The 7 Deadly Sins of Giving a Speech

The 7 Deadly Sins of Giving a Speech

If you’re freaked out at the thought of speaking in front of people, you’re not alone: More Americans fear public speaking than death. But unlike death, public speaking happens over and over, whether it’s “going around the circle and introducing ourselves,” or accepting your People’s Choice award.

Fortunately, it’s shockingly easy to be passable at public speaking if you can manage to get out of your own way, and “passable” is usually all anyone expects. Plus, if you become comfortable with speaking in public, it can actually be fun (or so my extroverted friends tell me.) Below are the seven most common mistakes people make when called on to speak publicly. I expect an oral report on this material by end-of-semester.

Not committing

Being committed is the most important aspect of any public performance, whether it’s a work presentation or a stand-up comedy set, but it’s also the most difficult to achieve. It’s hard to even define commitment, let alone display it. It’s not quite confidence or fearlessness, but it’s adjacent to both. Commitment is the ability to not let fear affect you. It’s appearing confident and acting like you know what you’re doing — no actual confidence required.

Luckily, once you “get it,” it stays with you, but you can only really learn commitment through experience, so you have to get up there and do it. Remember: If you commit fully to your performance and conquer self-consciousness and doubt, there’s a chance you’ll be terrible. But if you don’t commit, you’re speaking from a place of fear, and you’ll definitely be terrible.

Being inappropriate or offensive

Different occasions have different boundaries. If you’re giving a toast at a bachelor party, there’s a different standard than if you’re giving a quarterly update to district managers. Make sure you know and respect the boundaries. If you have any doubt at all about how appropriate or sensitive something is to say, do not say it. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Speaking too quickly or too slowly

If you’ve practiced an important speech at home a dozen times, or you’re very nervous, you may try to rush through it. This puts you in conflict with the audience. You’re trying to “get it over with,” while they’re trying to absorb what you’re saying. Don’t correct yourself by speaking too slowly, though. This is worse than speaking too quickly because it takes longer to end.

Try to speak at the rate of normal conversation, with the assumption that your audience understands what you’re saying and cares about it. Imagine you’re talking to one person instead of a group. Study the Justin Trudeau speech above.

Having a bad opening

No matter what kind of speech you’re giving, the opening is vital, as it sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the presentation. You want to lead with a compelling statement that defines what you’re talking about and sets expectations for the rest of your speech. It can be funny, but only if it’s funny in service of the premise. It can be serious, too, but it still needs to be interesting. Oh, and avoid the cliche of starting your speech with something like “Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘success’ as…”

Not being prepared

Some people can bullshit through a speech or presentation with little to no preparation, but unless you already know for sure that you have this ability, don’t risk it. Not knowing what you’re talking about, not being organised, or not being ready will kill your speech, and there’s no worse feeling than standing in front of people with nothing to say. How much and what kind of preparation you need depends on the occasion, but even the most informal speech will be better if you have a rough outline in mind.

Not playing to your audience

The only thing worse than a droney-voiced snail reciting jokes at a comedy club is an overly excited office manager hilariously announcing layoffs, so try to tailor the energy and content of your speech to the occasion and the audience. If you’re leading a mandatory “let’s get this over with” dissemination of facts, you can make it as painless as possible with a little lightheartedness, but don’t pull a Michael Scott and try to “inspire.” There’s a time and place for everything — ask yourself what speech goes with your time and place.

Reading the entire slide

I am speaking for every person who has ever watched a speech or presentation of any kind in all of human history when I say: do not read the whole slide. Please. We all hate it. It’s torture. Power Point or other visual aids should be used to illustrating what you are saying and present broad “chapter titles” that you’re going to explain further, but when you read an entire slide, everyone in the room is thinking, “Why didn’t you just send an email?”

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