4 Public Speaking Mistakes You Must Avoid at All Costs

What makes a good speech delivery? What are some things you should avoid when delivering a speech?

When it comes to public speaking, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. According to Chris Anderson, the head of TED, there are four public speaking mistakes you should avoid at all costs: the advertisement, the never-ending ramble, the pat on the back, and the performance.

Let’s take a look at what they entail and what to do instead.

The Advertisement

What it is: One of the most common public speaking mistakes is where the speaker isn’t aiming to give something to the audience (for example, an insight, invention, or new knowledge). Rather, Anderson says the speaker is seeking to take (trying to sell a product, his own services, or convince the audience to take an action that benefits him).

Why it doesn’t work: Anderson warns that when an audience senses that they’re the targets of an advertisement, they instantly become wary. The speaker is unlikely to yield sales this way, and he also risks damaging his reputation.

The remedy: Anderson says even if your goal is to sell something, you should always seek to give. Instead of plugging yourself, focus on communicating your ideas. For example, if you’re a life coach and you’re hoping to secure new clients, don’t center your speech around your services or achievements. Instead, show the audience an important way they can improve their lives and let them come to you for more. 

(Shortform note: To avoid sounding like a salesperson when you really are trying to sell something, one strategy is to focus on problems and solutions rather than products. Think of three distinct problems that your company solved for clients recently. How can you tell these as entertaining stories? Is there a connecting theme to tie them all together? You now have a sales pitch that doesn’t feel like a sales pitch.)

The Never-Ending Ramble

What it is: In this type of speech, the speaker doesn’t have a plan and tries to wing it. Anderson says this method is fairly common among confident speakers, but often results in a rambling, incoherent speech. At worst, the speech flops. At best, it isn’t as effective as it could be.

Why it doesn’t work: Anderson says that showing up to a speaking engagement unprepared is insulting to the audience. If the audience knows you haven’t put any time or thought into what you’re presenting, you come across as arrogant, and they’re unlikely to take away anything of value.

The remedy: If you prefer to speak in the moment, Anderson says you don’t have to script your speech. However, you should know what your throughline is, all of the major points you want to cover, and how to execute the speech within a given time limit. (Shortform note: Part 5 of this guide discusses how to successfully deliver an unscripted speech.)

The Importance of Flexibility in Public Speaking

While the vast majority of experts agree with Anderson that you should not ad-lib your speeches, some say that flexibility is the real key to a great speech.

As a speaker, your platform, audience, and time allotment may change at the last minute. If you hold tightly to your rehearsed speech, you won’t be able to adapt to the changes, and this can be disastrous. Instead, develop flexibility by practicing the following:

Know what is crucial to your speech and what can be cut if necessary.

– Read the room and adjust your jokes if you don’t think they will be understood or well-received.

– Raise your energy if the audience seems sleepy or disinterested. Lower your energy if they seem agitated.

Look for signs of understanding, and provide more explanation if people appear confused.
This strategy supports Anderson’s method. The more preparation you do, the more flexibility you have. If you know your speech inside and out, making a change won’t fluster you—as long as you have an open mind. 

The Pat on the Back

What it is: In this speech style, Anderson says the speaker spends her time talking about her company, her colleagues, and their accomplishments. This can take the form of bragging, or as a long list of “thank yous.” In both cases, it bores the audience.

Why it doesn’t work: The audience gains nothing from listening to the details of your organization or the names of those who contributed. Anderson sympathizes with the desire to recognize your hard-working team, but speeches should be in service of the audience.

The remedy: Anderson advises focusing on the work you’re doing, not on who is doing the work. If you must thank someone in your speech, do it succinctly and get back to the big idea.

(Shortform note: One way to acknowledge your team without drawing attention away from your ideas is to show photos of them working on the project as slides in the background of your presentation. In Part 5 of this guide, we discuss the book’s recommendations for visual aids, such as using photos that show action, rather than portraits.)

The Performance

What it is: In this style, the speaker goes on stage with the goal of a standing ovation or moment in the spotlight. Anderson says this speaker will milk the audience for applause by pausing dramatically or gesturing with outstretched arms.

Why it doesn’t work: Anderson says if you’re desperate to be inspirational, the audience can sense it and will pull back. You can’t be inspirational just because you want to be; it’s a badge of honor earned through intense dedication and legitimate passion.

The remedy: Anderson says to opt for substance over style. Wait until you have something worthwhile to say before stepping on the stage—even if you’re a born speaker.

(Shortform note: Joel Schwartzberg, a professional presentation coach, says that writing a script in itself sets you up for this performance scenario. Rather than focusing on the ideas we want to communicate, when we write a speech we often focus instead on the words we’re choosing, and whether they’re impressive or eloquent enough. He believes that by writing notes instead of a script, the words you say will be more appropriate and less pretentious.)

4 Public Speaking Mistakes You Must Avoid at All Costs

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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