If there is one rule of public speaking, it is surely this: Be kind to your audience!
Treat them with care and respect. You may want to inspire; you may wish to entertain, but if you make any of these common public speaking mistakes, you can kiss goodbye to all those lofty intentions and instead you might quickly find yourself under metaphorical arrest for the crime of wilful assault and battery of an unsuspecting audience.
In this article, you’ll discover the 17 top public speaking mistakes to avoid at all costs. These mistakes are made by public speakers the world over, from speech beginners to seasoned presentation pros. Eliminate many of them and your audience will love you for it. Strip them out of your own speeches completely and you’ll be well on your way to becoming the great communicator you always wanted to be.
(Before we get started, you might like my FREE workshop: 5 Communication SuperSkills that will change your career if you use them (and stall your career if you don’t)
For this list, we will only be looking at the mistakes that speakers make during the speech itself. So things like not preparing for your speech and not getting feedback afterwards, don’t feature (otherwise this would be one hell of a long list!).
And so without further ado, the top 17 public speaking mistakes guaranteed to put your audience in a coma are…
#17 – Starting with an apology
I know you’re nervous. Everyone gets nervous – even the great ones.
But you mustn’t let that undermine your own speech from the very beginning. Until you call attention to it, your audience will not know (and actually will not care) whether or not you are feeling nervous or confident, prepared or unprepared. They just want to hear what you have to say.
So, start right and start strong!
#16 – Imitating Obama (or Thatcher or Churchill or some other famous public speaker)
It’s tempting to copy the greats.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to inspire like Steve Jobs or to speak as empathically as Oprah? There was a time when I tried to model my public speaking pattern after JFK (thankfully that didn’t last long). Imitating anyone doesn’t work. It may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also the surest way to alienate your audience when they pick up on the insincerity.
The best speeches are authentic. The best speechmakers are real and natural in their delivery.
So, in the words of Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
#15 Hiding behind a lectern
Being honest, it can look very Presidential to stand behind a lectern and deliver your speech. Throw in a teleprompter and you could run for any office in any country. But therein lies the problem. Lecterns and podiums create distance and obstruction between speaker and audience, which leads to a disconnect.
You end up sacrificing connection in favour of aesthetics, which undermines your entire speech.
If you need to use a lectern, see if you can come out from behind it every so often so the audience can see your entire body. Mark Bowden does some great work on body language and the importance of allowing an audience to see you from midriff level, which he calls the TruthPlane. Have a listen to this podcast episode with me and Mark.
#14 Using poor body language
Staying on the body language theme, I really encourage you to listen to the podcast interview with Mark because he explains how positive and welcoming body language can have an outsize impact in building your credibility with your audience.
And the flip side is that negative or poor body language will undermine the connection and credibility you achieve with your audience.
There is no need to obsess over it, but it is definitely one to watch out for.
#13 Using PowerPoint just because it’s there
Say it after me: I do not need to use PowerPoint. I do not need to use PowerPoint.
Audiences love good visuals. It supplements and helps to deepen their understanding of the points you are making in your speech. But PowerPoint has become ubiquitous. It has become the default option for all business and management speeches, whether it’s really needed or not. “Got a presentation to give? I better get my slides done.” Ever said that before? By focusing on your PowerPoint, you’re more likely to miss the power of the points you want to make in your speech.
Not convinced? OK. Try this: Think about some of the greatest speeches ever given: The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln; the Tilbury Speech by Queen Elizabeth 1; ‘I have a dream’ by Martin Luther King. Now ask yourself how many of those great speeches used PowerPoint or any visuals, except for the images created in your mind by their words.
You do not need to use PowerPoint! It is one of the most common of public speaking mistakes in the business world. But if you do, make sure you do it right: Read my article on the 5 Primary Principles of PowerPoint
PowerPoint is a great thing when used responsibly. For a top of the line example of how to use PowerPoint the right way, watch Steve Job’s insanely brilliant unveiling of the iPhone in 2007.
#12 Reading (not delivering) your speech
There’s nothing wrong with using a full script for your speech. Audiences don’t care what you use, they just want to hear what you have to say.
But if you don’t think about your delivery, if all you do is read out your speech without putting anything of yourself into how you deliver, the speech will be flat. You might as well just send it to everyone by email and save all of their time and yours.
#11 Using too many filler words
You actually do not have to over-worry about using filler words. There is some great research that shows that audiences are far less concerned about filler words and disfluencies than you might actually think. Barack Obama, for instance, used a lot of ums and errs during press conferences, whereas Donald Trump hardly uses any filler words. And yet Obama is widely (and rightly) regarded as the far superior communicator.
Still, the less fluent you are with your delivery, the less convinced your audience is likely to be about you personally. If every other word is an um, err, like, you know, as I was saying etc, it will destroy the flow of your words.
So, watch it. Try to…like… speak as… you know… fluently as… err… possible.
#10 Distracting mannerisms
Watch out for these. You can give the greatest speech on earth and no one will pay attention if you keep distracting them with little ticks like your constant hair flicking, swaying back and forth, over-pacing around, jangling your keys in your pockets, playing around with your jewellery.
