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Public speaking and self-presentation: 7 common sins of a public speaker

Part One

I remember only too well my first conference as a speaker. The thought of standing in front of an audience of over a hundred onlookers terrified me.

Beforehand, I thought coming up with an exciting topic for a conference would be the hardest part. Boy, was I wrong! Perhaps you also know that pre-conference speaker feeling of dread. You’re pretty confident about the content of your speech, but as the big day draws nearer, your heart beats a little faster and your palms sweat. It feels as if your spirit wants to take flight and leave your body behind. That is exactly what happened to me. I definitely didn’t enjoy that feeling, so I searched for ways to pull myself together, just as Baron Münchhausen pulled himself out of the swamp by his hair.

Over time, I gained more confidence in my public speaking abilities and now I enjoy it. This transformation was possible because I learned that good “self-presentation” is the key. 

I am writing this article in two parts. The insights on how to educate the speaker within result from years of practice, revisions, observations, and testing different techniques on myself.

Let’s start with the seven common sins of a public speaker. Why? Because knowing them builds awareness and if you can avoid these pitfalls in your public speech, you will make your speech far more convincing. People will see you as a confident and experienced speaker.

Let’s consider the sins.

7 sins of the speaker

Sin 1. Messing up the entrance / exit

Be mindful of your appearance in front of the audience, your body language during the performance and the finale. If your body language evokes a lack of confidence or if you are leaving the stage chaotically, you risk spoiling the wonderful impression you made in your talk, no matter how awesome the content was.

Remember that the audience will only remember the beginning and end of your performance. So pay particular attention to entering the stage: your appearance should radiate confidence, whereas leaving the scene should rather be quick and bold. Your body language and appearance will convey more than your words! And last, your intonation and pitch rank as more important than the content of your talk.

Remember the 55-38-7 rule:
  • 55 % of human communication focuses on non-verbal sources, such as body language and facial expressions.
  • 38 % focuses on intonation, tone of your voice.
  • Only 7 % focuses on exactly what you say.

Sin 2. Lack of clear and effective language/wording in your speech

Topic: What is the subject-matter of your talk? 
Motivation / purpose: Why are you talking about this topic?
Ideas / Insights: What do you have to say regarding the topic that is special? 

It is of the utmost importance that you define your topic. Your motivation and purpose is the reason you are there to share your thoughts. Make sure this comes across meaningfully, maybe with an anecdote so the audience can see there is a personal connection between you and the topic. Then they will understand why it means something to you and has value. Then there are your ideas and insights regarding the topic. All too often, speakers know their topic inside out but can’t express their ideas and thoughts regarding it. Without this ability to focus, their speech is like a ship without a compass and navigation. Therefore, when preparing a speech always determine your motivation and purpose. This will become the engine of your public speech and what drives it forward.

Sin 3. Lack of connection with the words that express your ideas

You should feel a connection with the words that express your ideas. It’s vital for a convincing and lively performance. Many failed performances have one thing in common: the speaker is disconnected from the words that express their ideas. Visions like bright pictures in the speaker’s mind should accompany the words that express your ideas. Only by transmitting visions can we inspire our audience with our visualization, our ideas and insights into decisions. Think of how a talented storyteller can paint a picture in your mind and make it come alive. This will be a decisive factor in your success as a speaker. It will convince your audience of the validity of your insights. 

In the language of business, convinced equals sold.

Sin 4. Making Excuses

Excuses at the beginning of your speech like “I’m sorry I’m not very prepared…”, “my topic is probably not very interesting but…”, and body language that conveys as much will destroy your first impression. The audience forgives nothing, especially weakness. Apologies only worsen the situation. Instead of apologies and excuses, turn the audience’s attention to more important issues and go directly to the presented topic.

Sin 5. Overly distracted by the fear of public speaking

Fear of forgetting your text, getting lost, or a lack of tips can instil panic. There are many techniques to fight the fear of public speaking. 

Public speaking

Did you know that psychologists rank the fear of public speaking only second to the fear of death? The most common mistake made by people trying to fight this fear is not accepting the full reality of it. Two thoughts have helped many speakers to contend with this anxiety:
  • It’s important to me!
  • I did it!

Note: “did” — is in the past tense. It has already happened, which means there is nothing to fear. Visualise finishing successfully. But don’t forget that  some healthy excitement for your big moment really helps.

Sin 6. Lack of eye contact with the audience

Frequent “gaps” in eye contact are because of the mental process of constructing long phrases. During this process the speaker’s eyes aim at inanimate objects such as the floor or ceiling. People garner a lot of information from eye contact. Your ability to hold the attention of your audience rests on it. The relationship between the speaker and audience is not a symmetrical one. The speaker needs something from the audience, but the audience does not need something from the speaker. The speaker is looking for approval of their ideas and insights so they can share their wisdom. The speaker is trying to share something, whereas the audience is not. Try to imbue yourself: the speaker demands the audience and not vice versa. Having this in mind, you’ll be able to connect with the gaze of your audience. Act out your words and achieve the desired results through every second of your speech.

Sin 7. Weak energy

The lack of drive, courage, and vivid expressiveness of the speaker (VOICE, GESTURES, LOOK) are all characteristics of weak energy.

Your energy should be higher than the energy of the public.

If your energy is lower or the same as the audience’s, how can you successfully start your performance? Only by being energetic and showing it can you speak and win!

All the best, with your future performances: remember, you have done it, and it was awesome!

Don’t forget to read part two of this article series in which I show the seven steps how to educate the speaker in you.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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