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The 10 Biggest Public Speaking Errors (and How to Avoid Them)

Sep 30th, 2012 by Gary Genard

In the 24 years since Roger Ailes published his book You Are the Message, the components of effective communication haven't changed. Technology has advanced, but the principles of great public speaking are the same. Perhaps the best book ever written on speech performance, Ailes' work is insistent that you as speaker are the major factor in whether you are trusted, believed, and followed.

(To learn how you can succeed as a speaker or presenter, download my free cheat sheet, "4 Characteristics of an Influential Speaker.")

In his opening chapter, "The First Seven Seconds" ("Research shows that we start to make up our minds about other people within seven seconds of first meeting them"), Ailes states what he believes are the ten most common problems in communications. I discuss them below, annotating what in the book is simply a top-ten list. Together, they offer a snapshot of what you should avoid or correct when you speak in public.

Delivering More than Information

Interestingly, you'll notice that only items #7 and #10 below have anything to do with the content or information included in your speech or presentation. And even these items only cover the preparation of your material and whether it's sufficiently interesting.

That's because inexperienced or unwise presenters prepare to deliver information. Smart speakers, on the other hand, understand that it's what's below the waterline, the huge part of the iceberg having to do with nonverbal communication, that influences their audiences most strongly. (The important techniques for achieving such influence are discussed in my article, "4 Easy Ways to Become a More Charismatic Speaker.") Consider the list below, then, with that observation in mind.

1. Lack of initial rapport with listeners. This is one of the two biggest errors tied to worshipping the false god of "information delivery" (the other is #7). Since many presenters spend all of their time putting together content, they remain inside the information bubble, forgetting that establishing lines of communication with listeners is all-important. They are perfectly comfortable with their notes or talking points, and often not comfortable at all speaking to people and trying to sway them. Rapport with your listeners isn't only nice; it's a make-or-break proposition concerning your influence with your audience.

2. Stiffness or woodenness in use of body. We might also use Earl Nightingale's phrase here, "divorce from your own body"—a strange and eerie proposition! Why is it that each of us is perfectly comfortable standing and chatting with friends, yet feel like we've suddenly been inhabited by an alien being when we present in front of others? Our natural supportive gestures disappear; and we seem to have grown odd limbs whose purpose is a mystery.

The body is an important tool of communication. And the cure for not knowing how to use it in front of audiences is easy: leave off gathering content earlier than you do now. Start rehearsing on your feet, using a mirror or video camera. Learn what looks natural, and then get that into your muscle memory. Discover the body language messages you may be broadcasting. And learn how to avoid the 5 body language mistakes that may destroy your own message.

3. Material is intellectually oriented and audience isn't involved emotionally. Recently, I coached the director of public housing for a municipal housing authority. We conducted a role-play of her discussing with a resident how this person was breaking the terms of her lease, and faced the possiblity of losing her subsidized housing. At first take, the talk was all about rules and consequences, and the message was stern.

It was a perfect example of "intellectually oriented" material. I discussed with my client what she was trying to achieve and what message she intended the resident to hear. She was trying to help this person, of course—to get her to understand how serious the situation was and the dangers she was facing. We tried the simulated discussion a second time with these emotional elements front and center. This time, the discussion was dramatically different: it was human and caring, with a greatly improved possiblity of achieving the compliance my client was aiming for.

4. Speaker seems uncomfortable because of fear of failure. Fear announces itself in a speaker, so that the very outcome the person is most afraid of is more likely to occur. (Learn how to reduce your level of nervousness by downloading my cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.") All of us want to be effective and influential when we speak, not perceived as unsure and therefore lacking in credibility. None of us want to fail. But fail at what, exactly? At not being judged a terrific speaker? So what if we aren't perceived that way?

Your job when you present is to give your listeners something of value, not morph into the Abraham Lincoln of the 21st century! There is only one road to failure you need to avoid when you speak: focusing more on yourself than your listeners and the message they need to hear. Fearing failure, then, may in fact ensure failure. Preparing adequately and talking straight to people about what matters to you and them is really an easy assignment. You should be comfortable doing that. Whatever happens after you do so is out of your hands.

5. Poor use of eye contact and facial expression. At The Genard Method, one of the core products is our Fearless Speaking Course. It's a coaching program where I work one-on-one with people to help them reduce their nervousness and eliminate speaking fear. Speech anxiety like this often makes speakers avoid eye contact with audiences, sometimes literally speaking to the back wall. "If I look people in the eye, it will knock me off track," these clients sometimes tell me. That's when I ask them who is more likely to be persuaded by what they say, the wall or the people in the audience? And anyway, when is the last time you were persuaded by someone who wouldn't look you in the eye?

