HUGH CULVER

The Five Biggest Mistakes Most Speakers Make on Stage (and how to avoid them)

Updated to Speaking on May 3, 2023.

This post was updated March, 2023

I have a confession to make. As a speaker, seminar leader, facilitator, coach – heck, even as a writer – I’ve made every mistake possible.

We all make mistakes. In fact, if you’ve ever planted two feet in front of an audience, you know how easy it is to forget a line or be hamstrung by failed A/V equipment. Some things, despite the best of intentions and preparation, are bound to happen.

In this post, I want to talk about blind spots—the kind of things a presenter can control, but isn’t aware of. Just like learning how to move on stage, or using pauses for effect, these are skills that are fundamental to successful presentations.

And these are not exclusively for main-stage presenters. I use the same techniques in workshops, webinars – even on sales calls. It’s all about respecting your audience and working toward the ultimate goal of any presentation – to help people move from where they are (current reality) to where they want to go (future reality.) (Read more about this concept and why I call this closing the gap in this post.)

Here are the five biggest mistakes I see speakers make and how to avoid them.

1. Not knowing your audience

I was pretty excited. It was my first paid speaking engagement booked through a speaker bureau. I had been trying for a full year to build relationships with bureaus. Finally, I had my first invitation to show that I was bureau-ready.

The speech ended, I got a healthy applause and I was feeling pretty full of myself. Backstage, my contact at the bureau who had been in the audience got my attention.

“So, how do you think that went?” she asked.

I know a setup when I hear one, and replied hesitantly “I thought it went great!”

“How many people did you talk to before you came here today?” she asked.

Busted! I had to admit I had only talked with the client and not anyone in the audience.

“If they don’t think you care about them, they won’t care about your message.”

“If they don’t think you care about them,” she added to drive the point home, “they won’t care about your message.”

Canned speeches

There was a day when “canned” speeches were the norm. Nobody seemed to mind that what they were hearing was a photocopy of the last 84 speeches that the speaker had delivered. No longer.

Sure, if you’re a retired quarterback or sold your startup for $300 million, nobody expects you to rewrite your life story. But I learned a long time ago you can’t impact an audience if you don’t 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 checklist. A part of the “before” list is to interview delegates. Here’s how it works.

During my initial call with the planning committee, I get permission to complete confidential interviews with a selection of their delegates. This is a value-add that they don’t expect and they always happily agree. The system I use next is designed to make it easy for me and for the delegates I reach out to.

I have the planning committee send a list of 10-15 contacts from a cross-section of departments and seniority levels. My promise is to speak with at least a half-dozen off the list. I also ask them to send my pre-written email letting people on this list know I might be contacting them.

I block 90 minutes for the calls and don’t leave voicemail messages (that’s why I need extra names in case people are not available when I call). What I learn in those 10 to 15-minute calls is pure gold. I learn about their challenges, fears, and frustrations, and how my topic relates to their work and life. For example, when making the interview calls before a recent event I learned how the recent shift to working from home was impacting participants’ family life and their ability to get work done.

Investing an hour or two to learn about your audience will always pay dividends.

Most professional speakers get paid a small fortune to speak for an hour. Investing an hour or two to learn about your audience will always pay dividends.

2. Start slow, end fast

It was 20 minutes before lunch, my client was frantically looking at the clock, and the audience was squirming. The speaker had made the classic mistake of starting too slow and was now frantically trying to squeeze a half-hour of content into the remaining 12 minutes.

It had been like watching a snowball rolling downhill – at first, it looked like nothing was happening. As the hour slowly wore on the snowball got bigger and heavier and gained momentum until finally, it was an avalanche of frantic delivery effectively burying everything from the previous 50 minutes.

Starting too slow

When a speaker kills their first 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 their water, and adjusting their notes – we get a bit nervous. I’m not thinking about what they are saying, I’m worried about the next 55 minutes.

The slow, painful start to a poorly orchestrated presentation will become, unfortunately, one of the memorable parts.

In psychology, primacy and recency refer to how our brains tend to remember the first and last parts of a movie, conversation, book, or speech. The slow, painful start to a poorly orchestrated presentation will become, unfortunately, one of the memorable parts.

What to do instead

When I got into running races and competing in short and long-course triathlons I asked the advice of a more experienced competitor. His advice (albeit sarcastic) is apropos for any speaker.

“Start fast,” he said, “pick up your pace in the middle, and finish fast.”

Once your introduction has been read by the event MC, or you have introduced yourself on a webinar or sales call, jump in. When you present to an audience – online, in-person, or on a sales call – minutes are currency. Your job is to spend that currency as if every minute is precious and you need to make it count.

That’s why you need to educate, entertain, and engage the audience. And that starts as soon as your introduction is 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.

I want to take them on a roller coaster ride of emotions and I want to end strong, but without rushing.

Here are three tricks of the trade I use to start strong and avoid running out of time:

  • Plan your first five minutes. Your job is to make those critical first five minutes so good that I can’t wait for the next 55 minutes. I will often rely on an index card listing all the key points I need to make that lead to the core of my presentation.
  • 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 timing milestones if you want to finish on time. in addition to any notes I might rely on, I typically have one large index card with my presentation outline and my cut-off times (marked with a large Sharpie pen) for the middle and last 10 minutes of my time on stage. If I know my material well, that’s the only prop I will look at.

