How to Make a Speech About Comic Books

I gave a speech about comic books today. It was to an audience that has no direct connection with comic books. They still loved it. How do you do that?

This was at the Arconic Toastmasters Club in White Lake, Michigan. It was a fun meeting. I was invited there by a member who saw me give an impromptu speech at the Book Nook Club in Montague about my family being descended from wise Leprechauns.

I emailed back and forth with Forbes about the meeting. I wanted the club to choose what I was going to speak about. Here are some of the options that I gave.

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Alligator Wrestling and the Meaning of Life
Philosophical, Psychological, and Theological Depth in Contemporary Rock Lyrics
How to Not be Suicidal
The How and Why of Writing Comic Books
Resentment as the Path to Destruction
How to Fail and Succeed at Mountain Climbing at the Same Time

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He told me that the one about comic books would probably work out well. I was surprised by this, but I thought it would be a fun challenge. I've never given a speech about comic books before. I've only started reading them in the last couple of years, and now I'm currently writing one called "Dungeon Buddies".

I had a couple of weeks before the speech and had no idea where I wanted to go with it. It was going to be a short time, probably 5 to 7 minutes. I realized that I wouldn't be able to fit all of that info in there. I would have to reduce the topic down. So, I decided to just work on the why side, with maybe a little bit about how comic books work thrown in.

A bunch of the options that kept coming to mind didn't make good speeches. They would have been informative, which would work if I had people from a comic book convention or something, but if you have a specific subject and you're delivering to an audience that might not be particularly interested then you have to get creative. Why would people be interested in comic books? I decided to focus on that.

I knew that some people would have preconceived notions about comic books being about superheroes and made for kids. I wanted to break that notion, and I wanted to break it in a dramatic way.

I decided to start with a statement. I like starting speeches in one of three ways: with a question, with a statement, or diving directly into a story.

There is a comic book called "A Contract with God" by legendary comic book writer Will Eisner. It starts off with this guy walking home in the rain from his daughter's funeral. I thought quoting from the book might break any preconceived notions about comic books being just for kids.

After I did that I thought about diving into a thing about how comic books work. How they are a different medium for telling stories just like movies, plays, poetry, novels, paintings, etc. But, this would be too dry and boring this early in the speech. I knew that I needed something else here to connect with the people that would be there. I wanted to take it personal. It's always good to have a strong personal story in a speech, it helps you to connect on a human to human level.

I thought about what that story might be for about a week. There were several that came to mind. I thought about talking about how I came to be writing a comic book. That would have been okay, but it didn't really go with the subject of explaining what comic books are about and how they work.

Then, I remembered this time that I was at the Grand Rapids Art Museum looking at landscape paintings. One of the painting had this little almost stick figure in it. That little human-like figure made the painting so much more engaging because I was thinking about what the person was doing, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, etc. Well, if you did another painting next to that one where the person had moved a little, maybe add in a little dialogue or narration, then you have a comic book. In an art museum you would call this sequential art. It's the same thing. That's a perfect demonstration to help people move from the idea of paintings, which are one medium of stories, to the comic book medium of stories. I thought about including a story like this from Annapolis, Maryland, but figured the Grand Rapids one was better because it was closer.

We mostly have the speech now: open with "Comic books are for kids.", use part of "A Contract with God", go into the art museum story and show how paintings could become comic books, then...

I just needed to find a good ending. I struggled for a very long time with trying to learn how to end a speech. Every now and then I still struggle with it, but I usually do well at it. At the meeting this morning I gave two speeches, this prepared one about comic books and one impromptu one about virtue. Both ended on a strong and clear note. That can be hard to do with an impromptu speech, but I should be able to figure it out on a prepared speech every time, I try.

I decided to end by telling why comic books are important. The basic idea is that they are stories, and stories are important. The human mind is made of stories, by stories, and for stories. Narration is the key to the human. What people are really doing when they are participating in stories is determining who is good and who is evil, who is a hero and who is a villain, what is right and what is wrong, what they should do and what they shouldn't do, and all sorts of other things. You can read textbooks of philosophy and psychology on these things but they won't be as impactful as watching a movie, or reading a book, or reading a comic book.

