15 Mistakes You Should Never Make on Stage

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

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.