Three must-see college graduation speeches
Presentation lessons from Citizen Kane

Storytelling lessons from Bill Cosby

Bill Following up on the last post below concerning good graduation speeches, here's one more from the great Bill Cosby. Now 73, Dr. Cosby may not be on the radar screens of a much younger generation, but ask any successful comedian working today — young or old — and they will tell you that Bill Cosby is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of comedy. What makes Bill Cosby one of the most compelling entertains of our time is his ability to connect with people and deliver his messages naturally in the form of story. He's the master storyteller. He does so well what most leaders and presenters of all kinds should do: tell real stories from your own life in a way that is relevant and engaging to your audience. If more people could just remember that great speeches or presentations leverage the power of the speaker's own stories, we could rid the world of a good deal of boring speeches overnight. Watch Bill Cosby's keynote address at Carnegie Mellon University's 2007 commencement ceremony below.

"Don't talk yourself into not being you."
Cosby's main story began about five minutes in and is one anyone can relate to. All of us have talked ourselves into thinking we don't belong or battle with self-confidence, etc. His point — which his true story brought out — is that we must not talk ourselves out of being who we really are. Cosby touched on the idea that being nervous ("but I was nervous") or other such excuses that we often use get in the way of us bringing our true self to the job (or school, etc.). People do not care about your excuses, they care only about seeing your authentic self. As Cosby said "people came to see you" not some version of what you think they want or need. "I don't care what you do," said Cosby, "when you are good, then you bring you out." "It's not for you to stand around and measure yourself according to diplomas and degrees. You are you — and you are not to put yourself beneath anybody!"

Tell stories from your own life
People crave authenticity just about more than anything else, and one way to be your authentic self and connect with an audience is by using examples and stories from your own life that illuminate your message in an engaging, memorable way. Below are three more examples of Bill Cosby telling stories during stand-up or while being interviewed. Watch and learn (and try not to laugh...if you can).

Above: This clip is from the early 1980s. No multimedia at all, and yet his presentation is very visual — he is the visual.

This clip is also from the early 1980s. Notice how he does not rush things — timing is paramount.

Above: This time the situation is a bit different as he is being interviewed on The Dick Cavet Show in the early 1970s. Musicians (especially drummers) will particularly relate well with his story.

The point is not that you need to be as funny as Bill Cosby —or even that you need to be funny at all. The point is that you have a great deal of life experience from which to build your stories on. In fact, as you get older and your experience grows, your stories should in theory get even better and more diverse. Bill Cosby was great at 25 but he was even better on stage at 50 (and he's still great at 73). You do not have to be as polished and as smooth as a professional entertainer, but your audience will appreciate it very much if you take a lesson from entertainers like Dr. Cosby and bring your true authentic self to the stage and engage, teach, and illuminate through your own stories and examples.

H/T Al Pittampalli


Al Pittampalli

You nailed it Garr. If you look up the word authenticity in the dictionary, there's a picture of Mr. Cosby. From his sitcom, to his stand up, to his speeches, he brings himself (and his personal experiences) to us, in a way that we feel like we've known him forever. Instant trust, instant emotional connection.

Sam Thatte

I have always enjoyed watching Bill Cosby deliver! His knack of using his voice to create drama is amazing. Thank you for this post, Garr. It was great to watch the 2007 keynote. Especially liked the lesson at 18:00. Very inspiring: Be yourself.

John Millen

Great post, Garr. This reflects the attribute that is key for Cosby--his authenticity. Whether one agrees with his philosophy or not, you know that he is sincere and will speak his truth, in his career and his life.

Doug Pratt

Thanks for sharing this inspirational post. It appears that Dr. Cosby doesn't have any notes as he is giving the graduation address, which further reinforces the importance of using stories: it's your life so you don't need notes!


Digging out some of these old Bill Cosby moments was great! Sometimes it can be so hard to think of personal anecdotes to emphasise your point.
I often encourage speakers to think through the 'common' parts of their life because great anecdotes are often lurking there. Has something happened at work that you can use as an example? Have your kids ever...? Have you ever observed someone doing...? When you start thinking of really specific parts of your life the examples and anecdotes become a lot easier to remember and refine.


I really enjoyed on learning about how to build a good storytelling. Thank you from Spain.


Thanks so much for this post ... I hadn't seen all of the videos before, AND Bill Cosby is my favorite storyteller!

Sean D'Souza

The cool part about the stories aren't that they're just stories, but how Bill is using a concept of connectors. Notice how he brings out a 'visual prop' e.g. the drum sticks with the blue tips. And then he works that visual prop over and over again, until it becomes not just an anchor, but in Bill's case, a very funny crescendo.

The other factor he uses very often is what I call the 'rollercoaster'. So he's not just telling a story. The story goes up and down. And up and down. So when you listen to the story where he's talking about the time he doubted himself, he's going from being super confident and super cool to feeling like he's not really that hot when he sees those photos on the wall. Then he drives home that fear, building it all the time (into a downward spiral).

And it loops and yanks you along because you have no clue what's going to happen next. And then up comes the rollercoaster again. Now he comes good on the second show without realising what's happening. But Bill's carefully pulling the audience along with the way in which the story goes up or down. And he's also using very clear visual cues to keep you connected to the story all the time.

The sounds also form part of his repertoire, actually giving the audience an insight that they might not have had.

All in all, the masterful story telling has a ton of elements that make it superb.

And thanks for those videos, Garr. I had a blast listening to them on a rather cold winter's day here in New Zealand.

Romantische Ideen

thanks for the great story. Mr. Cosby is one of my favorite actors since my childhood.


I agree. It's important to engage with the audience and it becomes a very broken relationship when the speaker continues to look away.


Bill Cosby has been on television for so long, usually in rather silly sitcoms or commercials for Jello, it's easy to forget that he used to be funny


Bill Cosby is probably the funniest man that ever lived. He has so many clean jokes, nobody can be funny and clean anymore.

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