That idea is a good ending, but I wanted to bracket the speech. That means to end by referring back to how you began. It works well. It lets people know that you're done and it wraps the whole speech up into a nice little container, it reminds people of the beginning and helps them to compartmentalize what you just presented. It's also useful to signal the end by a certain pacing and tone in your voice where you slow down and add emphasis, and connect that with firm and steady movement and a slightly more rigid posture. These are subtle skills to develop.

So, how did I begin? I began with "Comic books are for kids." So, how should I end? With something like that. The inverse seems to work perfectly here, "Comic books, aren't just for kids." That's what I decided to use.

That's the basic idea of the speech, but how do you make this come together in the actual speech. In just a minute I'll put my speech notes in here. I didn't use these during the speech, I just wrote them down to help me work on putting the speech together. I took the notes to the meeting and looked at them just before I went up. I don't like using notes while speaking, but I can and I have. There's a skill to how to use notes and I had to practice that too. But, I find it easier to speak without them.

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Comic books are for kids.
For instance, (A Contract with God)
see, it just goes on like this. Here's the next page.
(A contract With God)
Grand Rapids Art Museum
painting - Monet - landscape
series of paintings - imagine - closure
Ernest Hemingway- For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
mind built of and for narratives

mediums of narratives/stories
movies, tv shows, animations, audiobooks, poetry, books, paintings, photography, comic books
Jimmy Chin

making worlds, their own understanding of the world
good, evil, hero, villain, right, wrong
often symbolic forms

comic books, aren't just for kids.

- - - - - - -

I wrote these notes out by hand on a single sheet of sketch paper in a notepad. I tried to replicate how oddly organized it is here. It's spaced in weird areas, the capitals are used oddly, the punctuation is odd, there isn't any flow. That's okay, these are just notes for me.

Also, I didn't use some of this in the speech. And, I used some stuff that I don't have in here. In the speech I talked a little about the modern history of comic books, then I jumped back and proposed that comic books are like the cave paintings of cavemen, they are sequential art and an important part of what it means to be a human. That's okay, I like the speech to be live, not totally rehearsed.

Everyone finds their own style of speaking. I know people that memorize every single thing they are going to say, how they are going to say it, and every movement they are going to make. That's fine, I just don't like it. I do like to memorize pieces and parts of movements or voice fluctuations. That way you flow from one area where you are almost giving an impromptu speech to another area where you already know what you're going to say, how you're going to say it, and how you're going to move. If you have trouble in one of the in-between areas you can just skip to an area that is more structured. I realize that this is an unusual way of structuring and performing public speaking, but it works very well for me and I really enjoy this style that I've created. Every speech is its own thing, a new experience. Plus, some of those people that are so rehearsed will have issues if they lose their place in the speech, for instance with handling a heckler. Or, they sometimes struggle with long speeches because it's almost impossible to memorize every detail of a 45 minute speech. With my method you move from one known part, through an unknown part, to another known part. It's a fun adventure every time, I don't lose my place, and I can go for as long as there is time. I think people can feel the dynamism in my speeches this way too.

Some of the small notes become rather large. For instance, in this speech the word "closure" involved this whole thing where I stood to my right and made a large box with my hands to show where a panel from a comic book would be. I said there would be a picture and maybe some writing in there. I took one big step to the left and did this again. Remember that the audience's view is a mirror image of your side of things. Then I stepped between them clapped my hands and talked about closure, which is how the mind fills in that gap between the panels. That's what actually makes the story. I used the rumored Hemingway story to demonstrate closure in purely written stories as well.

Jimmy Chin is the most famous adventure photographer alive. He talks about telling an entire story with a single picture. That's what a great picture is. I didn't include that bit at all in the speech.

Alright, let's run through this whole thing then.

Here's the intro I sent Forbes to say before the speech.

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Feel free to add or adjust whatever you want. Including something like this will work.

Jeff Martin has read thousands of books, he owns about two thousand. He has spent a lot of time reading things ranging from philosophy, to fantasy, to economics, to historical dramas, and so on. He writes about all of these subjects and more at Every now and then he does an adventure like mountain climbing, running with bulls, alligator wrestling, or the like. But, he didn't read comic books. He didn't read comic books until he was in his late 20's. Now, he's writing a comic book. Today he's going to tell us why comic books are important and how they work.

"Why Comic Books?"

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He said a few of these things and made a number of adjustments. That's fine. When you're a speaker you have to be ready for the person introducing you to do anything. They might just read your intro, they might not have it, they might give their own speech, they might just say your name, be ready for anything.

