15 Mistakes You Should Never Make on Stage

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

We’ve all been there – watching a speaker on stage and feeling nervously uncomfortable. Maybe their content is great – even brilliant – but we’re so distracted by that little mannerism, habit, or (dare I say) “unique” clothing choice we can’t, for the life of us, pay attention.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

In previous posts I offered suggestions on how to design and deliver a great speech, what to not say in a speech. In this post I’m focussing on what to not do!

Even before getting on stage, there’s a host of mistakes speakers make, like being demanding, not researching their audience or asking for last minute A/V changes. Assuming you got through the ‘Before’ steps successfully, the test is now on stage.

Here are 15 things you should never do on stage (if you want to get rehired):

1.  Thank the host – dolling out pleasantries at the start of your speech is self-serving – don’t do it. “Don’t say ‘I’m happy to be here.’ Because what’s the alternative? That you’re really pissed off that you’re there? So show them that you’re happy to be there and get right to the good stuff. (Michael Port Steal the Show podcast)

2.  Start too slow – this goes with #1 – after the build-up, introduction and applause it’s your turn to grab the audience – don’t dawdle. I recommend you script, rehearse and memorize your first 7 minutes – it’s too important to waste. (Skip Weisman)

3. Turn to look at your slide – guess what? When you turn to look at your slides we all look with you. Now, that might be a neat effect if the punch line to your joke is on the screen – otherwise it pulls the audience off you and that’s who they’ve come to learn from.

4. Read your slides – if you’re reading your slides you either don’t know your material or your slides are poorly designed. Either way, put less content on slides and you’ll never need to refer to them again.

5. Check your watch – as soon as you check the time (I once watched a speaker ask 3 times how much time he had left – I would’ve been happy if the answer was ‘none’) we start thinking how long before we can: go to the bathroom, check email, catch our flight home – is that really what you want us thinking?

6. Stand behind the lectern – unless you have a stain from breakfast the size of Uruguay, or you’re an ex-President, do not hide behind the lectern. Period.

7. Fiddle (with anything). The audience has a hard enough time staying focussed for the 45 minutes or hour you have on stage. Give them a distraction and they’re gone faster than you can say ‘squirrel!’ Here’s a short list (I’m sure you can add some dandies of your own):

  • fiddle with your hair – I watching in amazement one speaker touch her hair some 30 times in the same number of minutes. Here are a few more: “A speaker repeatedly pulling his pants up, a female speaker’s bra strap constantly falling off to her upper arm.” (Nat Tan)
  • wipe your nose (oh heck, while you’re there, why not go for a quick exploration?)
  • shirt partially untucked, collar turned up, button undone… “Pretending something awkward that happened, didn’t happen only makes it worse.” (David Gouthro)
  • put eyeglasses on every time you need to refer to your notes (hint: stop trying to use a post-it note and get a bloody Sharpie!)
  • ‘For women having dangly earrings that interfere with the headset mic because they can’t hear every time it clicks but the audience can!’ (Clare Edwards)

8. Smack your lips – “lots of speakers don’t drink enough water and when they open their mouth to talk after a well-timed pause for effect there’s a distinct smacking sound.” (Steve Donahue)

9. Machine gun eye contact – “Rather than maintain eye contact with one audience member at a time, they try to scatter the crowd with a roving gaze as if they’re spraying them with lead.”

10. Learn how the remote works – there’re certain jobs that get done before getting on stage – that’s one of them.

11. Say ‘I’ more that ‘you’ – I think I made my point, even though I know I would never do that (I’m sure.)

12. Say meaningless statements like: “If I was being honest”, “Let me be perfectly clear,” “In my opinion,” “Basically,” or any other redundant lines (see more gems in this post) that makes you look, with all due respect, truth be told, honestly like an idiot.

13. Skip slides – even better! Skip slides and (to make sure we definitely know you didn’t plan your time) say ’If we had more time I would…’

14. Rush the last 5 minutes – your last 5-7 minutes, along with the first 5-7 minutes are the most memorable (see primacy and recency) – make them count.

15. Go overtime – sure you have one more gem to share, but going overtime puts pressure on the event planner, cuts into the next speaker’s slot, and, frankly, doesn’t make you look good.