Eight Most Frequent Mistakes CEOs Make in Front of an Audience

Denise had finally won the big job: She was now her firm’s new CEO. But as someone who had often focused on day-to-day operations and only now and then found herself in the spotlight, Denise spent the first weeks of her new position working alone, avoiding any major presentations.

Then one day, she could hold off the inevitable no longer: It was time for her to share her vision of the firm’s next five years, meaning a PowerPoint presentation before the entire executive staff. So she did what any normal person in such a scary situation would do: she panicked!

But a crisis is not the best of times to learn how to make an effective presentation. Quickly gathering 20 slides, preparing a few main points and practicing answers to some potential questions, she ended up delivering a just-OK speech while learning an invaluable lesson: You don’t have to be the most perfect speaker to be successful at public speaking but you must definitely be prepared.

To ensure that lack of preparation won’t be YOUR downfall when you take to the podium, consider these eight common public speaking mistakes:

Mistake #1: Underestimating the importance of public speaking to your career

A retail executive with a strong financial background and operational experience was hired as a retail chain’s new company president. In the first weeks, she uncovered problems in her operation and quietly went to work to fix them, never seeking the limelight nor help. While that approach may have worked in the past, this time it was doomed to backfire. Senior leaders in the firm had always helped each other by sharing information. Emails leaked out about her problematic situation and the senior team confronted her. The new president scheduled a meeting and was asked to make an explanatory presentation.

If you want to lead a company, never underestimate the necessity or importance of public speaking. You will be especially judged by the way you handle the hot seat. Judgment Day isn’t six months before they decide to make you CEO. Judgment Days will happen all along the way. Be ready for this long before you have to be ready.

Mistake 2: “Winging” important speeches

Eric, a vice-president regarded as the candidate to succeed the CEO, was asked to deliver a presentation to the company’s leadership group. Buried under several other projects, Eric figured he could probably wing it. Bad idea! Eric’s presentation was met with a polite, but cool, reception.

What made matters worse was that the same day Eric was to speak, a colleague named Fred gave a great presentation. Fred had done his homework, organizing his thinking, and practicing the night before. In contrast to Eric, Fred appeared cool, well organized, polished and he answered questions with ease. When the time came to choose the new CEO, guess who got the job?

Mistake 3: 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 and find ways to improve on what you have to say. But don’t let your speechwriter do it all.

In the end, you must be comfortable with what you’re going to say. Your speechwriter won’t be behind that podium when the big day comes. Let a speechwriter give you some help but make sure the presentation is yours.

Mistake 4: Not answering the question

Be ready and willing to honestly answer the toughest questions head on. And if you don’t know an answer, say so. Getting caught later in a lie will destroy your reputation. Plus, even when the news is bad, your audience will appreciate the truth.

Mistake 5: Forgetting your audience

Those who attend your presentation are often leaving piles of work on their desks to come and hear you talk. Since you cannot give them that time back, you can at least thank them for giving it to you and then do your best to make it worth their while to have come. 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, interview a handful of people who will be in your audience. Find out what they need to learn. Remember your audience, and chances are they’ll remember you.

Mistake 6: Blowing the easy questions

In their frenzy to study up on the difficult questions, many speakers end up unprepared for the slam-dunk ones. Yet if they fumble these, they’ll look as unprepared as ever. “How can he not know THAT?!” people will wonder. So don’t forget to think through the softball questions as well as the hard.

Mistake 7:  Not knowing when to fold ’em

Ever had to sit through a wedding toast that just kept going and going and going? That’s because time flies when you are in the spotlight and what seems like only a few moments to a novice speaker is actually many minutes. To be sure you don’t make this deadly mistake, time your speech by standing up as you mock-deliver it. Do not time it by sitting and reading it because this takes less time. Speak it out loud. Remember, few are ever criticized for giving a speech that was too brief.

Mistake 8: Not having fun

Humor helps connect you to your audience. You don’t have to be David Letterman or Joan Rivers. Just try to have a little fun. Tell a quick story that’s amusing or make a light-hearted remark about the commute in or the weather. A touch of humor will warm up your audience.

Everyone makes mistakes in public speaking. The key is to identify a lesson learned and try to correct it your next time out. Recall these eight common mistakes, try to avoid them and keep speaking, keep practicing, and keep preparing. Before long, mistakes like these, for you, will be a thing of the past.