The other part of Ailes's point here is facial expression. You should know by now whether you have an expressive face or not. If you don't, work with a mirror and try to match what you're feeling with what you're showing. Human beings are tremendously influenced by other people's facial expressions, for they strongly indicate motive and intention. If your face isn't participating, get it into the act!

6. Lack of humor. Once, I conducted a workshop for 11 vice presidents representing different departments of a medical devices company. As part of his 10-minute videotaped presentation, one of the VPs began with a three-and-a-half minute joke . . . about the Pope! In the feedback session afterwards, I gently asked him why he had made this choice. "Because," he replied, "I took a public speaking workshop once, and they told us we should always start out a business presentation with a joke."

Are you rolling your eyes by now? Remember: while humor is safe and worthwhile; jokes are an invitation to disaster. Humor is a commodity that exists in great abundance, and every one of us can find some every day, for it's all around us. Jokes, on the other hand, take exquisite timing, require a make-or-break punchline, need the skills of a stand-up comic to pull off, and . . . well, you get the idea.

So find some gentle humor that relates well to your topic, and include it in your talk. Better yet, allow yourself to relax and some humor will emerge organically as you speak, often without you thinking about it beforehand. Your audience will appreciate it greatly either way, and it will make your message go down easlier. For more on this, read my article "Should I Start Out with a Joke?"

7. Speech direction and intent are unclear due to improper preparation. This is the other area in which you should remember to place your audience first, and the delivery of information second. As you prepare to speak, proceed in three steps: (1) conduct an audience analysis so you know the needs and preferences of your audience in this speaking situation; (2) be clear in your own mind of your specific purpose in talking to those listeners; and (3) prepare content that will allow you to succeed with the purpose you have in mind for this particular audience in this situation.

This is worlds away from simply bringing in information because it's what you're an expert in. Doing that will ensure that your direction and intent in speaking will probably remain murky. And remember to make clear to your audience in your opening where you are going with this speech, i.e., your speech's direction and why it should matter to them.

8. Inability to use silence for impact. The next time you watch a drama in the movies or on television, pay attention to how the actors use silence. Silence, indeed, is one of the most powerful tools you possess as a speaker. But nervousness, adrenaline, and extreme self-consciousness may make you banish all pauses and instances of silence. Sometimes just the desire to get to the end of a painful situation will cause you to speed past your listeners like a runaway locamotive.

The three times that you must use silence include: (1) when you've just said something important so that it sinks in with listeners; (2) when you transition from one talking point to the next; and (3) between your introduction, body, and conclusion. Each moment of silence allows your audience to rest, to take a breath, and to get ready for what's coming next. Silences will always seem longer to you than for your audience. But learn to trust silence. You'll come across as more confident and your speech will have more impact.

9. Lack of energy causes inappropriate pitch pattern, speech rate, and volume. What's more exciting than a speaker who knows how to use his or her vocal expressiveness to motivate and inspire listeners? And what's deadlier than a monotonous speaker? It should be obvious to you that the way you say something often matters as much—sometimes more—than the actual words you use.

Learn how to use the world's most powerful tool for persuading audiences. There's good news, though, even if you're not the owner of a gorgeous speaking voice. It's hinted at in Ailes's phrasing concerning this communication error. By adopting a more energetic speaking style, you will cover many of the ills that may exist within an average speaking voice. Become more energetic, more passionate when you speak, and your speaking deficits will be far less noticeable.

10. Use of boring language and lack of interesting material. If this is one of your public speaking mistakes, you have no one but yourself to blame. Remember item #7 above and my suggestion that you conduct an audience analysis. By doing so, you'll educate yourself on what will be interesting to your audience—the very people for whom you're speaking. Learn how to grab your audience with one of the 12 foolproof ways to open a speech . . . and never let go!

And if you want to be an influential speaker, you must also familiarize yourself with the 3 "L's": logic, language, and linguistics. The sheer dumping of information on audiences doesn't allow them to logically follow where you're going. And they must do so if you want them to arrive at your destination in terms of education or persuasion at the same time you do.

By using powerful and evocative language such as comparisons, similes and metaphors, you'll vivify your language and make it sing (there's an example). And linguistics will teach you the difference between a word's annotation (plain meaning) and connotation (the "flavor" a word evokes). By knowing that, you'll be able to fine-tune your material so that it reaches and influences listeners in both broad and subtle fashions.

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