Prevent oral tedium

A good speaker can make good material more understandable and more memorable. A good speaker can make weak material tolerable by using the audience’s time effectively to emphasize the highlights and ignore the weak stuff. A presentation might be interesting, compelling, and earth-shattering, but the audience won’t know this without someone emphasizing the important points and leading them through the material.

A poor speaker with good material can distract the audience from understanding it. A poor speaker with weak material can torture an audience by forcing them to waste time. The combination of a bad presentation and a bad speaker who insists on addressing every bullet and reading every word on every page is deadly. How many times have you sat through a presentation that was not a briefing, but rather a prepared speech, with sentences or paragraphs extracted from some written prose and pasted into PowerPoint slides? Aaauuuggghh!

Having fidgeted through a jillion ineffective presentations (and delivered a few myself), I have observed some recurring characteristics of speakers that annoy audiences. Here are some tips for avoiding these bad habits.

  1. Don’t spend a lot of time introducing yourself, your role, or how much experience you have. These preliminaries may be necessary to get people into the audience, but once they are there, they want to hear your message, not your resume.
  2. Don’t read your presentation material. This is another good reason to use graphics. You must explain them, and they can’t be read like bulleted words. The audience can read, and they expect you to add something to the presentation as a speaker. Narration is a waste of their time and they will resent it.
  3. Use a laser pointer only in the rarest circumstances where you need to point to a specific detail that is not easily seen on a graphic. Most speakers use a laser pointer as a crutch to point at the words they are reading on the slide. Don’t insult the audience by pointing at words as you read them. Laser pointers should be banned. They distract the speaker and the audience in most presentations.
  4. Only use humor if you are comfortable with it and it fits into the context of your talk. The last thing you need to communicate clearly is the uncomfortable feeling you experience when a joke flops. When I first started public speaking, I was presenting in front of 1200 people at a large industry conference. I started off with a joke that I thought was funny and pertinent. The silence in the room after my punch line was so loud, I could barely continue. That incident left an indelible scar; I didn’t tell a joke during a presentation for 10 years.
  5. Don’t act. Be yourself, speak with some inflection, use hand gestures if they feel comfortable, and move around if you need to. If I have a choice, I speak from the audience’s right-hand side. Perhaps I am not an ambidextrous speaker; I don’t know, but I am more comfortable on the right. Whatever it takes, get comfortable on stage and be yourself.
  6. Don’t sacrifice accuracy and credibility by substituting (false) precision.
  7. Don’t overuse adverbs like actually, basically, fundamentally, and frankly.
  8. Consciously work to eliminate annoying speaker idiosyncrasies like too many ums, or saying “…right?” at the end of each sentence. Don’t use “I would argue…” or “It should be noted…” or “It is interesting to note…” Just argue, note it, or make it interesting.
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