Five Common Pieces of Advice for Public Speakers That Are Totally Stupid

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In her latest book, Karen Hough addresses the importance of public speaking. However, Karen takes a firm stance against the standard tips doled out to speakers and in fact argues that following your heart and passions, not overly-generalized prescriptions, is what can make all the difference. Actually, most of the prescribed tips are rather silly and pointless, really.

Here are five common pieces of advice for speakers that are just ridiculous, and why:

1. Picture the audience in their underwear
This is supposed to put you at ease by imagining the audience in a compromising or "exposed" scenario. But do you really want to imagine Bob from Maintenance and Supplies in his tighty-whities? This technique takes way too much energy and can actually distract you from what you should be focusing on, which is speaking. It's also a matter of respect -- you are not there to belittle the audience purely for your own comfort, you are there to tell them something which will help them. These are people you want to help, so don't reduce them to caricatures in strange underwear, but see them as the professionals they are and do right by them (they'll notice and be grateful for it).

2. Practice in front of a mirror.
Yes, do this over and over again until you thoroughly impress yourself. Here's the catch: impressing yourself is not the problem -- impressing others is. All you learn from talking into a mirror is how best to talk into a mirror. And mirrors are lousy at giving feedback, too. In fact, the only thing you will get from practicing in front of a mirror is actual recognition that you sometimes have a pool of saliva form at the corner of your mouth or that you have a strange nervous tic -- the sort of things that a regular audience can't see but now you will drive yourself crazy worrying about. So now instead of conveying your emotion and passion through your facial expressions, you will hold your face in an unemotional and wooden way, like some over-botoxed debutante. Good job, mirror.

3. Your goal is to give a good/nice presentation.
Remember when one of your colleagues gave that absolutely dreary talk accompanied by that PowerPoint that was used on detainees at Guantanamo before it was deemed too cruel and inhuman? And do you remember what you told your colleague afterwards? Yep, you said "Nice presentation! Good job!" "Good" or "nice" is almost an insult (like when someone says "Nice hat" because that is never a compliment). Your goal is to make something happen and to provoke action on the part of the audience, not to have them casually remark that your presentation was nice and then promptly forget all about it. Being told your presentation was "good" or "nice" is pretty bad because it guarantees no one will remember or do anything. Heck, at least people remember you when you're really bad. Your goal is not to give a good presentation. Your goal is to make something happen because your presentation is not the goal, but what people do because of your presentation is.

4. Apologize when you screw up.
Apologizing for presentation-related mistakes -- either for ones you have made or ones you feel you are going to make -- only makes the audience dread your presentation more. When a presenter starts by saying how he or she hasn't had a chance to review certain things or that he or she isn't the best at something, the audience lets out a silent but collective groan. Congratulations, you've just informed these good folks that they are in for torture because you're a moron. Everyone makes mistakes and making a couple of them can even endear you to your audience. Why? Because they've been there, too, and they have made mistakes and when you do likewise, you are forming a bond with them. Everyone knows when you've made a mistake, so just carry on. Don't make it a point to stop and apologize because that's a bit like saying "Oh, look! Everybody play a game now where they can spot all my screw ups!" And that's what they will focus on and remember the best: your screw-ups. Don't apologize, just acknowledge it, make a joke if you can, and just move on.

5. Scan the back of the room to make it look like you're making eye contact without actually having to make eye contact.
Making eye contact with the audience members can scare some presenters. It can make you nervous when you lock eyes with someone and a weird thought enters your mind ("He looks like a serial killer!"), or it can be distracting when you look at someone who is digging their nose or slowly falling asleep. To counter this, speakers are often told to "scan the back of the room" so it looks like you're making eye contact with people in the rows behind the rows watching you. Here's the problem, everyone knows what you're doing and it is faker than that girl you knew in high school. Worse yet, now the audience knows that you are faking it so they've lost all respect for you. Meanwhile, your eyes are still blankly darting around like Al Pacino's character from Scent of a Woman.


Eileen McDargh said...

Your comments are so spot on. I speak before many and never once practiced in front of a mirror. Underwear is out. And eye contact, look carefully, deliberately into the eyes of people closest to you and--amazingly--people feel you are talking to them. Lastly-- forget about yourself. It's never about the speaker- it's always about the audience and what value you can bring.

AlanB said...

Any emphasis on making eye contact reflects a distinct Western culture bias.