It’s great to insert spur-of-the-moment thoughts into your presentation or allow for questions from the audience. That shows that you are confident and flexible. And with a little pre-planning, you can stay on track, pacing your presentation over the time allowed.

3. Not involving the audience

“When you see arms folded with a scowl on our face and skepticism on our minds we get what we deserve.” – Seth Godin

There are two reasons to involve your audience in your presentation: boredom and investment. 

Unless you juggle chainsaws, your audience will get bored – they can’t help it. One recent (and slightly disturbing) study, conducted by Microsoft, discovered Canadians’ attention span has dropped in the last 16 years from about 12 seconds to that of a Goldfish (9 seconds).

In addition to a rapidly shrinking attention span, your audience might have been sitting for hours before you show up. Or been at their desk all morning before your scheduled sales call. When you involve the audience you have their full attention.

The second reason for involving your audience is to get them invested in the solution. A salesperson talking about a car can’t compete with the experience you’ll get from a 10-minute drive. In sales, we used to say “Whoever talks the most, loses.” Conversely, when you do less talking and involve your audience you win. (In this post I explain how I use stories to involve an audience.)

What to do instead

Unless, you are facilitating a workshop, involving your audience does not mean asking an open question to your audience “Hey! Who here struggles with procrastination?” In general, audiences resist any involvement that points a spotlight at them (like raising their hand.) Instead, you should embrace the philosophy of divide and conquer.

Divide and conquer

The most successful, guaranteed-every-time, adaptable ways to get your audience involved are with two-person dyads and small group breakout exercises. (I share more details about these techniques in this post.)

The beauty of a dyad is they’re fast, you get 100% participation, and, because they are talking about themselves, it’s a quick, simple way to get your audience to personally relate to your message.

A dyad is any exercise with two people. The beauty of a dyad is they’re fast, you get 100% participation, and, because they are talking about themselves, it’s a quick, simple way to get your audience to personally relate to your message.

Instructions for my fail-safe, damn-the-torpedoes dyad (the instructions for a small group breakout are similar) sound like this:

“In a minute I’m going to ask you to turn to the person next to you.”

“Some of you might find you’re in a group of three – that’s OK, but try to form a group of two (note: in smaller venues, I will quickly help them form groups of two – some adults have trouble with math).”

“Now I want you to share with your partner ‘What is it that distracts you at work? For example, your smartphone, email, etc.”

“Okay, you have 90 seconds, Go!”

In a 60-minute speech, I might use three dyads with the goal to:

THE FIVE BIGGEST
  1. get everyone organized – people hate to be left out so help them form their dyad (there may be a few groups of three, but don’t leave anyone sitting alone wondering where their friends went.)
  2. give instructions. If you have to repeat your instructions you’ve made them too complicated.
  3. set a deadline to add urgency and energy.

Hint: having them stand while in their dyad brings the energy in the room up another notch.

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 are five mistakes you want to avoid if you want to get asked back:

  • 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.)
  • disappearing just before you are scheduled to go on stage (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

Just like a restaurant that gets rated on both the quality of the food and the quality of the customer service, your reputation is equally based on your presentation and how you are as a person.

Just like a restaurant that gets rated on both the quality of the food and the quality of the customer service, your reputation is equally based on your presentation and how you are as a person.

If your event planner gave you a checklist of requirements (most professional event planners will do this) with specific cut-off dates (like sending a copy of your slides), schedule time – ahead of schedule – to do that.

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.

As the old saying goes, it takes a long time to build a good reputation, and only one speech to ruin one.

5. Going overtime

“There are two kinds of speakers. Ones who get nervous, and liars.” – Mark Twain

Sometimes your 30-minute sales call starts late and shrinks to 20 minutes. Or at an event you are speaking at, the speaker before you goes overtime (amateur mistake), and your one-hour slot becomes 45 minutes. 

When their time gets cut short the amateur starts rushing through their slides, speaking faster, and making lots of apologies. The professional doesn’t miss a beat—they simply skip content. (You can get a free copy of my speech writing template here.)

One of the truisms I learned early in my speaking career is that nobody misses what isn’t there! If you have five brilliant lessons, but only deliver three that’s still three brilliant lessons! If you have 32 wonderful slides but have to skip past 10 of them (BTW you should practice doing that), that’s still 22 great slides!

Events start late, people go overtime, people forget they have an appointment and sometimes your hour becomes 45 minutes. Plan for it.

Events start late, people go overtime, people forget they have an appointment and sometimes your hour becomes 45 minutes. Plan for it.

Be a partner, not a prima donna and your audience will love you for it.

What to do instead

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. There is an art to chopping 10 minutes off a sixty-minute speech with nobody knowing. I’ve had to do it many times.

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 on your keyboard the number of the slide you want to skip to (anticipate this ahead of time and record the slide numbers to jump to), hit Enter, and Presto! You are back on schedule and twelve minutes of content has magically disappeared.

Most audiences are not experts on your content. But, all audiences are experts in customer service—they intuitively recognize a professional just as they can spot amateur performances a mile away. With a little forethought and planning you will always be remembered as a professional.

Designing presentations is an art. These posts can help you develop your art faster.

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