41 reasons why good speakers give bad speeches

Don’t let your next speech fall victim to these oratorical traps.

On my birthday, I usually attempt to do the number of pushups that equals my age. I was good at 40. Now, though, I’m moving on.

This year my birthday challenge comes from an observation I made while watching a good speaker (polished, well spoken, etc.) give a bad speech. Thinking, too, about some of my firsthand experiences, I wrote a list of “41 reasons good speakers give bad speeches.”

1. Depend on natural ability

Many speakers with the gift of gab fail to work on their gift. When you don’t work on a speech, it usually shows.

2. Lack of quality feedback

Every speaker should have a qualified person provide feedback on their content and delivery. Skipping this step means you could miss your blind spots.

3. Don’t speak at the level of the audience

Using acronyms that the audience doesn’t know or explaining concepts that the audience already gets are two good ways to be a bad speaker. Meet the audience at their level of understanding.

4. Disorganized material

It’s painful to listen to a speaker who jumps from one place to another without any apparent rhyme or reason.

5. Self-absorbed

Some good speakers treat a speech as their opportunity to show what they’ve got. It should be about the audience, not the speaker.

6. One-size-fits-all approach to every audience

Giving the same speech to every audience is a surefire way to fall flat. A well-delivered speech to the wrong audience doesn’t get a passing grade.

7. Too many stories

Good speakers are usually good storytellers. Unfortunately, their speeches sometimes turn into one story after another.

8. Lack of evidence

Too many stories usually mean too few statistics and case studies. A good speech includes “proof” along with the pudding.

9. Gimmicks

Magic tricks, card games and other “interactive” gimmicks can work, but too many of them detract from what the speaker is trying to get across to the audience.

10. Too much detail

Long-winded descriptions are the death of many good speeches.

11. Imitating other famous speakers

I can’t tell you how many of my clients tell me they want to be able to speak like (insert speaker here). When they focus on being like someone else, they fail to be authentic.

12. Too emotional about their message

Being passionate is good. Being overly emotional is not. If you’re too attached to your message, people may hesitate to question you for fear of offending you.

13. One-sided approach

Even good speakers make the mistake of building a strong case for their viewpoint without discussing (or understanding) the topic from the opposite point of view.

14. More sizzle than substance

Great inflection, gestures and voice modulation are poor substitutes for high-quality content.

15. Intention to impress

When a speaker’s intention is to impress the audience rather than improve the condition of the audience, the speech tends to fall flat.

16. Don’t connect the dots

The audience may understand what you’ve said, but they may not understand why you said it. Connect the dots for them throughout the presentation so that it’s easier to follow your train of thought.

17. Don’t do your homework

Although not exclusive to gifted speakers, this is usually a bad habit that can lead to a valuable learning experience.

18. Home movies

It’s OK to tell a story or two about your family if the story is relevant to the speech, but if your speech isn’t about family life, people will feel as if they’re being forced to watch home movies.

19. Bash others

I’ve made this mistake too often. It’s a bad idea to bash individuals or organizations during a speech.

20. Go off on tangents

Once you go off track, it’s not easy to get back on.

21. Stay on the surface

Some of the most entertaining and “motivational” speeches are full of platitudes and worthwhile concepts. The problem is that those concepts are rarely explored in adequate depth to make any difference to the listeners.

22. Cover too much material

The audience can remember only so much. Covering too much material in too little time doesn’t benefit the audience.

23. Ignore time

Even a good speech can turn sour quickly when a speaker ignores time because he’s having too much fun.

24. Speeding

The audience needs time to digest information. Some speakers go so fast, the audience has no time to process the information they’re hearing. This is usually a result of nerves or overreaching (see No. 22).

25. Assume the audience wants to be there

Audience members want to feel understood. If they don’t want to be at a speech, the last thing they want to hear is a happy-go-lucky speaker who demands they stand up, sit down, clap and repeat motivational phrases to the person sitting beside them.

26. No purpose

Some capable speakers give speeches with no purpose except to fill the time slot. The audience usually leaves this type of speech wondering why they just sat there for 20 minutes.

27. Nothing memorable

Some speeches would make more of an impact if they were memos. At least the memo could be read again. Every speech should have bits and pieces the audience will remember.

28. Don’t provide tailored examples

Generic examples tell the audience that you either don’t know enough about their job/challenges/situation, or you were too lazy to tailor those examples to fit their needs. Either way, it doesn’t make for a good speech.

29. Use old, outdated material

The first four-minute mile. Abraham Lincoln’s record of failure before being elected to office. Edison’s attempts at inventing the light bulb. There’s nothing wrong with these stories, but too many of them in a speech is not good. Tell the audience something they haven’t heard before.

30. Wing it

This one needs no explanation.

31. Don’t understand the audience

If you don’t know your audience, you don’t know what information will motivate, connect with, confuse or offend them. This was a mistake I had to learn a few times before it really stuck.

32. Don’t understand the topic

The speaker may know her viewpoint on the topic, but she fails to research or discuss differing points of view. Until you understand all sides of a topic, you don’t understand it.

33. Performing … badly

It’s one thing to see a bad performance when you go to a play, but it’s unbearable when you go to hear a speech. Though it’s helpful to map out movements and gestures in some situations, a completely choreographed speech rarely works.

34. Minimize audience experiences

Telling the audience their experiences don’t matter is one way to have a message fall on dead ears. “Motivational” speakers are the worst offenders.

35. Brag

Back in the ’80s, Tina Turner sang “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” The song probably plays in the mind of the audience when speakers brag about how much they’ve done and how great they are. Put it in the bio.

36. Put themselves down

Self-deprecating jokes are one thing. Continually apologizing for boring the audience is another. I’m amazed when speakers are doing a good job and then start to apologize.

37. Lack of signposts

An organized speech is even easier to follow when the speaker provides signposts that tell you where the speech is going next. If the audience knows where the speech is going, it’s so much easier for them to stay with the speaker throughout the speech.

38. Don’t adjust energy level

A room of 10 people requires different energy from that needed for a room of 100. I’ve seen speakers bouncing off the wall in a boardroom and shrinking like a violet in huge conventions. Even a good speech can go badly when the energy level is off.

39. Too heavy on PowerPoint

No explanation needed here either.

40. Read speeches without practicing

There are times when it’s necessary to read a speech. There is a NEVER an excuse for reading a speech without practicing.

41. It’s just one of those days

We all have them. So if you give a bad speech, learn from it, let it go and move on to the next one.

John Watkis is a freelance speechwriter, public speaking coach, and keynote speaker. You can read his blog Successful Speeches and visit his “Well Written, Well Said” website to find out more about his services.


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