8 Common Public Speaking Mistakes

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Denise had just won a big promotion. She was not someone who typically sought the limelight or ask for help. So Denise spent the first weeks working alone, avoiding presentations and even speaking up in meetings (unless directly spoken to). When asked to make a PowerPoint presentation, she panicked.

A crisis is not a good time to learn how to make an effective presentation. Denise quickly put together 20 slides, prepared some points, and practiced answering potential questions. After pulling an all-nighter Denise delivered an adequate speech while learning an invaluable lesson: You don’t have to be a perfect speaker to be successful, but you must be prepared.

This is the true distinction between success and failure in public speaking. To ensure that lack of preparation won’t be your downfall when you take to the podium, consider these most common mistakes budding public speakers often make.

Mistake #1: Underestimating the importance of public speaking to your career

A retail executive with a strong financial background and track record was promoted to CFO. In the first weeks, she uncovered problems in her operation and quietly went to work, never seeking the limelight nor help. While that approach may have worked in the past, it was about to backfire. Senior leaders expected to help each other by sharing information. Emails leaked out about her problematic situation and the senior team confronted her. The CEO scheduled a meeting and she was asked to make a PowerPoint presentation.

The new executive not only had to put together her slides and prepare her talk; she knew she had to get ready to face some tough questions. Fortunately she pulled a lot of people in to help. She practiced, prepared and delivered a decent presentation.

If you want to lead the company, you should never underestimate the importance of public speaking. You will be judged by the way you handle the hot seat. Judgment Day isn’t six months before they decide to make you CEO. Judgment days are all along the way. You have to be ready long before you have to be ready.

Mistake 2: “Winging” important speeches

Eric, a vice-president regarded as the candidate to succeed the CEO, was asked to deliver a presentation to the company’s leadership group. Buried under several other projects, Eric figured he could probably wing it. Bad idea!

What made matters worse was that the same day Eric was to speak, a colleague named Fred gave a great presentation. Fred had done his homework, organizing his thinking, and practicing the night before. In contrast to Eric, Fred appeared cool, well organized, polished and he answered questions with ease.

Even if you feel generally comfortable in front of an audience, winging your presentation will usually prove to be a huge mistake. Your talk must be organized and your points delivered crisply. Otherwise, the effect could be less than your audience expects, harming your competent, professional image.

Mistake 3: Leaving it all to a speechwriter

If you can hire a good speechwriter, you should. Every speaker can use someone to sketch out ideas, brainstorm and find ways to improve on what you have to say. But don’t let your speechwriter do it all.

In the end, you must be comfortable and familiar with what you’re going to say. Your speechwriter won’t be behind that podium when the big day comes… you will. Let your speechwriter give you some help but the presentation will be yours, so make it yours.

Mistake 4: Not answering the question

Be ready and willing to honestly answer the toughest questions head on. If you don’t know the answer, say so: “I’m sorry but I just do not know” or “I’ll have to look into that.” It may not be the ideal spot to be in, but getting caught later in a lie is much worse for your reputation. Your audience will appreciate the truth.

Mistake 5: Forgetting your audience

Those who attend your presentation are often leaving piles of work on their desks to come and hear you talk. You cannot give them that time back, you can only thank them for giving it to you and then do your best to make it worth their while.

Whether speaking to executive officers, your staff, or even job candidates, think first about who they are and what they want to know, even before you write down the opening words of your speech. If you’re not sure, interview a handful of people who will be in your audience. Find out what they need to learn. Remember your audience, and chances are they’ll remember you.

Mistake 6: Blowing the easy questions

In their frenzy to study up on the difficult questions, many speakers end up unprepared for the slam-dunk ones. Yet if they fumble these, they’ll look as unprepared as ever. Rather than seeming knowledgeable, they’ll convey the reverse. “How can he not know THAT?!” So don’t forget the potential softball questions as well as the hard.

Mistake 7: Not knowing when to fold ‘em

Ever had to sit through a wedding toast that just kept going and going and going? That’s because time flies when you are in the spotlight and what seems like only a few moments to a novice speaker is actually many minutes.

To be sure you don’t make this mistake, time your speech by standing up as you mock-deliver it. Do not time it by sitting and reading it because this takes less time. Speak out loud.

And be ready to improvise by tuning into your crowd. Sometimes things are running behind schedule and an audience may be getting restless for a break, signaling you to cut your talk even shorter. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was less than two minutes long. Remember, few are ever criticized for giving a speech that was too brief.

Mistake 8: Not having fun

Humor helps connect you to your audience. You don’t have to be David Letterman. Just try to have a little fun. Tell a quick story that’s amusing, make a light-hearted remark about the commute in or the weather. Humor will warm up your audience.

Everyone makes mistakes in public speaking. The key is to identify a lesson learned and try to correct it your next time out. If these eight common mistakes help you better avoid such gaffes, all the better. Keep speaking, keep practicing, keep preparing and before long, mistakes like these will be a thing of the past.

Suzanne Bates is an award-winning television news anchor, reporter and president of Bates Communication, a presentation skills consulting firm that helps business leaders and executives project an authentic voice of leadership, and get a competitive edge in business. This article is adapted from Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results (McGraw-Hill) which has been translated into Russian and Chinese. Suza

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