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10 things Frank Underwood taught me about public speaking (Episode 1)

10 things Frank Underwood taught me about public speaking (Episode 1)


10 things Frank Underwood taught me about public speaking (Episode 1)


“For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”

This philosophy presented by Frank Underwood could be adapted to public speaking grounds easily. When you’re getting on stage, the audience will have no mercy for you. You have to perform well or else the listeners will start talking and ignoring you.

I didn’t mention the fictitious politician from the House of Cards TV series produced by Netflix in vain. Francis, played flawlessly by Kevin Spacey, had to speak in front of a crowd more often than we were shown by the series creators for sure, but the several occurrences already helped me create a list of ten things you can learn from him about public speaking. It’s not an exhaustive list by no means (actually an in-depth analysis of each of his speeches could be longer than this whole article), but it contains the most important tips. Mind that there are mild spoilers ahead, which don’t have a big impact on enjoying the TV series. Ready? Let’s go!

1. Write your speech down

(the speech in front of the library, S01E08)

I know, I know, you probably start your preparations like most of the people – by opening PowerPoint (or any other slide-design software) and mindless slide generation. There’s a high chance that’s the only thing that you’re doing. The words will speak themselves, right? You know what to say – otherwise you wouldn’t have been invited to give this talk. If that’s what you think, I must warn you – there’s a long way ahead of you. If you don’t have proper experience in public speaking, then preparations are crucial. And writing your speech down is just one of the elements.

Before delivering a speech you should do a lot more (research, storyboarding, rehearsals, etc., which I’ll write about in another article), but writing your speech down will already give you a lot – it’ll help you structure your thoughts, estimate the length of your speech (1 minute is around 130 words) and limit the content (which prevents digressions).

Frank Underwood shows us another way to use it:

“I wrote a speech, but I’m not going to read it” – he started his talk. And of course – reading a speech is a terrible mistake in most cases, but there’s another point here. Frank shows his human face – “I wrote a formal document, but I’m not going to use it; instead – I’m going to tell you something from the bottom of my heart, improvised”. That’s smart! Was the speech really written down? It’s like Shroedinger’s cat – you wouldn’t know. Frank wins either way. This trick won’t work with every audience, but writing your speech down will not do any harm and in most cases it’ll definitely help.

2. Don’t write your speech down

(live TV speech, S03E02)

“Wait, what? You just…” Yeah, I know, but if you don’t write your speech down doesn’t mean somebody else will not do it for you – somebody who’s better at it than you. The speech from that episode was written by one of Frank’s employees – Seth Grayson – and it was bold, concrete and simple.

Let’s go a step further – you can hire a public speaking consultant, who can help you not only with writing the speech down, but also practicing it. Why is it worth it? Because each part of your speech will be in the hands of an expert – the content in yours and technicalities in the consultant’s. You know what to say and the consultant knows how to say it so that it resonates in the audience. A public speaking consultant will also help you with setting goals for your speech, designing slides, practicing the proper tone of voice and will make sure that you practice often enough.

3. Dress accordingly

(different scenes, e.g. S03E09)

Adjust your attire to your audience, occasion and your brand. Most of the time Frank wears a well-fitted suit which is more than understandable – he’s a politician in a high position and he has to look presentable. However there are a couple of scenes in which he wears something else. One of these scenes is when he speaks in front of a room full of voters, dressed in a plaid shirt and a leather jacket. This more casual look was supposed to narrow the gap between him and his audience and show them that he is one of them. If you look closer at the people in the room, you’ll agree with me that Underwood would look like an outsider in a suit.

It’s hard to list all the possible event-attire and brand-attire combinations, so let me give you a few tips with which you can’t go wrong:

  • Dress neatly.
  • Overdressed is better than underdressed.
  • Let your attire stand out from the background.
  • If your talk is going to be recorded – avoid any fine patterns like stripes and check – they don’t look good in video.

4. Shock

(eulogy, S01E03; live TV speech, S03E02)

“I hate you, God!” said in a church full of religious people is a quick solution for excommunication, right?

Not necessarily. If skillfully weaved into a speech, it triggers emotions not towards the speaker, but towards the situation which he describes. When speaking about the hatred for God, Frank was actually describing human weaknesses, which the audience could refer to.

“The American dream has failed you”. This a strong statement as well, especially when uttered to the whole nation of the USA. Frank shared an open secret which doesn’t come easy to any politician. He shocked his audience, disproving the universal promise given to the nation by the government years earlier, but he instantly suggested how he plans to make it up to them.

In my talks, I love to quote Jerry Seinfeld: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” My listeners usually have their eyes popping out of their sockets.

Shocking information doesn’t need to relate to your audience. Of course it’s more powerful then, but at the same time it has a higher chance of offending someone or triggering the listeners’ defense system which means that they won’t be so keen on hearing you out.

You can use some shocking statistics or an emotional story. Or unnaturally big number that refers to something precious to the audience. Whatever you choose – remember that you need to emphasize this information, for example by making a pause.

By shocking you get the crowd’s attention which is particularly important when your speech is long.

5. Joke

(the speech in front of the library, S01E08)

They help easing the tension, loosening the audience members (and the speaker!) up, creating a connection and showing a human face. The best jokes are the ones that are connected either to the speaker or to the story or situation which he finds himself and the audience in in that very moment.

Frank, who’d spent the previous evening drinking with his friends, joked about how poorly he bears hangovers. It’s a human thing, isn’t it? Maybe not honorable, but human nonetheless. Many of us were in that same situation.

Remember that joking should be done skillfully. Never joke from someone, unless you are sure that the audience will understand it. Never joke from a situation if it’s tragic. It’s best to use proven gags and if the audience doesn’t get them, simply move along and don’t fret over it.


So that’s the first five tips on public speaking that you can learn from Frank Underwood. The second episode of the list will come in a few days and in it you’ll find mild controversies and rewarding employees by inviting them on stage (how can that be a reward?!) among other things. In the meantime, let me know what have you learnt by watching House of Cards.


Presentation skills


“For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.”

Frank Underwood


Michał Kasprzyk

Michał Kasprzyk

Speaker, public speaking trainer


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