THE BLOG

The Professional Speaking Manifesto: Six Things You Should Stop Saying Now

10/10/2013 05:46 EDT | Updated 12/10/2013 05:12 EST

todspeaking

Much of my income comes from giving keynote presentations on topics like viral marketing tactics, boosting consumer loyalty in a digital age, and the future of business. Because of this, I've spent thousands of hours in the backs of conference centres and hotel ballrooms listening to other speakers ahead of me.

Listening to others is a humbling experience. Going on after superstars like Mitch Joel and Chris Brogan can kind of feel like being the act that followed the Beatles.

But so many speakers commit common sins on the podium (remember, you stand on a podium; you stand behind a lectern) and I've resolved this year to avoid them. Here are things I vow to stop saying in my speeches.

"Studies have shown..."

There's nothing wrong with quoting studies. In fact, evidence-based research can help you make a compelling argument. Problem is, most of the time speakers just blurt "Studies have shown" without backing that statement up. In more than a few cases, I've watched speakers embarrassingly shirk when asked during the Q&A period for more details on the study they quoted. I'm sure that many of those "studies" quoted don't even exist -- it's just become unfortunate shorthand to make something sound more compelling than it is.

Worse, many of these studies simply don't hold up to the scientific method. Either they're industry-produced (and often biased as a result), have a small sample size, or are based on opt-in online responses, which produces a skewed data set.

This doesn't mean you need to spend five minutes detailing the methodology, but you absolutely should be prepared to back up your assertions if called out.

In the notes of any slide I have which quote a study, I put the details of the study and a link to my source. This way, if someone asks for more details, I've got them handy. Or, at the least, I can point to the original source of the assertions.

"Put your hand up if..."

It's well known that getting your audience actively engaged is one key to a successful presentation. Unfortunately, far too many speakers rely on the cheap approach of doing quick polls of the audience. You've seen these before: "Put your hand up if you used Facebook today." Or the most cheap of all: "Who here wants to make more money?" or "Put your hand up if you have ever felt like an unhappy customer."

It's silly. Everyone wants to make more money. Everyone's had a bad experience. This isn't audience participation.

There are a couple of additional traps in this kind of cheap way out:

  1. People in some cultures (geography or corporate) just don't like standing out -- for any reason. Canadians, for instance, tend to not want to put their hand up, whereas Americans don't mind.
  2. Often, these questions are posed in the negative: "Put your hand up if you're still not on Facebook." Nobody wants to be outed for not being technically savvy.

Sometimes, speakers will even invite cheering with something like "Make some noise!!!" Or even "Stand up!"

Stop it. You are not Justin Bieber.

"You following me?"

It's important that presenters get a "feel" for the room and adjust their material on the fly if they sense the audience isn't understanding the content. But the worst way to do this is to stop the flow of your speech and ask "Do you understand?" As above, nobody wants to admit to a room full of their peers that they're the only ones not understanding.

Instead, trust your gut. You'll be able to tell if people aren't understanding based on facial expressions and/or increased quiet chatter between attendees at their table.

If you sense some confusion, just cover the last bit of material again. If it's an important point, I'll just say "I'll say that again," and literally repeat the last sentence. Another approach is to ask "Would it help if I covered this in more detail?" and watch the mood of the room. People seem okay responding to this more general question than a more direct approach. Whatever you do, don't preface it with the common "For those of you who don't understand..."

"I need a volunteer."

Perhaps you've been at an event where the speaker stops and dramatically announces "Okay! Audience participation time! I need a volunteer!" If you're like me, you try to hide under the table. "Please," I think to myself, "Don't pick me. I have no idea what you're going to do, but it can't be good."

If you want to incorporate another person into your presentation, find someone before you start and ask them if they'll help. Then simply transition with "I've asked Jocelyn to help me with this next section."

That said, in exceptional cases and with the right audience (easy to laugh, perhaps a little drunk from a prior cocktail reception, fans of yours, etc.), sometimes I'll say "I need a volunteer. You don't have to come on stage." Then, when someone puts up their hand, I announce loudly "Okay! Come up on stage!!" It always gets a huge laugh, since the person coming up has been tricked. But deploy this cautiously. Make sure it's a friendly crowd who is already receptive to you and you pick someone who seems like they'll love the attention.

When in doubt, leave it out.

"Can you hear me okay?"

Seriously -- if you can't figure out if your voice is being amplified, then you should not be permitted to use a microphone. ((Side note: I do use this line occasionally, but only to set up an opening joke. I never do it "for real.")) This is in the same category as "I can't see you because these lights are too bright." Yes, they are. That's how lights work.

"So, uh, I guess that's it."

People will remember the last thing you say -- and if you hesitantly fade away at the end, they'll walk away with the impression that you're not very confident in your material or not well organized.

Use the last minute for two things:

  1. Sum up what you just said over the whole presentation. Break down four or five very specific points down into a slide and read them out. (This is the only time I recommend actually reading from a slide.) Write them as learning moments: What specifically has your audience learned by spending their valuable time with you, and how can they directly apply this knowledge in their work?
  2. Your last statement should be a killer point -- something inspiring. Leave them with the one thing they need to do. Use short punchy sentences. My closing line in my Taking Crazy Back mental health presentation is usually something like: "So stop trying to craft a movement. Instead, build a revolution. Nobody can do it but you. And you will save lives."

What other bad speaking habits have you seen?