Seven Sins to Avoid with Your Next
Public Speaking Engagement

by Michael Bernhardt

The Seven Deadly Speaking Sins

  1. Making assumptions
  2. Presenting the wrong image
  3. Lacking enthusiasm
  4. Failing to prepare
  5. Using poor visual aids
  6. Giving a sales pitch
  7. Relying on technical jargon

The words of great speech endure not only because of the strength and relevancy of their prose, but because of the charisma and thoughtfulness of their presenters.

  • Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address.

  • Mother Jones' inspirational speech to militant West Virginia coal miners in 1905.

  • Clarence Darrow's 1926 argument during the Scopes "Monkey Trials."

  • George S. Patton's 1944 pep talk to troops during the Normandy invasion.

  • John F. Kennedy's1961 Inaugural address.

Delivering a memorable speech, even for a dynamic speaker, requires avoiding the pitfalls that can muddle your message, disappoint listeners or fail to achieve your objectives. The most successful speeches are a scintillating blend of content, visuals, presentation, and most importantly, rapport with the audience. Before you make your next public presentation, consider the following common mistakes we refer to as the Seven Deadly Speaking Sins.

1) Making Assumptions

While assuming your audience grasps the significance of what you're saying is an innocent mistake, it's one of the most deadly. Often speakers launch into an oration about their topic thinking listeners are not only comprehending what they're saying, but share the same gusto for the subject. If you don't establish from the get-go why a topic is germane to the listener or their industry, what you say for the remainder of your speech will have little impact and certainly do little to hold anyone's interest.

For this reason, you may want to start with a question that not only engages the audience, but gives you an idea of people's interest and experience level. Ask attendees to raise their hand in response to the question. If only a handful of people participate, you can quickly backpedal and provide an overview of your topic along with a summary of its importance to the listeners before launching into your planned presentation.

Even if you never reach what you feel is the most significant part of your speech, at least, you provided your listeners with information that matched their experience level. Remember, the key objective of giving a speech is to relate to your audience by educating, providing a perspective on an issue or to a degree, simply entertaining.

2) Presenting the Wrong Image

Every time you make a speech consider that a roomful of people have made a decision to willingly listen to you. For the most part, from the time you walk up to the podium until you step down, your audience is watching, making judgments about your appearance, comprehending what you're saying, and weighing your credibility.

If you amble up to the front of the room, shuffle your overheads, adjust your clothing, and brush the hair out of your eyes, you've probably not only lost some credibility, but conveyed to your audience that you either don't want to make the speech or don't care enough to properly prepare. While you can regain some ground as you make your speech, you've already planted in listeners' minds a negative perception based on your initial appearance and attitude.

Conversely, your choice of clothes and mannerism can overpower your audience. If you're speaking before a group of programmers dressed in jeans and tee shirts, you won't want to appear in a three-piece Armani suit with spit-polished shoes then proceed to speak quickly, looking above the audience and ignoring listeners indicating they can't hear what you're saying. But at the same time, your clothes should establish your credibility.

3) Lacking Enthusiasm

Almost as important as what you say, is how it's said. If you speak in a monotone, too quickly or too slowly, you can't expect listeners to pay attention, let alone remain interested in your subject. The foundation of good communication - whether on the telephone, face-to-face or in public - is to connect with the listener. A parent speaking to a small child understands the need to speak slower and simplify their language. The tone of voice used to talk to your boss is probably different than that used with your spouse.

The same holds true when making a speech. Determine the appropriate tone, language and enthusiasm to persuasively and engagingly convey your message. Don't be afraid to interject humor or a witty observation to break up the pace of a serious talk. After making an important point, pause or repeat it to reinforce its significance. And by all means, show enthusiasm for your subject. Enthusiasm is contagious.

4) Failing to Prepare

It's easy to become complacent about public speaking. After all, if you continue to draw sizable crowds for your presentations that politely applaud afterwards, it's safe to assume that you're doing a great job. Wrong. People attend speeches for various reasons. If you're an industry luminary, they really want to hear what you have to say. If you're an unknown, but your subject matter seems compelling, they may want to attend because of the topic. The real challenge is getting people to come back to hear you again. That's the mark of a good speaker and that only comes from good preparation.

Even the best speakers - including politicians, celebrities, executives, and inspiration speakers - continually review, revise and refine their presentations. As situations change, they update materials, modify visuals and seek input from both their audiences and colleagues on how to improve their speeches.

