I have a confession to make. As a speaker, seminar leader, facilitator, coach, heck even as a writer I’ve made every mistake possible. I’m human.
We all make mistakes. If you’ve every planted two feet on a stage and faced an audience, you know exactly what I mean.
Here are five mistakes I see speakers make and how to avoid them. You can I’m sure think of five more – add them in the comments!
1. Not knowing their audience.
There was a day when “canned” speeches were the norm. Nobody seemed to mind that what they were watching was was a photocopy of the last 84 speeches that speak delivered. No longer.
Sure, if you’re a retired quarterback or sold your startup for $300 million, go for it. But I learned a long time ago to have impact with an audience I need to know them (and they need to know I did my research).
I learned a long time ago to have impact with an audience I need to know them
What to do instead. I deliver 35-45 paid speeches every year, so systems are essential. One system that saved my bacon countless times is my before/during/after check-list. A part of the “before” list is to interview delegates. Here’s how it works.
First I have a conference call with the planning committee. I prep for the call with a bit of on-line research so I at least know how many branch offices they have, what they sell, who the executives are, etc. I have a standard list of questions call (venue, timing, agenda, objectives, etc). Next, comes the secret sauce.
After my first speech that was booked by a bureau, I was pulled aside by my new bureau representative who had not only booked me to speak that day, but had also driven to the event to watch me present.
“How many people” she asked “did you talk to before you came here today?” Busted! I had to admit I had only talked with the person who made the initial enquiry and then, later with the planning committee. That was the night I learned about delegate research.
“If they think you don’t care” she said “they won’t care about you.” Ouch.
The way I do it now is to suggest my presentation will be more effective if I have short interviews with four to six delegates. With their approval, I ask one person on the committee to select a cross-section of delegates (based on tenure, position, etc.) and I ask them to send an email (that I supply) saying I may be calling to 10 people. I block 90 minutes for these calls and I don’t leave voice mail messages (that’s why I need extra names in case people are not available when I call).
“If they think you don’t care” she said “they won’t care about you.”
What I learn in those 10 to 15 minute calls is pure gold. I learn their challenges, fears, frustrations, even their special language, like names of departments, products, processes, and simple details like is a client a “client”, “member”, or “customer”.
I’m getting paid a small fortune to speak for an hour. A few phones calls makes my message that much more relevant.
2. Start slow, end fast.
Watch any TED talk and you’ll notice a steady pace to the presentation from start to end. Albeit a TED is limited to 18 minutes, but that practiced presentation pace is worth duplicating.
When a speaker kills five minutes thanking the sponsor, telling the audience how happy they are to be there (we know you’re happy – you’re getting paid), sipping from their water glass, adjusting their notes – we get a bit nervous. I don’t know about you, but I seriously start worrying about the next 55 minutes.
What to do instead. Your job is to educate, entertain, and engage the audience. And that starts as soon as your introduction is being read. I want the audience laughing and leaning in within five minutes. I want to take them on a roller coaster ride of emotions and I want to end strong, but without rushing.
Your job is to educate, entertain, and engage the audience.
That takes planning and practice. Here three tricks-of-the-trade I use every time I prep for a speech:
- Plan your first five minutes. In psychology they talk about primacy and recency – the first thing you experience and the last – that’s what we remember the most. So, your job is to make those critical first five minutes so good that I can’t wait for the next 55 minutes.
- Script your last 10 minutes. Like a marathon runner dragging their sorry butt across the finish line, all too many speakers fade in the last 10 minutes. Organize and script the key points you need to make. Is there a summary? Back-of-room sales? A call-to-action? A final quote? Audiences will only remember 10% of what you tell them, so decide what is your best 10% and knock it out of the park.
- Use cut-off times. Just like any project, you need to hit milestones on time if you want to finish on time. I take large index cards with me on stage and like to leave them handy on a small table or the lectern, off the side. On those cards, with a sharpie felt pen I’ve added the cut off times I need to hit for each major part of my speech.
3. Not involving the audience.
The brain can pay attention for about 10 to 12 minutes before it leaves the room. Speakers that drone on ad nauseam are setting themselves up to be ignored. Sure there’s a room full of faces, but nobody’s home.
The brain can pay attention for about 10 to 12 minutes before it leaves the room.
