I spend a great deal of time at speaking events and conferences here in Indianapolis and beyond, which means that I have the chance to watch other presenters on stage. That also means I see the same mistakes over and over again.
Most of these problems are more obvious to the audience than they are to the speaker, which is why they happen repeatedly. But that also means the people who are coming to see you present are those who are catching you making the common errors. What shouldn’t you do?
1. Standing in Front of the Projector
This one drives me bananas. If you are using slides in your speech, make sure that you aren’t blocking the light from the projector. Doing so casts a literal and metaphorical shadow on your presentation!
There are two good ways to solve this problem. If you can pick a room with rear projection, at worst you’ll be in front of the screen but not creating a speaker-sized gray blob in the image. But best of all is to identify a spot where it’s safe to stand—and never move.
Usually, you want to walk around a bit during a speech to make points and engage the audience. But if you are using slides, that’s what people are looking at any way. Plant your feet until you’re done with what’s on screen.
2. Lean Words and Stock Phrases
Many years ago I sat through a presentation given to a group of employees about financial planning. The speaker used the phrase “at the end of the day” approximately seventeen million times.
Of course, I’m exaggerating. But if you repeat the same words, that’s what people will remember. (And the worst offenders? “Like”, “Um”, “You know”, “So”, and “Anyway.”)
3. Failure to Leverage Silence and Pacing
Sometimes you want to speak quickly. Sometimes you want to speak slowly. Sometimes you want to stop talking entirely to make your point.
Furthermore, every speaker knows that the stage is a time machine. What feels like hours up there is only minutes to the audience. Counting to five in your mind while looking out over the crowd is unbelievably difficult. But it makes you seem wise.
Well-timed silence is the most commanding expression. –Mark Helprin
4. Lack of Eye Contact
Whether there are five people in your audience or five hundred, you need to make eye contact with individual people in order for them to feel connected to you as a speaker. Otherwise, you’re talking to the wall, the floor, or the ceiling—none of whom have any interest in what you have to say.
One secret to doing this if you’re nervous about looking at someone else directly is to check in with their forehead. A quick glance at the space above their eyes but below their scalp works well. This seems like eye contact, but is far less nerve-wracking.
5. The Boring Open
95% of the speeches that I’ve ever attended begin exactly the same way. “Hello! Thank you so much for having me today! It’s such an honor to be here. I want to thank the committee/the organizers/the person who introduced me/blah blah blah.” It’s the equivalent of “I’d like to thank the Academy” for the Oscars, except that nobody is going to play the music and get you off stage in thirty seconds.
If you start with a boring open, you encourage people to start by not listening. It’s sort of like the title credits for your favorite television show. If they put up some footage, play a theme song, and display the names of the actors first, that’s a sign you have time to grab a drink from the kitchen.
However, if they go right into the story with some dramatic point, comedic moment, or a dead body, you’re hooked. Television producers call this the “cold open” and it’s exactly the way you should start your speech. Tell a joke, quote a famous person, or launch into a story. You should have already been introduced, and if no one else did it, you can do it later.
That’s it. Don’t make these mistakes, and you’ll be a great speaker. Or at least, you won’t be making the common errors we see all the time.