Monday, July 26, 2010

Three Mistakes Made When Giving A Speech

As a successful business professional you will find the higher you climb on the ladder, the more often you will be asked to give a speech. Since you are not a "professional speaker", you might believe it is okay to "wing it" and babble on to the audience without investing the time to craft a meaningful presentation.

Heck you are smart and you have accomplished great things - people will want to hear what you have to say, right?


Always remember, just because someone is smart or they have done something interesting does not mean they belong on a stage talking to an audience. We have all sat through too many presentation where the audience would have rather stick needles in our ears than have to stay in the chairs.

Placing unqualified and inexperienced speakers on stage is a mistake that is made by countless amateurs who are coordinating meetings. Professional meeting planners know that you do not just put anyone on the schedule to fill a "spot", but instead you must vet everyone who will be on the platform to ensure they have public speaking skills.

A bad speaker can ruin your event and make people think twice before attending next time.

Here are the top three mistakes that executives make when giving a speech. Avoid these blunders and your audiences will be eternally grateful:

1. Opening with a joke. Somewhere along the line, about 50 years ago, a fable was told to public speakers that if you open with a joke, you will put your audience at ease. This only works if you are a professionally trained comedian. If you are not, it usually makes you look dumb. While using humor in your presentation is an excellent idea, there is a difference between humor and jokes.

On the flip side do not start by just telling the audience who you are and what you will be talking about. Someone else should do your introduction. The first few sentences out of your mouth will be the most important part of your whole presentation. Make sure you start strong.

Begin with a story. If it relates to your topic, and has the ability to spark interest in you and your presentation, it will have the power to win you the right to the audience's attention for the duration of your talk.

Yes it takes time to prepare a strong opening story, but if your audience is not worth the effort, do not accept the invitation to speak in the first place.

2. Not dressing the part. In our uber-casual society too many people feel they can show up to speak without giving any thought to how they are dressed. But the truth is that what you wear sends a message to the audience. When you dress correctly (and that will depend on the type of event, the venue, and how the audience will be dressed), it sends the message that you considered them before you showed up.

Too many speakers (even professionals) forget that it is called "giving a speech", which means anytime you address a crowd it is your gift. How you dress is the wrapping paper. You would not give your bosses daughter a wedding gift wrapped in old newspaper that smelled like rotten fish, so do not do the same thing when presenting your gift of a speech to an audience.

Many executive that I coach argue that "Steve Jobs" never dresses up when he speaks. My answer, when you bank account matches Steve Jobs' bank account then you can do whatever you want. In the meantime.... think seriously about what you wear.

3. Overuse of the word "I". When we are asked to come share with an audience, we all mistakenly think they want to hear about our accomplishments. Too many speakers only tell stories where they are the hero. Nobody would want to hear you brag about your life while sitting across from you at lunch, what makes you think that just because you are on stage they want to hear you profess your own greatness?

The best speakers provide a mix of their own successes with examples from other people. I suggest you arrive early and get some ideas from people in the audience. When you praise and quote someone from the crowd, the whole audience responds favorably because you are singling out one of them. It raises them all up. If all you can do is talk at them from your own high point, it makes them feel small in comparison.

Take a look at how often you talk about yourself and make sure that it is not the whole presentation. When you do site yourself as an example, have a motivating purpose that helps the audiences. Why do they care about what you did, and how can they learn from your experiences?

Reading books about speaking can help you become a better speaker, but nothing beats practice. If you want to become a talented public speaker then speak often, video tape your presentations, and review them regularly.

Also, every time you get the chance to see someone else give a speech, watch their elements of style in addition to listening to their content. I call this "Speaker's College". Anyone on stage can be my professor (professionals and amateurs), and I always learn something through observation. Never be afraid to try new things. Keep what works, and continue to grow your own unique speaking style.

Have A Great Day.


You can purchase a copy of "The ABC's of Speaking" at


Heather said...

Nice post, Thom.

I would add talking politics, even when you think you're not. This can be everything from the BP oil spill to global warming to the immigration debate. There are passions on all sides, why disengage your audience.

As for dressing the part, I saw a (male) speaker recently in Birkenstocks. Great and knowledgeable speaker, but I was turned off by his toes.

Catherine Jewell said...

Regarding dress: A good rule of thumb is to dress one level above the audience. This shows that you took the time to carefully choose your clothing. When you walk in the room, everyone can identify you as the speaker. For example, if I am speaking to a business casual audience, I wear a nice pants suit. If my audience is in business dress, I will often wear a dressy, skirted suit. For men, if the audience is wearing business casual, you might wear dress slacks, a collared shirt, sports coat and no tie. Dressing the part also gives you great confidence.