What to do instead. This skill is hard to teach, but mastering audience interaction will serve you well for the rest of your career. First, you need to plan to involve the audience within the first five minutes and about every 10 minutes following. No if’s, and’s or but’s – do it and you will get paid more.
I detail my three favourite audience interactions in this post “Ban Boring” – read this, it will serve you well.
My absolute, died-in-the-mud, fail safe technique is the 90-second dyad. Here’s the description again:
This is my fail-safe, damn the torpedoes, whatever bloody-well-happens-this-works technique. I call it the ’90 second dyad’ and it sounds like this:
“In a minute I’m going to ask you to turn to the person next to you. There might be a few groups of three – that’s OK, but try to form a group of two (note: in small venues, I will quickly help them form groups of two – some adults have trouble with math). And then I’ll give you 90 seconds to share with your partner ‘When do you experience stress at work’ (or whatever). Ready? OK, choose your partner, Go!” Obviously, second time around requires less instructions.
In a 60 minute speech I will have three dyads and one peer coaching dyad (see below). Hint: get them to stand during their dyads and the energy shoots up another notch.
The 90-second dyad (done right) guarantees 100% participation, the energy is up, the meeting planner loves you and you look like a rock star.
4. Being demanding.
Seriously! You want to get paid like $100 per minute and now you need three A/V technicians to drop everything to help you find WIFI on your five-year-old PC laptop that you never bothered to learn how to use properly, so you can show a 10-year-old Youtube clip that has no relevance to your message but it makes them laugh so you keep using it. I think not.
Here’s five mistakes you want to avoid (only if you want to get asked back, that is):
- last-minute changes to A/V set-up (like requesting sound pick-up from your laptop when it should have been requested a month before)
- asking that the stage set-up be changed (like clearing the stage even though a panel of six will immediately follow you and need chairs, table, water, etc.)
- disappear just before you go on stage (now watch your calm-as-a-cucumber event planner freak out).
- Not clearing off the stage quickly so the next speaker can set-up.
- Having the event planner book your travel and then, as the event gets nearer, you ask for three changes to accommodate other bookings.
What to do instead. It’s simple. Put yourself in the shoes of the event planner and make their life easier. If they give you a check list of requirements (most professional event planners will do this) with specific cut-off dates (like send a copy of your Powerpoint slides by this date), book on your calendar one week before to send that off (don’t worry if you use a MAC, or your slides aren’t ready, nobody looks at them).
It’s simple. Put yourself in the shoes of the event planner and make their life easier.
Similarly, think about, stage set-up, being low-stress (like not demanding a WIFI connection on stage), showing up early to the venue, calling their room when you arrive, and always asking what they need. Be a partner, not a prima donna and they will love you for it.
5. Going overtime.
Aaaaaarggg. PLEASE READ THIS. If there is one mistake you must, must, must avoid, it’s this one. I don’t care if some celebrity hogs the stage just before you and your 60 minute slot just shrunk to twenty – never go overtime.
Imagine you’ve been working on this event for the last six months, sweating over every minute of the agenda. Lining up speakers, working with catering, answering all your bosses questions and now the 1:00 speaker is droning on about some taxi ride she had (ten years ago, no less), clearly she is going overtime and five staff, $3,185 worth of pâté, crackers, cheese, stale cookies, and lukewarm coffee is simmering in the hallway. Bad plan.
Be a partner, not a prima donna and they will love you for it.
What to do instead. There is an art to chopping 10 minutes off a sixty minute speech with nobody knowing. I’ve had to do it many times. If you’ve ever suffered through a speaker nervously flipping through 20 or 30 slides all the while mumbling “Oh well, we’ll just skip over these” you know what done badly looks like.
Think of your speech as a Bento box of connected chunks of information. No one is going to miss what is not there – so simply delete a chunk and move on. If you use slides, simply type the number of the slide you want to skip to (you need to think this through ahead of time and write down the number of slides you can jump to) and hit Enter. Presto! You are back on schedule and twelve minutes of content has magically disappeared.
Think of your speech as a Bento box of connected chunks of information.
You might have the secret to end global warming or have written a best-seller – when avoiding these mistakes the audience will be receptive and your event planner will love you.
Tell me in the comments below what other mistakes speakers should avoid.