7 Reasons Youth Speakers Flop
By Mark Sanborn
Few things create a more vivid perception of an executive than his speaking ability. The higher execs rise in an organization, the more frequently they are called upon to address others. Ironically, executives rarely undergo public speaking training. If they turn out to be good speakers, it is seemingly a gift of genetics, luck, or a combination of both.
As a professional speaker, I’ve sat through hundreds, if not thousands, of presentations. More often than not, the speeches I’ve heard were less than memorable. And far too often the presentations were painful, not only for the speaker to give, but for the audience to feign interest through.
Most speakers, even those who flop dramatically, are well-intentioned, Nobody sets out to destroy his or her credibility with a bad presentation. So why do people fail in spite of noble intentions? Intention requires good technique to be success-fully communicated. It doesn’t matter how well you want to hit the golf ball. Only good form and practiced skill allow you to consistently do so. Public speaking is no different.
I am puzzled as to why so many seem to think that speaking well in front of an audience is a natural skill. Public speaking, like all skills, is developed. The more often one speaks, the better one becomes if—and this is a big if he focuses on eliminating undesirable behaviors and developing needed ones.
The fastest way to improve your speaking ability is to eliminate those factors that trigger disaster. While I’ve observed great creativity in flopping, there are seven common reasons why speakers fail.
1 A Disregard For Time
History has no record of anyone who gave a speech that was too short, but we’ve all been in audiences when the speaker stopped speaking on what seemed like a different day than he had begun.
This problem—speaking too long or taking more time than allotted—is epidemic among high level business leaders. Most meeting planners value their job too much to be candid and tell the executive that he completely destroyed the agenda by speaking for an hour when he was scheduled to speak for 15 minutes. And no employee is going to complain to the boss’s face about talking way too long.
Being self-employed allows me the luxury of being totally honest: Speaking longer than planned is rude. It suggests to the audience that the speaker and his or her presentation are more important than anyone or anything else on the program. If you say you need 10 minutes, quit after 10 minutes. If you need more time, negotiate for it in advance. But don’t take the next three speakers’ time because you don’t pay attention to your watch or you are too arrogant to realize that the high point of the meeting might not be listening to you speak twice as long as expected. Start on time and stop on time. Not only will your audience respect you for it, but it will prove that you respect your audience.
2 Unclear Purpose
Here’s the million dollar question of any presentation: What’s the point? Speakers who don’t have clear objectives for their presentation usually achieve little.
Heaven help you if your objective is “to inform.” Duh? Every speech informs, whether by design or default. Attempting only to inform is aiming too low. Why not use the opportunity to motivate, inspire or encourage? Why not take advantage of your chance to share a vision or create camaraderie?
Design your speech the way the pros do. Begin by asking, “At the end of this presentation, what do I want listeners to think, feel and do?” Good presenters speak to the head, the heart and the hands. Challenging people with a lot of information of limited practical application is more frustrating that inspiring.
If you can’t clearly identify a worthwhile purpose for the presentation, you probably shouldn’t be making it. And it doesn’t hurt to begin with an overt statement of purpose: “The reason I’m speaking to you today is…” It may not be clever, but it will significantly increase the odds of fulfilling your purpose if you enlist the audience early on.
3 Inadequate Preparation
There is no excuse for “winging it” The best speakers are always prepared, even if their demeanor suggests otherwise.
That brilliant toe-in-the-sand presenter you heard who came up with the wonderful analogy and spectacular quotes “on the spot” really didn’t. She planned carefully not only what she was going to say, but how she would appear “off the cuff.”
Here’s how to tell if a speaker hasn’t prepared: He doesn’t say anything important. Make best use of your time and the audience’s time by thinking through and practicing what you’ll say.
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest of the 20th century, once was frustrated as he prepared for an important speech. His insight? Live prepared, rather than simply trying to prepare. Maybe this is what Tom Peters alluded to when he instructed managers to have a “stump speech” with the same three or four most important messages ready to give and give again at every opportunity.
