There are three ideas beginning public speakers (and a few seasoned ones, too) have ingrained into their heads that will turn a speech into a train wreck with no survivors faster than you can say, “Thank you, I’m glad to be here” or some other lame, boring excuse for an opening sentence. The first two ideas have been around for decades; the third one is a product of our computerized society. But, no matter how old or new these three ideas are, they won’t get any better with time. They’ll be just as ineffective twenty years from now as they are today.
So, what are these horrible pieces of advice? And, I call them advice because not only do some people seem to think of them on their own, I am still finding websites where these ideas are mentioned and not in a negative way! I also run into each of these in my Fundamentals of Public Speaking course every time a new semester at the university starts. Every time! So, here they are:
AUDIENCE IN THEIR UNDERWEAR
That’s right. Just visualize your audience in their underwear and all of your fears and nervousness will go away. Oh, it may have been cute for an episode of the Brady Bunch when Jan had to deliver a speech but do you really want to base your success in public speaking on a 70s sitcom? In reality, it didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Honestly, think about visualizing your audience in their underwear. Talk about distracting! There’s a lot of people you hope to never see in their underwear and those you would like to see in their underwear – well, that’s going to be even more distracting!
There is a time for visualization. It’s before you get up to speak – but steer clear of the underwear idea or any variation of it. Instead, visualize yourself doing a great job and the audience responding favorably – smiling, laughing at all the right places, nodding in agreement, and, of course, applause at the end. This will go much further in lessening your stress than imagining half-naked people staring at you.
The next piece of advice is something I catch speakers doing all the time as they stand before an audience.
LOOK ABOVE YOUR AUDIENCE’S HEADS
This will certainly endear your audience to you and your message. The idea is that if you pick a point on the back wall right above your audience’s heads and just focus your attention on that spot, the audience will never notice that you aren’t looking at them and, since you aren’t looking at the audience, you won’t be nervous. This might be acceptable if you are speaking to the Society for the Blind, but, I guarantee you that every other audience will know you are looking above their heads and avoiding eye contact.
Where do you look? You make eye contact with one member of the audience at a time, holding your gaze long enough to finish one sentence or thought, then shift your eyes to connect with another audience member sitting in a different area of the audience. Again, long enough to make eye contact and hold that gaze as you give them a complete thought. You are speaking to one person at a time with the rest of the audience looking on. The principle, which I learned from World Champion Speaker Craig Valentine, is “Look to one, speak to all.” It connects you with the entire audience but it gives you a more relaxed, conversational style just as if you were sitting down at a table talking with someone while the others at the table listened.
This last piece of advice is rather new and based on a technology that has changed the way speakers give presentations forever.
JUST PUT YOUR SPEECH ON POWERPOINTS AND READ THE POWERPOINT SLIDES TO YOUR AUDIENCE
You’ve experienced it. I’ve experienced it. Everybody has experienced it. And we hate it. Yet, speakers still persist in doing it. Death by Powerpoint. Or, now, Prezi.
We’ve taken what was probably a good tool when it first came out and misused it to the point that it is now the butt of jokes and stories of presentations gone wrong. Look at how easy it is to make a Powerpoint presentation! You can have as many slides as you want and it doesn’t cost you anything. So, let’s add more slides than we could ever use. Better yet, let’s just put the text of our entire talk on the slides and use them like a teleprompter! If we put everything we want to say on a slide, then we won’t forget anything – we can just read each slide to the audience!
Oh, where did we go wrong?!?
Presentation slides fall into the category of “visual aids” – emphasis on the “aids” part. They are not the presentation. They are there to aid the presentation – to assist in clarity and understanding. But, too often, speakers put together their slide decks first and then come up with what they want to say about the slides.
Instead, design your speech first, then see if there is something that needs to be made clearer with a slide that has a visual. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words, which is about what some speakers try to put on every slide! If your speech doesn’t need a powerpoint slide, then don’t include one! It’s just that simple. Think pictures, not words! You, as the presenter, will provide the words. And, whatever you do, don’t insult your audience by putting up a slide with a ton of text and then proceed to read it to them like they’re in kindergarten.
By avoiding these three horrible pieces of advice, you’ll not repeat the mistakes so many new speakers fall prey to.
And, remember, You’ve got it made if you can Think, Speak, and Persuade!