Bad Rules Never Seem to Die: the 5 Worst Ideas in Public Speaking

I first published this blog post 3 years ago, and I’m sorry to say I still see people following these 5 (bad) rules all the time.  Let’s stamp them out now!  With thanks to Susan Trivers who reminded me of it.  

 1.  “Tell ‘em what you’re going to say, say it, and tell ‘em what you said.”  This old chestnut is still widely believed.  It comes from WWII, when the Army worked out a way to ensure that all soldiers got the same marching orders and remembered them.  The soldiers that survived the war came back, went into business, and started spreading the word.  The problem is that the Army’s presentations didn’t have to be interesting or engaging.  These were soldiers!  They were taking orders!  You do have to be interesting and engage your audiences.  So unless you want the people in front of you to be diving for their Blackberries, don’t repeat like they did in the Army.

2.  “A good presentation has to have slides.  Has to!”  So widespread is the use of Power Point and its clones that there is a widespread belief that you have to use slides to give a presentation and it is always better if you do.  In fact, while there are certain kinds of presentations that do benefit from slides, many do not.  Keynote speeches should NEVER use slides, unless you’ve climbed Mount Everest and you’ve got some amazing summit shots.  Can you imagine President Obama using slides during his inaugural address?  Real leaders don't use Power Point.  Slides all too often become a barrier between speaker and audience, not to mention a crutch for the speaker.  If your slides are actually speaker notes that you read, mostly, that’s a sign that you are horribly misusing slides.  Think of slides as illustrations for the audience of points that you’re making that can really only be appreciated through pictures (or graphs or pie charts).  Everything else is speaker notes, and should not be shown to the audience.  Just to anticipate one set of comments, yes, if you're a trainer, and you're speaking for a day, or three, then slides can help. 

3.  “A speech is a formal occasion.  It’s not the same as a conversation.  Different rules apply.”  This is a tricky one, because it used to be true.  When FDR and Churchill strode the earth, a speech was a more formal occasion.  Both of those orators began to change the genre by using colloquial language and direct address to the people.  Television then accelerated the process.  We now expect our leaders, celebrities, and stars to speak to us conversationally, because we’ve seen them do it for years.  As a result, unless speakers do the same, they look and sound ridiculously stiff and pompous.  A speech is a conversation with the audience.  Get used to it.  Enjoy it!

4.  “When I speak, I have to stay behind the podium.”  The reasons offered up for this bad advice are various.  Sometimes it’s the technology – you’re speaking at a big conference and you’re on those big screens in a live feed, and the tech folks tell you that you have to stay behind the podium so they can keep you on screen.  Don’t believe it.  Unless the camera guy is asleep, he can follow you as you move around the stage, and even into the audience.  He might prefer to snooze away at his camera, but he’s being paid to stay awake, so make use of all his talents, including his ability to hold a giant cup of coffee and follow you at the same time.  Other reasons include fear, nervousness, and sheer terror.  Oh, and also that your notes, or the button to advance the slides, are on the podium.  I’ve got four words for you:  Be brave.  Use wireless. 

5.  “We have to save the last 15 minutes of the speech slot for Q ‘n A.”  This is just a habit, and not a particularly good one.  For one thing, if you close with Q ‘n A, it means that the last thing your audience hears from you is the answer to the last question that is asked.  This may or may not be a good place to end.  Often the last question is one from a crank who has been working up the courage to ask you if you wear boxers or briefs.  So instead, save 5 minutes of your remarks for the end, and take your Q ‘n A just before that.  Or, if you know your speech well, and are good at fielding questions, take them throughout.  That’s the more spontaneous and engaging way to do it, but it takes practice to stay on message and not get distracted too much by the questions.  For some people, it’s better to take Q ‘n A for most of the presentation, because the speaker is more comfortable that way, after a brief set of opening comments (and a closing at the end.)  This is the format of most presidential news conferences, for example. 

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    Conor –Thanks for your comment and good to hear from you! What was Clint thinking? Or not? That’s the question we’ll be debating for years. Perhaps it just goes to show how different movie acting is from Improv……

  2. says

    Hi, Rich, and thanks for the comment. I agree completely about the intro — it’s something I often blog about. See one of my most recent blogs on the best way to begin a presentation.

  3. says

    I hate the tell them what you are going to say rule. I gave a speech that, like most of my speeches, was a story, and someone after said I didn’t follow the “tell them…” rule. He’s right, and I never will. I find that type of speech to be both boring and lazy.

  4. says

    Thanks, Dwayne –
    I appreciate the comment. And I’ll just say that I’m reacting to tons of speeches I’ve seen where speakers repeat too much, badly and obviously, and audience dive for their blackberries and smartphones. Beware! Never talk down to the audience

  5. says

    I love your advice but I’m with Sue on this one. You gave a good argument as to why the army shouldn’t use the method in #1, but not so much as to why non-military types should not use it. I believe that you can be interesting and engaging to your audiences using #1. They know where you’re going and if you do it right you can get them there with you.

  6. says

    Hi, Chris –
    Great comment. And, of course, you’re right. A presentation is like a conversation, but guided and structured much more than actual conversation!

  7. says

    Hi, Sue –
    Thanks for your comment. There’s nothing wrong with repetition, used artfully. What I was objecting to was the particularly artless form of repetition indicated in Rule #1.

  8. says

    Nick,
    I would modify what you say about the third bad rule. A presentation is LIKE a conversation with your audience in that it’s informal, there’s a give and take, and the relationship between speaker and audience is paramount. It’s also UNLIKE a conversation in that it has a pre-determined (though flexible) direction, content, and goal.
    PS I’m the author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowePoint, so I say amen to your second bad rule.

  9. says

    I will take bit of a contrarian stance against #1 being a blanket bad rule. I think it depends on what you are trying to do in your presentation – with the lack of focus that is present in many audiences, if your aim is to teach them something and have them remember it, repeating it may be necessary. After all, they may only hear it one of the three times you say it. It doesn’t mean you have to say it the same way or with the exact same wording, but I think repeating things for both emphasis and for encouraging them remembering it CAN be valuable.

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