There is a lot of advice about how to be a better speaker sitting on bookshelves, floating around the web and wafting about the offices of presentation coaches and consultants. Some of it’s good advice, some of it’s great and some of it is terrible.
So, today, I give you five of the worst pieces of advice about speaking well.
- Don’t over prepare. You’ll sound too rehearsed. This is bad advice because for 99.9% of the population it is 100% not true. Unless you are one of those rare savants who can get up and speak brilliantly off the cuff, you have to prepare. A lot of people confuse the comfort of ignorance with effectiveness: they would rather get up and wing it than go in with a plan and measure their presentation performance against that plan.
If you don’t prepare, your content will lack structure and you will likely be too comprehensive (read: bore your audience with details they don’t care about.) And when you don’t craft your content in advance, you won’t be able to share relevant stories or examples that will help your audience understand your ideas and your personality to shine through which will deepen your relationship with your audience.
When you create content on the fly, you can’t be present in the room. Instead, you will be consumed with trying to figure out what to say next and you’ll miss the opportunity to connect with your audience. You’ll likely miss their cues that are telling you they’re confused, bored, or engaged. On-the-fly energy also make you appear uncomfortable and lacking in confidence: fidgeting, shifting from foot to foot, racing your eye contact around the room and using a lot of qualifying phrases such as, “sort of”, “kind of” and “you know”.
When you are prepared and well-rehearsed you demonstrate a deeper command of your subject matter because you don’t have to rely on your notes, you can reference back to things previous speakers said and you can be spontaneous and add levity to your remarks.
Ultimately, your level of preparation is a reflection of the respect you have for your audience’s time and attention. Respect them enough to prepare so the time they invest in listening to you is worthwhile.
- Memorize your talk. The best speakers never use notes. This is terrible advice because when you memorize your talk, it will sound memorized. You lose the conversational tone of voice and the opportunity for your authentic personality to come through. When you speak from memorization, the cadence of your delivery gets thrown off because you’re so focused on getting lines out, you lose your natural rhythm. People hear it and, unless it’s their child competing in a second grade speech contest, they don’t like it.
And when you inevitably lose your place, you’ll likely stay lost and fumble around trying to remember what’s next, often repeating the preceding phrase hoping it will cue up the next sentence. All of this scrambling about is painful to watch and doesn’t help your credibility. If you’re the subject matter expert, you’re expected to be able to speak about content that you know well without having to memorize it.
It’s a false choice to think you have to memorize or read from a script. These are not your only two options, although both of them are bad ones. Instead, speak from bullets set out to prompt you as you proceed through your talk. If you need to script out what you’re going to say as an interim step to figure out what you’re going to say, that’s fine, but don’t stop the prep there. Extract a few key trigger words and phrases to prompt you as you move through your presentation.
You can bring your script with you as your Linus security blanket but do not hold it. Put your bullets on top and use those. Give yourself permission to say your points differently each time so the essence of the message is conveyed while you sound natural, engaging and conversational. It’s more important to get the essence of the message across than it is to be eloquent.
- Never use your hands. They’re distracting. This makes me throw up my hands in exasperation. Not using your hands when you speak robs you of the opportunity to add clarity, presence and dynamism to your delivery.
Imagine trying to give someone directions to a local pub, or describing an athlete’s appearance. or explaining a team’s progress before and after a new process was introduced.
When you fail to move your hands, you appear to be wooden and stiff and look like you’re trying to do an impression of Al Gore circa 1991. (He’s come a long way.) Ask your friends or colleagues what they did over the weekend and watch their hands and arms: They move! And they move naturally to enhance their storytelling. You want your hands and arms to do the same because gestures help tell a story, make a point, close a deal.
- Always move around the stage. You’ll appear more dynamic. It is great to draw inspiration from your favourite televangelist or infomercial presenter if you’ve nailed the core skills that provide far greater return than moving around the stage. Skills like developing well-structured and compelling content, making meaningful eye contact, using appropriate gestures and cutting out filler language.
In general, a lot of movement around the stage or at the front of the room has significant downside and limited upside. You diminish your presence as you drift aimlessly around the room and shift your weight like you need to hit the loo. In some cases, audiences start to focus more on your movement because they’re worried you might fall off the stage or bump into furniture and hurt yourself. Or them.
Instead, stand still. Especially for the first few minutes of your talk, when you want to minimize distractions and establish your presence. Then, and only then, should you periodically and purposefully move to point to something on the screen, delineate a timeline or engage a different part of auditorium or lecture hall.
Bottom line: focus on the core skills first. There are many, many other things to work on before you start worrying about moving around. It’s much better to animate your upper body and settle your eye contact than it is to move.
- Provide your slides beforehand. People like to take notes. Presentation is an inefficient medium to be comprehensive in. You can’t, and shouldn’t try, to tell your audience everything you know about a subject. Instead, embellish a few key points and provide them with more detail after your talk.
Why? Because you want them to be paying attention to you, not reading your deck. If you distribute a comprehensive handout at the beginning, you’ll feel pressured to speak to everything in that handout. You’ll also get stuck in the eloquence trap where you feel the need to say the things on the slide exactly as they are written on the slide. Your presentation slides should be simple because they’re designed to be presented. Your handout can be more comprehensive because it’s been designed to be read.
If you’re asked to provide handouts beforehand, say no. Let the organizer know that you want to focus on the key points during the presentation and that you’ll be happy to provide something more a summary or comprehensive leave-behind at the end. At the beginning of my talks, I let people know that they will get a summary handout afterwards so there is no need to take notes.
You may get the odd person bellyaching about not getting the handout at the beginning because they like to take notes on it. That’s great feedback because it means they really value what you’re saying, but it shouldn’t change your approach. It’s worth taking that feedback in the service of engaging the audience in the room, when they’re in the room with you, so you can engage them with your subject matter and deepen your relationship with them.