Even Professional Speakers Don’t Always Get it Right

A few weeks ago, I attended a full-day marketing and branding conference to listen to six individuals, all professional speakers, authors, and experts in their field. They were scheduled to take the stage for 45-60 minutes at a time, to an audience of approximately 1,000 people. Some of these speakers were more well-known than others, but all had a specific expertise, and I was eager to listen to them all and hear what they had to share.

What did I come out with?

  1. The speakers who can make the audience laugh the most will be rated the highest
  2. You don’t always need slides to get your point across concisely and powerfully
  3. Even the best professional speakers can miss the mark and completely alienate the audience

Let’s focus on point #3.

All the speakers had their fan base. There were two speakers who were big draws – one of them was an author of several books, very active on social media, and a true expert in his field. I know many people who RT him on Twitter regularly, who read his books, and follow his advice. The other had fewer books, a little newer to the speaking field, but is a well known local personality.  And while I can accept that even the best speakers can have an “off” day (as I was told by someone who had seen these people speak before, who assured me that they are generally much better than their performance on that day), here’s what these speakers did that really annoyed the audience:

  1. Speaking from the floor, not the stage. One of the speakers chose to pace around the conference room floor, rather than present from the stage. Given that the room had to accommodate approximately 1,000 people it was a fairly large room. So in walking around the floor rather than staying in a location where everyone could see him, his audience was forced to twist and turn in our chairs to try to follow him. That is, until we got tired of trying to find him in the huge room, and stopped trying to follow him – and stopped listening to him as well.
  2. “Shock” tactics. Many speakers/bloggers/ad agencies/whoever now subscribe to the notion that you have to be controversial to be noticed. Be direct. Be tough. Be rude. THAT’S what will get your audience to pay attention.  I get it. But I don’t like it. I don’t appreciate someone who doesn’t know me telling me that I’m not working hard enough. Or writing enough books. Or that if I don’t follow his exact ‘recipe for success,’ my business will burn out like the dying embers of a summer bonfire. I didn’t like it…and neither did anyone sitting around me, who grumbled loudly enough for me to confirm this.
  3. ‘Stream of consciousness’ monologue – that went on waaaaaay too long.  This speaker started off well enough, then lost steam about ¾ of the way through…and then wouldn’t get off the stage! At one point, he started walking back and forth across the stage, not even looking at the audience, and it almost seemed like he was practicing his speech the way you would do it at home, in front of a mirror. The content lost focus, he started focusing on telling his stories and giving advice than following audience cues – which, if he was paying attention, was yelling out “Please wrap it up!” And worst of all, he spoke for longer than an hour… beyond his allotted time, especially given that he wasn’t the final speaker of the day.

In my years teaching public speaking and coaching speakers on how to get their point across concisely and powerfully, I am always surprised when professional speakers make these types of mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, this post isn’t meant to be overly critical of these speakers. Maybe they were both trying out new material, and it didn’t work. Or maybe this exact speech works fantastically well with a different kind of audience. The point is, it didn’t work with this one, and that’s a risk that we all take whenever we get on a stage in front of an audience. We can’t always predict the future. And I’m 100% confident that these two speakers will survive. They’ll go on to speak to sold-out conferences, write and sell more books, spread their messages, and make good money.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from their mistakes. So the next time you take the stage, keep these in mind:

  1. Present from the stage. Don’t present from the floor because it gets you “closer” to the audience. It doesn’t work. And frankly, it’s annoying.
  2. Who’s in your audience? Learn as much as you can about your audience before you take the stage – including what they’re expecting from you and your speech – so you know what kind of approach to take with them.
  3. Don’t try out new material when you’re on stage. Enough said.
  4. END ON TIME! Show respect for your audience – and the other speakers who come after you – by staying on the schedule, even if it means you have to cut a few minutes of your content.
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