Common Speaking Mistakes We All Make (And How To Fix Them!) Part 2

Here we continue with the simple fixes for common speaking mistakes that we all make. If you haven’t checked out part one you may want here.

A lecture at the University of West London, Ealing Campus

Mistake Number 5: Putting stuff on slides that you are not going to talk about

If I had a dime for every scientific talk that did this then I would have enough money to buy a yacht. Generally this is considered a beginner mistake, where the speaker is trying to explain their work and gets caught up putting too many details on their visual aids. However, I have seen professors with 20 plus years of teaching experience do it as well so it can creep up on the best of us. The point is that there is no reason to distract the audience with something that is literally meaningless since you will not be addressing it.

The Fix: Look at each visual aid/slide and decide if it has any value based on what your message is

The rule here is that the audience can really only comprehend one major theme or idea per slide you use. cramming in several figures into one slide is not only bad design but is also distracting from the main point you want to get across. There may be times in very technical talks where you will want to show data to demonstrate its robustness. However, just like sweets on the food pyramid this should be done sparingly and certainly not in every talk. Separate the data and add more slides if you must but aim for one central idea per slide. This central idea should not only lead the audience to the next slide, but also add to the overall story (i.e. The most important thing!). Additionally the effective use of blank space is often overlooked in presentations, since we are usually thinking from the point of view that “all this information is important”. Indeed all your hard work is important, but every minute detail doesn’t help to tell the story about the exciting aspects your work. Focus on the takeaway message first and then build your slides around that message.

Mistake Number 6: Lack of enthusiasm

We have all been there, sitting through a presentation where the speaker has an interesting topic but is the most boring person alive. The problem is that when people speak to a crowd they lose a significant amount of their charisma and enthusiasm. There is something about the formality of the situation that makes most of us stop acting like ourselves and more like a robot repeating facts. Sometimes this mistake is more related to a problem with nervousness than an actual lack of enthusiasm, however, in either case it must be remedied otherwise your talk will not be remembered. If you are just nervous you can check out last week’s post for some tips on getting over your fears of public speaking.

The Fix: Know your material well and don’t read it to the audience

The first step in letting your personality come through when you speak is to think about how you would explain your work or topic to a friend. In many cases we can’t use the exact same language for a public talk, however that relaxed and natural tone can be and should be used to convey your message. Secondly, whenever we are reciting line and verse of something written we tend to lose tonality in our voice because it is not our actual speaking voice but rather a reading voice. The trick is to memorize what you want to say, or make your reading voice come alive. If you are not sure how to do this watch speeches from any of the more eloquent presidents of the United States. Reading is common in presidential speeches, since they are always giving speeches that are written by someone else through a teleprompter. In a way, this is a kind of acting that takes practice but is not that difficult to achieve. The trick is to get very good at sounding natural like the material is flowing off the top of their head. The video below shows one of Obama’s early speeches that got him noticed on the national stage.

Naturally, speeches and presentations have a lot of things that are different, however as you can see in this example, Barack Obama was able to inspire people because of his enthusiasm and natural tone. The audience felt that it was easy to identify that he was just like them. Had he gone out on the stage and simply used his reading voice reciting what was on the teleprompter, no one would have even remembered the speech.

Mistake Number 7: Apologizing for mistakes

Imagine you are on stage in the midst of your talk and you realize that your yellow graph isn’t quite yellow but more of a brown because the projector bulb needs to be replaced. Your first impulse is to apologize but saying sorry might actually draw more attention to the mishap. In general this mistake is more impulsive and will probably take time to train yourself out of. However doing so will stop a habit that adds distraction and throws off your natural rhythm. Additionally it is something that probably isn’t all that important to apologize for in the first place. Besides, if you find yourself wanting to apologize frequently for you visual aids then they probably need a major reworking anyhow.

The Fix: Ignorance is bliss

Something that is important to keep in mind as you are speaking is that the audience came to see you speak and not your visual aids. Even if the audience came to see the speaker after you in the session and is just sitting through your presentation, they are still not coming to see your visual aids. In general the audience is less interested in your slides than they are in you and your message. Also keep in mind, that your audience is seeing and hearing your material for the first time which means most people won’t even notice that there was a mistake on your slides in the first place.

Symfonicky orchestr hl. m. Prahy FOK

If you have ever played music in a group you may already know that the musicians are always their own hardest critics noticing mistakes that the majority of the audience hasn’t even picked up on. You might be asking right now, “but what if it is something major happens?”, like nothing showing up on the screen or a graph missing half of the data. At that point you are going to need to ad lib and not be distracted so much by the problem that you can’t tell your story. The key is that before you give your talk (and after practicing to work out the initial bugs) you want to consider what you would do in the event of an emergency. Pre-planning for the worst case scenario prepares your brain to kick into high gear to come up with a solution on the spot. That way if there is trouble when you are speaking, you actually are not coming up with a completely new talk on the spot. Rather you are triggering your brain to respond to a stressful situation in a way you have already mentally trained for beforehand.

Finally, remember that people hear and see what they want to in many cases. If you have ever served on a jury you may already know this from listening to witnesses testifying in court. Two people who saw the exact same thing in the exact same place at the exact same time will bear witness to different accounts simply because experience and perception is different for each individual.

Mistake Number 8: Going over your allotted time!

This mistake can plague everyone from time to time. Often it is the case that you just need to get to that last bit of information out before you can go to your conclusions slide. The problem is that by going over you are not only throwing off the schedule of the audience but also that of the meeting or conference. Furthermore, there is a greater chance the audience will stop listening to you the longer you go on, because they will get distracted checking their watches or looking at the moderator who is about to pull the plug on your presentation.

The Fix: Work on your timing before hand and know what slide to be on with 2 minutes left. Don’t go over!

If you find yourself in this situation then it is best to do as much damage control in the moment as you can. Ideally you will have worked out your timing beforehand but if you are stuck in the presentation and you notice you are behind, then it is best to conclude as gracefully as you can. Cut out information if you have to, but don’t go over, it screws up the schedule and is an inconvenience for everyone.

The point here is that you harming the effectiveness of your own talk by exceeding your time limits. Additionally, going over probably means that you are trying to present too much information. This can overload the audience and compromise the retention of material. The first step to solve this is to practice your talk and see where you can make cuts. Consider every aspect of your talk from the visual aids to the words you plan to use. Think about your speech and attempt to be direct without getting overly verbose. Secondly, check your slides for unnecessary content and cut it, have a friend (ideally from a different field of work) help with this. Generally you want to avoid trying to tell every detail of your latest paper to the audience in a short talk. Instead tell a direct anecdote about how the project evolved and what the findings are, show your results and demonstrate the logical conclusions. You can always add extra slides at the end (after your conclusions slide) for those technical questions, but unless you are giving a talk to a bunch of colleagues in the exact same field, at a special session, in a -special meeting, then the majority of the fine details are going to be overkill.

Hopefully with these few tips you can improve your next public talk by avoiding these common pitfalls. Naturally very few people will be guilty of committing all 8 mistakes, however there are cases where fixing one or two of these problems will greatly improve your ability to communicate and connect with the audience.

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