The 3 Dumbest Mistakes Public Speakers Make
In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to listen to hundreds of speeches, from nationally recognized speakers to local activists. Some of them are amazing. Some of them are terrible. Some of them are terrifying, and some of them make you want to poke your eye out with a fork really, really, slowly to distract from the pain currently entering your ears.
Since I gave my first public speech at 16, I have also had to learn the hard way that an audience member looking at their watch is not usually calculating how much fun they are having, yes, those butterflies are real, and no, your suit does not fit you. I have since given about 75 speeches from coast to coast, and been on over 100 radio programs for PANDA, the organization I founded my freshman year in college.
Here are the 3 dumbest mistakes public speakers make, and how to avoid them.
- Not having a script, or at least detailed notes for a speech you have little practice with
If I had a penny for the number of times I’ve heard “Well, I didn’t really prepare anything today,” I’d have a pile of money the size of New Zealand. This is probably the most common mistake public speakers make, the second being thinking it’s okay to say that. Being unprepared is bad enough, confirming to the audience that you are indeed unprepared, and that the only reason they should listen to you is out of sympathy, just makes it worse.
Write a script, or at the very least detailed notes for your speech.
The first time I was given a platform to speak on, at PAULFest in Tampa, FL during the Republican National Convention in 2012, I completely froze the second I took the stage. If you look at 1:29 in the video, you’ll see me pause, and then look down at my script for dear life.
Yet most people won’t even notice that. If you look at the YouTube comments where it was posted, most are positive, and said how amazing the speech was. Yet the entire speech, down to the comma, was scripted. If it wasn’t, it would have been a total disaster.
Even today, on a speech I can do in my head, I really prefer to have a PowerPoint with the information presented, or at the very least detailed notes on what I need to speak about. It not only helps provide a visual aid for me, and helps me stay on point, but keeps the audience engaged as well.
Eventually, you can work up to unscripted speeches. But for new information, or just to educate the audience a little better, start by scripting your speech out. With the right body language and energy you can make the driest script interesting, and keep your audience engaged. But even if you have a difficult time with that, at least you will have the authority and clear argument to gain, and keep, the respect of your audience.
- Not asking for audience input.
Believe it or not, but your audience isn’t there to hear you talk. Sure, that’s a required process for your audience to get what they really want, but it’s not the reason they show up to hear you speak. Your audience is there for two reasons: what you can give them, and how you make them feel.
The best public speakers make that process a little more like rocking out to a great band and a little less like driving to the hospital with an ulcer.
What you can give them is the reason you are there in the first place. Education, training, information, etc. The best way to make them feel like they are part of the action is to actually include them in the action.
For example, I notice a marked difference if I, immediately after taking the stage, ask the audience “how are you all doing tonight?!” instead of instantly starting into my speech. For example, note the difference in audience reactions between this video of my speech in Williamsport, PA where I start off speaking, and this one from Santa Cruz, CA where I start off engaging the audience.
There are several factors that go into audience participation, and I did have more experience by the second speech. However, both rooms were packed, both audiences were given near the exact same presentation, and both speeches were given on very, very little sleep. Yet the difference in audience participation was huge, simply because in my California speech the audience not only felt like they were part of the presentation…they were part of the presentation.
Make your audience part of the presentation. Watch the Santa Cruz video a little while longer, and notice how many questions I ask the audience to answer. I have done this in crowds from 13 people to over 1,000, it doesn’t matter how many people are there. The response is the same, include your audience in your speech, and they’ll include you the next time they want a speaker.
- Ignoring body language
How much of our language is nonverbal? According to science, body language consists of from 55%-90% of our communication with others, yet many speakers completely ignore this part of their speech. Most will practice in front of a mirror until they are blue in the face. Then, when they stand in front of an audience, huddle behind the podium for protection, grab onto it for dear life, and wonder why they are not grasping their audience’s attention.
Even more than not moving at all, there is a such thing as moving too much. In my PAULfest speech, it looks like I’m gripping an invisible pen between my fingers as I write down every point. While this invisible pen is very helpful if used sparingly, as it does ingrain your important points in your audience’s minds, continually does the opposite. Instead of highlighting my speech, my constant motion served to blur the important points I wanted them to leave with.
Most recent U.S. Presidents have also been experts in body language. For example, when former President G.W. Bush met with Russian President Vladmir Putin, both men struggled to gain the upper hand in a handshake. How important is this? Look at the picture below. Who is more authoritative in this photo?
The man on the left is Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua. He clearly looks the most confident in this photo, simply because his hand is on top of the handshake. The other guy is even in a suit, yet Ortega clearly has control in this picture. This is so important that when one of the times they met, and G.W. Bush beat Vladmir Putin to the top of the handshake, Putin did this:
Yep, he placed his other hand on top of the handshake so as to retain the upper hand. If world leaders are this concerned about body language, so should anyone who has an audience of people anywhere in the world. With that said, here are some ways (besides handshakes) to make sure your body language is sending the right message:
- Own the stage. When you walk in to greet a crowd, you are alien to the room. In many cases, you don’t know the audience. When you are introduced, walk confidently with decent-size strides to the microphone, and then if possible step in front of the podium. Use the entire stage in your speech (this is why I prefer wireless mics). This kind of confidence will grab a crowd’s attention.
- Watch your hand motions. This will take some practice, but be very deliberate when you move your hands. When you want to make a point, when you want to define something clearly, and most importantly when you want your audience to remember something, are where you should move your hands in whatever motion you think is necessary to make the point. Other than that, consciously keep your hands calm while you speak. Like bold text, if used too often it will make your message hard to comprehend, but if used at just the right time, can add the emphasis necessary to drive your point home.
- Look your audience in the eyes. The more you practice your speech, the better you will get at it, but at the very least look up from your paper or presentation multiple times. This combines keeping your audience engaged with showing the confidence you need to grab their attention.
- Loosen up. When humans are nervous, we tend to make very quick, stiff body motions without even realizing it. While everyone does it, those motions really stand out as a speaker because the crowd is watching your every move. Take time to practice your body language in front of a mirror, and when in front of an audience dedicate some at least some of your thought process to smoothing out your body language.
Finally, here’s a bonus tip. Use humor in all of your speeches, preferably at the beginning to open the minds of your audience. Laugh at yourself, get them to laugh at themselves, or laugh together. George Bernard Shaw put it wonderfully when he said “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Or they’ll kill you.”
Above all, remember: a good speaker can take any content and make it interesting. A bad speaker can take any topic and make the audience want to jab forks in their eyes really, really, slowly. Best bring some silverware.
BONUS: Check out this amazing, on point, video from Mark Bowden on how important body language is while speaking:
Dan Johnson is the President and Founder of the Solutions Institute. Want to discuss this topic more? Invite Dan on your radio show, to your group, or just send him an email at thesolutionsinstitute [at] gmail.com.
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