Darlene Price on 5 Public Speaking Pitfalls to Avoid

The following is a guest post by Darlene Price, veteran executive speech coach and author of Well Said!: Presentations and Conversations That Get Results.

How would you reply if asked, “As an audience member, what’s your biggest pet peeve about presenters?” If you’re a business professional who attends multiple meetings and presentations every month, I’ll bet you can think of several!

During my career as a speech coach, I’ve polled more than10,000 audience members across 50 industries and asked them that very question.  As presenters, we’ll hear a big sigh of relief from audiences everywhere if we avoid these five presentation mistakes: 

1. Not knowing your audience. Listeners will forgive a multitude of other errors if they believe you care about them and have taken the time to get to know them. What are their roles, responsibilities, fears, challenges and goals? I’ve often heard it said that people want to know how much you care before they care how much you know. An audience will appreciate and respect you if you focus on them, help them solve a critical issue, and show them how to become more successful. On the other hand, they can be critical and downright unforgiving when the presenter wastes their time and fails to deliver value.

2. Speaking in a monotone voice. Audiences despise boredom. They really want to feel a connection with the presenter and experience his or her passion for the topic.  As a presenter, your voice is a critical element in conveying this enthusiasm. First, don’t read from a script or recite text on a slide. There’s no faster way to flatten your vocal variety and lose an audience’s attention. Instead, look your listeners in the eye, speak from your heart, and glance occasionally at your notes or outline to stay on track.  Second, practice speaking in front of a mirror. Select a few key sentences from your presentation. Now, while looking at yourself in the mirror and saying the sentences, make your face and body language display the emotion you want your listeners to feel. Is it happy, excited, relieved, inquisitive? Third, record your voice and listen to the playback. Keep practicing until you sound more dynamic, expressive and conversational.

3. Winging it.  In other words, lack of preparation and rehearsal. Imagine buying a $300 orchestra-center seat to see The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. At 8pm the curtain rises as you eagerly await the performance. To your dismay, the performers walk on stage, miss their cues, flub their lines, and the orchestra is out of tune. As an audience member, you would likely be shocked and disappointed, not to mention requesting a refund!  Similarly, a business audience is highly disappointed when a presenter rambles, seems disorganized, uses lots uhs and ums, avoids eye contact, fails to show purpose and passion, apologizes, and does not show audience-focus. As one of my clients recently asserted, “If my sales team fails to rehearse before a major presentation, I tell them to stay home, because no impression is better than a bad impression.”

4. Displaying poorly designed slides. Please remember,YOU are your most important visual aid. The purpose of slides is to support the speaker, not replace him or her. The main culprit for this pitfall is cramming too much text on a single slide, i.e., the proverbial eye chart. When I survey audience members after a presentation, many repeatedly complain, “I couldn’t read the slides – the text was too small!” Not only are busy text-heavy slides illegible, they make the presenter appear like a novice – insecure, unconfident and over-reliant on cue cards. As a remedy, consider preparing two versions of a slide deck. First, the one you’ll display on the screen; a clean, well-designed easy-to-read version with large text and more photos.  The guideline here is the 6×6 Rule: No more than six lines of copy on the slide at six words per line, using a 28 point font or larger. Second, create the comprehensive handout version which you distribute after your presentation.

5. Giving too much information (TMI). Results-oriented time-conscious audience members, especially senior-level decision makers, are quickly annoyed when the presenter belabors the point and over-talks. To eliminate TMI, practice a technique called Pyramid Speaking. Whether you’re answering a question, making a point, or delivering a slide, in your mind picture an imaginary pyramid with the very top labeled “What I Must Say.” Begin here by stating a few sentences that summarize the key takeaway or the most important point.  Sometimes this brief paragraph is enough. Seriously consider whether you need to elaborate further. If so, cautiously move to the wider middle-level of the pyramid labeled “What I Need to Say.” This content briefly elaborates on who, what, when, where, why and how, as it relates to the audience. Rarely will you need to descend into the weeds of the bottom broadest level labeled, “What I’d Like To Say.” This technique helps you eliminate TMI and hold your audience’s attention.

Darlene Price is the president and founder of Well Said!, Inc. a training and consulting company specializing in executive speech coaching and high-impact presentation skills training. 

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