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Debunking 7 Common Public Speaking Tips That Do More Harm Than Good

Before you start picturing everyone in their underwear, consider whether the old public speaking advice you’ve heard is really worth taking.

Debunking 7 Common Public Speaking Tips That Do More Harm Than Good
[Photo: Flickr user expressemploymentprofessionals]

Does it sometimes seem like everyone has advice to offer you about improving your public speaking skills? Before you listen to any of it, consider first that not all advice is sound.

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Here, in ascending order concerning the harm they cause, are seven platitudes you should ignore. In each case, you’d be better off paying attention to your knowledge on the subject, your audience’s needs, and your own intuition instead.

7. PowerPoint Prescriptions

You’ve probably heard this advice before: Use no more than 10 slides in a PowerPoint presentation. Don’t go longer than 20 minutes. No slide should have more than six bullet points. Use only six words per bullet point.

Dizzy yet?

Instead of these ironclad rules, here’s what you should remember: Every time you speak, you need to tell a story. PowerPoint is a tool that can help you tell that story–but only if you use it as a visual tool and not a literary one. Throw out all the “should do’s” and find visuals that give representation to your ideas. Use them. And leave prescriptions to your doctor and pharmacist.

6. Memorize Your Presentation So Nothing Can Go Wrong

Everything will go wrong if you follow this advice! Your audience is hoping for a speaker who can share something you all have an interest in. For any talk to be interesting, the speaker needs to be fully present in the moment–not trying to retrieve information that was memorized in the past.

Write down key words and phrases to remind yourself what comes next in the talk you’ve outlined. Memorization–which of course can fail–is a high wire act without a net.

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5. Look At One Person for Each Sentence

Here’s another artificial prescription for public speaking effectiveness. The one-person-for-one-sentence rule is simply too rigid and metronomic for a speech or presentation.

That’s because we write in sentences, but we speak in ideas. An idea may take three sentences to express; or a single sentence may encompass three ideas. Just remember to include your entire audience at one time or another in your eye contact. That’s the simple and natural solution to connecting with everyone.

4. Start Out with A Joke

I once conducted group training in presentation skills for 11 vice presidents of a leading manufacturer. As part of the workshop, each executive gave a 10-minute videotaped presentation, and then received instructor and peer feedback. One of the participants told a 3 ½-minute joke at the start of his talk which, believe me, had nothing to do with his topic.

What was wrong with this? First, taking up a third of your presentation time with a joke is not a good idea. Worse is the fact that the joke was unrelated to his subject. When I asked why he’d made this choice, he said he once took a public speaking class and was told to always start out with a joke.

But jokes are dangerous. If you want to get an audience on your side, use some gentle humor and always be sure it’s related to what you’re there to talk about. A joke with a failed punch line will make you look foolish, which of course is a terrible way to launch your presentation.

3. Don’t Greet Your Audience

Some public speaking trainers suggest that you dispense with any sort of greeting. “Good morning,” “It’s nice to be here with you today,” and similar pleasantries should be banned in favor of a power opening that hits the audience immediately.

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Banishing a greeting from your talk, however, is a mistake. Your greeting is the segment of your speech where you first connect with listeners. It’s the moment when you talk to people with nothing else–i.e., your topic–between you and them. It’s also when you express your personal pleasure at being there. Most important, it’s when you let the audience know you’re a trustworthy speaker because you have their interests at heart.

So say hello and indicate you’re pleased to be speaking . . . then give them that grabber that you know will seal the deal and open up their ears and their hearts.

2. Tell Them If You’re Nervous So They’ll Be On Your Side

Speakers sometimes think they can disarm an audience by announcing their nervousness before anyone notices it. But the even better news is they may not see it at all.

Most nervousness isn’t visible because it’s an internal state. When you tell people you’re nervous appearing in front of them, chances are they’ll look for signs of it from that point on. Why undermine your own credibility?

1. Imagine The Audience Naked Or In Their Underwear

This, of course, has been touted as a “cure” for speech anxiety since time immemorial. But was there ever such a ridiculous and counter-productive solution to public speaking fear?

Maybe you think differently from the way I do, but mentally undressing audience members isn’t going to do much to improve my focus and mindfulness. Instead, remind yourself that the people in this audience are the same ones you talk to effortlessly and without any self-consciousness in personal conversations. Speaking to them as a group is simply a wonderfully efficient way to get your message across to as many of them as possible.

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So the next time you’re chatting with a friend on the street and someone taps you on the shoulder to offer public speaking advice, refer to the list above. You’ll be doing the world of your listeners a genuine service.

Gary Genard, PhD, is an actor, communications professor, and speech coach, as well as author of Fearless Speaking: Beat Your Anxiety, Build Your Confidence, Change Your Life. Creator of The Genard Method of performance-based public speaking training, he has spent the past fifteen years helping people from all walks of life cope with speech anxiety and stage fright. Genard coaches executives and senior professionals in speaking for leadership, and has worked with Citigroup, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, the U.S. State Department and Congress, the United Nations, and many others. For more information visit www.genardmethod.com.