As IT professionals and customer service reps, we’re sometimes called upon to give a presentation to a group of end-users, customers, colleagues, or some other group of people. At those times, you certainly don’t want to have a public speaking fail! I recently had an experience that made me want to write a blog post on what not to do when speaking in public.

Saturday, I attended my step-daughter’s college graduation, along with about 4,000 other family members, friends, faculty members, and students. The college president made several interesting and meaningful remarks about the graduating class. The student speaker talked about the fears and triumphs she and the other students experienced. It was an inspiring and uplifting experience for everyone in attendance. Then, came the inspirational speaker. He was the worst speaker I’ve ever heard. (To put this in perspective, as a church organist, I’ve heard a lot of speakers and some of them have been pretty bad!) The experience got me thinking about the specifics of what made his speech so bad. As a professional speaker, I want to ensure I never leave my audience feeling the way we did when he was finished.

When you’re finished with your speech, you want the audience to applaud because of what you said, not because you’re done speaking.

Five Mistakes that Lead to a Public Speaking Fail

Here are five mistakes that are guaranteed to lose your audience:

  1. Don’t think about who’s in the audience, but focus on yourself instead. The commencement speaker was an narcissist. “I” was his favorite word. Okay, lots of us are narcissistic, but we’ve learned to check it at the door or the steps to the podium. The speech is not about the speaker, but about the audience. To an audience of 20-somethings, he spoke about what he did to survive the Vietnam War, nearly 50 years earlier. Although we’re all grateful for his service, his story was neither relevant nor inspiring. He talked of little known politicians, most of whom were in office before his audience members were born. He didn’t miss any opportunity to promote his business.
  2. Be a name dropper and talk about all the famous people you know. Name-dropping is for losers unless the name-dropping is associated with interesting and compelling stories about how people have overcome challenges. The commencement speaker was liberal in his use of the names of all the people he knew and with whom he’d worked. We, in the audience, weren’t really sure what that had to do with the future of the graduates in the audience.
  3. Tell your life story and boast about your great successes. That’s something that only works for celebrities, and then, only for those celebrities who’ve done really cool things like Steve Jobs. Unless you’re Steve Jobs or someone of similar renown, your life story is probably not of much interest. Tell stories about other people and their triumphs.
  4. Give lots of meaningless dates and facts. The commencement speaker devoted a lot of time to reciting historical dates and obscure facts. It was even less interesting than reading genealogy in the Bible. The speaker’s podium is a place for telling interesting stories to help make a point. We all remember great stories and we quickly forget minutiae. Find two or three great stories that make your point, tell them, summarize, and be done. If you must include dates and facts, put ’em on a handout. Overdoing it with data is a sure path to a public speaking fail.
  5. Turn your speech into an infomercial for your business. Seriously? Did he really do that? Yup, and he droned on and on about his business, which had no relevance to his audience at large. Even if you’ve been invited to speak somewhere about your business, don’t do it. Speak instead about the problems facing businesses in your industry and how to solve them. Your audience is there to hear your expertise, not a sales pitch.

The real tragedy of what happened is in the lost opportunity of a public speaking fail. When you have a captive audience of 4,000 people, you have a rare opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and maybe even in the world. 4000 people is a big audience. Imagine, if your speech somehow challenges them to think differently about something, what an impact you could have. As it was, the commencement speaker wasted 25 minutes of everyone’s life. Do the math: 4000 people times 25 minutes. His speech wasted 100,000 total minutes or 1,667 hours or 69 days of global productivity!

No one wants to be responsible for that! So, when you have to give a speech or any kind of presentation to an audience, large or small, focus on the audience, keep it brief, tell relevant stories, and don’t do a sales pitch. When you’re done, the audience will indeed applaud for what you said, not because you’re done!

Consider joining Toastmasters to learn the basics of public speaking. Also, check out this post about how to give a great speech.

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