5) Using Poor Visual Aids

There's a lot of controversy surrounding the use of visual aids. Some seasoned speakers advise against them entirely, reasoning they tend to become crutches for less experienced speakers. Others laud the power of using visual aids to stress an important point. After all, showing a graph where the earnings line is off the page is much more convincing than explaining that sales are "way up." The axiom, "a picture is worth a thousand words" holds true whether discussing a business model, presenting a case study or elaborating on a revolutionary technology.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for using visual aids aside from understanding that they're meant to complement not replace speaking. The presenter who flashes overhead after overhead onto a screen then reads the bullet points might as well sit down.

When choosing visuals, consider the size and type of the room where you'll be speaking. If you're delivering a keynote address to hundreds of attendees, you'll want to use large images that illustrate your key remarks rather than overheads with lines of copy or bullet points. Showing short videos, projecting Web sites or applications and even playing sound bites is permissible as long as you have a good sound and projection system that allows everyone in the audience to hear and see them. Nothing is more frustrating than showing a film clip that can only be seen and heard by the people in the first couple of rows.

If you choose to use overheads, make them simple. Very simple. Your audience is there to hear you speak not read dozens of overheads. If at all possible, use as few words as possible, instead relying on charts, graphics, images, and other visuals to animate and keep your presentation lively.

Over 2,000 years ago, the ancient Greeks and Romans concluded that all public speech could be broken down into six separate parts:

  1. Exordium (introduction)
  2. Narratio (proposition)
  3. Partilio (outline of what's to follow)
  4. Confirmatio (proof)
  5. Refutatio (refutation)
  6. Peroratio (conclusion)

Each part used a different rhetorical device. During a speech's exodium, for example, speakers would establish ethos, or credibility, with the audience by possibly sharing that they have the same concerns and values as their listeners.

During the narratio, speakers briefly stated their cases or why they were speaking.

Speakers would then organize or partilio their thoughts preparing listeners for what to expect next.

The confirmatio usually made up the bulk of the speech and would appeal to logos or logic possibly by bringing in outside sources and references to support their case.

During the refutatio, speakers attacked the validity of their opponents' arguments.

The peroratio summarized the speaker's position, built emotion and ended with a call-to-action by appealing pathos or emotion.

6) Giving a Sales Pitch

Trade show and event coordinators face a unique challenge when selecting speakers. They recognize that most corporate speakers are eager to promote their companies or products along with attracting new customers. On the other hand, the organizers are eager to sign up speakers who can talk about the latest technologies and products. To remedy this dilemma, coordinators are careful to select presenters who refrain from giving sales pitches, and instead, concentrate on educating and enlightening their audience.

More importantly, should you give a sales pitch as opposed to sticking to a more general industry-related topic, you can count on show coordinators never inviting you back to speak.

Spinning the story of your company and products into a compelling presentation isn't as difficult as it seems. First, consider the challenges faced by your audience. Does your company or products solve these problems? If so, start by discussing the challenge then transition into the solutions that are available to amend them. Be sure to contrast the various solutions available talking in general terms rather than naming specific companies and their products. Weaving customer success stories into your speech is an effective way of relating to your audience and opening them up to the idea of trying new technologies.

Another approach is to present future concerns stressing the solutions that are evolving. Once again, try to appeal to your audience's challenges pointing out cost-savings, improved efficiencies, marketing opportunities or other significant benefits.

7) Relying on Technical Jargon

Unless you know the technical level of your audience, don't assume they understand what you're saying when you use technical jargon or acronyms. The verbiage you commonly use around the office may sound like a foreign language in a room full of people from different companies, industries and countries.

Conceivably, every time you use an unfamiliar term, you cause a listener (or two) to briefly pause as they contemplate what you've said. When they resume listening, they may have missed an important point or stop listening altogether should you use another unfamiliar technical term.

Because most people are better readers than listeners, it's best to not only speak slowly and clearly, but to avoid any jargon or slang that might confuse the listener. To ensure that your speech is easy to comprehend, be sure to practice it at least once before a person who represents your target audience. It's easier to make changes to a speech than to backpedal during a presentation when you start to see listeners squirming in their seats or rolling their eyes in frustration.

Mike Bernhardt is President and CEO of The Bernhardt Agency, Inc. (TBA), a strategic marketing and communications agency in Portland, Oregon. Founded in 1994, TBA is the largest full-service speaker placement agency for the high tech industry offering speaker placement services, speaker training workshops and confidential executive coaching. Visit,, or or e-mail for additional information.

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Copyright 2002 by Mike Bernhardt. All rights reserved.

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