Here are the only main points I wanted to hold in my head when I began, the rest would either come to me or it wouldn't: Comic books are for kids, A Contract with God, art museum and closure, good and evil, Comic books aren't just for kids. All of the rest of it is details. Hemingway popped into my head at the right moment, Jimmy Chin didn't. One was included, one wasn't. The fact that I don't think that particularly matters is part of what makes the speech dynamic and engaging. I'm co-creating the speech with the audience in the moment.

Forbes did a nice little intro. I had gotten up from my seat and stood at the side of the room while he was doing it. I had "A Contract with God" in my left hand with a bookmark on the page I needed. When I shook Forbes's hand I asked if I could move the lectern. I should have arranged this before the meeting, but alas, I had not. I moved the lectern out of the way because I don't like things in between me and the audience. I have practiced with a lectern because that is its own skill, but I don't prefer it. A key here is to not apologize for doing any of this. Just do it, no big deal.

I left the book on the lectern, which I did not intend to do. There was a little bit of side talking, I waited for a break and then delivered my first line like I was making a strong statement, which I was. "Comic books are for kids." I used my hands facing down in a dismissive way for this. I had a decent little pause here. Then, I continued on. "For instance, let me read you this." I reached back and grabbed the book, just like I had meant to put it there. Opened the page to my bookmark and read the first few pages.

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All day the rain poured down on the Bronx without mercy.
The sewers overflowed and the waters rose over the curbs of the street.
The tenement at No. 55 Dropsie Avenue seemed ready to rise and float away on the swirling tide. "Like the ark of Noah," it seemed to Frimme Hersh as he sloshed homeward.
Only the tears of ten thousand angels could cause such a deluge!
And, come to think of it, maybe that is exactly what it was...
...after all, this was the day Frimme Hersh buried Rachele, his daughter.

- - - - - - -

I stopped reading and made a few comments about how childish this book, set in the 1940s about a middle-aged man walking home in the rain from his daughters funeral, is. "It just goes on like this. Here's the next page." I opened the book again and read a bit more.

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Not so unusual, a father brings up a child with care and love only to lose her... plucked, as it were, from his arms by an unseen hand - the hand of God.
It happens to lots of people every day. others, maybe.

- - - - - - -

"You can see their just getting into more childish stuff here, like in-depth theological questions and such." At this point everyone has the point, it's not for kids at all.

Then I did the piece about the paintings in the museum and I presented those like the painting was actually hanging off to my right. I segued that into the discussion about closure and setting up the panels bit. I then used the Hemingway story demonstration, I said it twice for emphasis and pointed out how it's not a story, it just causes you to make a story in your head. I went into how comic books are a medium for stories. I believe it's in here that I went a bit into the history and mentioned the cave paintings. Then I went into my wrap up where I talked about how when people are reading comic books they are determining what is good and what is evil, who is a hero and who is a villain, what is right and what is wrong. "Often in symbolic form, but not always." I referred back to my book as a demonstration of a more realistic comic book style. I finished by encouraging everyone that the next time they are looking at or thinking about comic books to remember that "Comic books, aren't just for kids." I said that last line with a slowing down pace to signal the end.

It went off well. And I'm pretty sure I got several people to really think in depth about things they had never thought about before, which is good.

Brett was my evaluator and he pointed out that some of my pauses in the middle of the speech could have been a little longer. He also thought that I had read too fast. I was trying to read it like it was casual while at the same time using some voice variation to emphasize that things weren't casual. It may have been a little too fast. I decided to not make eye contact while reading because I wanted to keep my place and have people just think about the story instead of the presentation for a moment. That's a debatable decision, but it worked fairly well because it was such a limited time.

At one point in the middle I forgot my next spot. No big deal, I just paused for a moment, maybe 2 seconds. It wasn't a point that required that much emphasis and my eyes became unfocused while I thought about my next move. Someone might have noticed, most wouldn't though. After that I might have paused less than I should have. I was also nearing my end and needed to wrap it up. The whole speech came to about 6 minutes 20 seconds, so it was a good time.

Overall, it was a lot of fun. And, that's how you engage people in a topic they didn't even realize they were interested in. I was invited back, but it's a morning group and I usually am teaching at that time. I took today off work to attend. It was worth it. I like speaking in front of new groups of people, and about new things, like comic books.


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