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The 7 deadly sins of public speaking

Over the past 18 years, I have delivered talks and trainings in over 20 countries and to more than 40 nationalities. In that time, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and some of them I made more than once in the early days. I’ve also had opportunities to see a great many speakers and presenters in action. It’s been my privilege to witness, the great, the good, the bad and the just plain awful.

Now that I spend some of my time training, coaching and mentoring speakers – both professional and aspiring – I have compiled my list of the Seven Deadly Sins. I made them all in the early days and I routinely see them being made, sometimes by so-called “top Speakers.” Here’s my list and please feel free to contact me on if you want to see the list extended to include some of your ideas.

1. Failure to plan

Seem obvious? Then why is it so common? I have watched Speakers walk onto the stage, full of self-confidence, and then fall on their face because it becomes glaringly obvious that they have not planned beyond knowing the title and the venue. Success requires meticulous planning and preparation, right down to what jokes to use.

2. Poor structure

A good presentation is like a good novel; it has structure, pace and flow. Too many speakers jam a stack of PowerPoint slides together and head for the podium. Part of your planning and preparation must be about getting the structure in place to ensure that flow. I spend a great deal of time helping Speakers ensure that their delivery captures the audience and takes them on a logical journey that accomplishes its goals.

3. Leave the audience stranded

It’s always sad to watch what could have been a great delivery sink without trace because the Speaker has not grabbed the attention and interest of the audience right at the beginning. Without a sense of “What’s in it for me (WIIFM)” you can lose their attention before you even get it. Motivating your audience to listen is not just an art; it’s a science! People have different values and motivators and you need to respect that and use them.

4. Reading isn’t speaking

A few years ago, I attended a major international congress and was excited to attend a talk being given by a leading authority on Executive Coaching. Imagine my disappointment when that worthy flashed up their first PowerPoint slide, turned their back on almost 200 people in the room and proceeded to read slide after slide. If all you’re going to do is read slides or flipcharts then you may as well walk into the room, hand out some printed material and leave!

5. Failure to engage

Just as I mentioned the failure to grab the audience in sin number three, so too is the failure to hold them. The object of the exercise is to deliver a message and possibly to get some resulting action. If you don’t hold their attention, keep them engaged and carry them with you, then your audience may as well not be there. Poor use of language compounds this sin.

6. Not using the stage

How many times must I sit in an audience and watch the top half of a Speaker who hides behind a lectern or be amazed at the shadow-puppet show provided by the Speaker who insists on standing right in the line of projection? If you have a stage to work on then work the stage, use it as a medium to engage with every area of the audience. I include poor physiology in here as well. Dummies make poor Speakers.

7. Forget to close

A large percentage of talks are given in order to get something done. That something may be a donation to a charity, a decision made, a commitment to take some physical action or to make a change. The sad and simple truth is that you will rarely achieve the goal if you don’t use some form of call to action. A young salesman once asked me if I could tell him how to guarantee getting an order. I responded, “I can help you achieve a lot more by telling you the sure way not to get an order and that’s to fail to ask for it.”

So, there we have some of the things that I see on a regular basis. Take a look then take another look, and ask yourself, “How many sins am I guilty of?”

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