How to Avoid the 5 Biggest Pitfalls of Speeches

The day has come for you to stand up in front of hundreds of people and explain the company’s new direction. You are as ready as you’ll ever be. You’ve tested the speech on friends and family. Now it’s rug cuttin’ time.

You position yourself behind the podium, spread out your pages and begin talking. You are pumped, because you know the audience will understand the importance of this topic, and you’ve even made the speech funny so it’s less boring. You’ve gathered up some facts and whittled them down to the few that seem to make the most sense. You’ve practiced for hours with an extensive outline. You’ve sent out a release to invite every possible member of the press to make sure someone will come.

As you deliver the speech, you realize something’s not right. The audience is restless, and seems even hostile at times. They stare back blankly when you share your carefully chosen statistics. The only members of the press present are college newspaper reporters, which makes you look second rate. You feel chained to your outline, and you realize you sound like a machine when you read from it. Worse, after the speech, you find out someone swiped your outline while you were talking to a member of the audience, and an off-colored comment you wrote in the margin appears in the city newspaper’s editorial page. What went wrong? You made every one of the five most devastating speech mistakes.

This article will help you avoid mistakes next time you speak.

Mistake #1
What’s important to you might not be important to your audience.

As a business executive, you believe you have the ability to put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and that is true to some extent. However, more than likely you only think you know the depth of their interest and understanding—and you really don’t. Depending on the nature of your speech, not understanding your audience, then demonstrating your lack of understanding of the audience, however subtly, can make you look insensitive, confrontational or just plain stupid.

To avoid making this mistake, choose several people who fit the demographic make-up of your audience and run the speech by them a week ahead of time, so you have an opportunity to fine tune your approach. Don’t accept “Yeah, that looks fine” as a response from your test audience. Quiz them. Ask them how it made them feel. Ask them to recommend at least two things that would make it better. Ask them straight-out what negatives they see. Then promise them immunity, so they’ll be honest. Take their recommendation seriously, put some real thought into it, then redo the speech accordingly.

Mistake #2
Humor should not be used for the purpose of lightening up a speech.

In the old days, many speakers thought you should begin a speech with a joke to soften up the crowd and get them in a good mood. Didn’t matter what the joke was, as long as it got some really good belly laughs. That doesn’t fly today. Nobody has the time to mess around anymore, and if you try to manipulate the crowd’s mood in such an obvious way, it will make them quietly hostile. Half of your message will go in one ear and out the other.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use humor. It just means the humor you use should be closely linked with your topic. It’s best if the joke is about something that really happened to you and has a logical relationship to your message, so its authenticity will come through. It’s also best to use mild humor, not knee-slapping humor that takes the focus off of your message. Finally, it’s a good idea to combine a joke with carefully written confessions of your own opinion to make a solid point and keep the humor from seeming gratuitous.

Mistake #3
The facts you share might be meaningless to your audience.

Statistics can really drive a point home…if they are clear and tap into something the audience really cares about. Think of it from their perspective. If you share a statistic about buses with an audience full of bus riders, the facts had better have something to do with how long people have to wait at the bus stop on average, how safe they are or how many average years of experience the drivers have.  An audience of riders won’t care about how much fuel they use, where they are made or how long it takes to get one delivered. This is a simplified example, but you get the idea.

Another common mistake is to use too many stats. After one or two, the numbers begin to blur in the audience’s minds. Our best advice for statistics is to keep it down to one or two, no more than two or three times in a speech. Choose facts that focus tightly on the point you are making, and make sure they are something the audience will sit up and take notice of. If you can’t find facts that do those things, don’t use facts.

Mistake #4
If you practice with full notes, it will be impossible to sound authentic on the dias.

You should either read every word or read very few words.

It’s very difficult to read a speech and sound authentic. However, in some cases, it’s so important to get it right, that you should use the full text of a speech unapologetically. This includes gubernatorial state-of-the-state speeches, or speeches given to counteract and manage crises. Make sure you practice several times, so you know what’s coming up in the text. Practice looking up and making eye contact with different segments of the audience. Plan to deliver several carefully selected comments in the speech without reading every word to demonstrate that you believe what you are saying even though you are reading most of it.

If it’s not critical that every word be delivered perfectly, practice with an outline that includes incomplete sentences…better yet, practice with an outline that includes only well-organized phrases of three to five words. You need to be able to talk almost off the cuff. It’s okay to consult your notes, but you don’t want to be caught standing at the podium reading long sentences of information to find where you are and figure out what you should say next. It’s okay to use PowerPoint presentations to prompt your speech, but keep copy on the slides to an absolute minimum. If you have a lot of information to share, do it in a handout.

No matter what type of material you take to the podium with you, do not EVER write notes on it that you would not want to be published. Consider every mark on it fair game for the press. It helps members of the press to have the text of your speech in a printed format, and you can hand it out after your speech. Someone might accidentally grab the copy you had on the podium, so make sure it’s clean.

Mistake #5
The right members of the press only come to speeches if you have something highly compelling to say—and then they’ll often come only if personally asked.

The world is so full of information, and so many people work hard to impress the importance of their news on members of the press, you really can’t fool them into thinking your topic is important if it’s not. They only have time to cover events and topics inherently and truly compelling to their audience. If your topic is not truly compelling, don’t contact the press at all. Save your chits for a time when you do have something compelling. They will respect you for it, and you’ll be more likely to get the attention when the need is real. When you are giving a speech about something compelling, don’t just send a press invitation. Make sure the invitation outlines why the speech is important to those specific readers. Follow up the press invitation with a call to find out if it arrived to the right person, and ask if there is anything else they need to help them cover this story. Keep your conversation brief and stick to relevant topics in the call. Do not chitchat. Offer to send the complete text of the speech after you deliver it.

Don’t invite every member of the press. Learn who can give you the best coverage and invite only those people from those publications. If only one of them shows up, that one person and his or her publication should be distinguished enough that it will reflect well on you.

You’re not the only one who has made these mistakes

If you’ve made these mistakes, you’re in good company. Even the most experienced speakers have been there and learned the hard way. You can avoid some of these mistakes by hiring a professional speechwriter and/or p.r. consultant who can take the time to research well, craft words that subtly and deeply connect with your audience and do the legwork to build good relationships with the press.

Yes, there are other mistakes you can make in drafting and delivering a speech, but these are some of the five most common and most destructive mistakes. If you follow the guidelines here, you’ll be less likely to bomb and less likely to get bombed by the press.