4 Failure To Capture Attention
The scarcest resource in the world used to be time; today it is attention. The average listener is bombarded with messages from many different sources. From e-mail to radio, voicemail and cell phones, everyone is trying to tell us something, and your attempt to give a speech is just one more bombardment.
That’s why what you say and how you say it had better grab the audience’s attention right out of the shoot. You don’t have time to “warm up.” (“Thank you for inviting me to be here today. It is indeed my pleasure to address you. What a great meeting it has been so far. Blah blab blah blah.”) Instead, hit them square between the eyes with something that will break their preoccupation with what they need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home.
Most importantly, make your remarks relevant. Post moderns are less interested with the question “Is it true?” and more interested in the question “How does it affect me?” Prove that your message matters to the listener.
Ego-driven leaders are more concerned with what followers think about them than they are with what followers do because of them. But you don’t necessarily have to be arrogant to be pompous. Sometimes it happens accidentally when a speaker confuses impressing listeners with influencing them.
Impressing people is, for the most part, a head game: It changes what they think of us. Influencing people is a behavioral game: It changes what people do because of us.
A preoccupation with self is deadly. Self-absorbed speakers present to get their needs met, rather than meet the needs of the audience. The audience instantly recognizes it.
One of the best kept secrets in speaking is this: ‘The audience wants you to do well. Everyone knows how painful it is to watch a speaker bomb in front of others, so instinctively the audience is pulling for you. And they’ll cut you a lot of slack—allow for mispronunciations and other mistakes—if you are sincerely interested in them.
On the other hand, if you speak down to them or try to blatantly impress them, they’ll turn on you like a pack of rabid dogs. It won’t be as obvious as rabid dogs, but beyond their polite c neutral non-verbals, they’ll be mentally dismantling you for being pompous.
You wouldn’t be asked to speak unless someone believed that you have credibility and something to say. That is enough. Don’t undo that assumption through efforts to prove your status to others.
“Isn’t life a thousand times too short to bore ourselves?” That wasn’t uttered by a tired audience THAT WAS member, but it could have been. Helen Keller said it.
An audience today contains many people who were raised (MTV. That means they spent formative years watching music video containing 150 images in the course of a minute. Watching a talkie head is, for them, about as stimulating as watching software load.
Nobody ever flops who entertains. Don’t get me wrong: To be simply entertaining is not in itself a worthwhile goal for a speaker, but it sure beats the alternative, which is to be boring. Sell the sizzle and the steak.
“Amusement” comes from two words meaning “not to ponder.” “Entertainment,” on the other hand, is engaging. The value of entertainment for a speaker is that it mentally engages listeners. I’ve found the best way to educate is to slip good ideas in on the wings of entertainment.
And by the way, telling a joke is risky. When it works, it works well. When it fails, nothing fails worse. The best way to avoid groaners is to use humor in such a way that it illustrates your point. If the audience doesn’t laugh, the illustration is still of value. And if they get a chuckle out of the humor, that’s just icing on the cake.
7 False Endings
I’ve seen it a hundred times. A speaker starts to conclude, even tells the audience of his intent, and then tells a witty story. The audience responds favorably. The speaker gets a rush. “Wow, they liked that. I’ve got an even better story,” he thinks to himself And then he ends again, with another story, quote, challenge or admonition. Like a junkie who’s just had a good fix, the speaker keeps ending, until there is no positive response, but rather visible signs of disgust. By then, it is too late.
You can only effectively conclude once. Yet I’ve seen executives conclude over and over. Each false ending weakens the message that was in front of it. The false ending nightmare usually begins with these words, “In conclusion.. That triggers hope in the audience’s mind. “Hey, it’s almost over!” They expect you to wrap up quickly. In my mind, that means either summarizing or making a final point. Several points, or the introduction of new points, is not a conclusion.
The beginning of excellence is the elimination of foolishness. Preparing with these principles in mind virtually guarantees that the next time you make a presentation; you’ll be flop-proof.
This article “7 Reasons Youth Speakers Flop” written by Mark Sanborn is excerpted from Christian Professional the Spring 2008 edition.