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Seven errors people make most frequently when speaking publicly

Posted on Tue, May 19, 2009

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By Suzanne Bates

Everyone makes mistakes, especially in public speaking. The key is to identify a lesson-learned and try to correct it your next time out. If these seven common mistakes help you better avoid such gaffes in your upcoming presentations, all the better.

Jane, an HR executive I once worked with, had just won a big promotion. She was not someone who typically sought the limelight. Nor was she one to ask others for help. So Jane spent the first few weeks in her new role working alone, avoiding both doing presentations and even speaking up in meetings (unless directly spoken to).

When asked to make a PowerPoint presentation in her fourth week, she panicked. But a crisis is not a good time to start learning how to make an effective presentation. Jane quickly put together 20 slides, prepared some points and practiced answering all potential questions. After pulling an all-nighter prior to her presentation, Jane 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 the next time you take to the podium, consider these most common mistakes budding public speakers often make.

MISTAKE 1: "Winging" important speeches

Tad, a vice-president of personnel, regarded as the number one candidate in the CEO succession plan, was asked to deliver a presentation to the company's leadership group. Buried under several other projects, Tad figured he could probably get away with winging it on stage. Bad idea. What made matters worse was the same day Tad was to speak, a colleague named Joe gave a great presentation. Joe had done his homework, organizing his thinking and practicing his talk the night before. In contrast to Tad, Joe appeared cool, well organized, polished and he answered all questions with ease and clarity. By comparison, Tad's satisfactory performance fell flat.

Even if you feel generally comfortable in front of an audience, winging your presentation will usually prove to be a huge mistake. You must organize your talk and deliver your points crisply. Otherwise, the effect could be less than your audience expects, doing your image as a bright and competent professional great harm.

MISTAKE 2: 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 new ones and, in general, find ways to improve on what you have to say. But don't let your speechwriter do it all.

In the end, you, the speaker, must be totally comfortable and familiar with what you're going to say. Your speechwriter won't be up 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 3: Not answering the question

Be ready and willing to answer the toughest questions head on. And answer honestly. 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 can handle the truth and will appreciate it.

MISTAKE 4: 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, find out. Interview a handful of people who will be in your audience. Find out what they need to learn from you. Remember your audience during the presentation, and chances are they'll remember you afterwards.

MISTAKE 5: Blowing the easy questions

In their frenzy to study up on the difficult questions, many speakers end up unprepared for the easy, obvious, 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 ones.

MISTAKE 6: Not knowing when to fold 'em

Ever been to a wedding and had to sit through a toast or a speech that just kept going and going and going? That's because time flies when you are in the spotlight and new to public speaking. 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 as you practice it. Do not time it by sitting and reading it because this invariably takes less time. Speak it out loud. And when you get into the room, 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 7: Not having fun

Humor helps connect you to your audience. That said, 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. Give humor a try and it'll warm up your audience, calling them to attention for all the serious stuff to follow.

Everyone makes mistakes, especially in public speaking. The key is to identify a lesson-learned and try to correct it your next time out. If these seven common mistakes help you better avoid such gaffes in your upcoming presentations, 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.

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