Top 5 Public Speaking Mistakes We Continue to Make

george bush, confused

Maybe it’s the holiday rush or maybe I just didn’t get my usual coffee doses today, but I’m annoyed by some minor league antics I’m seeing on the conference circuit this Fall/Winter.

I have seen many presentations at various events since September (some streaming, some in person), and continue to be shocked by the idiotic public speaking mistakes we continue to make – even at the highest levels of leadership. Even by the people who should know better.

So, like the Ghost of Christmas Future, I am pointing my cold, bony finger at the Graveyard of Crappy Presentations, and showing your name etched in stone, unless you heed my advice and fix these five silly mistakes. You are better than this.

1) We open an existing deck, and “Save As… New Preso.”

When we get that call to speak to a group, it is incredibly tempting to pop open an existing deck. After all, we have day jobs, or at least other duties that occupy the majority of our time. Who has time to start from scratch?? Here’s the thing: I’m not saying you can’t go back and tap previous resources once you’ve determined the right course, but for God’s sake, at least TRY to start with a fresh concept. 

If we have the audience’s needs as the TOP priority, we will take a moment to think, “What do these people need to know? How can I help them do their jobs better? Teach them something new in a way that is unexpected?” You don’t get good answers to those questions by staring at an existing deck. Plus, the audience can tell when you’re recycling, even if it’s just subconsciously. It’s a little insulting.

2) We take our first ideas and figure they’re good enough.

Many times, we have a good think for 15 minutes, scribble down our ideas and think “great, I’ve got the basics nailed.” Often I find that when I’m working with clients, the best ideas come after I’ve pushed a bit and said, “But how many times have we heard that and from how many other people? Tell me something I haven’t heard before. Or give me a new twist.” A good rule of thumb is to come up with a first set of ideas/points, and then push yourself further. Assume it’s been done before, and go deeper. What else can you come up with?  These ideas are usually far better than the first batch.

3) We “tell ’em what we’re gonna tell ’em, we tell ’em and then we tell ’em what we told ’em.”

At some point, we have all heard this advice about public speaking  I’m here to tell you, this advice is, as my wise mother once said, “as useless as tits on a boar hog.”  (Why tits are actually useless to this species of hog, I cannot say, but you know what I mean). Audiences want desperately for you to get to the point. Cut to the chase. Give ’em something they can dance to. You have about 10 seconds to grab ’em before they decide whether or not to check e-mail. During those 10 seconds, you can yammer on about what your goals are, or you can ask them a provocative question. Create some level of theatre. Create tension. Tell an interesting story that shocks or surprises them. But for the Lova God, don’t tell them that you’ll cover “three key points: A, B, and C” unless you do so in a way that is cool, unexpected and interesting.

4) We make assumptions about how much time we have.

Too often, we assume that we’ll get 45 minutes to talk. Or 20 minutes.  And then we fail to find out for sure what we’re dealing with. Then, even if we do find out, we don’t actually time ourselves and practice.  Then we have a situation where we are literally presenting the wrong deck for the format. People get squirmy. The conference managers get embarrassed and more stressed out than they already are, and are forced with the horrible decision to either pull the plug on you, or let you run roughshod over their schedule that they’ve lovingly crafted over several weeks.  Take the drama out of the equation, find out what you’ve got to work with, and make it work.

5) We end with a fizzle.

I recently saw a speaker that had a phenomenal presentation.  It was shocking, theatrical, exciting, and deeply informative.  And it ended with “So that’s all I have for you today. Thank you!”  Wait, WHAT?!  Get back here.  Climax always should lead to Resolution. And a powerful Resolution at that.  We have to put as much thought into the ending as we do the beginning and middle.  It’s our last chance to impress the audience, and it says a lot about the speaker.

Doing these things does take extra time, I admit.  But any chance we get to talk to a captive audience should be treated as sacred space.  When people take time out of their day to listen to us, we have the responsibility to make it worth their while. 

The bonus is that if we do a good job, and blow their overstretched, multitasking minds, it will be the first of many more opportunities we get to present, influence and inform. And that’s good for everyone’s career right?

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