5 Ways to Avoid Looking Like an Idiot as a Public Speaker

I let the doctor talk me into a flu shot during my annual physical this week, and I’ve had a bit of a reaction to it.  I bled, my arm swelled up, and now I’ve got the mini-flu.  So, needing a laugh, I am thankful to friend and great speaker Micah Solomon, guru of customer service in the digital era, for sending me a link to the Onion TED-talk spoof.  It’s fun, you’ll get a laugh or two, and it’s not even 20 minutes long.

It got me thinking about the serious faux pas underlying this spoof – what to avoid (besides flu shots) when you’re speaking in public so that you don’t end up spoofing yourself.

1.  Kill the clichés.  There are some things speakers just shouldn’t say.  “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.”  “This is a paradigm-shifting idea.”  “We’ll get synergy.”  The Onion talk starts with killing two birds with one stone and then runs with it brilliantly.

2.  Block the extended metaphor.   For some reason, speakers find it hard to resist, once they’ve begun with a metaphor, especially a sports metaphor, keeping it going long beyond what decency and sanity dictates.  Metaphors are moments, not arguments.  Don’t hang your rhetorical structure on them.  

3.  Take a humility pill.   Audiences care more about themselves and their own problems than you, the speaker.  So don’t make the talk about how you’re feeling, or the fascinating process by which you arrived at your current state of grace.   Of course, to set against that, audiences do love it when the speaker shares a little of her life story – a relevant bit – because that humanizes her.  The trick is knowing how much to share and when to stop.  Tip:  connect it to a concern the audience has.  

4.  Don’t abuse the slides.   I’ve ranted against the misuse of Power Point and other slide software many times, but the Onion spoof shows that slides can be dumb even when they’re well-designed and avoid the obvious pitfalls like using them as speaker notes.  In this case, they go wrong 2 ways.  First, they illustrate things that don’t need to be illustrated.  Everyone knows what a traffic jam looks like; we don’t need a picture.  Second, they illustrate with generic pictures, not real ones.  We don’t need a picture of just any car, we need a picture of the car.  

5.  Share the limelight.  You have temporary charge of that roomful of people as a speaker; you are the authority.  The greatest gift you can give that audience, then, is to share the limelight with them.  Far too many speakers don’t leave room in their speeches for the audience, beyond the lame and obvious “Show of hands; how many people here are givers, not takers?”  Find ways to make your speech genuinely and usefully interactive.  It’s not about you; it’s about the audience, always.   

Here's the Onion 'TED' talk.  Enjoy!

  

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