The Elephant in the Room: Tackling Persistently Bad Public Speaking Skills

Ladies and gents, please. Listen up. This is important.


I want you to be taken seriously when you speak to people. Whether you’re presenting at a committee meeting, one on one with your boss, or as a key note speaker at a major conference, I need you to read and really take these points to heart.

Trust me. You’ll thank me for it.

Here’s the deal. I am about to present to a group of regional planning groups and non-profits from across the nation on clearly conveying their message.  As I prepare, I reflect on really great presentations that I’ve had the privilege of witnessing.

I of course also think of those that I’ve been forced to not only sit through, but endure. There’s a HUGE difference.  You know what I’m talking about.  Rather than suffer however, I make notes, lots of notes, on what NOT to do as a speaker. The result? This blog post.

At first, I thought this might be a woman-centric post. Women who present, or something like that.  When I thought about it for a bit, I realized that there are just as many men who make bad presentations as there are women. So, here we go. All of you who have been tasked with presenting information to others, this is for you.

Step One: Make it Count

I make a commitment to bring my best self and my best presence to each and every talk I do – even if it’s a committee meeting or a one-on-one informal pitch. You just never know when you’ll get those opportunities.  That someone, make that everyone that you’re speaking to is giving you time and hopefully, their attention.  Make it count.

  • Practice your speech or presentation, for goodness sake. Just putting it together isn’t enough. You must actually do a dry run – out loud, not in your head!
  • You don’t have to dress like you’re meeting the Queen, but I’m still a believer that jeans don’t cut it. Look like you care and your listeners will as well – no matter how cool you, or they, are.
  • Arrive in the zone and in the moment – don’t be thinking about everything else on your plate. Be present.

Step Two: Own It

My goal is to make sure my audience listens, finds me compelling, confident, and knowledgeable about my topic. Unfortunately, even though that may be the goal for others as well, I find that some speakers will in fact do everything they can to discredit themselves.

From tone, to posture, to choice of words, you can either leave the audience wondering how the heck you’ve made it this far in life, or, have them glued to your every word and figuring out how to budget for your services in the future.

  • Avoid low tones. Be up beat – get jazzed up about what you’re talking about. If you aren’t excited, who is?
  • If you are going to sit to do your presentation (with the exception of a panel discussion), you may as well remain in the audience. Stand Up.
  • Please stop saying these self-deprecating words and phrases:  sort of, kind of, I guess, you know? Speak with confidence. You don’t need to ask permission if they know what you’re trying to say, nor should you discount what you’re saying by adding in a ‘sort of’ or ‘kind of think’ phrase.
  • Avoid ending your sentences by carrying them up into the air – as if you’re asking if what you’re saying is ok. If you’ve done the work on the front end and only talking about what you know to be true or have experienced, there’s no need to check in with the audience to make sure it’s appropriate.

Step Three: Tell us a Story Three Different Ways

As the presenter of your topic, you know where you want to take us on this journey. It is entirely up to you to get us there. Use storytelling, text and key images to do it.

  • Guide the audience towards your points. Begin with your key points and end with them.  You’ll keep everyone, including yourself, on task.
  • Tell us a story; don’t read your slides.
  • If you are using power point (and believe me, we ALL do), don’t cram it full of text. Highlight the BIG ideas and leave the rest up to your story telling ability.
  • If you must put text – more than a few bullets – please note the most important items you want the audience to know and avoid saying, “I’m not going to read all of this for you” and then do it anyway.
  • Use images! There are a world of free images out there. My favorite site is Flickr, and thanks to Shelly Kramer, I now use Compfight to find the best images from the Creative Commons image library on Flickr. (read that post today!)

Most important of all, with anything really, ENJOY it. I know for many folks, that’s nearly impossible when it comes to public speaking. I happen to think it’s because they are not using some of these tips. I also understand it might not be their thing.

That’s ok. I believe anyone can be coached into making a good presentation – and that practice really does make perfect.

Let me know what you do to break bad public speaking habits, or any tips you’d like to add to this list.

Image via Flickr.

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