My annoying speech habit was that I used to shake my head constantly speaking. I had no idea and no one pointed it out, so it was only when I watched a video back of myself that I spotted it.
I highly recommend that by the way. Whenever you can, watch your speeches back on video (or just practise at home). It gives you a great insight into how you come across.
#9 Using your phone for notes
I think this is a bit of a Millenial thing because I rarely see other oldies like me doing it. Youngsters (and by that I mean the under 35s) seem to feel that using a phone for notes instead of paper or note cards is OK. It isn’t.
Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m talking with someone and they pull out their phone in the middle of the conversation, I take it as an insult.
When you do it during your speech, it just looks rude and wrong.
Stop it, you young people. Take it from a Generation Xer. It doesn’t look nice.
#8 No eye contact with your audience
Don’t do the fake eye contact thing, where you look up above their heads fleetingly and then down again at your notes (I know a priest that does that all the time and it really irritates me!)
Eye contact means meaningful eye contact where you actually look an audience member in the eye for the length of a phrase or so before moving on to another member and then another.
Remember “the eyes are the window to the soul”.
#7 Making bad jokes
Since the internet, everyone’s a comedian! Jokes are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, which makes it easy to be funny. Except, it doesn’t.
Humour is technically the hardest public speaking skill there is. If you really want to master it, have a read of my article: How to be funny in a speech when you’re not that funny in real life
There is no rule that your speech has to be funny or even contain a single joke.
#6 Getting off to a bad start
An audience once lost is almost impossible to recover. Getting off to a bad start is one of the worst public speaking mistakes you can make because it puts you on the back foot from which you may never come back.
There are lots of options for starting with a good opening: a shocking statistic; a good joke; a demonstration etc.
Dave Mac has a great post on different options for speech openings, which I can’t better, so here it is: https://www.presentationblogger.com/8-killer-speech-openers/
#5 Showing no passion
I always advise my clients that if you are not planning to deliver your presentation in a way that feels engaging and compelling to your audience, send an email with your speech text instead.
The reason public speaking is still the most effective method of persuasion in the world is that there is no better way to get a full sense of the emotionality and authenticity of the person than hearing them advocate for their cause in person.
Passion is infectious, impressive and inspiring.
You don’t have to be a firebrand to be passionate. Gandhi was a notably calm speaker and yet he spoke with fire in his belly that was transmitted to his audience. Be passionate about your subject and about the content of your speech. That passion will be perceived and appreciated by your audience.
And if you lack passion, you will leave your audience cold.
#4 Focusing too much on the facts
Data is great. I love data. I love facts. In recent times the world has become too divorced from facts and data and science.
But people aren’t persuaded by facts alone. Neuroscientific advances have shown through MRI scans that whilst we, as human beings are defined by our logic and reasoning and rationality, it is still our emotions that govern our motivations, our actions and our decisions.
So, don’t pack your presentations too full of facts and data. Connect with people through emotionally and your entire speech will resonate much greater.
This is one of my own favourite short vids on how to persuade anyone about anything.
#3 Having no purpose
If you have no actual goal for your speech, you will by definition be giving a pointless speech.
Speeches with no purpose just ramble on aimlessly. They bore audiences. So be sure to have a clear objective for your speech and then speak to that purpose. It will give your speech direction and momentum. Otherwise, as Mark Twain entreats us:
“If you have nothing to say, say nothing!”
#2 Going on for too long
Please, please, please, stop talking for so long. There is no need for it.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which was massively instrumental in ushering in the principle of democratic governance in the US and the world (‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’). He could justifiably have made it a 2-hour speech. But he didn’t.
This immense speech lasted just… 2 minutes!
So, what is it that you have to say that is so important that it has to go on and on and on?
Keep your speech short and your audience will love you for it.
And #1 in our list of public speaking mistakes is…
#1 Saying nothing much in particular
Most speeches and presentations are given just because they are expected or requested. The speechmakers stand up and speak for about 20 minutes and then sit down to muted applause (from those audience members that haven’t already passed out from boredom).
There are thousands of speeches given every week that say absolutely nothing at all. The messages are bland; the opinions are middle of the road. A lot of words spoken with little or no meaning.
This is a sin! Think about the number of people in the room, then multiply that by the average value of all their time and you’ll soon realise that if your speech doesn’t provide several thousand pounds in value, you are just wasting everyone’s time.
Don’t play it safe. They’ll never tell you, but audiences hate this. They would rather hear an extreme view that they disagree with than a dull statement that provides no insight.
Don’t be bland. Avoid the obvious. Give your opinion and stand by it. Put yourself out there and your audience will love you for it.
That’s it! 17 public speaking mistakes to avoid. Everyone makes mistakes. The fewer you can make with your speeches and presentations, the better.
If you’ve got this far, you should definitely sign up for my new free webinar: 5 Communication SuperSkills that will change your career if you use them (and stall your career if you don’t)