out there — more than snakes, loneliness and even death in some instances. (According to Jerry Seinfeld.)

Which makes absolute sense — it’s fear of the unknown on an absolutely absurd, potentially catastrophic level. If you suck, people throw tomatoes at you and bruise your ego and want to scratch your eyeballs out (not really).

It’s also ridiculously fun and cathartic — if you’re funny, you’ll have an audience of hundreds, potentially thousands in complete stitches. If your story is insightful, a lot of drunk people will tell you, holy shit that was awesome, dude! And if it’s especially powerful, they’ll hold their breath and cry and have difficulty talking to you.

There was a moment during my talk where I completely forgot a point I was going to make — and it increases… something, I said — and I just laughed it off, because it wasn’t a big deal. Because I was having so much fun.

Once you get over the initial, often crippling fear and anxiety that strikes you immediately before you walk on-stage — the emotional equivalent of a panda-bear attack! — and you get your sorry-ass out there, you’ll be thankful you did.

It’ll become your coke addiction. You’ll need a bump every now and then to remind yourself that you’re still alive. And you’ll always want more.