I’m blessed to work in a company full of public speakers ranging from capable to truly great. But I’ve been cursed by years of attending conferences, weddings, and other speaking-worthy events where well-intentioned speakers repeat the same blunders. You don’t necessarily have to be a natural-born public speaker to get the job done, but anyone who stands up in front of the room at the very least owes the audience a speech free of easily avoidable mistakes. Here’s my incomplete list.
What’s the point?
Just because it’s interesting to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting to your audience. I recently sat through a graduate school address filled with inside jokes and esoteric references about the fellow students’ favorite candy to binge on during study time and the hue of the lighting in the specific rooms on campus. Those references may have meant something to them, but given that each graduate had at least one family member with them, the majority of the audience had no idea what the speaker was talking about it. As you prepare your speech, keep asking yourself, “Who is my audience, and would they care about this?” A reader can delete an email or skip to the next article. But an audience member is being held hostage. Speakers owe it to them to keep it interesting.
A long list of thanks
Many speakers like to begin with a long list of thanks—to organizers, sponsors, and other people who are rarely siting through the speech themselves. If someone in attendance deserves to be thanked, thank away. But otherwise, just get to it. We’ll thank you for it.
Allow me to introduce myself (for a really long time)
Did the audience willingly show up to hear you speak? Did an organizer introduce you? Great—the audience knows who you are. Skip the introduction and jump right in. If the audience doesn’t yet know who you are, give us the 30-second elevator version of your intro. We’re here, we’re listening, and you’ve got our attention. Spend less time convincing us why you’re worth listening to, and more time actually telling us something worth listening to.
You can’t help it if the mic goes out in the middle of your talk. But failing to test your mic, your laptop, and any other tech before you get started only to end up troubleshooting live on stage? That’s on you. I recently sat through a speech with two concurrent speakers who spent the first ten minutes trying to get their microphone to work. By the time it did, they’d lost their audience. Test ahead of time and make sure everything works. Even better, be wary of making your speech so reliant on tech that you’re toast if there’s trouble (Steve Jobs once said that people who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint). A tech-free presentation will be tech-trouble-free, too. But if you will rely on electronics or other media, make sure they work before you start.
“And now, I’ll read slide 22 to you out loud.”
If you’re just going to read your on-screen bullet points out loud, cancel the speech, email your presentation, and save the audience the trip.
Going over your time
Don’t do 20 minutes when you’re asked to do 10. Don’t end at 7:45 when you were supposed to end at 7:30. But all the other speakers went long, and I prepared for this! Doesn’t matter. End on time, even if you need to cut your talk short. The great orators of our time may have left audiences thinking, “I wish that speech were longer.” But most of us just aren’t that good. Trust me, your audience will thank you, which is exactly what you want them to do when you finish speaking.
No end in sight
I’ve now been to three weddings where a groomsman’s toast went so long, and so far off course, the bride and groom had to ask him to stop. It was as if those speakers were hoping to meander their way during the talk to find an ending. Wherever you’re speaking, treat attention like a precious, scarce resource. The more of it you demand from your audience, the more likely you are to expend it all. Shorter is almost always better. And if you don’t know where you’ll end, don’t even start.
Refusal to read the room
If you went on a first date and the person across the table was yawing, looking at their watch, and generally looking like they didn’t want to be there, would you take it as a good sign? Probably not. Your audience will tell you how they’re feeling and how you’re doing during a speech. Just look at them. Agreeing nods, responsive chuckles, and enthusiastic note-taking are good signs. Yawns, time-checks, and heads nodding off are not. A less-than-warm reaction might not always be fair or rational. In fact, it might not even be your fault, especially if you’re following several other speakers who committed mistakes on this list. But forging ahead as planned no matter how long it takes isn’t always a best practice. Read your audience and be prepared to adjust as necessary.
Ending with a whimper
The end of your speech is your moment, your time to end on a high note. And yet too many speakers spend too little time preparing for that ending. “So, unless there are any questions, I think that’s all I have. . .” Really? That’s your ending? The end of your speech is the last memory you can give to your audience. Make me laugh, think, reflect, etc. Tell me what you want me to do, change, or notice moving forward. Leave me with something good to remember you and your speech by. Last impressions matter even more than first impressions. Don’t let a whimper at the end ruin all the material that preceded it.