Five mistakes you never ever want to make on stage

Updated to Speaking on May 3, 2023.

Speaking on stage is like surgery. You have one chance to get it right and it’s pretty hard to undo a mistake.

I’ve seen all manner of ways to bomb on stage (I’ve done most myself, purely for research), from reading an entire speech to rude humour (save if for the night club), to being completely off topic. Anyone who’s spent anytime giving speeches – even the pros – will tell you we all bomb sometimes.

Here are five mistakes you should never ever make in a speech:

1. Thanking the host

Thanking the host, the sponsors, the event planner, or your dog is self-serving. Your job is to serve the audience—get on with it. Instead of drooling on ad nauseam, here’s how to kick off your next speech:

  • Jump right into a story. Nothing makes people lean in more than a great story. Make it relate (even slightly) to the problem you are there to fix and you’re off to the races.
  • A bold claim. A speaker I know starts with “Imagine if the next 60 minutes give you exactly what you need to create your best year ever.” I might have doubts, but you got my attention.
  • Tell a joke. This is the riskiest – if you can’t guarantee people will love it, don’t go there.
  • Be controversial. For example, if your talk is about marketing, say you don’t believe in marketing – you believe in relationships. A little shock value will grab your audience’s attention and segue into your topic.

2. Reading your slides

Reading your notes is fine for US Presidents and academics when precise wording in paramount—not so for the unwashed rest of us. Studies have shown that within 24 hours, audiences retain as little as 10% of what you say. I give you five ways to make your speech memorable here. So does it really matter how precise you are with your message?

“Nobody will miss what isn’t there, so don’t worry about including every single point.”

Instead of reading from notes, stay on track with a point-form list and speak to each point. Nobody will miss what isn’t there, so don’t worry about including every single point.

3. Going overtime

Sorry, no excuse for this one. Event planners sweat for months over every agenda detail. When you mismanage your time and chew up 10 minutes of the break, you shortchange the audience on their break and insult the event planner. Don’t allow their last impression of you to be you speaking really really fast and frantically clicking through slides – not good.

Instead, learn how to use time markers (I mark my notes at the point I have 20 minutes of content to go, so if I start at 8:30 I’ll write 9:10 where I need to be in my notes) and skip slides on the fly.

4. Making it all about you

Stories about sleeping only three hours a day, earned your Ph.D over a long weekend, and parachuting to work after pulling a family of eight from a burning restaurant are all about you. Your goal should be to impress your audience with valuable, relevant solutions they can use, not with exaggerated claims of grandeur.

Use words like ‘you’ and ‘your’ and be there to serve – people can always read about your heroics in your bio. Related post: “Giving a speech? Three sneaky ways to get your audience loving you.”

5. Making the audience squirm

Make your audience uncomfortable and you shut down their ability to learn. The autonomic fight/flight reaction gets sparked, pupils dilate, heart rate increases, and blood leaves the brain – perfect! Meanwhile, you’re trying to teach them something brilliant. Here are five things (to avoid) that make audiences squirm:

  • announcing it’s going to be interactive
  • asking for a show of hands: “Who here has to admit they’re a pretty bad listener?” (who wants to admit they’re a poor listener?)
  • walking through the audience talking into the microphone about delegates you meet (I’ve seen this happen and it’s unpleasant, at best)
  • asking for a volunteer from the audience. Instead, meet people ahead of time and then ask them if they would volunteer.
  • blaming the audience. It’s great to talk, in general, about gaps in personal or corporate performance, but once you start mentioning names, or talking about specific campaigns, or departments, you’ve crossed the line.

Avoiding these five mistakes won’t (sorry) automatically make you a superstar on stage. But, at least you won’t bomb.