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

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

Do you know the best practices for presentation success? Here are the 10 biggest public speaking errors (and how to avoid them)!

Do you have it in you to be a great speaker? If you think that's a tall order, ask yourself this question: "Can I reach listeners more effectively on behalf of my ideas, product or service?"

The answer to the second question is almost certainly yes. I'd like to tell you about a book that will help you get there. In fact, it may be the best book ever written on public speaking performance, even though it was published back in 1988.

Ready to make a difference as a speaker? Understand intuitively how to engage and move audiences! Get my Free Guide, "Six Rules of Effective Public Speaking."

Public Speaking Is More than Delivering Information

In the thirty-one years since Roger Ailes published You Are the Message, the components of effective communication haven't changed. Technology has leaped forward, of course, but the principles of great public speaking are the same. So it's no surprise that Ailes insists that you as speaker are the major factor in whether you're trusted, believed, and followed.

Take the surprising revelation 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." If trust in you as a speaker is the result of just seven seconds of interaction, you'd better be paying more attention to your relationship with your audience than your content!

From there, Ailes shares what he believes are the ten most common communication problems. I discuss them below, adding my own comments about how you can improve if you experience them yourself. What you'll find below, then, is a snapshot of areas you may need to correct to be a memorable speaker. It's all part of knowing how to move an audience in public speaking.

It Ain't All About Your Content!

Interestingly, you'll notice that only items #7 and #10 below have anything to do with the content of a 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 only 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 audiences most strongly.

To get good at the nonverbal components of your performances, read my Free White Paper, "The Body Language Rules: 12 Ways to Be a More Powerful Public Speaker."

Consider the list below, then, with that observation in mind. (And here's how to be a more exciting speaker with charisma). So, Roger Ailes's 10 most common communication problems:

The 10 Biggest Public Speaking Errors

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 comfortable with their talking points, and often not comfortable with people at all. Rapport with your listeners isn't only nice; it's a make-or-break proposition concerning your influence with your audience.

Body language in public speaking is a key part of effective communications.

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 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 a vital tool of communication. And the cure for not knowing how to use it in front of audiences is easy: stop gathering content earlier than you do now. Instead, start rehearsing, using a video camera. Learn what looks natural then get that into your muscle memory.

What is your body saying? Discover practical tips for understanding how you look to others. Get my essential e-book, Body Language to Look and Feel Confident. 

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, thereby putting her subsidized housing at risk. At first take, the talk was all about rules and consequences, and the message was stern.

It was a good example of "intellectually oriented" material. I discussed what my client 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 possibility of the compliance my client was aiming for.

How to overcome nervousness and fear of public speaking is a key skill to learn.

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. (Here is my 10 Causes of Speech Anxiety that Create Fear of Public Speaking.) All of us want to be effective when we speak, versus looking unsure and therefore lacking in credibility. We don't 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 our core programs 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, focusing instead on the back of the room. "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, the back wall or the people in the seats. 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. Facial expressions are important because they strongly indicate motive and intention. If your face isn't participating, get it into the act!

6. Lack of humor. I once conducted a workshop for eleven vice presidents at a manufacturing company. Each VP gave a 10-minute talk that was videotaped. As part of his talk, one attendee  began with a three-and-a-half minute joke . . . about the Pope! In the feedback session, I gently asked him why he had made this choice. "Because I took a public speaking workshop once, and they told us we should always start out a business presentation with a joke."

I'd heard that before, and it's still terrible advice. Remember: humor is safe and worthwhile, while a joke is an invitation to disaster. Humor is a commodity that exists everywhere, waiting for you to recognize and use it. Jokes, on the other hand, require great timing, include a make-or-break punchline, and often, require the ability to use funny voices. Are you really a stand-up comic?

So find some gentle humor that relates to your topic and include it in your talk. Better yet, allow yourself to relax, and humor will often emerge as you speak without you thinking about it. Your audience will appreciate it greatly either way, and it will make your message go down easier. 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 where you should remember to place your audience first, and 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 listeners; (2) Be clear about your specific purpose in talking to this audience; and (3) Prepare content that will allow you to succeed with the purpose you have in mind.

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 talk, and especially, why it should matter to them. 

How to use silence in public speaking is a skill you should learn.

8. Inability to use silence for impact. The next time you watch a drama, in the movies, on television, or on the stage, 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. Sometimes just the desire to get to the end of a painful situation will cause you to speed past your listeners like a runaway locomotive.

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 point; 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.

Voice and speech improvement is a key skill for effective speeches and presentations.

9. Lack of energy causes inappropriate pitch pattern, speech rate, and volume. Do you know how to use your voice to persuade others? Nothing is deadlier than a presenter who speaks in a monotone, or so softly that audiences are lulled to sleep. It should be obvious to you that the way you say something often matters as much—or more—than the actual words you use.

There's good news, though, even if you don't own Morgan Freeman's voice. It's hinted at in Ailes's phrasing concerning this communication error. He's saying that 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 and passionate when you speak. Your deficits will be much less noticeable.

10. Use of boring language and lack of interesting material. If this is one of your public speaking weaknesses, 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 my 12 foolproof ways to open a speech . . . and never let go!

I'll add this: 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 ways.

This blog was published in 2016. It is updated here.

You should follow me on Twitter here.

 complete guide to effective public speaking


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