The wrong public speaking mistakes

Public speaking is neck-and-neck with fundraising on the list of things people consistently fear.

To avoid that fear we often choose to read to people rather than speak to them.  That is, we write down and recite prepared remarks.  If our goal is to get our words across, this approach is guaranteed to succeed.  Visually represented, if we read typed-up remarks we’re likely to say nearly 100% of the words we have written down.

Reading your speech

Of course people didn’t show up just to hear your words, they showed up to hear you.

Yes they want you to have done the heavy lifting of thinking about and synthesizing your remarks.  Yes they expect that you’ll practice what you’re going to say with trusted colleagues and friends before you speak to get it right.  So yes, prepare.

But also remember that you are so much more than the words you put on that page.  You are a human being and people are desperate for human connection.  They want to feel and experience what makes you tick and how your mind words.  They want to interact with you, even if you are up on stage and they are part of an audience.  And most of all, and easiest to forget, they want you to succeed.  They are good people and they want good things for you.  Also, if you succeed then they do to – they learn more, they have more fun, they get a glimpse of you.

The speech read head down, in a monotone, is nearly always devoid of human connection.  Air flows back into the room when the speech-reader looks up, smiles, and says even one extemporaneous remark – the smiles from the audience aren’t just because the remark was funny, it’s because they’re breathing a collective sigh of relief when they glimpse your humanity.

And that glimpse is missing when your attention turns from them to the piece of paper you’re holding in your hands.  That connection is lost.

The reason error avoidance (aka “reading what you wrote down”) feels like a reasonable tactic is because it masquerades as a way to ensure that we avoid failure.  But what do we mean by success?  Because we know that, when we all start out, it’s nearly impossible to overcome the terror of standing up on a stage and ALSO get our point across without some help from our notes.  But the decision we can make is to recognize that someday we want to break free, someday we want to speak to people not read to them, someday we want to feel comfortable and maybe even a little bit happy up in front of people telling them our story.

Conceptually, we can break free a bit by asking ourselves whether quadrant 3 really is better than quadrant 2: that is, is standing up reading something we could have handed out actually better than saying a small fraction of what we thought we meant to say but making a real human connection?

Four quadrants of public speaking

Before you answer, you might remind yourself that the audience is at the edge of their seats, wanting you to succeed.

I’d trade error avoidance for human connection any day. Especially since I know that when you speak from the heart, you’ll speak your truth.

 

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4 Responses to The wrong public speaking mistakes

  1. Looks like it’s a “let’s get over our fears of public speaking” kind of week, Sasha! I did a post yesterday on the secret to great public speaking (with 3 handy commandments). Quote from Commandment #3 that may resonate: “If the only thing you make eye contact with during your talk is a piece of paper, you’ve missed the boat.” :)

    http://www.claxonmarketing.com/2013/02/04/the-secret-to-great-public-speaking/

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Sasha. Listening to a speaker read is boring, even if the content is solid. Put the text into a blog post and spare the live audience!

    Delivery and connection is key. The audience doesn’t know what you meant to say, only what you said. What they interpret may not be what you meant. I especially value speakers who encourage the audience to participate. The magic of that moment cannot be recaptured. That’s why Bruce Springsteen can sing Born To Run every night and make every performance unique.

    The right Toastmasters club is an ideal place to practice speaking and get useful feedback.

  3. j.e. kim says:

    Mr. Dichter, this is one of the best things i have ever read on public speaking. Thank you. I am sharing it with my fellow Toastmasters Club members.

  4. A good way to break out of the reading-your-speech trap is to tell your audience at the beginning that you want questions throughout rather than at the end. Pause frequently to ask if there are questions and look around the room for a moment (preferably with a smile) as you ask. Getting that first audience member to speak up is the turning point. Once the audience members begin to interact with you, it’s SO MUCH EASIER to carry on with the speech without reading.

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